If you’re reading this, you probably already have an opinion about The Shack, the film adaption of William P. Young’s best-selling novel of the same name that hit theaters last weekend. Most Christians I know fall into one of three categories: they think it’s inspirational and they love it; they think it’s heretical and they hate it; or they think it’s a flawed yet potentially edifying story that we shouldn’t be too quick to endorse or condemn.
I’m going to admit up front that I haven’t seen the movie and I don’t plan to. I’ve seen enough trailers, clips, and reviews to know that it’s a pretty faithful adaption of the book, and that is not a good thing. I read the book and I think it’s dangerously wrong about many things, four of which I’d like to elaborate on here.
#1. It Gets God Wrong.
The Shack’s initial problem is its initial premise: a man named Mack has a personal encounter with all three members of the Holy Trinity, with God the Father as a matronly African-American woman named “Papa,” God the Son as a middle-eastern handyman, still called Jesus, and God the Spirit as a gentle Asian woman named “Sarayu.” All gender arguments aside, this portrayal of the Godhead is deeply problematic.
God is spirit (John 4:24). He is invisible (1 Tim. 1:17). To see Him with mortal eyes would be instant death (Ex. 33:20), and no human has ever done it (1 Jn. 4:12). He does not have a physical, material body like we do, nor can He be contained within any spatial radius (1 Kings 8:27). It is inappropriate, irreverent and impossible to portray Him as a man, woman, beast, or object.
This is a basic doctrine, and God warned against violating it in the second commandment by forbidding the making and worshipping of images (Ex. 20:4-5). Although this specifically forbids the worship of false, graven gods, it also forbids the casting of God Himself into any material form. We see this application in the story of the golden calf, when Israel molded an idol but believed by worshipping its image they were actually worshipping the Lord (Ex. 32:4-6). This was a blasphemous insult to God.
There is only one true, accurate and acceptable image of God and that is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), His Son, Jesus Christ. In Him alone does the deity dwell bodily (Col. 2:9). In Him alone can the radiance of God’s glory be tangibly seen and felt (Heb. 1:3). No mortal can see the Father except by seeing Jesus (Jn. 14:8-9). Although no man has ever seen God the Father, He is made known through the incarnate image of God the Son (Jn. 1:18). Even when prophets in the Old Testament saw visions of God (Isa. 6:1; Ez. 1:26-28), the New Testament reveals that they were actually seeing the image of the invisible God, Jesus Himself (Jn. 12:41).
God the Son is the only visual by which God has revealed Himself to man. He is the infinite taking on the finite. No one on this side of eternity can accurately depict the mystery of the Godhead in all its fullness or precision, and we’re commanded to not even try. To portray God the Father or God the Spirit undercuts the significance of Jesus and disobeys God’s own commandment about Himself. What you end up with is a confused and confusing depiction that oversimplifies and misrepresents the incomprehensible reality of the triune God.
#2. It Gets Suffering Wrong.
In this story, God is a helpless bystander limited by human freedom. He (or is it she?) weeps and grieves over the pain in the world, yet can’t really do anything except try to make some good out of it. Fallen mankind is driving the train and God is stuck laying down the tracks as we barge along, trying to ensure a safe destination without intruding on our free will.
This seems well-intentioned, but it comes up short. The Book of Job offers a very different view of suffering: that all things are given and taken away by God (Job 1:20-21), that God does no evil in His dealings with mankind (Job 1:22), and that God’s purposes can never be thwarted (Job 42:2). The rest of Scripture teaches that God is actively involved in every aspect of creation (Ps. 104:5-30; Mt. 10:29-30), that He is the one writing history (Ex. 9:16; Prov. 16:33; 19:21; 20:1; Isa. 14:24; Dan. 2:21; 4:35; Acts 4:27-28; Jam. 4:13-15), that He ordains everything that comes to pass including tragedy (Gen. 45:7-8; Isa. 45:7), yet without being the author of sin (Jam. 1:13), and that He has predestined every detail for the good of His people (Rom. 8:28-30).
In an attempt to display God’s goodness, The Shack tosses out God’s sovereignty. It tries to offer comfort by saying that suffering is never God’s plan or intention, but for those who experience constant suffering that’s actually quite disheartening. That would mean God is removed from the majority of our experiences in this life, and all He can really do is give us a pat on the back and tell us to hang in there. But the Bible teaches something better: that even suffering falls beneath the reign of God’s dominion, and every little thing that He brings to pass serves His holy, perfect purpose, even if we can’t understand it right now. He is Lord even over our deepest pain. The child of God, living in a world of tribulation, can trustingly proclaim along with King David, “Behold, here I am, let Him do to me what seems good to Him” (2 Sam. 15:26).
