Shack Attack 5: Sin and Salvation

Postmodernity in many ways arose out of the ashes of the World Wars, which drew to an end much of the optimism and self-belief that characterised Modernism. It is our capacity for destruction and cruelty that is the ultimate enemy of postmodernism. Therefore, its big project has been disarmament. Ideologies and power systems are at the heart of all our conflicts, and so if we can do away with arrogance and power, perhaps we can do away with war.

In my last post, I discussed the attitude in postmodern Christianity, in evidence in The Shack, towards hierarchy and church structures. Now, I turn my attention towards the issues that are most important, and most troubling, in The Shack, that is, teaching about God’s wrath and salvation.

The fact that these issues touch most deeply upon the heart of the Christian gospel means that one must also be the most careful, both to avoid over-reaching (and thus wrongly condemning a fellow Christian), or to avoid tolerating teaching that is potentially most destructive. And this is just the problem in analysing The Shack. As a work of fiction, teaching is unfolded in an unstructured, unsupported way, and one is left to guess whether the words of a confused character such as Mack represent the author’s belief, or Mack’s mistake.

Furthermore, postmodernism highly prizes ‘reader response’ , which is the belief that the reader is ‘an active agent who imparts “real existence” to the work and completes its meaning through interpretation’ (cf. Wikipedia). In other words, the reader is the one who finally decides what the text means, or even creates its meaning. Ambiguity is thus not an enemy, but rather an opportunity for the reader to decide for himself what the truth is. The Shack is so difficult to analyse, and it has been so well received by all kinds of people, precisely because at the point where the gospel is likely to offend, ambiguity and confusion reign.

I was correctly criticised for labelling William P Young as a universalist in a previous chapter. He has directly claimed in interviews that he is not. He claims only to be restating scriptures from Paul (which universalists also do, mind you). But it is ambiguity and inadequate discussion of teaching on this matter that makes the actual view of salvation in The Shack so elusive.

As we have seen, the flaw in the postmodern view of hierarchy is that it assumes that hierarchy always violates genuine relationship, an assumption that is not shared by scripture:

“Submit to one another [that is, those various people to whom submission is due] out of reverence for Christ… Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Ep. 5:21, 24).

Our submission is a sign of reverence for Christ and reflects our attitude towards his rule. Yet this submission comes within the most intimate description of his loving relationship with us.

Similarly, The Shack makes a mistaken assumption that a God of love and a God of wrath are incompatible.

In the book, God’s relationship with people is likened to the relationship of a good parent to his child. ‘Papa’ is therefore ‘especially fond’ of every one of us. On pages 118-120, a key discussion about sin takes place:

Mack: “Are there any [people] you’re not especially fond of?”
Papa: “Nope, I haven’t been able to find any. I guess that’s jes’ the way I is.”
M: “Do you ever get mad at any of them?”
P: “Sho ’nuff! What parent doesn’t? … but that anger, especially for me, is an expression of love all the same. I love the ones I’m angry with just as much as those I’m not.”

So far so good. God does tell us that He loves all people, and if it were clear that the last line expresses that God can exercise wrath as well as love, Young and I would be walking the same path. However, in the story, Mack struggles to reconcile this assertion with the Biblical accounts of wrath and punishment of sin. Instead of clearing up this obvious objection, Young opts for evasion and ambiguity:

Papa: “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.”

The genius of this line is that Papa never says that she doesn’t punish sin, and it comes in the context of the accusation that God enjoys punishing sin (which is an unhelpful exaggeration of the problem—it ought to be a discussion of whether God punishes sin). So, if you’re an evangelical in a generous mood, one might harmonise this with the numerous scriptures that directly teach that God does punish sin, though without enjoyment. However, given that it follows Mack’s anger at Biblical testimony of God’s wrath, the most natural way to understand Papa’s words is denial. Without attempting to find a place for God’s wrath in evidence in scripture, Young seems to be saying that God is not at all in the business of punishing people for their sins, but only in curing them.

A quick look at Hebrews 10:29-31 is enough to show the danger is Young’s teaching here:

“How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

This passage is one of many that shows the reality of God’s wrath and punishment of sin. The theme of God as avenger (hinted at here) also shows us that God does need to punish sin, because justice is not done in this life. Finally, it also reveals most starkly that sin is not in fact its own punishment. It may indeed be punishment in itself, but the damage that it does to us is entirely beside the point. The horror of sin is that is it rebellion: spitting in the face of God—more than that—in the face of God who gave Himself for us in ultimate self-sacrifice as a demonstration of His love and as the price of a New Covenant for us. Spitting in that face is the one thing that is worthy of punishment. The answer to our anger at God’s acts of judgement in scripture is not to pretend that they are not there, or that they’re not acts of God. The answer is to correct our convictions about the seriousness of sin.

In the chapter titled ‘Here come da judge’, discussion of sin and judgment is renewed. Young again equates God’s love for all people with a human father’s love for each of his children. One doesn’t have more or less love for any one of your children, you love them equally, despite their differences and failings. When you think of each individually, you’re ‘especially fond of each’. Their ‘sins’ don’t change your love for them. This analogy is compellingly developed in order to correct the view of God that sees Him delighting to send people to hell. Sophia, a figure representing Wisdom commands Mack:

“You must choose two of your children to spend eternity in God’s new heavens and new earth, but only two… and you must choose three of your children to spend eternity in hell.”

At this, Mack understandably expresses disbelief and panic.

Sophia: “I am only asking you to do something that you believe God does.”

This triggers in Mack an internal dialogue in which he realises that, while he always assumed God would be able to send people to hell, he finds it impossible to conceive of sending someone there who he cares about. Surely this is impossible for God, the book seems to suggest, whose love for everyone is deeper and more intimate than ours even for our own children?

Sophia: “So you suppose that God does this easily, but you cannot?”

Sophia insists that he choose which of his children to condemn. Mack thinks:

“How could God ask him to choose among his own children? There was no way he could sentence [one of his own] children to hell just because she sinned against him. Even if [they] committed some heinous crime, he still wouldn’t do it. He couldn’t! For him, it wasn’t about their performance; it was about his love for them.”

The breakthrough comes when Mack offers to go to hell in their place, and Sophia congratulates him for finally understanding judgment. Right judgment is judging everybody

“worthy of love, even if it costs you everything. That is how Jesus loves” (pages 162-163).

This chapter is moving and convincing, and as a father, it’s hard to argue with the idea that condemning a beloved child to hell would be impossible. However, as a parable to explain God’s judgment, it is seriously mistaken. The analogy between human fathers and God the Father fails for a few reasons.

Firstly, it ignores the reasons behind God’s insistence that He is the one who must avenge, and not us. God is able to judge impartially and justly, whereas we are biased and tend towards revenge rather than justice. Of any relationship, the human parent-child relationship is perhaps the most biased, a bias that is good for the survival of the child, but not good for justice. How many parents believe that their child is a genius, or will believe their child’s innocence even over the witness of a teacher? Furthermore, human judgment is severely limited by our inability to see the total consequences of our behaviour, and especially the true nature of sin. The fact that we are sinful as judges, and the fact that we are unable to perceive the true extent of our sins against our perfect creator, means that we tend to imagine our sins to be minor blemishes of no real significance. Every indication in scripture is to the opposite. When Isaiah is shown God’s holiness, he passes his own death sentence for his sinful lips (Is. 6:5). Later in his prophecy, God reveals that even the good works of rebellious people are as offensive as (literally) used menstrual cloths (Is. 64:6).

