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.