This exposes the Shack better than anything I have found. I did not have to go out and buy the book in order to know the lies within it. Article gotten here and written by Lynn Barton:
THE SHACK: CHANGING THE WAY WE THINK ABOUT GOD
Have you read and enjoyed The Shack, or do you have friends who have? First published in 2007, The Shack has been a blockbuster in the Christian world and beyond, selling over five million copies. This summer even Forbes magazine took notice, publishing a piece about author Paul Young. On the book jacket Kathy Lee Gifford exults, “The Shack will change the way you think about God forever!” I first heard about it a year ago, when several people urged me to read it, but I put it off due to lack of time. As the recommendations kept coming, I checked out some reviews from trusted sources like Tim Challies and Chuck Colson. Their comments concerned me, and I planned to skip it.
When the next friend raved about it, I asked her about some of the problems these critics had raised. She didn’t have any answers to the questions, but she was offended by them. She insisted I had to read the book to be able to understand it, and had no right to criticize until I had. Finally, as even more people recommended it, I decided to read it, if only to earn the right to say something about it when the subject came up again.
What I found there was deeply shocking to me. Not so much what the book contains, but that so many Christians have fallen in love with it. This article has been many months in the making, as I have wrestled over how and what to say, praying for wisdom and a soft heart. Because the book has most touched people who are hurting, I hate the thought of taking away something precious to them. Here is my challenge: if you love Jesus, then you love the truth, because he calls himself the Truth. For Jesus’ sake, won’t you please pray and ask God to show you the truth about this novel?
But first, a question. Do you believe what the Bible says about itself? “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
If you don’t believe that the Bible is God’s inspired, infallible revelation to humanity, then you probably won’t want to bother reading further. But if you do believe this, then we have common ground. I am going to compare what the novel says about God with what God says about himself in his Word. This is what the Bereans did when they first heard the strange new teaching about Christ. “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). Since The Shack represents itself as a Christian book, it is critical to test what it says. God’s Word is the lens through which we ought to view every spiritual teaching. If that teaching contradicts what God says, then we must reject it.
Some may argue that The Shack is not a Christian book. A certain plausible deniability could even be part of its appeal in non-Christian circles. After all, The Shack’s Jesus character himself says, “I’m not a Christian.” But since it is still #2 on the Christian booksellers list, clearly legions of believers see it as a Christian book. It is loaded with Christian terms (though no scripture at all, not one verse or even part of a verse), and it presents itself as the true way to a relationship with God.
There are so many reviews already. Why I am I jumping in? Because most reviews are low on detail. Without specifics, you pretty much have to take the reviewer’s word for it. The popularity of The Shack is increasing, if anything. That’s why Tim Challies has just written his own expanded review, seventeen pages. Mine is several pages shorter, so take your pick. I do urge you to learn some of the details about this book, because it is changing how millions think about God. And with apologies to Martha Stewart, it’s not a good thing.
Popular for a Good Reason
The Shack explores perhaps the most delicate question with which human beings wrestle: what to make of unexplained, seemingly unjust suffering. This is especially painful for those who believe in a God of love and a life of purpose. The Shack presents a God whose greatest desire is that people should know of his deep love for them, no matter how horrific their life experience. Those I’ve asked what it was they loved most about the book have told me that it helped them better grasp and believe in God’s personal love for them, as they grappled with deep pain and loss in their lives.
Author Paul Young can speak with authenticity to broken hearts, having experienced great suffering in his life. Born to missionary parents, he was sexually abused as a child and later lost a younger brother and a niece. Out of these painful experiences and the questions about God they raised, he created the story of Mack, whose little daughter is kidnapped and murdered on a family camping trip. His healing begins when he spends a weekend with God in the very shack where her body was found.
Who wouldn’t want to follow the story of a man’s encounter with God in a situation like that? Few of us have suffered what many would consider the worst of all traumas: the murder of your own child. What will God say to Mack? If Mack can get some answers, if his heart can begin to heal, maybe we can too. It’s no wonder The Shack has touched a nerve.