This diminished view of sin is the second problem evident in Young’s analogy. Mack cannot conceive of punishing his daughter “just because she sinned against him”. Even heinous sins are apparently not worthy of punishment. I find this hard to believe. If we imagine that the child in question had repeatedly raped and tortured another of your sweet young children, eventually killing her, could you really be a loving father if you decided to ignore the crime? You may indeed even continue loving the murderous child (as God surely does), but would you consider just punishment out of order for this child, and opposed to that love? How much more then, must hell (whatever the nature of the place ends up being) be both a place of God’s just punishment of deserving sinners, and yet also in keeping with his love?

The third problem with the scenario is that God’s love isn’t based upon our performance, but judgment is(e.g. Pr. 24:12; Ro. 2:6). Young sneakily forces us to choose whether we believe that God is characterised by love or by judgment by jamming the two ideas together. Yet, there is no reason to set love over and against punishment. A father disciplines those he loves.

Finally, Mack is considered to have understood Jesus’ love when he offers to go in the place of his children, because Jesus-like love “costs you everything”. Again, this is true, but not in the way that Young applies it. Jesus-like love does cost everything, but Jesus’ self-sacrifice does not exempt people from judgment by showing us all worthy of love. Jesus goes to the cross so that He can go under the penalty of God’s judgment and God’s outpoured wrath that we deserve. A just God cannot leave sin unpunished and choose simply to ‘love’ instead. Only by punishing sins in Christ can God be both just (satisfying His wrath) and also the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). Judgment is much, much more than ‘judging someone worthy of love’.

Young claims in interviews that he is not a universalist, but that he’s only restating what is clear from scripture about our salvation. There are indeed a number of statements in the book that do not fit well with most kinds of universalism, as Young is clear that salvation is only possible through Christ. Precisely what he means to teach on this matter is not clear, as the passages about salvation suffer from ambiguity more than most. It seems to me that The Shack is opposed to the idea that God will condemn anyone, which is the overwhelming message in the ‘Here Comes Da Judge’ chapter, and Young clearly states that Christ’s death has fully reconciled the world to God. As we shall see, it is impossible to know exactly what he means us to understand here, but it’s hard to see how one can hold to categories such as ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’ under Young’s teaching.

Universalism & Religion
One of the key passages in matters of salvation comes on page 182:

Jesus: “Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian… Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists, Muslims… I do not desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.”
Mack: “Does that mean that all roads will lead to you?
Jesus: “Not at all. Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.”

The idea that Jesus was not a Christian is a well-worn favourite of postmoderns who despise systems and ‘outgrouping’. It’s supposed to be an enlightening line (judging by Mack’s response in the book, which is not quoted above), but what precisely does it enlighten? Is it supposed to indicate that Jesus doesn’t approve of any of church history up ’til now? That we got it all wrong having elders and preachers and formal meetings, despite the fact that all of these were clearly part of the Apostolic conception of ‘church’?

What does Young mean that Jesus doesn’t desire that people of other faiths become Christian? He says they ‘were’ Buddhists etc., but what are they now? ‘Brothers and sisters’ is no answer at all, because that is clearly true of teaching about the church (i.e. the gathering of brothers and sisters) in scripture, and giving a group a new name doesn’t change the group itself.

What does it mean that Jesus joins us in our transformation? What does it mean actually when a road leads ‘nowhere’? Or that Jesus will ‘travel any road to find us’? Mack poses the direct question about universalism (all roads leading to Christ), and even though the answer is ‘no’, Young still hasn’t given a clear answer. All roads don’t lead to Christ, but Christ nevertheless finds us on every road and doesn’t care too much whether we join ‘Christianity’. Is this really any different to universalism?

I can’t help but feel that Young is deliberately avoiding clarity here, in true postmodern fashion, so that the reader can have the room to respond in whatever manner comforts him.

Universalism & the Cross
A second important issue is raised on page 192:

Papa: “Honey, you asked me what Jesus accomplished on the cross; so now listen to me carefully; through his death and resurrection, I am now fully reconciled to the world.”
Mack: “The whole world? You mean those who believe in you, right?”
Papa: “The whole world, Mack. All I’m telling you is that reconciliation is a two-way street, and I have done my part, totally, completely, finally. It’s not the nature of love to force a relationship, but it is the nature of love to open the way.”

Here is another instance of sublime reader-response material. It is impossible to know from this exchange exactly what Young means. Look at how the material fails to clearly answer its own question:

Papa’s first statement is supposed to be the ‘big reveal’, explaining the extent of Christ’s work. Bear in mind that ‘reconciliation’ is relationship language. In other words, when Papa says that He is fully reconciled to the world, in English it means that the relationship between God and man was perfectly restored by the cross. If one were to say, “At last! I have been reconciled to my estranged son!” it would be a lie if your son wasn’t aware of it. As it stands, Papa’s is a universalistic statement. He is, of course, probably trying to restate Romans 5, which is a favourite of universalists too, but Romans 5 is only claiming that the cross surpasses Adam’s sin in power, and in principle has the power to extend to all men and over all sin. The fact that not all people are automatically so covered is well attested to throughout scripture, such as Romans 3:26.

Mack’s response asks for clarification. He wants to know whether Papa really means the whole world, or whether reconciliation belongs only to those of faith. In other words, aren’t the benefits of the gospel only extended to those who believe? Isn’t relationship only restored once we have trusted in Jesus? If Young were really not a universalist, the answer would have to follow the likes of Romans 3:26 in saying that justification (and the reconciliation that follows this) is dependent upon faith. A universalist believes by contrast that Christ’s death has reconciled the world totally and in spite of itself.

Mack effectively asks for Papa to be clear whether salvation is universal or not, and Papa’s answer is that reconciliation has been effected for the whole world already. This would be universalism if it stopped there, but the rest of the statement shows that Papa probably doesn’t know what reconciliation means. It is indeed a ‘two-way street’, which is exactly why it is impossible to conceive of one-sided reconciliation. Yet this is what Papa then says, “I have done my part, totally, completely, finally”. You can’t consider yourself reconciled to someone who hates you. It’s nonsense.

So, between some universalistic statements, Young leaves a hint that people still have to do their part. The fact that hell and judgment seem to have no place in Young’s theology makes his claim not to be a universalist seem somewhat hollow. Whatever he believes is not too important (except for him). The most important thing is that the reader is given half-formed ideas that promise clarity (Mack asks for it on both occasions) and instead supply confusion. Perhaps the gospel isn’t meant to be hammered into postmodern moulds.

Universalism & the law
Young makes an extremely patchy analysis of the role of the law in the Christian life. Again, the ambiguity in the discussion makes it open to broad and easy misunderstanding, and in the final analysis, Young’s cynicism towards expectation and judgment leads to an inevitable conclusion that God has no requirements of us.

Sarayu: Jesus laid the demand of the Law to rest; it no longer has any power to accuse or command. Jesus is both its promise and its fulfilment.”
Mack: “Are you saying I don’t have to follow the rules?”
Sarayu: “Yes. In Jesus you are not under any law. All things are lawful… Trying to keep the law is actually a declaration of independence, a way of keeping control… [law-keeping mentality] grants you the power to judge others and feel superior to them… Enforcing rules, especially in its more subtle expressions like responsibility and expectation, is a vain attempt to create certainty out of uncertainty…”
Mack: “Whoa! … Are you telling me that responsibility and expectation are just another form of rules that we are no longer under? Did I hear you right?”
Papa: “Yup.” (Pg 203)

As a postmodernist first-and-foremost, Young is unsurprisingly ill disposed to ideas of law, because law also means the possibility of transgression and therefore punishment. All of this smacks of systems, organisation and power plays: postmodern swearwords.

