The Shack—Does It Promote Idolatry?

The Shack, the wildly successful novel by William Paul Young, is known now to millions of people. From the year of its publication in 2007, it has been on the NY Times Bestsellers List for over 100 weeks. This is quite amazing since it is written by one who once professed to be a Christian and was written for Christians with a Christian story line—or so it seems. But the story has touched the heartstrings of Christians and non-Christians alike because it deals with great questions: What is the meaning of suffering? If God is good why does he allow people to suffer? And even more significant: If God is loving why does he judge unbelievers worthy of hell and an everlasting judgment?

The answer that Paul Young gives to these questions is surprising. Instead of suggesting that the Bible has answers for these questions, Young propounds a different view of God that asserts that God is so loving that he does not punish sin, that all are his children, that “mercy triumphs over justice because of love.”

I’ve written a book and articles to challenge Young’s views. I write from the standpoint of being a Christian educator, having taught in an evangelical seminary for over 40 years. I’ve also known Paul Young for over 20 years. This background gave me knowledge of Young’s background and why he came to write his novel as he did. In a public forum in 2004 he wrote that he had rejected his “evangelical paradigm” and converted to universal reconciliation (UR). This teaches that among God’s many attributes (love, justice, holiness, righteousness, etc.) love limits God’s other attributes, that there is no everlasting judgment or hell, that those who are in hell will one day be purged of their sins so that even the Devil and his angels will go to heaven, and that Jesus’ death on the cross has already reconciled all to God. He also identified the three institutions of marriage, the church, and the government as “demonic” and a “trinity of terrors that ravages the earth.” There are other beliefs associated with UR but this gives a good introduction.

Young confessed that this conversion made him a more loving person and affected all that he believed about God, salvation, the gospel—everything. Presumably this affected what he put in his novel!

Young stopped attending our forum and wrote his novel. Alarmed by the explicit universalism in it, two pastor friends spent a year with him to help remove it. Still no evangelical publisher would publish it so he published it himself. It appeared in 2007, and the rest is history. It has become a run-away best seller.

In 2010, I wrote Burning Down the Shack to expose the underlying universalism and the subtle selling of it to millions of readers. One of the first things I addressed was whether Young’s portrayal of the Trinity was heretical. Young portrays God the Father as a Black woman (and later, an older, white haired man), Jesus Christ as a Jewish carpenter, and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman named Sarayu.

I concluded that the 2nd Commandment forbidding idolatry was indeed violated. This is what it says:

“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to thousands who love me and keep my commandment (Exodus 20:4).

The divine Giver of the Ten Commandments stresses this commandment by giving it the second longest content (second only to the Fourth Commandment dealing with the Sabbath Day), including at least three reasons after the word, “for.” This Commandment explains the First Commandment, how the violation of the First is to be recognized. It reads: “You shall have no other gods before (or, besides) me.” In Israel’s history, the temptation toward idolatry was always present, and her violation of this commandment brought great suffering, captivity, and the eventual loss of the entire homeland.

In chapter 2 of Burning Down the Shack I reflected over several pages (16-22) whether the Shack violated the Second Commandment. I observed that Young doesn’t encourage his readers or the characters of his story to worship the African woman as the Father (“Papa”) nor the Asian woman as the Holy Spirit. Nor does Young suggest that people make little figurines of his “divine characters.”

However, I did raise serious concerns that some readers may come to think of God in the way that Young draws his word pictures of them, and this would be in error–idolatry. The reason given for this commandment is somewhat obvious. The God of the Bible created the entire universe. He is distinct from what he created. There is nothing in the entire created universe that is adequate to portray the Creator of it all. The world is limited, physical, decaying, finite; but God is unlimited by space or time, and is a spirit being, unseen, unchanging, infinite. Thus to make a true image of God is impossible. All attempts to use the created thing to represent the uncreated One will fall short, will redefine him, and thus slander who he is. His glory will be diminished.

There is only one Person in the universe who adequately portrays (John 14:7-9) and correctly interprets (John 1:18) God the Father to humanity and that is the person of Jesus Christ, the God-man, who is God having become human (Col. 2:9). Jesus Christ holds this unique position. Thus one of the faults of the novel is that it results in turning our attention from Jesus to a make-believe portrayal of the Father that is inherently false, misleading—idolatrous. It takes away from the glory that is due to Jesus alone. When the Apostles asked Jesus to show them the Father, he replied: “Have I been with you so long, Thomas, and you do not know me? He who has seen me has seen the Father.”

Further, the impact of the novel is to depict the Trinity as three separate beings when the Trinity is Three-in-One. Young’s “trinity” leads to a tritheism, which is heresy. It fails to depict God as One (Note Jesus said: “I and the Father are one,” in substance or nature; John 10:10). While Young confesses God as “Three-in-One” he goes astray by also saying that God is “One-in-Three.” Jesus did not say that he and the Father are two!

It is possible that some who read the novel may come to “adore” the three persons portraying the Trinity. Such adoration is idolatry.

