I’m really hoping for some engagement and dialogue on this, so anyone with an opinion on the matter who’s willing to chime in, please do so. The below video contains the same as blog post that follows, so you can listen or read, whichever you prefer.
The movie “The Shack” comes out this week, and while a lot of Christians are very excited about the film, there are a lot of objections and concerns that are being raised. Many Christians are calling out several problems they have with “The Shack” and a lot of them are deeming it to be pure heresy.
I remember well consuming the book a couple years ago, and I personally cannot recommend it highly enough. I thought it was a fantastic book that did an excellent job dealing with the big questions it wrestled with.
Over the last few days I’ve read a number of articles from Christians opposing “The Shack” and in this video and blog post I want to address what I have seen are the three most common objections some Christians are raising: portraying God as a woman, false depictions of the trinity, and teaching inclusivism and universalism.
“One of the problems with ‘The Shack’ is that it portrays God as a woman. This is problematic for a couple of reasons. For one, it seems to be playing into the feminist agenda of the progressive liberals. For another, God is always depicted in scripture as a masculine figure, and regardless of whether we understand why or agree with it, if that’s what we see in scripture, then that’s what we should conform to.”
First off, God being depicted as a curvy middle-aged black woman instead of an old what man as we may be more used to has absolutely nothing at all to do with any feminist agenda. There’s a backstory here in the life of the author, William P. Young. When William was in his 30’s he made some poor decisions that put his marriage in jeopardy. He repented of his sin, but nevertheless was asked to leave the church where he was a member because it brought shame and embarrassment on the congregation. But there was one person in the congregation, a black woman, who came to William and said “I disagree with what the rest of the church is doing. This is not a time to cast you aside, but a time where we need to be drawing closer to you and loving you like never before.” William was deeply touched by this and saw God’s love at work in this woman. As such, when William was trying to think of how to depict God in his story, he couldn’t help but think of the one who manifested God’s love to him at a time when he needed it most. It has absolutely nothing to do with feminism.
Secondly, I would argue that there is nothing wrong with portraying God as a woman. I will admit, that feels a little weird to say, because certainly this is not the image of God that we are used to, but Biblically speaking I don’t find anything inherently wrong with it. For one, The Bible teaches that both man and woman are created in the image of God. Man is no more the image of God than is woman. How can we say it is wrong to give a female image of God when telling a story when the Bible clearly teaches that females are made in the image of God the same as male? It is true that when scripture attributes gender to God that gender is usually male and when God is depicted in some visible form it is usually male (such as the ancient of days in Daniel or the king on his throne in Revelation) but there are a few places where scripture says things of God that conjure up the image of a loving female. For example, God is likened at times to a loving mother, such as the following:
“But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:14–15)
“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you, and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 66:13)
In these passages, when Isaiah wants to conjure up an image in the minds of the Israelites to help them know and understand who God is, he does not conjure up the image of a powerful king, but of a loving mother. William P. Young in “The Shack” is doing much the same thing. In Isaiah, there’s a reason why Israel needed this particular image of God and in “The Shack” there’s a reason why Mack (the main character) needed the image of God that he got.
God is not literally male or female. These are all anthropomorphisms used to reveal our creator in terms we can understand. The scriptures teach that God is invisible, ineffable, and incomprehensible. Anthropomorphisms cannot logically be a literal description of such a being.
“The Shack’ gives a false, inaccurate, and heretical depiction of the trinity.”
Exactly what it is about the depiction of the trinity that “The Shack” gets wrong varies depending on which critic you’re reading. This is not surprising, as it is a topic that has had such wide diversity of understanding throughout church history.
No human depiction of the trinity is accurate. In fact, I would argue that we could take any “orthodox” depiction of the trinity and if we scrutinize even the parables of Jesus close enough, we’ll find ways in which even his teachings seem heretical when compared to many of the creeds.
Depicting the trinity was necessary to accomplish the books intended purpose, which was not to spell out precisely accurate theology but to wrestle with big questions that impact our relationship with God, and it did that very well. Like scripture, it utilized anthropomorphisms to make the point, but again, such anthropomorphisms ought not to be taken literally. Was the depiction of the trinity entirely accurate? Of course not. No human depiction ever is, and every attempt that has ever been made to do so has been met with charges of heresy, being accused of modalism, partialism, or Arianism. (See Donall and Conall for more on that.)
Finally on this point, virtually everyone is a heretic in one form or another. Merriam-Webster defines heresy as:
- “a person who differs in opinion from established religious dogma”
- “one who differs in opinion from an accepted belief or doctrine”
Do you know anyone who agrees right down the line 100% with every single jot and tittle of the creed they subscribe to or religious group they belong to? As this article shows, every great Christian leader is guilty of some “heresy”. All this makes it hard to take the heresy hunters seriously.
That’s not to say that we should treat false doctrine lightly, but it is to say that we should be a little more discerning in the way we use the term because the way many Christians use it, if applied consistently, there’d be no one left.
“The Shack teaches the false doctrines of Inclusivism and Universalism.”
