This is (yet another) blog post about The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young. The Canadian in me wants to apologize immediately and get back to smiling, but that wouldn’t be quite honest. So I’ll just say I wish posts like this never had to be written.
(Before you scroll on: I promise to end this post on a positive and constructive note! And I will need your help to make it even more positive.)
[Update: Actually, this post is more a review of the theology of the original author of The Shack than a review of the book itself. As I understand it, pastors Wayne Jacobsen and Brad Cummings helped shape the manuscript of The Shack, so that Young’s theology was not so fully expressed there. (There have even been lawsuits about who all should be named as authors.) Please bear these facts in mind as you read the rest of my post.]
What I’m Not Saying and Why I’m Writing
As debates about The Shack have escalated to a near frenzy online in recent weeks, I have been trying for the most part to hold my tongue about Young. I don’t like conflict, especially between Christians. I don’t like putting myself in a place where I’ll almost certainly receive some criticism. I don’t think reviewing controversial books or evaluating complex topics (such as God’s gender) are usually done best in Facebook text bites. Doing it in blogs is hard enough. And I want this blog to usually focus on more foundational matters than the latest hot topic—Bible reading skills and theological understandings that prepare us to navigate multiple topics as they come along.
But “this website exists to build up the Church of Jesus Christ by helping her listen carefully to the Scriptures,” and it seems to me that too many of my fellow Christians are following someone who is neither building up the Church nor listening carefully to the Scriptures. So, I’d like to shine the light of the Scriptures on a few corners of The Shack.
Before I continue, though, please hear me when I say that I nearly tremble to share this post. I realize there are some readers who feel they have (and may indeed have) found great help in Young’s writings. Some of these readers, like Young, have experienced terrible abuse and great suffering of spirit. They have found solace in Young’s depiction of God’s great love. I tremble lest my words reopen wounds or sound like a callous diminution of God’s tender love. I tremble lest, in noting the imperfections of the arm upon which some are leaning, I am the occasion for someone falling without hope of any arm upon which to lean.
If, perhaps, I may be describing you, let me assure you: There are better books than this one, and God’s love is even richer than Young describes it to be, for it reaches even lower than he imagines.
I also tremble lest my words of caution drive some even more devotedly after Young.
But, imperfect as I am, and imperfect as this post will be, I will carry on.
I have some words of firm rebuke to say later, so I want to first clearly say several things I’m not saying:
- I am most certainly not calling any fan of The Shack a heretic. Enjoying an imperfect book does not make someone a heretic. Even believing untruths about God does not automatically make one a heretic.
- I am not denying that The Shack contains many beautiful truths, that many find it to be an engaging story, or even that God has used it to help some people learn more about himself.
- I don’t agree with every criticism that is being leveled against The Shack or its author.
- I’m not interested in attacking Young as a person, belittling the suffering he has experienced, or making statements about his standing before God.
- I am not telling you whether you should or should not either read or watch The Shack. Sometime after the novel came out and controversy first swirled around it, I read it. I don’t regret doing so.
What did I think of it? I enjoyed maybe 80% of it. It was a rare “light” read for me (I usually read non-fiction biblical studies books), and much about the plot and characters was engaging. But I also read it with an eye open to test what it was teaching–for it was written with the intent to teach, right? I’m glad I read it, but my copy ended up full of sticky notes where I sensed that something didn’t seem to be lining up with Scripture. Here’s my copy:
What nudged me to write this post was a chance today to scan another book by Young. As I was servicing a Choice Books rack at a Walmart this morning, I noticed Young’s book Lies We Believe about God on a nearby rack. I had already heard of the book, but had never seen it.
Unlike The Shack, Lies We Believe about God is (or at least is intended to be) non-fiction. Here Young clearly states the set of beliefs he was trying to teach us through his earlier novel. (I understand the novel was first written for Young’s children, then later published for mass readership. But, as Young shows in his new book, The Shack was indeed intended to portray and teach theological truths.) This new book contains multiple short chapters, with each chapter title being a “lie” he aims to prove false.
I took time to scan parts of five or six chapters, and snapped photos of a few pages to help me share excerpts here. (A fuzzy “dumb phone” camera partially frustrated my purposes, but Amazon preview came to the rescue.) I’ll share some excerpts, then comment.
Problems with Young’s Theology:
Near the end of the chapter entitled “Sin Separates Us from God”—one of Young’s “lies”—we read this:
If separation is a lie, does it mean that no one has ever been separated from God? That is exactly what it means. Nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).
