The Nature of Hell—a Skeleton in God’s Closet?

The Skeletons in God’s Closet

Joshua Ryan Butler’s The Skeletons in God’s Closet goes a long way toward correcting many of the harmful caricatures of God. As I stated in my review, I really appreciate Butler’s perspectives, even though I don’t agree with all of his conclusions.

As promised, I will now examine his view of hell in greater detail and respond with some thoughts from my own view.

Butler starts by examining the caricature of hell as an underground torture chamber (pages 4–5). He and I both disagree with this picture. Hell is not underground, its purpose is not torture, and it isn’t constructed as a chamber.

That said, while an underground chamber may be the pop-culture view of hell, I don’t personally know of many Christians who view it that way. The caricature I hear from most Christians is that hell exists as an alternate spiritual dimension. Some view this place as a literal lake of fire, and others view it as simply a place of separation from God.

But whichever caricature we start with, Butler and I would agree that both are unbiblical.

In confronting the caricature, Butler overviews the biblical story of heaven and earth:

  1. “Heaven and earth are created by God.”
  2. “Heaven and earth are torn by sin.”
  3. “Heaven and earth are destined for reconciliation” (page 8).

That last point about reconciliation is particularly important. At the resurrection, we will not abandon earth and fly away up to heaven. Rather, Jesus is going to bring heaven down to earth. God is reconciling heaven and earth. He is going to renew the earth and give us resurrected bodies to live with him forever on earth.

As for those who reject God, their fate is also tied to this earth. However, they cannot bring their sin with them into God’s perfect kingdom. So what is to be done with them?

According to the traditional view, these people must be sent off to hell (whether that be an underground chamber or a different spiritual dimension) where they will suffer eternal torment. Again, Butler and I both disagree with this caricature of God’s solution.

Hell takes place here on earth. It is “outside the city,” as Butler so persuasively argues. But its purpose is not torment. Butler and I both agree with C.S. Lewis: “All that are in hell choose it.” God invites everyone to join him in his city, but we must repent of our sin and place our trust in Jesus to enter. Those who refuse leave themselves no other option but to remain outside.

Will there be torment? Yes, I imagine they will be greatly tormented, but this torment is self-inflicted. They are tormented by their own choice of separation from the only one who could give them peace and happiness.

Up to this point, Butler and I have been pretty well in agreement. Here’s where we diverge.

I believe in Conditional Immortality (or Annihilationism). According to this view, those who choose separation from God remove themselves from the one who holds them in existence. Thus they can no longer exist, and they will ultimately cease to be.

Butler rejects this view. Instead, he argues that God will simply allow the unrepentant to go their way. They and their sin will be contained away from the rest of God’s redeemed creation, but they will otherwise be allowed to continue as they please.

In arguing against Annihilationism, Butler makes the following remarks:

First, it is problematic because Christ has conquered death: the grave is no longer an option. … Because of Christ’s victory over death, the cessation of existence is no longer possible. Christ’s Life-giving victory lays life’s claim upon even the one who turns away, … Annihilation minimizes the scope and power of Jesus’ resurrection.

Annihilation is also problematic for a second, more basic reason. At its core, it is like God saying, “Marry me or I’ll kill you.” … Our everyday etiquette and common sense shows: life “outside the city” is more merciful than annihilation. God does not shoot us if we refuse to be with him; he simply hands us over to our refusal. … God’s most merciful option is simply to let us go our own way, to hand us over to the decision we have made. For God to annihilate the unrepentant sinner like a spurned lover would be an act not of mercy but of spite on God’s part. (pages 63–64)

I’m going respond to Butler’s arguments in reverse order.

“Marry me or I’ll kill you.”

Throughout his book, Butler does a tremendous job of dismantling caricatures. However, when it comes to Annihilationism, I fear he has created a caricature of his own. In his version of Annihilationism, God is a vengeful lover, proposing to his would-be bride while holding a gun to her head. This is certainly not an accurate picture of God, but it’s also not the view I hold.

To correct this picture, the gun would have to switch hands. God is not pointing it at his beloved; she’s pointing it at herself. God is pleading with her, “Please put the gun down. I know what you’re going through, but I promise I will make everything right if you’ll just trust me.”

God does not kill sinners out of spite. But he does allow them to make their own decisions. Some will insist to the very end that they want separation from God, so God will grant their request. But of course no one can exist apart from God, as he alone holds everything in existence. They get their wish, and thus they cease to be.

The beloved pulls the trigger, not God.

