Review of Holy Hell, by Derek Ryan Kubilus

Holy Hell

A Case Against Eternal Damnation

by Derek Ryan Kubilus

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2024. 189 pages.
Review written March 27, 2024, from my own copy, purchased via
Starred Review

For many years now, I’ve been collecting and reading books about Universalism. It started from reading the sermons of George MacDonald, not realizing he was a Universalist. Then I checked what he was saying against Scripture, especially noting the “all” verses, and became convinced that yes, the Bible teaches God will save everyone. And then I started reading modern writers on the same topic. It is not possible to overstate the amount of joy this change in views has given me. Every time I read another book showing why universal salvation is biblical, I give myself renewed permission to believe this wonderful, joyful teaching.

Holy Hell is the first time I found one of these books so close to publication date, though. I was actually researching Christian publishers when trying to find a home for my own book, Praying with the Psalmists, when this then-upcoming book caught my eye.

And this book, like so many others on Universalism, made my heart happy. Derek Kubilus’s approach is not horribly academic, but he does base his arguments on what the Bible says, including the information about misleading ways we translate the Greek text of the New Testament into English. I’d heard that in other books, but I do like the way he puts it, taking a pastoral tone. He’s a United Methodist pastor, which also made me happy, because since 2019, I’ve been a member of a United Methodist church.

This book has all the basics for a universalist book, explained in a way a layperson can understand. I think my favorite part was his treatment of the parable of the sheep and the goats, because that was still a niggling point I wondered about. He points out that a God who praises people for visiting other people in human prisons is not the same God who would put people into an unending prison. Here’s how he puts it:

Notice that the King does not say, “I was innocent and you came to prison to visit me.” He does not seem to care about the particular guilt or the innocence of the one who is incarcerated. He simply identifies himself with whoever might be in prison, saying, “I was in prison and you visited me.” As the last detail mentioned in a series, the fact that sheep go to visit prisoners carries the most emphasis in the text. Caring for those who are imprisoned actually epitomizes what it means to be a sheep. Yet, some will argue that we are to understand this passage to be saying that God imprisons souls in a torture dungeon and withdraws God’s presence from them for all eternity! Are we to believe that God is praising the sheep for their enduring presence with those who are in prison, and at the same time, God withdraws God’s own eternal presence from those whom God sends to prison? If that were true, then Christianity would simply be a terrible religion worthy of our rejection, because the Christian God would be the biggest hypocrite of all.

Another thing I liked about this book was his chapter about expanding our circles. Becoming a universalist has challenged me to be more loving and more inclusive to those I’d like to dismiss. Here’s a bit from that chapter:

Exclusion is easy. Walking around thinking that we are the special ones, that we are justified simply by virtue of who we are or what we believe, some identity or another, is comforting. Cutting more and more people out of that circle isn’t a problem as long as we stay nestled safely inside of it.

Expanding the circle, however, is a “hard teaching.” Expand it too far and we start to wonder if there’s anything special about us at all.

By that measure, universalism might just be the hardest teaching because it expands the circle all the way.

I marked many quotations in this book, so it’s going to be showing up on my Sonderquotes blog. Check out those to get more of an idea.

But if you’re wondering at all, if you think universalism might possibly be true, I highly recommend this book along with all the others on my Exploring Universalism page. This one is a great place to start!

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Review of Theologizin’ Bigger, by Trey Ferguson

Theologizin’ Bigger

Homilies on Living Freely and Loving Wholly

by Trey Ferguson

Lake Drive Books, 2024. 197 pages.
Review written March 5, 2024, from my own copy, purchased via
Starred Review

This book made my heart happy.

I’ve been following Pastor Trey on Twitter (@PastorTrey05) for some time now. He tweets about theology that I’d already found liberating, such as why the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement gives a harmful and unworthy view of God — along with joyful alternatives.

He starts off in the first chapter talking about how God is bigger than we can fathom. So sticking with what we know can be limiting. Here’s how Pastor Trey puts it:

But what if these constructs of knowing God are capable of preventing us from experiencing God? What if these things that we don’t know are invitations of the Almighty to catch glimpses beyond the blurry fragments and snapshots that we have compiled in this library we now recognize as the Bible? What if this limited, finite collection of writings is not even supposed to contain the fullness of the word of God? What might that demand of the thoughts we think about the Divine?

And then I love the title of the second chapter: “The Bible Ain’t No Car Manual.” Here’s the paragraph under that title:

The Bible is not a car manual. You not gon’ be able to search in the back for just any topic and find the chapter and verse to answer every question under the sun. Doing theology requires critical thinking skills.

