Free Shipping on Orders of $40 or More
The Skeletons in God's Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War

The Skeletons in God's Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War

by Joshua Ryan Butler
The Skeletons in God's Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War

The Skeletons in God's Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War

by Joshua Ryan Butler


Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Friday, March 24


How can a loving God send people to hell? Isn’t it arrogant to believe Jesus is the only way to God? What is up with holy war in the Old Testament?

Many of us fear God has some skeletons in the closet. Hell, judgment, and holy war are hot topics for the Christian faith that have a way of igniting fierce debate far and wide. These hard questions leave many wondering whether God is really good and can truly be trusted.

The Skeletons in God's Closet confronts our popular caricatures of these difficult topics with the beauty and power of the real thing. Josh Butler reveals that these subjects are consistent with, rather than contradictory to, the goodness of God. He explores Scripture to reveal the plotlines that make sense of these tough topics in light of God’s goodness. From fresh angles, Josh deals powerfully with such difficult passages as:

  • The Lake of Fire
  • Lazarus and the Rich Man
  • The Slaughter of Canaanites in the Old Testament

Ultimately, The Skeletons in God's Close uses our toughest questions to provoke paradigm shifts in how we understand our faith as a whole. It pulls the “skeletons out of God’s closet” to reveal they were never really skeletons at all.

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780529100818
Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date: 10/21/2014
Pages: 356
Sales rank: 129,659
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 5.50(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Rick McKinley was educated at Multnomah University and earned his Doctorate from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. However, most of his education has come from pastoring Imago Dei Community since 2000 with his wife Jeanne in Portland, OR. Imago Dei is now a large congregation situated in the heart of the city, reaching out to Portland through preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ and creatively engaging the city for the social good. He is also the author of Jesus in the Margins and This Beautiful Mess.

Read an Excerpt

The Skeletons in God's Closet

The Mercy of Hell, The Surprise of Judgment, The Hope of Holy War

By Joshua Ryan Butler

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2014 Joshua Ryan Butler
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-529-10055-9




I used to hate the doctrine of hell. In my head, it looked something like this: Deep in the cavernous bowels of the earth was a special place where blazing flames roared high. God was at the center of the flames, with an apparent look of glee on his face as he flayed people's skin from their bones. Sorrowfully repentant, the people cried out to God in agony: "We're sorry! We love you! We'll change our ways, do whatever you want us to do!" But God laughed a loud, bellowing laugh, like a dark, sinister Santa Claus, and responded mercilessly, "Too bad! You had your chance! Now it's too late, and I get to punish you forever!"

Hell looked like an underground torture chamber.

While this is an obvious caricature, I'd like to make three observations that I've found are common to many people's popular perceptions of hell. First, it is underground. Beneath layer after geological layer of rock and dirt, God has created a special place deep in the basement of our terrestrial home for the particular purpose of punishment. It looks like a hobby room—as if a father put a punching bag in the basement for when he needs to let off steam. How do they breathe down there underneath all that dirt? Why do the walls not collapse and cave in? God must have installed a special supply of oxygen and given it some profound construction. With all the intentionality God put into making this place happen, he must really want it to work.

Second, its purpose must be torture. God looks like a sadistic monster, capable of a capricious cruelty equivalent to the kid next door who enjoys spending his spare time tormenting cats. This torture serves no positive purpose, makes no constructive contribution to the flourishing of the world. God is not like Jack Bauer, going after information to prevent an imminent terrorist attack. God is the terrorist in this picture, looking for a few sadistic kicks, out for pure and simple vengeance.

Third, its construction must be a chamber God locks from the outside. The people want out. They are repentant. They want to love and serve God and change their ol' cheating ways. But God has padlocked and chained the doors. In a strange reversal of the gospel, the people are the ones pursuing God and God is the one unwilling to be found. Jesus apparently loves us enough to die for us, but hates us enough to lock us in a torture chamber, throw away the key, and plug his ears to our cries once the stopwatch runs out.

The skeleton in God's closet? Hell is an underground torture chamber. Its location (underground), purpose (torture), and construction (chamber) all speak to a particular storyline where God is maligned as a vicious and vindictive villain.

Is this the way the Bible talks about hell?

In the next few chapters, we will confront this caricature. As we explore the New Testament, we will find that (a) hell's location is not underground, (b) its purpose is not torture, and (c) its construction is not a chamber. These characteristics are not only a little bit off; they are in many ways completely backward.

So how do we begin confronting the caricature and reclaiming the photograph? A good place to start is to ask, "What is the broader story in which hell is found? What is the bigger picture this puzzle piece fits into? What is the symphony in which its dissonant notes play?"


We get hell wrong because we get heaven and earth wrong. Our caricature of hell is rooted, I have come to believe, in the problematic way we tend to talk about heaven and earth today. It is not the way the Bible talks about heaven and earth, and because heaven and earth are parts of the Bible's broader story into which the smaller subplot of hell fits naturally, when we get this broader story wrong, the smaller subplot just doesn't seem to fit right.

