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The Shack - Missing Art of Evangelical Discernment  

 

By: Al Mohler

 

The publishing world sees very few books reach blockbuster status, but William Paul Young's The Shack has now exceeded even that. The book, originally self-published by Young and two friends, has now sold more than 10 million copies and has been translated into over thirty languages. It is now one of the best-selling paperback books of all time, and its readers are enthusiastic.

According to Young, the book was originally written for his own children. In essence, it can be described as a narrative theodicy - an attempt to answer the question of evil and the character of God by means of a story. In this story, the main character is grieving the brutal kidnapping and murder of his seven-year-old daughter when he receives what turns out to be a summons from God to meet him in the very shack where the man's daughter had been murdered.

In the shack, "Mack" meets the divine Trinity as "Papa," an African-American woman; Jesus, a Jewish carpenter; and "Sarayu," an Asian woman who is revealed to be the Holy Spirit. The book is mainly a series of dialogues between Mack, Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu. Those conversations reveal God to be very different than the God of the Bible. "Papa" is absolutely non-judgmental, and seems most determined to affirm that all humanity is already redeemed.

The theology of The Shack is not incidental to the story. Indeed, at most points the narrative seems mainly to serve as a structure for the dialogues. And the dialogues reveal a theology that is unconventional at best, and undoubtedly heretical in certain respects.

While the literary device of an unconventional "trinity" of divine persons is itself sub-biblical and dangerous, the theological explanations are worse. "Papa" tells Mack of the time when the three persons of the Trinity "spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God." Nowhere in the Bible is the Father or the Spirit described as taking on human existence. The Christology of the book is likewise confused. "Papa" tells Mack that, though Jesus is fully God, "he has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything. He has only lived out of his relationship with me, living in the very same manner that I desire to be in relationship with every human being." When Jesus healed the blind, "He did so only as a dependent, limited human being trusting in my life and power to be at work within him and through him. Jesus, as a human being, had no power within himself to heal anyone."

While there is ample theological confusion to unpack there, suffice it to say that the Christian church has struggled for centuries to come to a faithful understanding of the Trinity in order to avoid just this kind of confusion - understanding that the Christian faith is itself at stake.

Jesus tells Mack that he is "the best way any human can relate to Papa or Sarayu." Not the only way, but merely the best way.

In another chapter, "Papa" corrects Mack's theology by asserting, "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." Without doubt, God's joy is in the atonement accomplished by the Son. Nevertheless, the Bible consistently reveals God to be the holy and righteous Judge, who will indeed punish sinners. The idea that sin is merely "its own punishment" fits the Eastern concept of karma, but not the Christian Gospel.

The relationship of the Father to the Son, revealed in a text like John 17, is rejected in favor of an absolute equality of authority among the persons of the Trinity. "Papa" explains that "we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity." In one of the most bizarre paragraphs of the book, Jesus tells Mack: "Papa is as much submitted to me as I am to him, or Sarayu to me, or Papa to her. Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way."

The theorized submission of the Trinity to a human being - or to all human beings - is a theological innovation of the most extreme and dangerous sort. The essence of idolatry is self-worship, and this notion of the Trinity submitted (in any sense) to humanity is inescapably idolatrous.

The most controversial aspects of The Shack‘s message have revolved around questions of universalism, universal redemption, and ultimate reconciliation. Jesus tells Mack: "Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were 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." Jesus adds, "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, my Beloved."

Mack then asks the obvious question - do all roads lead to Christ? Jesus responds, "Most roads don't lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you."

Given the context, it is impossible not to draw essentially universalistic or inclusivistic conclusions about Young's meaning. "Papa" chides Mack that he is now reconciled to the whole world. Mack retorts, "The whole world? You mean those who believe in you, right?" "Papa" responds, "The whole world, Mack."

Put together, all this implies something very close to the doctrine of reconciliation proposed by Karl Barth. And, even as Young's collaborator Wayne Jacobson has lamented the "self-appointed doctrine police" who have charged the book with teaching ultimate reconciliation, he acknowledges that the first editions of the manuscript were unduly influenced by Young's "partiality at the time" to ultimate reconciliation - the belief that the cross and resurrection of Christ accomplished then and there a unilateral reconciliation of all sinners (and even all creation) to God.

James B. DeYoung of Western Theological Seminary, a New Testament scholar who has known William Young for years, documents Young's embrace of a form of "Christian universalism." The Shack, he concludes, "rests on the foundation of universal reconciliation."

Even as Wayne Jacobson and others complain of those who identify heresy within The Shack, the fact is that the Christian church has explicitly identified these teachings as just that - heresy. The obvious question is this: How is it that so many evangelical Christians seem to be drawn not only to this story, but to the theology presented in the narrative - a theology at so many points in conflict with evangelical convictions?

