One of the most perplexing questions humanity has faced is how can evil exist alongside an all-good and benevolent God? William Young’s book The Shack attempts to deal with this question in a fictitious manner.
The main character, Mack, grew up in an abusive home and eventually escaped the home after poisoning his father. Later on in life he takes a camping trip and, through a series of events, discovers that his six-year-old daughter Missy has been brutally murdered by a serial killer. After breaking down he one day receives a letter in the mail, inviting him to go to the shack his daughter’s bloody dress was found in. After arriving, he spends a weekend speaking with all three persons of the Trinity, discovering why his daughter had to die and how God operates.
Stylistically the book does a good job during the emotional parts, but comes across as an over-glorified Christian track in other spots. When Mack loses his child (Missy) and finds the bloody dress in the shack, it is truly gut wrenching. When he sees her through a waterfall as she plays with Jesus, Young does a good job of portraying the appropriate emotional response that Mac would have had.
In other parts, however, the book is just cheesy. God the Father in this book really isn’t God the Father at all – He is a big black woman who decides to act as a calm and motherly manner. Later in the book He appears as an actual father, but even in this instance there is no hint of the power of God. There are hints, but such power is never displayed or explained in great detail. Thus, God comes across as a cheesy buffoon that is about as effective as a really good psychologist.
Jesus and the Holy Spirit hardly fair much better. The presentation of Jesus is of a Jesus that really is a buddy. He lies out under the stars, He takes walks, He becomes a buddy to Mack. This really isn’t the Jesus presented in Scriptures (who is no doubt a friend, but a friend with authority). The Holy Spirit is an Asian woman that brings comfort, but lacks conviction and judgment.
Overall, the style just isn’t up to the quality of ‘secular’ books. At times it has great potential to be a great work of art, but ultimately fails and ends up being a little better than the Left Behind series, but not something that is a great work of literature.
Evaluation and Comparison to the Bible
There are many theological truths and falsehoods contained within The Shack. I want to first focus on what I found to be extremely true and beneficial before diving into what I see as troubling.
On the Trinity –
In explaining the Trinity, God (in the story) explains, “All love and relationship is possible for you only because it already exists within Me, within God myself (p. 101).” This is probably one of the best justifications for belief in the Trinity (outside of Scripture) because it explains how God had love and relationship prior to the existence of humanity. If there is no Trinity or different modes for God, then true relationship and love simply would not exist; God would be unable to relate to humanity in this manner or, worse, humanity would lack love and relationship.
On the Spiritual Life –
In dealing with forgiveness, Jesus says, “Forgiveness in no way requires that you trust the one you forgive. But should they finally confess and repent, you will discover a miracle in your own heart that allows you to reach out and begin to build between you and a bridge of reconciliation (p. 226).” This is a significant part of the book, because Jesus is asking Mack to forgive the man who killed Missy. To the average American reader, to forgive is to release someone from responsibility, thus Americans often have a hard time forgiving people. The Bible, however, is very clear that we are to forgive one another for God has forgiven us of much more (Matthew 18:21-34). Forgiving doesn’t require that a relationship be built or trust be restored; it merely means that we no longer hold animosity toward the person who committed an offense against us.
When Young describes the Christian life, he does a good job of showing that it is more of a relationship than following rules. The Holy Spirit in Young’s story summarizes Christianity as, “The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules. It is a picture of Jesus. While words may tell you what God is like and even what he may want from you, you cannot do any of it on your own. Life and living is in him and in no other. (p. 198).” This, of course, is extremely true as Paul constantly warns believers to avoid works of the flesh for righteousness and instead trust in God. Francis Schaeffer, in True Spirituality, made it very clear that Christianity is not made up of rules. In depth, Schaeffer says (and more eloquently and completely than Young):
“Our true guilt, that brazen heaven which stands between us and God, can be removed only upon the basis of the finished work of Christ plus nothing on our part. The Bible’s whole emphasis is that there must be no humanistic note added at any point in the accepting of the gospel. It is the infinitive value of the finished work of Christ, the second person of the Trinity, upon the cross plus nothing that is the sole basis for the removal of our guilt…We do not come to true spirituality or the true Christian life merely by keeping a list, but neither do we come to it merely by rejecting the list and then shrugging our shoulders and living a looser life.”
Schaeffer argues throughout the book that change can only occur through constant “moment by moment” living in Christ. This is also a very Biblical concept as we are told by Jesus to die to ourselves.
Earthly Authorities –
The God in The Shack states, “I don’t create institutions – never have, never will (p. 179).” This seems to indicate that God never sets up governments (as stated on the same page), never sets up religion, never sets up rules, and so on.
