If you’ve had any significant contact with evangelicals, you’ve probably seen a copy of “The Shack,” a Christian novel. Copies of The New York Times bestseller are everywhere—more than 20 million of them. I grew up evangelical, so naturally discovered a copy on my own bookshelf.
A decade after the book’s release, it has finally been converted to film. Although it scores a dismal 18 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and hasn’t exactly burst the box office, you might be curious to see it, especially since few Christian movies (“God’s Not Dead” most recently) have broken the B-movie reputation of the genre.
Although immensely popular, the book has been widely criticized for its unorthodox doctrines. As Matthew Garnett recently wrote at The Federalist, “The Shack” is distinct from other novels with Christian messaging in that it is a theological treatise. God is an actual character (well, three characters to make up the Trinity) who speaks to Mack, a grieved parent whose child was brutally murdered, through the majority of the book. The book’s author, William Paul Young, argues the very nature of God in his god characters’ script.
Who Needs that Old Bible Anyway
“The Shack” as a novel brims with poor doctrine, venturing into pure speculation on divine matters at times. You can read thorough critiques of many key passages here, here, and here. What strikes me about the book as a whole is not just its lack of a biblical foundation, but its lack of veneration, or even respect, for Scripture. It contains barely a handful of words that could be construed as quotes from the Word of God.
One excerpt even seems to denigrate the Word and deny its power (emphasis added): “In seminary he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects…Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges?”
Sadly, the film takes a similar approach. It has been purged of many of the book’s points of contention (to frame it charitably), including its promotion of universal salvation (save for one questionable line from Jesus: “I’m the best way anyone can relate to Papa”) and the egalitarian, non-hierarchical model of the Trinity. “The Shack” in both forms might best be described as “loosely based” on the Bible, with Young and those who adapted the film taking many liberties.
I will highlight several key points in the film that are highly problematic in light of biblical revelation, but these by no means represent the full extent of “The Shack’s” disharmonious relationship with the Bible.
1. Papa’s Wrist Wounds
No biblically literate Christian should miss this one. Both the movie and the novel assert that God the father was crucified on the cross with Jesus the son. The camera dwells on the nail scars on Papa’s wrists, so there is no mistaking Young’s position.
Yet the Bible contains no indication whatsoever that the Father was crucified somehow with Jesus, or that the Father or the Holy Spirit were incarnated into human flesh (although the Spirit did take form “like a dove” in Luke 3:22), but it is obvious from the book that Young believes this and it was meant to be conveyed in the film as well. As Papa declares in the book, “When we three spoke ourselves into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human” (p 119).
2. Trivializing Sin
This comes into focus in Mack’s dialogue with Sarayu (the Holy Spirit), as she tends the garden behind the shack. In one scene, Sarayu explains to Mack what the magnificent and wild garden represents: “This mess is you…wild, wonderful, perfectly in process.”
While it is true in a sense that we are beautifully and wonderfully made, the whole point of the story is that Mack is twisted by his pain and isn’t right with God. And it is true that the Holy Spirit works to sanctify us, and that eventually when we die our sanctification is complete and we are made fully righteous.
Yet where in the garden is Mack’s sin? Where are the thorns, rocks, and weeds? The shack’s garden is a “mess” only in that it lacks a human concept of order. It is stunning and without blemish, and because of this, the analogy trivializes Mack’s sinful heart and his judgment of God. The whole story revolves around Mack’s pain, but his sin is merely an afterthought.
For all the story’s emphasis on man’s free will, very little blame, if any, is placed on the human for choosing sin. In one scene Mack is asked to judge others’ actions, including God and his daughter’s murderer. “Wisdom,” a personification of Papa’s wisdom, implies that the serial killer’s choices were twisted because he was abused as a child, as if to excuse it.
Mack blames the abusive father for the loss of his daughter also, but Wisdom asks at what generation one is to stop placing blame, because, “The legacy of brokenness goes all the way back to Adam.” Not the legacy of sin, mind you, but the legacy of brokenness.
Elsewhere in the film, Papa treats sin as an affliction: “It’s not my purpose to punish sin, it’s my joy to cure it.” Yet scripture teaches that we are born with a sin nature and desire to rebel against God, and this leads to brokenness in our lives that only God can heal. Humans make choices, and we choose to sin. That, not incidentally, is why we are not trustworthy hearers or interpreters of God’s voice, as “The Shack” also implies (discussed below).
