To be sure, The Shack is a novel, a work of fiction. However, Young goes to a rare place with this novel: he makes God a character (multiple characters, actually) and gives Him a voice. Many novels and movies have characters who articulate a belief about God, but it is a significant step beyond that to put words in God’s mouth. Young also clearly presents theological arguments and ideas, and presents them not as his idea or as his protagonist’s, but as God’s. Albeit in novel form, Young is teaching theology in The Shack. What’s more, many people—Christians and non-Christians—consume The Shack as a theological treatise. Therefore, it is in our best interest not to judge the book or the movie as we might the newest page-turner from John Grisham or tearjerker from Karen Kingsbury, but as a dissertation on the nature of God.
For the sake of some semblance of brevity, I will not go into all of the issues I found with the book or all of the things that I found unsettling. I also will not touch on some of the good points Young made in the book—and there were a number of statements and ideas that were convicting, challenging, and comforting—for reasons I will make clear at the end of this review. My primary purpose is to compare Young’s portrayal of God with Scripture, and I hope as you read or watch The Shack—and indeed as you read this review—you will do likewise.
To begin with, I find it rather disturbing that Young’s god seldom quotes from the Scriptures. Contrast that with the biblical Jesus, who made repeated mention of them and quoted them frequently. That’s not to say one can’t make a valid point without quoting or referring to Scripture—Jesus did that too. But don’t you think that if God were really to speak to a human being in an effort to explain who He truly was to that person and to correct that person’s misconceptions about God, He would repeatedly refer to the Bible to show the person how “these are the very Scriptures that testify about me”? Jesus told the Sadducees they were “in error because you do not know the Scriptures” and declared God’s Word to be truth. And yet Young’s god only refers to Scripture in roundabout ways. This should be the first red flag.
A relatively minor issue, but one I feel is still worth mentioning, is Young’s portrayal of God as a heavyset black woman with questionable language skills. To be clear, Young is not insinuating that God is female, but that He appeared to his protagonist Mack as such—albeit still going by the name “Papa”—to help break his religious conditioning and stereotypes. So we have to ask ourselves, could God appear as a woman? Certainly. God could appear to a human being as a plate of scrambled eggs if He so chose. But we also must ask where the “religious conditioning” that God is masculine comes from. And the answer is Scripture. While God is the Creator of both male and female, and thus “feminine” characteristics are in the image of God, and while Jesus used maternal imagery, Scripture decidedly refers to God with masculine pronouns. Furthermore, Jesus referred to Him as “Father,” not “Mother,” not “Parent of Indeterminate Gender.” God appearing in any human form, be it a black woman with poor diction or “a white grandfather figure with flowing beard, like Gandalf,” would be extra-biblical as we do not get a physical description of God in the Bible. God appeared to Moses in a burning bush. He appeared to the Israelites as a pillar of cloud and fire. Jacob wrestled with a man he identified as God, but we are given no description of Him. Similarly, when Isaiah “saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne,” we are given no physical description of God. In fact, God told Moses, “no one may see me and live.” Paul wrote that “God . . . alone is immortal and . . . lives in unapproachable light.” Indeed the very message of Scripture is that only through Jesus can we have any access whatsoever to God. Any physical description of God the Father, while not necessarily heretical, runs the risk of stretching things too far, and, in my judgment, does more harm than good in this case. Young’s portrayals of God also slip—nay, leap with abandon—into irreverence, as opposed to biblical admonition to “worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.”
I want to focus now on several statements “Papa” makes in the book. In explaining his nature to Mack, Papa responds to Mack asking if God is “the one spilling out great bowls of wrath and throwing people into a burning lake of fire?” Papa replies thusly: “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.” Later in the book, a woman named Sophia, who is described as “the personification of Papa’s wisdom,” tells Mack, “Judgment is not about destruction, but about setting things right.” Scripture, however, gives us a different picture of God. It is true that He “is patient . . . not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” and that He “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” But we’re also told that “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” and we read in Revelation “[t]he dead were judged” and “[a]nyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” That sounds very much like destruction to me. Jesus stated of those on His left—the goats—“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” He also warned of the teachers of the law, saying, “They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” Speaking to His disciples, he said, “[the end] is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written.” Paul, Peter, and Jude each wrote similarly:
-He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.
-[T]he Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.
-In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.
