The Shack has been referred to both as one of the greatest Christian books of all time, and as the “greatest deception foisted on the church in the last 200 years.” At first, that profound disagreement may not make sense. But, in an increasingly polarized society and Church, this sharp division and disconnect actually makes perfect sense. Let’s examine why this is, and what we can and should do about it.
There have been many helpful reviews and critiques of The Shack (see links at the end). At the risk of duplicating some of what is in those, our goal here is not merely to point out problems, but to learn, to appreciate more fully the need for discernment, to understand why the Church is so polarized, to be convinced of the supreme importance of truth and Scripture, to gain awareness of some of the ways we are often deceived, and to learn some of the ideologies that are increasing in acceptance in the Church.
The Shack, Suffering, and Scripture
The Shack reminds me of another highly praised religious book, written a quarter of a century earlier, that also attempted to understand suffering: When Bad Things Happen To Good People, by Rabbi Kushner. The author not only went through extreme suffering because of his son’s painful, degenerative, and ultimately fatal disease, he also profoundly struggled to understand suffering, particularly in the context of a God who is supposed to be, as we are taught, all-loving and all-powerful. In his pain and turmoil, he concluded that God was either all-powerful, but not all-loving, or that God was all-loving, but not all-powerful. Kushner decided that God could not be both.
Rabbi Kushner’s difficulty in grasping suffering not only led him to his false dichotomy (that God is either A or B–when, in actuality, He is C), it also led him to a distorted God, just as it did with William Paul Young, the author of The Shack. Kushner finally chose to believe that God is all-loving but that He lacks the power and ability to overcome suffering. If God were both all-powerful and all-loving, Kushner concluded, He would have used His power to heal his son.
In his pain and turmoil, he concluded that God was either all-powerful, but not all-loving, or that God was all-loving, but not all-powerful.
Kushner’s teaching resonated with, and was believed and praised, by many. As with The Shack, there were several “celebrity” Christians (i.e., relatively famous people who were also self-proclaiming believers) who eagerly endorsed Rabbi Kushner’s book.
So here are some of the many parallels: both Kushner and Young experienced extreme suffering. Both seem like very nice people, who perhaps have good intentions and care a lot. Both became dismayed by, and unsatisfied with, their previous beliefs about God. Both deeply desired to understand suffering and reconcile this with what they were previously taught and believed (and to help others with their new understanding). Both could not, for whatever reason, harmonize their beliefs about God with their intense pain. Both men, as a result, ultimately took it upon themselves to construct their own version of God (cp Ex 32:1ff). Not only that, in order to do so, both took it upon themselves to subtly and overtly defy and change Scripture (cp Gen 3:1ff). Furthermore, as a result, both men have been widely praised for “going outside of the box,” and for altering God’s Word to make a more palatable and pleasing God. Finally, both have a “functionally” low, if not adversarial, view of Scripture.
None of this is new. This has been going on since the beginning (Gen 3:1ff). It is human nature to resist, reject, or rebel against God’s Word, and to construct a more workable or likable “theology.” However, what might be unique today is the increasing acceptance, praise, and ardent defense of what, in the past, used to be considered obvious offenses. These are not merely “breaking rules.” These my-way-over-God’s-way violations always lead to deception, which always leads to destruction (Matt 7:13-14).
In order to construct their new “God” they had to change and violate the written Word of God.
Nevertheless, this new-and-improved “God” perhaps made more sense to these authors—and was certainly more appealing to them, and others. Furthermore, as we have seen, and what might be most concerning and damaging, is that in order to construct their new “God,” they had to change and violate the written Word of God.
Their new/old approach, however, did produce best-selling books (both sold millions). Their new “Gods” not only produced popularity, they were both widely praised and accepted by believers and non-believers—and this was seen as success. In reality, this kind of praise and popularity is not always a good thing. In fact, it is often a tell-tale sign of a person’s lack of accuracy when it comes to handling Scripture (e.g., Lk 6:26; Matt 7:13-14; 1 Jn 2:16-17; 4:5-6; Jn 17:14). Yet many believers get this backwards.
The Shack and the Overcorrection Syndrome
There is a somewhat common-yet-problematic pattern that often occurs when it comes to suffering and real or perceived error—particularly when a person suffers under “legalism” (real or perceived), or because of grace-lacking people or teaching (real or perceived), or with intense personal suffering. Unfortunately, as bad as the original problem might be, it is, due to a faulty response, often compounded and made even worse than before. This pattern is called the “Overcorrection Syndrome” (OS). Overcorrection Syndrome is not only deceptive, it is always destructive—sometimes exceptionally so—and on many levels.
