The Shack 3: Theological Concerns (Part 2)

Let’s pick up where we left off, so . . .

Fourth, The Shack skims briefly over the surface of theology of religions, raising the question particularly of whether God reveals himself to and saves people of other religions. I am glad for Brother Young’s concern to expand our horizons. I am strongly inclined myself to a theological conviction that God’s salvation is extended beyond the range of those who have heard the Gospel, understood it, and accepted it as true. I have blogged about that here.

The Shack, however, deals with this complex issue much too briefly, and unclearly, and thus again distracts more than it edifies. It’s particularly not clear as to just how we are supposed to understand the basis of salvation, the nature of God’s revelation in or through other religions, what it means for people to respond properly to God, what role the religions actually play in all this, and the like.

Furthermore, we encounter again another variety of anti-institutionalism. In The Shack, Jesus says he has no interest in making people Christians. But this claim seems odd, given what Jesus said in The Great Commission about making disciples of his, which is about as basic a definition of “Christian” as there is. This question needs either more treatment or less. Good advice for any writer: either set out adequately what you think, or just don’t raise the question at all.

(In the public session at Regent, Brother Young explained in response to this point that he is indeed no fan of religion and doesn’t believe that God calls people to the religion of Christianity, but to the person of Christ. I think that is a valid distinction at the very heart of salvation: following a religion, even Christianity, won’t save you; only Jesus will, as we trust in him. But once that’s said, is Christianity of no use? Isn’t it, in fact, generally—generally, I say—the best context in which to grow up in the faith and become a mature disciple? Isn’t that a fundamental assumption of the New Testament? Brother Young’s indifference to that question is of a piece with the book’s view of the church, and it’s an overstatement that I find regrettable. We can, and should, champion faith in Jesus over against “mere” religion, but without dismissing the value of the Christian religion or the church.)

Fifth, The Shack depicts the first person of the Trinity with scars on his/her wrists to demonstrate the oneness of God and thus God’s participation in the crucifixion. Of course it is very difficult to render the Trinity in a way that properly balances the three and one, and The Shack doesn’t really come close, but instead opts for a generally tritheistic depiction. I think that’s okay for its purposes, however, while I will wish that Brother Young’s striking imagination had found somehow an equally vivid and accurate way to depict God’s unity.

As I say, The Shack tries to connect these three vividly rendered persons of the Trinity through this device of the scars, but I don’t think that’s the way to go. It’s wrong to say, in fact, that anyone other than the second person of the Trinity was crucified. It is, indeed, on the Cross that the three persons of the Trinity are as distinguishable from each other as they ever are—except perhaps at Jesus’ baptism. Most of the rest of The Shack in fact is quite orthodox about who did what on the Cross, so if the particular image of the scars on Papa’s wrists was dropped and one or two other phrases are tidied up, I think all will be well.

(In response to this point, Brother Young claimed justification from II Cor. 5:19, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” And he explained that he is reacting against theological depictions of the crucifixion that assert that God the Father abandoned his Son. I agree with Brother Young’s resistance to this latter picture, and sometime I hope to blog on that point. But I would say that it is to steer into the other ditch to then suggest that God the Father is in Christ: No, God the Son is in Christ, which entails that God—the one, true God—is in Christ. That’s the reading of II Cor. 5:19 that is most consistent with the rest of the Bible’s revelation of the Incarnation.)

(Also in the Regent discussion, Jonathan Wilson raised a similar concern and made the helpful suggestion to relocate the scars from Papa’s wrists to his heart.)

Finally, The Shack insists that God does not bring evil, but instead only works with a given situation to bring good out of it, whatever evil happens to be there. The idea that God “allows” evil but doesn’t “bring” it deserves a longer response than I can give here—and I give that response in another book of mine, on the problem of evil. For now, I will simply say that if God has the power to prevent an evil and does not do so, then he is responsible for that evil occurring, even as the perpetrator of that evil is also responsible. Furthermore, the Bible shows God as the one who, as Isaiah says, brings both well-being and calamity (45:7), and our depiction of God must take that dimension of God thoroughly into account, especially when providence is at the heart of our picture, as it is in this book.

