Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart
to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad:
for who is able to judge this thy so great a people? I Kings 3:9
I like Paul Young. Having heard him speak about his life and book three times in Portland, Oregon, in fall of 2008, I found him to be passionate, witty and funny. While at Young's alma mater (Warner Pacific College), I was able to spend a few moments with him privately, during which time I asked him to respond personally to several criticisms and concerns that I and other Christians are raising about the theological content of his book. I wish I could report that he allayed my apprehensions, but instead I went away convinced that The Shack is more than just a little offbeat but is, as Dr. Albert Mohler pegged it during his May 26, 2008, radio broadcast, "blatant heresy."
Yes, The Shack is indeed a novel. And many will wonder what could be wrong, since it is identified as a Christian book and authored by a man who claims to be a Christian. After all, The Shack is heralded by many seasoned Christian leaders. Pastors are preaching from it. Sunday School classes and small groups are reading and discussing it. Many Christians are buying it by the case to give as gifts. Some Christian schools are even sanctioning and encouraging the reading of the book. But this is not just a benign story of man overcoming life's challenges. Make no mistake, the book presents doctrine throughout its clever and gripping story - something the author clearly intended to do. Therein lies the problem.
Trading the Kingdom for a Shack
For those unaware of the book's storyline, here is the description of The Shack from Amazon.com:
"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 what he refers to as 'The 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 Shack is a publishing phenomenon, but you may ask, "Is it really any big deal?" This self-published book has sold nearly twelve million copies since its May 2007 release. It debuted at #1 on The New York Times Bestseller List and remained at either #1 or #2 for an astounding 87 weeks. It has also held the #1 position on many other bestseller lists, including Amazon.com, USA Today's Top 150 Books, Barnes and Noble and Borders Books and was the #1 book of 2008 at ChristianBook.com. According to the author, in late 2008 the book was selling at a rate of 87,000 copies a week in the secular book stores alone. All of this has allowed Young and his two publishing partners the luxury of holding out for just the right major motion picture deal as well. But there is a reason why several dozen publishers turned this book down. Here are a few of my observations - and objections.
The Shack's Trinity
Several chapters into the book, a most unorthodox version of the Holy Trinity is revealed. Young's tale diminishes Almighty God from His rightful position as a supernatural being. Instead of speaking by His Word and His Spirit, He is morphed into a feminine figure, reduced to passing notes to those with whom she wants to communicate.
God is portrayed in The Shack as a large African-American woman named "Papa," also called "Elousia." (Talk about gender confusion!) Jesus is a Jewish carpenter complete with a tool belt, and the Holy Spirit is depicted as an Asian woman named after "Sarayu," a mystical river in ancient India related to the Hindu deity Kali. Clearly, there is a trinity in The Shack but it is absolutely not the Trinity.
From my first glance at The Shack, it struck me that the idea of God in human form, even in the pages of a novel, is more than just theologically questionable. It is forbidden by several passages from both the Old and New Testaments, not the least of which is the Second Commandment (Exodus 20: 4-5). The Apostle Paul proclaims, "Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man..." (Romans 1:21-23a)
Of The Shack, Chuck Colson's BreakPoint contributing editor Travis McSherley wrote, "This is the root of the book's problems. In the course of the biblical narrative, God the Father never reveals Himself in the form of a human. In fact, Christ rebukes His disciples for even suggesting it. (See John 14:5-10)
"The Shack would not dispute these limits of understanding - it dedicates many pages to chastising believers who cling too tightly to traditional views of God's nature. Yet, instead of expanding our thinking and our appreciation for divine mysteries, the book shrinks them quite dramatically by creating a deity so clearly influenced by human expectations of what God should be."
Sin, Hell, Judgment, Salvation, the Incarnation,
Hierarchy and Authority in the Godhead, a Polynesian
Goddess and other assorted problems
Here are just a few of the many issues raised by 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. (In our private conversation I challenged Young about this, but to no avail.)
- 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. I challenge fans of The Shack to open a Bible and try to make that square with the Scriptures!
