Grace Community Church of Riverside: To take Jesus Christ to lost people and lost people to Jesus Christ

Book Review by Pastor Brian Smith, 1/12/09

Some of you are familiar with, and possibly have read, the national bestselling book The Shack by Oregon salesman William P. Young. There are now over a million copies in print, with hundreds of copies prominently displayed locally at Costco, Barnes & Noble, Berean Christian Bookstores, and other places books are sold.

The Shack is well-written and pulls at the emotional heartstrings. But lying subtly underneath the surface is a book filled with biblical error and spiritual deception.

The Shack is a work of fiction that contains a protracted conversation between the main character, Mackenzie Allen Philips (Mack), and three persons who represent the Holy Trinity.

The book principally answers the question, “Why do the innocent suffer?” It is the story of a man (Mack) whose young daughter, Missy, disappears during a Labor Day weekend camping trip in the Wallowa Mountains in Northeast Oregon. Though her body is never found, police find evidence in an abandoned shack that she had been kidnapped and cruelly murdered by a serial killer.

Mack, who is weighed down with grief, receives a note from God who invites him to the place of the murder (the shack) to spend some time with Him. Mack agrees, and spends the weekend with the Trinity. God wants to meet with Mack to help him deal with the grief of losing his daughter in such a horrible way.

As the weekend progresses, the members of the Holy Trinity converse with Mack, and it is in those conversations the reader is gradually and cunningly seduced by spiritual error.

The Shack reveals God as a fun-loving African-American woman known as Papa (God the Father), a “big-nosed” young Jewish handyman (God the Son), and a small Asian woman (God the Holy Spirit) named Sarayu. Papa is jovial, cooks great meals, and likes contemporary music. The young Jewish handyman becomes Mack’s companion in this weekend encounter, while Sarayu cultivates both chaos and order in a garden outside the shack.

Unlike other popular fictional stories that use fables and stories to reveal HOW God works (John Bunyan; C.S. Lewis; Dr. Tim LaHay), this book’s purpose is to reveal WHO God is. Using fictional stories to reveal how God works is not uncommon (Pilgrim’s Progress; The Chronicles of Narnia; Left Behind), but to use fictional stories to reveal who God is, is treading on very thin ice.

While Christianity is a faith that contains many truths, some of them more difficult to understand than others, there is none as difficult as the doctrine of the Trinity. Neither is there a doctrine that is so foundational to the faith. Though Christians have long acknowledged that we can never know the fullness of this doctrine, there is much we can know and know with confidence: God is three persons; each person is fully God; there is one God. Though God is three persons, He is not three separate gods (that would be polytheism), or one God with three personalities (that would make God schizophrenic). Nor did God the Father die on the cross with Jesus, thus having nail prints in His hands, as He does in The Shack (p. 95—that would be modalism—God revealing Himself in three modes, rather than as a Triune being; a Trinity of three-in-one).

Though the Trinity is difficult to comprehend (and, as such, we accept it by faith), that does not give us license to redefine God so that He is understandable. It is in that redefining that we shrink God; in fact, we lower Him down to our level.

The Bible is clear that God cannot and must not be portrayed by an image. It is impossible to make the Creator a part of His creation (other than what God the Father did in implanting God the Son inside the Virgin Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit). Jesus said, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). The third of the Ten Commandments similarly forbids attempting to make any visual representation of God. To worship such an image, to acknowledge it as God or even to pretend it is God, is to commit the sin of idolatry. It is to worship a creation rather than the Creator.

So, while Young’s portrayal of Jesus may be based on some fact, his portrayal of the Father and the Holy Spirit in human form is clearly forbidden. Describing people who attempt to do this, the Apostle Paul said, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal god for images resembling mortal man…” (Romans 1:22-23a). Paul says that the “wrath of God is revealed against” all who do this (v. 18).

This redefining of God inevitably leads to one of the most disturbing aspects of The Shack; and that is the behavior of Mack when he is in the presence of God. When we read in the Bible about those who found themselves in God’s presence, they were overwhelmed by His glory. Job is described as the most righteous man of his day, and yet at the end of the Book of Job, Job receives a vision of God, and says, “I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees Thee; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). In the Book of Isaiah, Isaiah the prophet sees “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6:1). Isaiah reacts by crying out “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). When Moses encountered God in a burning bush, he hid his face in fear at the presence of God’s glory (Exodus 3:6). In the Book of Revelation when the Apostle John sees the resurrected Jesus Christ in the “middle of seven golden lampstands” he “fell on his face as a dead man” (Revelation 1:17).