Immediately prior to this quote, Young does a first-rate job of explaining that the law functions like a mirror to reveal our sinfulness, that we are unable to keep it, and that the Spirit indwells the believer in order to fulfil the law in us. He also makes it clear that this promise of law-laid-aside is void if we attempt to live life independently of Jesus. This certainly is an idea that is seemingly opposed to universalism, although it is never developed, and he never explains the implications of a life in rebellion against Christ. Having already said that sin is its own punishment, are we to assume that this is the end of it? On page 227, Papa says of Missy’s murderer, “my love will burn from his life every vestige of corruption… you [Mack] may well know this man in a different context one day”. Masterfully vague again, if this refers to an afterlife event at all, ‘hell’ is much the same as the usual concept of purgatory. Mack ‘may well’ meet the man (presumably) in heaven, but it is unclear what precisely this means or what the alternative is.

Young would no doubt claim that his discussion of the law is merely a paraphrase of scripture (e.g. ‘You are no longer under law, but under grace’), and the first line of the dialogue does so passably well, as long as the Torah (Jewish national law) is in view. Jesus is indeed its promise and fulfilment, and through the death of Christ, the death penalty has been paid on our behalf, freeing believers from any further legal condemnation.

Unfortunately, Mack’s clarification question forces the discussion into the domain of rules of any kind. The Spirit responds that Christians are free from any laws, rules, responsibilities and expectations. For a Christian, this is half true. It is true that none of these hold us in slavery and under death any longer. However, it is not at all true that we are no longer bound to any laws and responsibilities. Consider what scripture says:

“I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:18-20).

In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does not downgrade the law in the slightest. In fact, he intensifies it so that it is understood to rule the heart, not just the behaviour. Of course, we cannot interpret this passage in opposition to what Paul says about the law, and all the Apostles were adamant that the law did not apply in the same way to us that it did to national Israel. Nevertheless, this passage makes it clear that there is an expectation upon us to keep the spirit of God’s law from the heart. This is because the law does more than reveal our sin. It also reveals God’s character. “Be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44-45 etc.).

“…Command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work — which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. We know that the law is good if one uses it properly” (1Ti. 1:3-8).

Paul is the one who most readily claims that the law has been set aside, and the line ‘all things are lawful’ is his (although possibly taken from Corinthian theology, and quoted to indicate his disagreement with the sentiment). However, in this quote, God warns us to be cautious in the way that we deal with the law, because if we don’t know what we’re talking about, we’re in danger of becoming false teachers. He also affirms that the law is good if used properly, which he’ll later explain in broader, more positive terms than conviction of sin (2Ti. 3:15f).

In Young’s discussion, Sarayu (the Spirit character) also protests that law keeping ‘grants you the power to judge others’. I agree that legalism is an attempt at controlling what belongs to God, but law keeping is not wrong for the postmodern reason given here. In fact, in complete contrast to Young’s opinions, God commends and commands judgment of sin in the church in 1Co. 5:1-13:

“Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? … And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present… But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.'”

Enforcing rules is not ‘a vain attempt at creating certainty’. It is a clear Biblical command in order to preserve the holiness of God’s community.

Young goes on to say:

Sarayu: “Let’s use your two words: responsibility and expectation. Before your words became nouns, they were first my words, nouns with movement and experience buried inside of them; the ability to respond and expectancy. My words are alive and dynamic – full of life and possibility; yours are dead, full of fear and judgement. That is why you won’t find the word responsibility in the scriptures… Religion must use law to empower itself and control the people who they need in order to survive… If I simply gave you a responsibility, I would not have to be with you at all. It would now be a task to perform, an obligation to be met, something to fail.” (Pg. 204)

Papa: “Honey, I’ve never placed an expectation on you or anyone else… Why would I have an expectation other than what I already know? That would be foolish. And beyond that, because I have no expectations, you never disappoint me.” (Pg. 206)

Young once again confuses issues in these quotes, thereby giving the impression that God does not have requirements or expectations of us.

In the first quote, he makes out as though law is an invention of ‘religion’ so that it can gain power to control and exploit people. No doubt, religions (in so far as they are false) do this. However, it ignores the fact that God is the lawgiver, not some impersonal machine called religion. The law in both Old Testament and New is summarised by love for God and love for neighbour, and Jeremiah 31:31f says that the law is written on our hearts, but not that it was a mistake.

Young confuses the issue by saying, ‘If I simply gave you a responsibility, I would not have to be with you at all.’ Having polarised the discussion into radical extremes (either God or responsibility), the choice of God-with-us is the only real option. However, there is no reason to suppose that these are alternatives. We have many responsibilities in scripture (not least to repel false teaching), and God promises to be with us until the end of the age too. Why should these be mutually exclusive?

In the second quote, Young tries to dismiss the idea that God has expectations of us by setting expectation at odds with God’s omniscience (His ability to see our hearts and the future). Unfortunately, Young is mixing up two uses of the word expectation. ‘Expectation’ can mean ‘something looked forward to, whether feared or hoped for’ (Collins). God’s omniscience means that He never lives in this state, because He knows and determines the future. He will not be surprised or let down. However, when we say that God has expectations of His people, we do not mean this kind of expectation. We mean that God has decided ‘that something is requisite, necessary or required’ (Collins). This kind of expectation is not affected by God’s omniscience, because although He knows our weakness and propensity to disobedience, He still commands us, both in the OT and NT. So He does indeed have these expectations, and we certainly do disappoint God when we disobey.

So, Young again introduces confusion at a place where clarity is desperately needed. The result is a concept of a God who makes no demands, has no expectations and is never disappointed in anybody. Young may not call himself a universalist, and what he is exactly is never made clear. But his teaching about judgment and salvation is so vague and affirming that it is closer to universalism than it is to Biblical faith. At the very least, Young has happily stripped the gospel of the kind of radical call that saw Jesus refusing to accept a promising disciple who was only willing to share Christ with his love for his money (Mark 10; cf. Luke 14:26, 28, 34).

The Shack has impressed many Christians, and not without reason. The church is always prone to becoming cold and formal, devoid of life. In the place of dead orthodoxy, The Shack provides a vision of a God who is real, personal, loving and involved, infinitely patient and caring; a vision that has fanned into flame dormant embers of devotion in the lives of many.

However, for all its strengths, The Shack exhibits some serious weaknesses that make it dangerous at best, and deadly at worst.

Particularly troubling is Young’s tendency to tear down the God-given safe-guards of scriptural authority and church order, which are both set in place to train us in the knowledge of God and to protect us from destructive false teaching, and to nearly erase clear Biblical teaching about sin, judgment, hell and redemption by means of repentance, faith and obedience. It seems as though Young has a greater commitment to orthodox postmodernism than to orthodox Christianity.

Young makes a comment that is well worth hearing, but perhaps for him as much as anyone else:

“Mackenzie, I am what some would say ‘holy, and wholly other than you’. The problem is that many folks try to grasp some sense of who I am by taking the best version of themselves, projecting that to the nth degree, factoring in all the goodness they can perceive, which often isn’t much, and calling that God. And while it may seem like a noble effort, the truth is it falls pitifully short of who I really am. I’m not merely the best version of you that you can think of. I am far more than that, above and beyond all that you can ask or think” (pg. 98).

I wonder whether The Shack’s concept of God is derived from much the same practice that Young condemns. He might value different attributes of God, such as His kindness and motherliness and passion, but God is more than ever cast into the 21st Century human image; one that has been trimmed of all of God’s actual revelation of Himself that has proven culturally embarrassing, such as wrath, judgement, transcendence, hierarchy, Lordship, fear, and piercing purity. This is not the God from whom the Seraphim hide their faces and their feet. This is not the God so holy that to see Him means death.