These are my main theological concerns with The Shack. I maintain that they could all be fixed to my full satisfaction and nothing crucial to the architecture, argument, or artistry of The Shack would be lost.

In my last post, I want to celebrate the considerable good I found in this book—and to defend it against one or two further charges raised by perhaps over-scrupulous critics.

0 Responses to “The Shack 3: Theological Concerns (Part 2)”

  1. dangoldfinch

    Thank you for these essays on The Shack. I am glad to have found such a balanced approach and analysis. I have provided links at my own blog back to yours.


  2. Chris E

    Hi Professor Stackhouse –

    Very much enjoyed reading your posts on this and other subjects. I look forward to your post on the subject of God abandoning the son.

  3. Josh Friesen

    I think that the point Mr. Young is trying to make is that Christianity has been destroyed by Christians themselves. I think that he is saying that the reason God hates Christianity is because of what it’s become. It has become just a “free” ticket to heaven and a way to justify all of your actions because “God told me to do it”.

  4. Aaron

    I do believe that your first four “Theological concerns” are one in the same. It’s all about the author’s view of institution.

    I would like to thank you for adding validity to such views. Your theological academia critique drives home why institutions have been and continue to be integral at driving a wedge between me and Jesus.

    It is views in books such as “The Shack” that have allowed me to foster a relationship with God thru Jesus that I never in my wildest dreams could have experienced otherwise.

    Spiritual leaders with similar views have helped me to experience a miracle every day.

  5. Justus

    Coming to the conversation a bit late, I can see. The passages about scars in the wrist of “Papa” were most problematic to me. Patripassianism has long been condemned by the church, and independent of your view of tradition, I think it theologically wise to avoid such a viewpoint. For some reason, modern theology has tended toward such teaching, thereby collapsing the distinctions between the persons. This is deeply problematic, and in no way defends against “theological depictions of the crucifixion that assert that God the Father abandoned his Son.” Instead, it collapses the distinction between Father and Son, which renders both theological and biblical problems. I just wish Young had thought about this more carefully, and perhaps done a bit more historical research into appropriate ways to overcome the tendencies he reacts against.

    I do agree, however, that the scars add very little to the story. I am somewhat disappointed to hear Young defend such a passage for any reason.

  6. Paul

    Dear Brother Stackhouse, While I appreciate your attempts to critique “The Shack, I wasn’t aware that arrogance was a Christian virtue. I think something of your seminary mentally comes out when you say, “I maintain that they could all be fixed to my full satisfaction and nothing crucial to the architecture, argument, or artistry of The Shack would be lost.” I think you’ve been among the “ivory towers too long and this statement is one indication. I sincerely hope brother Young never “fixes” his book to your satisfaction.

  7. John Stackhouse

    Arrogance isn’t a Christian virtue, no, and I’m pretty sure sarcasm isn’t, either.

    As for the substance of your concern, you’ve misunderstood my meaning. My point was not that Paul Young has to satisfy me, as if my opinion counts for much. What I’m saying is that, given my concerns, I am convinced that they could be fixed at least to my satisfaction (as opposed to, say, his many, many critics who are much harder on him than I have been) without sacrificing the genuine merits of the book.

    So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, perhaps you can consider whether you read my blog charitably or were simply looking for trouble.

  8. Peter

    I agree with most of your critique, but in the third to last paragraph you say “…if God has the power to prevent an evil and does not do so, then he is responsible for that evil occurring, even as the perpetrator of that evil is also responsible.”
    It’s hard for me to accept that you really believe this! Please correct me if I’m wrong but it seems you are saying that either God cannot prevent the evil in this world or He can prevent it and chooses not to which makes him responsible. (And the next sentence suggests you believe the latter to be true.)
    I understand how different people can interpret scripture differently, but this belief is so foreign to the God that I read about in the Bible.
    Finally, Matthew 12:25 makes little sense if God is responsible for both good and evil.
    And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand.”

