Monthly Archives: March 2009
How would you like to have your appendix removed with a rusty scalpel?
Sorry, that’s kind of a weird question. But it’s not random. In a sense, I think that something similar is going on among American Christians today, particularly those who are reading the ultra-popular book The Shack. Many people are raving about how this book has deepened their relationship with God. I don’t doubt that this is happening; this book has a lot of truth in it that is cutting out infection in people’s lives. However, it is also riddled through and through with severe errors, and I am afraid that these errors will be unconsciously absorbed by those who read it, until over time a newer and more severe problem will develop. A rusty scalpel may cure an immediate illness, but it will introduce a more severe infection that may ruin the whole body.
So why am I writing about this book again? Didn’t I already cover it a few months ago?
True, I wrote a three-part series of posts on The Shack. To be honest, though, I never really felt like I had a total grasp on what I liked and didn’t like about the book. That changed earlier this year after I finished studying the tabernacle for seminary (my two earlier posts on the tabernacle can be found here and here). I found that the tabernacle was a helpful lens through which to view The Shack. This is because The Shack is, in effect, a sort of tabernacle; the book is all about our relationship with God. So let’s line The Shack and the tabernacle up next to each other and see what they tell us about God. Where do they agree (the good points of the back) and where do they disagree (the bad points of the book)? We’ll do this by asking several key questions.
1. Does God love people?
The Tabernacle: Yes! The tabernacle was the means by which a holy God could dwell with the people whom he loved. After being delivered from Egypt, as they prepared to meet this God, Moses wrote a song with these lines: “You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode” (Exod 15:13). God loves people—and in particular, the people whom he has chosen for his own!
The Shack: Yes! This is a point that is beaten to death, and that’s a good thing. Papa (the Father) tells Mack that he is “smack dab in the center of my love” (p. 98). However, there is a question as to what William Young thinks love is. For example, he claims that the people who know God are “the ones who are free to live and love without any agenda” (p. 181). Love without an agenda is no love at all! Love always has an agenda—to see others conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.
2. Does God want to be in relationship with people?
The Tabernacle: Yes! The whole point of the tabernacle is that it is the dwelling place of God among his people. God could have remained aloof, observing the world from afar. Instead, he chose to be closely involved, meeting and talking with his people in the tabernacle (Exodus 25:22).
The Shack: Yes! In fact, the book is focused on the idea of relationships—between God and man as well as between man and his fellow man. Papa tells Mack, “I desire to be in relationship with every human being” (p. 100). Now, there are strong indications that Young’s idea of relationship is markedly different from the biblical idea of relationship (that is, God’s idea of relationship). But we’ll get to that later.
3. Is God holy?
The Tabernacle: Yes! You can’t miss this theme; it’s the single reason for the entire book of Leviticus. Throughout Exodus 26–31, God insists that the place where he dwells and the people to whom he ministers be holy as well. Holiness means “set apart”—particularly in a moral sense, in which God command us to be holy as well (Leviticus 11:44–45).
The Shack: Yes. Papa tells Mack, “I am what some would say ‘holy, and wholly other than you’” (p. 98). However, beyond this concept of being something other, there is hardly any mention of holiness in the book. There seems to be almost no concept of holiness as moral purity, and Mack is never told that he must be holy. While The Shack focuses on the love of God, it almost totally ignores his holiness.
4. Is there any obstacle between man and God (i.e. sin)?
The Tabernacle: Yes! The unholiness of man due to his sin is what separates man from God. Leviticus emphasizes the defilement of sin that hinders the close communion that God wants with his people. In Exodus 32, the people build a golden calf as an alternative worship system; God nearly wipes them out in his wrath because they have “sinned a great sin” (Exodus 32:30). Sin in the Bible damages our relationship with God; it is identified as breaking his law, as failing to love him, as being morally twisted and corrupted, and ultimately as rebelling against his authority.
The Shack: Yes. The Shack emphasizes many things that stand between us and God; essentially, Young views “sin” as anything that hinders our relationship with God. Throughout the book, he places particular emphasis on fear, a lack of trust in him, and independence from him. All well and good! However, he also adds hierarchy and institutions to the list. In other words, authority and institutions (whatever he means by that) are inherently sinful. This flies in the face of what God really teaches in the Bible; the authority of God is a great thing, and he gives authority to people as well. He also institutes marriage, human government, and the church, among other examples. Young’s idea of relationship has more in common with hippie communes than with the love relationship that the true God wants us to have with him.
