The Shack is a novel by William P. Young which has sold relatively well in the USA and UK. It's a fictional story which deals with themes of suffering and healing, guilt and redemption, and the author has God himself appear in the story as a series of different characters. The author places lots of words in God's own mouth, as (in Young's fictional story) God speaks directly to the main (human) character, a man called 'Mack'.
Although it's a religious book, it's been read by many people who are not Christians, as well as some who are.
It's also a book which tends to grab people because of it's emotional impact. There is a danger here though, for if we present people with ideas about who God is, and how we can know him, and we present those ideas in a way which is powerful in the influence it exerts, then we'd better be sure our ideas are correct or people are going to be dangerously misled on the most important issue of their lives. This is because the questions of who God is, and how we can know him, are infinitely important - our eternal destiny will depend on whether we know God.
The very emotional appeal of the book causes it to be loved by some people, many of whom have never read the Bible (or if they have, they often do not know it very well).
The danger with something which has such strong emotional appeal is that, if we are Christians, it can thereby 'get under our radar' and have us thinking ideas about God which may not be right. And if people are not Christians, a book like this will give them all kinds of dangerously false ideas about God and how we can know him.
I've been aware of The Shack for some time, and I finally read it because I wanted to decide for myself what I thought about it. I won't attempt a synopsis of the plot here, nor address every objection which could be raised about The Shack. But there are some fundamentally important observations which I must make.
I want to start with a presentation of what I believe is fundamental in knowing God, and knowing about God, because I think this is crucial to understanding what is so badly wrong with The Shack. These fundamentals come from Scripture, from the Bible, which is God's own word to us. I am going to attempt to set out some really important foundational truths, and for a while I won't be mentioning The Shack again. But once I've set out these important truths, I will apply them to The Shack. So please be patient, and carry on reading...
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Can we know God? If so, how?
These are questions which many religions attempt to answer.
But the Bible gives us the answers to these questions, and tells us some important truths on the subject of knowing God:
The fact that God exists is evidenced by the glory of God in creation
Scripture tells us that nature reveals the glory of God to us (Psalm 19:1-3), but that our own sinfulness causes us to supress or deny the truth about God's existence. Paul makes this clear with some strong words in Romans 1:18-23. Failing to recognise who God really is, even when nature shouts so loudly of his glory, is both the result of our sinfulness, and at the same time is a judgment of God upon us; as we are so determined to reject the truth and rebel against God, God gives us over to believe a lie (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12).
God's law is written on our hearts, so our consciences, as well as nature, speak to us of who God is
Paul goes on to say that not only does creation show us that God is real, but that our own consciences also reveal God's law to us (Romans 2:14-15).
But Paul makes very clear that this knowledge of right and wrong, which we all have even if we deny it, is not sufficient to save us or make us right with God - on the contrary, it is enough to condemn us, because it means that although we know what is right and wrong, we do wrong anyway (Romans 2:12-13).
Our hearts are sinful, and we cannot know God by relying upon our own efforts
It is not possible for us to use our own reason, logic, imaginations, or philosophy to correctly work out who God is and what God is like, still less to make ourselves right with God. The Bible tells us this, and tells us that the reason is that our own sinfulness has so corrupted us that, on our own, we will distort, deny, and supress the truth about God. The sinful state of our hearts means we cannot, on our own, trust our hearts to reliably guide us (Jeremiah 17:9).
I had a conversation not so long ago with someone (who isn't a Christian) who said that the reason he doesn't take religion seriously is that if there is a God, how can we possibly know him, or understand him, or work out what God is like? This person said it would be like, 'an ant trying to understand a computer, but with an infinitely bigger difference between the two'. The person who said this is absolutely 100% correct. On our own, we cannot know God, or work out for ourselves who God is, or what God is like. God is too big whilst we are too small, and God is too holy whilst we are too sinful, for this to be possible.
So is it impossible then for us to ever know God, or what he is like?
It is possible for us to know God, and to know about his character, but not by starting from ourselves or our own imaginations. We are dependent upon God revealing himself to us. God, in his awesome, wonderful grace and love, has chosen to reveal himself to sinful people who could never otherwise have known him. This type of knowledge of God, the knowledge that comes through God's own revelation of himself to us, is very different from the knowledge of God which we have from nature, and from our consciences. It is different because it is a knowledge of God which saves all who receive it. It is also a knowledge of God which is true, because it is by Divine revelation, not our own reasoning.
So how does this Divine revelation come to us?
This is a really important question, because if we get this wrong, we will be led astray by false ideas about God which do not come from God.