God also speaks of dishing out temporal punishment and lays out a punishment role (among others) for the government. This is quite a contrast to Papa’s statement, “It’s not my purpose to punish [sin].”
Young has been accused of being a universalist, and while he doesn’t come directly out and say that, he does hint at it. In the foreword to the book, Mack’s father is revealed to be an abusive hypocrite who treated Mack and his mother heinously. Never is any indication given that he repented or put faith in Christ, yet he is present in Mack’s glimpse into heaven. Later, when Papa takes Mack to the place where his murdered daughter was buried, he tells Mack that he wants to redeem the murderer. He says, “he too is my son. I want to redeem him.” This is very confusing (as admittedly is much of Young’s wording and choice of language). Best-case scenario, Papa is using “son” to mean part of his creation, and not speaking to universalism. But the context would disagree with that, because just a short while later, very much in the same conversation, Papa tells Mack, “In Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship. . . . When Jesus forgave those who nailed him to the cross they were no longer in his debt, nor mine. In my relationship with those men, I will never bring up what they did, or shame them, or embarrass them.” Scripture teaches that Christ’s blood is sufficient for all, but that it is not efficient for all because God requires a response of faith. Similarly, one becomes a son (or daughter) of God through faith. There is nothing in Scripture to suggest the men who crucified Christ believed or repented. No mention is made in the book of Mack’s daughter’s killer repenting or of Mack’s father expressing genuine faith. There are a few other statements in Mack’s conversation with Sophia that, combined with the examples above, hint at universalism. However, it is hard to know precisely how Young means much of what he writes, and to give him the benefit of the doubt and to keep this review from being even longer, I won’t address those here. But the above bent toward universalism should at least give us pause.
While I have problems—some of them quite serious—with what I’ve noted thus far, I don’t think I would be making much of a deal of The Shack if this were the extent of the biblical inconsistencies therein. But from here on, we will examine statements by Young’s god that are nothing short of heretical.
Near the beginning of their discussion, Papa reveals scars on her wrists and tells Mack, “We were [at the cross] together.” She reasserts this position by stating, “When we three spoke ourself [sic] into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human.” This reflects an ancient heresy known as patripassianism. This idea—that God the Father was crucified with Christ or that all three Persons of the Trinity were present in human form—has zero support scripturally, and is in fact refuted with numerous verses that tell us that only one Person of the Trinity entered the world in human form—Jesus. For starters, John tells us “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” and that “the Word became flesh.” He continues in the same verse: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” At Jesus’ baptism, a voice from heaven declared, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” The same words were repeated at the transfiguration, and Peter tells us that this was God the Father speaking “from the Majestic Glory.” Luke’s account of the baptism informs us “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove,” not as a human being. All these verses highlight the absence of any such reference to the Father or Spirit being physically united with Christ during his incarnation as Papa claims. In fact, these verses make it clear that the Father remained in heaven, an idea supported when we’re told, as we are in Hebrews 12:2, that Jesus, having finished His earthly ministry, sat down at the Father’s right hand. Furthermore, Scripture tells us repeatedly that “God raised him from the dead,” which implies that the Father was not part of that death. Paul wrote that Jesus, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” It bears repeating, the biblical picture is of Jesus being the only Person of the Trinity to dwell in human form, and that a separation did occur. God the Father did not die on the cross. Rather, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ,” and “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Mack questions this theology, asking why Jesus cried out on the cross, “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)” and accuses Papa, saying, “You abandoned him just like you abandoned me!” Papa’s answer is startling. Instead of telling Mack that it was because God abandoned Jesus that He didn’t abandon Mack, she says, “Regardless of what he felt at that moment, I never left him.” Do you catch the implication? Papa is telling Mack that Jesus was mistaken about being forsaken. And this is not some trifling matter, such as improperly recalling a conversation or forgetting someone’s name. Jesus is quoting from Psalm 22:1, a prophetic Psalm that envisions the Messiah’s sufferings in remarkable detail. So if Papa is right, Jesus is not fulfilling this Scripture, in addition to being mistaken theologically. We must ask ourselves then, about what else is Jesus mistaken? If He was wrong about being forsaken, might He also have been wrong in some of the other theological issues He spoke to? Might he have quoted other Scriptures out of context or referenced them inaccurately? This irresponsible (at best) statement by Young’s god opens a huge Pandora ’s Box. But that’s not the worst of it.
