The Shack: Help or Heresy


After much foot-dragging and skepticism, I finally read The Shack. The following is my review:

I found the storyline of The Shack intriguing, if a bit slow to develop. Mack is a likable guy and his grief over losing his beloved daughter is well-developed. The theme of unbearable pain resonates with most of us, as well as the emotional struggle to hang on to faith in spite of it. In addition, the interactions between Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu are well-written and leave readers wishing we could meet them. But that’s where the warning lights begin to flash.

In his efforts to portray the triune God as approachable and loving, Paul Young dispenses with biblical portrayals of Him and creates a god he likes better. This is almost understandable when we know the tragic childhood abuse Young suffered. But it is not excusable. If we had no factual accounts where a human met God, then Young’s guesswork would be more plausible. However, the Bible has given us some, and they look nothing like Young’s portrayal. This is where The Shack departs from the genre of allegory and nudges the border of heresy. 

Biblical characters who met God followed a predictable pattern. In the Bible, everyone who met the God of the Old Testament, or recognized the identity of Jesus in the New, fell down and worshiped (Gen. 18:1-2; Matt. 14:33; Isaiah 6:5). They couldn’t help it. The awesome majesty of Almighty God compelled them to instantly humble themselves. Mack’s lack of awe and reverence, and “Papa’s” casual acceptance of it, are a jarring departure from what we know to be true. Here, Young takes a sharp left turn from biblical truth and creates a god who does not exist. This would be fine in the genre of fantasy or sci-fi, but Young purports that his fictional god can teach us more about the real one than the Bible can. And frighteningly, many Christians have agreed.

Allegorical works never state upfront that they are parallel representations of spiritual realities. Pilgrim’s Progress and The Chronicles of Narnia, for example, are fictional worlds that parallel truth, but they never ask us to substitute real truth for their own. They merely cast shadows that help us think of spiritual truths in more concrete terms. That’s where this book parts company from other fictional portrayals of God-like characters. The Shack is not allegorical. It asks that we suspend biblical reality, enter into its world, and accept an alternate god who is unlike the portrait God has painted of Himself. That is not allegory. That is not a helpful way to understand God. That is heresy.

Many intentional departures from truth are sprinkled throughout the book and would be tolerable if they weren’t so foundational. Giving “Jesus” a big nose is merely taking artistic license. But having “Papa” state that she “never punishes sin because sin is its own consequence” is a direct contradiction of scripture (Romans 1:18; Colossians 3:5-6; Ephesians 5:6). Some other contrasts are:

  • Young’s god has flesh; scripture’s God can never be seen (1 Tim. 6:16).
  • Young’s god saves everyone; scripture’s God saves those who repent and believe (John 3:16-18). 
  • Young’s god identifies as female: scripture’s God calls Himself Father, using decidedly masculine nouns and pronouns from Genesis to Revelation (2 Cor. 6:18).
  • Young’s god dismisses hell; scripture’s God warns us about it (Matthew 23:33).
  • Young’s god experienced the crucifixion as the Father; scripture’s God sent Jesus Christ in the flesh to suffer that alone (Matt. 27:46).
  • Young’s god would never pour out wrath upon sin or unbelievers; scripture’s God pours out His wrath against all wickedness (Romans 2:5; Col. 3:6).  
These departures illustrate one of the most troubling undertones of the whole book: every reference to the Bible is negative. Young, through the supposed counsel of Papa, implies that in order to truly know God, one must set aside the “centuries-old parchment” and find Him in music, art, poetry, etc. Don’t we recognize how dangerous this is? The real God points continually to His word as our source of life and wisdom (John 17:17). Mack’s “Papa” never mentions it except to dismiss it as irrelevant to the superior experience of “relationship.” This feeds into our natural human desire to recreate God as we’d like Him to be--a launching point for most spiritual error.

“Relationship” implies an amicable agreement between two people. Human relationships are always negotiated, with a bit of compromise on each part. When the word “relationship” becomes the sole foundation of our standing with Almighty God, we subconsciously assume those same rules apply. Without His word as the foundation for a “relationship with God,” the term can mean anything we want it to mean. However, the Bible never gives us that option.

One of the most offensive errors in the book is the paragraph where Mack asks Jesus what it takes to be a part of His bride, the church. The fictional “Jesus” deflects the question and insists that He doesn’t want anyone to be a Christian. In one sentence, the pretend Jesus dismisses the word “Christian” with disdain and goes on to explain that His people are in every religion and every walk of life. This statement is outright heresy and with one sweep dismantles the entire gospel. This fake Jesus fails to explain why the apostles and martyrs did not realize “we’re all God’s children” before giving up their lives for proclaiming the opposite.

