Several weeks ago I received a message from one of my church members asking for my thoughts on the book “The Shack” and the movie that was just coming out at that time based on the book. She said she had read something critical of the story, which she had read, and had even participated in a church study group a few years ago on the book. At that point I had only heard about “The Shack”, but had never read it even thought it had been recommended to me. Neither was I familiar with the author, Paul Young. Since I knew little to nothing about the book or the author, I really couldn’t say much for sure. I did tell her that if it varies too far from the revelation of God as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Bible then it might be misleading.
Over the course of the next several weeks I did come across some articles that were critical of “The Shack”, a couple from the reformed and conservative Lutheran branches of the church, and a couple from evangelical United Methodists (See Dr. Ben Witherington’s thoughts here and Dr. Chris Ritter’s here). I also listened to some interviews with the author, Paul Young. It seemed to me that there was indeed much to be wary of. Yet the reviews were mixed with some praise for “The Shack” movie, at least, coming from some conservative evangelical voices.
Last week I stayed up late a couple of nights and actually read “The Shack” in its entirety. I know some have tried to dismiss the concerns that have been expressed over the last several years by saying that it’s just a fictional story, a parable, and therefore shouldn’t be criticized so much for theological imprecision. But is it true that there is only room for theological nitpicking when it comes to this story?
Paul Young has made it clear that he intended to describe his view of God and what God is really like in story of “The Shack.” His parable is also certainly about dealing with human pain and brokenness that result from broken relationships and injustice, but he also wants to correct what he perceives to be misconceptions about God that exacerbate that pain. So “The Shack” paints a portrait of Young’s view of God. The question is whether or not this a complimentary or contradictory portrait of God compared to what we find in the Bible.
The first clue that Young might be setting up a contradictory view comes fairly early in the book, on page 65-66. At this point in the storyline the reader has already been rocked by the nightmarish tragedy of the main character, Mack, barely rescuing one of his children from drowning, only to discover, after a frantic search, that his young daughter, Missy, has been abducted by a cold-hearted, callous serial killer, called “the Little Lady Killer.” Also at this point the reader is hooked by a momentous mystery. Mack has received a note in the mail box inviting him to return to the shack deep in the woods where he and law enforcement had found Missy’s ripped, blood-soaked dress. The note is signed, “Papa”, his wife’s affectionate name for God. As Mack ponders whether the note might actually be a tantalizing invitation to meet with God or a taunting trick of a serial killer still at large, Paul Young, as the narrator, brings into question Mack’s seminary training that he says had reduced God’s voice to the paper of Scripture in order to keep God bound in a book only to be interpreted by the proper authorities. Young says sarcastically, “Nobody wanted to keep God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges?” (p. 66)
Here, I think, we have more than a little hint that the God Mack will encounter in the shack will burst the boundaries of traditional evangelical interpretation at minimum and probably even the contours of the way God is described in the Bible itself. It seems pretty obvious that Young here anticipates criticism and objections to his view of God and was probably trying to inoculate his enthused readers from criticism by way of caricaturing his inevitable critics. Again, the question is not whether the depiction of God in terms of the metaphors and symbolism used by Young is identical to what we find in Scripture, but is his depiction of God in harmony with or contradictory to what we find in Scripture? Was Young suggesting that God may reveal himself in new ways, but in ways that are in harmony with the Bible, or was he suggesting that God may reveal himself in ways that contradict and therefore correct the Bible itself?
In “The Shack” Young boldly attempts to cast his vision of God in terms of the Christian concept of the Trinity. There are some commendable features to Young’s explanations of the Trinity in that he captures that God is inherently and eternally a relational being of mutual respect and love. Overall, however, he blurs together the distinctions between the three persons enough that it seems more like a functional Unitarianism than the Trinity. All three persons bear the marks of crucifixion and all three are described as becoming human in the incarnation (i.e. John 1:14 when the word became flesh).
Moreover, in terms of the depiction of Jesus, he seems to be for all practical purposes fully human but not really divine. Sure Young describes him as divine and even as the God-man, but functionally his version of Jesus never has or ever will draw upon his divine nature to do anything. He only lives moment by moment as every human being was designed to live in relation with God and relying on God’s power. Papa tells Mack that Jesus was “just the first to do it to the uttermost” (p. 100). Young’s Jesus is nominally and inherently divine but not functionally so, even after the resurrection and ascension.