  9. John Stackhouse

    Yes, I did mean what I said. I think it’s a pretty simple idea and it is rooted deep in the historical theology of the church: God foreknew what creating this world would mean–in terms of our suffering and in terms of his own–and he went ahead and created it. Therefore he is responsible for “actualizing” (as philosophers say) this world rather than some other world, and therefore is responsible at that level for what happens in it.

    To say this does not, to be sure, absolve any of us of our responsibility for our actions. Nor does it mean that God is happy with each and every action we perform. (Clearly he is not.)

    But it means that, in the final analysis, God chose to make this particular world, knowing what it would entail (good and bad) and therefore is, in that sense, responsible for it.

    I make this argument at greater length in my book, Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil, originally published by Oxford University Press and newly available in a revised (and, I think, truly better!) edition from InterVarsity Press.

  10. John Michel

    Prof. Stackhouse, it is hard for me to believe that anyone who is a student of the scriptures such as you can say that God chooses good and evil. God is all Goodness and evil is its opposite. The scriptures, thus, point out that God is Goodness itself as well as Love. Out of love He created man and woman in his image with intellect and free will. When God allows for evil to happen he does so in response to having given man the freedom to choose; thus, if evil is chosen it is man that chooses it, not God and for God not to allow evil to happen is to deny man’s free will which He cannot do. When you say God is responsible for good or evil you say in fact that God chooses and that is heresy. God’s only choice was creation, an act of love, and providential care also an act of love for his creation. The choice to accept goodness/love or evil is man’s to make; not God’s. He gave these gifts to man when He created him. His is to allow it to happen not because he wants this to happen, but because to deny it from happening is denying man’s free will which is impossible for God to do since he is all perfect. A denial of the gift of free will to man is tantamount to saying that God is deceptive, a liar, and therefore, imperfect. Respectfully, this is what I am hearing you saying when you say that God is equally or in any manner responsible for the actions of man, good or bad.

  11. Cindy

    For the record, I’m not a theologian but love studying and learning about God. I totally agree with John Michael. One of the posts mentioned that God abandoned Jesus- I’ve never heard this concept before. Did he abandon him or did he have another purpose? As Jesus was talking to him on the cross, I think he was there with him all the time.(I don’t think he went through the crucifixication with him other than he felt Jesus’s pain the same way that we all do when we think of what Jesus went through- although, I hope to find out the answer when I die.)
    God didn’t forsake Jesus- man did with their free choice. Although, even though it sounded as if Jesus felt that God turned away from him.– the same way Mack felt abandoned. That just makes Jesus human crying out to the Lord for help. Many times we can not see God’s Purpose in our lives but we can see God’s purpose in Jesus’s life. So just maybe- we have to believe he has a purpose in our lives even if we can’t see it.

    Just reading all the comments – I think we should all try writing a fictional book where God fixes all our pains and sorrows and prevents them from happening. What would happen to this world? Would it be a perfect world? I love the idea that children like Missy are never abducted and brutally murdered, we would have not religious wars? Would we still have free will? What would our journeys’ be like? Would it be utopia? Would we need to reach out and help each other? Would we find happiness in the world- if we didn’t know what unhappiness was?
    Last, the hierachy- I love the idea of the relationship of the trinity–but agree that the book still seemed to put Papa in charge.
    Once I was in a discussion about why God does not step in and prevent something bad from happening and how we blame God for the bad thing. If God is good, how can he do something bad? If he is the cause, how come when things happen we can talk to him and feel better? This was the conclusion of that discussion- that either it’s our choices that are wrong, or the devil that is still working his evil (although I personally think Jesus conquered the devil ) and it’s our free choice- regardless. God is always there to help us through the mess of being human we just have to ask.

  12. Louisa Fakhoury

    As a Born-again believer attending a Fundamental Baptist Church for 15+ years, I was almost offended and turned off at the onset by God’s depiction, scars on hands, and the many other issues you bring up here. I particularly was not a fan of the anti-institution message as well. BUT, I opened my mind and looked at the whole picture and found it to be a pretty good story & finite explanation of the infinity of the Trinity. Also, how it teaches about forgiveness. I stewed for a week after reading to to determine if I really thought it to be beneficial. It should NOT be taken literally (as some people may), but the SPIRIT of the book is fantastic. You give a fair and balanced evaluation. Thank you.