So, yes, in his book Pastor Trey shows us how to do theology and learn about the living, dynamic love of God. The idea of theologizin’ bigger is to think big thoughts about our great big loving God.

The book takes us lots of places, including talking about the White Man’s Religion and the ways we use religion for harm. But the overall message is overwhelmingly positive, encouraging us to think big and think loving in our relationships with God and other people.

I love the last chapter, “The Rehumanization Project,” where he talks about using our God-given imaginations:

To be made in the image of God is to possess the power of imagination.

Imagination is an essential part of our humanity. It is our imagination that built cities and civilizations. Our imagination brought us countless genres of music. People have imagined timeless creations into reality through the culinary, visual, and dramatic arts. Literature born of our God-given imaginations has endured for millennia, across time, space, language, and culture. Imagination brought us the Flintstones and Super Soakers. It brought us more sports than we care to name. Nothing worthwhile came without someone first imagining it.

And that ties into our salvation like this:

Salvation is an act of reclamation and restoration. When Jesus saves us, he helps us reclaim the bits of humanity we’ve lost. Jesus gives us the ability to imagine good things and the power to realize them here and now. Community without exploitation. A sense of wealth that doesn’t demand scarcity. A love that doesn’t bleed us dry, but makes us whole. If only we imagine them, we can experience all these things. That’s what we were made to do. That’s what it means to be human.

If Jesus has the power to save, then we have the power to imagine again. We have the ability to theologize bigger. That is the image of God in us.

Reading a chapter a day of this book gave me a nice shot of inspiration and joy. I hope Pastor Trey will write many more books in the future.

Pastor Trey guarantees on his website that if you open up his book, you’ll find something worth talking about. That promise was fulfilled for this reader.

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Review of No Cure for Being Human, by Kate Bowler

No Cure for Being Human

(And Other Truths I Need to Hear)

by Kate Bowler

Random House, 2021. 202 pages.
Review written January 16, 2024, from my own copy, purchased via
Starred Review

I ordered this book because of how much I loved the author’s book of meditations, The Lives We Actually Have, and that after reading it, I realized she was the author of Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Since I loved that book, I clearly needed to read this follow-up.

This book is a memoir about the author getting experimental treatment for her terminal cancer at thirty-five years old. Spoiler alert: She survives. But many other people in the same experimental trials did not. And the outcome was by no means certain when she lived it. In fact, she was told she had a 14% chance of survival.

Kate Bowler is a professor who’s studied the prosperity gospel in America. And she found as she was going through this that she had strong feelings about self-help books promising “Your Best Life Now” and bucket lists and other mantras that rang hollow when she was facing high chances of dying before she saw her small son grow up.

This book is her story of that journey. I love her short chart at the back of “Clich├ęs we Hear and Truths We Need.” A couple of examples:

Carpe diem! –> I mean, yes, unless you need a nap.

Let go and let God. –> God loves you, but won’t do your taxes.

Make every minute count. –> Life is unpredictable. You’re a person, not a certified accountant.

You are invincible. –> There’s no cure for being human.

I hope that gives you the idea what you’ll find here: No trite formulas for happiness in hard times. But at the same time, encouragement that being human and being alive is a good thing.

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Review of Executing God, by Sharon L. Baker

Executing God

Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about Salvation and the Cross

by Sharon L. Baker

Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. 205 pages.
Review written December 28, 2023, from my own copy.
Starred Review
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #2 Christian Nonfiction

After reading Sharon L. Baker’s book Razing Hell that demonstrates the Bible’s teachings about hell aren’t necessarily what we’ve been taught, I was ready to read what she has to say about the cross and the atonement.

This book reminded me of Tony Jones’ book, Did God Kill Jesus?, since both books look at historical theories of the atonement and show us why those that have been commonly taught worship a violent God instead of a loving, restoring God. Sharon L. Baker is a university professor, so her book is a little more academic, but because of that gives us a thorough and detailed case for taking a fresh look at the cross of Christ.

She makes the case right at the beginning that if you believe God orchestrated the violence done to Jesus, you will tend to not have a problem with violence yourself. And beyond that, the story told that way isn’t attractive to unbelievers. If God can only forgive us when paid off by violent death of his innocent Son, how is that even forgiveness?

But don’t weigh her argument from my summary. The author is meticulous in her approach, spending chapters on the historic ways Christians have looked at the atonement. You might be surprised that most of the theories churches teach today were developed hundreds of years after Christ’s death, including the Satisfaction Theory developed in medieval times to appeal to people living under feudal systems. Sharon Baker looks at the meaning of justice, forgiveness, and sacrifice, and how they relate to the cross.