This may seem like nitpicking, but this is a different portrait of Jesus than the Biblical portrait that reveals that Jesus not only shares the divine name and titles such as I Am, the Lord, God, the Alpha and the Omega, etc., he also shares and exercises divine power and functions such as the power to raise the dead (John 5:21), including raising himself (John 2:19-21). Jesus also exercises the divine authority to judge, a power delegated to him by the Father, who judges no one, Jesus says (John 5:22-23, see also Rev 4 & 5 ff). And, as we will see, divine judgment gets redefined quite a bit too in “The Shack.” Nevertheless, “The Shack” seems to have a high Christology nominally but a very low Christology functionally.
Young also gives us a much more confused version of the Trinity than necessary. Of course it is a great mystery of the Christian faith, but the mystery of God’s divine nature should not be used as an excuse to blur and redefine those things that God has revealed to us in Jesus and in Scripture. One such area of confusion is in terms of Young’s depiction of the Trinity as non-hierarchical. That is, that there is no hierarchy of authority between the three persons. Young does not believe that genuine relationship can involve any hierarchy. To Young hierarchy is inherently bad and only a result of broken relationships. So, of course, there would be no hierarchy among the perfect relational being. Yet, again, this is not the portrait of God that we find in the Bible. God the Father sends the Son, the Son reveals the Father and is the way to the Father, and the Father and the Son send the Spirit who brings glory to the Son, who in turn brings glory to the Father. Jesus said himself that the Father is greater than him (John 14:28) and 1 Corinthians 15 indicates that when Christ has subdued all things under his authority he himself will be subjected to God the Father. Young seems to envision the perfect being and the perfect society in terms of an absolute equality of power and authority in mutual submission. Consequently, Young also conveys an anti-institutional sentiment throughout the book. I believe this is directly connected to his view of God, or possibly vice versa.
The Bible, however, does not convey the idea that a hierarchy of authority is inherently bad, even within the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in terms of their shared divine nature and the dignity and honor that accompany that nature, but the Bible does portray them as having different levels of authority. Likewise God created human beings in his image and we are all equal in terms of human dignity by virtue of our shared human nature, but God has given each of us talents and gifts that differ from one another. So some will have more authority in society and in the church than others. Those God-given higher authorities are to be obeyed in so far as they are in harmony with the highest authority, which is God (see Romans 13, Hebrews 13:17, Acts ).
Hierarchy is not inherently bad. What is bad is selfishness and greed inspired by sin that can cause some to abuse their God-given authority. Hierarchy is not inherently corrupt just because it can be corrupted. There is no possibility of that within the being who is absolutely perfect and incorruptible in righteousness, justice, and holiness. And relationships don’t have to be less loving because of differing levels of authority.
Institutions are not inherently bad either. They too can become corrupt and abusive, but they doesn’t make them inherently so. If there is to be order rather than confusion and chaos there will inevitably be organization, which will lead to organizations. Young seems to make the mistake of thinking you can have the power of spirituality without the form of religion, such as ritual and institutions. To acknowledge the power of spirituality one need not deny the form of religion (see 2 Tim 3:5).
Young also reveals an impoverished view of the law and rules and responsibilities. He has Sarayu, his character for the Holy Spirit, answer in the affirmative to Mack’s question, “Are you saying I don’t have to follow the rules?” Young’s Holy Spirit responds, “Yes, In Jesus you at not under any law. All things are lawful” (p. 203). At best this is a confused conception of Christian liberty based on a misunderstood slogan from the 1st century church on Corinth (see context of 1 Cor. 10:23). God’s grace and the power of the Spirit don’t free us from the moral law to live contrary to it if we want. God’s grace frees us from the righteous condemnation that disobedience to the law brings, and the Holy Spirit empowers us to live in harmony with the law of God (see Romans 8 & Galatians 5:16-26). As with hierarchy and institutions, Young, at least, seems to imply that there is something deficient and inferior about the law itself in contrast to Paul who insisted that the law is good (Romans 7).