Jesus did not come to build a bridge back to God or to offer the possibility of getting unseparated. One of the multifaceted purposes of the incarnation of Jesus is that we who are lost in the delusion of separation can witness a human life who knows He is not.
There is “nothing” outside God. There is only God, and Creation is created “in” God; and according to John 1, Creation is specifically created “inside” Jesus, the Word who is God (see verses 3-4). (p. 232)
As I compare with Scripture, I see multiple problems with these paragraphs. Here are several:
- Young is teaching universalism. (This will become explicit later.) Normally, universalism is the belief that God will ultimately save everyone, so that no one will spend eternity estranged from God. Young’s version of universalism is even more radical: He believes that already now no one is separated from God.
- Young’s language about being “lost in the delusion of separation” sounds more like Hinduism than Christianity. And his solution sounds more like Hinduism’s enlightenment than Christianity’s salvation. [I originally compared Young’s thought to Bhuddism rather than Hinduism, but a reader suggested, correctly I think, that Hinduism is a closer comparison.]
- Young’s biblical foundation is very shaky.
More on this last point. First, Young twists Scripture to make his point. Romans 8 is not denying that sin separates us from God. It is written about Christians who have already been freed from the penalty (Romans 3-5) and power (Romans 6-8) of sin, and it is assuring them that those who are already elect and justified cannot be separated from God’s love by any external threat. Romans is clear that apart from Christ every person is an “enemy” of God who needs to be “reconciled” to him (Rom. 5:10)—a reality only experienced by those who pursue righteousness by faith in Christ (Rom. 3:21-25; 9:30-32). It is the Spirit who bears witness that we are children of God, and “anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Rom. 8:9 ESV).
Young likewise uses John 1 in a suspect manner, both building theology on a questionable translation of a Greek preposition (“inside”) and also stretching a passage about the Son’s role as divine Creator to say something unsuggested in its original context—that if everything was created “inside” Christ/God then nothing can be estranged from God. We don’t have to read much further in John 1 to know Young’s interpretation is wrong, for we soon read that Jesus own people “did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (1 John 1:11-12 ESV). The clear message here is that (a) not all are children of God and (b) those who are, became such—they were not children of God prior to receiving Christ and believing in his name. This is not universalism!
Second, the excerpts above are the only scriptures that Young cites in his entire chapter on the “lie” that “sin separates us from God”! That is the only biblical evidence he provides as he attempts to overturn a standard Christian teaching. The rest of the chapter is just his own theological musings.
Here is only one of many other Bible passages that Young might have considered:
Behold, the Lord‘s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
but your iniquities have made a separation
between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
so that he does not hear. (Is. 59:1-3 ESV)
In the same chapter Young discusses the definition of “sin”:
The Greek word often translated into English as “sin” is hamartia. A moralist will tell you that the word means “missing the mark” and then go on to explain that the mark is “moral perfection” or “right behavior” and once again we are back on the performance hamster wheel. But if the essence of God’s nature is relationship, then sin must be defined and understood as missing a relational reality, a distortion of the image of God in us.
Hamartia is made up of two parts: ha- (an aspirated alpha), which is a negation (like un- or dis-), and -martia, from the Greek word meros, which means “form, origin, or being.” The fundamental meaning is “negation of origin or being” or “formlessness.” Yes, it is about missing the mark, but the mark is not perfect moral behavior. The “mark” is the Truth of your being.
…Sin, then, is anything that negates or diminishes or misrepresents the truth of who you are, no matter how pretty or ugly that is. Behavior becomes either an authentic way of expressing the truth of your good creation or an effort to cover up (performance behavior) the shame of what you think of yourself (worthlessness).
And what does the truth of your being look like? You are made in the image of God, and the truth of your being looks like God.
You are patient.
You are kind.
You are good.
You are humble.
You are forgiving.
You are a truth teller.
You are… [many more]… pure of heart…
And so on.
These are all expressions of the truth of our being.
Difficult to believe, right?
I think that is the point. (pp. 229-230)
I see several problems with this passage. First, there are several problems with his discussion of the definition of hamartia:
- He cites the definition a “moralist” might give to hamartia, but never cites any standard Greek dictionary. This sets up somewhat of a straw man argument, or at least misses the opportunity to check his understandings against what experienced Greek students have concluded. For example, Mounce notes that hamartia “typically refers to the transgression of the law” and that “thus, hamartia is used to denote our sin against God” (Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words). Note Mounce’s observation that sin is not merely about missing some abstract “moral perfection” or “right behavior,” but about transgressing God’s law—thus making sin a relational matter (as Young claims) but a matter of our relationship to God (not to ourselves, as Young suggests).
