Is the Theology of ‘The Shack’ Heretical?

Heresy. Is there any word more feared among Christians? No one who takes their faith seriously wants to be accused of teaching false doctrine and leading others astray. Scripture takes false teaching seriously. Second Timothy 4:3 says, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”

Who are those teachers today?

Who is listening to them?

We should all take these questions to heart, but we should also take great care in the accusations we make. I fear heresy has become a trump card in modern-day evangelicalism to shame anyone who doesn’t think exactly like us. Case in point: The Shack.

In 1997, William P. Young released a book about a father, Mack, grieving over the brutal murder of his young daughter, Missy. Mack has an encounter with God in a small shack in the woods that changes his life forever. But this is no generic God that Mack meets — this is the Christian God of the Bible represented in true Trinitarian form as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As Mack engages in his divine Q&A with the Trinity, every word of the Nicene and Apostle’s Creed is affirmed. The presentation may be unique, but the doctrine is sound.

And yet, heresy hunters have been calling for Young’s head ever since The Shack was published, and they’ve come out of the woodwork again surrounding the release of the movie adaptation. Let’s take a look at three of the most common theological objections to The Shack and whether or not they pass the heresy test.

1) Representing the Trinity with Human Actors Is a Violation of the Second Commandment

The second commandment states: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Some feel that by depicting the Trinity with human actors, the makers of The Shack are downgrading something holy and infinite into a mere likeness that perverts the real thing. In a way, this is a valid point. How can a human ever do justice to something as mysterious and divine as the Trinity?

The problem is that this is also true about everything else that has ever been said, depicted, or written about God by humans. Any concept of God filtered through finite human minds will always be a shadow of the real thing, but God doesn’t seem to have a problem with this since the Bible is filled with these examples. Throughout the Psalms, God is described as a shield, a rock, a shepherd, a fortress, and a mother hen. When God is about to reveal his glory to Moses in Exodus, he refers to his hands, back, and face. When John describes Jesus in Revelation, he writes, “The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters.” None of these images fully encapsulate the majesty of God, but they are helpful symbols that our minds can comprehend.

Similarly, in Christian theology, we have detailed models that describe complex realities. Calvinism and Arminianism are five point systems that attempt to outline the breadth of God’s sovereignty. No matter what side one subscribes to, I’m convinced that both look like a child’s drawing compared to the full picture of God’s reign over the cosmos. But for now, the models are helpful in making the abstract concrete.

Should art be any different?

I grew up in conservative Sunday Schools where we watched grainy cartoon Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist as God the Father smiled down from heaven and the Spirit flew on Jesus like a dove. Heresy?

There is a famous painting of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev from the 15th century showing the three members of the Godhead around a table, beckoning the observer to the empty seat at the front where a cup rests. Heresy?

C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) and John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress) wrote allegorical stories filled with Christian symbols to point readers to the truths of the Gospel. Heresy?

There is no question that the black woman, Middle Eastern man, and Asian woman representing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit respectively in The Shack are not the final word on the Trinity, but no one — not William P. Young or anyone involved in this movie — are presenting them that way. They are simply the forms God chose to take to talk to Mack on this particular day. The great truth that separates Christianity from every other major religion in the world is that our God stooped down to our level, took on flesh, and saved us as one of us. Is it really heretical to imagine God doing the same thing for a grieving father one day in a shack when he needed it most?

2) Claiming That God Is Not Responsible for Missy’s Murder Denies His Sovereignty Over All Things

When Mack has his first one-on-one conversation with Papa (his daughter’s nickname for God the Father, represented up front as a black woman and later as a Native American man), his initial response is anger. And who could blame him? If my little girl had been brutally murdered by a psychopath, I’d probably lead with that too. Where were you? Papa explains in so many words that she didn’t cause that to happen, it broke her heart too, and she was there with Missy the entire time.

This presentation of God’s sovereignty makes many people uncomfortable. If God is all-powerful, then he must be in control of everything that happens. This is the way we understand power as humans. If we want to fully control a group of people, we micro-manage their every move. And admittedly, there’s a certain comfort in this view of God. When something bad happens, declaring God’s will over the situation settles the matter. That is, until we process the full implications of this theological assertion. If God is directly responsible for everything that happens, then he is responsible for The Holocaust, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. He is responsible for every child that’s sexually abused. Every abortion performed worldwide. Every cancer, murder, rape, and war.

Does this sound like the God of 1 John 1:5 who is light, and in whom there is no darkness at all? Or the God of James 1:13 who cannot be tempted by evil, and himself tempts no one? Or the God of James 1:17 from whom all good and perfect gifts come? Can a God who ordains wickedness ever rightfully be called good?

Thankfully, there is a better explanation. God created human beings to live in relationship with him. This is the beautiful picture we see in Genesis of Adam and Eve walking with God in the garden. But for there to ever be a genuine relationship between two beings, both of them must be free. God could have created us as robots programmed to love and obey him, but he wanted a deeper relationship with us. He wanted to give us a free choice because true love can never be forced. Unfortunately, if we are free to love God and walk in his ways, we are also free to hate God and turn away from him. This is the basis for all sin, darkness, and death in the world. None of this took God by surprise. This was always a possibility when he made us free will agents. And for free will to truly be free, God can’t revoke it every time things get messy. But God is faithful. From the time that humanity first went astray, God has been pointing the way back to him. He brings life out of our death, beauty out of our ashes, and one glorious day we will walk with him once more in the cool of the day with evil gone for good.