So what is this problematic story? The distorted picture in which the puzzle piece won't seem to fit? If you ask most folks today how hell works, they will usually tell you something like this: "Right now I live on earth. One day I will die. When I die, I will stand before God and God will either send me up to heaven if I've done the right things, or down to hell if I haven't."

Pretty straightforward, right?

Me-Centered vs. God-Centered

The gospel has three major problems with this story. First, this story is me-centered, not God-centered. Notice how many times "I" show up as the main character: "I live on earth ... I will die ... I will stand ... If I've been ..." This story tells us nothing about who God is. It revolves around me, not around God.

The trouble with this story is that there is no story: it offers no past or present narrative of God and his world. This is more than just semantics; God appears in a supporting role at the end of a story that is otherwise about me from start to finish. This story is individualistic: it is all about me. God is introduced secondhand as a supporting actor, a mere arbiter to determine my final destiny.

The gospel, in contrast, is God-centered. It starts with God, ends with God, and is filled with God in the middle. God creates a good heaven and a good earth before our rebellion enters his good world. Jesus proclaims and displays God's redemptive kingdom before he challenges those who reject it. The apostles give extravagant declarations of who God is and what he has done, before calling listeners to worship and obedience in response. For example, Paul opens Ephesians declaring, "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has ...," and goes on for three chapters (half the book!) to describe what God has done before moving on to how our lives as followers of Jesus should respond.

The gospel's story is centered around who God is, not around us.

Works-Centered vs. Grace-Centered

The second problem the gospel has with the prevailing story about hell is that it is works-centered rather than grace-centered. It emphasizes our actions, not God's. This story makes us ask questions like, "Have I been good enough? Have I done what I need to do for God to send me to heaven?"

The "what I need to do" varies depending on who you talk to: for some we are supposed to pray a prayer, for others we are supposed to feed the homeless, and for still others we're merely supposed to make sure we've got a heavier weight of good works under our belt than bad ones. But either way, the emphasis is on our actions, not God's.

In other words, this story promotes behavior management: trying to put myself together and make myself good enough to get into God's kingdom. This story tells us nothing about God's actions—what God has accomplished and what he is doing in the world today. God only appears at the end, not in the past or present.

The gospel, in contrast, starts with God's actions. God unshackles Israel from Egypt's slavery before he gives her ten commandments to obey. The world first hears that Jesus is Lord, that God is reconciling the world to himself through his death and resurrection, and that forgiveness is freely offered under his reign, and then, only on the heels of this proclamation, the church rises into existence.

In other words, the gospel starts with God and his grace. We enter the story secondarily, not as the primary actors but as those who must stand in relation to the redemptive play God is writing in the world around us. The gospel story revolves around God's redemptive work in the world. The God who calls for our complete submission to his reign is not an abstract, arbitrary, ambiguous god; he is our world's redeeming King. Our obedience is framed as a worshipping response to the experience of God's redemptive love.

Where Is Earth?

The gospel has a third major problem with the conventional heaven-and-hell story. Once we recognize this problem, I believe it will provide our most helpful clue to illuminating the way forward in reclaiming the biblical story. The problem is this: Where is earth? Earth is seen in this story as somewhere we live now, but that is irrelevant to our future home. "Right now I live on earth ... One day God will send me up to heaven or down to hell." Earth is here today, gone tomorrow. Nowhere in our future picture with God.

The gospel, in contrast, declares that God's purpose in Christ is to reunite heaven and earth, to reconcile creation to himself, to make our broken-down old world new as our eternal home with him forever. The absence of earth's future in the problematic story leads to a glaring distortion that should alert us to something being seriously wrong: heaven and hell are treated as two coequal counterparts competing for my eternal destiny, one the "yin" to the other's "yang," one the "good" to the other's co-powerful "bad," two sides of the same metaphysical coin.

Why is this problematic? Here is an illuminating experiment you can do to find out: (1) Go to (an online Bible website) and type "heaven hell" into the search feature. (2) Select "New International Version" (a reliable, popular translation) and hit "Search" to see how many verses show up. The results will show you how many times the words heaven and hell appear together within the same verse.

The answer? Zero.

There are no verses where heaven and hell appear together as counterparts in the same verse. Nowhere. Not in the Old Testament. Not in the New Testament. Nowhere from Genesis to Revelation. Heaven shows up in Scripture, and hell shows up in Scripture, and they certainly bear a relation to one another. But they do not show up in the same places.

This is shocking given how prominent we use language like this in modern times. Both in our churches and in our culture at large, we talk about "heaven and hell" as if they are two coequal counterparts competing for our eternal destiny, and we assume this is the way the Bible talks about them too. But this is simply not the way it talks about them. The Bible has a different way of framing their relationship.

So if heaven's primary counterpart is not hell in the biblical story, then what is it? We can use another version of the same experiment to find out: (1) In the search feature, type in "heaven earth." (2) Hit "Search" and see how many verses show up. The answer? You will find around two hundred verses where heaven and earth appear together. These two hundred or so verses are not clustered in one particular place; they are spread everywhere throughout the Old and New Testaments, showing up all over the place between Genesis and Revelation.