Whether Young’s teaching about salvation should be labelled universalist or not is irrelevant. Even in its vague and ambiguous form, it represents a deep erosion of the doctrines that most directly have eternal destinies in the balance. Paul’s words to those who meddled with these matters in Galatia are chilling (Gal. 1), but should not for that reason be softened or dismissed. It is not a trifling thing when gospels other than that of the Apostles are preached, and it is not intolerant or nasty to point these things out. Paul warns of eternal condemnation for those who mislead. If I have erred or been too harsh or failed to understand Young at certain points, I apologise for my ignorance. If his teaching is true and mine false, I look forward to being shown from scripture where my error lies. Given what’s at stake, correcting false teaching, whether it be Young’s or mine or anyone else’s, is the most loving thing that we can do.

Shack Attack 4: Hierarchy & Organised Religion

In postmodern thinking, humanity’s greatest problem, and the greatest source of conflict, is power. A ‘power-play’ is an attempt by one person to gain power over another, whether by means of wealth, position or attempting to convert others to our way of thinking. Christian religion is seen as a major offender, claiming to have the final Truth, seeking to convert the world to its doctrines through dictatorial preaching, insisting that lives and cultures change in its wake, and promoting hierarchies and titles and formal church structures.

For Christianity to become postmodern, it would need to get rid of hierarchies and other unequal relationships, it must stop trying to change and ‘convert’ people as though they are somehow culturally inferior, and preaching of Truth would need to be replaced with mutual dialogue and sharing of stories. An attentive read of The Shack reveals that this is exactly what is happening. Is the postmodernising of Christianity a necessary update? Or what should be the Christian’s attitude to postmodern criticisms of formal church and hierarchical relationships?

The Shack teaches that relationship can only be genuine if there is equality. Relationship is destroyed by inequality of rank or by power. Even God must be down-to-earth, off-beat, a joker, a crier, a pal. How can I have a genuine relationship with God if He’s not like me? Observe the conversation between Mack and the Trinity starting on page 121:

Mack: “Isn’t one of you more the boss of the other two? … I have always thought of God the Father as sort of being the boss and Jesus the one following orders, you know, being obedient… The Spirit always seemed… a free Spirit, but still under the direction of the Father.”

[The Trinity express mock surprise and confusion, as though never having thought of it before.]

Spirit: “Mackenzie, we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command… What you’re seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually this is your problem, not ours.”
Jesus: “It’s one reason why experiencing true relationship is so difficult for you. Once you have a hierarchy, you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it.”

And on page 124, Papa says:

“We created you, the human, to be in face-to-face relationship with us, to join our circle of love.”

So, the first question is whether or not hierarchies exist within God’s person, and then, secondly, whether hierarchy can possibly exist within Godly relationships.

My first quibble with the dialogue on page 121 is that it doesn’t represent a fair comparison. Young claims that a hierarchy immediately requires rules to protect it from abuse, which lead to systems of order that allegedly destroy relationship. In other words, in the presence of sin, hierarchy would lead to tyranny and exploitation. In the place of hierarchies, he is advocating relationship without power struggles, which seemingly would not need rules to protect it, and would require no system of order. However, this might possibly be true of the Godhead, because there is no sin, and therefore no chance of abuse. But is he sure that everyone will always be happy with an equal share? This dialogue entirely avoids proper discussion of whether or not hierarchy is actually to blame for abuse and exploitation, nor does it explore why hierarchy couldn’t work equally well under those same sinless conditions that saw the democratic ‘circle of relationship’ become his ideal.

In classical Greek literature, such as Plato’s Republic, long, careful discussion of the ideal form of government seeks to find what is the happiest form of individual and corporate life. Plato and Aristotle both agree that monarchy, an extreme hierarchy, is the ideal form of government, as long as the monarch is the best of us. If the monarch abuses it, it becomes tyranny, the unhappiest system. The weakest government, however, though the least open to tyranny, is Greek democracy, which, unlike modern democracy, was a flat, anarchical form of government.

How, then, does scripture view this issue? What kind of relationship does scripture teach?

I fully support the view that there is unity and co-equality between the persons of the Godhead, and that obedience within the Godhead is springs from love, not fear. What is unsettled is whether a ‘chain of command’ or even a hierarchy upsets that love, unity and equality. The question of whether there is order in the Godhead depends on two things: Firstly, is the father-son relationship equal or hierarchical (because that is the way God has chosen to describe the relationship that exists)? Secondly, is Jesus God’s Son from eternity, or does sonship describe only the relational role that Christ took on when he took on flesh?

I am not sure that it matters too much whether we are able to answer these questions for certain. For what it’s worth, I do not think that the father-son relationship can be seen other than in terms of hierarchy (especially in God’s case, because it does not indicate that God biologically fathered Jesus; it is being used metaphorically to describe a relationship), and I understand Jesus’ sonship to be eternal. Consider the following verses:

“You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I… the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” (Jn. 14:28-31)

“No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mk. 13:32)

“To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations — ‘He will rule them with an iron sceptre; he will dash them to pieces like pottery’ — [Psalm 2:9] just as I have received authority from my Father.” (Re. 2:26-27)

The coming of the Spirit is also at the direction of the Father (Jn. 14:16-17; Ac. 5:32) and of the Son (Lk. 24:49). The fact that it is the ascended Jesus who receives authority from his Father in Revelation 2, and that Jesus directs the Spirit from heaven in Luke 24, suggests to me that both Sonship and the Trinitarian giving of orders are part of the eternal relationship.

Whether or not these verses settle the issue of Christ’s eternal sonship is not too important. Even if we assume that ‘sonship’ is only a function of Jesus’ humanity, dozens of passages in scripture teach that the ideal man (Jesus), in ideal relationship with God, enjoyed a hierarchical relationship with Him. If this can be scripturally demonstrated, then we are forced to conclude that hierarchy and order without sin is the best way to relate to God and one another.

So, look at the following scriptures:

  • Jn. 17:1-10 – God sent Jesus, and Jesus’ authority and people are God-given (cf. Mt. 11:27).
  • Mt. 20:23 – the Father determines places of honour in heaven.
  • Mt. 26:39 – Jesus follows God’s will, not his own (cf. Jn. 6:40).
  • Lk. 22:29 – the Father confers Christ’s kingdom on him.
  • Jn. 10:17-18 – “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life — only to take it up again… This command I received from my Father.”
  • Jn. 5:19-30 – the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing. The Father has entrusted all judgment to the Son. As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself (cf. Jn. 6:57; Jn. 8:28; Jn. 12:49-50)

No doubt, there are many things that show a reciprocal relationship between Jesus and God. He remains divine. It is telling, however, that the Father always occupies this place as commander, and Jesus always the place of obedience. This is never reciprocal. So, at the very least, ideal humanity does recognise God’s supremacy, and submits to Him in obedience.

The Shack assumes that power hierarchies are the cause of human conflict and misery. If we were in a ‘circle of relationship’, we’d have no need for rules and conflict. Contrary to postmodern preferences, God is also not ashamed of His power and authority over men. Jesus’ teaching was with authority and power (e.g. Lk. 4:36), and Jesus was given authority over people, notably from our eternal good (Jn. 17:1-2). Jesus urges us to fear God because He has the power to kill the body and throw it into hell (Lk. 12:4-5); and His wrath and power serve to advance His greater glory (Ro. 9:22-24). Finally, worship of God in scripture is based on His glory, power and authority (Jude 25; Re. 4:11). Hierarchy and power in God’s hands are not tools of evil, but rather tools of ultimate, eternal good.

