The title was the first thing that drew me to this book. One hears a lot about the skeletons in God’s closet, so a book that takes the topic by the proverbial horns is sure to pique interest.
The next thing that grabbed me was the provocative subtitle, and in particular the bold description of holy war as a hope. Having spent a lot of time looking at — and agonizing over — herem warfare, I was intrigued by the boldness of describing holy war as hope.
To cap things off, I was pulled in by the skull motif on the cover which makes this volume look more like a metalcore album than a theology book. Good job, Thomas Nelson marketing department.
The book comes in three parts that map onto the subtitle. In the words of the table of contents (which are brilliantly titled the “skeletal structure”) we find the following: “Part 1: The Mercy of Hell”, “Part 2: The Surprise of Judgment” and “Part 3: The Hope of Holy War.”
I have divided the review into three parts to correspond with the structure of this book. The first installment of the review will focus on Part 1 and Butler’s treatment of hell.
Speaking of which, before I proceed further, who is “Joshua Ryan Butler”? According to the back cover, he “serves as pastor of local and global outreach at Imago Dei Community, a church in the heart of Portland, Oregon.” And as you can see from this picture I grifted from his website, he’s got cool hair and would probably be great company as you’re quaffing a pint from one of Portland’s many outstanding microbreweries. (Let mine be Portland Brewing Company’s smoky and nutty “Haystack Black Porter”. Yum.)
But I digress. What about the book? Like I said, I’ve divided the review into three parts with each part corresponding to a section of the book: hell, judgment and holy war. So enough by way of introduction. Let’s turn now to the, er, introduction.
Before we start talking about “The Mercy of Hell” we should take a moment to set the stage. According to Butler, “God’s skeletons are those deep, dark doctrines we’d rather avoid. Hell, Judgment. Holy War.” (xvii) And doctrines like these can shape in profound (and deeply dysfunctional) ways how people think about Christianity. Butler brilliantly captures the tension with a personal vignette:
“During my sophomore year in university, I had a radical encounter with God that turned my life upside down (or perhaps better yet, right side up). Soon after, I found myself excitedly sharing with a close friend in my dorm how Jesus’ grace had transformed me and expected him to share in my joy, but was surprised when his first response was, ‘So, do you think I’m going to hell now?'” (xix)
Bam! Welcome to the church Butler. And welcome to the skeletons in God’s closet. (What a great vignette that is. So revealing of the church, innit?) There are a lot of skeletons in God’s closet. Or so it would seem. But Butler believes that if you look closer you find that these skeletons are in fact based on caricatures. And so he wrote this book in the hopes of clearing up those skeletons for Christians. In particular, he wrote the book for himself “fifteen years ago”. Fortunately, the rest of us are invited to listen in.
The Mercy of Hell? Really?
Now let’s talk about Part 1, “The Mercy of Hell.” In this first section (consisting of six chapters) Butler rebuts the “underground torture chamber” conception of hell. This is the view that says hell is underground, its purpose is torture, and it is a sort of chamber locked from the outside (3-4). In short, it is the view that, but for a few minor alterations (like the casting of Satan as a bulldog) was immortalized in that 1953 Warner Brothers animated Looney Tunes short “Satan’s Waitin’” in which Sylvester the cat ends up in hell … nine times. (So far as I can see, Butler fails to reference this cultural landmark in his book. That is a serious lacuna, as far as I’m concerned.)
Butler points out that we need to start by getting the story right. God didn’t start off with heaven and hell as two equal, eternal destinies. Rather, “in the biblical storyline … heaven and earth are created by God, torn by sin, and destined for reconciliation.” (14; see also the helpful chart on p. 16)
The way that God will save the earth is by kicking the hell out of it (35). (That pun of perdition is Butler’s, not mine). Hell is on earth now and it must be removed if creation is to be redeemed. So what does hell now look like? Butler begins chapter 2 with a horrifying example: the sexual enslavement of girls on the border of Thailand and Burma who are locked in small rooms and raped 15-30 times per day (19). And by the way, Butler writes about this from the frontlines, for he spent time working in the area. And he recalls, “It was heart-crushing to meet some of these girls who had been rescued and imagine what they had been through. The horror of the trauma inflicted upon them still haunts me today.” (19-20)
Butler gives further examples of hell on earth ranging from genocide to gossip, the latter of which is described with this sulphurous flourish: “When my coworker gossips in the neighboring cubicle, she is more than being annoying, she is breathing hell into the office.” (24) (Butler can definitely turn a phrase and that one’s a keeper.) The point, as Butler makes clear, is not simply to identify instances of hell in the genocidaire and gossip, but to recognize it in ourselves as well — and Butler leads the way by referring to himself as a “lusty, violent hypocrite” (25). Since we’re on the topic, I’ll admit that I’m definitely hell in traffic.
