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What is the Purpose of Hell? – Joshua Ryan Butler

Home » What is the Purpose of Hell? – Joshua Ryan Butler

Dr. Arnold interviews Josh Butler about the purpose of hell, a topic he deals with in his book, The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgement, and the Hope of Holy War.

Topics of conversation include:

  • Universalism vs. Annihilationism
  • The protective function of hell
  • The punitive function of hell
  • Resources for further study on heaven and hell.

Joshua Ryan Butler is the pastor of Leadership and Direction at Redemption Church in Tempe, Arizona. He is the author of The Pursuing God: A Reckless, Irrational, Obsessed Love That’s Dying to Bring Us Home (Thomas Nelson, 2016), as well as The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgement, and the Hope of Holy War (Thomas Nelson, 2014).


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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:17):

Jesus talked a lot about heaven in his earthly ministry. He said that the poor in spirit are blessed, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. He rebuked his disciples not to hinder the little children, for the kingdom of God belongs to them. He comforted his weary disciples not to worry about the future, since he was going to heaven to prepare a place for them. Heaven is this eternal reward promised to those who have placed their faith in Christ. It’s a place where God will dwell with his people forever. However, too often we hear that heaven is the promised afterlife for everyone. I heard R.C. Sproul say one time that “the greatest heresy in the American church today is justification by death.” That is, that every person who dies, goes to heaven. And I know in my own experience, at every funeral I’ve ever been to, I hear things like “he is now at peace,

Brian Arnold (01:00):

she is in a better place, heaven gained another angel”—whether or not the person had placed their faith in Christ. But just as much as Jesus talked about heaven, he talked a lot about hell. He said the trees that don’t produce fruit will be cut down and thrown into fire. He said that heaven’s door is narrow, and that those who do not find it—and it will be many—will depart into the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. But let’s face it, hell is not a popular doctrine. There does seem to be an embarrassment of hell today among Christians. Something many don’t like to talk about, and even questions about whether or not Christians should continue to talk about it at all. And yet Jesus did unashamedly talk about hell. And I think we must as well. Well, to help us understand why hell exists, we have with us today Joshua Ryan Butler, who’s the pastor of Preaching and Direction at Redemption Church in Tempe. Before that, he was pastor at Imagio Dei in Portland, Oregon. Josh is the author of several books, including The Pursuing God: A Reckless, Irrational, Obsessed Love That’s Dying to Bring Us Home, and The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War, which, though several years old now, is going to be the focus of our conversation today. Josh, welcome to the podcast.

Josh Butler (02:15):

Thanks so much, Brian, great to be here with you.

Brian Arnold (02:18):

And just for those listening, know that Josh is an exceptional writer. You will benefit from reading his takes in his book. Today, Josh, our big question is just this—what is the purpose of hell? And I want to say right off the bat, that you and I approach this question a little bit differently. So I’m looking forward to some fruitful dialogue today where we can discuss our positions, I think both within the parameters of Christian orthodoxy, but give people kind of different perspectives on this question. So let’s start where we begin. So first, hell exists?

Josh Butler (02:51):

Yes, definitely. Yes. Well, so one of the big things I try to do, even in the categories…you know, I love your introduction, and trying to question—what is the bigger storyline that hell fits into? It’s sort of a big emphasis for me. And I think a lot of folks, you know, have kind of a caricature of how hell works, and it’s kind of the earth now-heaven/hell later story, where right now here I’m on earth. One day I’ll die and either go up to the clouds or down to the fire pit down below. And what I think the biblical story is actually…hell has a place in our experience now, and heaven and earth—earth has a place in our future. So the biblical sermon I want to suggest, is saying that God is on a mission to reconcile heaven and earth. To actually bring back together what hell has torn apart.

Josh Butler (03:41):

And so God’s mission is to, as far as the purpose of hell—God’s on a mission to reconcile heaven and earth. To restore his broken creation. To reconcile his people to himself. To establish his kingdom on earth as in heaven. And it’s there, that the logic of hell kind of naturally arises. To long for the dawning of the light is, by its very nature, to long for the excising out of the darkness. To hope for the healing of the body is to hope for the removal of the disease. And for us to pray as Jesus’s followers, “God, your kingdom come, your will be done here on earth as it is in heaven,” is by its very nature—it’s implicitly to pray that all those powers and people and things that stand unrepentantly opposed to God’s goodness and his kingdom would be exiled, would be pushed out. So that God’s glorious kingdom be established. So as far as the purpose of hell, I want to say it’s bound up within the bigger picture of God’s reconciling purposes for creation, and for all those who will believe in him.