Now, I was easily swayed, since I’ve already read similar books on this topic including Did God Kill Jesus?, by Tony Jones, A More Christlike God, by Bradley Jersak, Nothing But the Blood of Jesus, by J. D. Myers, and Creation and the Cross, by Elizabeth A. Johnson. Where this book shone for me was in the later chapters, where she pulls the ideas together and talks about her view of God’s atonement, forgiveness, and restorative justice. It was especially meaningful to me to finish reading the book on Christmas Day, because her view is that Christ’s atonement is very much wrapped up in the life and incarnation of Jesus.

Here’s a paragraph about the meaning of the Incarnation:

Because of the incarnation, something tangible happens on a cosmic level to change our relationship with God and with each other. In the words of Cyril of Alexandria, “God made human flesh his own.” Or, in other words, regardless of the way we might think of the divinity of Jesus, God descended into the human condition by becoming one of us with a human body and mind. But there’s a bit more to it. In Jesus, two natures were united – human and divine. And since the son has taken on humanness, the two natures are united in Jesus. So he took what belonged to him – the life of God – and gave it to us. And he also took to himself what belonged to us – humanity – and healed it, restored it, and transformed it into what God created us to be. What a sweet gift. Jesus participated in humanity and in the process healed and reconciled it so that humanity could participate in God. In other words, he lifted human nature into the Godhead (Eph. 2:6). We could say that God descended to us in our humanity so we could then ascend to the life of God.

I also loved her discussion of forgiveness and how God has never required payment to forgive. Here’s a bit of that:

If we look at the life and teachings of Jesus we see a vastly different image of God. We see a God of love and peace, who freely forgives sin without first balancing the cosmic accounts. As the fullest revelation of God, Jesus never demands retribution. He never talks about his offended honor. He forgives and heals and saves unconditionally. He is the Prince of Peace who reveals to us the true nature of God and tells us so when he says, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

She talks about how the violence of the cross came from humans, not from God:

What would have happened if Jesus, in terrible pain on the cross, had commanded an army of angels to come and wipe out his persecutors? What would have happened if Jesus had bought into the violent response of Peter when the Romans came to arrest him? Violence, bloodshed, death, maybe even war, right? But instead, Jesus responded in the opposite way. He commanded Peter to put away his sword and he spoke words of forgiveness from the cross. In so doing, he broke the cycle of violence and reconciled us to God so that we could spend an eternity celebrating and enjoying our restored relationship with a God who loves us. Which brings God more glory – retribution or restoration? I think the answer is obvious.

And more about restorative justice:

Actually, we might say that sin condemned and punished through retribution is sin condemned without hope for redemption. But sin exposed through righteousness, with the intent to restore the sinner to God, is grounded in the hope of salvation. So instead of saying that God inflicted the pain of the cross on Jesus as a penalty for our sin, we can say that the horrific nature of the cross exposed and condemned the gravity of our sin. After all, human beings are the ones who put Jesus to death, not God.

And remember, Jesus never said anything about coming to receive punishment for sin, but he said quite a bit about forgiving it. The righteousness of God in Jesus transcended the retributive aspects of the law and brought about our forgiveness — think about Jesus’ prayer for our forgiveness from the cross. In this manner, Jesus gave us his life and revealed to us the law of love that restores us to God and to each other. The Bible tells us that no greater love exists than this (John 15:13).

This part resonated when I was reading it at Christmastime:

Reconciliation through forgiveness brings peace between formerly conflicting parties – in this case, God and humanity. The book of Ephesians tells us that Jesus proclaimed peace to those of us who were far from God and to those who were nearer to God (2:15-20). And Jesus proclaimed this peace by something that speaks louder than words – by his actions. Even though he suffered because of our sinful actions in putting him to death, Jesus sought to forgive and to reconcile us to God, bringing peace, love, and restoration not only between God and humans but among those in conflict with each other – Jews, Gentile, male, female, slave, and free. Peace all the way around! But isn’t that what the angels declared at the birth of Jesus – peace on earth, goodwill to all people?

This is a point I’ve often read in George MacDonald’s writings:

Jesus did not die in order to win God’s love for us, but to win us over with God’s love. God’s love went to the limit for us, dove into the depths of the human condition, suffered the consequences of our sin by dying a terrible death as an innocent man. And in the midst of that suffering love, Jesus revealed the greatest love of all – forgiving his enemies and praying to God to do the same. Through the incarnation, God took on human flesh and gave human flesh the life of God.