God himself tells us how we can know him. Knowing God is by God's own revelation of who he is:
God has revealed himself in his written word, the Scriptures, i.e. the Bible
The word of God, which we have in translation as the Bible, was 'breathed out' by God. His word, the Bible, as originally given, does not contain mistakes, it is utterly reliable, and it has Divine authority - because God himself breathed it out, through human agency (i.e. through people who wrote down the words God verbally inspired). There's a lot more about this here.
Also, God has supremely revealed himself in Jesus Christ
Jesus said that 'Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father' (John 14:9).
There's a lot more about Jesus here.
The Bible bears witness to Jesus Christ on every page, for he is God the eternal Son, the Father's beloved Son, and he sent the Holy Spirit, who is also God, to live inside his true disciples and reveal the truth of God to them. The Holy Spirit does this by giving us a love for God's word, the Bible, and by guiding us into an ever increasing understanding of the Scriptures.
The Holy Spirit is the one who inspired and Divinely authored the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit is the one whose guidance and help we need to correctly understand the Scriptures.
God has made it clear that with the completion of the Bible, the canon of Scripture is closed - this means that no-one can add anything to it.
Scripture warns us not to add to or take away from what God has said
God has sealed the completed canon of Scripture, and done so with a warning in the last book that we are not to attempt to add any words to Scripture, nor take any words away from Scripture (Revelation 22:18-19). In the immediate context, this warning applies to the book of Revelation. But it must also be seen as applying to the entire canon of Scripture. In the Old Testament, there were severe penalties for anyone presuming to be a prophet, or presuming to speak for God, when God had not sent them. The penalty was death (Deuteronomy 18:20). The warning in Revelation about not adding to or taking away from what God has said echoes other warnings in Scripture:
Every word of God is tried, He is a shield for those who take refuge in him.
You shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall you take away from it, but you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you. (Deuteronomy 4:2)
Jesus himself said that, 'Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall never pass away.' (Mark 13:31). It is consistent with what the Bible reveals to us about the seriousness with which we need to take God's word that we understand the warning in Revelation as applying to the whole of the Scriptures, not just Revelation.
In summary so far...
The only way we can know God is by God revealing himself to us. God does this for true believers by the Holy Spirit, and by his word, the Bible, which reveals Jesus Christ to us. The Holy Spirit's help and guidance is essential to correctly understand the Bible. The Bible is not to be added to, or taken away from, for God has revealed everything about himself which he wants to reveal to us (in this life at least) in the Bible, and we cannot and must not attempt to go beyond this. The canon of Scripture is closed.
Attempts to work out truths about God for ourselves, using our own imaginations, are always going to fail, because we are sinful, and because such ideas do not come from God's own revelation of himself to us in Scripture. We cannot say anything true about God which is not said in the Scriptures. The real Jesus, the true Jesus, is the historical, biblical Jesus whom Scripture bears witness to on every page.
The Second of the Ten Commandments
The Second Commandment forbids us from making any image that purports to represent God, and also prohibits the worshipping of anything in the place of God:
You shall not make for youself any image, or any likeness of anything, whether in heaven above, or on the earth, or in the seas. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD your God am a jealous God... (Exodus 20:4-5b)
This is a twofold command. It forbids us from making images of God (whether we are meaning to worship such images or not), as well as forbidding the worshipping of idols, regardless of who made them.
The reason that God forbids his people from attempting to create images of God is that he knows that, in our sinfulness and fallibility, any such image is going to be a grotesque distortion of who he really is, and we will end up worshipping the false image. God cannot be accurately represented by any image that we make up ourselves. Such images are only going to lead us astray and cause us to worship an idol instead of the one true God. We need to go back to God's own revelation to us of who he is, not make up images of God ourselves.
The Second Commandment forbids the creation and/or worship of idols, but an idol does not have to be a physical object. An idol is anything which we worship in place of God. God forbids us from creating our own images of him because such images will deceive us about who God really is and lead us into worshipping an idol. Mental images of God created by our own imaginations are just as forbidden by the Second Commandment as literal idols made out of wood or stone, because the effect on us is the same regardless - we are deceived into worshipping an idol instead of God. We must always go back to God's own revelation of himself to us in Scripture if we want to accurately know him.
Here are a couple of quotes from commentaries on the Second Commandment, one by John Calvin, the other by Matthew Henry:
It is necessary, then, to remember what God is, lest we should form any gross or earthly ideas respecting Him...for as soon as any one has permitted himself to devise an image of God, he immediately falls into false worship.
The second commandment concerns the ordinances of worship, or the way in which God will be worshipped, which it is fit that he himself should have the appointing of. Here is, (1.) The prohibition: we are here forbidden to worship even the true God by images...It is certain that it forbids making any image of God (for to whom can we liken him? Isaiah 40:18)...It is called the changing of the truth of God into a lie (Romans 1:25), for an image is a teacher of lies...It also forbids us to make images of God in our fancies, as if he were a man as we are. Our religious worship must be governed by the power of faith, not by the power of imagination.
