I first read The Shack not long after it was published by William Young in 2007. As a teenager it impressed me; I was moved by it’s portrayal of God’s love and His ability to bring good out of any tragedy. I didn’t pick up on any of the theological errors which supposedly popped up throughout the story – I simply appreciated it for the good things that it made me aware of in God’s character. It has only been more recently that I have been made aware of the fact that the Shack’s portrayal of God is often out of line with what we know to be true from the Bible.
The movie version of The Shack hews closely to the plot and emphasis of the original novel. Mackenzie “Mack” Phillips, a husband and father of three, is physically abused by an alcoholic father during his childhood. He finds happiness in married life, but is still distant from God, and can never bring himself to address God in a personal manner, like his wife, Nan, who affectionately calls God “Papa.” Mack’s life is struck with what he calls “The Great Sadness” after the abduction and murder of his youngest daughter during a camping trip. His relationship with God grows even more distant, until a mysterious note shows up in his mailbox, supposedly from “Papa,” asking him to come to a meeting at the very shack where his daughter was killed.
The greater part of the story consists in relating the details of Mack’s time at the shack, where he is surprised to find three people; Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu (The Holy Spirit). In his subsequent conversations and interactions with the members of the Trinity, Mack is taught lessons about God’s love and forgiveness, and His ability to bring good out of any circumstance.
There is certainly nothing obviously sinister in The Shack’s story line or purported main message. It is a bold story, attempting to serve as an apologetic for God’s purposes in allowing sin and suffering; a daunting task, to say the least. On the face of it, the most controversial aspect of the movie for Christians is the decision to portray God the Father as a woman. But there is more to the theology of the book – and consequently, the film – than that. It is not merely the uplifting tale of a man finding peace and comfort in learning to trust God after unspeakable pain and suffering. It is also the story of a man who finds that peace and comfort in ways that are sometimes out of line with the way the God of the Bible offers peace and comfort to mankind.
The book is an attempt by William Young to express his personal theology and understanding of God. To the extent that his theology lines up with the Bible’s depiction of God, all is well. The movie is full of beautiful, well-orchestrated scenes in which Mack is taught important truths which he previously overlooked, and many in today’s world have not taken time to examine. Many, therefore, who watch the film might walk away with a desire to know more of who God is, and with a challenge to their conception of God as an aloof or heartless deity.
But there are others who would walk away with a skewed idea of who God is. In the first place, Young’s representation of the Trinity is problematic. While it is true that God embodies everything that is good about Fathers and Mothers, he has chosen to reveal himself to us as a Father. By casting God as a woman, Young portrays God in a way that He has chosen not to portray himself; by creating God in a way that we want to see instead of accepting the way God has revealed himself. But more troubling than this is a conversation Mack has with Jesus, in which he asks him if he, too, is God like “Papa” and Sarayu. The character Jesus hedges, answering only that he is “the best way” for humans to relate to God, and that Sarayu is “my Spirit.” It would not have been difficult to answer with an unquestioned “yes” concerning the deity of Christ, but the film chose not to do so. Instead it offers up a picture of Jesus that trends significantly away from biblical orthodoxy. A basic belief of Christians is that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, having complete humanity that in no way diminishes his absolute deity. The Shack doesn’t affirm this truth, instead, it confuses it.
Perhaps the most obviously non-biblical theme of the film – which could be considered its main theme – is the idea of God being so full of love and forgiveness that he has no room left in his character for wrath or judgment. When Mack asks “Papa” about God’s wrath, she casually replies “You lost me there,” going on to explain that “I don’t need to punish people, sin is its own punishment.” The film goes so far as to hint at universalism, several times implying that God is not only willing to forgive, but actually will forgive everyone for their sin, since every person is one of God’s children, and God is “especially fond” of every one of his children. This is most graphically portrayed in a pivotal scene in the movie for Mack, where he is sent into a cave for a meeting with a woman named “Wisdom.” Wisdom asks Mack to serve as the judge of the man who killed his daughter, and when he firmly proclaims the man should be damned to hell, she then asks him to choose which of his own remaining children he would like to send to hell. The point the film makes is clear; for God to send any of his children to hell is unthinkable, as awful as asking any human father to choose between two of his children, imperfect though they may be. This idea of God completely overlooks significant biblical themes. It is not merely a matter of omission or incomplete information, rather it presents a picture of God that is directly at odds with God’s revelation. The theme of God’s holiness and his anger towards sin is evident throughout scripture. For example, Romans 1:18; “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness…” The message of The Shack is expressly incompatible with such passages.
The scene with Wisdom was a stark portrayal of one of the greatest weaknesses of the film; its unwillingness to point to Christ as the way to God and his death as the atoning sacrifice for our sins, though there were several times in which this truth could easily have been brought up. Considering the story’s universalist tendencies, this omission is not unexpected, but for the Christian, it is grievous. That is not to say that every valuable story must include the gospel, but for a film that is supposed to explain God’s forgiveness and desire for fellowship with mankind, the omission is inexcusable. Ephesians 2:8-9 expresses the beautiful truth of the gospel; “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Faith in the work of Christ is the only way to true peace with God, unfortunately, Mack is never taught how to find that peace.
Does all this mean that there is no truth or beauty in the film at all? Of course not. It is a complex film, full of both truth and error. The portrayal of the film – and of film in general – is powerful, and has great potential both for good and for ill. A mature Christian who has learned to discern what is good and evil can be challenged by the film, while taking care to notice which messages are incorrect. But for the uninformed or immature believer, who hasn’t learned discernment and simply “drinks it all in,” they will likely gain a false or, at the least, an incomplete view of God, one which could easily shape both their thoughts and emotions in a non-biblical way for years to come.
The same concern is evident for the non-believer. While it is possible that an unsaved person could enter the theater with a view of God as a vindictive monster and leave it appreciating God’s heart for the world, it is equally possible for someone to be confirmed in their view that God is too kind to punish anyone, too merciful for wrath, and that all one needs to do to find purpose in life is to trust in God – with no real idea of who, or what, they actually ought to be trusting.
When I originally read The Shack, it was a valuable experience for me. Watching the film, I found myself wishing for it to succeed, hoping that it would correct the errors of the book and present God in a complete biblical light. Sadly, that did not end up being the case. I am still glad I saw the film. It helped me examine what I believe biblically, and encouraged me to think carefully about how I understand God. As such, it was a valuable time, and I believe that many other discerning Christians could find the same value in the experience. But for the unsaved, as well as for many Christians, those who do not have a solid understanding of the fundamental truths about God, The Shack is not the place to find it.