“The Shack” emphasizes love and forgiveness, and that’s a wonderful message. But the true significance of that forgiveness is completely missed if one doesn’t first understand the detestable nature of our sin and our unworthiness to enter heaven, no matter how well we try to behave. The wages of sin is death, but we are forgiven through Christ’s sacrifice. “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8, emphasis added).
Thus “The Shack” cheapens Jesus’ suffering and resurrection, and that is a corruptive message for believers and unbelievers alike.
3. God Doesn’t Express Wrath
The dismissal of what the Bible has revealed about God’s nature is just as obvious in the movie as in the novel. In the book, when Mack asks, “Aren’t you the one spilling out great bowls of wrath and throwing people into a burning lake of fire?” Papa responds, “I am not who you think I am, Mackenzie. I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment…” In the movie, when Mack asks about God’s wrath, Papa looks up, surprised. “My what?” she inquires. “You lost me there.”
Yet it is abundantly clear throughout scripture that God does express wrath and bring judgment on the wicked. Sodom and Gomorrah were just two cities that were wiped out for their sin; and the Lord commanded the Israelites to cut down many other peoples because of their wickedness (see Ex. 10:2, Ex. 12:29, Num. 25:1-10, Num. 31:1-8, Deut. 1:26-46, Zeph. 1:14-17).
Indeed, it is Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, his propitiation, that averts the righteous wrath of God against the repentant sinner. As it is written the gospel of John, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on Him” (John 3:36). The Apostle Paul warns of God’s inescapable judgment in Romans: “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5).
The book and movie dialogue, on the contrary, places wrath contrary to goodness. In the same exchange after Mack asks about God’s wrath, Papa tells Mack, “The underlying problem in your life is you don’t think that I’m good. I am.” This an important, wonderful message about God’s nature, but it is marred by a simplistic and unbiblical interpretation of God’s goodness as excluding wrath. God is good in every expression and action, including his anger and punishment of sin.
4. God Does Not Punish Sin
Just as Young argues in the book, the film explicitly presents viewers with the notion that God does not punish sin: “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment.” Near the end of the film, Papa assures Mack, who is distressed that the killer might “get away with it,” that, “Nobody gets away with anything. Everything bears consequences.”
For example, if one is a chronic liar, he will find it hard to gain people’s trust; or if one lets anger consume him, he will never know peace. It is beneficial to be reminded that our actions have consequences, but left out of Mack and Papa’s earnest conversation about the fate of a murderer is the prospect of eternal damnation if the killer rejects Christ. Instead, the dialogue skips immediately to redemption, as Papa declares his desire to redeem the murderer.
No one, not even a serial killer, is beyond redemption in Christ, yet we are not being redeemed from our earthly consequences; we are being redeemed out of the clutches of sin, which leads to eternal as well as temporal death (Romans 6:23, 3:23-25).
Notably, Wisdom seems to contradict the fulfillment of punishment in earthly consequence when she asks Mack to choose which of his children he should damn to hell, outlining each child’s sins against their father. She also does not correct Mack when he cries out in his rage against his daughter’s killer, “Damn him to hell!”
So it appears on the one hand Young rejects the idea that God deliberately punishes sin on earth, but maintains that sin is punished eternally, at least in theory, for the non-believer. But the dialogue in “The Shack” maintains the idea that consequence is its own punishment while we are on this earth, and that God does not deliver earthly punishments.
Yet this idea again contradicts scripture. Take as an example the case of Ananias and Sapphira, who secretly withheld a portion of the proceeds from a land sale and were struck dead for lying to God (Acts 5:1-10). Or consider the death of Herod the tetrarch, who, because “he did not give God the glory” was struck down by an angel of the Lord and “was eaten by worms and breathed his last” (Acts 12:21). Or the punishment of King David: the Lord took from him the child born of his union with Bathsheba: “Because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die” (2 Samuel 12:13-19).
Although it is uncomfortable for many modern Christians to consider, as we contemplate almost exclusively God’s abundant grace and mercy as emphasized in the New Testament (but by no means exclusively found there!), it is nevertheless true that God works out earthly punishments over what would be considered “natural consequences.”
