Redeemer Ev. Lutheran Church, Iola, WI

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Heresies in The Shack, Part 4 – Theodicy, Universalism (and Free Will)

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.

Feasting with God #55 – “The Rich Man and Lazarus”

Feasting with God #55

“The Rich Man and Lazarus”

Text: Luke 16:19-31

19“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.  20And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.  Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.  22The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.  The rich man also died and was buried, 23and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.  24And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’  25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.  26And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’  27And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—28for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’  29But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’  30And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’  31He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise form the dead.’”

This is a concept that is found throughout Scripture’s teachings.  Jesus said it also when he told the disciples: “I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24).  Paul likewise warned, “Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world….  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:6-10).  And Jesus also stated, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, / but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt. 4:4).

Countless times throughout Scripture this concept is repeated.  It is the concept of the man who sees his self-sufficiency and obtains what reward he can earn, and of the man who sees his need and obtains what reward is given freely.  Scripture does not say that it is impossible for a rich man to enter heaven, but instead, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26).  This is what Abraham told the rich man in this account: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.”

Noticeably, the rich man does not like this answer, because he knows that his family will not accept this.  They, like him, are probably rich, relying on their wealth and comfort.  The rich man sees no need in himself.  Therefore he sees no need to have faith in anyone but himself.  The one who seeks his reward in earth will have his reward in earth, and nowhere else.

But the poor man, Lazarus, “who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table,” only the scraps, the most unworthy pieces, he sees how deep his own need is.  It is a constant illustration in his own life that he cannot save himself.  The Law has been and continues without stopping to be preached to his soul.  This left him in terror of hell, worrying that the fires of torment would come upon him.

The irony of the story is that the one who was full of comfort in his position found himself in torment, while the one who was tormented in his position found himself in comfort.  This can only be because, as Abraham says, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.”  The rich man did not heed the Word of God.  Lazarus did—that is the impression we are left with.

Human nature seeks to build a god and confidence in anything—anything—other than the pure Word of God.  It may be riches or wealth; it may be our own abilities; it may be our families, our love, our good feelings.  But none of these grant the assurance of salvation.  Instead, salvation is found most assuredly, certainly, without doubt, in Scripture, where we find one of these prophets pronouncing:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn. (Is. 61:1, 2).

To this, Jesus said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).  He is the fulfillment of all Scripture, the source, the climax, the one in whom we rely.  We could not save ourselves, but in hearing the Word of God, we see that he has already saved us.

Eternal God, our Savior Jesus Christ, give us grace to face temptations from all sides.  Remind us that you have already overcome all things for me, and are even now preparing a place for me at your side.  In your name we ask it.  Amen.

Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Feasting with God #42 – The Lamb Will Be the Shepherd

Feasting with God #42

The Lamb Will Be the Shepherd

Text: Revelation 7:14-17

14I said to him, “Sir, you know.”  And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.  They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

15“Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

“What will heaven be like?”  This question has occurred to the minds of probably every Christian at some point in his life.  Children are fascinated by the question.  The illustrations from children’s Bible Story Books usually picture a fluffy-white cloudy Middle-Eastern city with tones of gold and sunlight.  I’ve also heard heaven described as eternal happiness, where there’s no pain or sadness or sorrow, ultimately making it sound something like the Nirvana of Buddhism.  I’ve also heard that there’s no possible way we on this earth can conceive what that heaven will be like.

No doubt there’s truth to all of these things.  But rather than speculate, what does Scripture say?  The Apostle, St. John, in the vision he received in his old age on the isle of Patmos, describes in this enigmatic way what the “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” experienced in their heavenly joy (Rev. 7:9-10).

First the elder to whom John spoke explained how this multitude was able to come into this joy: they “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  These are the saints, so called because they are sanctified—made holy—on account of the blood shed by the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.  This teaches us what forgiveness ultimately means: although these people had grubby, mud-spattered robes, the Lamb’s blood is given to them freely, the only substance which can wash the grime of sin away.  Therefore even though they are sinful themselves, they are given the free white robes that allow them to take their place before the throne of God.  Here is the first comfort of this picture: we have a free pass into heaven, because of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross.

And the second comfort comes afterward: this is the comfort of what heaven will be like.  We who have these white robes are in God’s presence continually, able to stand in the glorious warm light of the Lord almighty, and there he shelters us—he is himself our home.  We will not hunger; we will not thirst; we will not be pained by the elements.  God is our shelter, our home, and he is our nourishment, our feast.

And this fascinating irony: “the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd.”  When Jesus appeared for the beginning of his public ministry on earth, John the Baptist pointed to him and declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).  Jesus the Messiah was the sacrifice for sin, so that his blood could be shed in order to wash us clean.  But that same Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11).  We are the sheep, and he is our Lord, our leader, our guide, our master.  In this vision from Revelation, St. John hears explained how this one Messiah can be both Lamb and shepherd.  Having been sacrificed for sin, he rises victorious to be our master forever: so the Lamb who was slain has become King over all us saints.

The elder who speaks with St. John then seems to paraphrase a portion of Psalm 23, saying: “he will guide them to springs of living water,” as that psalm says: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. / He makes me lie down in green pastures. / He leads me beside still waters” (Ps. 23:1-2).  This Shepherd who was our sacrificial Lamb is now intimately and only concerned with our never-ending joy and comfort, and for this reason the elder concludes: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”  This Shepherd who was a Lamb, who is God, is at our side, our companion, our friend, our comfort who holds us and walks with us.  This is what heaven is like.

Lord Jesus, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9-10).  Amen.

Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.