The point? Heaven's primary counterpart in the gospel story is not hell; it is earth. Heaven and earth are threaded throughout the biblical drama of creation, rebellion, and redemption. If we want to confront the caricature of hell and reclaim the photograph, we must reframe it back within this biblical story of heaven and earth. We should first ask, "What is the biblical story of heaven and earth?" And as we shall see in the pages to come, when this broader story is in place, the logic of hell begins to arise as a smaller subplot in a broader story that proclaims loudly and clearly the glorious goodness of God.


So what is the biblical story of heaven and earth? The story has three major movements: (1) Heaven and earth are created by God. (2) Heaven and earth are torn by sin. (3) Heaven and earth are destined for reconciliation. Let's take a look at each to see the overarching storyline that emerges.

Created by God

Heaven and earth make their debut at the very beginning of the story. The book of Genesis opens with a celebration of God's creative act: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Introductions are important. Authors tend to open stories with things they want to emphasize and draw our attention to. God's story for the world is no different: heaven and earth are the setting, the context, the stage, in which the ensuing drama of human history is about to unfold.

From just this one verse, we can make three important observations that challenge aspects of the caricature. First, heaven is part of the creation. God made it. It is a mistake when we speak of heaven as only a future place, a home that exists only in eternity. Heaven is here today. It is not absent from the world, waiting to make its entrance only at the end of history. Heaven is a part of God's creation here and now.

Genesis' words for heaven and earth are roughly equivalent to our words for "sky" and "land." Genesis is talking about the ground beneath our feet that we walk on daily; the atmosphere above our heads that surrounds our world: this land, this sky, this world. If there is a difference, it is that we tend to think of land and sky as merely physical places, raw material, with no underlying spiritual substance. In God's story for the world, however, land and sky are spiritually loaded, charged with the presence and purposes of God: heaven and earth.

The second observation is that heaven is created in integral relationship with the earth. They are depicted as counterparts, created with each other and for each other. Heaven does have a counterpart, but it is not hell; it is earth. This counterpart relationship between heaven and earth is threaded throughout the biblical story. Here are a few examples to help illuminate some of the different features of this counterpart relationship:

In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. (Psalm 102:25) It is I who made the earth and created mankind upon it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshaled their starry hosts. (Isaiah 45:12)

To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. (Deuteronomy 10:14)

You alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. (2 Kings 19:15)

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let them say among the nations, "The Lord reigns!" (1 Chronicles 16:31)

But God made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out the heavens by his understanding. (Jeremiah 10:12)

These verses declare that God created the heavens and the earth, that everything within them belongs to him, that he rules over the kingdoms of the earth, that this is a cause of rejoicing for the nations, and that heaven and earth are a sign of God's wisdom, power, and care.

Heaven and earth—not heaven and hell—are counterparts, created with and for each other, and bound together in inseparable relationship.

The third and final observation from Genesis' introduction: hell is mentioned nowhere. It is not part of God's creation. Genesis does not say, "God created heaven and earth ... and hell." God created heaven and earth, a good creation, a glorious world. Hell does not show up on the scene until later. We shall see in later chapters that sin, death, and hell, when they do enter the story, are presented not as good things created by God but rather as invasive intruders into God's good world.

Together, they constitute an "anti-creation" force, not as substantive things in themselves so much as parasites that prey upon the good creation God has made in an attempt to devour it and destroy it, to drag creation back down into the nothingness, the darkness, the void from which it came. But this is jumping ahead.

For now we can say this: heaven and earth are created by God.

Torn by Sin

The second movement in the biblical story's plotline is this: heaven and earth are torn by sin. When Adam and Eve rebel, it impacts everything under their authority. God gives Adam and Eve authority over the earth: "Let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth." This is a picture of God calling us as the human race to co-reign together with him in his world, to bring forth the flourishing of creation.


Excerpted from The Skeletons in God's Closet by Joshua Ryan Butler. Copyright © 2014 Joshua Ryan Butler. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword xv

Introduction: Skeletons in the Closet xvii

Part 1 The Mercy of Hell 1

1 Heaven and Earth 3

2 The Wicked Root 19

3 Outside the City 35

Interlude: The Game-Changer 49

4 Boundary of Mercy 53

5 The Great Reversal 69

6 Freedom From and For 85

Interlude: Ancient or New? 101

Part 2 The Surprise of Judgment 107

7 On Priests and Pedophiles 109

8 East and West 121

9 Welcome to the Wedding 133

10 The Servant at the Center 147

Interlude: The Sovereignty of Christ 163

11 Reconciliation as Judgment 165

Interlude: Love Has a Name 185

12 Body and Bride 191

Part 3 The Hope of Holy War 207

13 Weak vs. Strong 209

Interlude: God Critiques Holy War 223

14 Evicted from Eden 225

Interlude: Raising the Bar 241

15 The Great City 245

16 Agents of Wrath 261

17 The Rubble of Babylon 273

Interlude: The Spirit of Empire 287

18 City of God 293

Conclusion: These Bones Can Live 303

Appendix 313

Grateful 329

About the Author 331

Notes 333

Customer Reviews

Explore More Items