Brian Arnold (04:44):

Well, one of the things I appreciated about your book is reminding people that yeah, the kind of caricature that we have of heaven and hell—basically floating around in little diapers on clouds, plucking harps for eternity, which doesn’t quite sound like…it almost has, like, a hell kind of feeling to it, in the modern conception of what heaven might be, is to remind us that, what N.T. Wright even calls”life after life after death.” That God’s intention is to recreate heaven and earth, and our rightful place is going to be in resurrected bodies, back on the earth again. And so, just as we see that becoming prominent again in Christian scholarship, as it should be, that has implications for the doctrine of hell as well. As we think even cosmologically—like how God has divided his world.

Josh Butler (05:34):


Brian Arnold (05:36):

So, there are some places where I think we would agree that people are outside the bounds when it comes to even a view on hell. Let’s talk through one in particular, which would be universalism, and then maybe even touch on annihilationism as well. Could you kind of define this for us, and explain why those are kind of outside the pale?

Josh Butler (05:58):

So universalism is kind of, you know, everybody’s in, in the end. That’s kind of where Bell went, you know…famously, Rob Bell in Love Wins. Or with annihilationism, you know, that people are kind of snuffed out of existence eventually. And one of the ways I use in the book to try and get, you know, wrap our minds around it is I think—if we think about the cross as a marriage proposal, where Jesus, the groom, is laying down his life and inviting us in union with him. And what options are there if we refuse the marriage proposal? And I would say, actually, I’ll start with annihilationism first. You know, I’d say annihilation is essentially saying like…it’s like God saying, “hey, marry me or I’ll kill you.” Right? So it’s sort of this picture of…I actually don’t think it’s a very good option for a couple of reasons. First, even just practically, you know, it’s a pretty bad way to propose, right?

Brian Arnold (06:51):

Yes. Anybody who’s single out there thinking about that, don’t propose like that.

Josh Butler (06:56):

But theologically, I think some of the issues there…a big one for me, is I think it minimizes the…not only does it contradict, I think, the biblical witness, a number of passages, but in bigger theological perspective, I think it minimizes the scope and power of Christ’s resurrection. But as an Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive—and the question is you can’t hide in the grave anymore from the face of God, the presence of God. And the question is—how do we stand in relation to the one who raises us to Jesus, the risen Christ and his kingdom that will have the final word on the earth. So annihilationism, I see as a very insufficient option. We could also go a lot longer than that and why, and all the biblical passages and some arguments and things there.

Josh Butler (07:37):

And, I mean, universalism…I tend to think of that as sort of the, “marry me or I’ll lock you in the basement.” Right? Which for some folks it’s…in some parts of universalism it’s kind of like, hell becomes this place where God uses it to purge us of evil, or, you know, Bell’s thing seemed to be like, “well, eventually people will turn around and come to the light.” And I think that…a lot of problems with that, but one is—that’s not the way love works, right? You don’t coerce someone into loving you. And you think of an abductor who has abducted someone, and sometimes there can be a bond that develops between the person abducted and the abductor, but we would all look at that and go, “dude, that’s an unhealthy…”

Brian Arnold (08:18):

That’s Stockholm syndrome. Yeah.

Josh Butler (08:21):

Yeah. If God’s using hell to kind of purge someone of their sin and get them into the kingdom, to kind of coercively get them in, that’s not the way love works. And it’s also not the way sin works. That I think for a lot of people with universalism, there can be this sense of like, “well, eventually, if you just have enough time in hell or with your sin or with those things, that eventually you would get sick of it and turn around.” And I think the Bible depicts sin more like an addiction, you know, like where the further in you go, the more entrenched and ingrained it becomes. And you think of…so the analogy to me would be like saying, “well, hey, if someone has heroin for another 10 years, then it’ll be easier to kind of get out,” so to speak, you know? And the biblical imagery of the hardened heart seems similar. That man, it’s a scary thing to harden your heart against God. Because we have…the biblical picture that we get is not that you can kind of bring yourself out, of your own willpower down the road, or whatever. It’s that sin is a tyrant and a slave master. And ultimately, we can become the tyrant. You know, like in the sense of our rejection of God in choosing ourselves becomes a slave master that we are bound to. So all that to say, I think universalism, both theologically, biblically, and practically—it’s not a good option.