A Manifesto of Bitterness
Early on in the story, we learn that Mack had grown up with an abusive father, causing him to suspect that God was like his dad: “brooding, distant, and aloof.” Seeking answers, Mack even attended seminary. He found no help there, nor did he find any in church. When his daughter is murdered, it only confirms his suspicions about God. Then, three and a half years later, Mack finds in his mailbox a mysterious note from God, inviting him to meet at the shack where his daughter’s body had been found. As Mack mulls this over, he reflects on his seminary experience, which he had hoped would connect him with God, but instead left him feeling more distant than ever:
“In seminary he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while educated Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges? “ (pg. 63).
Wow. Packed within this one paragraph are at least seven charges against historic Christianity, charges that will be unpacked and expanded in the rest of the novel.
1. Authority is inherently unjust and abusive; used by elites to keep the rest of us from knowing God directly.
2. The Bible “reduces” God’s voice to words on a page.
3. We don’t need preachers or professors (“authorities and intellects”) to help us understand the Bible, if we read it at all, which we probably shouldn’t, because all it will do is make us feel guilty (“guilt edges”).
4. Guilt is not a real problem, but imposed, apparently by the Bible or those who use it to exercise their unjust authority.
5. Thinking (“intellect”) gets between us and experiencing God.
6. Seminary is not only a waste, but harmful, because it separates people from directly knowing God.
7. A hint that Eastern spirituality is superior to Western (since Western “mediated” Christianity is “controlled by the intelligentsia”).
All this is introduced while our guard is down, because we are not listening to a theological argument, but to the tortured thoughts of a man in pain.
It’s totally understandable that Mack, the victim of an abusive father, would view all authority as illegitimate, and that he would want direct communication with God, apart from the mediation of some authority. This would not be a point of criticism for me if God is going to show Mack that the problem is not authority itself, but the abuse of it. But as the story unfolds, Young’s God will validate not only Mack’s rejection of authority, but every single one of the above charges. Not only that, Young does it by using familiar Christian terms into which he pours his own, alien meanings. Changing meanings of words is confusing at best. At worst, it is deceptive and seductive, drawing the reader into what seems like familiar territory, but is in fact quite different from biblical Christianity.
Speak to me yourself, God
Let’s start with Mack’s desire for direct communication with God, apart from a mediator. Is the need for a mediator just a phony construct of the religious elite to keep us all in the dark and under their thumbs? What does Scripture say?
“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe” (Heb. 1:12).
When Adam and Eve sinned, they and all mankind lost the privilege of seeing God face to face. No longer did God walk with them in the garden in the cool of the day. Since then, the writer to the Hebrews explains, God continued to speak in various ways, but always through mediators (angels, visions, the prophets). And now, God speaks to us by his Son, our mediator, Jesus Christ.
Mack views the idea of needing mediation with a certain bitterness. I understand that. For years I was frustrated by the fact that God is hidden. Why wouldn’t God just show himself, so I could see that he was real? It wasn’t until I understood my sin, that I recognized that it is of God’s mercy that he does not let us see him. Notice in scripture that whenever people encounter the presence of God, they react with fear. When Isaiah saw a vision of the Lord (ch. 6), he cried, “Woe is me, I am ruined, for I am a man of unclean lips.” When Jesus stilled the storm, the disciples did not high-five Jesus and whoop with joy. Oddly, they were afraid. Somehow the manifestation of his power made them keenly aware of their own uncleanness by comparison. Moses, himself the mediator between God and the Israelites, was told by God, “You cannot see My face; for no man can see me and live” (Ex. 33:20).
Ever since the Fall, man has needed a mediator between himself and God, lest he perish in the burning presence of God’s holiness. Our mediator now is Jesus Christ, who with his own blood opened the way for us to “go boldly to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16). Now, how do we know about the Son, except through the testimony of eye witnesses who knew him? And how do we learn this testimony, except that these witnesses wrote down what they had seen and heard? So we need the mediation of both the Book and the Son. “Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me…” (Ps. 40:7). Much as Mack desires to know God apart from any mediator, and as much as the God of The Shack will later affirm that desire, the Bible says that our sin has separated us from God, and we cannot know him apart from a mediator.
