On June 8, 2008, an important milestone was reached: a small, relatively unknown, self-published book called The Shack sold its one millionth copy. Over the next several months, The Shack would sweep the American landscape like a storm. As of April 2009, according to its publisher, the book had sold over 6 million copies, and had been at number 1 on the New York Times best seller list for 36 weeks and counting.
“Wait a minute,” you are probably thinking to yourself, “what’s the big deal about The Shack?”
Perhaps you are reading this thinking, “I’ve read The Shack, and I thought it was a great book. In fact, I can honestly say it changed my whole perspective of who God is and how God relates to me.”
You are not alone. Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, a popular paraphrase of the Bible, compared the book to The Pilgrim’s Progress. On the book’s front cover endorsement he notes, “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ did for his. It’s that good!”
Other endorsements found on the book include Michael W. Smith, who called it “the most absorbing work of fiction I’ve read in many years,” and singer Wynona Judd said “this story has blown the door wide open to my soul.”
Still, what lies between the covers of The Shack is what Dr. Albert Mohler referred to as “undiluted heresy.” The danger, as Dr. Michael Youssef observed, is that this heresy is wrapped in powerful emotions and covered by a beautiful landscape. In a sermon delivered to his church congregation in August 2008, Youssef noted that The Shack is “a measure of truth wrapped in a whole lot of poisonous dough.”
“Half truths,” Youssef said, “almost right, outwardly appealing, are far more dangerous than plain wrong and evil. We must learn to discern subtle heresies, even when they are wrapped in powerful emotions.”
The Shack is just such a book.
William P. Young
The Shack was written by William P. Young. The author is the son of missionaries, and spent his childhood in New Guinea. He is a bible college and seminary graduate. Before becoming a writer, Young served in the ministry for a number of years. Young has also experienced great trauma in his life. According to published interviews, he was first sexually abused by tribal men at the age of four in New Guinea. After he was transferred to a boarding school for missionary children, he was again abused at the school. Those who have met and visited with Young report him to be a likable and genuine person.
In an effort to communicate to his children some of the hurt he had experienced as a child, and how he believed God had healed him from his inner pain as a result of the abuse, Young wrote The Shack. He admits that he never intended for his story to be published. Young initially made 15 copies of his story, one for each of his six children and the others for friends and family. His small audience was so impressed with the story they encouraged him to publish it.
After reworking his manuscript, and with editing assistance of some friends, Young submitted The Shack to 26 publishers. It was rejected by all of them. Tired of attempting to publish via the traditional route, Young and two friends formed Windblown Media and self published the book in 2007. They spent $300 on marketing The Shack. The book reached the New York Times best seller list in June 2008 and by the end of 2008, The Shack was the top selling book of fiction for the year. In addition to the secular market, The Shack was also the top selling Christian book of 2008.
From Amazon.com, here is the book’s summary:
Mackenzie Allen Philips’ youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later in the midst of his Great Sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgment he arrives at The Shack on a wintry afternoon and walks back into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change Mack’s world forever. In a world where religion seems to grow increasingly irrelevant “The Shack” wrestles with the timeless question, “Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?” The answers Mack gets will astound you and perhaps transform you as much as it did him. You’ll want everyone you know to read this book!
When the main character, Mack, arrives at The Shack he meets a most unlikely trio identified as the Trinity. God the Father is presented as a large African-American woman named “Papa.” She is described as an Aunt Jemimah-looking woman, also known as “Elousia,” who enjoys cooking, listens to pop music on her iPod, and spending time in the kitchen. “Jesus” is presented as a common-place, unattractive Jewish carpenter in a plaid shirt with a big nose and a tool belt. The Holy Spirit is described as an Asian woman named “Sarayu,” a mystical river in ancient India related to the Hindu deity Kali.
In March 2017, The Shack was released as a major motion picture.
The Underlying Heresy in The Shack
Begin to research The Shack and you will find many critics. Some of the Bible teachers and scholars who have spoken out against The Shack include Dr. James De Young, Dr. Michael Youssef, Janet Parshall, Jan Markell, Mark Driscoll, Dr. Larry DeBruyn, Norman Geisler, Chuck Colson, Chuck Swindoll, and Dr. Albert Mohler.
Why is The Shack so dangerous? There are many reasons. First, the dialog between Mack and the various members of the Trinity is very casual. There is not one place in the book where Scripture is referenced. As a result, the reader is presented with “divine revelation” in the form of casual conversation.
For example in one conversation between “Papa” and Mack, “Papa” declares, “I’m not a bully, not some self-centered demanding little deity insisting on my own way. I am good, and I desire only what is best for you. You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation….” (p. 126).
In another dialog, “Papa” explains how the Trinity views rules:
[Mack] “Are you saying I don’t have to follow the rules?”
[Papa] “Yes. In Jesus you are not under any law. All things are lawful.”