- Young's "Papa" character is suspiciously akin to a Polynesian/Hawaiian goddess who also happens to be known as "Papa." When I quizzed Young on this, he denied any knowledge of such a deity. However, the similarities with The Shack's God character are stunning.
Now let's move on to perhaps the biggest concern.
Is Paul Young still a "Reconciling Universalist?"
I have noticed that in nearly every electronic or print media interview, Paul Young volunteers that he is "not a universalist" and does so without ever being asked about it. But is he merely parsing words? Young is obviously nervous about the Christian world becoming convinced of any such thing. That said, it strikes me as odd that on a web page intended to answer critics of the book, one of his editors, Wayne Jacobson, acknowledges that Young had previously embraced a form of universalism known as "universal reconciliation" and that this belief indeed appeared throughout the original manuscript. (Jacobson refers to it as "ultimate reconciliation" to avoid using the dreaded "U" word, "universal.")
Jacobson's website states:
"Does The Shack promote Ultimate Reconciliation (UR)?
"It does not. While some of that was in earlier versions because of the author's partiality at the time to some aspects of what people call UR, I made it clear at the outset that I didn't embrace UR as sound teaching and didn't want to be involved in a project that promoted it. In my view UR is an extrapolation of Scripture to humanistic conclusions about our Father's love that has to be forced on the biblical text.
"Since I don't believe in UR and wholeheartedly embrace the finished product, I think those who see UR here, either positively or negatively are reading into the text. To me that was the beauty of the collaboration." (See: http://www.windblownmedia.com/shackresponse.html)
It is obvious that Young, Jacobson, and partner Brad Cummings all have a great deal to lose by not doing their best to debunk the book's critics. They are very aware of where Young was theologically when he wrote the book. And that is the point, isn't it? It is the content of the book (and presumably that of the forthcoming motion picture) that is being criticized here.
In the very beginning, I began to smell universalism in The Shack by simply reading it. These thoughts were more than confirmed through a very scholarly paper critiquing The Shack written by Dr. James De Young. Other leaders who have been critical of the book, including Dr. Michael Youssef, Janet Parshall, Jan Markell and Dr. Larry DeBruyn, have quoted Dr. De Young's research - and for good reason.
Dr. De Young is a conservative professor at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He is fluent in Greek and Hebrew and also teaches an elective on the early Church Fathers. He is well-equipped to expose universalism from both biblical and historical perspectives. Perhaps equally important to our discussion here is the fact that for several years both Dr. De Young and Paul Young were members of a theological discussion group, or "think tank," known as the M3 Forum. In response to the bountiful amount of universalistic ideas found in The Shack, Dr. De Young has published a well-documented 39-page paper which can be accessed here. Once on the website, you will also find several shorter documents and a discussion forum with remarks from readers, many of whom defend The Shack. These comments serve to illustrate the tremendous confusion and lack of biblical thinking we see abounding inside the Christian community today.
After having Young tell me face to face that he was not a universalist, I asked him about Dr. De Young's paper. He bristled at me and made several accusations about De Young which I now understand to be unfounded. Since the meeting with Paul Young, I had the opportunity to meet personally with Dr. De Young for several hours. In our meeting he shared with me another yet-to-be-released paper he has written exposing Paul Young's very bold defense of universal reconciliation. I can best describe the information in it as shocking. In fact, in the spring of 2004, Paul gave one of the most complete defenses of universal reconciliation imaginable and reiterated this position on at least two occasions, the latest being in May-June 2007, after writing The Shack.
Their having had no previous indication that a staunch believer in universal reconciliation was in their midst, Paul Young’s revelations came as a complete blindside to the M3 Forum members. After the group contested Young's ideas, Dr. De Young gave a lengthy rebuttal to all of Paul's points, branding Young's position as heretical and citing a church council decision from the 6th century. After this event in 2004, Paul Young ceased participating in the M3 Forum.