Evangelical observers have not been alone in asking this question. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Timothy Beal of Case Western University argues that the popularity of The Shack suggests that evangelicals might be shifting their theology. He cites the "nonbiblical metaphorical models of God" in the book, as well as its "nonhierarchical" model of the Trinity and, most importantly, "its theology of universal salvation."

Beal asserts that none of this theology is part of "mainstream evangelical theology," then explains: "In fact, all three are rooted in liberal and radical academic theological discourse from the 1970s and 80s - work that has profoundly influenced contemporary feminist and liberation theology but, until now, had very little impact on the theological imaginations of nonacademics, especially within the religious mainstream."

He then asks: "What are these progressive theological ideas doing in this evangelical pulp-fiction phenomenon?" He answers: "Unbeknownst to most of us, they have been present on the liberal margins of evangelical thought for decades." Now, he explains, The Shack has introduced and popularized these liberal concepts even among mainstream evangelicals.

Timothy Beal cannot be dismissed as a conservative "heresy-hunter." He is thrilled that these "progressive theological ideas" are now "trickling into popular culture by way of The Shack."

Similarly, writing at Books & Culture, Katherine Jeffrey concludes that The Shack "offers a postmodern, post-biblical theodicy." While her main concern is the book's place "in a Christian literary landscape," she cannot avoid dealing with its theological message.

In evaluating the book, it must be kept in mind that The Shack is a work of fiction. But it is also a sustained theological argument, and this simply cannot be denied. Any number of notable novels and works of literature have contained aberrant theology, and even heresy. The crucial question is whether the aberrant doctrines are features of the story or the message of the work. When it comes to The Shack, the really troubling fact is that so many readers are drawn to the theological message of the book, and fail to see how it conflicts with the Bible at so many crucial points.

All this reveals a disastrous failure of evangelical discernment. It is hard not to conclude that theological discernment is now a lost art among American evangelicals - and this loss can only lead to theological catastrophe.

The answer is not to ban The Shack or yank it out of the hands of readers. We need not fear books - we must be ready to answer them. We desperately need a theological recovery that can only come from practicing biblical discernment. This will require us to identify the doctrinal dangers of The Shack, to be sure. But our real task is to reacquaint evangelicals with the Bible's teachings on these very questions and to foster a doctrinal rearmament of Christian believers.

The Shack is a wake-up call for evangelical Christianity. An assessment like that offered by Timothy Beal is telling. The popularity of this book among evangelicals can only be explained by a lack of basic theological knowledge among us - a failure even to understand the Gospel of Christ. The tragedy that evangelicals have lost the art of biblical discernment must be traced to a disastrous loss of biblical knowledge. Discernment cannot survive without doctrine.

 


       


Questions

The Big Question

Does God Exist?

What Is The Bible?

Is The Bible True?

Who Is Jesus?

Is Jesus In Every Book Of The Bible?

Is Jesus God?

Did Jesus Fulfill Any Prophecies?

Did God Create You?

What About Reincarnation?

Are You Going To Heaven?

What Is The Truth About Hell?

What are the Essentials of the Faith?

Who Will You Believe?

Want To Find A Good Church?

Looking For A Church In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania?

Which Bible Translation Is Right For Me?

What is the TULIP, and is it Biblical?

What are the Five Solas, and are they Biblical?

 

Objections

"All Religions Lead To God"

"Never Talk About Religion Or Politics"

"Judge Not..."

"The Bible Is Full Of Contradictions"

"A Powerful God Wouldn't Allow So Much Evil..."

"The Church Is Full Of Hypocrites"

"What About Those Who Never Hear About Jesus?"

"A God of Love vs. A God of Wrath"

"A Loving God Wouldn't Send People To Hell"

"You're Only A Christian Because You..."

"As Long As You're Sincere In What You Believe"

"How Do You Know Which Religion Is Right?"

"God Would Never Forgive Someone Like Me"

"I Can't Believe In Miracles"

"Unanswered Prayer Shows God Doesn't Exist"

"What's With All The Different Denominations?"

"Jesus Was Just a Copycat of Pagan Myths"

"What About The Crusades?"

"What About Slavery In The Bible?"

"What About Evolution?"

"What About Homosexuality?"

"Jesus Didn't Say Anything About Homosexuality"

"What About Abortion?"