“You can’t be serious! You’re messing with me again,” moaned Mack.
“Child,” interrupted papa, “you ain’t heard nuthin’ yet.”
“…enforcing rules [says Sarayu] …is a vain attempt to create certainty out of uncertainty. And contrary to what you might think, I have a great fondness for uncertainty. Rules cannot bring freedom; they only have the power to accuse” (p. 203)
Theologically, Dr. Norman Geisler outlines 14 areas of disagreement with fundamental biblical doctrine. Eric Barger highlights some of the most significant problems with The Shack:
- Young’s Papa character insists that sin is its own punishment. This distorts the reality of Hell and discounts eternal retribution for sin.
- Readers of The Shack are told that Jesus is only the best way to know God – not the only way.
- The Shack teaches that when Jesus went to the cross, God Almighty died there too. This is a heresy known as patripassianism.
- The Shack states that there is no structure or hierarchy within the Trinity and that the three personages of God are all equally subject to one another and to humans as well.
- Young’s “Papa” character is suspiciously akin to a Polynesian/Hawaiian goddess who also happens to be known as “Papa.” The similarities with The Shack’s God character are stunning.
- The Bible is very clear: do not portray God in an image. It is impossible to make the Creator part of the creation. Jesus said, “God is Spirit, and he who worships Him must worship Him in Spirit and truth” (John 4:24). The second commandment forbids us from making a visual portrayal of God. To worship such an image is pure idolatry (Exodus 20:4-5). Paul, in his epistle to the Romans states, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man” (Romans 1:21-23a).
Perhaps the greatest error presented in The Shack is its blatant universalism. As Eric Barger observes, however, William P. Young’s brand of universalism is different from traditional universalism. Young believes in what is called universal reconciliation. Classical Universalism teaches that all religions lead to heaven. Jesus is a way to heaven, but Jesus is not the only way. Universal reconciliation teaches that all of mankind is already saved because of Jesus’ finished work on the cross. In other words, when Jesus died on the cross, He died for all mankind, and at that moment all mankind was reconciled to God.
Barger notes, “This position purports that there is no penalty for sin, no literal hell and no need to accept Christ and repent of one’s sins. It dramatically undermines the work of the Church, evangelism and the core teachings of the New Testament. It is a satanic trap denying essential beliefs taught by Jesus, the Apostles and Bible believers throughout the Church Age.”
Unfortunately, Universalism is sweeping through American Christianity.
What is most concerning about this book is that it has been so warmly embraced by American Christians. Pastors are encouraging their congregations to read the book and embrace it. Christian booksellers have The Shack prominently displayed in their stores. Christians are giving away books by the thousands telling their friends and family that it has changed their life. Churches are using The Shack in their small groups and Sunday school classes.
American Christians are falling in love with universalism. From Brian McLaren to Joel Osteen, American Christian writers, pastors, teachers, musicians, politicians, etc., are all on the politically-correct bandwagon that declares all men saved.
Bert Kjos states, “countless pastors and church leaders are delighting in its message. By ignoring (or redefining) sin and guilt, they embrace an inclusive but counterfeit ‘Christianity’ that draws crowds but distorts the Bible. Discounting Satan as well, they weaken God’s warnings about deception.“
Michael Youssef warns that “The day is coming when Jesus Christ is going to sit on the judgment bench to separate those who have accepted His Father’s plan from those who have accepted another plan. He will separate those who tried to stretch His plan, who are trying to make the plan popular, or are trying to rewrite His plan.”
The foundation for the beautiful cathedral in Lübeck, Germany was laid in 1173. Inscribed on one of its enormous medieval doors in an ancient gothic alphabet are the following words:
Ye call me eternal, then do not seek me.Ye call me fair, then do not love me.Ye call me gracious, then do not trust me.Ye call me just, then do not fear me.Ye call me life, then do not choose me.Ye call me light, then do not see me.Ye call me Lord, then do not respect me.Ye call me Master, then do not obey me.Ye call me merciful, then do not thank me.Ye call me mighty, then do not honor me.Ye call me noble, then do not serve me.Ye call me rich, then do not ask me.Ye call me Savior, then do not praise me.Ye call me shepherd, then do not follow me.Ye call me Way, then do not walk with me.Ye call me wise, then do not heed me.Ye call me Son of God, then do not worship me.When I condemn Ye, then do not blame me.
May each of us take seriously our calling as Christians who hold high the authority of the Word of God. The challenges before us are great, but so are the opportunities. Whether you sit here today as one who has never heard of The Shack or you are someone who believes it has transformed your view of God and of what it means to be a Christian, the lesson for us is clear: let every word that is preached, written, spoken, sung, be held up to the mirror of Scripture. Don’t believe something just because it is well said, covered in beautiful language and powerful emotions. Learn to discern. Know your Bible and ask God for the wisdom to guide in the paths of righteousness and truth.