I'll confirm some of the direct quotes, but on the assumption that Jesus really says in the book that he has no desire to make anyone Christian and that he is the "best" way to get to God, it may as well be written off as heresy.
Reviewed by Dr. Mike Halsey, President
Free Grace Seminary
The Shack is a book by William Paul Young which has reached the pinnacle of success in the publishing world—a New York Times best-seller with three million copies in print and counting. One librarian says that he can't keep the book in the library. Church discussion groups spring up to bring their collective thoughts on The Shack to the table.
Pastors comment on the book from the pulpit. People report that they began to read the book and stayed up all night to get to the last period on the last page. Such testimonies speak of the power of the pen in the hands of a master writer. Barbara Tuchman, author and historian, said that she had a note posted above her writing table, “But will they turn the page?” People are turning the pages of The Shack.
The back-of-the-book comments hail the work as a masterpiece worthy of a literary hall of fame status, as Eugene Peterson ranks The Shack on par with John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Heady praise indeed. Blurbs tout the book as one to make the reader cry (it does), laugh, and repent. Another says that Young's work “has blown the door wide open to my soul.” Many report that their view of God has changed since reading the book and, as a result, their theology has changed. Some have written that nothing has impacted their theology as has The Shack. (Such comments are worrisome because theology is to come from the Bible, not from a book outside THE BOOK.)
The Shack is a theodicy, a work which seeks to defend God's goodness in the face of the existence of evil. There have been thousands of such works throughout history, but by couching his inside a story, Young has demonstrated the power of story to grab us and hold us in its powerful grip until the tale is told.
Preachers could learn a lesson from Young on this account, if they haven't learned it already from the power of Jesus' parables to hook the listener and make him think. And that's what Young does; through the power of story, he grabs the reader, doesn't let go, and makes him think.
The Shack is easy to read and the reader who is familiar with Mark Twain will see a resemblance between the way The Shack begins as paralleling Huckleberry Finn and its use of a folksy, colloquial style from the start.
The writer pushes the reader onto a roller coaster ride of emotion as he tells his story of a personal tragedy through the eyes of Mack, the father of a murdered girl. Mack experiences the emotions of bitterness, rage, confusion, anger, and tears over the loss of his daughter, an event called, “The Great Sadness.”
As with all books, works of fiction included, the reader must not read the book uncritically; the Christian is under the command to bring every thought captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).
The Shack revolves around a meeting which Mack, the main character, has with God in the shack in which his daughter was murdered, and, at the meeting, God appears as a large, down-to-earth, black woman.
But in the Bible, God is never spoken of as feminine, but masculine, and is said to be spirit, not flesh. This appearance of God (called “Papa” in the book) to Mack is done to make him feel comfortable since his relationship with his abusive father was a miserable one, one which has had a negative impact on Mack all his life. When Papa speaks to Mack, she does so in a down-home style, southern and folksy, yet when the “theology” of the book is delivered by Papa, the vocabulary changes and is no longer colloquial.
The Trinity is portrayed in the book: Jesus is seen as a friendly carpenter, wears a tool belt, skips rocks over a lake and enjoys lying in the sun with Mack as they talk things over.
The Holy Spirit is made flesh as well; something never done in the Bible except at the baptism of Christ in the form of a dove.
Such a portrayal of the members of the Trinity begins to give the reader the impression that the book is man-centered, not God-centered. God is portrayed as One who makes man, Mack in this case, comfortable, whereas the Bible is the opposite in its portrayal. When Isaiah sees God, he sees Him as “high and exalted,” One who is “Holy, holy, holy . . . who commands armies . . .” whose “majestic splendor fills the entire earth!”
God did not make Isaiah comfortable; Isaiah's reaction to seeing God was, “I am destroyed, for my lips are contaminated by sin and I live among people whose lips are contaminated by sin. My eyes have seen the king, the Lord who commands armies.”
In Revelation 1, when John sees the risen Christ, he describes Him as having “fiery eyes,” “a sharp sword coming out of His mouth;” “His feet were like polished bronze refined in a furnace;” “His voice was like the roar of many waters;” “His face shone like the sun shining at full strength.” Such a sight does not make John comfortable; it makes the apostle fall “as dead,” Yet, Mack tells Jesus, “I feel more comfortable around you.”
The premise of the book is that Papa makes people feel comfortable; Jesus is one's “Buddy.” The sovereign majesty of the Trinity is omitted. It is the Trinity as pop culture would write large.
