I will tell you why I like Joshua Ryan Butler’s The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War. Because he’s young and is sensitive to some of the Bible’s most sensitive issues (see the topics in that subtitle?), because he forges his way into these topics not by avoiding them but by fearlessly staring at them, because he sets these topics into the Bible’s story instead of seeing them as an end in themselves, and because — well — this book is for the church.
I’ve never met Joshua but I hope to someday. He’s involved in macro issues in our world — like sex trafficking and homelessness — and he enters those issues through his church in Portland, Imago Dei.
Too many who believe in hell and judgment and holy war often don’t have a rationale for hell other than vindication — or the rather glib “We all deserve that.” Vindication cannot be a final answer; glib appeals to original sin don’t work either. There has to be more if we are talking about a God who is love and justice and who maps life for eternity with those who are now on earth. Joshua Butler explores such a topic in such a context. I like that.
How do you help Bible readers with these big topics? What literature do you give them? What has helped you most?
Publishers and authors send me lots of books for blurbs and forewords and I give each a quick look to see if it fits into something where a word from me might help. I didn’t know Joshua and I gave his ms a look and I couldn’t put it down. I like that kind of book.
He addresses God’s skeletons, a stronger term for stronger ideas than my “blue parakeet” passages — but he wants to know the same kind of thing: How does this idea, this event, this set of facts fit into the big story of the Bible? Skeletons…
God’s skeletons are those deep, dark doctrines we’d rather avoid. Hell. Judgment. Holy war. Those parts of God’s story that, if we really took a close look at, we’re afraid would radically change the way we feel about him. “We all thought Father God was so kind and good . . . until one day we learned he had slaughtered millions in his holy wars, damned those at judgment who’d never heard his name, and carted most of humanity off to his hellish concentration camp for vengeance without end” (xvii).
Yes, those are some of the skeletons. And lots of people know about the skeletons.
And this conversation is on lips more intimate than just our culture’s. Our family and friends are asking these questions. From that son who walked away from the faith, to that mentor who one day realized she no longer believed, to the spouse who can no longer join us at church without feeling hypocritical, and that friend in our small group who doesn’t come around anymore. Our preference may be to keep the closet door shut, but there are many around us who seem less than willing to respect our decision (xviii).
But there’s one big problem here: priests, pastors, and parents don’t want to hear or perhaps talk about the skeletons. They want the door shut far too often. And people in the pew can be like this too and they don’t want to hear the preacher mention the skeletons. But the one who has opened the door, or who has peeked through the window, the skeletons are there and they demand some kind of explanation. What’s more, God put them there. The silencers are silencing God. Those who shut the door are shutting down God’s way.
Perhaps most surprisingly, God seems to want the closet door open. He doesn’t accept our comfortable religion; he keeps sending prophets to churn things up. Jesus doesn’t skirt the tough issues; he confronts us with them head-on. Scripture doesn’t hide the challenging parts; it proclaims them boldly. We don’t need a secret access code or crowbar to pry the closet door open; God himself keeps flinging it wide open and inviting us to look inside … as much as we may keep trying to swing it back shut. We want that door shut… but God doesn’t. Not only is he big enough to handle our questions, he wants us to bring them. God opens the door and invites us to look inside (xix).
Joshua faces three skeletons in this book: hell, judgment, and holy war. These topics have not been treated well and they have been turned against the Bible as caricatures. Joshua: “I have come to believe that our culture’s popular understanding of these difficult doctrines is often a caricature of what the Bible actually teaches and what mature Christian theology has historically proclaimed” (xxiii).
So a big picture of where he is headed in this stimulating and church-friendly book:
When we reclaim the biblical story of God’s reconciliation of heaven and earth, the subtopic of hell starts to fall naturally into place again.
When we reclaim the biblical story of God’s purpose to bless, reconcile, and heal the nations through his international, multiethnic kingdom, the subtopic of judgment against those forces that stand opposed to this kingdom begins to come into clearer focus.
When we reclaim the biblical story of God’s identification with the weak against the oppression of the strong, the subtopic of holy war begins, again, to make more sense (xxv-xxvi).
He begins with this: God is good, all the way through, top to bottom and side to side and back to front.