Does this make God any less powerful or sovereign? Greg Boyd has many helpful thoughts on this in his book Is God to Blame? Think about it like a game of chess. Imagine a player exerting complete control over every move his opponent makes. Now imagine a player allowing his opponent to make any moves he wants, yet still coming up with a perfect response to every action. The latter is the only impressive checkmate scenario. Furthermore, no human being is completely free. We don’t choose where we’re born, for instance. And like the author of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel, God is able to prune and organize the possibilities of our choices as he sees fit. There is still much we’ll never know, but we can be certain of one thing: God is never the author of evil in our lives. Just the opposite, in fact — God is leading us away from evil and transforming the trials we experience into good as we move closer toward his perfect Shalom.

The prologue to the book of Job gives us an insightful peek behind the curtain of the tragedies in our lives. Despite what Job’s friends try to tell him throughout the book, it wasn’t God who inflicted the pain and suffering on Job’s life — it was Satan. And yet, even Satan is bound by God’s limitations as the sovereign ruler of creation. Similarly, Papa in The Shack didn’t cause a man to rape and murder Missy. Those actions were his and his alone. But God was with her in the midst of it all, his nail-scarred hands holding hers, his love guiding her home.

3) Discarding God’s Wrath Presents an Incomplete Picture of His Nature

At one point in The Shack, Papa tells Mack about the deep love she has for every human being including those who go astray. Mack is quick on the draw. He asks her with a grin what to make of all the anger and wrath we see from God in the Bible. Papa looks confused. She crinkles up her forehead and says simply, “You lost me there.” For many, this is an incomplete picture of God. Yes, Scripture declares that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), but… That “but” lies at the heart of our deepest sin and brokenness. We don’t truly believe those three words can stand on their own. We always want to add a fourth word, because merely accepting that “God is love” is too good to be true.

To be fair, Scripture makes this difficult. On the one hand, we have Jesus — God in the flesh who modeled radical, selfless, unconditional love everywhere he went. On the other, we have God in the Old Testament — commanding genocide, prone to rage, and killing those who cross the line. How do we reconcile these two pictures of God? Some say we shouldn’t reconcile them at all. God is both love and wrath. Deal with it. Others point to the difference between the Old and New covenants. And still others say that the Old Testament writers presented a mistaken view of God. I’m interested in these arguments, but I submit they don’t matter as much as we think they do — because at the end of the day, Scripture itself gives us permission to go all in with Jesus.

Hebrews 1:3 says, “The Son is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” If you want to know what God is like, Hebrews invites us to look no further than Jesus because he’s the exact imprint of his nature. Everything in the Old Testament is leading up to Jesus, and Jesus is the hermeneutic by which we interpret what came before. Jesus himself taught us to do this. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus pulled aside two travelers and “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). In Matthew 5:38, Jesus says “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.” Jesus doesn’t throw out the Old Testament; he reinterprets it. We too now have the freedom to interpret everything we see there through the life and teachings of Jesus.

And what do we see in the life of Jesus? A man who loved sinners. While the Pharisees had their lines drawn in the sand separating the righteous from the wicked, Jesus went right up to the worst of the worst and showed them unconditional love. In fact, he showed that love to all of us. Romans 5:8 says, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Before we had done anything to deserve God’s love — while were still in rebellion and darkness — Christ died for us. And we’re commanded to show this same love to those around us, even our enemies. The question we must ask is this: When God tells us to love our enemies, is he asking us to be more loving than he is? Are we supposed to love our enemies while he hates them? Are we supposed to love our enemies while he prepares a fiery dungeon to torture them for eternity?

What if God really is love with no “but” to follow?

Well then, does nothing matter? Should everyone just sin and do whatever they want? Let’s pause for a moment and acknowledge that our understanding of God’s love should be so radical that it forces us to ask that question. Paul asked the same question rhetorically after talking about God’s love for us in Romans. Believing in a God who strikes you dead if you step out of bounds doesn’t get you to that question. Believing in a God like Jesus does. Clearly, if we have to ask, we’re on the right track. And let’s not forget the answer. It’s the same answer Papa gives Mack — unequivocally and emphatically no! Why? Because sin destroys us. Sin blinds us to God, numbs our hearts, blocks our relationships, and — if left unchecked — will lead to our death. God doesn’t need to add punishment to this. Sin creates our hell all on its own.

But what about judgment? What about bad people like Missy’s killer getting what they deserve? First, we need to ask ourselves why we long so strongly for punitive justice. Loving our enemies can’t mean wishing them harm. In fact, Scripture affirms that God himself “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from their way and live.” (Ezekiel 33:11). And yet, God has promised to one day rid the world of sin and death. So what happens to sinners who are hardened against God and want nothing to do with him? God won’t force them to love him. That’s sadistic. So once again, there are theories. Maybe God gives them over to their sinful state in an alternate dimension as C.S. Lewis posits. Maybe God mercifully extinguishes them as Annihilationists affirm (this is the one with the most Scriptural support). Or maybe God continues to chisel away at hard hearts in the afterlife until at last every knee really does bow down and confess that Jesus is Lord.