5. Marginalizing Repentance
Both the film and the book are markedly void of references, much less a call to, repentance (Luke 13:3, 5). In the book, Papa implores Mack to return to him, but the call for him to turn from his sin is absent. After all, if sin is just an affliction to be cured, and man has no agency in his evil deeds, erasing repentance as a necessary precursor to healing logically follows.
In the judgment scene, Wisdom asks Mack, who has assumed he was there to be judged, “Do you have something to confess?” Mack does not confess his sin. One would think, standing before the Wisdom of a Holy God, in whose presence he should be most keenly aware of his unclean heart, that there would be no more appropriate or compelling moment in the whole film for Mack to confess his sin so God would forgive him (1 John 1:9).
Again, in what is meant to be one of the film’s most powerful scenes, God permits Mack to meet his deceased father in order to reconcile. Tearfully, he forgives his father’s abuse, but Mack never explicitly repents of killing his father. He simply gushes, “I was scared…I didn’t know what to do.”
The viewer is left to ponder this vague statement, which seems more an excuse than an apology. Excuses are a sign of an uncontrite heart, no matter how deeply moved Mack is by his father’s visitation. Had he no need to verbally confess because his father knew his heart? Either way, the scene downplays the necessity of repentance in reconciliation.
6. God Does Not Orchestrate Tragedies
Clearly, how one views God’s relationship to personal tragedy is of great importance, and it is central to “The Shack’s” story. So one would think that out of all the points the film makes about God and human history, it would get this right, but that is not the case.
Papa explains to Mack that, “God doesn’t orchestrate tragedies,” but that he does use them for good. This is a seemingly benign sentiment nominal Christians often subscribe to, but it is false. God may not orchestrate every tragedy, but some events nearly everyone would characterize as tragedies were, in fact, ordained by God, including the death of David’s child, the tenth plague of Egypt in which every firstborn son was killed, and the slaying of all the male children (Numbers 31:14-17) of Midian.
Most critically, the idea that God never orchestrates tragedies undermines the very message of the gospel. For did not the Father send his Son into the world to suffer for the sins of the world and rise again? Was Mary not pregnant “by the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:35)? Jesus’ death and resurrection was predestined (Acts 4:27-28). To say that God did not orchestrate it would be to hang the entire gospel on the totally autonomous actions of humans and deny that God has a plan that he brings to fulfillment. What if Mary had told the angel “No”? What if Pilate had not given in to the cries for Jesus’ crucifixion?
The crucifixion of the Christ was the greatest tragedy, and his resurrection from the dead the greatest triumph. It is the most powerful story ever told, and it would not have happened apart from the instigation and direction of the triune God.
7. Downplaying the Bible
The core fault of the book is that it quite explicitly leads readers away from Scripture, not toward it. When Mack asks Sarayu how he will hear her, she replies, “You will learn to hear my thoughts in yours, Mackenzie,” and when he asks, “What if I confuse you with another voice?” she doesn’t mention scripture, but only assures him that “everybody makes mistakes,” and that he will discern her voice better “as we continue to grow our relationship” (p. 195-196).
The film does not dismiss Scripture so obviously, but it does nothing to draw the viewer toward it or declare its power. The only biblical quotations are, “I am that I am,” and “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The first is made into a joke as Papa introduces herself. Only the second has any discussion surrounding it.
Yet as it is written in Hebrews, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). To the psalmist, God’s word is “A lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).
But “The Shack” instead places the whole of Christian living (even as in the film Jesus scoffs at the term “Christian”) on the relationship and the “thoughts inside your thoughts” alone. We do not adhere to a dead religion, a mere set of rules and principles. We commune with the Living God. As Christians we are indwelt with the Holy Spirit, who “searches the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 3:10-12) and illuminates the Scriptures, through which God has graciously revealed himself, that we might apply its truths to our lives.
The Bible was meant to be a critical component of our walk with God. We not only inhibit growth in our relationship with God by ignoring the Bible, but we open ourselves up to a world of deception because de-emphasizing scripture removes from Christianity the only objective, never-changing measure by which we can examine religious ideas and feelings. Our faith then becomes subject to our desires rather than God’s unchanging revelations of eternal truth.
“The Shack” may be considered a Christian movie, but it is just far enough removed from biblical truth in so many places that anyone only casually familiar to the Christian faith who opens the Bible after watching the film would be, on the whole, more confused than if he hadn’t seen the film in the first place. “The Shack” misses the mark wide, and for that reason I cannot recommend the film any more than I could the novel.