The Shack: A Review
“Mackenzie Allen Philips’ youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation, and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later in the midst of his “Great Sadness,” Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgment he arrives at the shack on a wintry afternoon and walks back into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change Mack’s world forever. In a world where religion seems to grow increasingly irrelevant The Shack wrestles with the timeless question, “Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?” The answers Mack gets will astound you and perhaps transform you as much as it did him. You’ll want everyone you know to read this book!”
The quote you just read is the official book blurb for William Paul Young’s, The Shack. While it is an interesting read and very touching in sections, I have to say I would not recommend this to anyone curious about who or what God is, what the Trinity is, or someone who has serious theological questions. With all candor I have serious reservations about how The Shack represents some of these challenging theological topics.
I won’t complain about the notion of God taking on the form of a woman, as this is a fictional, though semi-autobiographical, account of a man and the way he meets God. I will allow for artistic license in this area though I do have pronounced reservations about representing God as a woman since I cannot find any instance in the Bible where this occurs; rather, Young refers to God as, God the Father, a multitude of times. I will, however, take issue with several doctrinal missteps the author makes.
Before that though I do want to say that I appreciate Young’s willingness to tackle the problem of evil and suffering, God’s apparent inaction or indifference, and the apparent contradiction between a loving God, the existence of hell, and how a loving God could send people to hell. He didn’t get all, or even most, of it right, but the effort deserves to be acknowledged.
While he deserves credit for the attempt, the facts remain that in nearly every case he gets it wrong. Not only wrong but wrong in a way that misrepresents who God is and what the Bible plainly teaches.
Let’s look at some of these:
Claim One – God the Father was on the cross with Jesus.
Response – I will simply ask this: if the claim is true why do we read, ”And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34 ESV)
Claim Two – The book also makes the claim that “Papa” has scars from the nail and spear, which pierced Jesus.
Response – One, this has no Biblical foundation. Two, as illustrated above God wasn’t on the cross with Jesus, and thirdly, only Jesus came in the flesh.
Claim Three – Something else the book claims that is not true is that Papa says, “We became flesh and blood.”
Response – And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 ESV)
Claim Four – Young also makes the claim that “In Jesus, I [the Father] have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship.”
Response – If this is true and all human sins are forgiven, then it follows that there is nothing separating us from God, therefore there is no need to even choose relationship. Let’s look at the proper order of things scripturally.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6 ESV)
“Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Romans 10:9-10 ESV)
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:7-9 ESV)
The thing that sends us to hell is the lack of relationship with Jesus and the rejection of His blood, which washes away the very stain of sin that God cannot abide. If this stain of sin is forgiven in all, even those without relationship with Jesus, then truly the question needs to be, “Why are people still going to hell?” This would seem then to be some arbitrary system, based on an ill-defined notion of relationship and leaves open to interpretation who is actually in relationship. Any question or hope that Young might just be saying Jesus paid the debt for everyone’s sin is made clear in Claim Five. But as we will see Young never has his character make the statement, “you must have a personal relationship with Jesus,” but has put forth instead a rather vague notion that everyone is already forgiven. Why is this important? Ask yourself how you would answer your unsaved aunt, brother or cousin when asked, “Why do I need a relationship with Jesus if I am already forgiven?” Kind of a problem isn’t it?
Claim Five – Young also seems to take an “all-roads-lead-to-God” approach to salvation, when Jesus says to Mack that he is the “the best way any human can relate to Papa or Sarayu (Wisdom).”
Response – What we have here is quite different in meaning from what Jesus states in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by Me.” With his statement, Young puts to rest any hope we might have had that he just wasn’t being clear with Claim Four. What Young leaves us with is this: All sins have been forgiven for all. Relationship is not a requirement, you can’t even say it’s a suggestion, it’s just something that some don’t chose, but he never states a consequence for not choosing relationship. Finally, Jesus is the best but not the only way to God.
Claim Six – Young also has a few things to say about the Holy Spirit, who is portrayed in the book as a verb, creativity, shimmering and hard to see when looked at directly. “I am a verb. I am that I am. I will be who I will be. I am a verb! I am alive, dynamic, ever active and moving. I am a being verb. And as my very essence is a verb, I am more attuned to verbs than nouns.”
Response – The Bible gives the Holy Spirit personhood. John 16:13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. While the book gives the Holy Spirit a physical form it repeatedly refers to Him as a verb, like an ethereal being in which resides: creativity, action, some kind of force.
Claim Seven – In The Shack, God makes the statement, “I don’t do humiliation, or guilt, or condemnation”.
Response – Contrast this with Romans 8:1-11
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”
While I agree that God does not use guilt to manipulate us, He does use the Spirit to convict our hearts of sin, which in turn leads us to feel guilt and remorse. Feeling guilt, knowing you have sinned is a good thing, without guilt one would never know what was wrong. However, using guilt to gain an action or response is selfish and not something you could accuse God of ever doing.
Claim Eight – God never puts expectations on us.
Response – 1 Peter 1:14-23, provides us a litany of expectations God places on us. Why Young thinks expectations are a bad thing I can only guess that he thinks expectations possibly could lead to guilt at not living up to the expectations. We, as Christians, certainly will fail and fail often at what we are shown in 1 Peter, but does this erase the expectancy God has for us to try?
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God. (1 Peter 1:14-23 ESV)
Now I need to address some areas where the author deserves credit for addressing some of the harder issues for which few seem to have good answers.
The section of the book in which Mack acts as the judge is particularly interesting, and I believe has an insightful take on hell. In the dialog leading up to Mack acting as judge, God goes into some detail praising Mack for being a good dad and father. He questions Mack about whether the love he has toward his children changes when they embarrass him or anger him. In particular God asks this about one of Mack’s daughters with whom he is having a hard time relating. When God finishes questioning Mack about how we are to love, how love is given, and how love changes or doesn’t depending on the circumstances, He then asks Mack to send two of his four children to hell. Starting of course with the one who is causing Mack pain.
I won’t say precisely how Young turns the plot of the book to handle such a challenging question, but I thought it offered one of the better answers I have heard on the topic of how a loving God can send people to hell. It is not a complete answer, as I think he could have and should have gone even deeper, but I appreciated that he attempted to tackle such a difficult issue.
Toward the end of the novel Young deals the issue of forgiveness and how important it is to forgive regardless the offense. He shows how bitterness and resentment can stunt our growth, not only with regard to Christians but humanity as a whole; certainly, forgiveness is a topic that needs more attention in our culture. We love to justify our bad behavior, retaliation, or revenge when we are wronged, but all we have to do is look at the nightly news to see that this is a flawed and tragic logic. So I credit the author for addressing the need to forgive, which leads to healing.
In The Shack we are presented with a book, though well intentioned, which leads the reader along a series of misleading doctrinal beliefs that misrepresents who God is, how salvation works and ultimately leaves the general impression that all people will somehow get to heaven because God is loving and has already forgiven everyone. But we also get a book which at least asks hard questions and gives the reader the authors best answers.
For those interested in more information I provide a link or two that explain this far better than I do. In conclusion: read it if you must but weigh it against the Bible, and question what this book it trying to say.