The Shack or The Cross?
Copyright © 2008 Robert L. Withers
Not long ago I was discussing a popular “Christian” book with a group of peers. The book misused and misrepresented Scripture to build its message, a fact to which all in the discussion seemed to agree. However, once that point had been acknowledged, a pastor whom I deeply respect said:
“But his [the author’s] heart is in the right place and I’ve been to some of his conferences and they are really great.”
Now the book in question is the foundation of the author’s ministry, which has now become a franchise movement much like the Prayer of Jabez used to be – in other words, the truth of the book is no small question because an entire way of thinking and living rests upon its message.
And yet my dear pastor friend, after having apparently acknowledged the author’s gross misuse of the Bible, reduced the issue to whether or not the author’s heart is in the right place and to whether or not the author’s conferences provide a meaningful experience.
Because of my respect for my colleague I chose not to pursue the subject in front of others, but I was taken aback – for if experience trumps Biblical truth among my pastoral peers then how can we guide our congregations?
Jonathan Edwards wrote a treatise titled, Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. True to Edwards’ intellect, Biblical knowledge, and pastoral heart, it is a thorough treatment of questions we ought to ask when evaluating a revival, a movement, or a book. Whether a person is favorably or unfavorably disposed toward an event, a teaching or a book, Edwards challenges us to think through our evaluation in a balanced and Biblical fashion.
Edwards, of course, could speak not only with Biblical and intellectual authority, he could also speak from experience, having preached and pastored in the midst of what we call the First Great Awakening. He painfully learned that appearances can be deceiving. I think Edwards would agree that appearances in the midst of a revival or movement, or the way we “feel” when reading a book or attending a conference, are no accurate and lasting measure of whether something is from the Holy Spirit or not. I also believe that he would emphatically agree that experience and feelings, in and of themselves, do not validate or invalidate the content of a teaching, a book, or a ministry. Let me hasten to add, for those of us who may not be familiar with Jonathan Edwards, that he very much believed in the witness and power of the Holy Spirit, and considered the witness of the Holy Spirit essential to conversion and knowing Jesus Christ. See his treatise, A Divine and Supernatural Light, for an introduction to Edwards’ teaching on the witness of the Holy Spirit.
In Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God Edwards sets forth nine negative signs which may or may not indicate that a work is of the Holy Spirit and five positive signs that are marks of the work of the Holy Spirit, after which he draws a series of conclusions.
The first positive sign is:
When the operation is such as to raise their esteem of that Jesus who was born of the Virgin, and was crucified without the gates of Jerusalem; and seems more to confirm and establish their minds in the truth of what the gospel declares to us of his being the Son of God, and the Saviour of men; is a sure sign that it is from the Spirit of God.
In other words, is Jesus Christ and the Cross the focus of what is occurring, what is being taught, what is being written? Is this teaching, movement or book drawing people to the Christ of the Cross, the Christ of the Bible?
Recently because of widespread interest in a certain well-publicized “revival” or “outpouring” I spent some time reviewing “official” websites connected with the revival. I found little about Jesus Christ. I found much about experiences that people were having and I found even more about the primary leader of the revival. In fact, if I were a man from Mars I think I would come away with the impression that the revival is about the worship of the main leader and his ministry rather than about someone called Jesus Christ.
I realize that to some readers these comments will seem harsh and cynical, but I would ask why they seem so. Is not Christianity to be about Jesus Christ, and is not the message of Jesus Christ the message of the Cross? As John Stott has written of Jesus, “Despite the great importance of his teaching, his example, and his works of compassion and power, none of these was central to his mission. What dominated his mind was not the living but the giving of his life.”
The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” 1 Cor. 2:1-2. Was Paul being narrow-minded with such singled-minded purpose and focus?
Or consider Paul’s statement in Galatians 6:14, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Was Paul out of balance in his teaching, his passion, his devotion to the Christ of the Cross?
Was Christ out of balance in the focus and trajectory of His life? Was His single-minded dedication to keeping His appointment on the Cross at the appointed hour a mistake? Were the Gospel writers unbalanced when they devoted such a significant portion of their writing to not only the trajectory of the Cross, but to the week leading up to the Cross? Was the Apostle John out of touch with God when he devoted nearly one-half of His Gospel to Holy Week?
