Joshua Ryan Butler serves as pastor of local and global outreach at Imago Dei Community, a church in the heart of Portland, Oregon, where he enjoys helping people who wrestle with some of the tough topics of the Christian faith. Joshua oversees the church’s city ministries in areas like foster care, human trafficking, and homelessness and develops international partnerships in areas like clean water, HIV support, and church planting. He is the author of The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War. You can connect with him on Twitter @butlerjosh and online at www.joshuaryanbutler.com.
KW: You call the tough topics of the Christian faith “the skeletons in God’s closet”—can you explain what you mean by this?
JB: Totally. I’ve found many of us fear God is hiding “skeletons in the closet,” tough topics like hell, judgment and holy war that, if we opened the closet doors (our bibles) and looked more closely, we’re afraid we’d find that God is not truly good or worthy of our trust.
But we often feel this way, I’ve come to believe because we have a caricature of what the gospel actually says. Popular caricatures in our culture—and in our churches—make God look like a sadistic torturer, a cold-hearted judge, or a genocidal maniac . . . rather than a good and loving God.
I’ve wrestled with these topics over the years and talked with countless others who struggle with them too. So I wanted to help folks grappling with them by “throwing open the closet doors,” so to speak, to pull these bones out into the open and exchange the popular caricatures for the beauty and power of the real thing.
When we do, I believe we discover these were never really skeletons at all . . . but proclamations of a God who is good “in his very bones,” not just in what he does, but in who he is.
So my biggest hope is to help us reclaim confidence in the goodness of God—not in spite of these topics, but actually through them.
KW: You mention wrestling with these topics personally. What did that look like in your own life?
JB: Back in college, I had a radical encounter with Jesus that turned my life upside-down (or perhaps better yet, right-side up). I remember sharing this experience with a friend in the dorms, and his immediate response was, “So do you think I’m going to hell now?”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. I hadn’t brought up hell. I wasn’t even thinking about it. I wasn’t looking for the questions, but they found me.
Shortly after, I worked on the Navajo reservation supporting a traditional community of indigenous shepherds in a land-rights case against a multi-billion dollar international mining company. I began learning more about the many injustices my country had perpetrated against native peoples: the unending string of broken treaties, the massacres and forced migrations, the manipulation and coercion used to get what we wanted for as little as possible in return.
And like a black eye in the middle of it all was Manifest Destiny, an ideology of the 18th century that drew upon imagery from the Old Testament holy war to justify mistreatment of native peoples as if we were a new Israel conquering a new Canaan.
I was angry at this picture. It’s bad enough to say, “We knocked you down”; even worse to say, “God gave us the punch.” Talk about adding insult to injury: America’s historic declaration that God was driving the train that ran over native peoples.
And I began to wonder: what was going on with holy war in the Old Testament? Why did God tell Israel to take out Canaan? Did I want to follow a God who commanded his people to destroy the indigenous inhabitants of the land?
My gut was telling me I’d rather side with the Navajo.
KW: So how did you start to find a resolution?
JB: As I began reading the bible with these questions in mind, I found something strange happening: it didn’t freak me out. It didn’t talk about these topics the same way many people, including church people, talked about them.
Perhaps most surprisingly, it actually inspired me. Whereas the popular caricatures brought confusion, Jesus brought conviction; they inspired hubris, and Jesus inspired hope. The bible talked about the holy war in a way that didn’t justify my country’s treatment of native peoples; it systematically critiqued and confronted it.
I think the concept of a caricature is helpful because they do contain features of the original. But they’re often blown up or way out of proportion: President Obama’s ears are way too big, Aunt Cindy’s grin is way too wide, Marilyn Monroe’s . . . well, you get the picture.
But a caricature would never pass for a photograph. If you were to take your driver’s license and replace the photo with a caricature, the police officer pulling you over would either laugh . . . or arrest you.
Placed next to a photograph, a caricature looks like a humorous, or even hideous, distortion of the real thing.
Similarly, caricatures of these tough topics do contain features of the original. One doesn’t have to look too far in the biblical story to find that hell has flames, holy war has been fought, and judgment brings us face-to-face with God.
But all we have to do is start asking questions: Where do the flames come from, and what are they doing? Who is doing the fighting, and how are they winning? Why does God judge the world, and what basis does he use for judgment?
Questions like these quickly reveal that our popular caricatures are like cartoons: good for us to laugh at, but not to live by.
KW: These topics often seem abstract or distant to us. When you say “live by,” do you find them practical for life today?
JB: Yes, we often think of these matters as more relevant to a fairy-tale world of dragons and monsters, kings and magic trees, fiery furnaces, and epic battles. Fairy tales are fun but for another world, right?
In the book, however, I try and demonstrate how these topics are much more at home in our everyday world than we might think. Our world is torn apart by the destructive power of hell today, breaking at the seams and longing for God’s redemption. Our empires rage upon the earth, seeking to rule without God, and people around the world are crying out for God’s kingdom to come, longing for worship rather than autonomy, justice rather than rebellion, communion rather than independence.
In the book, we relate these topics to issues as wide-ranging as sex trafficking and genocide, American democracy, and Third World dictatorships, modern suburbs, and social media. We travel to places as diverse as Nigeria, China, and my hometown of Portland, Oregon; from Boston high-rises and the heights of the global economy to Brazilian cardboard shanties and displaced slums in the developing world.
We explore the cultural longings embodied in our fairy tales and the historical longings embodied in our war stories. We have respectful conversations about Buddhism, Islam, and atheism. We visit history from World War II to the European colonization of the Southern Hemisphere to the ancient Roman Empire.
And on the way, we deal with pedophile priests, cancer surgeries, pub rockers, home makeovers, and unruly wedding crashers.
Buckle your seatbelt; we’re in for a ride.
KW: What is your biggest hope for those who read this book?
JB: That we can reclaim together greater confidence in the goodness of God.
The central theme and driving message of the book is that God is good. Not just a little bit good. Not just partially good. Not just sometimes good and sometimes not. But extravagantly, mercifully, gloriously, better-than-we-can-ask-or-imagine good.
There is a refrain one can often hear in churches that proclaim loudly and boldly, “God is good—all the time!” That is the refrain of the book.
Even in the tough topics—perhaps especially in the tough topics—all the time, God is good.
You can check out the book trailer here.