#3. It Gets Sin (and therefore salvation) Wrong.
The Shack makes light of sin when Papa states, “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.”
This contradicts Scripture’s constant warnings against the wrath of God. This wrath isn’t passive, but active. God doesn’t just sit back and leave us to our own sad choice, but He will eternally inflict sinners with punishment for their cosmic treason (Mt. 13:42; 25:41; Lk. 12:5; Jn. 3:36; Rom. 2:5; 2 Cor. 5:10; Col. 3:6; Heb. 10:26-27; Jam. 3:6; Jude 1:7; Rev. 20:11-15). Certainly it is an act of judgment when God hands someone over to their own devices, and the results are always tragic. But The Shack takes this idea too far by suggesting that no future judgment will be required outside of sin’s natural consequences within this world.
If that were true, then there wasn’t a whole lot riding on Christ’s death. If an eternity of divine punishment was not at stake, then Jesus was not actually our “propitiation” (Rom. 3:25; 1 Jn. 4:10), He did not give His life “as a ransom” (Mk. 10:45), and He did not need to be “pierced for our transgressions” (Isa. 53:5). If wrath and judgment are non-existent, Christ’s bloody death at Calvary doesn’t do much of anything. When you downplay sin, you downplay the Savior.
Once again, in an attempt to soften the blow and administer comfort, The Shack actually removes the very foundation of hope we so desperately need. If God doesn’t punish sinners, then no one needed to be punished in our place. If no one needed to be punished in our place, then Christ’s death was for nothing. And if Christ’s death was for nothing, then the entire foundation of our faith falls apart. By trying to highlight God’s love, The Shack actually eradicates its greatest triumph.
#4. It Gets Scripture Wrong.
At one point the book observes, “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…Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book.”
The Shack assumes that deriving our understanding of God chiefly from Scripture is a bad thing. It limits Him. Puts Him in a box. Instead, our knowledge of Him should come through personal, subjective experiences and the Bible should be read through the filter of those experiences rather than vice versa. Throughout the book, God makes remarks that catch Mack by surprise precisely because they contradict many traditional biblical teachings. The point is that God works in unconventional ways that defy our religious limitations, specifically the limitations of a dry, impersonal Bible.
That’s a tragic view of God’s word. In direct contrast, Scripture describes itself as “living and active”, sharper than a sword and piercing to the deepest parts of a man (Heb. 4:12). Every jot and tittle is the breath of God, beneficial for all areas of life (2 Tim. 3:16-17). It never fails to accomplish God’s grand purpose (Isa. 55:10-11). It’s eternally enduring (Mt. 24:35). It indwells us (Col. 3:16). It’s more delightful than riches (Ps. 119:14), it’s a wellspring of wonder (Ps. 119:19), it gives life to the soul (Ps. 119:28), and it’s sweeter than honey (Ps. 119:103). The Bible is presented as a vibrant, dynamic channel of intimacy with God. It’s spoken about as though it were a living, engaging, relational being. If we want to encounter God, we encounter Him through the power of His revealed Word. He’s in every line of every page.
By trying to take God out of the objective, theological box of Scripture, The Shack puts Him in the foggy box of subjectivism. Instead of the clarity we’re given in Scripture, God is actually reduced to an imprecise mystery that we can only discover through an esoteric encounter. In an attempt to free God, The Shack binds Him. In attempt to bring Him closer, The Shack makes Him more distant than ever.
I’m not interested in ripping apart The Shack’s author, readers, or viewers. It’s a heartfelt attempt to deal with the question we all wrestle with at some point: how do you reconcile the reality of evil with the goodness of God? Many people who appreciate the story (including the author himself) have been bruised by this fallen world and they desperately seek answers. I have no desire to insult or ridicule them.
But I am concerned with making sure we get the right answer to that question, and from the right source. We must redirect our opinions and sentiments to be in line with what God has revealed about Himself. When we do, we find that the triune God in all His sovereign, terrible, wonderful holiness is far better than any softened-down version we can create for a novel. The Shack may warm our hearts, but a God-honoring story must do more than that—it must fill our hearts with truth. Comfort is only valuable when it’s rooted in truth, and the truth of God’s word is better than any emotionally-charged tale we can concoct.