“Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica;
they received the word with all eagerness,
examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”
– Acts 17:11 (ESV)
I’ve been asked quite a bit about my thoughts on William Paul Young’s novel The Shack which is the imaginative story of a meeting between a hurting father and the Trinity. Let me say from the start my goal isn’t to talk about the quality of the story as story or whether I think it’s good literature. That’s not my aim. I want to share my concern about this book which has skyrocketed in popularity and found itself a New York Times Bestseller.
I read The Shack over a year ago. It was a warmhearted gift from a close friend of mine. It was also small enough to squeeze in as a quick read amidst my already growing reading list. After finishing it I could see why many would eagerly embrace the book. Young’s work was easy to follow, emotionally connecting, and strongly emphasized our relationship with God. However, with its strengths it also had weaknesses. Now to be sure, every book has both strong and weak points. However, the problem I had with The Shack was that of its weak points, one simply overwhelmed any positive movement the rest of the book created for me. The weakness? It far too often misrepresented God. Time after time I found myself saying as I read through The Shack, “This isn’t true about God. He wouldn’t say that. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite of what He says in the Bible!”
Granted, maybe my struggle with The Shack is because I teach the Bible for a living or that I’m fairly theologically-minded by default, but it strikes me as a very dangerous thing to have a book – even a work of fiction – whose intention is to help people understand God, yet have him making statements which contradict what he already said in his Word. That’s not creative license; that’s wrong (some might even say heretical, depending on the truths being denied or twisted). Let me offer some VERY BRIEF examples…
1. On the God-forsakenness of the Cross
God the father says of Jesus on the cross, “Regardless of what he felt at that moment, I never left him” (96).
It seems to indicate that at some level, God the Father did “turn” from his Son as his wrath for sin was poured upon Jesus. Mark 15:34 reads, “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?’
2. On God Punishing People
Papa: “I don’t 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 joy to cure it. (122)”
All one needs to do is look through the Bible to be clearly convinced that God has and will punish people for their sins. Romans 2:5-6, “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God will give to each person according to what he has done.”
3. On God and Institutions
Young’s book definitely has a distaste towards almost anything organized at a macro level. The church is no exception. Frequently, God in The Shack takes his hack at the idea of institutions.
Jesus: “I don’t create institutions – never have, never will. (178)”
God created the institutions like marriage (cf., Gen. 1-3), government (cf., Rom. 13), and yes, even the church (cf., Mt. 16:18, Heb. 13:17)
4. On God Saving Everyone
William Young has been exposed by those who know him as being a proponent of universal reconciliation, essentially the idea that Jesus will save everyone and no one will go to Hell (see Dr. James B. DeYoung’s critique below of The Shack and Young’s Universalism). DeYoung also claims that editors clipped out the author’s more explicit universalist language in order to publish a book Christians would receive.
Papa: “Forgiveness does not establish relationship. In Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship. … When Jesus forgave those who nailed him to the cross they were no longer in his debt, nor mine. In my relationship with those men, I will never bring up what they did, or shame them, or embarrass them. (224)”
In fact, a reader can easily get the sense that you don’t even have to be a Christian to enter into God’s Kingdom.
Jesus: “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims… I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into brothers and sisters, into my Beloved (182).”
It is clear that only those who believe in this lifetime have their sins forgiven through the work of Jesus on the Cross. Hebrews 9:27, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” This shows us that once you die there is no second chance with Jesus. And it is only through faith alone in Christ that forgiveness is procured. John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
5. On Roles in the Godhead
The Shack teaches that hierarchical roles are the result of sin. In fact one gets the feeling from the book that any form is unacceptable (husbands to wives, parents to children, and yes, God the Father to God the Son).
Sarayu: “Mackenzie, we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command or ‘great chain of being’ as your ancestors termed it. What you’re seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually, this is your problem, not ours. (122)”
Not only do we see roles of leadership given in mankind (cf., Gen. 2; Eph. 5:22ff) but we see roles each member of the Trinity takes. For example, the Son submits to the Father. 1 Corinthians 15:28, “When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.” 1 Corinthians 11:3, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”
Okay, that’s just a sampling of some of the problems I have with what God says in The Shack. I could go on, indeed many critics have…for pages upon pages. However, I simply wanted to show that there is enough questionable content in this book to demonstrate this is more than just a nice read. On the contrary, the story is simply a wrapper for Young to drop his theology into the reader – for better or worse. Unfortunately, I fear that far too often it is for the worse. The Shack’s defenders can’t hide its doctrinal deficiencies behind the statement, “Well, it’s just fiction, not a theology book,” when most of the positive response I’ve heard about the book ironically revolves exactly around the fact that the it refreshingly presents God in a certain light. In other words, it teaches a theology!
And because it does, I think it would be very unwise to use this book in a Bible study, Sunday School, or small group setting. Indeed, I believe the leader may be exposing his group to all kinds of erroneous images and ideas about God which may be incredibly detrimental to a person’s faith (especially the young or undiscerning believer). Frankly, the fact it’s fiction should be caution enough not to use it for serious Bible study when other materials are available, materials created explicitly with the intent to get you into God’s Word so you can know with confidence who He is and what He does. If you want to read it for your personal pleasure, fine. And I truly believe many people have not only enjoyed but truly benefited from this book. But as a small group resource I cannot in good faith endorse it.
If you go to The Shack’s promotional website you’ll see this slogan toting the uniqueness of the book: God as you’ve never seen him before. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see it), that may be due to a very good reason.
OTHER LINKS TO BETTER CRITIQUES OF THE SHACK
- Tim Challies – Wonderfully assembled and thoughtful assessment
- Scott Lindsey – Well balanced and more Scriptural support, may be my favorite one
- James B. DeYoung – personally knows William Young and exposes his universalism
Like The Shack itself, don’t take these critiques (including mine) at face value. Interact with their analysis. Is it correct? Is it accurate? Are they rightly using Scriptural support or just proof-texting their views? Let’s take our cue from the Bereans of Acts 17 and seek to be just as biblically discerning with the reviews as you are with The Shack.