If God is not ashamed of hierarchy, and if power can be a force for good, then how should we think of submission of the ‘lower’ to the ‘higher’ in hierarchies? The Greek word for ‘submit’ literally means ‘to arrange yourself under’, and so the idea of hierarchy is inherent to it. Here are some of the relationships in which submission is commanded:

  • Ro. 13:1-7 – We are to submit to rulers, both because law and order is God-given, and because if respect is owed, it must be paid. “Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (cf. He. 13:17; 1Pe. 2:13-16).
  • 1Co. 16:15-16 – We are to submit to those who have given themselves to church ministry.
  • Ep. 5:21-26 – We are to submit to one another, but this does not mean that everyone submits to everyone (just as when we say ‘They killed one another’, we don’t suggest that everyone we’re talking about dies). It is a request to submit to any authorities that may be over us. Paul goes on to give examples. Wives, submit to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters (but there is no suggestion that this works in reverse too). Paul makes it clear that the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is head of the church. Notably, though, headship is for love and for the benefit of the one who submits (cf. Col. 3:17-19; 1Pe. 3:1-6).
  • 1Co. 14:34-35 – Women should remain silent in the churches, and be in submission. “If they want to enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church”. This may be hard to stomach, but it’s no good pretending the Bible doesn’t say it. Hierarchy is certainly evident here (cf. 1Ti. 2:11-14 – “For Adam was formed first…”
  • He. 5:7-9 – God heard Jesus’ prayers ‘because of his reverent submission’, and ‘learned obedience’, even though he was a Son.
  • Ja. 3:17 – Heavenly wisdom includes submission
  • 1Pe. 3:21-22 – All powers have been placed under the authority and power of Jesus.
  • 1Pe. 5:1-5 The Elders are urged to serve in their leadership, not to lord it over others, the young men are told to submit to them, and all are to be humble, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
  • Ja. 4:7 – James gives us the crux of the matter. Submission to earthly authorities is a picture of willingness to submit to God. “Submit yourselves, then, to God” (cf. He. 12:9-10).

Conversely, rejection of authority is one of the characteristics of corrupt and sinful men (Jude 7-8; 2Pe. 2:9-10). So, we must be cautious about our attitude towards authority structures.

The great postmodern complaint with those in power is that power is easily abused. Scripture recognises that abuse is a great evil, but it does not take the unreasonable step of discarding authority entirely. So, leadership and headship exist, but it matters entirely how one leads. The ideal of leadership is service. Although Jesus is Lord, and demands obedience, he is also called our servant. So, there is hierarchy, but it is hierarchy of an unusual kind. Power is exercised for the benefit of those who are subject to it (cf. Mt. 20: 26-28; Jn. 12:26; Jn. 14:15; 1Pe. 5:1-5 in which elders must serve, and the common call for husbands to give up their lives for their wives).

Perhaps more important than the question of hierarchy, is the question of whether formal religious structures, such as church programmes and professionals, are God’s plan, or a human perversion.

On page 178, Mack says that he can’t believe that the church is like a woman that Jesus is in love with.

Jesus: “Mack, that’s because you’re only seeing the institution, a man-made system. That’s not what I came to build. What I see are people and their lives, a living breathing community of all those who love me, not buildings and programmes… It’s all about relationships and simply sharing a life. What we are doing right now—just doing this—being open and available to others around us. My church is all about people and life is all about relationships.”

Mack expresses relief that church is not ‘a bunch of exhausting work and a long list of demands’, and sitting in endless meetings, but just sharing life. Or consider page 179:

Jesus: “Religious machinery can chew up people! … I don’t create institutions – never have, never will… That’s an occupation for those who want to play God. So no, I’m not too big on religion.”

Once again, the sentiment here is somewhat true. Church is not only institutions and buildings and positions. Church is a community in relationship, certainly, but it is a gathered community, and one that is governed by leaders in authority, and by rules governing conduct. Consider just some of the verses that indicate what the church is to be like, in contrast to the institution-free, ‘just-being-open’ church envisioned by Young.

  • Ac. 20:28-32 – The office of elder / bishop is the doing of the Holy Spirit, and their role is to protect the church from false teaching.
  • 1Co. 5:11-12 – The church is to judge the conduct of those who are part of the community, and expel any Christian who persists in sin and rebellion (cf. 1Co. 6:3-5). There is church discipline.
  • 1Co. 11:17-22 – Christians ‘come together as a church’, which suggests that it is a formal gathering, and in that gathering, there must be unity, and there is a right and wrong way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
  • 1Co. 12:27-31 – In the church, people of certain gifts and offices are appointed by God.
  • 1Co. 14:4-6, 19, 23-35 – Gifts exist primarily for the edification of the church, which suggests that in this meeting, the main point is teaching, but not to the exclusion of other gifts that build up the body. Outsiders who attend church meetings are thus convicted of sin and turn to Christ. As people share insights into the gospel, it is essential that there is order and restraint in the service, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.”
  • 1Co. 16:1-2 – On the first day of every week, which seems to have been the day on which the church met, collection for the church should be set aside.
  • 1Ti. 3:1-15 – There are offices of Elder, Deacon, and (probably) Deaconess in the church. There are a number of qualifications that office-bearers must exhibit.
  • 1Ti. 5:16-18 – The church has welfare structures (that should not be abused), and elders who direct the church, especially in preaching and teaching, are worthy of honour and a working wage from the church.
  • Ac. 15:1-2 – Serious church disputes were adjudicated by the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem.
  • Tit. 1:4-9 – Paul commands Titus to ordain elders of certain qualifications in every town church (cf. Ac. 14:23).
  • Ac. 2:41-47 – There were basic practices that characterised church meetings.
  • He. 10:25 – Christians are warned not to give up meeting together.

So, our God is a God of orders and structures. Church offices, such as eldership, and ‘paid ministry’ do in fact originate in the mind of God, and the church expresses itself by gathering. As much as the postmodernist would like Christianity to be devoid of structure and meetings and expectations, these are quite clearly there, and they exist for our good. Young would have us all being in vague relationships, rather than defining ourselves by titles and structures called Christianity (“Jesus: “Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian…” – Page 182), but Christianity is defined by scripture, and is something worth protecting. Our eternal hope depends on it, and the church is God majestic plan to see our hope realised (Ep. 3:10-11).

Relationship, then, is indeed the centre of God’s plan and purposes for people, but it is a modern assumption that hierarchies are necessarily an impediment to that. It seems to me that God’s plan for us is to give each person his due, but not necessarily to treat each person identically. A hierarchical arrangement of society can be good, as long as we all observe godly character within that structure: and godly character is demonstrated by our Lord, who though divine…

“… did not come to be served, but to serve.”

Young has a final dig at hierarchies and order by criticising the idea that God should be our priority.

206 – Mack: “But don’t you want us to set priorities? You know, God first, followed by whatever?”
Spirit: “The trouble with living by priorities is that it sees everything as a hierarchy, a pyramid… If you put God at the top, what does that really mean and how much [time given, etc.] is enough?”
Papa: “I don’t just want a piece of you and a piece of your life… I want all of you and every part of you and your day.”
[This is followed by the image of a mobile in which God is the centre and everything is connected, and the Spirit moves everything “in an incredible dance of being”].

As true as it is that God wants every part of our life, the call to prioritise and the ‘incredible dance of being’ are in fact different images for much the same idea. The trouble with ‘God connected to everything in a dance of being’ is that people have a tendency to be lazy and presumptuous, even (or perhaps especially) in relationship. If you let a relationship ‘be’ for too long, you might find that you need to prioritise it in order to keep it vital.