 

Other Stuff

   Other Beliefs

     Judaism

     Roman Catholicism

     Islam

     Jehovah's Witnesses

     Mormonism

     Seventh-Day Adventism

     Buddhism

     Hinduism

     Baha'i

     New Age

     Christian Science

     Scientology

     Freemasonry

     Oneness Pentecostals

     Unitarian Universalism

     Rastafarianism

     Wicca

     Satanism

What I Believe

Theological Terms and Definitions

Belief Comparison Chart

An Eschatological Overview (End Times)

Good Quotes

Paul Washer Quotes

20 Logical Fallacies

17 Questions Every Christian Should Think About

My Prayer - I Have A Problem...

More Than A Holiday

Honest Questions for Jehovah's Witnesses

Honest Questions For Mormons

Questions For Skeptics

10 Reasons To Tell Your Kids The Truth About Santa

A View From The Life Boat

A Collection of Helpful Bible Passages

A Story About A Boy Named Mikey

Thoughts On The Doctrine Of Definite Atonement

Questions To Ask A Child Before Their Baptism

A Critique Of An Origin-Of-Life Article

No Hope In The Pope

Terrorism - What You Can Do About It

The Impact Of A Blind Elderly Woman

Evidence For The Resurrection - W.O.M.E.N.

 

Apologetics / Evangelism

What Is Apologetics?

Why Should We Do Apologetics?

What Is Presuppositional Apologetics? 

What Do You KNOW? 

What Is Evangelism? 

Why Should We Evangelize? 

Are Christian Doing A Good Job Of Evangelizing? 

7 Reasons People Don't Share Their Faith

The Question Of Evangelism - Words Or Works? 

Is The World In Which We Live In Today Tolerant? 

Preaching What We Practice and Talking The Walk

Man vs. God Centered Evangelism

 

Around the Web

44 Reasons Why Evolution is Just a Fairy Tale

The Scientific Case Against Evolution

Evolution: The Anti-Science

A Letter From An Atheist

Are You A Good Person?

Is This Your Life?

What Does It Mean To Accept Christ?

What's Wrong With The Sinner's Prayer?

An Important Aspect of Baptism

Must We Believe Jesus Is God?

Turn or Burn

Top 10 Reasons Our Kids Leave Church

10 Reasons Not To Ask Jesus Into Your Heart

10 Principles For New Christians

10 Pitfalls Of The Foolish Apologist

Evangelistic Phrases That Produce False Conversions

The Secret About How Some Christians Witness

Preaching God's Love In Acts?

The Gospel In Every Book Of The Bible

7 Key Differences Bewteen Protestant And Catholic Doctrine

A Different Perspective On Halloween

10 Reasons I Kissed Halloween Goodbye

The Question After A Tragedy - WHY?

The Impact of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Thoughts About Bruce (Caitlyn) Jenner

A Pastor's Response To The Marriage Debate

Sin By Any Other Name Is Still Sin

Should a Woman Be a Pastor or Elder?

Wives, Submit To Your Husbands?

The Shack - Missing Art of Evangelical Discernment

Universalism - A Problem for Everyone

5 Problems With Roman Catholic Theology

5 More Problems With Roman Catholic Theology

5 Truths We're Keeping From Our Youth Groups

Charlottesville, Racism and God's Word

 

Audio / Video

    Original Sermon Jams

     Born Again - Paul Washer

     Does Jesus Know You? - Paul Washer

     We Got An A! - Paul Washer

     A Boy On The Street - R.C. Sproul

     Fearless - R.C. Sproul

     Hypocrites - R.C. Sproul

     Smiling Faces - R.C. Sproul

     Authorized Personnel Only - Tony Evans

     Drive-thru - Tony Evans

     One Flesh - Tony Evans

     Sex - Tony Evans

     The Satisfier - Tony Evans

     Who to Serve? - Pastor Mike Leonzo

     The Voice of Truth - Pastor Ben Maxie

     Transformed - Pastor Mike Leonzo

     Where is the Love? - Pastor Ben Maxie

     He Claimed to be God - Pastor Mike Leonzo

     Love is a Behavior - Pastor Ben Maxie

     Examine It for Yourself - Pastor Mike Leonzo

     Perfect Love - Pastor Ben Maxie

     We Need Preachers - Mike Bongo

     The Sovereignty of God in Evangelism - Mike Bongo 

     I'm Ready - Mike Bongo

     Our Day in Court - Mike Bongo

     Examine Yourself - Mike Bongo

     Exclusivity - Mike Bongo

     Our World - Mike Bongo

     The Great Exchange - Mike Bongo 

     True God - Mike Bongo

    The One Minute Apologist

     Intolerance - Greg Koukl

     Legislating Morality - Frank Turek

     Intelligent Design and Creation - Bill Dembski

     Tolerance is Unbiblical - Josh McDowell

     Homosexual Forgiveness - Michael Brown

     What Must I Do To Be Saved? - Hank Hannegraaff

     Is Jesus A Copycat Savior? - J. Warner Wallace

     The Resurrection - Gary Habernas

     Contradictions In The Bible - Mike Licona

     Is It About Winning Arguments? - Mary Jo Sharp

     Does Christianity Oppress Women? - Dianna Newman

     Is Evil An Argument For God? - Brett Kunkle

   WWUTT (When We Understand The Text)

     Hate The Sin, Love The Sinner?