What does all this have to do with The Shack?
In Chapter 5 of The Shack, titled, 'Guess who's coming to dinnner', Mack meets three characters. The first, who identifies herself both as 'Elousia' and also as 'Papa' (p.86), is '...a large beaming African Amercian woman' (p.82). The second character is 'a small, distinctively Asian woman' (p.84), who gives her name as 'Sarayu' (p.87). The third character is a man who 'appeared Middle Eastern' (p.84). He identifies himself as 'Jesus' (p.86). On page 87 we read this:
'Then,' Mack struggled to ask, 'which one of you is God?'
Later on, 'Papa' says this to Mack:
'To reveal myself to you as a very large, white grandfather figure with a flowing beard, like Gandalf, would simply reinforce your religious stereotypes, and this weekend is not about reinforcing your religious stereotypes.'
Young is correct in asserting (through the story) that the idea of God as an old man with a long beard is no more than a stereotype. But to replace one man-made picture of God with another man-made image is equally wrong. God is who he has revealed himself to be in Scripture, and nowhere is God the Father revealed to be a large African American woman, nor is God the Holy Spirit revealed to be a slender Asian woman. Young is blasphemously constructing images of his own that violate the second commandment.
Concerning the Lord Jesus Christ, The Shack has 'Jesus' appear in the story in person and say many things to the character Mack. The statements that 'Jesus' makes are not repetitions of what the Bible tells us the real Jesus actually said, instead they come straight from William P. Young's own imagination. For this reason I'm going to put all references to Young's 'Jesus' in quote marks, to differentiate this character from the real Jesus.
'It's only a story!'
I am sure (actually I am making an assumption here...) that William P. Young would not claim that his book is part of Scripture, or that it is anything other than a story. But this does not excuse what he has done. Some people defend The Shack against criticism by saying, 'It's only a story!' This is no defence. I see no exceptions given in the Scriptural commands and warnings I have referred to above on this page. We are not told it's ok to mislead people with our own images of God, or put our own words in God's mouth, as long as it's done through a story.
A story in which 'God' speaks false things is no less misleading than a book of systematic theology which says false things. In fact, lies in story form are possibly more insidious, and therefore more dangerous. And the people who defend The Shack by saying, 'It's only a story!' are usually the ones who take the message of The Shack most seriously; talk to them about what they believe about God, and the theology of The 'only-a-story' Shack can be clearly heard. Such people obviously take The Shack's theology very seriously. So much for it being only a story.
I find the idea that (as long as it's 'only a story') we can regard God as some kind of puppet whose strings we can pull deeply offensive and blasphemous. As if we could control the Father, Son or Holy Spirit, as though we could give God a script and say, 'there are your lines, now speak the words I have made up'! Utterly, utterly blasphemous.
The theology of The Shack is dangerously wrong (because it contradicts the Bible)
Moving on to what Young makes 'God' actually say, on p.120 'Papa' tells us:
'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.'
Wrong. The Bible makes clear that sin is, first and foremost, an offence against God, and one which carries his righteous judgement that the penalty for sin is death. The holiness of God requires this. Psalm 89:32, Lamentations 4:22, Hosea 10:10, Exodus 32:31-35, Leviticus 26:18, Isaiah 13:11, Ephesians 5:6, 1 Thessalonians 4:6, 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 ...(there are many more verses like these in the Bible - New Testament as well as Old)
William P. Young's 'God' is clearly very different from the God of the Bible.
Deny that God punishes sin and you have denied the love of God too
Denying that God punishes sin does violence to the heart of the gospel, which is that God loved us so much that the Father sent his Son into this world, and that Jesus went to the cross and bore our sin, and the punishment we deserved, in our place (Isaiah 53, Romans 3:25, 1 John 2:2, 1 Corinthians 15:3). Remove the truth that God punishes sin and the message of the cross is denied. It also makes God's love out to be far, far less than it truly is. I experience God's love and mercy towards me as all the more wonderful because, though the punishment I deserved was indeed terrible, he loved me so much he took it all for me, so that I could be forgiven and reconciled to him. This is a truth at the heart of the gospel.
The Shack strongly suggests universal salvation
Universal salvation is the idea that everyone will ultimately be saved, that everyone will ultimately be reconciled to God and received into a wonderful eternity with him. It is contrary to the Bible. Doctrine about hell is not an easy subject, but we should always remember that God loves sinful people infinitely more than we do, and he genuinely longs for sinners (and we are all sinners) to turn to him and be forgiven. But there's no getting away from the fact that the Bible says not all will repent and believe, and hell is real. Believing in universal salvation undermines the preaching of the gospel, for if everyone will be saved, then people don't need to hear the gospel. Universal salvation is a total heresy. Young's book, The Shack, strongly leans in a universal salvationist direction.