This is not to say that God doesn’t speak to his children. When we are born again, Christ comes to us by the Holy Spirit and makes his home in our hearts. The Spirit bears witness inwardly that we are his beloved children (Rom. 8:16). The Father speaks to us through the Holy Spirit, who comforts, convicts, and encourages us, primarily by bringing to our understanding and remembrance… scripture. Jesus told his disciples, “…the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (Jn. 14:26). The Holy Spirit never introduces new teachings that contradict scripture. Unfortunately, the God of The Shack will do so, repeatedly.
Who needs church, anyway?
As Mack continues his musing over the mysterious invitation, he realizes, “…he was stuck, and Sunday prayers and hymns weren’t cutting it anymore, if they ever really had…he was sick of God and God’s religion, sick of all the little religious social clubs that didn’t seem to make any real difference….” (pg. 63).
Why is there no encouragement for Mack in fellowship, in worship? Why does it make him sick? Perhaps, understandably, he is lost in his grief. Or, perhaps Mack’s experiences have been with dead churches that have an outward religiosity but no real heart or depth. I grew up in a church like that. For me, Sunday morning was the worst time of the week, hours wasted being bored to tears by empty platitudes, unable to escape. If that’s Mack’s issue with church, I can relate.
There may be a clue here. We’ve already seen that Mack didn’t think much of scripture or church even before the murder. He hasn’t made the connection that it is the churches with the lowest view of scripture that degenerate into social clubs that make no real difference in people’s lives. In the church of my youth, the congregation was far too sophisticated to believe that the Bible is God’s Word. Sin, the cross, and the resurrection were considered poetic metaphor, not reality. The result was a church that had forgotten why it even existed. If the Bible is, as Mack thinks, a dead book that “reduces God to words on a page,” no wonder church is a waste of time for him. But it’s not true. The Word of God “…is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12-13). Throughout the story, Mack’s low view of scripture and church never changes, for at the shack he will discover that God agrees with him completely on both points.
The Jesus of The Shack will say, “I’m not too big on religion,” and “I don’t create institutions – never have, never will” (pg. 181). Funny though, the real Jesus did, and he called it the church. If Jesus was opposed to institutional worship, why was he careful to observe all the festivals and rules of the Jewish temple? A church that takes God at his word is not a social club; it is the body of Christ. Being connected to a church body is not optional in the life of a Christian; it is the example set for us by the early church and the commandment of scripture: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another…” (Heb. 10:25).
Not your mother’s Trinity
But I’m ahead of the story. So Mack goes to meet with God at the shack. He will eventually spend time with each member of the trinity. The Father, “Papa,” appears as an African American woman. The Holy Spirit is an Asian woman. Jesus still gets to be a Middle Eastern man. He first meets the African American woman, who tells him, “If you let me, Mack, I’ll be the Papa you never had” (pg. 90). “She” explains, “For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning” (pg. 91).
Is that it? Or is it gender-bending confusion? I understand that Young wants to disabuse Mack (and his readers) of the notion that God is a white-bearded old guy in the sky, but the Bible already tells us that God is Spirit and doesn’t have a body. There is no need to “mix metaphors.” I don’t have time here to go into God’s distinctions between male and female all the way from Genesis to Revelation, but the Bible is very clear that we are to honor gender distinctions, not blur them.
Since both man and woman are made in the image of God, both are designed to reflect God’s glory in a particular way. Blurring those distinctions distorts the picture God paints of himself through man, woman, and marriage. Though God has “feminine” characteristics, he has revealed himself as Father, not Mother or even Father/Mother, as some liberal denominations (i.e. those social clubs) call him. There is not a shred of biblical evidence that the real God would ever reveal himself as a woman called “Papa,” and a lot of reasons to believe that he would find it an abomination. Even for someone with an abusive father (like Mack) who has trouble seeing God as father, we just can’t remake God to suit our particular area of woundedness. Instead, we need to learn that God our heavenly father is not like our abusive human father. We can’t change scripture to accommodate our preferences. We need to let scripture change us.
