Blasphemous. Dangerous. Heresy. Unbiblical. These are the words religious purists use to describe the book The Shack and the recently released movie by the same name. Despite seeing a few good things in it, they are overwhelmingly critical.
But what horrors are in it that could possibly merit these warnings? Is it a bit too hokey? (It is. In his vision, the protagonist has meals and conversations with the holy Trinity and walks on water with Jesus). But no, nothing like that according to these hair-splitting legalists. To them, the big sins of The Shack, are that it makes God out to be too loving, overly forgiving, remarkably understanding, naively inclusive, irresponsibly lax on biblical/church authority, and nowhere near sectarian, religious, angry, and punishing enough to reflect the God of the Bible!
“If the God found in The Shack is the one people choose to follow, I fear they face grave eternal danger,” states evangelical critic Roger Patterson. “In the film, Papa [God] expresses only love and has no room for wrath, justice, or holiness… The God of The Shack is not interested in justice in an ultimate sense,” he adds in Staying Outside The Shack. Randy Alcorn also voiced concerns about the scriptural basis of The Shack in his similar review, Reflections on The Shack. Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll used to warn his congregation not to read it. Albert Mohler thinks the book’s popularity is due to a lack of “evangelical discernment.”
Hmm… let’s deconstruct this. If people follow the God described in The Shack, they may… wind up in hell? Really!? Does the God of The Shack really not care about justice? What kind of justice do these critics believe in? Does justice require that some souls, perhaps most, face God’s wrath through eternal damnation?—even if their only crime is not holding the right concept of God? Is that justice in the ultimate sense?
Aside from how The Shack portrays God the Father for a portion of the protagonist’s vision (as a wise, maternal, black woman—Octavia Spencer), the biggest problem religious critics have is how the story appears to promote the notion of Universalism. That is, the ancient Christian belief that all souls are ultimately restored to a love connection with their Maker and each other. It’s the view that God’s justice is not centered on anger and evening the score, but rather on loving correction. God’s wrath, if you will, is not about eternal punishment, but rather righteous anger at the suffering people endure at the hands of others, coupled with empathy, compassion, and determination to reconcile people.
As an example, how would you or I judge a child beater? The protagonist, Mack, is a survivor of child abuse. He can’t forgive his alcoholic, abusive father. Then his young daughter is taken and murdered by a serial killer. “How can a God of love allow such a horror?” he asks. And the implied question, “How could God or I forgive such a thing?”
The answer has something to do with Mack walking in the shoes of his father and the kidnapper, both of whom had lost their way because they too had been beaten and abused as children. Mack is faced with the question from God along these lines: “Which of your children would you destine for hell if you had to choose or if they had lost their way?” (The scene is a potential cure for the beliefs of both Calvinism and hell).
In his vision, Mack learns that God’s justice is not retributive but restorative. Justice is accomplished when evil people show remorse, turn from the harm they do, extend restitution (they don’t get off scot-free), and both victims and perpetrators are healed. In his heavenly vision, Mack is restored to his repentant father (still pained by his former harmful deeds) and reunited with his daughter, who has been relieved of her trauma. Mack next learns to forgive his daughter’s perpetrator. The lesson is that we must not judge others or God with a retributive spirit. Why? Because love shows no favoritism toward only the good. Love always trusts in and never shuts the door on future change (repentance) and restoration. It’s not a comprehensive nor perfect case against “the problem of evil,” but it’s a good start.
Conservative critics of The Shack are horrified that its concept of Universalism denies that God be angry over sin and punish it, usher in a final Judgment Day, and send Christ to return as Judge to save his “church” and then condemn unbelievers to eternal hell. Yet, although these critics’ views appear to come from the Bible, they really don’t. They are read into the Bible through mistranslations and misinterpretations; they aren’t derived from a fair examination of its original meaning and purpose and a good study of history.
One root error is the Western view of sin and humankind. Western theology says sin is an inherent moral failing that deserves punishment. Humankind is born in rebellion to God as his enemy. To get off God’s enemy list, we need to “accept” Christ and believe in his atonement on the cross—that Jesus took the punishment for sin that we all deserve. If we don’t, we face God’s wrath and everlasting punishment.
But a careful study of how Jesus viewed the Bible, how his first-century followers saw “the sin problem,” and how New Testament Greek terms for hell are [mis]translated, exposes this view as “fake news.” Jesus critiqued prevailing “Old Testament” views of God’s wrath. First century followers of Jesus’ Way and Eastern theologies saw sin as a disease or immature state that deserves to be treated, not punished. Phrases like “eternal punishment” (aionios kolasis) in the gospels are mistranslated and misunderstood (along with terms for hell and other verses that support Universalism). Kolasis always refers to “corrective rehabilitation,” which may be a difficult process but is not damning. Aionios refers to an age period, not the concept of time everlasting.
There is no reason to worry about entering The Shack. Overlook its hokeyness, and you just might meet a God of love who more accurately reflects early Christian sentiment and sacred text. On the other hand, there is a reason to worry about these critics’ view of “the God of the Bible.” Their view turns trust in God’s reconciling love into an unhealthy fear of God’s wrath and punishment and the “grave eternal danger” associated with it. Derived from “fake news,” it’s a sick faith. It needs to be treated. Not punished. Just treated.
 Greek word studies in The Evangelical Universalist, The Inescapable Love of God, Raising Hell, and The Source New Testament.