When talking about the doctrine of Christian Inclusivism, we are not talking about inclusivism in the way that it is often used today. It’s not saying that we should just be tolerant and accepting of anyone and everyone regardless of their beliefs or lifestyle. Christian Inclusivism teaches that there is truth and error. There is right and wrong. There is a right way to live which Jesus showed and calls us to follow, and that anyone who lives that way is following Christ, though they may not realize that it is him that they are following.
In other words, there are many who follow Christ without consciously knowing that’s what they’re doing. When you follow the way that Christ taught, you are following Christ and belong to him, and there are some who follow this path who do not consciously know Christ.
The most famous/infamous statement in The Shack where inclusivism is believed to be taught is when Jesus says to Mack:
“I am the best way any human can relate to Papa (God the father) or Sarayu (the Holy Spirit).”
Many have objected to this saying things like:
“The Bible clearly teaches that Jesus is the only way. Jesus himself said in John 14:6 “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In Acts 4:12, Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” In The Shack, however, William P. Young puts different words into Jesus’ mouth, making Jesus out to say that he is not the only way, but merely the best way.”
Going into all the arguments for and against Christian Inclusivism is beyond the purpose of this post and video, but I will say that it is a view that has been held by many Christians throughout the ages who have studied diligently and believe the view is in perfect harmony with passages such as John 14:6 and Acts 4:12. As just one example, C.S. Lewis articulated the view when he said:
“I think that every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god, or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know him. For He is (dimly) present in the good side of the inferior teachers they follow. In the parable of the Sheep and Goats those who are saved do not seem to know that they have served Christ.” – C.S. Lewis
Similar statements teaching Christian Inclusivism have been made by John Wesley, Billy Graham, and many others, so if you’re going to throw out “The Shack” on this basis, to be consistent you’d have to throw out many of the greatest teachers Christianity has known. Of course, the fact that many great teachers have taught Christian Inclusivism doesn’t make it true, and if anyone is interested we can do another post and video delving further into this specific topic.
As for universalism, William P. Young said in an interview when asked if he’s a universalist “tell me what you mean by universalist and I’ll tell you if I am one”. Many people when speaking out against universalism are condemning things like religious pluralism and moral relativism, but these are not things which William P. Young espouses, nor do most self-proclaimed Christian Universalists. Most Christian Universalists do not believe that all are presently saved, that truth is relative, that all religions are equal, etc. What most of them do believe is that salvation is in Christ alone, that it is the sovereign will of God that all men be saved through Christ, and that somehow in the end His sovereign will shall come to pass.
Let me be clear – I am not advocating for universalism. I have numerous problems with the view and I certainly don’t believe it is a view clearly taught in scripture. But I do think that in discussing the view we need to understand what it actually teaches and why those who hold the view believe as they do.
As to whether or not universalism is taught in “The Shack”, there is some nuance and ambiguity. The charge comes from this quote:
Papa: “Honey, you asked me what Jesus accomplished on the cross; so now listen to me carefully; through his death and resurrection, I am now fully reconciled to the world.”
Mack: “The whole world? You mean those who believe in you, right?”
Papa: “The whole world, Mack.”
Now, taken alone this could easily be seen to be teaching universalism. But the discussion doesn’t stop there. Papa continues:
“All I am telling you is that reconciliation is a two way street, and I have done my part, totally, and completely, finally. It is not the nature of love to force a relationship, but is the nature of love to open the way.”
Is The Shack teaching universalism here? Well, it was the apostle Paul who said “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). The language of The Shack is very similar, so if you believe Paul’s words are teaching universalism (as many do) then surely “The Shack” could be understood to be teaching the same. But as “Papa” goes on to tell Mack that he has done his part to open the way and now man must respond and enter into a relationship, is this teaching universalism? Perhaps, but again, there is some nuance and ambiguity, and I certainly wouldn’t rule out reading the book or watching the movie on this basis, especially when there is so much good to be gleaned from it.
And with that, let me close quickly with two reasons why I personally loved “The Shack”, am rejoicing that it is being made into a major motion picture, will be seeing it with my family, and encourage all my fellow Christians to do the same.
- One of the biggest objections to faith in God is, always has been, and always will be the problem of pain and suffering. Where is God when I hurt? Why does God allow so much suffering in the world? This is the central theme behind one of the oldest books in the Bible, the book of Job. It’s still one of the biggest questions believers and skeptics alike have to wrestle with, and “The Shack” does a tremendous job addressing this. For that reason is an incredibly valuable aid that we should avail ourselves to.
- I abhor the junk that Hollywood constantly puts out. As such, when they actually put out a film that is not only wholesome and decent, but has a very Christian theme to it, I want to support it because I want to see more movies like that made and less movies like the majority of the filth they produce, and the only way that’s going to happen is if we go see movies like this when they come out.
Reading or watching “The Shack” is kind of like eating a delicious watermelon: full of juicy goodness to enjoy, even if you do have to spit out a few seeds.
All this is just my perception on the matter, and all of our perceptions are built upon our limited information and limited cognitive abilities. Such limitations ensure that no perception is entirely accurate, and as such I welcome and look forward to the comments and opinions of others.
Jarrod is an INFJ who loves studying and writing about things like philosophy, psychology, theology, conspiracy theories, & all things spiritual, mystical, & supernatural. The creator and curator of INFJ Writers, he lives in Austin, TX with his wife and three kids.