Here’s how she finishes up the main text of the book (with lots of notes and an index to come – she’s an academic):

It takes one to forgive and two to reconcile. Although God freely forgives all of us without condition, we can choose to enter fully into the equation in order for reconciliation with God to happen. And this reconciliation takes place as we turn back to God. God lifts us up into the life of God and we participate joyfully in the new life we have in Christ. We can interpret the cross of Jesus as at-one-ment that deconstructs notions of a violent God bent on retributive justice. We see that the justice of God is love and that love forgives, transforms, and seeks to create new and harmonious relationships. Through the forgiveness of God, a way is opened up for the transformation of all humanity (all creation, to be exact). Through the cross of Jesus, we are forgiven without condition, accepted as we are. Through repentance we are reconciled with God and transformed into those who live in the power of divine love.

Divine justice, therefore, is the act of loving and forgiving, a bottomless, endless, profoundly absurd forgiveness that reaches out in love to all humankind. Our response-ability is to receive it, to enter into the forgiveness of God, reconciled and restored. If, that is, we have eyes to see and ears to hear:

Yahweh is tender and compassionate,
slow to anger, most loving;
his indignation does not last for ever,
his resentment exists a short time only;
he never treats us, never punishes us,
as our guilt and our sins deserve.
— Ps. 103:8-10 Jerusalem Bible

If, like me, you find that vision of God’s restorative justice beautiful, but if maybe you aren’t sure how to fit that picture with what you’ve been taught about the Bible – in that case, I highly recommend this book.

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Review of Counting the Cost, by Jill Duggar

Counting the Cost

by Jill Duggar
with Derick Dillard
and Craig Borlase
read by Jill Duggar

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2023. 7 hours, 7 minutes.
Review written December 15, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

I have never watched one episode of the shows about the Duggar family. I am the third child from a family of thirteen children, and I knew it would be painful to me to watch a big family’s lifestyle glorified like that. I knew that what cameras saw would not be the same as what day-to-day life is really like.

But when I heard about Amazon Prime’s “Shiny Happy People” documentary series, I dropped everything and watched the series. It took me five blog posts on my Sonderjourneys blog in my “Shiny Happy Childhood” series to process what I saw in that series.

Based on what I saw in the documentaries (which included interviews with Jill), I put this audiobook on hold as soon as I heard about it. This is the story of Jill Duggar, growing up in her filming family and highly involved in the cult that IBLP ended up being. IBLP stands for Institute in Basic Life Principles, and was founded by Bill Gothard, who began by going around the country doing seminars — seminars I attended as a child several times.

This book is Jill’s personal story. I admire the woman she’s grown to be, learning to set boundaries, make her own decisions, protect her own privacy, and stand up for herself in healthy ways.

My reaction to this book will be more about me than it is about her. It’s not often – not often at all – that I get to read a “mirror” book, a book I see myself in. Jill was the fourth child in a big family, taking care of younger siblings from a young age. I was the third child in my big family, and yes, I was changing diapers and tending babies from eight years old on. She was in a conservative Christian family, heavily influenced by Bill Gothard’s teachings. I was in a conservative Christian family, heavily influenced by Bill Gothard’s teachings, but before he got quite so extreme.

First, after listening to this book, I’m so thankful that my parents didn’t ever get to the “Advanced Training Institute” level of following Bill Gothard. Girls were allowed to wear pants in my house, we listened to Christian rock music, attended a private Christian school, and went to a Christian university. I think there was some hope I’d find a nice Christian guy to marry at that Christian college, like my mother had done, and my older sister did, too, and — oh, wait a second, I did meet my ex-husband at that Christian college, though I was much slower than they were, and we didn’t get married until after I finished grad school, which it sounds like wouldn’t have met Bill Gothard’s approval.

My parents did homeschool for a number of years — but they started after I was already in college. I liked the idea of homeschooling in theory — but in practice, I knew that school had been my lifeline. Making friends and learning how “normal people” lived was vital to my growing up years. And when I had kids of my own, we sent them to public school.

I heard of Bill Gothard’s “umbrella of authority” and probably believed it was true, but it wasn’t hammered into me the way it was for Jill. I wasn’t afraid I was opening myself up to Satanic destruction if I displeased my father. (And I was a rule-follower anyway, so how would I have displeased him?) But one part of the teaching as she related it surprised me. I was taught that a girl goes from under her father’s authority to under her husband’s authority. Marriage is all about “Leave and Cleave,” or so I was taught. I thought it was part of Bill Gothard’s teaching, but Jill reported that she was told she was under her father’s authority as long as he lives, and her husband is under his authority, too. So she had an especially difficult time establishing her own home as an adult, with boundaries from television cameras, making decisions against her father’s wishes.