A short while later, Papa tells Mack, “[Jesus] found his way through [his sense of forsakenness] to put himself completely into my hands.” This is first of all contrary to Scripture. Peter wrote, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” But furthermore, it carries a grave consequence. If Jesus had not yet (at the point of His above utterance on the cross) put Himself completely into the Father’s hands, what can we infer but that He wasn’t fully trusting in God? Not only was Jesus mistaken according to Young’s god, but He also was imperfect! So much for being the “lamb without blemish or defect.” So much for Christ Jesus “[becoming] for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption.” The theme of Scripture is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” but that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” But what good is it to us to have Christ’s righteousness if he is not the sinless offering for sin but an imperfect sinner like us, just bumbling his way along (which, by the way, is sort of how Young presents his Jesus character—as a klutz who is the butt of the other members of the Trinity’s jokes)? It is subtle, but Papa’s statement denies the sinless nature of Christ, renders His substitutionary “righteous for the unrighteous” death moot, and thus can be taken as nothing short of blasphemy!
But Papa is not the only one of Young’s god characters to contradict Scripture. In discussing the Godhead with Mack, Young’s Jesus makes the following statement: “I am the best way any human can relate to Papa or Sarayu [Young’s flaky, female Holy Spirit].” But what does the biblical Jesus say? “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Not the best way, the way. This is echoed in Acts 4:12: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” Young’s Jesus also contradicts himself. He responds to Mack’s feeling of guilt by saying, “You are not lost.” But after Mack talks with Sophia, Jesus tells him that “Because you are so lost and independent, you bring to her many complications.” As an author, I know how hard it is to maintain continuity over the course of a novel, and so I would forgive Young this mistake if he were not speaking for the Son of God. But admittedly, this inconsistency pales in comparison to Young’s Jesus implying there are ways to relate to the Father other than through Jesus.
Lastly, we come to Sarayu, the “Holy Spirit.” Scripture tells us that “when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” Yet Young’s version does just the opposite. In a long discussion in which Papa told Mack he was absolved from having to obey any rules, Sarayu equates responsibility with enforcing rules and, in the context, contrary to “sharing life with us.” Mack asks, “Are you telling me that responsibility and expectation are just another form of rules we are no longer under?” to which Papa replies with a, “Yup.” Sarayu then talks for a while about parts of speech in a section that confuses me almost as much as it did Mack, but concludes with the idea that the word responsibility is “dead, full of law and fear and judgment. That is why you won’t find the word responsibility in the Scriptures.” Well, perhaps Sarayu should spend less time making fractals in her garden and more time reading the Bible, because the word “responsibility” appears 11 times. Its close synonym “duty” appears approximately 30 times. The idea of responsibility/duty conflicting with a love relationship flies in the face of numerous scriptural examples: Jesus told His disciples, “when you have done everything you were told to do, [you] should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” Paul told the Sanhedrin that he had “fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day” and also wrote that God “gave me the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” And he wrote of several “institutions” in which responsibility was demanded to each other and to God. Duty and responsibility are not, according to Scripture, contrary to love a relationship but are a part of a love relationship. Unless we can say that Jesus’ disciples and Paul didn’t love God, that husbands aren’t to love wives, and that we aren’t supposed to love God. Lastly, Jesus often spoke of fulfilling Scripture and of being obedient to the Father—what one might call responsibility. He even linked the two! Are we to deny, based on this responsibility, that there is love between the Son and Father? Young seems determined in The Shack to show how relational God is, but in doing so denies God the reverence He is also due and errs in presenting a biblical view of relationship and responsibility that manifests itself in Young’s Holy Spirit failing to tell the truth about God’s Word.
William P. Young’s god is portrayed physically in a way the God of the Bible never is, disagrees with the God of the Bible in regard to punishment for sin and judgment, and at the very least muddies the water about the need for each individual to have faith in Christ in order to receive God’s forgiveness. Young’s god declares, contrary to Scripture, that the Father and Holy Spirit were incarnated with the Son. Young’s god asserts that Jesus was mistaken theologically, and worse, didn’t always perfectly trust in the Father. Young’s Jesus implies there are multiple ways to relate to God and contradicts himself. And Young’s Holy Spirit fails to match the biblical Holy Spirit in speaking the truth or in harmonizing with the Scriptures. In light of this, it is clear that Young’s god is a false god—no different than any other false god, and should be treated similarly. Although Young does make some good points, and although Young’s god does speak some truth, we’re warned in Scripture that even the devil “masquerades as an angel of light.” Might some truths be attributed to Allah or Buddha? Might the Book of Mormon or the Bhagavad Gita contain some ideas that are valid? Perhaps, but we know these are false gods and false teachings, and thus they should be rejected. So too, in my judgment, should The Shack.