In OS, the person attempts to make a correction to a real or perceived error (perhaps most are real, but many are perceived). However, he or she over shoots and misses the truth, and lands in another error-filled location (e.g., they go from “the gutter on one side of the street to the gutter on the other side”). What makes this worse is that they are very confident that they now stand corrected—all while being immersed in more error. Furthermore, many people add a fair amount of bitterness to the equation (although not always). One last complication with this overcorrection is that many who do overcorrect into more error often become passively, aggressively, or passive-aggressively against those who they blame for the original error (or the suffering).
When it comes to The Shack, there seems to be a strong adversarial mindset, however subtle, particularly toward God’s written Word, the message of the cross (cp Phil 3:18-19; 1 Cor 1:17ff; 1 Jn 2:1-2), and those who hold to a high view of Scripture. It would not be surprising if the author (and editors) experienced pain from those who misused or abused God’s Word (or were perceived to do so), or from believing in some type of performance-based mindset or theology.
Note: “Old Covenant living (i.e., performance-based, shame-based, guilt-based living) in a New Covenant reality (i.e., grace and truth)” is very common among many otherwise wonderful Christians.
Perhaps the three most common and evident signs of OS are:
- Trying to widen the “narrow road” (Matt 7:13-14)—often with a truth-lacking “grace” and “love” (the concern for accuracy is far outweighed by the desire for new ways, and supposedly easier ways, of knowing God, love, etc.), while often condemning (e.g., for being unloving or “hateful” or “Pharisaical”) those who do not follow a broad-road ideology.
- Going “outside of the box” to construct a new kind of “love,” a new-and-improved “God,” and a “different gospel” (cp Gal 1:6-9; 2 Cor 11:3-4, 13-15). This is almost always a self-empowered freedom to go outside of Scripture, and, therefore, to develop a more appealing God, gospel, love, etc.
- A low and adversarial view of Scripture (subtly or overtly, even though this is usually denied) along with bitterness, and therefore, animosity (often passive-aggressive) toward those who hold to a high view of Scripture and to so-called “traditional” theology (even blaming those people for the suffering in their lives).
These signs of Overcorrection Syndrome are even more important here because The Shack scores high in all three areas.
The Shack, Sin, and Scripture
Perhaps the primary pattern of false teachers—in addition to their assaults on and distortion of Scripture—is to minimize the consequences of sin, to be “enemies of the cross” (Phil 3:17-19), to not turn people from sin and its consequences, and to evade or distort the remedy of sin (cp Gen 3:4; Jer 23:14-22; 1 Cor 1:17ff). We discuss this topic in more depth in a recent post, along with an upcoming book about appropriately handling sin. This particularly destructive brand of teaching often happens when people “overcorrect” (i.e., Overcorrection Syndrome) from legalism and toward overemphasizing a distorted “grace” and “love”—all while lacking truth, and the reality of the consequences of sin. This might be the main reason why the author of The Shack believes in a “different gospel.” (see below)
The Shack (Universalism), Salvation, and Scripture
The worst place to be is not “unsaved.” Rather, it is to be in need of salvation, yet convinced that you do not need salvation. What could be worse than that? Sadly, that is what “universalism” does to people: it removes the need to fulfill your greatest, superlative need. That is what all false gospels do (Gal 1:6-9). That is why nothing could be more important than exposing this deadly falsehood and replacing it with the gospel.
Universalism espouses the falsehood that all mankind will ultimately be saved, regardless of their belief in the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross. To make matters worse, universalism (as Young assents to wholeheartedly) is seen as the more loving and compassionate belief (and is often embraced by those who overcorrect, who have a low(er) view of Scripture, and who at least lean toward political correctness). Furthermore, those who oppose this deceitful and deadly lie, who warn others about it—and who seek to share the true gospel—are often summarily judged, condemned, and demonized with such labels as: hater, evil, unloving, Pharisee, heresy hunter, etc.
The Shack, Subjectivity, and Scripture
Attempting to blend theology into a work of fiction presents many challenges, conflicts, and problems—how much more so when you put words into the mouth of God. Anyone who takes this approach dramatically increases the possibility of mixing truth and error, not to mention a myriad of misunderstandings, along with actually teaching error–and, therefore, for deceiving and destroying countless people. What is worse, this method (theology wrapped in fiction) also helped cloak the plethora of problems in The Shack, at least to many. This was made even more possible because many, even within the Church, are far more dependent upon subjectivity than Scripture (e.g., emotions, experiences, feelings, mysticism, etc. over or in place of God’s Word and objectivity).