It was interesting to me, though, that my areas of pain from my upbringing were completely different from hers. Now, it sounds like doing the show gave their family more resources to meet the needs of that many children. However, for me, besides having to do without some physical things at times, I felt starved for attention, easily invisible, not really known by my parents. The focus and attention in our family always went most to the newest baby, and the older kids got easily overlooked. I didn’t get the impression Jill felt a lack there.

I do agree with the Duggars that children are a blessing. But I also believe they are people who need to be nurtured. And if you have so many children you don’t have the physical or emotional resources to nurture them all, I think you’re being irresponsible with precious lives.

Now this is a discussion every couple should have on their own. I try not to judge big families, because children are indeed a blessing, after all. But neither should they judge me for having two kids, six and a half years apart, so I had the joy of showering individual attention on each child. Bill Gothard claims to know what’s best for every family — and I believe that’s presumptuous and wrong.

But the topic that hit the hardest when I watched the “Shiny Happy People” documentary (pun intended) was spanking. One whole blog post in my processing was about it. As an adult, I am very much opposed to using violence to control your children. Jill didn’t even mention spanking as an issue, though I know it’s a big part of Bill Gothard’s teaching, and I think there was a clip of her mother describing “blanket training” in the documentary. (Shudder.)

So Jill didn’t include the things I think of as issues from this background. But a lot of her issues sprang from having her growing-up years always on camera. And then being manipulated as an adult to continue to let the filming control her life, without getting paid for it.

I appreciated that Jill finished her book with the things she loves and admires about her parents. She points out that loving someone does not mean you have to be blind to their faults.

I wish Jill and Dereck continued success as they grow and heal and establish boundaries and nurture their own family, following Jesus in the ways he leads them, rather than in the strict set of rules someone else makes up for them. This book made my heart go out to a sister.

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Review of Luke: Jesus and the Outsiders, Outcasts, and Outlaws, by Alan Hamilton


Jesus and the Outsiders, Outcasts, and Outlaws

by Alan Hamilton

Abingdon Press, 2022. 155 pages.
Review written April 5, 2023, from my own copy.
Starred Review

My church went through this book in our small groups (including the one I co-lead) as an all-church Lenten study. There are six chapters, one for each week of Lent, and there is a leader’s guide and videos to go along with it, as well as the sermons from our pastors on the same topics.

I’ve grown up in church and know the Bible well, so it’s always a challenge to set aside what I think I already know and gain new insights. That wasn’t a problem at all with this book. Although I think I’m very familiar with the book of Luke, I had never noticed the theme that Alan Hamilton brings out again and again — of Jesus lifting up the lowly.

Indeed, there’s a chapter on Jesus’ interactions with women, and I’d never noticed how very much Luke includes women in his gospel — much more than the other gospel writers.

Since there are 24 chapters of Luke, but only 6 weeks of Lent, the study is only loosely chronological. We start with a firm foundation of Jesus seeing and paying attention to outsiders, outcasts, and outlaws all through the book before traveling with Jesus to Jerusalem, looking at his final week, and then covering the crucifixion.

Even with the crucifixion, Adam Hamilton points out that the words on the cross that Luke chose to report fit with his theme of lifting up the lowly. This is where we read about Jesus’ forgiveness, his promise to the thief, and ultimately committing himself into his Father’s hands.

This paragraph is from the first chapter, looking at the Mary’s Magnificat:

It is on the lips of Mary that Luke lays out the theme of his Gospel, the theme of this book: God looks with favor on those of low status. God brings down the powerful from their thrones. God lifts up the lowly. God chooses the people others think are washed up or have no value. God values and uses those who have been pushed down, oppressed, or disdained. This one line captures Luke’s theme.

And here’s a paragraph from the chapter about Jesus’ crucifixion:

Regardless of what Luke was seeking to convey about Jesus’s death, he clearly sees this as the climax of the story he has been telling. Here, too, Jesus is lifting up the lowly. In Jesus’s death, we see his obedience to God (“not my will but thy will be done”), his innocent suffering, and, once again, his ministry with and for the outsiders, outcasts, and outlaws. We see his mercy and grace as he prays for his Father to forgive even those who tortured him. We see him reaching out to “seek and save the lost,” even from the cross. We see him as a King suffering for his people — a picture of selfless love. And we see Jesus absorbing evil, hate, sin, and death. As we will see in the postscript, Jesus ultimately triumphs over those things, and in the process brings salvation to the world.

Studying along with this book gave me a whole new appreciation for the gospel of Luke.

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Review of Yes, And . . ., by Richard Rohr

Yes, And . . .