But in The Shack we find a man who stands in the very presence of God and uses foul language (“damn” on p. 140, and “son of a bitch” on p. 224), who expresses anger to God (which in turn makes God “cry” on p. 92), and who snaps at God in his anger (p. 96). This is not a man who is in the presence of One who is superior to Him, but a man who is in the presence of a peer. This description of Mack’s relationship to God and God’s relationship to Mack has no biblical precedence. There is no sense of awe as Mack converses with God. Gone is the majesty and magnificence of God when Mack stands in His holy presence.

Furthermore, the Bible is clear about the means of salvation. Yet, in The Shack, Jesus (the young Middle Eastern man) says to Mack, “I am the BEST WAY any human can relate to Papa.” The real Jesus did not say that. He said that He was the ONLY WAY to the Father (John 14:6). The Apostle Peter, expecting to meet the same fate as his Savior, boldly declared to those who put Jesus on the cross just 50 days earlier, “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

The cross of Jesus Christ is the theme of the entire Bible and the central message of the New Testament. On the cross Jesus suffered a horrible death. His resurrection is the climax not only of the Scriptures but of human history. Yet The Shack barely refers to the cross or the resurrection. A person unfamiliar with the Christian faith will not be able to glean from this book a biblical understanding of the purpose of the cross or what Jesus’ death accomplished. Nor, will the reader understand how God saves and from what He saves us from. Yet, on websites containing reviews of The Shack, people with no personal faith in Christ discuss how much they were spiritually enriched by this book. Candidly, there is no real spiritual enrichment apart from the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Equally misleading in The Shack is its characterization of the justice and judgment of God for sin. For example, “God does not need to punish sin at all” says Papa. “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring them from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it” (p. 120).

Indeed, God does provide a cure for sin (Romans 6:23), but He also promises judgment (Revelation 20:12-15) to those who fail to put their trust in the death, burial, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 15:1-8). Yet in The Shack Papa claims that He is “not a bully; not some self-centered demanding little deity insisting on my own way. I am good, and I desire only what is best for you. You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation or coercion, only through a relationship of love” (p. 126).

Throughout The Shack Young explicitly and implicitly embraces the doctrine of universal reconciliation. Universal reconciliation teaches that not only did Christ die for all sinners; all sinners will be saved in Christ. It teaches that no one will go to hell and no one will be judged for their sins. Young is way off base here, for that is categorically not true!

An area equally troubling is Young’s belittling of the Bible (pp. 65-66), his criticism of sound biblical training (p. 91), and his demeaning of biblical convictions (p. 203). The Apostle Paul said to Timothy, the pastor of the church in Ephesus, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately (literally, cut straight) the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). If the “word of truth” can be “handled accurately,” that also means it can be handled inaccurately. And that is exactly what the author of The Shack does.

Though Young (the son of missionary parents) is a Bible college graduate and briefly attended seminary, it is apparent from The Shack that he has little or no understanding or appreciation of the original Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) languages or of systematic theology. In fact, on his personal website he appears to boast that he is not “connected, or a part, or a member of, or involved inside any sort of organization or movement anywhere.” Mr. Young has shunned both Christian colleges, seminaries, and the institutional church (he holds services in his home with his family and a few close friends).

Yet God clearly established the church, with leaders in authority (Matthew 18:15-20; I Corinthians 11-14; I Timothy 2-3; Titus 1; I Peter 5). There are gifts to be used, pastors, elders and deacons to select for the “equipping of the saints” (Ephesians 4:10-12) and provide direction (Romans 12:8), and members to minister to each other and to reach the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:47).

The Shack is “hand-in-glove” with the current “Emergent Church” movement which claims that the Bible is not sufficient for today and that it needs to be supplemented or replaced by fresh revelation. The “Emergent Church” mirrors the warning by Paul that in the “last days” Christians will “not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

Christians are to trust in the only infallible source of truth, and that is the inspired Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16-17) which were “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Jesus testified to the completeness of the Scriptures (Revelation 22:18-19) and warned against those who would “add” or “take away” from them. The Bible even testifies to its own perfection and power, “the (word of God) is perfect, reviving the soul, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7). The Bible is even powerful enough to “revive” a father filled with grief over a daughter savagely murdered by a serial killer.

How will God reveal Himself to us according to William Young? “You will learn to hear my thoughts in yours” (p. 195).

Though touching, and at times emotionally moving, The Shack is NOT accurate in its description of God or in its characterization of the Bible, of the means of salvation, and of the church. The Apostle Paul warns “that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (I Corinthians 2:5). The “wisdom” and “power” of God is contained in the 66 books found in the Bible, not in The Shack written by William Young.

The Shack