The Bible, however, seems to take a completely opposite view of this Foucault way of thinking. Michel Foucault argued that institutions were simply a way of displaying and holding power over people and it seems Young is buying into this idea – the Bible, however, teaches that holding power over people – when done righteously – is actually a good thing. For one, God did set up many institutions that are full of rules (one merely needs to turn toward the Old Testament). Likewise, the New Testament isn’t limited to just rules, but it does contain rules. Every relationship has boundaries, which means every relationship has rules, which means every relationship is part of an institution.
Within the Church, the Holy Spirit – speaking through Paul – gave the church instructions for how to formalize their meetings and authority structure in 1 Timothy and Titus. This, of course, is an institution – it gives way to how something is supposed to run.
In the view that God doesn’t set up or partake in governments, here are a few passages that both demonstrated and teach that God is involved in Governmental affairs:
1 Samuel 9:15-17;10:1, Acts 13:22, 2 Samuel 7:13-16, Psalms 89:19-37, Acts 13:22, Amos 9:8, Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 13-17.
This would indicate that God is involved in governmental affairs and sets up such institutions. This does not mean all of these governments are good or morally correct – merely that they have been established to fulfill God’s plan in some way.
Proverbs 16:12 teaches that a proper throne is established on righteousness. This seems to indicate that righteousness often leads to a position of power. Proverbs 29:2 even states that when the righteous are in power the people rejoice. This leaves little doubt that there is an authority structure here on Earth that we cannot escape – we are either ruled by the righteous or the wicked. One who is righteous will not abuse his authority or even seek his authority, but he will have authority non-the-less.
Trinitarian Authority –
In keeping with the issue of authority, The Shack teaches that there is no authority within the Trinity (122- 123), that all submit to each other and that we, on earth, should follow this trend (p. 145, 148).
In dealing with the lack of authority within the Trinity, one can simply look to the Gospels to dispute this claim. There is obviously some form of a loving hierarchy within the Trinity – not in the human sense, but in a sense where there is submission.
Matthew 11:27 shows that all things have been handed over to Jesus by the Father – both are God, but each is a distinctive person.
Matthew 26:39 shows Jesus asking for the Father to remove His cup of wrath – this indicates that the Father had control over the situation.
Mark 8:38 indicates that Jesus comes in the glory of the Father.
Mark 13:32 seems to say that the Father has hidden away the time of His (Jesus’) own coming.
John 3:35 shows that God has given all things into the hand of Christ out of love, but this also indicates that it was the Father’s to give (which shows an authoritative role).
All of this is meant to show an authority relationship within the Trinity. This is NOT to say that Jesus isn’t God, but instead that Jesus holds a different role than the Father (just as the Holy Spirit holds a different role). In The Shack all three hold equal roles and the same role (all talk the same, comfort the same, etc). The Bible, however, indicates that there are differences in how each Person operates – which is why it is important for Christians to focus on each Person of God.
As for authority here on earth, many of Paul’s writings show that there are authority structures: husband over wife, parents over children, slave masters over slaves, elders over congregation, and so on. It is only in our perverse modern era, thanks to Foucault, that we somehow see “authority” as a grab for “power,” and of course all power is somehow “bad.” It teaches absolute autonomy to the extreme – no one should have any authority over you; instead close-knit servant relationships will suffice.
This, of course, is not the Biblical model (or at least not the complete Biblical model). A proper Biblical model does teach in servant leadership – where the leader puts the best interests of those he is in charge of first – but this still indicates that the leader holds the authority to say what can and cannot be done. A husband has authority over his wife, but this is not abusive authority – he is to do what is best for her, not for him, which requires a sacrifice. A parent has authority over her children – but this means she is to watch out for them even when it brings harm to herself.
God’s dealing with sin –
When the Father (still as a black woman) is speaking to Mack about sin, she says, “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 indicates that (1) sin exists and (2) there are consequences to sin, but (3) God doesn’t punish humans for sin. I believe this ignores not only Scripture, but also common sense.
Common sense would dictate that sin has consequences because God has placed those consequences there – indicating that God does, in fact, punish humans for sin (via natural consequences).
However, there is a more direct punishment from God. From Genesis 3 we see that God not only punished Adam and Eve for their sin, but cursed the entirety of creation. In Genesis 4 God punishes Cain for killing his brother. Throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and so on we see God is constantly warning of punishment and exacting punishment on Israel for her sin. Exile after exile merely serves as proof that God does, in fact, punish humans for their sin (sometimes not even as a natural consequence – many nations that worshiped pagan gods weren’t sent into exile, only Israel, showing it wasn’t exactly a natural consequence that followed every time).