Daily Meditations

by Richard Rohr

Franciscan Media, 2019. 412 pages.
Review written March 21, 2023, from my own copy.
Starred Review

I purchased this book when I was looking for a new devotional book to read through in 2022. Well, there are 366 “Meditations” in this book, but they are not dated. So I took my time. Sometimes I read a page a couple days in a row. And I ended up finishing it a few months into 2023. The advantage, of course, is that you can start reading it at any time.

I chose a book by Richard Rohr because I love his email meditations which I read daily, sent out from the Center for Action and Contemplation. It was nice to have a set I could hold in my hands, because sometimes when I use my phone to read the email meditation, I get distracted.

It’s hard for me to do justice to this book in a summary. The entries were gathered by others from Richard Rohr’s many writings. Action and contemplation, like the name of the Center he founded, is maybe a good way to sum them up. We see thoughts about a life of faith, thoughts about how that looks and how it’s experienced, and what it means to you and to others around you.

I will put a link to my Sonderquotes blog with quotations from Richard Rohr to give you a taste. I also recommend signing up for the daily emails in the link above, and if you like what you read, this book is a way to get more.

Richard Rohr’s writings leave me inspired and encouraged, with my eyes opened to more of the beautiful things God has placed in this life.

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Review of The Lives We Actually Have, by Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie

The Lives We Actually Have

100 Blessings for Imperfect Days

by Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie

Convergent Books, 2023. 229 pages.
Review written September 8, 2023, from my own copy, purchased via
Starred Review

I purchased this book because of a recommendation on Sarah Bessey’s Substack and was absolutely delighted with it. And then I discovered this is the same author who wrote the wonderful book Everything Happens For a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved). And I sat down and ordered a couple more of her books before writing this review.

What I found in this book is a perfect addition to my morning devotional time. I’d read one blessing on one spread. The next day, I’d read the previous day’s blessing over again and then move on to the next one. Lots of profound wisdom, solidarity — and blessing — was the result.

The situations in the book feel real, not sanitized. This makes sense when I realize this is the same author who wrote about getting terminal cancer at 35 years of age.

Here are some examples of some of the headings for these blessings:

“for this ordinary day”
“for when you just need to put one foot in front of the other”
“for when you are looking for love (and it’s complicated)”
“for this tired day”
“for when you’re running on fumes”
“for when you’re hanging on by a thread”
“for friends who hold us up”
“for when it’s been a great day”
“for when the unthinkable happens”
“for collective grief”
“for all the firsts without a loved one”
“for this overwhelming day”
“for when you can’t catch a break”
“for the gift of doubt”
“for this painful day (and our bodies feel like the enemy)”
“for when your family disappoints you”
“for when you can’t love yourself”
“for when you’re not getting any better”
“for this beautiful, limited day”
“for learning to delight again”
“for the life you didn’t choose”

And there’s so much more! But just listing so many situations doesn’t show you how beautifully these authors deal with them. Let me show a few examples.

Here’s the beginning of the first one: “for this ordinary day”:

Lord, here I am.

How strange it is,
that some days feel like hurricanes
and others like glassy seas
and others like nothing much at all.

Today is a cosmic shrug.

My day planner says,
rather conveniently,
that I will not need you,
cry for you, reach for you.

Ordinarily, I might not think of you at all.

Except, if you don’t mind,
let me notice you.

Show up in the small necessities
and everyday graces.

God, be bread.
Be water.
Be laundry.

This is from “for feeling it all“:

So, you beautiful creature,
here is your permission slip to feel it all.
To feel the joy and delight and excitement.
And the sorrow and fear and despair.

All the yellows and pinks, and violets and grays.

Because you are the whole damn sky.

From “for what makes us us“:

Blessed are you, the strange duck.
You with the very intense hobbies.
Or the collection of movies or mugs or sneakers.
You with the hometown or home team
that makes you very, very proud.

Not everyone will get it,
but these are the things that bring you delight,
that let you swim around in the weeds
of who you are.

Sometimes the words gave me lovely reminders, like this bit from “for this lovely day”:

Refresh me, oh God.
Remind me of the loveliness found in today.
Surprise me with the details I have lost
the eyes to see.

Blessed are we, awakening from the
boredom of routine,
desiring to drink in from the beauty
around us once again,
full of the love you have given us,
the joy that is hidden among
the reeds of the ordinary.

Or this beginning of “for learning to love yourself”:

When I don’t feel worth loving,
God, help me remember
that you made me on purpose.

God, let me look through your eyes
to see the way you look at me
with pride and tenderness,
deep joy and love.

There are many that are about tough days, that are honest in turning to God in an incredibly bad time, like this from “for collective grief”:

Remind us that you, oh God,
are our home and our refuge.
When life’s unthinkable fragility
is too difficult to hold,
take my hands.