5. How does God handle sin?
The Tabernacle: Ultimately, there are two ways that God handles sin. One is to punish the sinner. In the Second Commandment, forbidding idolatry, he declares, “I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5–6). That God punishes evildoers is an inescapable theme of both the Old and New Testaments. Yet there is hope for us in a second way! In the Old Testament, the Lord offered atonement for sins through a ritual known as the Day of Atonement, in which the people’s sins were paid for by the death of an animal as a substitute (Leviticus 16). Ultimately, this prefigured the atonement offered by Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9–10).
The Shack: The Shack has two things to say about sin. One is that sin must be forgiven by God (p. 225). The second is that God does not intend to punish sin. Papa tells Mack, “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 is only a half-truth. It is true that sin itself can be a punishment (Romans 1:24–31). However, the Bible is crystal clear that God actually does punish sin, both in this life and (more importantly and finally) in the next.
6. Why did Jesus Christ have to die?
The Tabernacle: As we just saw—prefigured by the tabernacle—Jesus Christ had to die to bear the penalty of our sin, satisfying the absolutely just wrath of God against our sin by serving as a substitute for us. And that is just one aspect of the crucifixion! It is because of his sacrifice that we are forgiven of our sins. And it is because of his righteousness that is made ours that we can now boldly come before the God who loves us, in relationship with him (Hebrews 10:19–22).
The Shack: First, Jesus provided the example of a servant who gave up his rights (p. 137); this agrees with the Bible (Philippians 2:5–8). Second, in some sense, what Jesus did allows God to forgive people of their sins (pp. 224–225); obviously, this is true as well. Third, Jesus accomplished the reconciliation of the entire world—meaning every last person on earth—to God (p. 192). Here’s where we run into problems, because first of all, this is nonsense; reconciliation is not possible between a willing party and an unwilling party. In fact, those who do not believe in Jesus Christ “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18). Fourth, and even more troubling, Jesus did not die to bear the penalty of our sins as a substitute for us. On p. 96, Young (using God the Father as his mouthpiece) insists that God did not forsake his Son at the cross (Jesus was just really whiny in Matthew 27:46, I guess). If he was not forsaken, then we who should be forsaken for our sins have no confidence that Jesus Christ has received this affliction in our place (Isaiah 53). If you think I am reading too much into this, Young himself has explicitly denied that Jesus Christ died as a substitute for us, bearing the penalty for our sins.
Bottom line? It would appear that the God of The Shack is a God of love (sort of), but he/she is not particularly holy. This is not the true God that we are called to worship! I encourage you, if you plan to read this book (or already have), read it with exceptional discernment and caution. Be careful about surgery done with a rusty scalpel.
Although the description of the tabernacle is one of those sections of the Old Testament that we’re tempted to skip over when we’re reading through the Bible, this was a part of Israel’s history that is critical to understanding and relating to God and to his Son, Jesus Christ. In the last post, we saw that the tabernacle was inconvenient and dangerous for the children of Israel, but that it was the only way to God. The reason that the Lord had them build the tabernacle was so that there could be a place where a holy God could dwell with a sinful people whom he loved. The tabernacle simultaneously affirms that the Lord is holy and that the Lord is loving; he is both transcendent and immanent.
Eventually, the tabernacle—a royal tent, but a tent nonetheless—was replaced by a far grander temple constructed by King Solomon. Solomon made sure to replicate many of the features of the tabernacle; even the proportions were kept the same, with the Holy of Holies remaining a perfect cubic shape, just as in the tabernacle. The Jerusalem temple was one of the most glorious buildings ever constructed, and when it was finished, “the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD” (1 Kings 8:11).
Eventually, this temple was destroyed, but it was merely a shadow of what was to come. God sent his only son, Jesus Christ, who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Jesus became the ultimate tabernacle or temple; in fact, he referred to his own body as a temple (John 2:21). Finally, Immanuel had come—”God with us”!
However, the great problem remained—how could we approach an infinitely holy God through this new tabernacle? The answer was given when Jesus Christ died on the cross. The book of Hebrews reminds us of the Old Testament’s “Day of Atonement,” a yearly event in the Israelite calendar (Leviticus 16). On this day, the high priest would open a curtain within the tabernacle and bring the blood of a bull and a goat into the Holy of Holies and sprinkle it onto the golden mercy seat, the throne of God. So when Christ died, he entered into heaven bearing his own blood, making atonement once for all with a far superior sacrifice (Hebrews 9).
