At its core, the story is an exercise in Theodicy – the question which posits three contradictory statements and wonders how they can all be true: God is good, God is omnipotent, evil exists. Mack begins the story firmly believing that, if God exists, he is not good. The narrative arc then traces his “conversion” into a positive relationship with “Papa” (his wife’s nickname for God).
Does The Shack answer this question correctly? The answer given (or rather implied) is that evil exists because man is given free will to do evil. Scripturally speaking, free will is never part of the discussion, but is rather a philosophizing term invented by human beings to seek to understand the unfathomable. In fact, the story of the world begins with man created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). Then, “sin entered the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” so that “death reigned” (Rom. 5:12, 14), and “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:1-3). Scripture repeats frequently that human will since Adam is not free, but is trapped and cannot do otherwise than sin.
The two sides of the fight, therefore, are God (who is only good) and fallen creation, man, and the Devil (all of whom are only evil). Papa states in the film that she is “working in the middle of” all the evil in the world, to make it work out for man’s good. This is intended as an echo of Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” But as we discussed in the context of Justification, the “good” result that Papa wants is only emotional. The God of The Shack is not working for redemption in any true sense, but working to save his children from feeling bad.
In this context, there is a thinly veiled streak of Universalism throughout the film: the teaching that all religions essentially have the same God, and all people are heading to the same place anyway, whether you call it heaven, nirvana, paradise, or any other name. This is highlighted when Papa states that she has “many names.” Before this, Mack tells his daughter the story of an Indian princess who sacrificed herself, and how the Great Spirit caused her sacrifice to be remembered in a waterfall. His daughter asks if the Great Spirit is the same as God. Mack brushes it off with, essentially, “Ask your mother,” but the question is never returned to. In fact, the strong implication is that yes, God is the same as the Great Spirit, because he loves all his children and doesn’t care what they call themselves so long as they are kind. Again, the Jesus of The Shack states that “Religion is too much work,” and claims that the word “Christian” is not something he likes.
There is a scene in the movie in which Mack is given the ability to see all the departed souls of God’s children in heaven walking in a field, pictured as light and color. While it’s not made explicit that there are more than Christians present, the movie never tells how anyone gets to heaven, but instead throughout strongly implies that there’s no way for any human being not to get to heaven. Instead, the goal that Papa is working towards (specifically with Mack) is to have a friendly relationship with his children while they are on earth.
Therefore the question of why evil exists is answered: because man doesn’t always keep a positive relationship with God while on earth, but instead, in free will, performs “sin,” whatever that means, and has pain. God is a cosmic janitor, trying to clean up after the sin man performs, to keep creation clean, aligning all the evil in the world into good. He doesn’t condemn evil, but pities it, sighs, and picks up his broom and dustpan to sweep it into place.
Scripture, however, proclaims a God who condemns sin and evil (Ex. 20:5; Rom. 6:23), and although he foreknew evil, for he knows all things, he was not its cause, but the devil and man caused evil (Rom. 5:12, 1 John 3:8), and God works both to condemn evil and to save mankind (Gen. 3:15). While Scripture declares that it is in heaven where “God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes” (Rev. 7:17), The Shack declares that God wants to wipe away our tears on earth: “When all you see is your pain, you lose sight of me,” states Papa. In a sense this is true, if our pain is allowed to blind us to God; but the Jesus of the Bible says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25). Christians see God in pain, not by forgetting and getting over pain.