According to Butler’s view of hell, while God allows sinners to go their way, he still keeps them alive for all of eternity. But is that really more merciful? On their own, they would suffer an eternity of misery, cut off from the one who could bring them joy. That’s still eternal torment, even if it is self-inflicted. By choosing to keep them alive, God chooses to prolong their anguish.

Imagine that a loved one is in the hospital on life support. With her body shut down, a machine is the only thing keeping her alive. All chance of recovery has passed. Theoretically, the machine could keep her alive indefinitely, but for what? To let her suffer? Furthermore, she’s made it clear that she does not want to be kept alive by this machine.

Unplugging her would not be an easy decision, but it’s the only right decision to be made.

When Adam and Eve sinned and broke fellowship with God, he removed them from the Garden of Eden so that they would not live forever (Genesis 3:20–22). This was an act of mercy. God knew that an eternity in sin was a fate worse than death.

Yes, God could keep alive those who reject him, but they would only be living on life support. It would serve no purpose other than to keep them in pain. The most merciful option would be to give them what they want. Unplug them from life support, and let them go.

Christ has conquered death

According to Butler, “Christ’s Life-giving victory lays life’s claim upon even the one who turns away.” In a sense, this is true. At the resurrection, God will raise everyone back to life—thus rescuing even the unrepentant from the first death.

However, those who persist in their rejection of God will face a “second death” (Revelation 20:14; 21:8). We can certainly debate the nature of this second death, but we cannot deny that they will in some sense die again.

The New Testament is full of this dichotomy between life for those who accept Jesus and death for those who reject him:

For in this way God loved the world, so that he gave his one and only Son, in order that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.” (John 3:16, LEB)

Truly, truly I say to you that the one who hears my word and who believes the one who sent me has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.” (John 5:24, LEB)

And I give them eternal life, and they will never perish forever, and no one will seize them out of my hand.” (John 10:28, LEB)

For the compensation due sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23, LEB)

We know that we have passed over from death to life because we love the brothers. The one who does not love remains in death. (1 John 3:14, LEB)

Butler asserts that “the cessation of existence is no longer possible.” This is a fascinating statement, and I’d love to hear him flesh it out more. His basic premise here is that Christ’s resurrection means God’s victory over death, ruling out the possibility of one’s ceasing to exist.

By contrast, I would argue that cessation of existence is the only possibility for those who ultimately reject Jesus.

  1. God alone possesses immortality (1 Timothy 6:16). Therefore, we do not have immortal souls.
  2. Jesus holds everything in existence (Acts 17:28; Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3). So those who reject Jesus reject their source of existence.
  3. While believers will be given immortal bodies (1 Corinthians 15:53), those who reject Christ will face destruction of both body and soul in Gehennah (Matthew 10:28).

This is why Annihilationism is more accurately known as Conditional Immortality. God offers everyone the gift of eternal life in immortal bodies, but that gift is conditioned on our submission to Jesus as Lord. We cannot accept God’s gift while rejecting his Son. Those who reject Jesus reject life. Cessation of existence is the only remaining option.

Butler further asserts that “Annihilation minimizes the scope and power of Jesus’ resurrection.” On the other hand, I would argue that his view minimizes the scope and power of Jesus’ ultimate victory over evil.

Therefore also God exalted him
 and graciously granted him the name above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bow,
 of those in heaven and of those on earth and of those under the earth,
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
 to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9–11, LEB)

The day is coming when every knee will bow to Jesus, and every tongue will confess that he is Lord. All things will be subjected to him (1 Corinthians 15:27–28). But this cannot be true if a remnant of humanity continues to oppose Jesus for all eternity.

According to Butler’s view, the unrepentant will be segregated away, preventing them from contaminating the rest of God’s perfectly renewed creation. But this means that God’s creation will never fully be renewed. Part of God’s good earth will always be contaminated by sin.

This is not ultimate victory.

I don’t want to sound too negative toward Butler or his view of hell. As I’ve stated before, I really appreciate the thoughtfulness he has put into it. His perspective has challenged and enriched my own, and for that I am thankful. Furthermore, when opposed to the traditional view of eternal conscious torment, I would side with his view any day.

However, when opposed to the view of Conditional Immortality, I believe that his view presents a God who is less merciful toward sinners, that it misses the mark on God’s ultimate victory over evil, and that it does not fit as well with Scripture as a whole.

But I’d love to hear feedback. What are your thoughts? What else am I missing? Let me know in the comments below.