Redeemer Ev. Lutheran Church, Iola, WI

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Heresies in The Shack, Part 5 – Conclusion

The Shack proclaims a particularly insidious form of false doctrine, because in many respects it comes so near to true doctrine.  But the Devil can also quote Scripture (cf. Matt. 4:1-11).  The values of love and forgiveness among neighbors are worthy, but when this is put into the mouth of God, it must be either Scripturally sound or rejected.  “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:9).  I will not presume to judge the faith of the moviemakers or of William P. Young (who claims to be a Christian), but I will judge what they preach.  It is a gospel contrary to the one we have received.  It does not preach a Jesus who died to take our sins upon himself.  It does not preach that Jesus is the only way to life (John 14:6).  It gives strength to man himself to produce the faith that saves, to do the works of kindness and forgiveness.  The Shack is about our feelings, not about God.

That defense was given of the movie: “It’s only dangerous if you don’t know the Bible, because then you’ll think it’s real.”  If you know the Bible, however, you ought to know all those warnings given by Jesus, Peter, and Paul, such as: “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Rom. 16:17).  While for some this movie may be feel-good, beware, for that is exactly what it seeks to do: by making you feel good, it preaches a doctrine of a God who wants only to make you feel good.  This movie is best avoided, as Paul said; and as Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15).  Don’t be deceived by the fuzzy sheep’s wool that covers this film.  It is a wolf: “be watchful.  Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Pet. 5:8-9).

Do not welcome this film into your life, into your home, into your heart.  That is all reserved by God for the truth.  He proclaims forgiveness, life, and salvation on account of Christ Jesus who took our place under his wrath, because God is both just (he must punish evil) and merciful (he is rich in steadfast love, forgiving us in Jesus’ name).  The God of The Shack is a sham, an idol, and a wimp.  The God of Scripture is almighty and merciful, who promises, “Whoever believes in [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18).  Believe in Jesus, as he is revealed in God’s true Word, not in this heretical trap.

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.

Heresies in The Shack, Part 3 – Justification, Forgiveness (and Jesus)

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.

Heresies in The Shack, Part 2 – The Source of Religious Knowledge (and the Nature of God)

A great deal of the movie’s themes are wrapped up in the idea that man cannot know the mind of God.  This is truly Scriptural, as St. Paul writes, “For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:11).  So in the film, Papa (the nickname for God) declares, “You have no idea how much I’m doing right now,” while appearing to the main character, Mack, to be sunbathing.  Likewise, the personification of Wisdom convinces Mack of this moral: God’s job is very, very difficult, so don’t act like you can do what he does.

In the midst of all this unknowability of God’s mind and thoughts, Papa directs Mack (and the audience) to a faith-understanding, or trust, based on feelings.  When Mack asks questions, frequently he is directed to look inside himself and investigate how he feels about it.  Never is Mack directed to the Word of God to understand God’s will.  Instead, the Word is often dismissed and belittled.  For example, when Papa appears to Mack as a large, comforting woman, he asks her name.  Her response is, “I am known by many names.  One of my favorites is Elousia.”  Then, when “I AM” is brought up, Papa jokingly says, “I AM that I AM,” dismissing the Scripturally revealed name of God. The name God reveals of himself in Scripture is therefore dismissed in favor of a man-made name that Papa presumably cherishes because one of his children invented it for him (depicting God as a glorified loving parent who frames up the terrible mac-and-cheese art made by his children, not because it’s good, but because he loves them).

On another occasion, Mack interrogates Papa on why he abandoned his Son Jesus on the cross.  Mack even quotes Jesus’ words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).  Papa brushes this quotation off and says, “You don’t understand the mystery.”  She then shows Mack the nail scars that she has on her hands, seeking to prove that she (God the Father) was with Jesus in his death. (More on this specific event later.)

If this isn’t enough evidence to demonstrate that The Shack directs the audience away from Scripture for God’s revelation, Mack receives his communication from God via an unmarked envelope in his mailbox, not from God’s Word.  St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy: “[C]ontinue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:14-17).  The Shack at least implies that something else is needed to supplement Scripture – and if you’d like to put a name to what that other thing is, it’s “Subjective Feelings.”

Heresies in The Shack, Part 1

Already there has been a great deal of discussion over the recently released film The Shack (and much of it is a renewal of the discussion begun a decade ago when the novel was published). Many Christians are excited for the movie, and I understand why: we notice how infrequently we perceive our worldview in the media, so that any time our virtues seem to be presented in a positive light – as when a character says unironically: “Have you prayed about it?” or tells a friend to listen to God – we’ll show up in droves. However, it is precisely because it happens so infrequently that our discernment is skewed, we are ready to accept any movie that presents God in a positive light, with the result that well-meaning Christians are driven unknowingly to take refuge in a movie like The Shack: misleading at best, but in fact no better than outright heresy. 


I’ve heard the defense given: “It’s only dangerous if you don’t know the Bible, because then you’ll think it’s real.” However, the movie presents its message as real. The Shack presents itself as preaching literal truth, if for no other reason than simply the fact that it includes God as a character, and puts words into God’s mouth. It demands therefore to be analyzed as one would analyze a sermon, not any mere work of entertainment.

St. Paul tells us, “Do not despise prophecies” (1 Thess. 5:20), meaning that if someone speaks the truth of God, then it should be accepted as such.  However, that sentence continues: “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.  Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:20-22). Therefore, since this movie presumes to speak the words of God, we are commanded by Scripture to test its teachings, to hold fast to it if it is good, and to avoid it if it is evil.  There are many doctrines covered in the theology of The Shack. It’s easy for the Christian to think that, while one or two things might not be spot on, the majority is good. This is the danger of “a little leaven [which] leavens the whole lump” (Gal. 5:9). Besides this fact, a close examination reveals that the majority of what the movie teaches is actually on the side of false doctrine, with very little room for the revealed truth of God’s Word.