A Review By James B. De Young
The Shack by William P. Young is a recently published (2007) book (248 pp. plus acknowledgements) from Windblown Media, Newbury Park, CA. Its ISBN is 978-0-9647292-3-0. The book is a novel set in the Northwest, for the most part in the northeast corner of the State of Oregon. It is a novel designed to propound a particular view of the nature of God and the resolution of the problem of human suffering. Its subtitle betrays its scope: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity.
From a literary standpoint, the prose stretches the imagination, being almost poetical. It evinces creativity, character, and splendor. The representations of the triune God, his purposes and plan, the nature of relationship with him, the state of believers after death are moving and compelling. Directly and indirectly the author challenges not a few of the stereotypes that Christians and others have. But not all is convincing.
The format is a retelling of the experience of Mackenzie Allen Phillips by his friend Willie. From one standpoint the story line is quite a common one. A man with a troubled past finds himself in training for ministry yet unable to pursue it. Then he with his family experience great tragedy: the brutal murder of their youngest daughter. This event brings great darkness and anger to the father who becomes bitter toward God. Three and a half years later, he is led by God back to the murder scene—a desolate cabin in the mountains and forests of Northeast Oregon—where he encounters the Triune God and finds how to have joy again in his life. It is tied to the reason for his existence and his relationship with God. The murder of his daughter is also solved.
Yet from another vantage point the story is quite beyond the ordinary. It is a fiction determinedly theological. The manner in which the author presents the Trinity, the reason for suffering and tragedy, the meaning of the fall in the garden of Eden, the present state of the Christian dead, and how to find forgiveness and wholeness are quite carefully drawn and in many ways unique and deeply affective. But all is not biblically correct.
Because the fiction is deeply moving the reader is caught up in the emotions of the story. And therein lies the problem. It is too easy to feel deeply with the sufferings and triumphs of the characters and miss the theological point of what is being said. For the novel is Young’s way of projecting his particular views of theology on crucial issues in a subtle and almost persuasive, manner. Because Paul has injected his theology throughout the story, one must read the book with one eye on the story and another eye on the theology.
Paul (he prefers to be known by his middle name) appears to be orthodox in much of what he writes. He treats God as three persons (but falls into the heresy of modalism), and he affirms the facts of the incarnation and the death of Christ, the events of the creation and the fall of humanity, the idea of forgiveness, etc.
Yet Paul challenges strategic and basic evangelical doctrines. I’m referring to such matters as the nature of the Godhead, how love and justice relate in God, the destiny of the lost, the holiness of God, the nature of sin, the origin of sin, the meaning of the incarnation and death of Christ, the meaning of reconciliation, the destiny of unbelievers, the institutions that God has established (such as the state, the church, even marriage), etc.
The greatest doctrinal distortion in the book is Paul’s assumption of universal reconciliation. There are other points of theology that are distorted or improbable or debatable. These include mutual submission in the Godhead; no subordination within the Godhead or among people; the Father’s co-crucifixion with Christ (modalistic); people completing a circle of relationship with the three persons of the Godhead; institutions being identified as diabolical; etc. Yet the most serious error is Paul’s embrace of universal reconciliation which lies embedded in the book.
As an example of this theological error let me cite a phrase from chapter 11. Universal reconciliation relates justice and love in such a way that love limits God’s justice. Paul affirms that God chose “the way of the cross where mercy triumphs over justice because of love.” While this is almost word-for-word from Scripture (James 2:13b), Paul makes crucial changes. Paul has added “because of love” and assumes that God’s mercy is the alternative to justice, as shown by his next sentence: “Would you prefer he’d chosen justice for everyone?” Yet the context shows that James is not talking about God showing mercy to people at the cross but about believers showing mercy toward the poor. James 2:13 actually says: “mercy triumphs over justice.” That’s it. Paul also fails to quote or use the first part of the same verse (“For judgment will be merciless to the one who has shown no mercy”; 2:13a). Thus God’s judgment is “without mercy”—just the opposite of the point that Paul tries to make in this chapter, that God will not judge sin in the future. The context shows that James is dealing with human partiality and that works of impartiality are a necessary evidence of a Christian’s faith. Also, the word “triumphs” represents a Greek word meaning “boasts over” or “against” and can be translated also as “be joyfully confident.” The idea is that in the future believers’ mercy (not God’s) expressed in good works will deliver them from the judgment coming on those who show partiality. Even if “God” is assumed into the text, the verse is saying nothing of God judging unbelievers. Finally, this verse and the preceding verse make it very clear that God will judge in the future—an idea that universal reconciliation denies. I return to this issue when I discuss chapter 11 below.
There are two reasons why I believe that Paul is an advocate of universal reconciliation. It is based on my reading of evangelical sources that describe universal reconciliation and on several discussions with Paul himself.