Ideally, the confusion alone (surrounding The Shack’s mixed-messages and new theology) should have been a deal breaker—for the readers, and especially for the author(s). Many more corrections and clarifications should have been made, at a minimum, if there was more of a concern for accuracy and clarity. Yet in a Post-Truth, subjective-over-objective society and Church, a growing number of people prefer ambiguity and are not overly concerned about error or alarmed by falsehood or false teachings (cp Ps 119:104; Prov 30:8; 2 Cor 11:3-4; 2 Tim 4:3-4; Is 30:9-11). The people here (e.g., in postmodernism; subjective-over-objective) tend to see nebulous-ness, lack of distinction, and uncertainty as a strength, even a virtue—despite the confusion, deception, and destruction this will inevitably produce. But are we okay with our doctors, engineers, pilots, or pharmacists being ambiguous and lacking in clarity and certainty? Why, then, is ambiguity deemed good when it comes to the gospel and eternal matters of life and death?
Are we okay with our doctors, engineers, pilots, or pharmacists being ambiguous and lacking in clarity and certainty? Why, then, is ambiguity deemed good when it comes to the gospel and eternal matters of life and death?
While mixing fact and fiction helped to mask Young’s true beliefs (even if this was not his intent), that is over now. While many people discerned and warned of these problems early on, and despite his many defenders, his ideology has officially “come out” in his new book The Lies We Believe About God, in which he leaves little doubt about his beliefs (regarding sin, universalism, Scripture, and even a“different gospel” altogether).
The Shack, Subtlety, Intent, and Reality
“Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right” (C.H. Surgeon). Subtle error is far more deadly than obvious error: Error + Truth = a more alluring, and, therefore, a more dangerous deception (cp Gen 3:1-6; Gal 5:9).
Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right. -C.H. Spurgeon
Perhaps the biggest problem with The Shack is this: even though it contains many false teachings (Young’s universalism; New Age concepts like fractals and panentheism), the messages are left ambiguous enough (for many, not all)—that there is some “good,” or enough truth mixed with error—for these falsehoods to be simultaneously believed by many people, yet denied by others (e.g., by the many apologists for The Shack). This double-speak may not have been the intent of the author(s), but it is the reality.
It is true that all writings can be misinterpreted. Yet the road is so broad and ambiguous in The Shack that it invites, if not demands, many interpretations, while also guaranteeing that a myriad of deadly lies will be believed. Therefore, this book firmly fits into Jesus’ description of the wide gate and broad way—a deceptive-yet-popular path that leads to one main thing: destruction (Matt 7:13-26).
Yet, as important as the author’s intent is, in some ways, it does not matter at all. Why? Literally millions and millions of people are reading this book, and millions more will watch the movie. They are being presented—directly and indirectly—with inaccurate teaching about several crucial, life-determining theological concepts including: love, life, salvation, the gospel, God’s Word, and even God Himself, regardless of the author’s original intent.
Literally millions and millions of people are reading this book, and millions more will watch the movie. They are being presented—directly and indirectly—with inaccurate teaching about several crucial, life-determining theological concepts including: love, life, salvation, the gospel, God’s Word, and even God Himself.
Yes, the ideology in The Shack is having a huge impact—but not for good. The audience is taking home the author’s teachings and they are believing what is being taught—but it is not the truth. They are, therefore, believing many harmful things (as shown by several other critiques of the book and movie, not to mention being affirmed by Young’s more openly stated beliefs in his new book). These new/old fallacies are robbing people of hope and of the truth, while providing them with false hope and falsehoods.
Furthermore, the frequently relied on argument of, “Yeah, but that’s not what the author meant” is irrelevant at best, while being extremely deceptive at worst. No matter what the intent, millions and millions of people are being deceived. Many are believing falsehoods about God, His Word, and the gospel. Countless people are being redirected away from the true gospel and are believing a false gospel. No amount of pleasant feelings or good intentions will make up for just one person being destroyed by falsehood. How much more dangerous when untold numbers of people are falling for the many errors in The Shack?
No amount of pleasant feelings or good intentions will make up for just one person being destroyed by falsehood.