If Christ and the Apostles were not out of balance, if the Bible is true, then there is only one central question to ask when hearing a teaching, observing a movement, or reading a book, and that central question is, “Where is Christ and the Cross as set forth in the Holy Scriptures?” While there are other questions that can be asked, there is no other question comparable in weight to this one question – “Where is the Christ of the Bible and His Cross?” While there are other questions that can be asked, there is perhaps only one question that must be asked, “Where is the Christ of the Bible and His Cross?” Jonathan Edwards put this question first, had he lived today I think he may have put this question both first and last. This question, the question of the Christ of the Cross, must frame and inform all of our preaching and teaching, all of our evaluation of teaching and writing, and all of our life.
It is with Christ and His Cross in mind that I listen to teaching, that I evaluate “movements,” and that I read books purporting to be Christian.
In the interest of time I am not going to recapitulate the storyline of The Shack, I will however, refer to points in the storyline in this discussion.
In the book the main character, Mack, encounters Sophia, the personification of the Wisdom of God. Sophia challenges Mack to judge others, to decide who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. She begins by asking Mack to decide which of his own children will go to heaven and which will go to hell. Mack quite naturally is repelled by this challenge and when the pressure to choose becomes too great he pleads with Sophia to allow him to go to hell instead of his children.
At Mack’s request to go to hell Sophia replies:
“Now you sound like Jesus. You have judged well, Mackenzie. I am so proud of you!”
“But I haven’t judged anything,” Mack offered in confusion.
“Oh, but you have. You have judged them worthy of love, even if it cost you everything. That is how Jesus loves.”
As the conversation continues, Sophia explains Papa’s (the figure of God the Father) love to Mack:
“…He [Papa] chose the way of the cross where mercy triumphs over justice because of love. Would you instead prefer he’d chosen justice for everyone? Do you want justice...?”
“No, I don’t,” he said as he lowered his head. “Not for me, and not for my children.”
What we see in this passage is love and mercy set off in opposition to justice. We are told that God chose love and mercy instead of justice. The Cross, according to The Shack, is an expression of God’s love and mercy as opposed, or instead of, in lieu of, God’s justice. The message in this extended passage is that God has not judged us and that God will not judge us because God loves us and has shown mercy to us in lieu of justice.
The problem with this teaching is that it simply isn’t true. This teaching sets up a false dichotomy between love and mercy versus justice – God must chose one over the other according to The Shack.
This false dichotomy echoes the underlying message of The Shack – relationship is everything and everything else is nothing. Relationship takes the place of justice, relationship takes the place of institutions, relationship takes the place of authority, relationship takes the place of the Church (as most of us understand the Church), relationship takes the place of God’s commandments, and relationship takes the place of Christianity. More to the immediate point, relationship takes the place of the Biblical Cross because in The Shack the Cross represents God’s choice of love and mercy over justice, while in the Bible the Cross represents, among other things, the satisfaction of God’s justice. In the Bible God’s justice, judgment, love and mercy meet in the Cross; in The Shack these elements are opposed to each other in the Cross.
The Shack portrays a false image of relationship between God and man, a cheap relationship, a promiscuous relationship – for it is a relationship without commitment, a relationship without holiness, without truth, without justice – and without true mercy and love. It is actually a cruel image of relationship – for it is one in which man must be subjectively and experientially convinced of God’s ambiguous love, it is one in which man has no closure for his sin and guilt, his conscience is at the mercy of his experience, and therefore at the mercy of the way he feels – there is no transcendent Cross of Christ to look to for evidence that God’s justice has been fully satisfied as a result of God’s great love and mercy for us.
While it is beyond the scope of this paper to fully explore the Cross of Christ, even a brief Biblical survey demonstrates the opposition of The Shack to the teaching of Jesus and the Bible:
“Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Luke 24:45-47.
There is no repentance and forgiveness of sins in The Shack because there is no justice in The Shack. I need not repent, I need not ask for forgiveness in The Shack.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:6-8
In The Shack there are no ungodly people and there are no sinners, we are all just messed up children who don’t realize who we are and who God really is – we don’t realize that what God really wants is just one great big group hug. The question of life in The Shack is really, “Why can’t we all just get along?”
In The Shack love is cheap and grace is cheap. In the Bible God demonstrates His love for us in the most costly way imaginable – God the Son becomes the object of the wrath and judgment of God on our behalf. In the Bible there is no false dichotomy between God having to choose love and mercy over against justice, in the Bible we see the love and mercy of God meeting the justice, holiness and righteousness of God in the Person of Jesus Christ.
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. Romans 5:9-11
In The Shack we don’t need justification for there is no sin. In The Shack God’s wrath is a juvenile concept. In The Shack we were never God’s enemies, just misguided children who have built false images of God. In The Shack reconciliation is not costly, it’s just a mind game – let’s get over our false images of God, ourselves and others and let Papa cook breakfast for us. Let’s exchange the Bread and the Cup for some nice hot scones and aromatic coffee.