In conclusion, Scripture cautions us against false teachers who “will secretly introduce destructive heresies” and warns us “the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine” and that “they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” This is why we are instructed to “test [prophecies]; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil,” and to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God,” using Scripture as our guide. Paul wrote to Timothy, “If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing.” And John admonished, “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God.” Scripture paints a bleak picture of what happens to false teachers. Whether he intended to or not, I cannot conclude but that William P. Young has secretly (and rather subtly and innocuously at first glance) introduced destructive heresies in The Shack. If you’re looking for entertainment, I suggest you find it in novel or movie that doesn’t so deceptively attribute false theology to God. If you’re looking for theology, I suggest you go straight to Scripture or to other books that are in agreement with it. Whatever you do, whether you read or go to see The Shack or not, always—ALWAYS—ground yourself in Scripture and make sure it is your guide.
 John 5:39
 Matthew 22:39
 See John 17:17
 William P. Young, “A Piece of π,” in The Shack, (Newbury Park: Windblown Media, 2007), 91.
 See Genesis 1:27
 Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34
 Young, “A Piece of π,” 91.
 See Exodus 3:1-22
 See Exodus 13:21
 See Genesis 32:24-30
 Isaiah 6:1
 Exodus 33:20
 I Timothy 6:15-16, emphasis added
 See Romans 5:1-2; Hebrews 4:14-16, 13:15;
 Hebrews 12:28
 Young, “Breakfast of Champions,” 118-119.
 Ibid., 119.
 Young, “In the Belly of the Beast,” 172.
 Young, “Here Come Da Judge,” 170.
 II Peter 3:9
 I Timothy 2:4
 Hebrews 9:27
 Revelation 20:12
 Revelation 20:15
 Matthew 25:46
 Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47
 Luke 21:22
 II Thessalonians 1:8-9
 II Peter 2:9
 Jude 7
 See Genesis 13:14; I Thessalonians 4:6
 Romans 13:4-5; I Peter 2:14
 Young, “A Morning of Sorrows,” 228.
 Ibid., 228.
 See Isaiah 53:6; Romans 6:10; Hebrews 7:27, 9:12, 26, 10:10; I Peter 3:18;
 See Mark 2:5; Luke 5:20; John 3:16,18; John 8:24; Acts 10:43; Romans 3:22
 See Romans 8:14; Galatians 3:26
 Young, “A Piece of π,” 94
 Ibid., 98.
 John 1:1
 John 1:14
 Matthew 3:17
 See Matthew 17:5
 II Peter 1:17
 Luke 3:22
 Acts 2:24, 3:15, 10:40, 13:34; Romans 10:9; see also I Corinthians 6:14
 Philippians 2:6-7
 II Corinthians 5:19, emphasis added
 II Corinthians 5:21; See also Isaiah 53:10
 Mark 15:34
 Young, “A Piece of π,” 94.
 Ibid., 95.
 I Peter 2:23
 See Romans 14:23
 I Peter 1:19
 I Corinthians 1:30; see also Romans 10:4
 Romans 3:23
 I Peter 3:18, emphasis added; see also II Peter 1:1; I John 2:1
 Young, “God on the Dock,” 109.
 John 14:6
 Young, “God on the Dock,” 113.
 Young, “In the Belly of the Beast,” 173.
 John 16:13, emphasis added lightheartedly
 See Young, “Verbs and Other Freedoms,” 205.
 See Ibid., 206.
 Young, “Verbs and Other Freedoms,” 204.
 Ibid., 206.
 Ibid., 207.
 Luke 17:10
 Acts 23:1
 Romans 15:16
 See I Corinthians 7:3,24
 See John 14:31, 15:10
 II Corinthians 11:14
 See I Timothy 6:20-21; II John 1:9-10
 II Peter 2:1
 II Timothy 4:3
 I Thessalonians 5:20-22
 I John 4:1
 See Isaiah 8:20; Jeremiah 23:22
 I Timothy 6:3-4
 II John 1:9
 See Galatians 1:6-9; II Peter 2:3
 See Acts 17:11