I am honestly baffled at why this spiritual minefield has been enthusiastically greeted as a theological masterpiece by those who ought to know better. The unapologetic theme of universalism flows unabashedly through every conversation Mack has with this unholy trinity. They refer continuously to all human beings as their “children,” ignoring passages such as John 1:12 and 1 John 3:7-10 which narrow the field considerably. Hell is soundly dismissed as a possibility, since Papa could no more allow His beloved children to go there than Mack could sentence his own. This unsettling conclusion is in direct contrast to the words of the real Jesus who said, “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:5)

For those still in the corner with Wm. Paul Young, ready to argue any of the above concerns, I invite you to consider his latest work Lies We Believe About God. In it, Young clarifies his heretical assertions that were more subtly suggested in The Shack. Young's answer to whether or not he believes everyone will eventually be reconciled to God: “Are you suggesting that everyone is saved? That you believe in universal salvation? That is exactly what I am saying!” (p. 118). “Every human being you meet . . . is a child of God” (p. 206). 


The popularity of The Shack among evangelical Christians is not only shocking but sad. It is, unfortunately, a thermometer that indicates the temperature of the modern church. We claim we want to know God, but we are equally desirous of a god who says and does what we like, leaving us frighteningly susceptible to ideas and practices that give us both. Sadly, discernment is a quality modern evangelicalism has discounted in its frantic efforts to produce a form of spirituality the world can accept. The embrace of works like The Shack demonstrates just how little weight we really give to scriptural authority and how lacking is our understanding of the Lord we claim to serve.
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I Hear You...

They went across the lake to…the Gerasenes..
Jesus again crossed over to the other side… Mark 5:1,21


Sandwiched between verse 1 and 21 is the familiar story about Jesus casting demons out of a crazy guy in a cemetery. But in reading about tombstones and bacon-over-a-cliff, we nearly miss the “Oh wow!” point. In verse 1, Jesus traveled clear across a lake and was met by a demon-possessed man. Jesus healed the guy, sent the demons into the pigs, but then in verse 21 He got back in the boat. Wait! Why did He go there at all? A stormy boat ride for nothing? No sermon. No seminars. No banquet from a Happy Meal. The Bible lets us figure this one out ourselves. (Hint: one desperate guy needed Him). 


At that point in His life, Jesus was the Leader of the pack. Everybody wanted a piece of Him. Most leaders understand that feeling, because it’s always something with the people they lead: Jane’s feelings are hurt, Ben lost his job, and Rex is mad at the men’s group. One way some leaders cope is to tune out the individual needs to better serve the group. But Jesus never did that. His heart was fine-tuned to the ones nobody else heard. People in Gerasenes had stopped hearing the nasty guy in the cemetery. But from miles away, his Maker heard him. While the disciples were arguing over the last thing He said, and the crowds were demanding more miracles, Jesus heard something else. He stood, looked across the water and answered, “I hear you. I’m coming for you.” Who would leave the crowds to go after one guy? A Leader you can trust. And He still does that.

First Things First

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, 
but also to the interests of others. Philippians 3:4  


“It’s my way or the highway!” “Now that I’m in charge, we’re doing things my way.” “Because I’m the boss, that’s why.” Powerful statements, right? Not according to God’s Rule Book. Leaders in God’s kingdom are to do things the way Jesus did them, not the way the world trains us. Have you noticed how God likes to flip things upside down and backward? He does things opposite from the way we think they should be done. He uses foolish things to stump smarties. He exalts the humble and brings down the prideful. So leadership in His family is backward from the way we think it should be. God says leaders are those who consider the interests of everyone else before their own. That lifts a few eyebrows in our me-first world.

So what does it look like when a leader considers everyone else first? Anytime we have “how” questions, we should look first at Jesus. How did He do it? He was a leader and He got tired—but He didn’t get grumpy. He was misunderstood—but He didn’t blame. He had to repeat Himself to the clueless disciples—so He said it again, in a different way. He didn’t panic when He was expected to produce supper for a stadium full of people or embarrass His mom when His host ran out of wine. He didn’t snap when that ONE MORE PERSON needed His healing touch or refuse to serve because they didn’t appreciate it.

When we have questions about the best way to lead, we should first ask, 
“How did Jesus do it?”
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How to Choose a Disciple

And as he passed by, he saw Levi…sitting at the tax booth, 
and he said to him, “Follow me.” Mark 2:14



What if yesterday’s headline announced that Jesus had arrived and would hold auditions for America’s Next Top Disciple? Before dawn, the limos of TV preachers clog the streets, convents and monasteries empty, and every kid with a semester of Bible college slept on the sidewalk last night so he could be first in line. But the doors to the theater stay closed until a manager pokes his head out and says, “Sorry, folks. We got ahead of ourselves. Turns out Jesus isn’t following standard protocol. Oh, and just so you all know, disciples don’t get paid anything and they must be prepared to die in the line of duty. But if you’re still interested, I heard that Jesus was spotted under an overpass choosing disciples from among the homeless.”