The Shack, Perceived Impact, and True Impact
For many people today the concern is becoming less and less, “Is this biblical?” or, “How much error or misleading messages are in this?” Instead, there are a number of differing standards that people use as the measurement of whether something is “good” or not. Now, do some come right out and overtly say, “I don’t care if this biblical?” Yes, some do, of course. But the vast majority of people have some other rationale that minimizes the necessary concern for truth and accuracy.
So, for example, when the many concerns and errors are pointed out in The Shack (e.g., universalism; distorting God; undermining Scripture; etc.)—or in other books, or with other questionable-at-best teachers—these are some of the most common responses:
“That isn’t what the author meant.”
As we have already noted, the intentions don’t really matter when it comes to the actual impact —and the impact of this particularly book and ideology is very destructive. Furthermore, when it comes to The Shack, that is what the author meant.
“Yeah, but … it’s reaching so many people.”
Yes, it is, but with what? As we have already shown, The Shack is reaching millions of people, but with very destructive ideology. This is not a “positive” – rather, it is an egregious “negative” against the book, for the Church, and especially for non-believers.
“Yeah, but … the author is such a wonderful person.”
That may be true, but, again, we are primarily concerned about how biblical the book is, and now the movie – and the harm it is doing to countless people. Therefore, this objection is misleading and deceptive.
“Yeah, but … it’s not supposed to be a ‘theological’ book … but it helped me so much in understanding God!”
This disconnect reveals the frequent “cognitive dissonance” where many people cannot, or will not, see their self-defeating arguments. Nor do they see that this is a book all about theology (as the author himself fully admitted).
“All I know is that this gave me a wonderful experience with God … I’ve never felt closer to Him.”
An experience is one thing, even if it is deemed to be “wonderful.” But this begs the question, which “God” is being experienced here? As previously shown, this is clearly a different “God.” Furthermore, countless people have had wonderful experiences with false gods. So, again, this is not a positive for the book; rather, it is a deal-breaking negative.
“How can it be wrong if it makes people feel so good?”
Feelings do not determine truth. In fact, the truth often does not make us feel good. Furthermore, there are many counterfeits that produce good feelings, at least at first (cp Prov 16:25).
Feelings do not determine truth.
“How can it be ‘heresy’ if it’s so popular?”
Popularity is not a sign of truth, or of being biblically accurate. In fact, it is frequently a strong indicator of error and of ultimately leading to destruction (cp Lk 6:26; Matt 7:13-14). Once again, this is not a positive sign, but a powerful negative one.
“How can it be bad if so many people are helped by it?”
Similar to other reasons given, this begs the question of how being “helped” is defined (Prov 16:25). Many people have been convinced they were being “helped” when in fact they were being deceived, and ultimately, harmed even more.
“How can it be bad if so many non-believers love it?”
As shown already, this not a “positive,” but is an alarming sign of error and falsehood (1 Jn 2:16-17; 4:5-6). Furthermore, it reveals a disheartening lack of discernment.
“You’re just being legalistic.”
Often the people who bring up concerns and point to problems, in light of Scripture, are dismissed or shamed, while being falsely judged and condemned for being “Pharisees,” “legalistic,” etc.
There is great irony, and hypocrisy when it comes to such harsh judgments, let alone false condemnations, that come from those exalting a non-judgmental deity, who proclaim “acceptance,” and who declare that it is wrong to judge. Granted, many of these false accusations are done more subtly, but that actually only makes it worse (cp Gen 3:1).
The first question for believers should be: “Is it biblical?” That is, “How well does it teach the truth according to Scripture?”
The second might be: How accurately does the author (or authors) view God’s Word (Gen 3:1; Ps 19:7-11; 138:2), and handle His Word of truth (2 Tim 2:15; Acts 17:11)?
A response that is rarely seen is: “Yes, I understand your concern, but the book/movie is biblical, and here are some verses to back that up, along with my clear reasoning from Scripture …”
Yes, some have tried to address concerns/problems with Scripture; but that, by itself, does not mean they have been successful (see the second question above). In fact, those doing so have had to distort God’s Word and have ended up defending or deflecting from the many serious problems in The Shack. As noted, many of the problems and errors which were previously denied by defenders of The Shack have now been admitted by the author in his latest book.
The Shack, The World, or The Word
What should the impact of truth be? People in error (as we all can be, at least from time to time) who read the truth, should see, if not “feel,” a sharp distinction between their beliefs and what they read. That is why so many are offended by the pure Word of God (Jer 6:10; Is 30:9-11; 2 Tim 4:3-4; 2 Cor 2:15-16; 7:8-11; Jn 17:14).
