Pastor Bob O'Bannon
Some people I meet say “The Shack” is one of the most powerful and spiritually helpful books they’ve ever read. Others say it is one of the most dangerous deceptions of the last 200 years. Personally I have not read the book, but I did see the movie, so based on the film adaptation of the book, I offer three good things and three bad things about “The Shack.”
To establish some context, “The Shack,” described at Wikipedia as a “Christian novel,” was written by William Young, published in 2007, and was a #1 best-seller from 2008-2010. The movie version was released this year to largely unfavorable reviews.
The story is about a man named Mack whose daughter was killed at a young age. Mack is devastated by this tragic loss but then is mysteriously solicited to meet with God in a shack in the woods to work through his grief and his questions about how God could allow such an unspeakable evil to occur. When he gets to the shack, he meets three people who claim to be the three persons of the Trinity — a young Asian woman who plays the Holy Spirit; a Middle Eastern man who plays Jesus; and an African American woman who plays the Father, and goes by the name “Papa.”
First of all, it should be noted that there are some very good things about “The Shack”:
1) Forgiveness. There are some powerful lessons to be learned in this movie about the importance of forgiving those who have wounded us deeply. Mack must learn to forgive if he is to avoid destroying himself and what is left of his family. Mack learns that forgiveness takes time — for some of us, we might have to forgive a thousand times, and the first step might be to just simply utter the words: “I forgive you.” Some who love the book/movie probably find themselves liberated from the bondage of bitterness as they see themselves in Mack.
2) God’s emotions. Early in the movie, we find that God has been keeping Mack’s tears in a bottle. This is moving and entirely Scriptural, as Ps. 56:8 says: “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.” It’s a helpful reminder that God is not without emotions, that he is a real person, and that he is truly moved by the tears we shed. When Jesus came upon the tomb of his dead friend Lazarus, his response was not to wax eloquently in cold, detached theologizing, but simply to weep.
3) God’s goodness. The movie touches on what is perhaps the biggest apologetic issue of our day — not whether God exists, but whether He is good. This is what Mack struggles with through the entire film. There is an episode in the film where Mack is asked to make eternal judgments about his surviving children, but the weight of the task overwhelms him, and he wants a pass. Mack comes to realize that some matters, like the existence of suffering and evil, are better left to God’s judgment. Just because we can’t fathom a good reason for our suffering, doesn’t mean God doesn’t have one.
It is these good things in “The Shack” that can shroud the seriousness of the bad things. And there are definitely some bad things about this movie. Here are three:
1) The Trinity. The movie (and presumably the book) really does make a mess of the Trinity, the most central doctrine of the Christian faith. First, each of the three persons of the Trinity is presented as an embodied being, when the Bible tells us the Father and Holy Spirit are spirit (John 4:24), and that only the second person of the Trinity took on a human body in the person of Jesus. There is a point where Papa (the person representing the Father) rolls up her sleeves to reveal wounds on the wrists, presumably left by the nails of the crucifixion, suggesting that the Father died for us on the Cross, which is a total absurdity. Jesus died for our sins, not the Father. As R.C. Sproul has written: “We should shrink in horror from the idea that God actually died on the cross . . . It’s the God-man who dies, but death is something that is experienced only by the human nature, because the divine nature isn’t capable of experiencing death.”
Second, the three persons of the Godhead are presented as engaging in completely separate tasks, which is inconsistent with the unity of the Godhead, known in theological circles as “perichoresis.” The Father doesn’t cook dinner while the Son is out back in his workshop doing carpentry. Theologian Douglas Kelly explains the concept like this: “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit inhere in one another and coexist, entirely, and perfectly in one another, so that where one is, the others are, and what one is involved in doing, the others are also involved in doing.”
Third, the persons of the Trinity are presented in the movie as utterly ordinary dudes, super casual and laid back, and nothing like the glorious, majestic and holy God presented to us on the pages of Scripture. Read Is. 6:1-5, Ex. 19:10-19, Luke 5:7-9, and Rev. 4 and see if those descriptions of God bear any resemblance to what we find in “The Shack.”
2) God’s wrath. There is a scene where Mack asks Papa about his/her reputation for being wrathful, to which Papa responds with some incredulity, as if the concept of wrath were something totally foreign. Of course this is one of the most recurring misconceptions of God in our culture — the idea that He loves everyone equally and is angry at no one. If you question whether God — even the God of the New Testament — is one of wrath, read the following passages: Rom. 1:18; 2:5; 12:19; Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:6; 1 Thess. 1:10; Rev. 6:16; 16:1; 19:15. This reminds me of a famous quote by H. Richard Niebuhr, who gave his own description of the liberal view of the Gospel: “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
3) God’s sovereignty. As Mack questions God about why he would allow his daughter to be killed, Papa patiently listens, but eventually offers an answer: He had nothing to do with the girl’s death. Instead, it was the work of evil, which apparently is some kind of independent volitional force that operates outside of God’s control. Now I will fully admit that the idea that God would sovereignly decree the death of a child is a troubling thought, but did he not decree the death of his own Son? (Luke 22:22). Does not the Bible repeatedly assert that God is sovereign even over evil? (Gen. 50:20, Amos 3:6, 1 Kings 12:15, Acts 2:23, 4:27-28). What does it say about God’s power if evil occurs randomly and haphazardly in the universe?
There are other problems in this story, like Jesus not caring what people call him (then what is Jesus’ conversation with Peter in Mat. 16:13-18 about?), and Jesus deflecting a question about whether he is God, instead saying he is merely the “best way any human can relate” to God. Sometimes what is not said is just as concerning as what is said.
Some will excuse these problems by saying, “It’s only a movie; don’t take it so seriously.” But movies are very powerful in shaping the way people think, and this movie has chosen to spend a lot of time dealing with holy things. It’s a theological movie saying theological things and so it should be evaluated with rigorous theological analysis.
Many people are passionate about the book, but as J.C. Ryle reminds us, not all passion is good. A proper passion “will make (a person) regard religious error as a pestilence which must be checked, whatever may be the cost. It will make him scrupulously careful about every jot and tittle of the counsel of God, lest by some omission the whole Gospel should be spoiled.”
So, should you see “The Shack”? If you like melodramatic tearjerkers, you might like the story. But don’t allow it to shape your view of God. The Bible will do a much better job.