The recent release of the full length movie version of William Young’s best seller The Shack has the Christian community up in arms and with good reason.
The movie, which follows closely the book, takes great theological liberties. Besides the fact that two of the persons who portray two members of the Godhead are female, many critics have properly pointed out the book’s (and apparently the film’s) Universalist tendencies. There are other things such as words he puts in the mouth of the Father and the Son, which are at variance with Scripture.
The Christian community has been down this road before. Whenever Hollywood has seen fit to put out a biblical movie such as the recent release of Noah, Evangelicals have come to expect that they will take great liberties. Noah was laden with so much anti-biblical fantasy it was hardly recognizable as a biblical story. Even the recent release Risen, though tastefully done, took great liberties to add things to the Gospel accounts. So it is not surprising that, when they take up the biblical story, they distort it by adding their own ideas.
The Shack does the same as Lita Cosner points out in her article What the Shack Gets Right:
“The most troubling error in The Shack’s portrayal of God was the omission of the Gospel. The god of The Shack forgives simply because he/she/they love. But the atonement which makes forgiveness possible is never clearly presented. ‘Papa’ says he/she does not have any wrath, but the God of the Bible must judge sin because He is just. It is only through Christ substitutionary sacrifice in which He paid for the sins of all who would believe that God is able to be both just and merciful in His forgiveness of sinners.”
There is plenty to be concerned about in the movie release of The Shack, as there was in the book. But in our zeal to point out its doctrinal failures, we might miss an excellent opportunity to start a conversation about some of the biblical themes the book and the movie clearly teach. We should remember that, though the church at Ephesus was perhaps the most well taught in Asia, they were rebuked by the Lord as having “abandoned their first love.” They apparently were so focused on correct orthodoxy, they were unaware that their hearts had grown cold.
A Relational God
While some of the ways God is presented in The Shack are troubling, the overall theme of the book and movie is that the God of Christianity is a Person who seeks relationship with human beings. He is not the cold Creator who wound the planet up and neatly removed himself from his creation as taught in Deism. Rather, he is a passionate God of love who created human beings with a capacity to love and have a relationship with Him. This comes through throughout the book and movie and lies at the heart of the Christian message.
Jesus, during his earthly ministry presented a relational God to Jews who were beat down and tired from trying to be good enough for God. He offered a relationship with God to those who were “weary and heavy laden” trying to keep the Law (Matthew 11:28-30). This was the radically good news that God loved them so much he made a way to restore sinful human beings to relationship with Him. God Himself who created men and women in his image so that they could have a relationship with Him. While sin disrupted that relationship, God sent his Son to provide a way for sinful men and women to be restored to that relationship.
This theme of relationship runs all through The Shack, even though much of what Young says about it is biblically inaccurate. People who read the book and see the movie are being exposed to this idea of a God who wants to have a relationship with his creatures. Many today believe in the God of Deism who created the world and then neatly removed himself from it, but few understand a God who sent his Son to die so as to remove the barrier between Himself and his creatures.
A God Who Understands Our Sufferings
One of the themes of The Shack is that the God who created us also intimately understands our sufferings. He is not unmoved by the things we suffer. In fact, in the book, Mack asks Papa where He was when Jesus suffered. ‘Papa’ reveals scars on his wrists identical to Jesus’, and says that what Jesus chose to do cost both of them dearly. While this is parroting an ancient heresy, which teaches that the Father suffered in exactly the same, manner as the Son suffered, still people want to know that God is personally aware of their sufferings.
In the New Testament this is taught by the Doctrine of the Incarnation: God became a Man and suffered all that we human beings suffer. Jesus, the writer of Hebrews says, was tempted in every way that we are, yet without sin. Take a moment to review what the writer says specifically says about Christ’s sufferings on our behalf:
““For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10).
“Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Hebrews 2:17–18).
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15).
“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:7–8).
These Scriptures and many more teach us Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses and sufferings since he himself suffered these things. There is simply nothing in existence like the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation; that God became man not only to redeem us, but also to understand what it was like to be human.
How To Start Gospel Conversations Using the Shack
My hope is that Christians, instead of just trashing the movie for its theological liberties, would also use the occasion to converse with those who have seen it and might be willing to talk about it. The book and movie give an excellent opportunity to talk about things that normally don’t come up. For one, ask people if they have seen it and if they liked it? If so, ask them what they liked about it. That might be a good opportunity to point out that, while the book and movie take great liberties theologically, there are biblical themes undergirding the book.
One good question might be if they think that the movie accurately portrayed the true nature of God as He is presented in Scripture. People have many wild ideas about who God is and what He is like. The movie and book give us an excellent opportunity to present the God of Scripture.
Before writing off The Shack as just another distortion of the Gospel, I would hope that Evangelicals would use this opportunity The Shack affords to start Gospel conversations, directing people to the Scriptures which provide us with the only reliable source of knowledge about God and His Son Jesus Christ.