Later, Mack will spend time with “Jesus.” Apparently in all his church experience, Mack has never understood that Christ makes his home within the hearts of his people. Mack asks Jesus in astonishment: “Aren’t you talking about a real indwelling, not just some positional, theological thing?” “Of course,” answered Jesus, “it requires that a very real dynamic and active union exists.” “That is almost unbelievable!” Mack exclaimed quietly. “I had no idea” (pg. 112).
Really? How could he not know this? Is it because the churches he attended were those liberal churches that view the Bible as little more than a collection of primitive myths? Or did they downplay the role of the Holy Spirit and reduce the gospel to a set of propositions you give rational assent to? If Mack had read scripture himself (with an open and searching heart), he would not be surprised at what Jesus has just told him. How can he be a seminary graduate and never have encountered Paul rejoicing in “…the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:26-27).
Again, this would be fine if it was a plot device designed to show how a person could attend church or even seminary and still miss the glorious news that God himself comes to live in us. But Mack only learns this amazing truth (one of the few biblically accurate things said in this novel) directly from Jesus, not the bible or church. I believe this is purposeful, that Young intends to imply that we will not find that which we most hunger for in the Bible or in church. (Another irony: where are we learning these wonderful spiritual truths? In…a…book. Forget the Bible, read The Shack. One way or t’other, we seem to be stuck with a book).
No worries: God loves us too much to punish us
One reason Young seems to resent the need of a mediator could stem from his utterly deficient view of sin. Sin in The Shack, when acknowledged at all, is not something that offends God, affronts his holiness and kindles his righteous wrath. Not even the murder of Mack’s daughter. No, sin in The Shack is chiefly defined as “independence” from God. While independence is certainly a large part of the biblical description of sin, it is much more than that. It is rebellion, pride and outright hostility toward God; it is spitting in the face of our Creator.
We like to hear that “God is love.” A loving God would not be angry. Would he? The apostle Paul wrote, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them…so that men are without excuse” (Rom 1:18-20). In many places God expresses his anger against sinful, unrepentant men. It’s a testimony to our own capacity to deceive ourselves that so many Christians deny the wrath of God.
Not only that, God has a limit to his long-suffering patience and willingness to forgive. Don’t believe me? Consider Ezekiel 7:9, when God declares that it is too late to repent: “I will not look on you with pity or spare you; I will repay you in accordance with your conduct and the detestable practices among you. Then you will know that it is I the LORD who strikes the blow.” Need more evidence that God has a limit? Read the whole book of Revelation, and then tell me that God is not angry with sin – and sinners.
But Papa says, “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside”(pg. 119). This is a half-truth. Sin does bring its own punishment, but that is a mere foretaste of the divine wrath to come if we don’t repent. Not Papa though. He is “especially fond” of everything and everybody, so much so that Mack finally asks if there is anyone Papa is NOT especially fond of. “Nope, I haven’t been able to find any. Guess that’s jes’ the way I is.” Mack then asks if he ever gets mad at any of them. “Sho ‘nuff! What parent doesn’t? …I love the ones I am angry with just as much as those I’m not” (pg. 118).
(Note: this dialect of Papa’s is not used consistently throughout the book. When explaining something more abstract, Papa reverts to standard American English. I suppose “God” can change his way of speaking if he wants to. But whether a white author ought to attempt African American dialect in today’s sensitized culture is questionable, and its inconsistency renders it phony to me, even offensive.)