Shack Attack 3: God’s Truth

The Shack by William P. Young has been hailed by the likes of Eugene Peterson, and continues to make waves in Christian circles. Should we join the author of The Message in praising its spiritual merits, or are its numerous points of controversy sufficient to make it spiritually dangerous?

A key article of the postmodern faith is ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, which, when translated, means that postmodern culture disbelieves in the claim of any story to Truth-for-everyone. We are all free to name our own personal truths. So, postmodernism dislikes teachers, authorities and demands for obedience. Postmodernism prefers dialogue between equals in which stories can be shared relationally and without compulsion.

When disbelief in Truth finds its way into Christianity, it takes the form of rejection of Christian structures and teachers, especially teachers of the Bible or Christian ‘scholars’; disbelief in the final authority of scripture, which is rather seen as a human document describing relationship between God and man; it and it prefers a direct, unmediated dialogue with God. Postmodern Christianity stops just short of proclaiming God to be our equal, but the God of postmodernism is noticeably devoid of commands, demands and expectations. God wants relationship with people, and so has stripped Himself of the power and ‘otherness’ that (according to postmodernists) would stand in the way of genuine relationship.

Of course, it is gloriously half-true that God is only interested in relationship, rather than people with the right answers in their heads. A living relationship with God is indeed the point, but it is a colossal mistake to imagine that relationship with God can be held in the absence of the terms that God gives for that relationship. Notice how the distrust of Truth works its way out in The Shack.

Young’s ‘modernist’ character in The Shack is Mack’s father. He is a power-hungry, abusive authoritarian who cares about being right, but not about people. On page 107, Mack’s memories of devotions as a family include ‘boring’ exercises in right answers to the same old Bible stories. His father, using the traditional King James Bible, of course, would be drunk and beat him if he gave wrong answers.

Seminaries or Bible colleges also belong to the modernist, authoritarian worldview, according to Young. They are places where ‘answers’ are dispensed, and their Bible is presented as a dead rule-book for life. Mack is a seminary graduate, but looks back on that time with dissatisfaction. When the big revelation of God occurs, he finds that his training was far off the mark:

“None of his old seminary training was helping.” (Pg 91)

By contrast, the postmodern way is one of direct, unmediated relationship with God, unfettered by structures and formal traditions and rituals. Right answers are neither here nor there; it is about experiencing God personally. For example:

“The long ride actually gave us [God and Missy] a chance to talk” (page 173).

“[People and God] are meant to experience this life, your life, together in a dialogue, sharing the journey” (page 175).

Spirit: “Mackenzie, you can always talk to me and I will always be with you, whether you sense my presence or not.” Mack: “I know that now, but how will I hear you?” Spirit: “You will learn to hear my thoughts in yours.” Mack then asks whether God’s voice will be clear so that he won’t make mistakes.
The Spirit answers that he will make mistakes, but will learn to better recognise God’s voice as they grow together in relationship (page 195).

Some of what Young teaches here is helpful (although well-worn territory in Evangelical circles). It is very true that right answers are no use if one has no relationship with God. What is desperately mistaken is the inference that relationship with God is held virtually face-to-face with God and outside of scripture.

To discuss this further, let’s examine the following quote from the book:

“Mack could not escape the desperate possibility that the note might just be from God after all, even if the thought of God passing notes did not fit well with his theological training. In seminary, he’d been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilised, while educated Westerners’ was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one, bound in leather with gilt edges. Or was that guilt edges?” (Pg 65-66)

This latter quote is shot through with cynicism and sarcasm (‘Guilt edges’? Come on!), and more than a few ill-conceived and imbalanced ideas. It raises the following questions that I’d like to examine:

  • Is it a Modernist idea that God communicates via scripture, rather than ‘overtly’? Where does the Bible tell us to expect God’s voice?
  • Has God’s voice been ‘reduced to paper’, and does the insistence on following scripture amount to ‘putting God in a box’?
  • Is insistence on ‘proper interpretation’ the same as mediating and controlling communication from God?

In answering these questions, I will appeal to scripture, which may seem circular, seeing as scripture itself is in question. But what else can claim to be our primary source for Christian belief? It is our only definite source of information regarding the gospel. Non-Christian historical documents mentioning Jesus are only a handful, and even some of their very brief comments about him are under dispute by scholars. So, if we had no Bible, we’d have no Jesus, no Gospel, no God the Father, no anything else.

It’s no good saying that we meet Jesus in the personal testimonies of others, because from where does personal testimony get its knowledge of the gospel? Nor does it help to appeal to direct experience of God, because how do you know it’s God you’ve experienced, and how do you know it’s the Christian God? Both of these appeals beg the question.

So, before we dismiss the Bible as second-rate ‘mediated’ revelation of God, or no longer essential to our faith, we need to see what scripture actually says about itself, and whether it allows us to hold such an opinion.

Young would have us believe that ‘Moderns’ originated the idea that God’s overt communication had stopped and been replaced by ‘paper’. It is certainly true that some people in the Modernist era were scathing of the idea of the supernatural and thought themselves superior to the ‘primitive’ cultures of the past. But such people were therefore also opposed to the idea that scripture was of supernatural origin – another opinion that scripture will not allow Christians to hold.

But the idea that God’s voice is found primarily in scripture was not a Modernist one. In Exodus 20:19, having heard God speak overtly, the Israelites request a mediated word of God, namely, a God-ordained prophet, rather than the direct speech of God. Throughout the Old Testament, this pattern of communication remains the same. God does not speak directly with every Israelite, but via a small group of chosen mediators.

Scripture is very clear that it is of divine character and infallible, for example:

  • Scripture claims to be the very words of God (Romans 2:2)
  • Jesus says, “…the Scripture cannot be broken…” (Jn. 10:35)
  • Peter teaches that Old Testament Prophecy is not of human origin, but is the work of God’s Spirit. (2Pe. 1:20-21)

Furthermore, Jesus was clear that scripture remains relevant for future generations:

  • Jesus was fond of saying of scripture, “It stands written…” (the perfect tense, not the past tense), which implies that what was written in the past continues to ‘stand’ into the future.
  • In Matthew 22:31, Jesus answers a dispute by quoting words that God spoke to Moses. What is interesting is that he says that what is written is God’s speech to the reader! “Have you not read what God said to you…?”

Therefore, scripture itself claims to be God’s Word, and Jesus teaches us that that Word remains God’s speech to us.

One might be tempted to argue that scripture is insufficient, because it cannot address every circumstance that we might face. Paul says that Scripture imparts the wisdom of salvation and thoroughly equips God’s people for good deeds (2Ti. 3:14-17). Perhaps we only doubt the relevance of scripture because we are ignorant of the equipment that it provides, or have yet to learn wisdom?

One might continue to insist that a written document for everyone in history is not the same as a personal relationship. Are you sure? Indeed, it would not be, if we did not have God’s Spirit (who has come to us by means of the gospel we are now being tempted to call insufficient). But do not forget that we do not fully possess every promise of relationship in full measure. We are repeatedly reminded that we have hope, that is, something not yet fulfilled; that we live by faith, not by sight; and finally, ”Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1Co. 13:12).

While God is always with us, it is helpful to think of scripture as one would think of a letter from a loved one during a time of separation (we are called exiles in a foreign land, after all). A letter is deeply relational, though not face-to-face; it is precious and cherished and alive, not a dead word; it is a promise of a perfect relationship to come, though for now there is separation.

Let us not turn up our noses at scripture and ask for something ‘better’ before we have fully
plumbed the depths of the revelation that God has given us.