When Mack sees Papa, he sees scars on her wrists and these are meant to be the scars from the cross, which is to say that the Father endured the cross, but this idea is never substantiated by the Bible and has been condemned as heresy in church history because it was the Son who became flesh (Jn. 1:14), not the Father. God the Father didn't die; Jesus, God the Son, was on the cross, the Father wasn't.
Papa says, “We three (the Trinity) spoke ourselves into human existence.” But the Bible is clear that it was the Second Person of the Trinity who became true humanity at the incarnation, not the Father, not the Spirit. Such a depiction muddles the Trinity because God is spirit (Jn. 4) not human flesh.
A theme the book emphasizes is that there is no hierarchy among the members of the Trinity. But the Bible is clear--there is a hierarchy among the members of the Trinity and that there is to be one in the human race. Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane , “Not My will, but Your will be done.” Jesus speaks of His food being the doing of the will of the Father. The author of the book of Hebrews, quoting the Old Testament, writes about the Son, who said to the Father, “I come to do Your will.” The New Testament describes the Son at the end of His reign on earth as delivering His kingdom to the Father. To say that there is no hierarchy in the Trinity is to delete Philippians 2, a highly christological passage, from the Bible. Jesus said the Father sent Him, He did not send the Father. The book, in spite of the fact that the Bible speaks of the Father as the head over Jesus Christ in 1 Cor. 11:3, ridicules the idea of a hierarchy in the Trinity and that Jesus was obedient to the Father's will. The Bible does not.
There are hierarchies in the human race, God-ordained ones which we see in the command of both the Old and the New Testaments, “Children, obey your parents,” and the Christian is to “obey those who have rule over them.” The believer is to “render to Caesar what is Caesar's.” Without hierarchies of authority, the human race would descend into chaos.
As to the author himself, he claims that he is not a member of any organized body, by which he means a church. This means that he has removed himself from any biblical, face-to-face instruction by pastors and teachers and elders. In fact, there is an anti-church tone to the book, as all churches and leaders are stereotyped as “power-hungry,” and “rule-oriented,” interested only in head knowledge. Such an argument is a straw man. The book sees nothing positive in the church. One wonders if the author had connected with godly pastors and elders in a local church, would he have written the book as he did.
The book is dismissive towards a seminary education, as seminaries are seen in the same light as churches. Seminaries are stereotyped to be filling people with head knowledge with no application to life. The author ignores church history which records such highly educated men with evangelistic zeal such as the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, and George Whitefield. Such a rejection of seminary training ignores hundreds of thousands of men who could have been successful in other fields of endeavor but chose to honor the gifts and calling of God in their lives, sacrifice their time, money and lives to attend seminary, to faithfully preach and teach the Word of God, and not only to win souls for Christ, but also to nurture them in the Lord and grow them in grace through discipleship ministries. Throughout the book, there is an anti-doctrinal stance as biblical teachings are cast as "religious conditioning" or "seminary teaching" (p. 93).
The Shack puts words in God's mouth to communicate unbiblical concepts and unbiblical divine attributes. For example, Papa tells Mack, “I don't do guilt and condemnation.” The concept promoted by the book is, “I don't punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment.” But Romans 1 says that sin is its own punishment because God has decreed it to be so. Paul, in Romans especially, spends many pages delineating the guilt of both Jew and gentile, concluding all as so guilty before God that their mouths are shut.
To say that God does not “do guilt and condemnation” is a pop culture God, “my buddy,” one who exists to make me comfortable. To read the early chapters of Romans is to see the guilt and condemnation of every member of the human race in living color on every page. Revelation's description of the Great White Throne judgment, Jesus' description of the division of the sheep from the goats, Christ's pronouncement to those who worked for their salvation, “Depart from Me; I never knew you,” all stand in stark contrast to the conversations in The Shack. Jesus spoke more on hell than any one else in the Bible. As detailed in Revelation, the Great Tribulation is a time of judgment and condemnation poured out on a planet and its people who have sinned and rejected the Son.
In the book, Mack must deal with the murderer of his daughter and is told that he must forgive him; he is told that if he doesn't, Papa can't forgive the killer. (“Mack, for you to forgive this man is for you to release this man, and allow me to redeem him.”) Does our forgiveness by God depend upon someone's forgiving us for wrongs we've done to them? Do we “allow” God to save someone who has hurt us? Do we “allow” Him to redeem anyone?” Such an idea is preposterous. A murderer who comes to faith alone in Christ only is forgiven by God, regardless of whether the family of the victim forgives him. This confuses sins against others with sins against God.