If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin-- because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Romans 6:5-7
In The Shack there is no “old self,” no sin nature, no old man (or woman); there is nothing that requires crucifixion (see also Galatians 2:20), there is no need to be identified with Jesus Christ in His death, burial and resurrection, and no need to be concerned about being a slave to sin because there is no sin in The Shack.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. 1 Peter 3:24-25
Once again, in The Shack there is no need to think about Christ bearing our sins, no need for us to die to sins and live to righteousness; in The Shack it’s all about how we think and how we feel.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, "I know him," but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God's love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.
1 John 1:8-2:6
In The Shack there is no need to confess sin, no need to ask for forgiveness, no need to be purified from unrighteousness and no need for Jesus to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins, for after all, in The Shack God chose love and mercy over justice.
In The Shack commandments are unnecessary, and yet in the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles obedience to Christ’s commands is a mark of the Christian.
The message of the New Testament, indeed of the entire Bible, is the Christ of the Cross. The Cross of Christ is the place of God’s love, mercy, holiness, justice, judgment, wrath, and reconciliation. The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is our portal into the new creation of Jesus Christ, who is the Last Adam and the Second Man.
When I see the Cross of Christ I see that God has objectively dealt with my sin and my guilt, and regardless of the way I feel, regardless of the way I feel about myself or even feel about God, I have an objective transcendent historic and cosmic event that I can look to for complete and total assurance for salvation in Jesus Christ. God the Father provides something better than The Shack’s Papa with her home cooked meals, God the Father bids me partake of the body and blood of His Son, knowing that he who has the Son has life.
The Shack fails Jonathan Edwards’ test of a work of the Holy Spirit, for it does not draw us to the Christ of the Bible. More importantly, it fails the Biblical test for truth, for not only is it not centered on the Christ of the Cross, but The Shack consistently repudiates Biblical truth on a number of fronts, not the least of which is the truth of the Cross of Christ.
Now for some general comments:
Jesus came to die on the Cross; if the Cross was central to His life, and if it was central to the message of the Apostles, then it must be central to us and we must insist on the Cross being our magnetic north – Paul suffered persecution and died for the Cross, we are all too ready to rationalize it away. The Cross is an offense, a stumbling block, and foolishness – it is also the only hope we have. Just as Jesus would not be deterred from the Cross, so must we set our faces like a flint toward Calvary and let nothing distract us from that alone which brings eternal life to humanity.
A beautifully decorated cake, baked to perfection, may look inviting; but if I know it is laced with cyanide will I eat it? Any teaching, any movement, any “happening” that is not centered on the Person of Jesus Christ and the Cross is toxic – no matter how good it looks, no matter how good it feels – why would I partake of it? Why would I invite those I love and care for to partake of it? Is there any substitute for Christ and His Cross?
The Shack demonstrates a false understanding of the nature of God when it sets up the false dichotomy of love and mercy against justice. The attributes of God include love, mercy, holiness, justice, righteousness and truth. These attributes do not exist in competition with one another, they exist in the essence and Person of God. The Shack’s author, William Young, pulls God down into his own little image when he creates this false competition. Much heresy begins with a false understanding of the nature of God.
The Shack presents a false dichotomy between relationship and obedience. As demonstrated in the passage from 1 John above, obedience is part of the fabric of our relationship with God. Christ says in John 14:14, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Are we to believe Jesus or William Young?
The Shack insidiously uses foils to weave its web of deceit. That is, it appeals to caricatures and misrepresentations that we’ve all seen in life to make its case – rather than to present Biblical correctives. For instance, we’ve all seen legalistic churches and Christians and many of us have been there and done that, but instead of teaching us about the grace of God and the Cross of Christ, The Shack waves the wand of “relationship” and that is all we need to think about.
Many of us have had images of God the Father as distant, remote, and with a big wooden spoon ready to pounce on us for every little mistake. Instead of portraying the Biblical image of God the Father, the One who gave His Son, the One who gave us the Spirit of Adoption whereby we cry out, “Abba (Daddy) Father!,” The One who comes to live intimately within us; The Shack gives us a Papa who is indulgent, with little definition, and who abandons justice in the name of a jelly fish love and mercy.
(By the way, in case you are wondering, I don’t have a problem with the portrayal of the Father as a big black woman. In a broader and better context with Biblical definition it could have come off fine – in the context of The Shack it is a caricature of God, but any image used in the book would have been a caricature of God).