This part from “for others” resonated with me:

God, I will openly admit
that my plan was to rescue us all.
Pry this out of my hands.
Absolve my guilt.
Calm my spirit.
Let me allow you to do the impossible
and bear up the weight of the world
I am determined to carry alone.

And the section that especially spoke to me was “bless this beautiful, limited life,” including this part from “for an unfinishable day”:

In this culture of more, more, more,
make me less.

Less tidy and afraid,
less polished and buttoned up,
less prideful and judgmental.

Turn down the volume of my expectations,
and let me hear the birds sing
another lovely truth:

I am deeply and wholly loved.
I am beautiful and somehow delightful
even as I am unfinished.

That should give you the idea! In these blessings, you’ll find raw honesty. But you’ll also find comfort, beauty, encouragement, and the reminder that you’re not alone.

I think that now I’ve finished, I very well may start over at the beginning and go through this book again immediately, but at the very least, I’m going to pull it out for Advent and Lent. She’s got guides in the book and on her website for using the book in those seasons.

In whatever way you choose to use this book, I promise it will indeed bring blessings.

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Review of Prayers from the Heart, by Lorna Byrne

Prayers from the Heart

Prayers for help and blessings
Prayers of thankfulness and love

by Lorna Byrne

Coronet, 2019. First published in Great Britain in 2018. 278 pages.
Review written August 13, 2023, from my own copy, purchased via
Starred Review

Here’s another book by the wonderful Lorna Byrne, who writes her story in Angels in My Hair, telling how all her life she’s been able to see angels.

In this book, she gives us guidance for praying and fills the book with example prayers for specific situations. The examples are all simple and heartfelt, and reinforce that you really can pray about anything.

I especially enjoyed the first chapter, where she talks about how angels help us and the benefits of prayer:

We all need prayer. Now matter what you say — whether you believe in it or not — there will always be a time in your life when you need prayer. And we do all need it, though sometimes we are so cast down we feel unable to pray. That is why we should all pray for each other, because sometimes we simply cannot pray for ourselves. We may be in too much pain, physically and emotionally, and we cannot say the prayers we need to help us in our lives at that particular time.

It was when I had just read the first chapter and was thinking about how she teaches there are angels all around us that I had a lovely experience that convinced me to believe it.

After all, I believe God loves me. Why not believe that this loving God has servants all around, protecting and helping me and the world around me? This book uplifts me, encourages me, and reminds me to pray.

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Review of Razing Hell, by Sharon L. Baker

Razing Hell

Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about God’s Wrath and Judgment

by Sharon L. Baker

Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. 222 pages.
Review written July 3, 2023, from my own copy, ordered via
Starred Review

For decades now, I’ve been collecting books on universalism. Razing Hell is a lovely example. The book is focused primarily on rethinking our views of hell, by looking at what the Bible says about it in the original languages, and checking how it matches the strong Bible message of a God of love.

I like Dr. Baker’s approach, because although she’s coming at it from deep scholarship (as evidenced by the list of sources in the Appendix), she makes the book accessible and uses the questions of actual students she’s known to elucidate these views. I also liked that she goes beyond presenting a new view of hell to talk about the aspects of theology that would affect, such as retributive vs. restorative justice and the purpose of the atonement. It’s all presented in a readable and accessible way, with the Appendix loaded full of references, both Scriptural and academic.

She presents a view of hell I found familiar from George MacDonald’s writings: She builds off the idea that God is a consuming fire. And then suggests that this fire is love — that will burn away what is evil — so will be painful for those who hold onto evil. She even imagined part of the pain of judgment may be an offender being confronted by the pain of all those they had hurt. She isn’t saying this image is necessarily exactly how things will go, but she does present a solid case that the purpose of hell is restorative justice, not retributive justice.

One small point that I don’t remember seeing in other books on universalism is that in the Bible, justice and violence are often presented as opposites:

First, in the biblical texts, justice is often opposed to violence. In Isaiah 5:7, God “expected justice [from Israel], but saw bloodshed” instead (NRSV). Isaiah 59:3-4 begins with the violent, wicked actions of the people, stating that “your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue utters wickedness. No one brings suit justly, no one goes to law honestly” (NRSV). Because of these unjust, violent actions “justice is far from [them]” (59:9). If we compare that passage to Isaiah 16:4-5, it indicates that once oppression and violence are gone, justice is established. From these verses we see that justice and violence have nothing in common. In other words, where there’s violence, justice is absent. We may even be able to say that justice and violence stand as opposites so that one cancels out the other. The absence of justice in acts of violence begs this question: If justice is not present in violence, how then can we conceive of a God who executes justice through violence, especially the eternal violence of hell as we have traditionally thought it?

