The Shack is a beautiful story of redemption. It is mysteriously beautiful journey that seeks to explain the relationship between God, humanity, and evil. And as we see the likable, rugged Mack grow in his understanding of God, we cannot help but see ourselves in his story. And because The Shack is such an effective literary devise, the book and now movie could prove to be extremely dangerous.
The doctrines that Christians would readily balk at if seen in cold text books can often slip by unnoticed when dressed in the beauties of a compelling narrative. And though The Shack protests against being classified as a theological work, it is just that. We must see it as such. If we do not, we will find our worldview being reshaped. As Dr. Albert Mohler said a few years ago,
In evaluating the book, it must be kept in mind that The Shack is a work of fiction. But it is also a sustained theological argument, and this simply cannot be denied.
The same can be said of the movie as well. For us to be discerning Christians, we must take this narrative back to the best narrative, the gospel. We must examine The Shack’s theology. We must see if the God of the Bible and the God of The Shack are the same.
Is the Shack True?
At first glance, the answer appears to be yes. The author barrows heavily from the language of conservative Christendom, encouraging us to enter into the dialogue with an open mind in an attempt to escape the false notions of God that we have created. But despite his claims to the contrary, Paul Young commits the very crime his book seeks to overcome. He has recreated God, by taking, “the best version of you that you can think of.”
And we know this because, he portrays God the Father as both a “large, beaming African American woman” and as a “dignified, older, wiry [man with] sliver-white hair pulled back into a ponytail.” The Holy Spirit is described as wiry-looking “Asian woman.” The very descriptions of God defies God’s commands. Young has placed his own human into God’s nature. In so doing, Young has clearly violated the command of Exodus 20:4 which says:
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
By making God the Father and the Holy Spirit appear as people, Young has blasphemed the very God he claims to be representing. And as Octavia Spencer, Graham Greene and Sumire Matsubara seek to represent the God of the universe on the big screen, they will fall infinitely short of the biblical descriptions of the Father and Holy Spirit. And, they cannot help themselves. No created being can capture the grandeur, holiness, wisdom, purity, justice, grace, mercy, goodness, and truth of the God of the universe who set the whole world in motion and who sent his son to redeem the lost. Regardless of their talent, no actress or actor can authentically role-play God. It is antithetical to their nature.
Now, the actors’ very inability to accurately represent God is the very thing that will make the book and the movie so appealing. Humans can easily relate to the trinity that resembles them. But in making God more relatable, likable, and personal, Young’s narrative fails to capture the God of the universe that humanity desperately needs to understand. Young promises hope but delivers only confusion.
And because Young’s framework for understanding God exists apart from the ‘book,’ the God of The Shack advances many unbiblical doctrines, heresy.
First, Papa claims that there is no hierarchy in the trinity. The trinity is said to exists in a “circle of relationship, not a chain of command.” Yet in John 8, 14, and 16, a hierarchy is present. Jesus does the will of the Father, and the Holy Spirit comes to make much of Christ. Remember Jesus’ words:
“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” (John 16:13).
Since Young misunderstands the nature of the trinity, he cannot help but misrepresents the nature of human relationships, advocating for the abolition of the distinctive roles of marriage. According to Jesus of The Shack, God never wanted women to find their security in men and men to find the joy in their work. God wants relationships to exist structures that do not demand respect. God wants, “male and female to be counterparts, face-to-face equals.” Surprisingly, the Jesus of The Shack appears to have forgotten about the words he spoke in Genesis 2.
The God of the Shack seems to also have forgotten about the biblical doctrine of salvation. Instead of coming to pay for the sins of the world, Jesus comes to reconcile the whole world to God by removing pain, the darkness that keeps us from seeing God. According to Papa, God has no, “need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my purpose to cure it.” Sin is not our ultimate problem. Lack of relationship is. Thankfully the cross has cured this aliment for all.
Later on in the book, Papa tells Mack bluntly that, “through his [Jesus’] death and resurrection, I am now fully reconciled to the world…The whole world, Mack” (p.194). Not too surprisingly, Jesus tells Mack that, “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims…many are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions…I have no desire to make them Christians, but I do want them to join in their transformation in sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my beloved.”
While Young clearly deems most religious activities to be fruitless, he readily teaches that all people will be in heaven after they sincerely being seeking after God. The path traveled does not matter. The universalism of The Shack directly contradicts the words of the real Jesus who said,
I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).
Not too surprisingly, humanity’s response to this divine drama is not one of repentance and faith at least not towards God. (We are called to liberate others by forgiving them thereby empowering God to reach them.) Because Christ died on the cross, we no longer have to follow the divine law. We are to do the opposite. The Holy Spirit tells Mack, “In Jesus you are not under any law. All things are lawful.” In short, repentance and faith have been exchanged for the ambiguous ideas of love and relationship. If we love well, we have pleased God. We are to forget the the whole idea that God’s law has been written on the hearts of his children (Heb. 8;10:16). We are to abandon the notion that salvation results in us having the divine power necessary to keep God’s “ You shall not” commands (John 14:5). As the Spirit tells Mack, “contrary to what you might think, I have a great fondness for uncertainty.” God wants us to embrace the beautiful uncertainty of loving relationships.
And now we have arrived at the crux of the argument presented in The Shack. God is mysterious, unknown, and bigger than historical Christianity. He/She cannot be and must not be reduced down to the Bible. As Young writes, “Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book.” This is our greatest problem. We have reduced God to the Bible.
This is not a new complaint. Young joins a long list of liberal theologians who have regularly sought to free, “Gods’ voice” for the leather binding of our ornate study Bibles. What’s new is not the content of The Shack but the accessibility of the doctrines it follows. Regardless of how palatable the format of fiction is to our senses, Young’s liberal theology will continue to be just that, liberal theology. And we evangelicals must not let the beauty of this narrative confuse us. God’s narrative in the Scriptures is far superior.
We do not have to fear The Shack. But we must recognize the book and the movie for what they are: a distortion of the gospel. We must exercise biblical discernment. Towards that end, I encourage you and your family to pass on the film this weekend and every weekend. Don’t go to the cabin. Go to the Word.