Can we know God?



William Paul Young has written a new book entitled Lies We Believe About God. This serves the useful purpose of vindicating all the people who warned about the bad theology in The Shack who were told to stop worrying because it’s just a story with no theological teaching motive. Lies has a definite teaching motive, and it’s just as chock-full of heresy as his fiction.

But the heresy in Lies is almost entirely a symptom of a foundational error evident in the back cover blurb:

“This book is not a presentation of certainty. Rather, it is a taste of larger conversations. You may identify with some topics and not with others. You might agree or disagree with my conclusions. Some of these ideas may be deeply challenging, while others may seem naïve and thoughtless. That is the wonder and uniqueness of our journeys and the beauty of dialogue and relationship.”

But for a meaningful dialogue to happen, there has to be such a thing as truth, and there has to be at least the possibility of coming to true conclusions about the truth. But Young presents this ‘conversation’ as a never-ending set of questions that never comes to an answer. But we’re hard-wired to want answers, and all of us live as if those answers exist and are discoverable, at least to some extent.

Truth is revealed in Scripture

We know that God reveals Himself through His Word, the Bible. This has to be the starting point for anything we say about God, because creation is fallen and so are our minds. That means that while God does reveal Himself through creation (Romans 1), the Curse means that creation doesn’t reflect God’s revelation as clearly as it originally did, and our corrupted minds can’t correctly interpret and apply the revelation from nature. That’s why God gave us Scripture, so that we can know the truth about Him and how we are to relate to Him.

Young’s starting point isn’t Scripture, but his own imagination. Before he manages to quote a Bible verse for the first time on page 34, he’s already given a rather extended discussion of a section from The Shack, a couple heartwarming anecdotes, and a bunch of argument that’s disconnected from anything God has actually revealed about Himself. And then he only quotes a single verse completely out of context and proceeds to interpret it to mean almost precisely opposite of what it actually says, which is a feat of the intellect only accomplished by the most advanced postmodernists:

“God, who is only good, creates only good—very good! This is why Jesus asked the rich young ruler, ‘Why are you calling me good? There is only One who is Good, and that is God’ (Matthew 19:17). This is not Jesus saying, ‘There is nothing good in me,’ but asking, ‘Do you see God in me, young brother? Is that why you are calling me good, or is this still about performance?’”

This sort of interpretation pervades Young’s writing, and it’s almost hard to deal with the interpretive errors involved because the errors are grounded in a postmodernism that denies even the possibility of objective meaning. If Scripture has an objective meaning that is accessible in any way to modern readers, then Young is comprehensively and disastrously wrong.

God’s goodness is not defined by us

Young correctly states that God is good, but then he makes the incorrect logical leap of thinking he gets to define what that is. So his incorrect reasoning leads him to make several errors, including that humans as God’s image-bearers must also be fundamentally good (Chapter 2). He says that God must not be in control, because that would mean God would be in control of bad things, and a good God couldn’t be in control of bad things (Chapter 3). This leads him to the conclusion, “Nothing, not even the salvation of the entire cosmos, could ever justify a horrific torture device called a ‘cross’” (p. 39).

Young tries to refute the idea “The Cross was God’s idea” in a later chapter:

“Who originated the cross? If God did, then we worship a cosmic abuser, who in Divine Wisdom created a means to torture human beings in the most painful and abhorrent manner. Frankly, it is often this very cruel and monstrous god that the atheist refuses to acknowledge or grant credibility in any sense. And rightly so. Better no god at all, than this one” (p. 149).

Young claims instead that humans originated the Cross, and “God submitted to it” (p. 150). But this completely contradicts Jesus’ own statements about the Cross throughout all the Gospels. It contradicts Isaiah’s prophecy about the Cross before it had even been invented as a method of execution. It contradicts the statements of the apostles as they brought out the significance of the Cross for us as Christians living in the light of the death and resurrection of Christ.

The problem of suffering and the goodness of God

A lot of the weirdness with Young’s theology has to do with how he tries to reconcile the goodness of God with the existence of suffering, and one gets the sense that he has a lot of personal experience with suffering. But the Bible deals with the question of suffering in almost the exact opposite way from Young. Young seems to say that God is not in control of suffering which is self-inflicted by the bad choices of people, but that God enters into our suffering and can transform it if we will let Him.

But the Bible has a much different view. Yes, all suffering boils down to the result of human sin—the rebellion of Adam in the Garden introduced death and suffering into creation. But God is consistently presented in Scripture as in control of it. In the book of Job, God specifically limits the amount of harm Satan can do, while not preventing him from afflicting Job, and when Job objects, God basically claims His prerogative as the Creator, which Job accepts!

If God is in control of our suffering, God can promise that it is meaningful and that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). But if God ‘submits’ to human choices, how can He ever promise that? Young’s explanation attempts to get God off the hook, so to speak, but the Bible never takes that route. Rather, Scripture calls us to trust God even through our suffering.

A universalist catena

At the end of the book is a ‘catena’ of lots of Bible verses which are wrenched from their contexts to give an impression of universalism. Of course, the Bible has a lot to say about judgment and Hell, much of it coming from the mouth of Jesus (though of course all of Scripture is the Word of God). Even so, Young must cherry pick from many non-standard translations of the Bible to make so many verses sound universalist.

The god of Paul Young’s imagination

Lies We Believe About God in many ways does not talk about the God of Scripture at all, but rather the god of Paul Young’s imagination. And Young wants to associate this god with the Bible, so he picks verses from here and there, ripped from their context and torturously misinterpreted. The result is something profoundly disturbing to the biblically-aware Christian. Young starts with his own ideas about God and reads them into Scripture, and the book that results should be a warning for all Christians not to do that themselves.

Published: 18 April 2017

Helpful Resources