She talks about how forgiveness fits into this picture of justice:

Reconciling justice is also transformational justice. It pierces the darkness of retributive violence with the grace of God and the message of peace through love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. to do justice is to love; to do justice is to forgive; to do justice is to reconcile; this is a chain reaction in which love forgives, forgiveness reconciles, and reconciliation restores — all characteristics of divine justice, God’s reconciling justice.

And here’s a crucial question that years ago got me started along the path of universalism:

But does the defeat of sin within the person take place only in the temporal realm, within time itself, while we live in this body? Why should it? If we are beings who live on after death, like the Bible seems to say, what makes us think that God limits the bestowing of eternal grace to one time period? Why can’t God extend the offer of grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation through Jesus even at judgment — when all will be laid bare, when all persons will see the extent of their sin and the extravagance of God’s love?

And later on, she asks similar questions, after referring to the parable of the workers in the field (where those who labored one hour got the same wages as those who worked all day, who were angry about it):

If God desires to continue the work of reconciliation up to the last second, how can we protest? A sermon I heard as a new Christian put forth one of my favorite images of God as a God of second chances, a God who never gives up on us, who pursues us like a hound of heaven, always offering opportunities for repentance and reconciliation. Why wouldn’t God offer that same invitation on that final day? Why would God’s work of salvation end just because someone’s body dies? The work of Jesus must still be effective after the end of time or even after time runs out.

And here are some broader questions, at the end of the chapter “The Fire, the Wicked, and the Redeemed”:

Which vision of hell most coheres with the God revealed in Jesus — the view of hell in which persons suffer for all eternity with no hope for reconciliation with God, or the view of hell in which persons understand the depth of their sins, take full responsibility for them, and reconcile not only with God, but also with their victims? Which view offers a more compassionate eschatology? Which view takes more seriously the extensive significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? Which view most adequately and permanently exterminates evil? Can hell coexist with God’s kingdom of love?

And there’s more. She looks at specific Bible passages and the meaning of Greek words translated “hell” or “eternal,” among others.

Then I appreciated where she looks deeply at the Old Testament sacrificial system. It wasn’t about payment, but about cleansing and dedicating your life.

For the Hebrew people, blood was a symbol for life or the giving of life represented in the Old Testament sacrificial system. So when the priests sprinkled the blood on the altar, it symbolized the people giving their own lives up to God as living and holy sacrifices. The blood served as an outward symbol of an inward reality: the life of the worshiper given to God, set apart (the meaning of “holy”) for God’s purposes.

And then she lists many Old Testament scriptures, especially from the prophets, where they learn God is far more interested in their hearts than in their sacrifices.

We needed to see the message of the prophets, proclaiming that God rejected blood sacrifices, the formalism of worship without the heart to go with it, and the shedding of blood without the investment of a life given to God to back it up. I’ll reiterate for the sake of emphasis: God never intended for Israel to kill animals and pour their blood out on the altar as an exercise in itself. God hoped the people would catch on to the true meaning of the blood poured out and perform their external sacrifices as a symbol for the true internal sacrifice of their very lives set apart to God and for God.

And there’s lots more about atonement, about forgiveness, about the kingdom of God, about Jesus reconciling people to God — and what that all means in our lives now.

Jesus makes this clear to us in John 13:35. He says that all people will know we are his disciples . . . how? By preaching hellfire and brimstone? By throwing around threats of eternal punishment for those who reject Jesus? No! All people will know we are the disciples of Jesus by the love we have for one another. Through our love for others! The very nature of our reconciliation with God through Jesus makes us God’s agents, God’s ministers of reconciliation — not so that we can work to keep people out of hell, but so we can transform the world through reconciliation. The only way to get rid of enemies is not to throw them into an eternal hell, but to preach divine forgiveness and guide them to a life reconciled with God and others.

As with all other books on universalism that I’ve reviewed, please don’t imagine that my summary is a complete argument or contains all the important points. I hope this review piques some people’s curiosity and inspires them to read this book.

There’s a spectrum for books about universalism that ranges from super academic and full of footnotes, designed for biblical scholars, all the way to books written entirely for laypeople and that don’t use a lot of Scripture references to back up their points. This book is pretty squarely in the middle of that spectrum. Maybe a little on the academic side, because it does get into the weeds of other ramifications of universalism — but she puts the notes into an appendix to keep the analysis flowing.

Highly recommended, and I do hope this will motivate some of my blog readers to read this book.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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