Don’t lose sight of how remarkable it is that we can now stand in the presence of the Almighty! Hebrews 10:19–22 reads:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
This was the sort of thing that would get you killed under the old covenant! But under the new covenant inaugurated through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we can now boldly enter into the holy presence of God, confident that our sins have been atoned for by the blood of Jesus. What an unimaginable blessing—and at what great cost! “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1)! Through faith in Christ we can enter into the presence of a God who loves us and welcomes us home.
Someday, this era of world history will come to an end. “The heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!” (2 Peter 3:12). But there will be a re-creation, a new heaven and a new earth. In the book of Revelation, John saw a vision of a city descending from heaven—New Jerusalem. And this city appeared as nothing less than an enormous cube, 1380 miles on each side, made of pure gold (Revelation 21:15–21). The shape and material of this city recalls the shape and material of the tabernacle. At long last God has come to dwell with man! There is no temple in the city, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (v. 22). There is no longer anything separating you and me from God; he has come to be with us, and we have been made holy, just as he is.
Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. (Revelation 21:3)
If you have placed your faith in Jesus Christ as the only way by which you can stand before God, through his blood shed for your sins, then this is the future that awaits you! The Lord is eagerly waiting for the day when you will be presented holy and glorious in his presence. Even now, he loves you dearly and has given everything he has to make you his own. He longs to be with you.
“You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20).
Is that the God you grew up knowing?
Or has your relationship with him been a little more…casual…than that?
When it comes to our perspective on God—on how we relate to him—we tend to err in one of two ways. The first error is to focus exclusively on his transcendence. We think of God as cold, distant, and uncaring. He’s far away; he doesn’t love me very much; he merely tolerates me. The second error is to focus exclusively on his immanence. In other words, we always think of God as being close, familiar, and friendly. He’s my divine buddy. There really isn’t much standing between him and me. He’s not particularly holy.
This is what happens when we try to melt down God and recast him into the shape of an idol—an idol that resembles a human figure. However, despite our best efforts, the God of the Bible is both transcendent and immanent. He is an awesome and holy God; he is also God with us.
But how? How can a God who is so holy that he cannot stand the least sight of sin—so holy that anyone who looked him in the face would die on the spot—how can such a God remain with us? If you’ve carefully read the book of Exodus, then you know that this is where the tabernacle comes in. The tabernacle was a royal tent for God. More than that, it was the place where a holy God could dwell with a sinful people whom he loved. It was where the Lord would meet with man (Exodus 25:22).
If we really want to understand and appreciate the Lord’s holiness and love, we have to understand the tabernacle. Here’s what the Old Testament teaches us about it:
- The tabernacle was inconvenient. If you’ve ever struggled through the detailed instructions for building the tabernacle in Exodus 25–27, only to push through yet another account of its construction in 36–38, then you know what I’m talking about! If it’s inconvenient to read about the tabernacle’s construction, how much more inconvenient was it to build it? The same goes for the entire book of Leviticus, which contains numerous details regarding the sacrifices and rituals that were to be performed there. The Lord’s presence among his people is tremendously inconvenient.
- The tabernacle was dangerous. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu found this out the hard way in Leviticus 10. They offered the wrong incense recipe on the altar inside the tabernacle, and were struck dead for it. To enter into the inner room of the tabernacle—the Holy of Holies—each year was a fearsome responsibility for the high priest. In fact, he had to fill the room with incense smoke so that he would not see the Lord and die (Leviticus 16:13). All of the Lord’s instructions had to be followed to the letter in order for his people to gain access to him without dying. The Lord’s presence among his people is tremendously dangerous.
- The tabernacle was the only way to God. Where does Israel’s idolatry toward the golden calf take place in the book of Exodus? As a matter of fact, it is sandwiched in between the Lord’s description of the tabernacle and the construction of the tabernacle. This is not a coincidence. The golden calf was Israel’s solution to how God could dwell among them; through it they could worship the Lord (Exodus 32:5). But the Lord was incensed that they would try to come to him on their own terms, not on his terms. The tabernacle may have been inconvenient and dangerous, but it was the only way that the Lord could dwell with his people.
Now, if I were in the Lord’s shoes, I know for certain that I wouldn’t have bothered. I don’t care enough about other people to go through all that trouble. What incredible love he showed! Rather than taking the easy way out by remaining distant, he chose to dwell with the sinful and rebellious children of Israel. The book of Exodus ends with the Lord guiding his people through the wilderness toward the Promised Land. He has not changed; he loves his people today, and he longs to be with us. And we have something far greater than an earthly tent by which we can gain access to God. More on that in the next post.