Jesus is a character in the movie, depicted as one member of the Trinity whom Mack meets at the titular shack. Through their conversation he evasively explains that he is indeed human and also God, perpetuating the theme of God’s unknowableness. He is presented as the one who created the stars, the face of God’s revelation, and the focus of man’s faith. There is even reference to his death on the cross. But the question that every moviegoer should ask is, “Why did Jesus die?” Our Lutheran Confessions pronounce the Scriptural doctrine of justification in these terms:
The first and chief article is this, that Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, ‘was put to death for our trespasses and raised again for our justification’ (Rom. 4:25). He alone is ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). ‘God has laid upon him the iniquities of us all’ (Isa. 53:6). Moreover, ‘all have sinned,’ and ‘they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, by his blood’ (Rom. 3:23-25).[i]
As opposed to this, The Shack never gives a direct answer to the question. Whereas Scripture clearly teaches that Jesus’ death was vicarious (in our place), meaning that he took on himself the wrath that God, in his justice, must exact against sin—“Since, therefore, we have now been justified by [Jesus’] blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:9-10); “Christ Jesus…gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 4:5-6)—Papa of The Shack responds to Mack’s mention of God’s wrath by saying, “You lost me there.” The God of this film has no wrath over sin, but instead preaches, “Sin is its own punishment.” This is demonstrated, too, in the way Papa brushes off Mack’s offense against the Second Commandment (when he proclaims “Oh, my God!” at the delicious food, then promptly apologizes). Papa does not offer forgiveness, but instead implies that the outburst wasn’t a sin anyway.
Ultimately, according to the theology of The Shack, Jesus’ death is meaningless. Whereas Scripture teaches that God took our “record of debt” and “set [it] aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14), Papa of The Shack seems helpless to do anything about sin, refuses to be a just God (which means that he would punish sin), and instead propounds the “I love you anyway” theology of Gospel Reductionism.
Papa states clearly that he is pained by the sin and evil in the world, but implies that it is not because it goes contrary to his will or goodness. Instead the pain Papa feels over sin is at seeing his creation suffer. The prophet Nahum proclaimed: “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty” (Nah. 1:2-3). Scripture is full of statements of God’s wrath against sin. But here the God of The Shack is directly contradictory to the God of Scripture.
And if God’s wrath against sin is belittled, then the salvation Christ brought is also belittled. Recall that occasion when Papa told Mack that he was suffering with Jesus on the cross, presenting scars on the Father that matched the scars on the Son. Besides the heresy of Patripassianism, which teaches that the Father suffered and died as well as the Son (a heresy which has been condemned in the church since it arose in the 2nd century), this brief picture denies the Scriptural doctrine that God punished sin in Christ: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13).
This, in turn, belittles forgiveness. Forgiveness is a major theme in the movie, as through Mack’s journey he learns to forgive his daughter’s murderer, his abusive and drunkard father, and himself. But forgiveness from what? Papa makes the statement that, when kind deeds are done, “the universe changes for the better.” The narrator, Mack’s friend and neighbor, states near the end of the film, “The great sadness is gone.” Likewise, when Papa hears a confession of Mack’s sin, her response is, “It’s okay. It’s in the past.” Mack echoes this sentiment to his guilt-stricken daughter later on, telling her that they shouldn’t think about the past anymore. Forgiveness is always spoken in terms of overlooking sin, or forgetting sin. Sin and guilt eat away at the protagonist and his family, and forgiveness, ultimately, is an emotional release. Forgiveness is not a removal of our guilt and sin “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12), but a removal of our bad feelings about sin. Redemption, justification, and forgiveness in The Shack is all to do with this world and with our “Subjective Feelings.”
Take, for example, Jesus’ discussion in which he rejects “religion,” stating, “I don’t want slaves, but friends”: “I don’t care what you call them [my followers]. I just want to see people changed by knowing Papa, to know what it’s like to feel truly loved.” The Jesus of The Shack doesn’t want to save people from sin, death, and hell. He wants to save them from bad feelings.
[i] SA I.1-3, The Book of Concord, translated and edited by Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 292.