The inner recoil we might feel is exactly the way the religious people felt when Jesus did the same thing 2000 years ago. He didn’t wait for people to come to Him; He went after them. But He bypassed the temple in favor of the docks and the tax collector booths. He knew liars and thieves would never seek Him, they would assume He had come for the righteous people. So He sought them. He paid no attention to the LOSER medallions around their necks. Instead, He saw them for what they would be once they knew Him. And He offered to journey with them in becoming who they were created to be.


Great leaders are those who show others what they can become 
once they meet Jesus.


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Path to Leadership

“Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant.”  Mark 10:43


Pastor Ray cleared his throat and the room quieted. “I appreciate you all coming to our first leadership class. I know each of you desires to lead here at Red Mountain Church, but I have some bad news for you.” The class members gave each other puzzled looks. “What you don’t know,” Pastor Ray went on, “is that I’ve already given you a leadership test…and none of you passed.” Eager smiles turned into worried frowns. “For the past two weeks, I’ve let it be known that we need bathroom janitors, nursery workers, and help with painting. A few people showed up…but not one of you.” The members darted worried looks at each other, but the pastor smiled kindly at them. “Keep that in mind as we begin Lesson One: Leadership Through Serving.”


We’ve all had moments when we thought, “If I was in charge…” Armchair quarterbacking goes on in churches too. But when we imagine our greatness as leaders, we rarely start where great leaders have to begin: humble service. That feels wrong to us. After all, anybody can sweep a floor, but talent like ours should be noticed. Jesus knows that about us, so He made it clear that those who desire important roles must start with serving, without praise or glory, because that’s where He builds leaders.

Fishers of Men



And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.”  Mark 1:17

The fishy smell was such a part of Peter’s life that he scarcely noticed it anymore. It was the smell of money. Of survival. He straightened his aching back and looked down the shoreline where James and John were cleaning their nets. Fishing was all they knew, and all they expected to know. They took orders, sold fish, and paid the bills. What else was there? But then that Rabbi in the white robe set a sandaled foot on the edge of Peter’s boat and said the strangest thing: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Rabbis didn’t fish and they didn’t talk to fishermen. They lived in a sanitary world of ideas, theology, and discussion. What kind of a rabbi would choose some smelly fishermen to be His protégés? The One who really knew them.  

Jesus saw leadership potential in rough dock workers, shady IRS agents, and women with a past because He really knew them. From earth’s rabble, Jesus created world-changers and He did it with two simple words: “Follow me.” When we obey those words, we learn from the best how to live this life and how to help others live theirs. Jesus did not begin His disciple-making by pointing out all their flaws. He simply modeled godliness and taught them in ways they understood. 

He reminded them that when they fished with nets they caught a lot of junk—but they didn’t stop fishing. They picked out the trash and cast the nets again. As fishers of men, they would also catch a lot of junk: hate, rejection, and disinterest. But they should never stop fishing. That made sense to them. They didn’t have to be somebody else to follow Jesus, they could be fishermen for Him.

Leaders motivate people to follow Jesus by connecting with them right where they are. 

You Need a Plan

He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1:6



“What is it?” Del touched the wooden pole and then pointed to a pile of unpainted boards. “And those?” Layne sighed and ran his hands through his hair. “Yeah…that was gonna be a coat rack, and this one…maybe a bookcase. I never got around to finishing them.” He swept his arm to indicate what had once been a three-car garage, but now resembled the after effects of an explosion at Hobby Lobby. “Yeah, I start out great, but lose steam halfway through and never finish. I’ve got thousands of dollars’ worth of parts in here—mechanical, carpentry, technology—but they’re worth nothing unless I do something with them. He kicked a two-legged table. “Guess I should throw some of it away, but it’s good stuff. I really need a plan.”

Do you ever feel like one of those unfinished projects? God saved you, delivered you, and cleaned you up, but every time you turn around, you’re messing up. You don’t want to. You’re trying to follow Jesus, but all you see is a big mess. This verse is for you! It was God who began that good work in you and it is God who will finish it. He doesn’t give up on His projects halfway through because, unlike Layne, He does have a plan. Jesus doesn’t toss anyone on the scrap pile, because He’s an excellent carpenter. His sandpaper is rough and His knife is sharp as he whittles away ugly parts of our character. Being God’s project can be painful, but He’s the only One who sees the message inside our mess. He knows how to bring out the beauty hidden behind our stubbornness, pride, and selfishness. When we cooperate with Him, He continually refines, perfects, and molds us into works of art. Our Carpenter never gives up until our lives become masterpieces, fit for the house of a King.

When discouraged with yourself, remember that your Carpenter is still at work.
 Don’t criticize His masterpiece. 
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