So where’s hell going to go when God removes it? According to Butler, the biblical cosmology puts it not down below but rather “outside the city” (35). In chapter 3 Butler explains the origins of “Gehenna” (the Greek word commonly translated as “hell”) as residing in the cursed Valley of Hinnom, a place outside Jerusalem that once saw the wayward Israelites perform horrific, idolatrous acts of child sacrifice. So when Jesus speaks of hell, his concern is to extirpate wickedness from God’s kingdom.
Butler recognizes that the Old Testament doctrine of sheol is associated in biblical cosmology with a subterranean realm, but nonetheless he proposes that it is more correct to translate the conception as “the grave” rather than “hell”. (I would dispute that. Sheol may not be hell but neither is it equivalent to what most people mean when they refer to the grave. After all, a graveyard is full of graves, but it is not full of sheol.) For Butler, the point is that “neither the New Testament concept of ‘outside the city’ nor the Old Testament concept of ‘the grave’ look anything like the underground torture chamber.” (52)
Enough about the geography of perdition. Just what is hell exactly? At this point Butler begins to draw heavily on C.S. Lewis’ conception of hell as a self-imposed exile in which folks freely choose to reject God and thereby ensure their own suffering as a consequence. Butler may be sufficiently traditional to believe hell is eternal conscious torment, but with Lewis he is anxious to say that the torment is self-inflicted. (Unlike the CIA, God doesn’t torture anybody.) On Butler’s view, hell is God’s compassionate and reasonable response of containment to human rebellion: God will not allow sinners to continue to breathe hell into creation forever. Eventually, they will be removed and placed into their own self-appointed exile: “God’s mercy is … seen in his treatment of the impenitent: he does not torture or kill them, but rather hands them over to their desire.” (62)
Is eternal torment really okay if it is self-inflicted?
I am not sympathetic with the Lewis-Butler Thesis. To be sure, I believe it is less wrong than the torture view that Butler rightly repudiates. But less wrong don’t mean right. Among the problems I’ll now summarize: it violates our moral obligation to stop self-inflicted torture, it entails that God does, in fact, torture people, it fails to address the malice of Schadenfreude with people generally and unregenerate loved ones in particular.
Let’s start with the first point on our moral obligation to stop self-inflicted torture. I will begin to lay out the problem by quoting generously from my article: “C.S. Lewis’ view of hell and why it doesn’t help (much)“:
“Imagine a man so disordered that he continually inflicts suffering on himself. He cuts himself, bangs his head into the wall, hits his hand with a hammer, pulls out his own finger nails with pliers, and worse.
“Would anybody say that the rest of us have no moral obligation to put a stop to this man’s self-imposed misery? Of course we would [have that obligation]. We would restrain him to prevent him from inflicting further suffering on himself.
“Let’s say that he then responded by biting his own tongue off. Though restrained he continued to find new ways to inflict suffering on himself in a singular quest for his own self-destruction.
“Eventually we might conclude that the most charitable thing to do in this impossible situation would be to induce a coma. Perhaps that would be the only way to stop his endless spiral of self-imposed misery.
“And that’s the problem. Even if the misery of those in hell is purely self-imposed, even if the gates of hell are locked on the inside and God doesn’t actively torture anyone, the moral problem with eternal conscious torment remains. Even if that torment is self-imposed we must ask why an infinitely loving God would ever allow it.”