     Thou Shalt Not Judge?

     God Will Never Give You More Than You Can Handle?

     Do We Have To Prove That God Exists?

     Preach The Gospel, If Necessary Use Words?

     You Don't Have To Go To Church To Be A Christian?

     I Stand At The Door And Knock?

     God Has Already Chosen Who Will Be Saved?

     Spare The Rod, Spoil the Child?

     The Bible Says Slavery is Okay?

     Are Catholics Saved?

     God Foreknew Who Would Be Saved?

     Does The Bible Say Homosexuality is A Sin?

     Alter Calls And The Sinner's Prayer?

     Worse Than An Unbeliever?

    Kids Section

     The Gospel

     David Platt On Sharing the Gospel With Children

     For The Children: Are You Saved? - Paul Washer

     2 Amazing 11 Year Old Boys

   Other Audio / Video

     Rescue The Perishing

     Emeal Zwayne's Dialogue With A Homosexual

     The Big Questions of Life - Voddie Baucham

   Explore God

     Is There A God?

     Can We Know God Personally?

     Why Does God Allow Pain And Suffering?

     Is Jesus Really God?

     Are Christians Judgmental?

   The Bible Project

     The Book of Genesis Overview - Part 1 of 2 

     The Book of Genesis Overview - Part 2 of 2 

     The Book of Exodus Overview - Part 1 of 2

     The Book of Exodus Overview - Part 2 of 2

     The Book of Leviticus Overview

     The Book of Numbers Overview

     The Book of Deuteronomy Overview

     The Book of Joshua Overview

     The Book of Judges Overview

     The Book of Ruth Overview

     The Book of 1 Samuel Overview

     The Book of 2 Samuel Overview

     The Books of 1 and 2 Kings Overview

     The Book of Job Overview

     The Book of Psalms Overview

     The Book of Proverbs Overview

     The Book of Song of Songs Overview

     The Book of Isaiah Overview - Part 1 of 2

     The Book of Isaiah Overview - Part 2 of 2

     The Book of Hosea Overview

     The Book of Joel Overview

     The Book of Amos Overview

     The Book of Obadiah Overview

     The Book of Jonah Overview

     The Book of Micah Overview

     The Book of Nahum Overview

     The Book of Habakkuk Overview

     The Book of Zephaniah Overview 

Street Conversations

Street Conversations Disclaimer

Street Conversations - George & Paul

Street Conversations - Don

Street Conversations - VeeJay

Street Conversations - Joe

Street Conversations - Ralph 

Street Conversations - Charles

Street Conversations - Ed

Street Conversations - Ken

Street Conversations - Jessica

Street Conversations - Ida

Street Conversations - Earl & Evadel 

Street Conversations - Jim  

Street Conversations - Raheem

Street Conversations - Raheem part 2

Street Conversations - My Mom

Street Conversations - Eddie

Street Conversations - Renee

Street Conversations - Ron

Street Conversations - Rash

Street Conversations - Preacher

Street Conversations - Luis

Street Conversations - Keith

Street Conversations - Hippy

Street Conversations - Rich

Street Conversations - Hippy part 2

Street Conversations - Butch

Street Conversations - Scott

Street Conversations - Marcos

Street Conversations - Will & James

Street Conversations - Alexander and Valerie

Street Conversations - Jerry and Steve

Street Conversations - Blake

Street Conversations - Elteresa

Street Conversations - Pete

Street Conversations - George

 

Me      

My Baptism

Parable Of The Talents  

Survey Says  

A Hard Lesson  

Talking About Jesus  

The Perfect Gift  

A Faith Worth Thinking About  

Stand Strong  

Peace At Christmas  

Resolutions From Revelation  

Takin' The Gospel To The Streets  

Responding Rightly To The Gospel Of Grace  

A Defense That Honors God And His Word  

Encouragement In Corinth  

The Dash

Surrendering To Win

The Gospel

The Laborers Are Few; Therefore...

Love Has No Labels - A Response

Faith That Works

Atheists: They Don't Exist

YOU Must Be NEW

Making a Difference - Outreach and Evangelism  

Luke - A Careful Investigation to be Sure  

Be Kind! Yeah, But Why?

A Close Encounter of the Divine Kind

The Formula For Forgiveness

 

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