Indeed the law of God itself is good, it is a reflection of the very character of the holy and righteous God. The problem is not the law; it is sin. Because of sin, the law can only condemn. According to Romans 8 the Spirit enables believers to overcome the power of sin so that by walking in the Spirit the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us (v. 4) because we will submit to God’s law (v. 7-9). This was the promise of the New Covenant all along (see Jer 31:31-34; Ezk 36:25-27), which Young seems to allude to, but he does so in a confused way that throughout history has led to misunderstanding grace as a license to sin rather than freedom from sin for obedience to God’s law. Compare part of the New Covenant promise found in Ezekiel 36:27 fulfilled in Jesus to what Young’s version of the Holy Spirit says in “The Shack.”
“I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” Ezk 36:27 ESV
“‘Are you saying I don’t have to follow the rules?’ Mack had now completely stopped eating and was concentrating on the conversation. ‘Yes. In Jesus you are not under any law. All things are lawful.” The Shack p. 203
Young’s main concern with the law is not that it leads to the righteous judgment of God because of sin, but that law leads to the worst sin of all in the eyes of Young and most of the more liberal persuasion in general: judgmentalism. The God of “The Shack” is loving, affirming, and accepting, but not really into judgment, at least not as traditionally understood. The God of “The Shack” is not concerned about responsibilities and expectations because that would lead to guilt, shame, and judgment. Young’s God is never disappointed with people (ps. 205-26). No expectations? Never disappointed with anyone?
How does that portrait compare to Jesus’ telling of the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30? What about Mark 9:38?! How does it square with Micah 6:8 that tells us what God requires of us? Of course what God requires God provides by his grace and his Spirit if we will turn to him, but he does seem to expect us to work from, NOT for, but FROM the grace he has given us to produce fruit (Mark 12:1-12?).
And what about the judgment of God? The God of “The Shack” does judge but not for destruction, only for redemption (ps. 169; 224). For Young the fire of God’s judgment is for purification not condemnation. But God never punishes. Indeed God doesn’t punish sin; he only cures it (p. 120). Of course God can and does cure sin, but will the Great Physician cure those who absolutely refuse to receive his medicine of immortality?
As many have long suspected Paul Young envisions a God of universal salvation, meaning all will eventually be saved. This fits well with his vision of the nature and character of God in which he emphasizes love and mercy at the expense of justice for those who refuse to repent (see Rev 6,14,16, 20, & 21). In “The Shack” after Jesus shocks Mack by saying he doesn’t care if people of other religions become Christian, Mack asks if that means all roads lead to him. Young cleverly has Jesus respond, “Not at all. Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.”
This clever response probably provided Young with some wiggle room to dodge reasonable concerns that he intended to promote universalism. 20 million copies sold later, he apparently no longer feels like he needs any wiggle room. In his newest book, “Lies We Believe About God,” he makes explicit what was more subtle in “The Shack.” He leaves no doubt that he believes that everyone is already saved and that it is a lie that anyone “needs to get saved” (see Tim Challies’ article). He said as much in “The Shack” to begin with. He believes that everyone is on the same path and headed in the right direction, some are just farther along than others. And death in no way will end that journey and neither will hell.
But what does the Jesus of the Bible say?
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” Matthew 7:13-27 ESV (see also Matthew 24 &25)
Of course those of the more liberal theological persuasion will probably love “The Shack.” Those steeped in the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that pervades so many churches will embrace it and promote it. It will find plenty of welcome on the OWN (Oprah Network) and in New Age circles as well. And some conservatives who were a little too eager to give Paul Young the benefit of the doubt may not have seen the red flags that have been there all along.
“The Shack” serves up quite a bit of false assurance with the big helpings of comfort food coming out of Papa’s kitchen in the shack. The vision of God that Young portrays is really not complimentary with the revelation of God in the Bible. The two views are contradictory. To build your life on the theology of “The Shack” is to build on shifting sand. To build your life on God’s word is to build your life on the Rock Christ Jesus as he is revealed in the Bible. You really have to choose, and there is no indication in the Bible that you will have all of eternity to do it.