As we shall see, the consistent expectation in scripture is that God’s Word is heard in scripture. There are instances where God speaks to people (by angels or some other means), but no scriptural expectation that this should be our regular experience. The only passage that I can think of that might cause us to expect ‘overt’ communication from God is John 14:26:

“But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

This passage comes from Jesus’ last words to his disciples, and this promise is often mistakenly applied to every Christian. This cannot be so, because we cannot be reminded of everything that Jesus said to us if we were never present with him in the first place. This applies to the Apostles who were eyewitnesses, and were given the unique task of speaking Jesus’ words after his ascension. This leads me to the next question:

As we have seen, God’s voice on paper is no less God’s voice, and it is not for that reason second rate. It is also true that God is not limited so that He is unable to speak in other means. It might be, however, that God has good reasons for limiting His communication mostly or entirely to the pages of scripture. It seems likely that God speaks in scripture for the unity and protection of the church body.

The Written Word unites
In Ephesians 4, Christian unity springs out of community love and service, which in turn springs out of the ministry of the teaching gifts. It is not doctrine that divides (on the contrary); it is false doctrine that divides. Having access to God’s Word in written form allows us to unite, because we have a written standard by which disputes and divisions can be

The Written Word protects
It is a very persistent theme in scripture that God’s people are under threat from temptation, deception and false teaching. There were always groups teaching variations on the Good News (and any distortion of the Good News is bad news). There were gospels that put legal requirements in the way of grace, or that removed requirements from the gospel altogether and gave people licence to sin. Jesus and the Apostles are abundantly clear that introducing such falsehood into the gospel is Spiritually fatal. For example, the Galatian church is rebuked most harshly for their speedy decent into a false gospel:

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Ga. 1:6-9)

Or consider what Peter says:

Peter calls Paul’s writings God’s wisdom, and “hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore… be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position” (2Pe. 3:15-17). See also Mt. 22:29; Ro. 16:17-18; 1Ti. 4:1-13; 1Co. 15:1-4.

The written word is essential, because without it, the ‘true’ gospel would be a matter of hearsay and opinion. Hence, there is a strong emphasis on making sure that the Apostolic gospel is faithfully recorded and taught:

  • “[An elder] must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers…” (Titus 1:9-10).
  • “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you — guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (2Ti. 1:13-14).
  • “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2Ti. 2:1-2).
  • Notice how the NT writers insist upon the Apostolic gospel (or, if an Apostle is speaking, ‘our’ gospel): Ac. 2:42; 1Co. 15:1-4; 2Th. 2:13-15; 2Th. 3:6.

By contrast, false teachers deceive people by means of clever inventions, novelties and secret heresies, all of which might make the claim to have originated from unmediated communication from God to the teacher:

  • “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up” (Ga. 1:11).
  • “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (2Pe. 1:16).
  • “There will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies… In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up” (2Pe. 2:1-3).

So, even if we go so far as to say that God only communicates via scripture (an extreme that we need not be committed to), we still would not be limiting Him. What we miss out on (face-to-faceness in relationship for now) paves the way for freedom to be secure in unity and in the knowledge of God in the gospel, and not forever in doubt about whether we’re hearing the true Word of God or some false voice. In a world where sin persists, this is an invaluable gift.

Postmoderns don’t believe that someone else’s writing can ever be interpreted correctly, or accurately communicate truth. They believe that the reader brings so much prejudice that it hopelessly colours what is understood. How it is, then, that we are able to understand postmodern writings on this subject is perhaps a question that they can answer for me.

Young seems to share this kind of belief, claiming that an insistence on proper interpretation is an attempt at controlling and restricting what God says.

“…direct communication with God… was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book” (Pg 66).

If there is no such thing as correct interpretation, the alternative is chaos. One is able to invent any number of creative interpretive principles if one bends one’s mind to it. A Korean cult active in our area called The World Mission Society Church of God uses a snatch of Isaiah 34:15, “each with its mate,” as their interpretive key for scripture. Each verse has a ‘mate’ in an arbitrary location in scripture that unlocks its true meaning. Obviously, there is no regard for context or storyline under such conditions, and so the church believes that Christ has returned to Korea, and now salvation comes via the Spirit, whose true name is Our Heavenly Mother.

But scripture itself gives us no room to be postmodern in our attitude to interpretation. On two occasions, Jesus issues stern rebuke to those who interpret one passage in violence to another:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “’He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’“ Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’“ (Mt. 4:5-7).  

This passage illustrates that there is a way of interpreting scripture that is devilish. The fact that scripture is being used in no ways guarantees that God’s Word is being spoken. The Devil is not shy to proof-text his ideas from the Bible. It is only when scripture is interpreted with the meaning for which it was written that God’s voice is heard. Secondly:

“…You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” (Mk. 7:8-13)

In this passage, the Pharisees have established traditions that are based on OT scriptures regarding the seriousness of vows. However, they have interpreted these passages in such a way as to commend a man for dishonouring his parents. Although these traditions are ‘biblical’, Jesus says that they have actually nullified the Word of God.

So, the insistence on proper interpretation does not hinder the Word of God, it prevents it from being destroyed.

Perhaps if more of our churches did insist on proper interpretation, instead of vague moral platitudes and proof-texts for the preacher’s rambling ideas, we’d hear the Word of God from our pulpits more often, and be less inclined to believe that scripture is devoid of God’s voice. It is serious study of scripture and correct handling of the Word of truth that is commended in scripture, and that is befitting of people indwelt by the Spirit of Truth (Acts 17:11; 2Tim. 2:15-18).

Shack Attack 2: God’s Person

The Shack by William P. Young is a surprise NY Times bestseller, launching postmodern Christianity into the public eye. For all the good points of the book, and there are a few (there are some good insights regarding the place of evil and pain in the world, for instance), it is the influence of postmodernism on Christianity that makes this book so culturally appealing, but so spiritually dangerous. Just as modernist thought produced Theological Liberalism, which is so distinct from Biblical Christianity as to be its own religion (cf. G Machen, Christianity & Liberalism), postmodern Christianity is set to be a new but equally troublesome hybrid.


My discussion of The Shack’s problems will, God-willing, take the following form:


                Gender & Trinity

                God’s Speech & Scripture

                Power & Hierarchy

                Open Theism

                God’s Wrath & Judgement


                God in Man’s Image

So, to begin with, the first points of controversy have typically been issues of gender and the presentation of the Trinity.




Papa, the name for God the Father in the book, is presented as an African-American woman. This fact is hard for many conservative readers to stomach, but seeing as Mack, the troubled main character, had an abusive alcoholic father, God as ‘mother’ was a divine tactic to side-step Mack’s misapprehensions about God’s fatherhood.


In terms of the scriptural presentation of God consistently as ‘he’, Young provides the following explanation. He says that God historically revealed Himself as a Father, because in a broken world,


“true fathering would be much more lacking than mothering… an emphasis on fathering is necessary because of the enormity of its absence” (Pg 94).


But if this is the case, one wonders why, when Papa actually does reveal Himself to someone who lacked a true father, he sees it necessary to reveal Himself as a woman? Young seems to be using the same explanation (bad fathering) to justify scripture’s picture of God as Father and Papa’s choice of the motherly figure.


I think that the actual reason for the God of the Bible as ‘male’ (even the Spirit is ‘he’) is that it represents God’s headship over creation. However, this admits hierarchy, which is a postmodern taboo, and so Young rejects it. But more on power and hierarchy in due course.




The doctrine of Trinity is notoriously difficult, and has been vigorously debated throughout Church History. It also consistently fails to be accurately represented by metaphor (whether by triangles, clover-leaves, the triple-point of water, or whatever). Yet this is precisely what Young has attempted by representing the Trinity in three separate beings, and so his image of God necessarily falls short. The creeds urge us to hold God’s oneness and threeness in tension, neither dividing their divine substance (that is, their unity), nor confusing the persons Young has admirably attempted to preserve the distinctness of the persons while always confronting the reader with God’s oneness. Yet there are a few concerns on this matter that are worth noting.