- Young commits what linguists call a “etymological fallacy” when he defines sin based on its word components. What does “butterfly” mean? Don’t try to define it by dividing it into “butter” and “fly”! True, many words won’t lead you quite so far astray if you divide them into parts to define them. But the dependable way to get a working definition for any word is to see how it is used in real life. Hence Mounce’s approach above, when he says that hamartia “is used to denote” such and such.
- Young then makes a leap from his etymologically-derived definition to assume that “the mark is the Truth of your being.” Why not (assuming for the moment his definition) say that “the mark is the truth of God’s being”?
- Young says that “the essence of God’s nature is relationship.” I don’t deny that relationship is essential to God’s nature. But I also recall that the God of the Bible never says “I am relationship.” Nor is he ever praised as “Relationship, relationship, relationship!” But there are many places where he declares “I am holy,” and multiple places where he is praised as “Holy, holy, holy.” Surely holiness is essential to God’s nature. Why does Young not consider this in his understanding of sin?
This thought flow leads to a definition of sin that doesn’t seem anything Iike the standard concept of sin in the Bible: “Sin, then, is anything that negates or diminishes or misrepresents the truth of who you are…” If I am reading Young correctly here, it seems that he believes sin is essentially inauthenticity. And if you understand yourself correctly, you will know you are good. So sin is to disbelieve one’s own goodness.
I’ll include one more extended excerpt from Young’s recent book, from a chapter about the “lie” that “You Need to Get Saved.” I’ll add bold font to some clauses and mostly let Young speak for himself:
So what is the Good News? What is the Gospel?
The Good News is not that Jesus has opened up the possibility of salvation and you have been invited to receive Jesus into your life. The Gospel is that Jesus has already included you into His life, into His relationship with God the Father, and into His anointing in the Holy Spirit. The Good News is that Jesus did this without your vote, and whether you believe it or not won’t make it any less or more true.
What or who saves me? Either God did in Jesus, or I save myself. If, in any way, I participate in the completed act of salvation accomplished in Jesus, then my part is what actually saves me. Saving faith is not our faith, but the faith of Jesus.
God does not wait for my choice and then “save me.” God has acted decisively and universally for all humankind. Now our daily choice is to either grow and participate in that reality or continue to live in the blindness of our own independence.
Are you suggesting that everyone is saved? That you believe in universal salvation?
That is exactly what I am saying!
This is real good news! It has been blowing people’s minds for centuries now. So much so that we often overcomplicate it and get it wrong. Here’s the truth: every person who has ever been conceived was included in the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. When Jesus was lifted up, God “dragged” all human beings to Himself (John 12: 32). Jesus is the Savior of all humankind, especially believers (1 Timothy 4: 10). Further, every single human being is in Christ (John 1: 3), and Christ is in them, and Christ is in the Father (John 14: 20). When Christ—the Creator in whom the cosmos was created—died, we all died. When Christ rose, we rose (2 Corinthians 5)…
We don’t offer anyone what has already been given; we simply celebrate the Good News with each one: we have all been included. (pp. 117-120, emphasis added)
Young is clear enough that his words need little explanation here: He believes in universalism—that all people are already saved, apart from anything (including even faith) on their part.
Young says that this truth “has been blowing people’s minds for centuries now.” What he does not mention is that universalism has also been considered a heresy for centuries now.
Here, for example, is the assessment of Roger Olson—someone who is actually probably more open to the possibility of universalism than I would be:
Strictly historically speaking, any universalism is heresy–according to all major branches of Christianity.
Olson suggests that not all forms of universalism are as dangerous as others. Which kinds are most dangerous?
I think universalism is a minor heresy SO LONG AS it does not interfere with evangelism… I also evaluate the seriousness of universalism by its context–viz., why does the person affirm it? If universalism is evidence of a denial of God’s wrath and/or human sinfulness, then it is much more serious.
Given Young’s redefinition of sin (and of God’s wrath in other parts of this book), I suggest that his version of universalism is no small heresy.