It seems to me that being “especially” fond of everyone is a contradiction in terms. In any case, the Bible teaches no such thing. Yes, God is love, and God loves the world, but contrary to popular belief, while we are all created in the image of God and therefore of great value, we are not all God’s children. Otherwise, why would John have written, “…to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (Jn. 1:12). To be a child of God is to be adopted into God’s own family, an amazing gift that cost God’s Son unfathomable suffering to be able to offer to us. It is unbiblical and dishonors Christ’s sacrifice to confer this status on every human being without reference to that person’s heart for or against God. What’s “special” about that?
Papa explains all this while “she” is fixing breakfast. Then Jesus and Sarayu (the Holy Spirit) show up and they all sit down to eat. When Mack thanks Papa for breakfast, “she” responds in “mock horror…you aren’t even going to bow your head and close your eyes?” (pg. 119). So now we have “God” mocking the practice of giving thanks for food. Imagine, for millennia believers have sought to honor God by thanking him, and all the while, God thought it was just plain silly.
Can you imagine the true God making fun of his children for thanking him for his provision? The God of scripture commands our gratitude. The God of The Shack finds it laughable. When Mack (of whom “she” is supposedly “especially fond”) offers a sincere (or at least polite) courtesy, “God” uses the occasion to embarrass him. For what reason, I don’t know. To break him of his “religious conditioning,” I suppose. My friends, this exchange could be the zenith of my frustration with why so many have gone crazy for this book. I can’t love this “God.” After reading this scene, I wanted to slap him. I mean, her.
You’re not the boss of me
For Mack though, things are looking up. Having learned that Papa is especially fond of everyone, and that God thinks the practice of giving thanks is just as foolish as he does, he now discovers that his problem with authority is really no problem at all. God feels just the same way. Mack asks Jesus, “Don’t you have a chain of command?”
“Chain of command? That sounds ghastly!” The Shack’s Jesus said…“We have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command….We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us….Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of the relationship we intended for you”(pg. 122-123).
Really? Then please explain Bible passages like this:
Matthew 8:8-10: The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”
Matthew 26:53: “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”
Phillipians 2:9-11: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
The real Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (Jn. 14:15). He was not the least concerned that obeying him as Lord would cause us to “miss the wonder” of our relationship with him. When I require my children to obey me it doesn’t interfere with our relationship. In fact, it makes intimacy possible. An unruly, self-willed child relates to no one but himself. We all need authority in our lives, and rebellion against proper authority is sin. It’s what caused the fall of man, for heaven’s sake.
Contrary to Papa’s assertion, there is in fact a chain of authority even in the Godhead. The Son obeys the Father: “I do exactly what my Father has commanded me”(Jn.14:31). The Holy Spirit obeys the Son and the Father: “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father…” (Jn.14:26). This relationship of authority in the trinity is always in the context of perfect love and harmony. Young seems to have been so hurt by his experiences with authority that he cannot see it as anything but destructive. We also live in a time when rebellion is publicly celebrated. So when Jesus says in The Shack that authority is “ghastly,” it fits perfectly with the cultural zeitgeist. But it is a lie.
The cross: what does it matter?
The final serious problem that I will tackle (there are more) is The Shack’s unbiblical view of the cross. When Mack asks Papa, “What exactly did Jesus accomplish by dying?” he answers, “….through his death and resurrection, I am now fully reconciled to the world” (pg. 195).
Now, what does that mean? Beats me. Though Mack has asked specifically “what exactly” was accomplished, Papa never explains how the death and resurrection of his son reconciled him to the world. It sure sounds nice though, doesn’t it?
Earlier, Papa had said that Jesus “…chose the way of the cross where mercy triumphs over justice because of love” (pg. 165). That does sound lovely, but it’s not true. At the cross mercy did not triumph over justice. The shining glory of the cross is that it is the place where both mercy and justice triumphed:
“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-26).
At the cross, justice was not overcome by mercy. Justice was vindicated, and it couldn’t be any other way. God’s justice is as much an attribute of his character as his love. No sin escapes the just retribution of God, ever. The question is only who will bear that retribution, the sinner or the spotless Lamb? Only God could come up with such a brilliant, stunning, wondrous, plan that fulfills justice while extending mercy to the unjust (us). Only a God of astonishing love would accomplish this by his own agony.