In the New Testament Matthew 5:29 says that if one part of your body causes you to sin, it is better to chop off that part than have your entire body thrown into Hell. There are numerous parables that show when people live in sin, they have Hell as a consequence.
This is not to say God doesn’t forgive sins – for He most certainly does – or that there aren’t natural consequences to sin, but it must be understood that God gave both the natural consequences and divine consequences. God does punish sin.
Comparison to Job:
Imagine that you are a person of wealth and one day you’re sitting down you enjoy your meal. Then, out of nowhere one of your employees breaks through your door and yells, “the oil fields you invested your money in have been destroyed by raiders in the Middle East!” Realizing you have lost a major investment, you begin to feel a sick feeling in your stomach. Shortly after being informed about your investment, another employee shows up to say that land you were saving to build houses on had been completely destroyed, along with construction workers in a major landslide. You begin to worry for the worker’s families, but before you can show too much concern, you learn that terrorists struck the building your company resides in and all your employees (save the one that escaped) died in the attack. Realizing you have lost all your wealth and sources of income, plus the death of hundreds of your employees, one of your children’s friends busts through the door. He explains that a tornado ripped through your oldest son’s house, that all of your children were there, and that now all of them are dead. Imagine how you would feel.
As far-fetched as this story might seem, a similar one did happen to Job. Though The Shack presents a story that is horrible (the loss of one child at the hands of a murderer), the book of Job presents a story that is unfathomable. Job lost all his property, income, means of food, and children in one day. Just like The Shack, in the end God decides to converse with Job. The God presented in Job is far different from the God presented in The Shack.
In The Shack God comes across as this patient and comforting mother figure, that when Mack gets upset, she just laughs it off and ignores it. The God of Job (the correct God), however, is much more ‘abrasive’ in His approach to Job. After Job had questioned God, God responds that Job needs to “gird up his loins like a man” (38:3). This Hebrew idiom is the equivalent of the English (American) idiom of “cowboy up;” it is a command for the person receiving the message to toughen up and be prepared to take it. This is certainly a far cry from the God of The Shack.
As God goes on in His explanation, He never once directly deals with Job’s problems and questions, unlike the God of The Shack that – in an almost apologetic manner – deals directly with Mack’s problems. Chapter 38 of Job is God questioning Job, asking Job if he can control the entirety of the world. God, obviously, is showing that He is incomprehensibly more powerful than humans are and, subsequently, it makes no sense for us to question Him. Chapter 39 declares that God not only knows how to guide all of creation, but He has a perfect and infallible understanding of how creation works (God is the ultimate biologist, physicist, etc) because He caused it to work that way.
God, after declaring His power and knowledge, asks Job, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty; He who argues with God, let Him answer” (40:2). Job has the appropriate response of declaring that he will remain silent. The version of God in the book of Job has a God that, after He declares His glory, in a rhetorical manner tells Job to “shut up.” Compare this to Young’s God in The Shack that has no problem with Mack asking question after question. This is not to say God is afraid of our questions or won’t answer them, but He is hardly a comforting mother that bows to our pain – He is ultimately in control and all things ultimately happen to display His glory; until we recognize this fact, we will always suffer in our pain (something Young under covers).
God continues to question Job, asking him if he can possibly question God by holding the power of God (40:6-14). This seems to indicate that though we can question things that happen to us, we venture into the field of inappropriateness when we begin to question God’s actions and the nature of God.
The reason I bring up the book of Job is that Mack’s story has really already been done. Though every tale of suffering is unique to the person suffering, it isn’t unique in a true sense because God has already dealt with it in the book of Job. The book of Job shows that God guides all things, allows what fits within His purpose, guides things towards His purpose, and that man cannot understand the reasons God has allowed evil into the world. By reading The Shack, one could not possibly come to all these conclusions, which indicates to me that Young’s book is an incomplete version of the Biblical truth.
Suffering is a horrible thing. Though we can offer theories onto why suffering is allowed (see my “The Metaphysical Necessity of Evil”), ultimately God has His own purposes for allowing personal evils. Instead of being angry at Him, we should consult Him and ask Him to reveal His purpose and bring us comfort in hard times. He is ultimately in control, so it only makes sense to have a relationship with Him rather than fight Him on what we cannot stop.
Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality: How to Live for Jesus Moment by Moment. (Wheaton: Tyndale) 1971. P. 3-4, 5,