Brian Arnold (09:45):

Sure. So I think about even somebody like C.S. Lewis, in thinking and reflecting on heaven, saying that it’s “further up, further in.” That we’re going to continue to go into the infinity of God and experience new and greater pleasures all throughout eternity. We could almost reverse that, then, and say like, hell is further down, further out, right? Where, in your sin, you continue in that. I like the illustration of the heroin addict, too. We don’t think after 10 years that they’re going to somehow be able to combat that addiction easier. It’s going to be much harder the deeper in you are. Same thing with the person in hell. So in your view then, what is happening in hell?

Josh Butler (10:28):

Great. Well, first of all, I think one of the things that’s happening is God is protecting his kingdom by containing the unrepentant power of sin. So this is where I go in the book a bit into the history of the word, Gehenna, which is Jesus’s primary word for hell. And Gehenna, it might surprise some people to know, it was an actual physical place located just outside the walls of Jerusalem. And in the Old Testament prophets, this place had a really dark and dangerous history. It was associated with child sacrifices. This was where the people would leave the city, they’d leave the temple, they’d go outside the city. And they would light these flames and murder their children in worship of other gods. And so the prophets you read through the Old Testament, the prophets are railing against this place as a symbol of just how corrupt and wicked the people have become.

Josh Butler (11:14):

It’s a symbol of their idolatry and injustice. And yet the hope of the prophets was that God was a good King. He was going to return. He was going to redeem Jerusalem. He was going to establish his kingdom from there into the world. And all the rebels who had aligned themselves against God were going to get kicked out into Gehenna. Like get kicked outside the city walls. The rebellion essentially was going to get pushed outside the city, back to where it came from. So I try and look in the book at the idea that, you know, I think a lot of us have the picture of hell being underground, kind of the deep cavernous chasm down in the belly of the earth. But the biblical picture is more that hell is outside the city. It’s actually a center and periphery kind of image—that God is establishing his kingdom at the center of the world,

Josh Butler (11:58):

and all of the opposition to him is pushed outside the city, outside his kingdom, where it can no longer hurt or destroy. And one of the pictures there, is one of God protecting his kingdom, because sin is divisive. It’s destructive, it tears things apart. There’s a passage I love in Zachariah where he talks about where God says, you know, “on that day, when I redeem, you know, Jerusalem will be a city without walls, with all the people and the animals in it.” And you kind of go, “man, that’s a beautiful picture. God’s like tearing down the walls of the city to let anyone…everyone who wants to come in and be a part of the celebration, part of the feast inside” But if you lived back then, you would’ve gone, “well, God, what are you doing? Because actually the walls are what keep the bad guys out.”

Brian Arnold (12:39):

It’s safety.

Josh Butler (12:39):

Against intruders and those who want to tear us down. And God goes on to address that in the very next sentence. He says, “I myself will be a wall of fire around it. I will be its glory within.” And so, I think we see this picture that God protects his kingdom, not with tanks and jet fighters and AK-47s. He protects his kingdom with his very presence. His presence is a fire. It’s a wall of fire that those who have clung to their idols and live in unrepentant rebellion against the King are not going to be able to enter the goodness of his kingdom that is established on the earth. And it’s interesting, too, that God’s glory…it’s described…his same presence is described as glory for those within the kingdom. That God’s presence is both a protective fire against those who would seek to invade with sin.

Josh Butler (13:31):

And it’s also the glorious reality—the beauty, the glory, the majesty of his presence for all those who are united in union with him, and cleansed, and washed, and purified, and participate in the life of his kingdom. So all that to say, as far as the purpose of hell, maybe that you could see one side of the coin is that there’s a protective function. That it’s protecting the kingdom from the destructive power of sin. On the other side, I’d say it’s a…I would say there’s a punitive function, and it’s…one friend of mine put it as like, “dude, hell’s like a Tupperware container for evil.” It like, sort of…it keeps it in its place. And that God is rightly judging those who have aligned themselves against them. Partly, I think that, you know, some of the biblical language would be like a handing over—God’s giving them what they want. And probably the other part is that…the other side of that coin is the just Judge of the world. He is inflicting the reality that he’s ordained as the Creator of creation going. But if you live in rebellion against me in these ways, these are the realities that, through my sovereign presence in the world, will come upon you. And so, yeah. So I think God is protecting his kingdom by containing the unrepentant power of sin, and that in itself is the judgment of God upon the rebellion.