Free grace people will also note a confusing, muddled, inclusivistic subtext in the book. In The Shack, Jesus says, “I am the best way any human can relate to Papa. . .” There is never a suggestion or slightest hint in the Bible that Jesus is the best way to God. He said that He was the only way (Jn. 14:6). Such an idea of Jesus as the best way suggests there are other ways, maybe not as good, but other ways.
The confusion continues when Jesus tells Mack, “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They are Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don't vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved” (p. 182).
“I have no desire to make them Christian” falls apart under the scrutiny of the Great Commission where Jesus gives the command to go into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to observe everything He's commanded. The confusion is rampant when the reader contrasts the first part of the sentence (“I have no desire to make them Christian”) with the last part (“but I do want them to join in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my beloved.”) If Jesus has no desire to make people of other faiths Christians, or disciples of Christ, then we wonder what this "transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa" entails. What does it mean to be a son or daughter of Papa? Confusion.
When Mack asks Jesus, "Does that mean all roads will lead to you?" To this question, Jesus replies, "Not at all. . . . Most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you."
Christ never said, “Most roads don't lead anywhere;” instead, He warned that most roads lead to destruction in Matthew 7:13 -14.
The statement is confusing in that it appears that Jesus is implying that He will find a person in any religion, reveal Himself to him, but not take him from that religious path. A key aspect of the book is relationship, but unfortunately, relationship trumps truth. A right relationship with God must be founded and grounded on the truth. Jesus said that those who worship God must “worship in spirit and in truth" (John 4:23 -24). When Jesus spoke of Himself, He said, “I am the way the truth, and the life, no man comes to the Father but by Me.” To worship apart from the truth means to worship a false god and bow the knee as Israel did to Baal.
The author says that he wants these things to be true; he wants the kind of God portrayed in the book. The reader must ask if what he wants and the truth are the same. Wanting something to be true does not make it true.
Is this all this important? Job 42:7 answers that question. God is angry with Job's friends and expresses that anger: “. . . . [God] said to Eliphaz the Temanite, "I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” God is concerned that when we speak of who He is and what He has done; we get it right; we don't tinker with His character, with what He has said, or with what He has done.
Patrick Zukeran has written, “Young teaches key theological errors. This can lead the average reader into confusion regarding the nature of God and salvation. I found this to be an interesting story but I was disturbed by the theological errors. Readers who have not developed the skills to discern truth from error can be confused in the end. So, although the novel tries to address a relevant question, it teaches theological errors in the process. One cannot take lightly erroneous teachings on the nature of God, the Trinity and salvation.”
The average reader, knowing little or nothing about the Bible or the gospel of faith alone in Christ alone, would come away from the book with seriously erroneous beliefs about both God and the gospel. He would take from the book that God is the God of self-help; that He exists to heal my pain. Along the way, the reader would understand that doctrine is not important, nor is training in it. The book cartoons the character of God, omitting His holiness and justice, His outrage at sin and at the very least confuses and muddles the historic doctrine of faith alone in Christ alone.
What has been written in this review is by far the minority opinion of The Shack. The reader may be asking, “How can so many respected church leaders recommend the contents of the book if it presents what you say it presents?” “How can it sell millions and be in such error?” Those are very good questions
A book's truthfulness is not to be measured by how it makes a person feel. Feeling is not a reliable guide to the truth. Nazis may have gotten a good feeling from killing Jews, but their cause was evil, their “truth” a lie. A person may have a “good feeling” now, but will the book stand the test of time? To rank it as a “classic” is far-fetched. Will people still be reading The Shack a hundred years from now?
Respected church leaders who recommend the book have not made the Bible their standard, the filter by which they evaluate everything. The book is disarming, but the Christian reader must have discernment, even while on the emotional roller coaster. The Shack sneaks up on the reader, but the Christian needs to keep THE FILTER up and running. We must bring every thought into captivity to Christ. The only way to do this is to measure every word in the book by THE BOOK.
Sorry, Bart. That can't be justified. Whatever the authors believe and says in interviews, if his literary Jesus says that he is the best way to heaven, and that he doesn't want to make people Christian, then this personally orthodox other has given people a false gospel. That's unjustifiable.