In a previous blog series, I outlined four views of hell, but there’s a fifth (and what I believe to be a distinct) view that is currently quite popular, especially amongst those who want to retain a view of hell as a place of eternal torment but are uncomfortable with the idea of God actively punishing people for eternity. This view was first popularized, as far as I am aware, by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, but has gained renewed interest through Joshua Ryan Butler’s thought-provoking book The Skeletons in God’s Closet. Because of the influence of these two books I want to spend some time critically analyzing Butler’s claims. In this post, I will review arguments for and against his claim that “God is not the architect of hell, the creator of its soul-destroying power; we are” (24).
I. Butler’s Thesis
Joshua Ryan Butler seeks to exonerate God from the horrors of hell, firstly, by arguing that God is not responsible for hell in the first place, but that we are. Consider the following representative quotes:
- “[Hell] is not part of God’s creation.” (10)
- “Sin death and hell… are presented not as good things created by God, but rather invasive intruders into God’s good world.” (10)
- “[The world] must be reconciled from the divisive and destructive powers that have caused the problem in the first place. It must be rescued from hell.” (14).
- “God is not the one who unleashes hell’s destruction; we are.” (16)
- “Hell is not a place God creates to torture people, but a power God excludes to protect the flourishing of the new creation.” (16-17)
- “The power of hell has roots in you, and when God arrives to establish his kingdom, you are in danger of being cast outside the kingdom with it.” (21)
- “We are the ones, not God, who unleash the destructive power of hell in the world.” (23)
- “Fire is used as a metaphor in the biblical story for the damaging nature of our sin.” (23)
- “God is not the architect of hell, the creator of its soul-destroying power; we are.” (24)
- “We have brought the horror of hell to planet Earth.” (28)
- “The fires in the Valley of Hinnom are lit by human hands.” (39). The Valley of Hinnom is the central image behind the Greek word Gehenna which is translated in the New Testament as hell.
- “For Jesus to say the King is coming to kick sin out of Jerusalem and into the Valley of Hinnom, is to say in an important respect that the rebellion will be handed over to the destructive mess it has itself made.” (39)
II. In Support of Butler’s Thesis
How does Butler support this argument?
First, he observes that hell is nowhere to be found in the creation story. Whereas we tend to think of the biblical story in terms of my story about where I will go when I die – heaven or hell – the biblical story begins and ends not with heaven and hell, but with heaven and earth. God’s story is about reconciling heaven and earth from “destructive powers” which he identifies as sin, death, and hell. Hell fits into this story, then, not as a good aspect of God’s creation, but as an “anti-creation” power from which we must be reconciled. Like sin and death, hell has its origins not in God, but in human evil.
Second, Butler consistently refers to hell, not in terms of a place, but as a power. He draws on James 3:6 which states: “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” As the tongue unleashes the power of hell in the world, so it is through human rebellion, that the wildfire of hell wreaks its destructive damage in the good world that God has made.
Third, Butler observes that the fires of the Valley of Hinnom were set ablaze by human hands. The word gehenna, which is translated in the New Testament as hell, comes from the Hebrew referring to the Valley of Hinnom. This valley was used by the ancient Israelites to commit idolatry and child sacrifice. In other words, the horrors of the Valley of Hinnom were made through human rebellion. The fires of the valley were lit by people, not God. Therefore, Jesus, by warning people that they are in danger of the fires of Gehenna, is warning them of self-destructive powers.
III. Critiques of Butler’s Thesis
Before explaining my primary critiques of Butler’s argument, I want to express some appreciation for it.
First, I agree with Butler that the Bible’s plotline is about the reconciliation of heaven and earth, not first about where we will go when we die. That’s an important question, but not the first one that the Bible seeks to answer.
Second, I appreciate how Butler lays out the self-destructive nature of human rebellion. I agree that, in some sense, we unleash “the power of hell” into our world in a way that harms ourselves and others.
Third, I appreciate that Butler points out the background of the word gehenna. Understanding this connection gives us a more faithful window into the nature of sin and judgment that fits within the broader storyline of the Bible, as opposed to images of hell that are conjured from pop culture.
That said, I have a few critiques of Butler’s thesis.
First, there are passages in the Bible that seem to contradict his argument that God did not create hell. For instance, in Matthew 25:41, the King says “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Who prepared the “eternal fire”? In the context of this passage hell is a place prepared for “punishment” (Mt 25:46). This place probably coincides with the “lake of fire” (Rev 20:10, 14-15) where the devil is thrown. I agree that we could say that hell was not part of God’s original good design and is, therefore, like death, an aberration in creation. However, the Bible seems to say that hell is a place that God created in response to human sin and rebellion.
