The Skeletons in God’s Closet | Book Review
If you’re an even somewhat aware follower of Jesus in today’s post-Christian culture, then you’ve all but certainly encountered bizarre caricatures of God and Christianity hurled like spears at the faith by critics and detractors. Well-known English actor Stephen Fry recently went on a tirade against God in a now-viral television interview. Ricky Gervais’ 2009 comedy The Invention of Lying interprets religious belief as an emotional panacea, an outlandish lie we tell each other and ourselves to navigate life’s darkest moments. Richard Dawkins famously wrote,
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”1
If you’ve yet to encounter such intellectually bankrupt strawmen so popular with atheists these days, give it time—you will. Central to these favorite distortions is a selective reading of the Old Testament, a book that, granted, contains pages of violent imagery and language. Many believers, from the new in faith to career theologians and apologists, grapple with these distortions of Christianity’s teachings.
Enter Joshua Ryan Butler’s The Skeletons in God’s Closet (Thomas Nelson, 2014), a recent entry into the current ideological fracas. Butler takes three controversial facets of Christian belief—hell, judgment, and holy war—and places them not only in context of Scripture, but in the context of God’s perfectly good nature and his overarching plan to redeem both man and creation. Butler’s audience are Christians worried that if they explored such difficult parts of Scripture, the eponymous “skeletons in God’s closet”, they may discover that God is not so good. Unanswered doubts can erode faith from the inside out, and Butler combats those doubts by guiding readers through the subject matter and demonstrating how they point to God’s redeeming, reconciling work in Christ throughout Scripture.
The book is divided into three parts, each taking aim at a particular “caricature” (Butler’s key term throughout the book) of Christian doctrine: that hell is an underground torture chamber where God smiles as sinners burn in agony; that judgment means God snags anyone who calls himself a Christian for heaven and sends everyone else to hell; and that in the Bible, God calls on his people to senselessly slaughter defenseless civilian populations for the crime of not being an Israelite. He roots these caricatures in widespread theological misunderstandings of earth, heaven, and hell. Earth is not a testing ground to see if you will spend eternity in the sky or underground; it is a good creation, the intended ultimate home of man, and God works through history to repair the breach between heaven and earth caused by the Fall. Hell is not a torture chamber, but a containment zone for those who, in the end, refuse to submit to God. Judgment is not revenge against sinners, but a final separation from the rest of Creation for those who refuse to love good. Holy war (e.g., the war against the Canaanites), is not racial slaughter, but God defending the weak, the oppressed, the outcast.
Butler writes with an affable, folksy pastoral approachability, blending anecdotes from his impressive experience as a human rights worker with an absolutely unbridled enthusiasm for declaring Christ’s redeeming work in all matters. He personalizes the problems of hell and judgment by declining to blame external systems or institutions for the problems of the world. When he discusses the evil of sex-trafficking, for example, he quotes Jesus and places the root cause of sex-trafficking in his own lustful heart. His candid self-examination reminds us that each and every one of us is an agent of hell when we sin. No matter how small or slight we may think our sin, each “stumble” throws wide open the gates of hell. God intends Earth to be man’s home on both sides of the eschaton, and our sin unleashes destruction on a world that God spills his blood to redeem. Butler is heavily informed by C.S. Lewis, and his theology echoes N.T. Wright. Anyone who has read those authors (if you haven’t, why not?) will find Butler’s arguments familiar.
There’s much to commend in The Skeletons in God’s Closet, so it’s rather unfortunate that I found reading through 320-some pages an ultimately irksome experience. It is weirdly common for books by evangelical pastors to come off as a long series of sermons stapled together, and this one is no different. Butler’s prose is from the “Wowee!” school of authorship, excitedly jumping from concept to charming anecdote to pithy, one-line paragraphs, meant to charge the reader with enthusiasm for God’s work. Spoken, his style might be engaging. Written, it becomes an irritation as you wade through yet another evangelistic song while looking for his point. Fortunately, I suppose, Butler treats each chapter enough like a sermon to give a big “Key Idea” box at the end. The book is gratuitously long for having so little argumentative substance, which takes a back seat to the constant reminder that God is good and that he plans.
That’s where the book really falls apart. Butler is a pastor, perhaps even a prophet, but he’s not an essayist. He admirably takes to task caricatures of God and Christianity that outsiders have, but at the same time (and this is the biggest flaw), he lumps those caricatures together with substantive theological perspectives that differ from his own. Case in point: he repeatedly quotes Augustine in the chapters where he makes his case that hell is basically what Lewis depicts in The Great Divorce (a containment zone of misery where the punishment is the intrinsic pain holding on to sin), yet he doesn’t bother to engage with Augustine’s own doctrine of punishment in hell. Butler does make a pass at refuting other views of hell in Chapter 4 with a series of “Marry Me or I’ll…” comparisons, but they are strawmen only. Butler complains about caricatures, but erects his own to pronounce the superiority of his theology.
Perhaps he tried to keep it simple for the sake of the reader. If that’s the case, he did the reader no favors. I came away feeling no doctrine (or “ideas” if doctrine is too frightening a word) had been soundly clarified. I was certainly excited for Christ’s work against sin with hell, judgment, and holy war, but I was swept away with fervor more than grounded in theology.
The Skeletons in God’s Closet functions neither as an apologetic nor as a theological discourse. In the former case, it assumes far too much Christian doctrine to sway doubters. In the latter, Butler’s refusal to earnestly engage with different perspectives means no dialogue of ideas ever occurs. The book succeeds, however, in its adamant commitment to declaring God’s good plan throughout Scripture and history, its rooting of world problems in our own individual sin, and its confident declaration that Christ is coming to one day sweep away injustice once and for all.
Image from the second panel of The Last Judgment, by Hieronymus Bosch. Circa 1482-1516. File from Wikimedia Commons.