Based on other things Paul Young has said and written, my guess is that he would respond to this criticism with something to the effect that trying to analyze the cross too deeply distorts reality; you can’t analyze mystery. There is, of course, mystery in the cross. That is not my complaint. My complaint is that Young obfuscates what God has revealed to us concerning the cross. By having Papa employ flowery language that doesn’t say anything substantive, Young denies, dodges and disguises the biblical revelation of God’s wrath and punishment of sin.
For clues to what Paul Young really thinks about the cross, we need to go to other sources. In interviews, he has specifically rejected the substitutionary atonement of Christ. In a radio interview with a pastor, Kendall Adams (to find it, google “Shack author rejects biblical substitutionary atonement”), he says, “We are all included in what Jesus did on the cross, but not everyone is interested in relationship.” To Adam’s question of whether Jesus was punished for our sins, Young answers, “Why would the Father punish his son?” He calls the penal substitution of Christ for the sins of man a “side point of theology.” This is really amazing. Picture Jesus hanging in agony on the cross, gasping for air, naked and bloody. Why would he do such a thing? What did he accomplish by it? Aww, who cares? It’s just a side point.
In contrast to Paul Young the author, Paul the apostle wrote, “…just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:18-19). Justification is the central doctrine of the Christian faith. But in The Shack, it’s a mere “side point.”
Wrong premises, Wrong Conclusions
Paul Young has written a story that millions have found powerfully compelling. Unfortunately, he writes from an unbiblical view of God and of man. Beginning from wrong premises, he draws wrong conclusions. Why does God allow horrible things to happen to good people? Christians know, or ought to know, that the answer to why bad things happen to good people is, “There are no good people.” I don’t mean to be flip about this. It is the sober truth, and it ought to sober us. All of us are shockingly evil in our hearts. We all deserve at this very minute to be banished to hell. Every breath we take is of the lovingkindness of God. The fact that we have not done worse than we have is not due to our goodness, but God’s restraining mercy on us.
If you find this hard to accept, you haven’t yet come to terms with who you are apart from Christ. Like my grandma, who said she didn’t want “Amazing Grace” sung at her funeral because “I never was a wretch.” If we began to understand the self-deceiving wickedness of our own hearts, we would not be even asking this question. Instead we would be asking,“Why is God so good to to a shameless rebel like me?” This is not to minimize the searing pain that we all experience to one degree or another, nor does it explain why suffering is not distributed evenly, or why often the godliest people seem to suffer the most. It is only to say that ignoring or denying our own personal wickedness in the context of our suffering will tempt us to think God unjust or unloving, or even, as in Young’s case, to invent a completely different God from the one revealed in the Bible.
The Shack’s God is not only not angry with sin, he hardly acknowledges it. This strips the gospel of its content and purpose. It makes the cross a “side point,” robbing Christ of the glory due him and us of the joy of our salvation. Only when we begin to grasp the depth of our own depravity, that truly our hearts are “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,” (Jer.17:9) will the gospel become the incredibly good news that God’s Son died to rescue us from our desperate condition. Through Christ we can be forgiven, made clean, born again as a new creation. Praise God for his amazing love!
But then what are we to make of the suffering that we continue to experience throughout life even as followers of Christ? We are promised that we will never be punished for our sins, but where in the meantime is God’s love and protection when things go all wrong? (St. Theresa of Avila, after being tossed from a carriage into the mud, is said to have quipped, “If this is the way you treat your friends, Lord, it’s no wonder you have so few of them!”)
If only all suffering was as minor as a little mud. Suffering is an integral part of the Christian life and is part of God’s plan for us: “…it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him but to suffer for him” (Phil. 1:29). The book of Hebrews tells us that God disciplines those he loves, as a father lovingly disciplines his children (12:6). Sometimes we cause our own suffering through our sin, other times (as with Mack’s daughter) it hits us from outside.