If you saw a person causing egregious harm to themselves, you wouldn’t stand by and leave them to it. You’d intervene, you’d do whatever you could to stop the self-mutilation and self-loathing. The more irrational and self-destructive the behavior, the higher our moral obligation to intervene, and if necessary, to restrain. And what could be more irrational and self-destructive than the willful desire to cut oneself off from the source of all life, love, joy, and goodness?
The superficial plausibility of the Lewis-Butler Thesis derives from images of the self-banishment and suffering of hell which are far more benign than the horrific images of scripture and the theological tradition. Consider, for example, the image in Lewis’ The Great Divorce in which hell is presented as a dreary and depressing — but hardly horrifying — rainy English town. That image shares little with the gut-wrenching biblical images of outer darkness, a furnace, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and unimaginable torment. Those images suggest that if the misery of hell is indeed all self-inflicted then it is closer to the images I cited above from my article rather than a dreary never-ending exile in a rainy industrial city.
Before moving on, let me raise three additional problems with the Lewis-Butler Thesis and its attempt to redeem eternal conscious torment.
First, Butler assumes that God doesn’t torture people on his view because the suffering that folks endure is self-inflicted. He is incorrect, for on the Lewis-Butler thesis God does torture people, only he does so indirectly by way of their self-inflicted actions. To see how this works, we can begin by noting that many passages in scripture refer to the fate of the unregenerate as a type of divine punishment (e.g. Matthew 25:41,46; 2 Thessalonians 1:9). When you combine the Lewis-Butler Thesis with eternal punishment, it follows that God is not merely a passive observer of those who torture themselves. Rather, he providentially appropriates the self-destructive actions of the damned as their just punishment for their rebellious actions.
So is it torture? Here is a sufficient, if not necessary, condition for torture: any act that involves
Second, the Bible includes multiple instances of Schadenfreude, that is, joy in the suffering of the wicked. (For further discussion see Part 5 of my book What on Earth Do We Know About Heaven?) From the cries of the imprecatory psalmist to the thundering wrath of Revelation, the response to the punishment of the wicked ranges from calm satisfaction to explosive glee. Granted, there is a place for Schadenfreude in the sense that the evil doer must be stopped and brought to justice. What is so disturbing, however, is that the punishment of eternally self-inflicted agony appears to be no cause for sorrow on behalf of the victors.
Skipping ahead to part 3 of The Skeletons in God’s Closet for a moment, Butler tries to deal with this problem by stressing the extent to which it is systems and institutions that are punished rather than persons. For example, he claims that in Revelation 18, “God is using fire here to judge an empire, not to torture individuals. This is structural judgment, not personal judgment.” (277) At the same time, Butler admits that “Babylon’s judgment has implications, of course, for individuals.” (277) Indeed, it does. In fact, on Butler’s view, an essential aspect of God’s judgment of the Babylons of this world just is the banishment of evil doers into an eternity of self-inflicted agony. With that, let me summarize the second problem: the Lewis-Butler Thesis leaves us with a deeply disturbing conception of Schadenfreude as redeemed creatures take delight in the divine punishment of the damned as wrought through their self-imposed misery.
This brings me to the third problem. What about our loved ones? At the resurrection Christ-followers will be fully conformed to his completely loving and compassionate nature, even as their unregenerate loved ones are subjected to the eternal agonies of their own choosing. How could a regenerated father (for example) find joy whilst his beloved daughter is suffering unimaginable, self-inflicted torment, torment which God has appropriated as a means to punish her forever?
What about universalism and annihilationism?
There are two alternative accounts of hell, both of which avoid the deeply disturbing problems that accompany the Lewis-Butler Thesis. I speak here of Christian universalism (which conceives of the punishment of hell as rehabilitative and restorative) and annihilationism (where that punishment is finite in duration culminating in the cessation of the existence of the person). When I started this book I assumed that Butler, who seemed to write very much as a progressive, would give these views a fair hearing. Instead, his treatment of them was cursory, dismissive, and based on caricatures and misbegotten reasoning. Strong charges, I know. So I’ll now turn to defend them.