Reflecting upon my personal conversation with Young at Warner Pacific in October 2008, I wish I had asked specifically, "Are you now or have you ever been an advocate of universal reconciliation?" (Note that classical universalists believe that all religions lead to the same place, whereas those who hold to universal reconciliation believe that all men [read that "ALL"] are already saved because of Jesus' work on the cross.) 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. It is also exactly what Young believed in 2004. It is what he believed when he wrote The Shack and, whether he believes it today or not, you can be fairly certain that with millions of dollars at risk he is not about to re-edit The Shack to try to make theological corrections - at least not without an act of God. Again, the real question is not how skillfully Young may craft his words in denial of being a universalist or even what he may actually believe today. It is the theological content of The Shack that orthodox Christian critics are concerned about. Besides, universalism is but one of the many glaringly unbiblical aspects of the book.
The REAL Problem
The bottom line concerning books, movies, television shows and other input like The Shack is that, if our emotions rule and we fail to use scriptural discernment, we can be taken captive by "evil imaginations."
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit... - Colossians 2:8
Knowing that the author actually portrayed himself as both Shack characters Missy (the violated-then-murdered six-year-old) and her father, Mack (the one searching for God in a painful world), one's heart surely breaks for what Paul Young has evidently endured in his lifetime. However, if readers fail to think biblically and allow only The Shack's emotional storyline to grip them, they chance becoming prey to the very thing that I believe has duped many Christians into accepting and even endorsing the book. Empathy towards the author or his characters, or becoming enamored by what many testify to as the positive real-world outcome of reading the book, cannot trump one's biblical analysis of the work. Young plays upon emotions constantly in the book and also as he lectures publicly, believing that, because hearts are allegedly being touched, God must be giving approval to The Shack. When speaking to me personally, he emphasized the concept that results are all that matters. I responded that, just because people testify that the book is somehow helping them, this does not necessarily mean it is actually ordained by God. After all, God can use many means to reach people. God regularly uses disasters, accidents and tragedy of all sorts - even unorthodox or cultic books - for His glory. This, however, doesn't mean that God somehow deems heresy or terrible events as somehow good or positive in and of themselves.
The Nicest Heretic
Paul Young is perhaps the nicest heretic I have ever dealt with personally. That may sound flip, but it's true. He is a very nice guy who is presenting and defending some very dangerous, even seductive, heresies. As one who wears his emotions on his sleeve and who found himself being swayed by the heartbreaking storyline of The Shack, I must again caution. To allow a gripping story to cloud our ability to detect the subtle and not-so-subtle theological errors strewn throughout its pages is exactly what Dr. Michael Youssef meant when he described The Shack as "a deep ditch that's covered by beautiful landscape."
The disturbing truth is that books like The Shack would never become bestsellers in the Christian world if Christians were on guard, thinking biblically, and were willing to follow the Scriptures! In these dangerous days, it is paramount that we actively develop "eyes of understanding" that constantly check everything by the Word of God - especially the stuff that claims to be of God. The Scripture implores us to prove or test all things (I Thessalonians 5:21-22) and this test can be accomplished only one way - by knowing the Bible and then utilizing what we know from it. Every believer needs to be alert to the reality that in these last days deception is going to come at a rate never fathomed before. Mark my words, as time passes Satan is preparing to use unheralded and brazen trickery that will look and sound very spiritual, even Christian. The only hope we have to avoid the traps successfully is by prayerful, dedicated and aggressive study of God's unchangeable Word. Otherwise, sooner or later we'll find ourselves amongst a growing number of people from previously trustworthy evangelical circles that are heading straight for apostasy.
Jesus warned us in Matthew 24 that, if the end days were not shortened by His return, even the very elect would be deceived. Can we not assume that many who currently hang around the Church - and even some who preach or write books now popularly accepted in Christian circles - may in reality never endure to the end and are thus actually wolves in sheep's clothing?
* * * * * *
There are many other concerns raised by The Shack that space here does not permit me to delve into. To provide this information in more detail, I've produced two new in-depth DVDs. "The Death of Discernment: How The Shack Became the #1 Bestseller in Christianity" and "Universalism: Is Everyone Already Saved?" are each well over an hour long and provide documentation, insight and scriptural understanding relating to these important and timely issues.