  13. John Michel

    Dr. Stackhouse rebuttals my earlier statement rejecting his conclusion that God creates both good and evil and he cites Isaiah 45:7 to prove his point. Dr. Stackhouse wouldn’t it be better to see God as simply Good and loving and nothing short of that which is what evil is. So why would God create evil if it is a contradiction of who he is? When you read the whole of Isaiah 45 you get a different connotation of what it is “light” and “darkness” “peace” and “evil” are meant to denote. It is calamities, such as captivity, that are being singled out as evils and thus a warning to the Jews to think twice before denying God’s goodness. He simply is saying to them “I will allow evil [calamity–captivity] to happen to you if you persist in your morally evil [fornication, licentiousness or avarice] ways.” In an accusative manner, Dr. Stackhouse equivocates evil to God who is all Goodness, however, if he must accuse God of creating evil then let it be said that he permits [something already existing] it to happen for the good of those straying from his goodness rather than accusing him of creating [bringing into being] evil.

    Since Dr. Stackhouse is associated with the InterVarsity Press, he ought to take a few moments from his busy schedule to read what the Early Church Fathers–theologians per excellence, [Ancient Christian Commentary) had to say about Isaish 45:7 or any other citations he has to offer accusing God of being a creator of evil. He needs to put Scripture into its right perspective avoiding equivocation with regard to God’s Word in light of God’s eternal goodness which has no room for evil.

  14. John Stackhouse

    I agree that God is entirely good. I also agree that God did not create evil. There is no such “thing” as evil, so God didn’t create it.

    What God chose to do was create a world such that evil things happen in his providence: moral agents (such as humans and angels) are free to commit sins, and suffering (from disease, accident, natural disasters, etc.) afflicts us as well.

    God also chooses to act as an agent in the world himself, aiding one side or another (sometimes miraculously) in armed conflicts, sometimes bringing disease or pestilence (e.g., the Plagues of Egypt, but not only them), sometimes rendering couples infertile (making the women “barren”), sometimes hardening the hearts of his enemies, and so on and so on.

    My argument is that God does what is necessary to achieve his purposes in a world that has badly strayed from its original, good design. Sticking a knife in someone else’s stomach is normally a horrible thing to do, unless you’re a surgeon in a world in which surgery is both possible and necessary. And surgery is still a bad thing: it is dangerous and it hurts the patient, even as it is necessary (given our limited means to treat disease) for the patient’s overall wellbeing. God engages in actions similarly when necessary, and that is bringing evil, yes, that good may come.

    Why God doesn’t just wave his magic wand and accomplish his purposes without anyone suffering is a very good question, and I try to answer it as best I can in my book: too complicated to go into on a blog. But I can at least gesture at a response in reminding us that God is trying to work out his good purposes with a lot of factors in play, such as human dignity and freedom, the importance of natural laws being at least generally discernible and reliable, the value of actions having clear consequences, the nurture of faith, and many more.

    As for the early church fathers, I don’t privilege them at all in the history of theology. I am grateful for them, as I am grateful for theologians in every age, but they have no priority for me–not least because so many of them are so beholden to Platonism (of various sorts), misogyny, mythology (such as the idea of God fooling Satan by dangling Christ in front of him like bait on a hook), and much more that I am glad to set aside as unhappy accidents of their cultural embeddedness. I, too, of course have my own cultural baggage to bear, and they help me to see it. But I don’t feel at all obliged to defer to them.

  15. Mondisi

    I think The Shack is a wonderful book, and has reinforced what I have always thought about the man made trinity that brings the human race much torment – politics, economics & religion. The most important matter is that we maintain a growing relationship with Jesus – it is that simple. Go to church if you feel you need to, but do not lose focus by getting lost in the institution…remember that the devil lurks about in the church building as well, so the key is to get your relationship with The Almighty in order.

    Oh, and God is all goodness and love – He definitely did not create evil – that’s just absurd!


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