Often we will not understand why our sufferings have come to us. Jesus told the man born blind that this happened to him not because of sin, but so that he would see the glory of God (Jn. 9). That’s what we need, and should want, the most: to see God’s glory. Our response to suffering should not to be to change God to be more like we want him to be, as Paul Young has done, but to grow in our understanding of him as he has shown himself to be in his Word. Instead, look at Jesus as he is revealed in his Word, since it’s all about him, not us. We see that Jesus suffered more than any person ever has or ever will, as he bore God’s wrath for the sins his people. We know that he is able to sympathize with our sufferings because he has suffered. We have his promise that he will never leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5). And just as his suffering resulted in great joy for him and glory to God, we can take heart, because “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4: 16-17). Again, the aim is for us to see and know and love Jesus as he is described in the Bible, as Peter (one terribly well acquainted with suffering) knew: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (I Peter 1:6-7).
Bottom line: idolatry
Paul Young’s God bears little resemblance to the God revealed in the Bible. Instead, Young has created a god in his own image. And wouldn’t you know, this god agrees with him completely on his negative view of church, scripture, authority, and the historic Christian faith. While The Shack tells an absorbing story, it is a very bad book.
One of the common defenses people make of The Shack is that “it’s just fiction.” “Lighten up,” they say. “It’s a story, not theology.” But almost every conversation in the book is a teaching interaction between Mack and one of the members of the godhead, each explaining something about God. We have a name for that: theology.
Others admit that there are some problems with the theology, but they say they just ignored the theology and enjoyed the story. Perhaps those who are really grounded in the faith could do that. What I don’t understand is how a person can enjoy a story that misrepresents who God is, when they know that he is being misrepresented? If someone was telling untruths about my human father, even “nice” ones, I wouldn’t be happy. I would tell that person to stop putting words in his mouth that he never said, and never would.
Stories are, of course, a powerful way to illustrate truth. The Bible abounds with stories that really happened. Fictional stories can be dangerous because they reach our emotions, and we tend to accept uncritically the ideas embedded within them. Stories can also seduce us to believe a lie. Sure, Jesus used parables, stories which may have been true or may have been fictional illustrations, but they always supported the rest of the Bible’s teaching, not undermined it.
For those who are not well grounded in the faith, The Shack, instead of the Bible, is shaping their theology. Don’t believe me? Just read the reviews on Amazon.com. Here is a quote from one:
“The mental images from The Shack will probably be the lens through which I will read every other book on Christianity in the future.” Shouldn’t the Bible have that honor?
How we think about God is not a trivial matter. The great theologian A.W. Tozer has written in his book The Knowledge of the Holy:
What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us…Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God. For this reason the gravest question before the church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like.
The Shack presents a different God from the God revealed in the Bible, and a different gospel as well. It misrepresents the character and person of God, gives scant attention to Christ’s sacrifice, and frequently flat out contradicts what has been revealed to us in scripture. Paul Young has invented the God he desires, not the God who is. That massive numbers of Christians have not recognized the blasphemous nature of this book highlights the great need of every believer to revere God’s word and to study it. As for someone like Eugene Peterson, who ought to know better, but lauds the book as “a Pilgrim’s Progress” for our generation, all I can say is “Let God be true and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4).
To those who disagree with my view of The Shack, I say your argument is with scripture, not me. My bluntness is not meant to be unkind, but to challenge you to think. According to the apostle Paul, who actually did speak to the real Jesus, this is deadly serious business: “…even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Gal. 1:8-9).
Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:31-32). If the truth sets you free, then what will a lie do? The Shack is just one more false gospel in a world teeming with counterfeits. Why are so many Christians flocking after the speculations of a mere man, when the only truly trustworthy person who ever lived, has already revealed himself in history and in his own Word? To all who have ears to hear, build your spiritual house on that Rock, and abandon the rickety shack before it crashes down on you or someone you love.
Lynn Barton is a former stockbroker who homeschools her children on a small farm near Medford, Oregon. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and attends Bear Creek Church.