A friend of mine once proposed such a scenario. Imagine Hitler living in a broken down house in his afterlife existence. It’s cold and lonely. There’s no food in the cupboards. Yet every day he receives a knock on the door, and every day he opens it to find a smiling Jew with a cake in his hands. Hitler slams the door and grumbles to himself, but every day the Jew shows up again. Weeks pass. Months pass. One day, Hitler’s had enough. He lets the Jew into his house and sits down at a makeshift table with a huff. The Jew serves him a piece of cake and they begin a conversation. And slowly, bite by bite, Hitler’s heart is changed by love from a Jew named Jesus.

There is no concrete evidence a scenario like this is possible, but it’s the kind of thing you start to hope for when you love your enemies and dare to believe that God does too.

A Family Discussion

There is nothing wrong with disagreeing about the theology of The Shack. Christians have been arguing about God’s likeness, sovereignty, and nature for thousands of years. The problem is when people refuse to admit this is an in-house discussion. William P. Young is a follower of Jesus, and nothing he presents is outside the bounds of Orthodox Christianity. Pulling the heresy card here is not only a false accusation of Young, it’s a crying wolf distraction from the heresies that need our consideration.

Our adherence to the culture wars as evangelicals has done nothing but damage our witness in the world. I’ll never forget a story my film professor told me in college. When The Last Temptation of Christ came out, Christians stormed the studio lot in protest. At one point, the chairman looked out from the window of his office at the crowd of angry Christians and said to his assistant, “Write this down. This studio will never make another Christian movie.” Our mob and pitchfork revolts against culture aren’t bringing a single person closer to Jesus. If anything, they’re driving people away. I’m glad studios are still making Christian movies, especially films with the depth and artistry of The Shack.

Richard Rohr outlines three foundations to a proper Christian faith — Scripture, Tradition, and Experience. The central problem with post-Enlightenment Protestantism is that we went all in with Scripture at the expense of the other two. Scripture is absolutely essential for every Christian, but it can also be twisted beyond recognition. Our hyper-literal approach to the Bible is foreign to the way the Church Fathers viewed the texts, which is why tradition is so important. And we must never discount our experience. What was it that melted our heart toward that initial leap of faith, and what is it that calls us back every time we run away? Those of us who have encountered God in deep and intimate ways know that there is only love to be found there. Our healing is in his arms.

Mack has an encounter with the triune God and it changes his life forever. That’s a story every Christian can relate to. First John 5:1 says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” There are no adversaries here — just family. Let’s wrestle with the theology of The Shack, but let’s do it around the table as brothers and sisters in Christ. We might be surprised at how much we have in common.

  • Beautifully balanced piece. Thank you 🙂

  • A.R.

    Fantastic article, about a movie that deeply touched my heart. Thank you.

  • I haven’t seen the movie, but I read the book years ago, and I really appreciated what Young is doing in his novel. This was over a decade back, but reading the novel also corresponded with me traveling cross country on a road trip from the northern Midwest to Arizona, and since I was in Arizona I went to the Grand Canyon. It ended up being a solo three day camping trip, and standing in the great vastness of the Canyon, I found myself caught up in a rather profound spiritual experience, the take-away of which was that God is bigger than theology.

    We all know, theoretically, that God is bigger than our ideas about God. Theologically we express this with the word “ineffable.” God cannot be limited to language. It’s one thing, though, to believe on paper that God is ineffable, it’s another thing to actually appropriate it. For me, the Grand Canyon experience internalized a truth that I had theretofore only believed in my head.

    If God is ineffable, though, it calls into question the whole idea of “false doctrine.” No doctrine can truly capture the truth of God, hence all doctrine in some sense or other is false doctrine. And that’s probably the point. Doctrine is not and should not be central to faith. Faith itself is ineffable: it is a first-hand experience of the sacred, it is union with God, it is self-less love of neighbor, it is the death of “I,” etc. We can describe it different ways but words will always fall short.

    So, it makes me ask: is it truly helpful and edifying to weigh a film in the balance to discern its doctrinal credibility???

    • The amazing thing about the God of Christianity is that he took on flesh and became one of us. And through that human prism, we can begin to see clearly what God is like. There will always be a mystery element to faith, and even Jesus refuses to fit neatly in our boxes, but I do think there are some things we can begin to label as “false doctrine” through the lens of Christ. This becomes important when people try to co-opt Christianity to justify violence, racism, hate, exclusion, selfishness, and the like. Jesus gives us something tangible to point to so we can refute those things, and he also makes God more personal in our day-to-day walk of faith.

      As for weighing the film for doctrinal credibility, that’s part of the joy of our site. We hold art up to the light of Christ and see what truth we can find there. But we also still learn from and appreciate the films that don’t fit into our worldview. It’s that charity and common grace which hopefully sets us apart from the antagonistic camps I was defending The Shack from in this article.