What The Shack gets right
Published: 7 March 2017 (GMT+10)
The Shack is a new movie based on the 2008 best-selling book by William Paul Young. In it, the protagonist, Mack, has an encounter with God in the place where a life-altering tragedy occurred. This review may contain spoilers for key plot points.
It would be easy to write a standard, outraged review of The Shack. They portray God the Father and God the Spirit in human form, as females! They put words in God’s mouth that He never said! They substitute correct doctrine for mushy platitudes that sound like they came from Oprah!
All those things are true, and they’re all problems, and those problems have been very thoroughly laid out elsewhere in reviews of William Paul Young’s best-selling 2008 book of the same title, so go there and read about those issues.1 But we should ask, why did people find The Shack appealing in the first place? I think there are several reasons, and they should actually be encouraging for evangelical Christians. When we speak to people who have seen The Shack, when we understand why they were drawn to such erroneous material, we can show how the Bible gives a much more satisfying portrayal of God than The Shack ever could. In fact, if we’re prepared for these conversations, it could be a tremendous opening to discuss the biblical Gospel.
Many people can identify with Mack, the main character, who is grieving the murder of his daughter. Raised with a veneer of Christianity, he struggles with the question of how could God be good, while allowing such evil things to happen? This is a frequent question we receive at CMI, and there are often emotional undertones, because unlike some other doctrinal questions, people aren’t asking a hypothetical, philosophical question. They are asking, “Why did my mom die of cancer?” “Why was my daughter born with a genetic condition?” “Why do I struggle with depression?” What is God doing when it doesn’t seem like He is hearing our prayers for help and relief?
This is a question a person has to confront if he lives long enough to experience loss or suffering of any kind, and Scripture gives a clear and comforting answer for grieving people. Unfortunately, you won’t hear it in The Shack. Instead, the movie gives vaguely New-Age, universalist, feel-good answers that may move someone to emotions with the convincing delivery of the actors, but which don’t actually resolve the fundamental problem.
To give the biblical answer, we have to take the focus off man, and put it on God, where the Bible focuses. The god of The Shack has his/her/their hands tied by Evil, a force outside god’s control, which exists as an inevitable consequence of human free will, and is thus part of the original creation. He/she/they can be ‘within’ evil events, working good, but he/she/they are ultimately powerless in the face of human actions. This is presented as noble, as God refusing to meddle with human choice, because God is interested in having friends, not slaves (according to the actor playing Jesus in the film). But this dichotomy has no basis in Scripture—while Christ called His disciples His "friends", there is an element of servanthood as well. Jesus said, "You are my friends if you do what I command you" (John 15:14). God opens the way for us to have a relationship with Him, but there is no question about who is ultimately in charge.
Scripture presents a God who is sovereign over evil, and thus can promise to one day end all evil, and to work all things (even the worst things) for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). This is a great comfort to people who are suffering. But just as importantly, Scripture presents evil as a corruption of God’s ‘very good’ creation. So humans, not God, are blameworthy for evil in the world, because evil was not part of the original creation, but came as a result of Adam's disobedience.
For more on the problem of evil and its biblical solution, see: Death and Suffering Q&A.
People want a God who understands their suffering
One of the more powerful portions of the film was a conversation between Mack and ‘Papa’, where he asks where God was when Jesus was on the cross. ‘Papa’ reveals scars on his wrists identical to Jesus’, and says that what Jesus chose to do cost both of them dearly. While this falls under the heresy of patripassianism (the idea that the Father suffered with Jesus on the Cross), the fact that this is so powerful shows us that people want to know that God identifies with their suffering.
Scripture clearly shows that in Jesus’ humanity, He experienced temptation and suffering, and can identify with us. The book of Hebrews has some of the most powerful statements about this. I encourage you to read the entirety of Hebrews 1-5 to grasp how the following verses fit in the author’s larger argument, but note his statements about the temptation and suffering of Christ:
“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10)
“Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Hebrews 2:17–18).
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15).
“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:7–8).
So we know that God can sympathize with our suffering, because Christ experienced it during His earthly life and ministry.
People want a relational God
Many are drawn to the portrayal of the fellowship between the Persons of the Trinity and their love for and enjoyment of each other. It is misleading to portray the Trinity as three people in relationship because it can never capture the fullness of the relationship between the Persons of the Trinity, because the three Persons are one God. As humans we can never fully comprehend what that’s like.
However, Scripture clearly portrays a deep unity and singularity of purpose between the Persons of the Godhead. During His ministry on earth, Jesus often went away to pray, and the high priestly prayer (John 17) is a glimpse into the relationships within the Trinity.
For more about the Trinity, see: Our Triune God.
People want a relationship with God
One theme in The Shack is that the trinity portrayed there invited Mack into relationship with them. And again, there is a kernel of biblical truth there, because through Christ, Christians have a relationship with the Triune God where we are very closely identified with Christ. When we trust in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins through His death and resurrection, we are adopted into God’s family and enjoy the privileges of sonship and close fellowship with God. This will be fully realized at the return of Christ when believers are raised to eternal life, and the entire creation is restored from the effects of sin.
What wasn’t in The Shack
The most troubling error in The Shack’s portrayal of God was the omission of the Gospel. The god of The Shack forgives simply because he/she/they love. But the atonement which makes forgiveness possible is never clearly presented. ‘Papa’ says he/she does not have any wrath, but the God of the Bible must judge sin because He is just. It is only through Christ substitutionary sacrifice in which He paid for the sins of all who would believe that God is able to be both just and merciful in His forgiveness of sinners.
Talking about The Shack
Most of us will probably have friends and family who go to see The Shack, and while we never want to encourage bad theology, this could open up some opportunities to talk about subjects that rarely come up in conversation. If people mention liking the story, ask questions! What did they like about the movie? What did they think about the portrayal of God? Was there anything that struck them as unsatisfying or simplistic? While people often shy away from being ‘preached to’, they are usually very eager to share their views! Then that opens an opportunity for you to respond.
What people are attracted to in The Shack can also help us to emphasize the biblical truth about God. And so, while this was almost surely not the intention of the directors, this could open up tremendous opportunities for Gospel conversations.
References and notes
- For instance, see Tim Challies’s excellent review, available at challies.com/wp-content/uploads/The_Shack.pdf. Return to text.