The Shack has become a publishing phenomenon, a bestseller by a first-time author that has rocketed up the sales charts and was made into a movie—not bad for a book that was self-published by the author, William P. Young, and started out being sold out of a garage.
The glowing reviews for The Shack hail it as everything from the new Pilgrim’s Progress (theologian Eugene Peterson, translator of the Bible paraphrase The Message) to "the best novel of 2007" and "one of the rare fiction books that could change your life" (various Amazon.com five-star reviewers). According to the book jacket, Young was raised by missionary parents living among a Stone Age tribe in New Guinea. He wrote the novel for his six children to explain his own journey through pain and misery to "light, love and transformation," according to a profile in USA Today. The "shack" of the story was the ugly place inside him where everything awful was hidden away, a result of his history as a victim of sexual abuse, his own adultery and the ensuing shame and pain, all stuffed deep in his psyche, as Young explained.
This background is important because Young’s past appears to greatly color his view of both God and Christianity, resulting in a severely flawed view of both. The story begins with Mackenzie "Mack" Phillips, a father suffering great pain—a "Great Sadness," according to the story—because of the death of his young daughter at the hands of a serial killer. Mack receives a note from "Papa" to meet him at the rundown shack in the woods where police had found evidence of his daughter’s murder six years earlier. Mack, who was raised by a hypocritical, vicious and abusive father who was also a pastor, already understands from previous experience that "Papa" is God. Mack approaches The Shack with rising anger, wanting to lash out at God for allowing his young girl to be killed. Instead of the old man with a long white beard, as Mack expects, he’s suddenly embraced by "a large beaming African-American woman" who introduces herself as Papa.
Mack is then introduced to the rest of the Trinity: Jesus, a Middle Eastern man dressed as a laborer, and the Holy Spirit, a woman of "maybe northern Chinese or Nepalese or even Mongolian ethnicity" named Sarayu. The rest of the story is a conversation among the three members of the Trinity and Mack as they work through issues of creation, fall and redemption.
Subtle and not-so-subtle heresies
Young’s intentions are good. He wants to introduce readers to a loving God who was willing to sacrifice his own Son to save us from our sins. But all heresies begin with misconstruing the nature of God. From Jehovah’s Witnesses to Mormonism to even Islam, they all get it wrong when it comes to understanding the God of Scripture. Young joins their company. Part of the problem arises because his story is confused and inconsistent. He doesn’t set out to mislead, but he himself is misled, either by himself or others.
He wants desperately to show us the God of love as found in Scripture (1 John 4:8), but he ignores the other side, the God of utter holiness (Isaiah 6:1-5) and, ultimately, the final Judge (Revelation 20:11-15). Any presentation of God that shows only one side of His nature is wrong. In an effort to counter a false view of God as only the judging avenger of wrath, we must not go the opposite direction and present Him only as a loving, indulgent parent who never judges sin. Both extremes are false in that they present an incomplete picture of God as He shows Himself to us in Scripture.
By emphasizing only one part of God’s nature, The Shack actually leads readers astray with regard to God’s attitude towards sin. Papa tells Mack, “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.”
To be sure, sin often carries within itself its own punishment (Romans 1:27). But sometimes the wicked prosper in this life (Jeremiah 12:1). More importantly, Scripture is full of references to God’s impending wrath against sin and unbelief (John 3:36, Romans 1:18, Romans 2:5-8, Colossians 3:6, and many others.) For The Shack to give the impression that it is not God’s purpose to punish sin is the height of bad theology and irresponsibility.
We anthropomorphize (attribute human qualities to) God the Father at our peril. He is spirit (John 4:24), and when He refers to Himself in anthropomorphic terms, it is always as a father. This is important because any attempt to make God a female inevitably leads to goddess religion and God’s becoming some sort of fertility figure, a worship of the creation instead of the Creator (Romans 1:25).
And for some reason Papa changes form later in the book to become a gray-haired, pony-tailed male. No, God does not change Himself to accommodate our flawed understanding of Him. He changes us so we can see Him as He truly is (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Papa acknowledges that Jesus is both fully human and fully God, but she adds,
“[H]e has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything. He has only lived out of his relationship with me, living in the very same manner that I desire to be in relationship with every human being. He is just to do it to the uttermost—the first to absolutely trust my life within him, the first to believe in my love and my appearance without regard for appearance or consequence.”
But that’s not what Scripture says. Jesus in fact was before all things and through Him all things were created and hold together (Colossians 1:16-17). The words Papa speaks are a form of the ancient heresy of subordinationism, which puts Jesus in a lower rank within the Trinity. Scripture teaches that all three persons of the Trinity are equal in essence.
Scripture also teaches that there is a hierarchy of authority and submission within the Trinity. Papa tells Mack that authority and submission are a result of sin, and the Trinity is a perfect circle of communion.
"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."
But Scripture teaches that authority and submission are inherent to the Godhead and have existed from the beginning. Jesus was sent by the Father (John 6:57), and Jesus says it is His intention to obey the Father’s will (Luke 22:42). The Holy Spirit obeys both the Father and the Son (John 14:26, John 15:26). These are not the result of sin; they are the very nature of the Godhead in which all three persons are equal in essence but exist within a hierarchy of authority and submission.
The Shack also teaches a form of patripassionism, another ancient heresy that teaches that God the Father suffered on the cross. At one point, Mack notices "scars in [Papa’s] wrists, like those he now assumed Jesus also had on his," and later Papa says, "When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human. We also chose to embrace all the limitations that this entailed. Even though we have always been present in this created universe, we now became flesh and blood."
God the Father and God the Holy Spirit did not speak themselves into human existence; only the Son became human (John 1:14).
A low view of Scripture
The Shack wants to make God accessible to a hurting world, but its author also has a very low view of Scripture; in fact, he mocks anyone who holds that there is such a thing as correct doctrine.
In seminary Mack 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.
If one is to teach error, it is important to do away with Scripture, either by adding to it (Mormonism), mistranslating it (Jehovah’s Witnesses) or simply mocking it (The Shack and some others in the ”emergent church”). But if you are going to claim to teach about God, you must stick to what He has declared to be His revelation about Himself and His will to us. In other words, doctrine must be correct, a point stressed numerous times in Scripture (1 Timothy 4:16, 2 Timothy 4:3, Titus 1:9, Titus 2:1). Yes, we are not just to be hearers (and readers) of the Word; we are to live it. But we can’t live it unless we know it, believe it, and trust it. Otherwise, the God you present is merely a creation of your own imagination and not the God that everyone must stand before on that final day, either as friend or condemned sinner.
But it’s only fiction
Some defend The Shack by saying it’s only a work of fiction. But if you’re going to have God as a character in your fiction, then you must deal with God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture. By using the Trinity as characters, The Shack is clearly indicating that it’s talking about the God of Christianity. But God has said certain things about Himself in Scripture, and much of what’s in this novel contradicts that.
More importantly, why does the author feel the need to change the character of God in this story? In a way, he’s saying that the God who reveals Himself to us in the Bible is insufficient. The author needs to "improve" the image to make it more palatable. But God never changes Himself so that we can understand Him better. He changes us so that we can see Him as he truly is. If God changed His nature, He would cease to be God.
If a friend had a cold, abusive father, don’t make the God of your story into a warm, loving female to compensate. Show your friend what a true father is like, using the example from Scripture. If your friend is hurting, don’t comfort him with soothing lies, such as The Shack’s assertion that God does not judge sin. Show him the God of all comfort found in Scripture, the God who was willing to save him from that judgment by sending his Son.