Brian Arnold (14:57):

And you use the image there of God handing them over, kind of a Romans, chapter one idea. So God handing them over into their sin. So do you see hell then as a place where people continue kind of in a high-handed sinfulness against God, where they’re continuing to go deeper into their own sin and wickedness with no hope? Or well, yeah, no hope, but no even desire for repentance, no shame for what they’ve done? Or do you see this as a recognition even of, “oh, we’ve sinned against the Creator and this is our just punishment. I wish I didn’t have to be here, but now I’m here forever”?

Josh Butler (15:40):

Yeah. Great. Well, one of the ways…I don’t think I’ve actually put this in the book, but I kind of thought about it after, was kind of this question of—is hell getting what we want? Right? Like, because for some, I think the handing over image, it feels like there’s a sense of getting what you want, you know, you’re kind of handed over to what you’ve chosen. I think there’s…I think the question is kind of, well, it depends on what we mean by that. And I think the answer, in my mind, it’s yes in relation to God. Kind of wanting autonomy from God, wanting independence from God, wanting to live life on my own terms from God. In that sense, I think hell is getting what one wants, it’s being handed over. But the other side of that is going, we don’t just want independence from God,

Josh Butler (16:22):

we want our cake and we want to eat it too. We want independence from God and we want the goodness of creation. We want our lust and we also want the women or men to, you know, to enact our lust upon. We want our hatred, our rage, and we also want the people to take it out on. One of those things. We want our greed and we want the toys, you know, we want the toys too. And so I think the reality is we’re not getting what we want in that…man, the things that have become idols are taken away. You know, like God is burning up, in judgment, those things that we have given our lives over to, apart from him. So in that respect, I think there’s both a sense of getting what we want, as far as that distance from God must be chosen.

Josh Butler (17:16):

And yet, from that angle—I forget the language exactly you used—from that angle, I think there is a handing over. I’m kind of given over to my sin, I’m given over to my corrupted affections, I’m given over to my desire for life autonomously, apart from God. But from another angle, I believe there’s a recognition of—this is the just judgment of God. The things that I have wanted or idolized or made ultimate over God, those things have been burned up in the fire of his judgment, and I’m receiving the just consequences and even the just judgment of God for…yeah.

Brian Arnold (17:53):

And a story that might bear out all those points together, is the rich man and Lazarus. So here is this story, whether historical or parable, to me it doesn’t matter which way we go. The point still conveys. And that is that the rich man dies. He goes to hell. Lazarus dies and goes to Abraham’s bosom. And there’s this chasm between the two of them. And you get the rich man, who’s still ordering Lazarus around, like he would have on earth. So he still wants to kind of have that control aspect. And yet he recognizes, “I don’t want my brothers to be here. Can somebody go back? Can you send Lazarus back to warn them?” And of course the point is that they have Moses and the prophets, they have Scripture. And if Scripture is not going to turn their minds and hearts to God, then neither will someone raised from the dead. So…but there is that aspect of the rich man that it is—I still want my sin. I still want control. I’m still in charge. And yet I don’t want to be here.

Josh Butler (18:46):

Yes, exactly. I think one of the parts of that story, whether that’s a parable, or like you said, a parable or literal, but I think is so powerful, is that his name in the story is the rich man. That Jesus kind of gives a name to Lazarus, you know, which humanizes him—the beggar that nobody knows his name. And yet the rich man is just called the rich man. And I think that contrast is intentional on Jesus’s part. There’s a sense that his love for his riches, his greed, has come to consume his identity. And in the surrounding context of the passage there in Luke, Jesus is confronting the Pharisees about their love of money, and that they care more about the love of money than making friends with the poor, that kind of thing. And one of the things that…when Jesus talks about judgment, one of those words, them being kind of put under the torment is bosanos.

