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.
Thank you, Pastor Neil, for putting in words this thought that I have been struggling with since I heard the movie was coming out. I have read the book but not seen the movie yet as I wanted some solid insight on how to hold it up to the Light of The Gospel.
Ps. We miss you in Cape Coral! Come see us some time!
Thank you Neil, I agree w/Jonathan’s comment. I read the book many yrs ago & could remember it wasn’t quite right but not exactly what. You have helped me greatly in how to “view” the movie. Everyone I know that has seen it, all Christians, loved the movie.
A little bit of yeast permeates the entire batch.
The vileness of false teachers and their teachings is so bad John (the one known as “the disciple Jesus loved,” the one who focused more on God’s love than probably anyone else in the Bible) said don’t even let such people into your home. That is how pervasive false doctrines are.
A false prophet isn’t necessarily false because they always get prophecies wrong – we know that’s true thanks to the encounter with the diviner Paul and Silas had in Greece. What makes someone a false prophet is that their life is false, and they’re calling upon things that are false (namely Satan) when they glean things. Well, if all of this is true, and I believe it is, then the argument could be made that the Shack, in its entirety, is wrong simply because of who wrote it.
It might behoove you to know that William Paul Young wrote a NON-fiction book called LIES WE BELIEVE ABOUT GOD that puts the subtle, underlying Universalism of the Shack on full display. It’s disgusting. The man is an enemy of the Cross, the very same kind the apostle Paul wrote about. The blasphemies are seemingly endless, but here are a just a few: God is not sovereign nor does He exercise sovereignty but instead He submits to man; if the Cross was God’s idea then we serve a wicked God; mankind is not depraved; everyone is saved (he says it outright, plain as day, in this non-fiction book); all roads lead to Heaven…he promotes rebellion against authority, rebellion against the Church, rebellion against Scripture itself and the authority of that Bible…I could go on and on.
William Paul Young is also friends with Rob Bell of the Emergent Church. Bell even blogs on Young’s website – this is the same Rob Bell that has been calling for Christians to STOP adhering to Scripture, to STOP relying on what He calls “ancient manuscripts” to be a moral compass for us, to accept the idea that there is no hell and so that means “love wins.” He has de-legitimized the Bible, and now Young is reinforcing that mindset thru his books, the fiction and non-fiction one. This connection alone should be enough to realize that there’s more at stake here than meets the eye.
The Shack is most certainly a great opportunity, I agree…an opportunity to correct people about who God really is and one to warn them to love and cling to the Truth.
You’re right. The Church of Ephesus was found to have a love that had grown cold…but the love of God should never supersede the knowledge of who He is, and it certainly should never malign His character. If it does, then we’re simply loving an idol we’ve created in our own minds (or that the Emergent Church has created in their own minds, perhaps). Ephesus was found to be right in Jesus’s eyes for their discernment of false apostles. He did not tell them to forsake that discernment *in lieu of* returning to their first love.
It was supposed to be a both/and. For what is the point of love at all if it’s not done in Truth? (Truth being a Person rather than some abstract idea.)
Thanks for your insight on this movie
God can use anything, even a movie that has a lot of things that we disagree with in it to give us an opportunity to share the Gospel with someone who is simply trying to find answers. Excellent article Neil!
Neil. I think Kim’s on to something. 🙂 However, I read the book several years ago on the recommendation of a long time Pastor friend of mine. I understand from some blogs I’ve read that the person that authored the book is an atheist.That may or may not be accurate. But it should be enough to hand him over to the “Thought Police”…for the scourging.;-)
This is really a great take on the movie, Pastor Neil. There is a significant difference between how we deal with fellow believers who may be led astray by the inaccuracies portrayed, and how we deal with unbelievers whom God in his sovereignty can reach using unlikely means.
God used pagan mythologies to begin to reach C. S. Lewis. Paul used a pagan altar to an unknown god to reach the people of Athens. If someone comes to the Lord because we showed them kindness and understanding at a time when God was opening their hearts, there will be a time for their erroneous ideas to be corrected by Scripture. Unfortunately, the church has all too often been so focused on protesting and exposing what it rightly perceives as error that it has missed the opportunity to use the tools presented to us in popular culture.
When the proponents of the shack respond to the criticism I have seen them come back with “it is just a fictional story”. The Shack is much more than that! They have a daily shack devotional and study guides. This is in my opinion is not a innocent evangelical tool. It is another attempt from the enemy to pull us from Gods Word and his Truth, same a the Purpose Driven Lie. In Mathew chapter 24 Jesus tells us what to expect in the end of the age. Only once each does he mention wars, rumors of wars, earth quakes and such. However he warns 4 times about DECEPTION…
Thanks for that great article! I so appreciate the critical evaluation of the movie’s departure from Biblical truth and yet the positive ways to use it as an opportunity to share the Gospel.
Pastor Neil, have missed your teachings, well said, sir. God bless you.
I found the Shack to be a brilliant and refreshing articulation of the character and nature of God through a fun-filled fictional story.
In my many conversations with one of the authors, Wayne Jacobson, I found him to be incredibly grounded biblically and overflowing with the Father’s affection for people.
I’ve visited his home multiple times and a real friendship has begun. He is passionate about scripture, completely denies universalism, and holds space for the doctrinal of hell. He challenges the atonement doctrine of penal substitution, but this is not a new conversation for the body of Christ but dates all the way back to the doctrine Christ the Victor.
While I can appreciate this article and it’s encouragement to make our conversations about the gospel of Jesus and exciting others to gaze into its beauty, I really protest the idea that the Shack is a book of doctrinal failures that took great liberty.
I really believe God was behind this wonderful story and awakening the church to a very relational God that is intimately acquainted with our struggles and ever-present in the midst of our every tragedy.
Not interested in the book or the movie. All I needed was the “Plugged In” movie review app’s summary. A teacher friend at my wife’s work privately met with her. Coupled with 12 years of Christ-like character, she comes out of the blue after watching the film and reading the book and says “Is that what God is like? You are the real Christian around here, tell me, is He really like that? You know I used to think you were crazy with your Christianity, but I thought to myself, ‘I think we got it all wrong and Rachel’s got it right’. I want to know more.” –yeah, big opportunity to share Jesus, awesome.