What about the Valley of Hinnom? Butler is right to say that the valley was a place of human evil, but (and because of that human evil) it becomes a place of judgment. Those who experience judgment in that place experience more than their self-destructive power. Consider the logic of Jeremiah 19. God condemns Israel for what she did in the Valley of Hinnom (19:1-5) and then issues this verdict: “So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.” (19:6). It’s a Valley of Slaughter because of God’s active judgment: “I will make them fall by the sword” (14:8). “I will devastate this city” (19:8). “I will smash this nation and this city” (19:11). Gehenna is not just a symbol of self-destructive power, but of God’s active judgment against idolatry and injustice.
My second critique is that Butler over-emphasizes the “hell as power” imagery over and against the “hell as place” imagery and therefore misrepresents the nature of hell. For Butler, hell is a power that God contains in a place. In other words, we only understand it as a place (where evil is contained) once we have understood it as power (evil expressed). This fits Butler’s narrative, but not the way that the Bible describes hell. Hell (gehenna) is clearly described as a place in every instance that it is used, except in two ambiguous cases. The body can be thrown into hell (Matthew 5:29, 30, 18:9, Mark 9:43, 45, 47). Body and soul can be destroyed in hell (Matthew 10:28, Luke 12:5). The Pharisees are in danger of being condemned to hell (Matthew 23:33).
What about the other cases? As we noted above, James 3:6 says that the tongue is set on fire by hell. Matthew 23:15 says that the Pharisees make their converts into twice the children of hell as they are. In both instances, I would propose that hell is being used as a metaphorical stand-in for the spiritual powers of evil (see John 8:44), which makes sense since hell is the place prepared for the devil and his angels. Thus, the destructive powers of hell can indeed invade earth through human rebellion, but we only understand this power secondarily after first understanding it as a place.
My third critique is that by lumping together sin, death, and hell, he confuses the biblical distinctions between the three. As Butler builds his argument we’ll see that this lack of distinction is central. For Butler, hell is essentially sin extended on forever. Sin is the unbeliever’s choice of “freedom” over submission to God. God gives humans over to that freedom. The natural result of that choice is what the Bible calls hell. God need not be active in punishing the wicked. They lock themselves in hell, which is to say that they are locked into the pattern and consequences of their own sin.
This story exonerates God from what many see as the disproportionate punishment of God locking people in a place of eternal torments, but the question remains as to whether it fits the biblical text. I don’t think it does.
Often when Butler talks about the destructive power of hell, he is really talking about the destructive power of sin. While sin, death, and hell, can be understood as “powers,” at least metaphorically, lumping them together just adds confusion when we come to the topic of judgment. Sin is what unleashes destruction in God’s good world and sin is what God is in the business of defeating, through Jesus’s death and resurrection. Death enters the picture as the wages of sin (Romans 6:23). Death loses its power over those who are united to Jesus in his death and resurrection. Hell, by contrast, is described as a place of final judgment where God deals with the powers of sin and the devil once and for all. Hell is not just sin extended, but God’s active judgment against it.
IV. Butler’s thesis compared to other views
To conclude, I’d like to compare Butler’s view of hell to other views of hell: Traditionalism, Conditional Immortality, and Christian Universalism. Each of these views can be summed up through the metaphor of fire:
The traditionalist view of hell (eternal conscious torment, ECT) teaches that the fires of hell are an expression of God’s punitive justice that torment the wicked for eternity.
Conditional immortality (CI, annihilationism, terminal punishment) teaches that the fires of hell are an expression of God’s punitive justice that consumes the wicked so that they are destroyed. Immortality (eternal life) is conditional. It is only given to those who believe in Jesus (John 3:16).
Christian Universalism (Ultimate Reconciliation, UR) teaches that the fires of hell are an expression of God’s restorative justice to refine and purify the wicked so that they finally come to a place of repentance and faith and are therefore reconciled to God through Jesus.
In these three views, the fires of hell are an expression of God’s justice; to torment, consume, or refine. Butler’s view, while appearing in many ways like the traditional view, parts company from the other three by describing the fires of hell as an expression of self-destructive human sin. This isn’t an argument against Butler’s position exactly (my view of hell differs from the traditional view of hell) but it’s worth noting the differences so that we can clearly evaluate the nature of his position.
What do you think of Butler’s position? If you’ve read The Skeletons in God’s Closet, what were your takeaways?