Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Skeletons in God's Closet by Joshua Ryan Butler

God gets a lot of criticism. Many think that Hell, Judgment, and Holy War are dark doctrines rather kept in a closet.

Butler decided to get these skeletons out of God's closet. He is convinced those issues have been misrepresented today and are often not what the Bible teaches or what Christian theology has historically proclaimed. He centers his work around the biblical story of God's reconciliation, healing, and protection of the weak.

The first skeleton is hell. According to Butler, hell is a force for evil, not a place of punishment. “Hell gains entrance into God's good world through us.” (24) “We've unleashed the destructive power of hell in the beautiful place God once called 'very good.'” (28)

Hell is the destructive power of sin that is cast outside the city. “Hell is not a place God creates to torture sinners, but a power God exudes to protect the robust vitality of his kingdom.” (62) Hell, “ a space created by God for a people who prefer to live without him, who desire freedom from him.” (90) In the Appendix, he does clarify that hell is a place and involves punishment. “God's containment is the punishment.” (319) He does make it clear, however, “that it is not torture.” (320)

Butler never mentions the devil in his discussion of hell. He writes, “Where then, does evil come from? As we have seen, we are the ones, not God, who unleash its destructive power in the world. We are the architects of autonomy, the engineers of evil...” (62) He does not mention spiritual warfare, temptation, resisting the devil, etc. “The power of hell resides in our hearts and makes its way into the world through us.” (78) He does refer to Satan in the Appendix.

The next skeleton is judgment. “God's judgment is good news,” Butler writes, “because the injustices are not forgotten.” (116) God judges the world “to heal creation,” “to release the land from captivity.” (117) There will be a healing of the nations, a reuniting of the nations. (130)

Butler emphasizes that judgment begins in the house of the Lord. He does not write about forgiveness, however. If a priest rapes a boy, he will be judged (no mention of the possibility of repentance and God's forgiveness). He also seems to indicate that an abandoned wife in a third world country who worked hard to support her children, “might find herself surprised to encounter Jesus and hear his voice call her his beloved...” (153-4) There is no mention of what Christians would generally call “saving faith.” Butler says Jesus knowing us is where our salvation is found. That is not the same thing as claiming to know Jesus. (154) He writes, “And it is also important to note: Jesus appears to know many who didn't know him.” (156)

About other religions, Butler writes, “Jesus calls us to humble ourselves before followers of other religions as those created in the image of God.” (165) Butler reminds us that “God's kingdom is for them and that Jesus' judgment will be a surprise...” (166) "God is all about reconciliation.” (171) Butler gives the impression the only thing that will keep a Buddhist or Hindu out of the kingdom is their hanging on to a teaching or practice that is not compatible with the kingdom. (173-4) We must not think “that God's grace is not big enough to encompass the Muslim in the midst of a reduced perception of Jesus (the Christian must declare that God's grace has encompassed us as well in our reduced perceptions of Jesus).” (178)

Butler's third skeleton is Holy War. He argues that Israel's conquest of Canaan is a David and Goliath kind of story showing that God is for the weak. He also argues that the Old Testament makes clear it was using ancient trash talk, an exaggerated way of speaking. (228) Hyperbole is used to emphasize military victories. Joshua's armies were “clearly not fighting against civilians” but were “fighting against soldiers in their fortified military outposts in the battlefield.” (231) He also argues that the Canaanites were “driven off” not”killed off.” (232) He explores the characteristics of Babylon and compares them to those of our civilization. He notes that Gods coming Holy War will be a confrontation, not vindication, of our civilization.

I am always amazed when someone develops an understanding of Scripture that is different than what is generally understood today. Butler argues that his understanding is historical, citing Augustine and C. S. Lewis (actually, Lewis' fiction). Butler develops much of is theology from the parables of Jesus. He generally ignores the rest of the New Testament. The impetus for developing his theology seems to be the injustice he has seen in the world. God's justice, then, becomes oriented toward the welfare of humans, not God's own holiness.

On the positive side, Butler's book is a good reminder of the skeletons in our own closet. Have we hidden evil behavior in the closet? How about judging others? What about ignoring the plight of the weak and poor? Reading this book did encourage me to think about the skeletons I might be hiding.

In the end, Butler's book left me dissatisfied. There were times when his unusual interpretations of Scripture really made me think. There were other times when I was sure he was skirting heresy, or perhaps actually treading on it. I would advise discernment when reading this book.

Go to Butler's website,, to read a sample chapter, read interviews, watch a book trailer, and much more.

Joshua Ryan Butler serves as pastor of local and global outreach at Imago Dei Community, a church in the heart of Portland, Oregon. He oversees the church's city ministries in areas like foster care, human trafficking, and homelessness; and develops international partnerships in areas like clean water, HIV-support, and church planting. He is also a worship leader who enjoys writing music for the life of the church.

Thomas Nelson, 384 pages.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of an independent and honest review.

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