Also the novel adheres to the history of universalist thinking in this very area. Over the years UR has always elaborated on the love of God and built its case around what God may or may not do—to the lack of attention on the person of Jesus Christ. UR makes the complaint that we evangelicals pay too much attention to Jesus Christ to the neglect of God the Father. As I pointed out in Burning we cannot over glorify Jesus Christ, for to glorify Jesus is to glorify the Father (John 14:13; several verses in chap. 17).

I pointed out another fault of the novel’s portrayal of the Trinity. By portraying God as a Black woman and then as a White man Young’s novel fuels the stereotyping of God that has already demeaned and slandered him in popular literature and culture.

Finally, I pointed out in my text that Young is contributing to the radical theology of those who want to disband with the Bible’s truth including its portrayal of God. These liberals attempt to make God in their image. Surprisingly, it seems that Young has this purpose. He states clearly that he wants to redefine God. He has “Papa” say: “I am not who you think I am” (p. 120); and “Your understanding of God is wrong” (162). In some reviews one radical theologian welcomed The Shack as the first serious attempt by a Christian to bring liberal theology into the realm of evangelicals. Wake up fellow Christians!

All of the foregoing deals with the question, as dealt with in Burning, of whether the novel violates the 2nd Commandment regarding idolatry. But the making of the film, “The Shack,” makes the question far more easy to answer with a “yes.”

Here for the first time in all cinematography has someone attempted to portray visually the Trinity as three separate persons. It is one thing to try to draw a picture of the Trinity for a reader’s mind, which may be somewhat obscure, unclear, imprecise, and differing in shape from person to person. But once Young determined to bring his characters to film where they take on a precise, clear form he has crossed the line!!

Now Young has publicly defended his novel’s depiction of the Trinity as doing nothing more than what the Bible does in using personification to describe God. In other words, the Bible often describes God by using language that humans use: God walks, hears, sees, talks, weeps, touches, and “does” other things. There is something in humans that corresponds with how God communicates and acts with humans. Yet this is all metaphor since God is spirit and doesn’t have a body.

But I pointed out in Burning that never is personification used to depict the entire being of God, his whole person. He is never described as a young warrior or a gray-haired old man to the extent that we could visualize him as such, to limit him to such. There was no film or photographs in OT times. The only thing available would be carvings, miniatures, and such. And these were strictly forbidden by the 2nd Commandment. Thus all the personifications depict something about what God does, not who he is or what his being is. And this is not surprising since there is nothing in all of the creation that can unfold, explain, portray, depict (and other terms) the entirety of God’s being—who he is, including his being invisible spirit. This portrayal has been reserved to Jesus Christ who brings God to bodily form (Col. 2:9).

But with the film this has all changed. The movie raises the issue of idolatry to a whole new level. Clearly the movie. The Shack, is idolatrous. As far as I know this is the first time in history that a film has sought to depict God the Three-in-One as three separate beings. This is idolatry.

The depiction of the Triune God on the screen is but one tiny step removed from Young’s actually bringing into the theater tiny carvings of his characters.

Think of the impact of this visualization on our minds, especially on our children.

Think of how this contributes to the slander of Christians made by Muslims—that we worship three gods.

While Young again may dismiss this as no different than personification, he is wrong. The visual forms are like actual objects. The characters on the screen are pretending to be the Trinity—and that is what an idol is.

And as I reflect on these matters again doesn’t it go without saying that these three are sending the message that they should be so worshipped since they are the Trinity? Think about it.

The Greek dictionary (BDAG) defines the Greek word as image, false god, and idol, for the uses in the NT. Now, again, the important point is that the image is meant to be worshipped. We give all kinds of models of people, real or unreal, to our children, from Marvel figures to those from the “Lord of the Rings.” We and our children do not worship these as idols.

But to try to “model” the Trinity is different. The Bible forbids making images of the Triune God, and asserts that he is beyond anything in the universe, that he is invisible, that no one has ever seen him—or if one does see him he will die!

But it seems that Young has done just this.

Some may say: “Well, didn’t Michelangelo depict God the Father as a heroic, old man with white hair who with his finger sought to touch the finger of Adam? Yes, he did. And I think that this is somewhat more toward idolatry than all the portraits and icons that we have of Jesus Christ (which are acceptable of this one, the God-Man). But Michelangelo drew only a picture and he wasn’t trying to depict the Trinity as three separate beings.

By his three persons Young seeks “to go where no one else has gone before”—deeper into idolatry than anyone else professing to be a Christian. The “final frontier” will be breached when he or the studio makes figurines in memory of the film.

Consider this. Here is the journey that Paul Young has followed. Rejecting the evangelical, good news of the Bible in 2004, he chose universal reconciliation (opposed by the Bible and two thousand years of Christian teaching), wrote his deceptive novel to sell UR to the unsuspecting to reinterpret God and Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and now commits idolatry by using three real human beings to depict the Three which the Bible condemns.

This is “Pilgrim’s Regress.”

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