The Shack bashes organized Christianity, but instead of providing a Biblical corrective which explicitly teaches participation in a local body of believers, the book advocates an “everyman doing what is right in his own eyes” approach to life – the antithesis of Biblical teaching and contrary to the heart of Christ.
The Shack tries to work out an understanding of pain and suffering in the context of God and man. The theological word for this subject is “theodicy.” How does God’s justice work itself out in this world? Why is there pain and suffering? Will those who inflict pain and suffering on others be held accountable by God? These are all good questions, questions which people have asked since time began. These are the questions that most of us will like the answers to when we see Jesus. However, as for now, as for this time on earth, while we may get glimpses now and then of pieces to this puzzle we just don’t have all the answers – nor does the Bible give us all the answers, at least in the way we want them. The one great answer we do have in the Bible is the character and Person of God; because God is holy, righteous, just, merciful and loving we can trust Him to resolve these things according to His character and nature. This is one reason why William Young does such a disservice when he creates competition within the nature and attributes of God – he dumbs God down to our infantile level –and make no mistake about it, at our best we are infants.
The fact is that William Young and his associates, such as Wayne Jacobsen, have had some problems in their lives with organized religion, legalism, going to church, and their images of God. Well, haven’t we all? Or at least, haven’t many of us? However, rather than seek a Biblical understanding of God, the Church, and the Christ of the Cross, Young and Jacobson have chosen to construct their own extra-Biblical paradigm, a paradigm which finds expression in The Shack.
In the book Mack goes into a shack and finds it transformed into an inviting cabin. The reader can have the same experience. The reader can go into the book and find a new world, with a new god, with no commandments, no Cross, no justice and no real love (though the reader won’t recognize the latter).
The Shack sucks the reader in with a storyline and then turns on the reader with an assault on William Young’s hang-ups with life, God and the Church. What Young presents as liberation will only lead the reader to confusion and frankly is similar to New Age material such as the Celestine Prophecy which uses the Catholic Church as its foil.
And the wonderful thing for the author is that no one can criticize him because there are no longer any criteria for truth, for to have truth would be to have justice and we no longer have justice, we simply have love and mercy – we will let relationship take care of working everything out in the end. So William Young in effect says, “Catch me if you can,” but we can’t do that because he refuses, as does Wayne Jacobson, to acknowledge transcendent objective truth, truth to which we can all be held accountable.
Some folks have said, “Well, it’s just fiction.” Fiction or not, it is theology, it is purporting to represent God and it is teaching a worldview and a way of life. The literary genre is not the issue, the message is the issue. The fact that it is fiction does not give it a free pass.
I want to conclude by commenting on Eugene Peterson’s following endorsement of the book:
When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize the result is a novel on the order of The Shack. This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!
This quote makes me wonder whether Peterson has read The Pilgrim’s Progress. The Pilgrim’s Progress is faithful to Scripture, it consistently quotes Scripture and alludes to Scripture. Christ and the Cross are central to the book, Satan and spiritual warfare are in the fabric of the book, the grace of God and the justice of God permeate the book. John Bunyan, the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, does not engage in flights of speculation that have no relationship to the Bible, Bunyan does not dumb God down, Bunyan does not detract from the Cross and Christ. Obedience enabled by the grace of God is a central theme of The Pilgrim’s Progress and the consequences of disobedience are clearly portrayed.
I am afraid that there is a movement among certain Christians in “literary” circles to promote “Christian” writing without regard to Biblical content. Let me be clear, a Christian writing a mystery novel, such as Dorothy L. Sayers, need not in my opinion provide Christian content in the novel any more than a Christian chef needs to serve communion wafers as appetizers – however let us hope they both serve up healthy fare.
On the other hand, when a writer uses a fictional storyline to advocate a theology, when the book is the vehicle for the message – then whether or not the book has literary merit or not is beside the point – it is really beside the point – for the point is the content and no amount of literary merit can gloss over toxic content any more than a beautifully decorated poisoned cake can obviate the fact that there is cyanide inside it.
C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, J.R.R. Tolkien, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, Charles Williams, Dante Alighieri, John Bunyan, Walter Wangerin and others have used fiction genres to explore God, the Bible, this life and the spiritual world. While we may agree or disagree with their theology to greater or lesser extents, the limits they pushed and the heights and depths they explored were, by and large, within a Biblical context. William Young does not write within a Biblical context, he draws the reader into The Shack to bring the reader out of a Biblical worldview and into a world of ultimate confusion without the magnetic north of the Cross of Christ.