Josh Butler (19:40):

And one of things that is interesting, is that bosanos, historically, it was like a touchstone used to test jewelry. So if you had a diamond or a piece of gold or something, and you wanted to know whether it was authentic or it was a fake, you would put it under the bosanos, under the touchstone, and you would torment it or torture it. You know, to kind of reveal what was underneath the reality. And I think Jesus is confronting the Pharisees going, “you look all shiny and fancy on the outside, like these jewels, and you love to be seen and respected by others, all these things, but God knows your heart. He knows that you’re a fraud. You’re a fake on the inside And part of the reality of God’s coming judgment, and the reality of hell, is it’s going to put you under the bosanos, under the touchstone.

Josh Butler (20:17):

It’s going to expose the fraudulent reality that you are.” And I think like that rich man, one of the biggest things I think, related to…we’ve talked a bit about, you know, kind of the imagery of the fire there, but one of the big things there is like going, it’s burned up his riches. Like it’s burned up the toys that he refused to share. It’s burned up the things that he made an idol. And yet he’s still wrapped up, as you mentioned, ordering Lazarus around, pretending like he’s still the boss, he’s still blaming God. And, kind of going through the way he asked those questions of—if only Moses or if only the prophets. He’s implicitly kind of saying—if only I’d had more of those things. And Abraham confronts him in the story going, “no, you basically…the heart of the problem for you is the problem with the heart. Like you’ve had what you needed, as far as revelation or whatever, and yet you have rejected God.” And so he’s given himself in rebelling against God, and hatred of his neighbor, and all because of his greed. And hell is God’s judgment upon that. And it’s…he continues to refuse the reality of God’s great reversal. His kingdom, where now the last have become first and the first have become last and all. Yeah. It’s God’s judgment upon him.

Brian Arnold (21:34):

Yeah. It’s one of the things that you’ve kind of hit on, even multiple times, is that the Judge of the earth will do what is right, right? What is that, Genesis 18, where we can be confident—for those who are listening, who say, is this just of God? Is this fair? It is, because God has a holy standard. Because God is infinite, any transgression against him deserves that sort of payment. But I think you’ve brought a lot of clarity, I think, for people to understand what hell is. I think you and I are even closer than maybe I thought at first, of recognizing God keeping these people away from those whom he’s redeemed. Those whom he’s completely sanctified and glorified are not going to be troubled by sin and despair and brokenness anymore.

Brian Arnold (22:22):

And those people are going to be cordoned off in hell forever, justly, by God. But who will also continue to just be given over to their sin, over and over. And I like how you’ve kind of shown—part of the torment for those in hell is “yes, I want the access to God’s good creation, but I want my sin too.” And that itself is tormenting forever.

Josh Butler (22:46):


Brian Arnold (22:47):

Well, Josh, what are just a couple of resources you might point people to, who are interested in thinking more about heaven and hell?

Josh Butler (22:55):

That is a great question. So there’s this great book out there I’d love to recommend, called The Skeletons in God’s Closet. It’s definitely worth the read. I, no, so yeah, the book goes into more there. I mean, I’ve got to be honest, since writing…it was a while ago, and now my mind has been in other places. So I don’t have any great recent stuff coming right off the top of my head. I would say, in my second book, The Pursuing God, you know, one of the things that I think is related, I get into some of the questions about like wrath and God’s character, and things like that that I think are related. And looking at kind of the passive and active dimensions and things like that. Man, I’m trying to think of what even…

Brian Arnold (23:43):

Yeah, no, that’s okay. And I’ll mention one, even coming a bit more from my perspective, which would be Hell Under Fire, which was written a number of years ago. Kind of on a biblical approach to eternal conscious torment, kind of a…yeah, a biblical theology, in many ways, a historical look at that doctrine, coming from multiple authors. So maybe getting just a different facet of the same kind of topic. Well, Josh, man, I appreciate you coming on today. And I think both of us would say, at the very end, as we talk about a harrowing doctrine like hell—that is not a place people want to be, and Jesus stands, ready to save those who place their trust in him through repentance and faith. They can know and experience God and can be with him forever in heaven, which is the glorious good news of the gospel—that Christ stands ready to save sinners. So Josh, thanks again for spending this time with us today.

Josh Butler (24:35):

Thank you so much, Brian,

Outro (24:36):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at

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