This book was written by a Christian father for his children, to help them understand his relationship with God. The book addresses the most difficult of all theological dilemmas, the goodness of God and the problem of evil. Where is God in the midst of pain and suffering? How can a good God allow the kinds of horrific evil that humans and other creatures experience? Why does He not do something to stop it?
In this novel the protagonist Mackenzie Allen Phillips receives an invitation from God to meet at a shack in the woods. It takes Mack a little while to decide to keep the appointment, but his curiosity and his pain eventually convince him to make the trip. When he arrives at the shack, it and its environment are transformed by the presence of God into an idyllic setting. Mack, too, undergoes a remarkable transformation, although that change takes longer to accomplish.
Four years earlier Mack’s youngest daughter Missy was kidnapped during a family outing. Her body has never been found, but the evidence pointed toward her murder at the hands of a serial pedophile at this abandoned shack in the Oregon wilderness. These years have been difficult for Mack and the rest of the family, a period he describes as “The Great Sadness.” But after spending a couple of days at the shack with God, Mack returns home a changed man. He has begun to understand how God’s love provides the basis of forgiveness and the power to change human lives. The transforming power of redemption through forgiveness is the theme of the book.
The horrific nightmare this family experienced is every parent’s worst fear, and thus the story connects with the reader at a deep level. The story stresses God’s love for His children, emphasizes human freedom as the cause of sin and evil, focuses on forgiveness and reconciliation as the solution to sin and evil, stresses the hope of eternal life in God’s presence in a new creation, and encourages the reader to interact with the human characters and God in a deeply meaningful way. Yet there are serious theological errors and problems that make it impossible to recommend the book.
Although the book itself is fiction, the author claims that the conversations between God and Mack reflect conversations he had with God. After years of such dialogues, Young was looking for a way to hand them down to his children. Thus the story is not real, but the conversations were. “So is the story true? The pain, the loss, the grief, the process, the conversations, the questions, the anger, the longing, the secrets, the lies, the forgiveness . . . all real, all true.” Again, he claims, “And the conversations are very real and true” (William P. Young, “Is the Story of THE SHACK True . . . Is Mack a Real Person,” http://www.windrumors.com/30/ is-the-story-of-the-shack-trueis-mack-a-real-person/, accessed 14, May 2008).
Throughout the book the triune God appears in three human forms. Such a presentation of the Trinity is not accurate. God is not three separate people; that would be three gods. Rather, He is one in essence while three in person. The persons must be distinguished but never separated. Of course the Trinity is a great mystery and beyond human comprehension. It is not appropriate, however, to portray God in a way that treats the doctrine of the Trinity as tritheism.
The novel undermines the uniqueness of the Incarnation, not just by having the Father and Spirit appear in human form, which is problematic enough. Soon after meeting Papa (in the novel, God the Father is incarnate as a big black woman named Papa), Mack “noticed the scars in her wrists, like those he now assumed Jesus also had on his. She allowed him to tenderly touch the scars, outlines of a deep piercing, and he finally looked up again into her eyes. Tears were slowly making their way down her face, little pathways through the flour that dusted her cheeks” (pp. 95–96). Papa then spoke: “Don’t ever think that what my son chose to do didn’t cost us dearly. Love always leaves a significant mark . . . We were there together” (p. 96, italics his). Since only God the Son became incarnate and experienced death on the cross, only the Son could bear the marks of crucifixion. Neither the Father nor the Spirit bears the scars of the Son’s suffering. Surely His suffering affected the relationship between them, but those effects were not experienced in the same way by each person of the Godhead. Only the Son became flesh and blood, only the Son died on the cross, and thus only the Son could bear the marks of crucifixion in His body.
The novel’s Christology is also inadequate. Christians confess, because the Bible teaches, that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, two natures in one person. The integrity of each nature is preserved in the union. Young’s Christology confuses the two natures of Jesus and undermines the uniqueness of the hypostatic union. In one conversation between Mack and Papa, Mack explains his belief that the miracles of Jesus are evidence of His deity. Papa corrects him. “No, it proves that Jesus is truly human. . . . Jesus is fully human. Although he is also 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. He is just the first to do it to the uttermost—the first to absolutely trust my life within him, the first to believe in my love and my goodness without regard for appearance or consequence” (pp. 99–100). When Mack asks about Jesus’ healing of the blind, Papa explains, “He did so 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. . . . Only as he rested in his relationship with me, and in our communion—our co-union—could he express my heart and will into any given circumstance. So, when you look at Jesus and it appears that he’s flying, he really is . . . flying. But what you are actually seeing is me; my life in him. That’s how he lives and acts as a true human, how every human is designed to live—out of my life” (p. 100).
There are several significant problems with this understanding of the Incarnation. First, Jesus, as the God-Man, did and does possess full and complete deity. It is not true that He “had no power within himself to heal anyone.” Young’s view sounds like kenotic Christology, that Christ gave up His deity when He became human. If He did not retain full deity, He is not fully divine. Second, no other human is like Jesus in being fully divine. No other human has the power of deity as Jesus did. The incarnation of Jesus is one of a kind. And third, it certainly is not the case that all humans possess the life of God in them, in the way Papa suggests.
Several conversations in this book reveal an inaccurate view of salvation. Young seems to reject the exclusivity of salvation through faith in Christ alone. According to Young’s Jesus, “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. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some were 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). Mack is apparently confused, so he asks whether this means that all roads lead to Jesus. The answer he receives is brief and enigmatic: “Not at all. . . . Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you” (p. 182). It is inconceivable that Jesus would ever say that He has no desire to make people Christians. If they do not become Christians, then they are not followers of Jesus. Since the Scriptures teach that salvation is found only in Jesus (e.g., John 14:6; Acts 4:12), there is only one road that leads to God. And those who arrive at that destination are Christians.
While some readers are giving high praise to this novel, it is actually a dangerous book. Its view of the Trinity is inadequate, its view of Christ is unorthodox, and its view of salvation is inaccurate.
About the Contributors
Prior to teaching at DTS, Dr. Kreider served as Director of Christian Education and then as Senior Pastor in Cedar Hill, TX. His research and writing interests include Jonathan Edwards, theological method, theology and popular culture, and our eschatological hope. Dr. Kreider believes that grace really is amazing; it is a thought that will change the world. He is married to his best friend, Janice, and they have two grown children and one granddaughter, Marlo Grace. He and Janice enjoy live music, good stories, bold coffee, and spending time together and with their rescue dogs—a terrier/greyhound mix named Chloe and a black lab named Carlile.