Yet when those with New Age beliefs (and many others with an adversarial view of Scripture) read The Shack, love it, sing its praises, and see no distinction between their beliefs and Young’s, then what might that reveal about the “bibliocity” (i.e., biblical accuracy) of this book? Furthermore, when a self-proclaimed Christian book is a best-seller in a New Age bookstore, and that is not deeply disturbing to the author and his Christian readers, then we have far bigger problems than we realize. Is it any wonder that there is so much division in the Church?
If our beliefs, values, or theology are agreeable and accepted, if not praised, by those who reject the Spirit of truth, who hate the true Jesus and His Word of truth, who eagerly embrace false teachings and even believe we are all God, then what does that say about how accurate our beliefs and teachings are? (cp Jn 15:18-19; 17:14-17; Matt 7:13-14; 1 Jn 2:16-17; 4:5-6; 2 Tim 4:1-5)
When a self-proclaimed Christian book is a best-seller in a New Age bookstore, and that is not deeply disturbing to the author and his Christian readers, then we have far bigger problems than we realize.
The Shack and the Enablers of Sin and Error
Perhaps a far bigger problem today than false teaching or false teachers (as destructive as these are), is the “Enabler of Sin and Error.” People—who are self-proclaiming Christ-Followers, and, therefore, have the ability and responsibility to teach and defend the truth, to discern false teaching, and to warn others (cp Jas 5:19-20; Acts 17:11; Phil 1:27-28; 1 Tim 6:20-21; 2 Jn 7-12; Jude 3ff)—but are instead known for how they defend error (or sin), how they minimize the importance of the truth, how they justify wrongdoing or wrong teaching, and how they more specifically, subtly, or aggressively attack, demean, marginalize, shame, and blame those who challenge questionable or wrong teaching or behavior (cp 1 Kgs 18:17-18; Jer 18:18). More on this here.
The Shack and The New Scripture!
Putting words into God’s mouth = New Revelation
The author of The Shack is adding to Scripture (not to mention conflicting with God’s Word), and speaking as if God Himself is speaking—just like Sarah Young in Jesus Calling.
Putting words into God’s mouth is, at a minimum: foolish, dangerous, wrong, and blasphemous. Furthermore, it always results in deceiving and harming others (Deut 4:2; 12:32; Prov 30:6)
We are living in crazy times. And in increasingly dark times. We live in a Post-Truth world that desperately needs the truth. Imagine for a moment how different our world would be, if just this one thing happened: everyone perfectly believed the truth.
Without a doubt, we need fewer books that lack clarity and truth. We need fewer people who enable the deception and destruction that come from books that are filled with error. We need fewer people and books that subtly and overtly defy and distort God’s Word, who create their own more appealing theology and even construct their own “God” (cp 2 Tim 4:3-4; Ex 32:1ff).
What we desperately do need is more people who “love the truth” so that they might truly love God and others according to the truth (1 Jn 3:18; 1 Cor 13:6; Zech 8:16; 2 Thess 2:9-13). We need true love that actively and accurately discerns truth from error (Phil 1:9-11)—in order to truly love others by helping them avoid the utter destruction that comes from being deceived (Jas 5:19-20; Prov 24:11-12; Heb 5:14; Acts 17:11). We need more people who know the truth, the true way of salvation, and who will share this abundant life with others (1 Cor 15:1ff; Rom 1:16-17; 3:19ff; 6:23).
What we desperately do need is more people who “love the truth” so that they might truly love God and others according to the truth.
The popularity of The Shack and the ideology and methodology behind it, not to mention the rationalizations surrounding the book and movie, are a barometer for the level of discernment in the Church, and for our “love for the truth.” It is also a harbinger for where we are headed. Even more, it reveals that the truth has effectively died, at least in the hearts of many (cp Jer 7:28; Is 59:14-15; 2 Tim 4:3-4).
Trendy bestsellers like The Shack also help explain the increasing polarization in society and in the Church: on one side, there are those who depend on what is subjective-over-objective; and on the other, are those who rely on what is objective and unchanging (e.g., Scripture)—and this divide is increasing at a fairly rapid rate.
At some point, all of us will have to decide which side we are on, which God we serve, and which gospel we will believe and teach to others. Not only is it a watershed moment for the Church as a whole, but for each one of us as individuals.
What is it that you believe?
Here are several more resources addressing concerns with The Shack: