The Shack: Biblical Discernment Is Key in Evaluating Any Book or Movie, Plus Concerns about Paul Young’s New Book Lies We Believe About God
The movie The Shack, based on the novel with the same title by Paul Young, released March 3. By now you have likely seen previews of it, attended a showing, or at least heard about the movie. In what I share below, I’m not speaking about the movie, which I haven’t seen, but only the book. Though if the movie is faithful to the book, I would expect it to have some of the same strengths and weaknesses.
I was reluctant to post this for a variety of reasons, including that I know and like Paul Young and don’t enjoy being a critic. Some years ago, when the book had sold thousands but not yet millions, I had coffee with Paul twice and we engaged in long and very civil discussions, totaling six hours or so, about various parts of The Shack, and the Bible. We agreed on many points while disagreeing on some very significant ones, including some that have far-reaching implications (for instance his belief, which he described to me then as more of a “hope,” that all people will be saved and live in Heaven, and none in hell).
Since many people have been asking me about the movie and the book, I feel obligated to say something. Since I have read the book, which has sold over 20 million copies, I can offer my perspectives only on it. If you see the movie you can judge for yourself what pertains and what doesn’t.
I think there’s some good in The Shack. It raises the problem of evil and offers God’s love and hope to those who’ve been overwhelmed by tragedies they can’t reconcile with God’s sovereignty and goodness. There are people I respect greatly who love this book and consider it a great gift of God to thirsty people.
There are others I respect as much who are deeply concerned about the book’s messages, both overt and subtle, and their impact on people. Honestly, this is where I find myself.
I believe that those who are well grounded in the Word won’t be harmed by the weaknesses and deficiencies of The Shack. For example, a friend of mine recently emailed me about someone she knows, who has a solid Christian worldview, and who loves The Shack and finds it helpful as an allegory.
Unfortunately, increasingly few people these days are well grounded in God’s Word. Not many have both the biblical knowledge and the discernment to filter out the bad while embracing the good. That means that some people, perhaps many, will fail to recognize the book’s theological weaknesses, and therefore be vulnerable to embracing them, even if unconsciously. Sadly, I personally know some who have been led down a path of universalism through their understanding of the book and what they have heard the author say, either publicly or privately.
Please don’t get me wrong on this point: I believe in Christian fiction. It can be both true to reality and true to Scripture, honoring to God and His Word.
I’ve written novels that God has, by His grace, used to reach people who’ve not been reached by my nonfiction. The novels of C. S. Lewis and many others have had a profound positive effect on me that nonfiction can’t have, because the two are different art forms that speak to the mind and the heart in different ways. Some people oppose The Shack because they don’t believe in fiction, but that’s certainly not the case with me. There is much truth in some fiction, just as there is much error in a lot of nonfiction.
One of the major issues with the book is that it puts words in God’s mouth. In those rare instances in my fiction where I have God the Father or Jesus speak, I try to take words straight out of Scripture, and when they’re not I always make sure I have a solid biblical and theological foundation that would justify attributing those words to God. But The Shack is full of words supposedly stated by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While some of those words are in keeping with what Scripture says, some of them are not. And it is a very dangerous thing to take our personal thoughts and feelings and form them into words, then put them in the mouth of God!
I give specific examples in this long and detailed review, which I wrote reluctantly years ago and for a long time shared only with people who personally asked me about The Shack. It’s for those who really want to consider both the good and the bad that, in my opinion, is to be found in the book. (In his article, Tim Challies suggests that the movie version, depicting all three persons of the triune God in human form, may be inherently in violation of God’s commandments.)
Todd Wagner, pastor of Watermark Church, did a helpful video related to The Shack.
Discernment is more important than anything as we evaluate any book or movie.
The Berean Christians were commended for carefully examining, in light of the Scriptures, the teachings of the apostle Paul (see Acts 17:11). This is a man who eventually wrote thirteen inspired biblical books. How much more should we evaluate the teachings of everyone else we read, listen to, or watch.
Please begin by evaluating my words here and everywhere else in light of Scripture!
How do we demonstrate both grace and truth in addressing tough personal, moral, and theological controversies? Randy addresses this in his little book The Grace and Truth Paradox. For those wishing to read more on the problem of evil and suffering, see Randy's books If God Is Good and The Goodness of God.
I wrote the following four weeks after posting the blog above. Since I wrote it, Paul Young’s book Lies We Believe About God was released. This book clearly reveals the author’s actual theology.
Ironically, many of the doctrinal concerns that I and others expressed about The Shack (and in response, were told “it’s just fiction” and “this isn’t theology” and “that’s not what he’s saying”) have proven to be true all along.
I wanted to believe the best, and not be quick to misunderstand or accuse. However, this new book shows in the author’s own words how far he has departed from some basic and central evangelical doctrines. I’ve just finished the whole book, and I saw truth intermixed with unbiblical error. But as is often the case with false doctrine, the truth serves to make the error appear more credible.
I am disappointed and concerned that the countless people influenced by The Shack and many of its more implicit errors will be taken by Lies We Believe About God into increasingly significant explicit errors.
To be clear, The Shack has many explicit errors too, but people seemed always to debate or not notice what the author was really saying. But in Lies We Believe About God, Paul Young has stated more forthrightly not only his universalism but a number of other unbiblical doctrines. (After many people have told me Paul is not a universalist, how is this for clarity: “Are you suggesting that everyone is saved? That you believe in universal salvation? That is exactly what I am saying!”)
Some of what the book says about the evangelical view of the cross of Christ makes it sound like those who teach substitutionary atonement are pro-child abuse. In fact, Scripture reveals a Father who sent his Son, and a Son, coeternal and coequal with Father and Holy Spirit, who willingly laid his life down for us on the cross (John 10:17-18). He was and is the God-man, and he was both sent by the Father and went willingly went to the cross, not as a helpless or victimized child. (See Bruce Ware, The Father Sent Jesus to the Cross.)
In reading Lies We Believe about God, at times I marveled at all the precious truths the author is calling outright falsehood. For instance, he claims all these are lies:
- God is good. I am not.
- God is in control.
- God does not submit.
- God wants to use me.
- You need to get saved.
- Hell is separation from God.
- Not everyone is a child of God.
- Sin separates us from God.
- The Cross was God’s idea.
These are not lies. They are truths, and there is plenty of biblical support for each of them. Of course, not everything everyone says related to these truths is accurate (but that’s always true). To say these are all “lies” is unbiblical, irresponsible, and misleading.
While I could elaborate with a number of Scriptures for each of these, take just the last one, said to be a lie: the Cross was God’s idea. Acts 4:27-28 says, “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”
We could add the words of Isaiah 53, that Jesus was “punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all…for the transgression of my people he was punished….though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.”
Here is a book supposedly identifying lies we believe about God while dismantling biblical truths at the heart of the Gospel message. It attempts to replace these truths with...you guessed it...ACTUAL untruths, lies about God!
If it seems unfair for someone to say the author is speaking lies, consider that his entire book is dedicated to the idea that evangelical pastors and Christ-followers who have been teaching these biblical doctrines for hundreds or thousands of years are liars.
Paul Young admits at last (I had two previous three-hour conversations with him in which he wouldn't quite fully admit it yet) he is a universalist: “Are you suggesting that everyone is saved? That you believe in universal salvation? That is exactly what I am saying!” (p. 118). That makes it official: no more arguments about whether The Shack teaches universalism.
The truth is, we desperately need to be saved by Jesus, that is, to embrace what he has provided on our behalf: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). We need to be saved from our sins, to be rescued, delivered, reconciled, and born again, so we can enter into God’s goodness and the righteousness of Jesus.
I recommend this summary of some of the unbiblical content in Lies We Believe About God, well expressed by Tim Challies.
While Paul Young remains a likable person, this doesn’t change the danger of revising God’s truth and telling people nice-sounding things on God’s behalf, when some of those explicitly contradict what He tells us in His Word.
What God said to Jeremiah about the dreams and words of so-called prophets in that day applies to us today when it comes to our choice between believing what God has said in His revealed Word, or believing the new and more appealing things that people say to replace the biblical teachings:
“I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, ‘I had a dream! I had a dream!’ How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds? They think the dreams they tell one another will make my people forget my name, just as their ancestors forgot my name through Baal worship.
Let the prophet who has a dream recount the dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?” declares the Lord. “Is not my word like fire,” declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?
“Therefore,” declares the Lord, “I am against the prophets who steal from one another words supposedly from me. Yes,” declares the Lord, “I am against the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, ‘The Lord declares.’
“Indeed, I am against those who prophesy false dreams,” declares the Lord. “They tell them and lead my people astray with their reckless lies, yet I did not send or appoint them. They do not benefit these people in the least,” declares the Lord.”