On p.182, Young has 'Jesus' say this:
'Who said anything about being a Christian?...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 them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.'
Young's 'Jesus' has no desire to make people Christian! He wants them to become children of God, but apparently this does not require them to be Christians! This is heresy. It ought to be obvious to any Bible believing Christian by now that Young's 'Jesus' is not the real Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible.
'I am the best way any human can relate to Papa or Sarayu.'
Remember that in Young's story, Papa is 'God the Father' and 'Sarayu' is the 'Holy Spirit'. So Young's 'Jesus' says he is 'the best way' any human can relate to God. But Scripture says Jesus is the only way (John 14:6). 'Best way' implies there are other possible ways, which might not be as good, but are still possible ways to God. Total heresy!
Mack was a bit taken back to hear Jesus talking about 'church' this way, but then again, it didn't really surprise him. It was a relief. 'So how do I become part of that church?' he asked. 'This woman you seem to be so gaga over.'
'It's simple, Mack. It's all about relationships and simply sharing life. What we are doing right now - just doing this - and being open and available to others around us...' Jesus said with a chuckle.
Young's 'Jesus' responds to the question, 'How do I enter the church?', with a very different answer from the one given in Scripture. The biblical answer is that we must be born again (John 3:3), that it is by repentance and faith in Christ that we enter the church (Acts 2:38, Acts 3:19 - it was those who responded by repenting and believing who were added to the church: Acts 2:41, Acts 9:31). Just as Young's 'Jesus' is a different 'Jesus' from the real Jesus, so Young's 'church' is not the church of the New Testament.
'The Shack is a helpful book because it shows that knowing God is all about relationship, not rules'
The age-old heresy of antinomianism rears it's ugly head again. Knowing God is about relationship with him. But if it is the God of the Bible we are in relationship with, we'd better be sure we know what he says about 'the rules'.
It's true that no-one can possibly make themselves right with God by trying to obey his law, because we are too sinful to do that. We are dependent upon trusting in Christ, and being right with God as a result of him declaring us righteous not because of any good thing we have done, but because Jesus lived the perfect life we could never have lived, Jesus died bearing our sin and the punishment we deserved, and rose again. We turn to Christ in repentance and faith and are justified by God, out of his wonderful grace and mercy, and because of Christ's obedience and merit, not ours, for we have none.
It's also true that some parts of the Mosaic law, concerning sacrifice, and concerning ceremonial matters, were fulfilled by Christ, so they don't apply now to us in the same way as to God's people in the time of Moses.
But the moral law, which is really another way of describing the Ten Commandments, and summed up by Jesus as the requirement that we love God with our whole being, and love our neighbour as ourselves, this has not passed away!
If we are Christians, God still requires us to obey him. The point is that we don't try to obey from a motive of trying to earn his favour, for we cannot. As God in his grace begins to change us, we find that we desire to obey God more, and do in fact obey him more, not out of craven fear or an attempt to earn favour, but out of sheer love for him and gratitude for his grace towards us. It is his grace that causes us to become more obedient to him. So the 'rules' do matter - anyone who says they are a Christian and quite happily lives any sinful way they like with complete abandon is showing they do not know Christ at all, for grace is not a licence to ignore the rules.
Some of the Christians who have been critical of those who criticise The Shack have said it's mostly Calvinists who don't like it, because it doesn't fit the Calvinist view of Divine sovereignty. Well, The Shack certainly totally contradicts a Calvinist view of what God's rule over all things means, and my own theology is largely Calvinist. But on this page, I have deliberately avoided making much of the Divine sovereignty issue, because I want to show that even someone who holds to an Arminian view on this, but knows their Bible well, could be nothing short of horrified at some of what Young has written in The Shack.
As a final comment on those who put words into God's mouth which he did not say, I think it is appropriate to hear the (Divinely inspired) words of the prophets Jeremiah (below) and Ezekiel (here: Ezekiel 13:1-16).
Thus says the LORD of hosts: 'Do not listen to the words of the prophets that prophesy to you: they teach you foolishness, for they speak a vision that comes from their own hearts, and not out of the mouth of the LORD.' Jeremiah 23:16
Then the LORD said to me, 'The prophets prophesy lies in my name: I have not sent them, neither have I commanded them, neither have I spoken to them: they prophesy to you a false vision and divination, and a thing of nothing, and the deceit of their own hearts.' Jeremiah 14:14