Consider first universalism which Butler considers under the heading “Marry Me or I’ll Lock You in the Basement.” (64) Here’s how he begins the section:
“God’s third option for dealing with unrepentant evil is to redeem it. The irony, of course, is that redeeming rebels is precisely what God has done. In Christ, God has redeemed the human community and the broader creation from sin and its consequences: death. To ask God to redeem us from sin is to ask for what he has already graciously provided on the cross.” (64)
This passage is very confused. The universalist is not positing something additional to that which was provided on the cross. Instead, she is simply proposing that death is not the end of redemption and sanctification: God will continue to work in the lives of people posthumously until all are reconciled to him. There is nothing “ironic” or conceptually problematic about that.
Think about it this way. A homeless shelter offers dinner from 5pm-6 pm. The problem is that some people arrive at the door hungry after 6 pm. The “universalist” is the one who proposes feeding these people too. He is not demanding that the kitchen whip up a second meal, only that they continue to offer the original meal after 6 pm to anyone still looking for food. (Whether you agree with the universalist is not the issue. The issue, rather, is to start by getting their position right.)
Back to Butler’s analysis of universalism. He writes:
“some have found God’s most merciful option to be a universalism in which God sends unrepentant rebels to hell to purge them of their sin until all are eventually redeemed into his kingdom. Once again, however, there is a major common-sense problem with this. It is like God saying, ‘Marry me or I’ll lock you in the basement until you learn to love me.’ We know from common courtesy and everyday experience that the most mature response to a rejected marriage proposal is not to abduct the unrequited lover and lock her in your basement, but simply to let her go her own way.” (65)
This is a spurious illustration. So let me give one that actually communicates the universalist’s position rather than reducing it to a strawman. Imagine that your beloved sixteen year old child has become a meth addict and is prostituting herself to finance her habit. “Please stop and come back to live here!” you plead. In reply, she curses you. Following Butler’s line of reasoning, presumably the parent is expected to honor the wishes of the child and stand aside as she marches back to her life of self-destruction.
The universalist would take a different perspective. Instead, out of an unconditional love the parent exercises her parental authority and does indeed lock the child in the basement. It’s called an intervention. Over the next hours and days, a long line of loving siblings, grandparents, friends, teachers, and pastors stay with her, sharing their love and care, journeying with her through the dark hours of withdrawal, praying with and for her, until eventually she realizes the depth of her disorder, repents, and is healed.
That’s what Christian universalism looks like. It has an ancient minority witness in the church, and it is based on a range of biblical, theological, philosophical, historical and practical arguments. If you’d like to learn more about it I would recommend my print interview with philosopher Eric Reitan, my podcast with my good friend Robin Parry and my podcast with my other good friend, the film maker Kevin Miller.
Butler’s treatment of annihilationism is, if anything, even worse than his caricature of universalism. On his account the annihilationist treats God as an abusive boyfriend:
“At its core, [annihilationism] is like God saying, ‘Marry me or I’ll kill you.’ If you knew a guy who asked the love of his life to marry him, you would hope he would have the maturity if she rejected the proposal to simply move on and let her go her own way. If he killed her for turning him down, we would think him small, vindictive, and cruel. And we would lock him up as a criminal.” (64)
The most charitable assumption I can make at this point is that Butler is ignorant of the writings of annihilationists like John Stott, Michael Green, Edward Fudge, Greg Boyd and Clark Pinnock (and don’t forget the Church of England’s 1995 Doctrine Commission).
The core idea behind annihilationism is that judgment culminates in the irredeemable destruction of the self and thus the cessation of personal existence. In short, rather than adopt the view that punishment consists of eternal torture (which, as we have seen, is an implication of the Lewis-Butler Thesis), the annihilationist believes that hell is like a form of capital punishment. At the same time, given the misery of life lived in direct opposition to the source of all goodness and love, this capital punishment is akin to a type of euthanasia, the best kind of death for individuals under the conditions they’ve set for themselves.
To sum up, I am left deeply disappointed that Butler mutilates the annihilationist understanding of God as “small, vindictive, and cruel,” an abusive boyfriend who says “Marry me or I’ll kill you”. I simply don’t understand how Butler, who is clearly well-read, winsome, and erudite, can be so grossly uncharitable when it comes to the theological positions of others.