I do not know Young. I do not know his intentions. I do not aim to make a judgment call on his salvation. I sincerely hope he is my brother in Christ. Again, listen to Olson:
[Universalism] is unbiblical and illogical. However, that does not mean a person who holds it is not a Christian. I have never met a Christian who was one hundred percent theologically correct. Scratch hard enough and you’ll always find some heresy beneath the surface (if not on the surface). That’s true for me as much as for anyone else.
However, the unfortunate truth remains: Young’s books promote the heresy of universalism—a heresy that reaches near to the core of our understanding of the gospel. Many of us sensed such problems in The Shack; they are now evident to all with eyes to see in Lies We Believe About God.
In addition, our brief discussion of only a few pages of his recent book revealed the following problems:
- Young radically redefines sin in unbiblical ways.
- He does not follow standard lexical methods for defining biblical words.
- He uses relatively little Scripture, takes it out of context when he does use it, and overlooks passages that contradiction his assertions.
Sadly, what Young does not seem to realize is that his attempts to emphasize God’s love (by promoting universalism and its supporting doctrines) actually produce an anemic vision of God’s love. By downplaying the horror of sin’s afront to God’s holiness, God’s offer of love to sinful humanity is also diminished.
I understand that people such as Young who have suffered terribly often struggle to feel God’s love. I do not want to belittle this struggle in any way. I, too, have tasted of it, though I will not compare myself with others. I do suggest, however, that the answer to our desperate sense of distance from God is not to deny that distance via a universalism that strips the cross of its awesome incongruity, but to acknowledge the immensity of the gulf that God has spanned at immeasurable cost on our behalf. In denying that gulf, Young unwittingly diminishes our vision of God’s love.
As I left Walmart and reflected on Young’s writings, one thought grew uppermost in my mind: “There are better books!”
With all the great Christian literature out there, why should The Shack float to the top?
I freely affirm that there are valid concerns that lead people to books such as The Shack. Many of us have experienced terrible injustices and abuses. Many of us have been hurt by our churches. Most of us have stood in urgent need of a fresh vision of God’s love and grace!
But why turn to The Shack as the best answer to these needs? Yes, Young writes with great authenticity (a virtue which is opposite of his definition of sin, after all). But many other writers have also written with authenticity. And authenticity is not the same thing as truth. Why do some of us seem to value authenticity more than truth? Without truth, there is no real life—no eternal life. Why not seek and promote books that speak healing and grace and love—and truth!
This is where I need your help. If you share any of my concerns about our need for fresh, healing visions of God’s love and grace, if you share any of my experience of being hurt (once or repeatedly) by the church, and if you also share any of my concerns about the false teachings found in Young’s writings, then please do us all a favor:
Share in the comments below the name of a book or two that you would suggest instead of The Shack.
Pointing out false teaching is unfortunately essential work at times. But merely pointing out the false does not bring life to anyone. Help us out! What books would you suggest to someone who is wrestling with suffering, abuse, pain, distance from God, hurt by the church, or other major heart tragedies? Which books have helped you?
Let me begin by listing several:
- Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan. Eugene Peterson suggested that The Shack could do for our generation what Pilgrim’s Progress did for Bunyan’s. Actually, Pilgrim’s Progress served many generations well. Why not read an updated version today?
- Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church, by Philip Yancey. This one was helpful to me in my early twenties. Yancey recounts his “horror story” about his church experience, then mini bios of many saints past and present whose lives renews his own faith.
- Speaking of Yancey, he has written many good books on suffering and wrestling with God, as well as an influential book on grace: What’s So Amazing About Grace? [Note: I originally called this a “great” book, but I amended my endorsement after someone emailed me with a concern about the book. I confess I have not read this book, but shared it based on earlier positive feedback I’ve heard and my experience with Yancey’s other books.]
- When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty, by Joni Eareckson Tada and Steven Estes. (This one was recommended as an exceptional read to me several years ago by Clifford Schrock of Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute. Tada has a new one that may be even better.)
- The Gospel According to Job: An Honest Look at Pain and Doubt from the Life of One Who Lost Everything, by Mike Mason. Mason’s book on marriage is the only marriage book that my wife and I have both deeply enjoyed. I gave this book on Job to my friend Lowell Herschberger, and I think I’ve seen him reference it multiple times since.
Those are a few. My list is tilted toward nonfiction. Try Les Miserable or some Dostoyevsky for some tested fiction that wrestles deeply with tragedy and grace.
What can you add to this list? Please suggest a helpful book in the comments below. And again… if you think I’ve been overly critical of Young and The Shack, I sincerely hope we can still be friends. God’s love can cover a multitude of sins, including my own.