Firstly, on page 31, he tells a legend about Multnomah Falls. It is a Native American story of a princess who kills herself to appease the Great Spirit in order to turn aside a plague. This story is held up as being an echo of the story of the death of Christ, and with this I must heartily disagree. Of course, while there are similarities, the differences are for more important. In the story, the ‘Great Spirit’ demands appeasement and it is only by the death of an innocent victim that God is pacified. If this is supposed to picture the Christian atonement, it represents a grave misunderstanding of the Trinity. Jesus is not like pagan human sacrifices precisely because he and the God who is to be propitiated are one. Jesus is not a victim, not even a willing victim. Jesus is both God and the mediator between God and man.


To Young’s credit, this misunderstanding is not present elsewhere, but on the other hand, neither is the doctrine of the atonement.


The second Trinity problem occurs on page 96. According to Young, God died on the cross with Jesus, and did not actually leave him. Papa has crucifixion scars too. But ‘Papa’ is not incarnate as Jesus was (and is), and was certainly not bodily present on the cross. Why would God – a spirit – be scarred in His ‘body’? The obvious answer is that Young wishes to illustrate that God the Father and the Son were united in their love for mankind and the lengths to which He’d go to demonstrate that love. However, it is a mistake (and a feature of one of the classical Trinitarian heresies called modalism) to consider the persons of the Trinity interchangeable. It also demonstrates that Young believes that the cross is no more than an illustration of God’s love for people, but not an event in which God pours out His wrath against sin. As we shall see, postmodern Christianity shares with Liberalism a distaste for concepts of wrath and sin altogether.


Finally, on page 99, Papa says,

“When we three spoke ourselves into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human.” This may well be no more than an attempt to assert the unity of the Godhead at a point where the three persons appear most distinct (the incarnation). The incarnation is mystifying, because how can a God who is One assume humanity into one of the persons? And how would God actually speak about the incarnation in terms of His unity? I’m fairly sure that we don’t have the answers to these questions. I am equally sure that the solution is not to think of God’s three persons as all being incarnate, which is what this quote seems to me to be saying.  


What concerns me further is that this might not be simply an attempt at asserting God’s unity. Young regularly attempts to have a ‘fully human’ God, suggesting that He has willingly humbled Himself to our level in order to relate to us on equal footing, without a hierarchical power relationship. This idea will be discussed further under the topic of Open Theism in The Shack.


Shack Attack 1: Cautionary Tales

The Shack by William P. Young is the latest Christian success story, currently at no.1 on the New York Times bestseller list, where it has been since June 8.There is a certain kind of person that is suspicious of success and seeks always to tear down what has been raised high. They’re usually called British. A fair proportion of British blood courses through my veins, as does such suspicion. However, with The Shack, and as an evangelical Christian, I feel this suspicion is justified. So, for the next few weeks, I will feature some criticisms of the theological pitfalls and half-truths that make this book so friendly to postmodern ears, and dangerous to the gospel.

The Shack is a well-written novel, and many of its insights are helpful and encouraging. In fact, given that it is ‘merely’ fiction, and emotive, devotional fiction that encourages deeper spirituality, criticism of the book will probably seem mean-spirited. However, let’s not make the same mistake that was made when The Simpsons first aired. Because The Simpsons is animated, people mistakenly assumed that it was intended for children, when its themes and approach made it far more suited to a young-adult audience. So, it was misunderstood and unnecessarily protested (its staggering drop in quality since 2001 is in fact reason for us to protest it, but that’s another story). The mistake that Christians will make about The Shack is to assume that because it is fiction, it is not theology.

The Shack is part of the postmodern Christian school, following in the footsteps of Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian. In postmodern thinking, monologue is the enemy, and story is the primary means of communication of ideas. Thus, the way in which postmodern theologians teach theology and persuade their students is by means of stories, not direct statements of belief. Stories are terrific teaching tools, as Jesus himself exemplified, but they have as many weaknesses as strengths. Stories admit a number of problems for the pupil sitting under postmodern teaching:

Problem #1: Story is manipulative
In contrast to orthodox evangelicals, postmodernist Christians believe that there is no objective Truth; that scripture is at best ideas about truth on the same level as anyone else’s ideas; and that authority and judgement and conflict are great evils that have no place in Christianity. A teacher-student relationship is hierarchical and presupposes power of one over another, and so is rejected. Ideas of ‘orthodoxy’ lead to conflict and attempts to gain power over people, and so orthodoxy is rejected.

The strange thing is that postmodern Christianity still teaches, and it has some key beliefs that do form a kind of orthodoxy. For example, a God of wrath definitely has no place in its theology. Those of us who do believe in God’s wrath are called outdated ‘modernists’, or nice words for ‘bigot’. However, the way in which this theology is communicated in story form ends up being heavily emotive and manipulative, and therefore no less a ‘power play’ than traditional teaching methods. If traditional teaching is too much like open conflict, then postmodern story amounts to espionage or sabotage, so that the enemy is disarmed, but it is no less an attempt at conquest. For example, a ‘modernist’ would engage in debate, defending his own teaching, and giving reasons why his opponent is incorrect. The postmodernist Christian novel never debates or appeals to reason directly. To persuade, the author creates a pretentious, despicable character to represent the opponent’s view, and an honourable, loveable, misunderstood, flawed-but-honest character to represent his own view. In so doing, the reader trusts the hero whatever he speaks, and dismisses the villain regardless of the truth of his words. The victory is won through emotion, not reason.

Problem #2: Story is ambiguous
A second problem is that, due to its inherent complications and ambiguities, story is extremely difficult to analyse. If the author provides too few guiding comments, the reader is unable to know for sure whether certain ideas should be accepted or treated with reservation, particularly if they are spoken by a flawed or developing character.

For example, in The Shack, even though the author does provide lengthy explanation, many people still trip over the representation of God the Father as a black woman.

Or, take this for example. The main character, Mack, receives a note in the post box signed ‘Papa’, which is his wife’s favourite name for God. He says, ‘I guess part of me would like to believe that God would care enough about me to send a note,’ (page 71). We’re left to guess whether the author is suggesting that this is a legitimate expression of God’s care. Is the book a fantasy story in which such things belong to a fictional universe? Is it just the rambling of a misguided character? Or should I be led to believe that the Christian life ought to be a supernatural, experiential relationship with God in which things of this order happen?

Problem #3: Story is subjective
The third major problem with story, especially postmodern story, is that it doesn’t insist that the reader should understand something particular and important, or that the reader should respond in a certain way. Postmodernists aren’t interested in being interpreted ‘correctly’, but rather that the reader gets something from it that is important to him. They call it ‘reader response’. So, in massive contrast to scripture that calls false teachers and any deviation from the original gospel fatal (cf. Matt. 7:15-29; Gal. 1:6-8), postmodern stories purposefully allow the reader to filter and select, and to draw whatever conclusion he likes.

So, if we as Bible-believing Christians are to assess postmodern theology well, we have to become adept students of fiction, and alive to the strengths and weaknesses of story.

Appendix: The Bible and Story
One might well object that the Bible makes use of story very often. Should we similarly distrust it? Well, the differences between the Bible and a novel are many. The Bible has books that are bald, direct theology that, in contrast to postmodern sensibilities, claim to be Truth and demand obedience. Even the gospel stories themselves contain many theological statements and other guiding comments from the author that would prevent us making unfettered subjective responses.

For more on postmodern Christianity, see my lengthy critique of A New Kind of Christian (