Continuing on from my first article assessing the highly popular novel, The Shack, and other people’s viewpoints in regards to the book, I will now consider the claims from some Christians that the book and its author, William Paul Young, demonstrate a lack of justice in God’s character, a lack of God’s sovereignty and the doctrine of open theism.
Lack of Justice in God’s Character
In looking to point out The Shack’s deficient view of God’s justice, most will point to the conversation below between Mack and Papa, found about mid-way through the book:
“But if you are God, aren’t you the one spilling out great bowls of wrath and throwing people into a burning lake of fire?” Mack could feel his deep anger emerging again, pushing out the questions in front of it, and he was a little chagrinned at his own lack of self-control. But he asked anyway, “Honestly, don’t you enjoy punishing those who disappoint you?” At that, Papa stopped her preparations and turned toward Mack. He could see a deep sadness in her eyes. “I am not who you think I am, Mackenzie. 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.” (p119-120)
Specifically, I am sure the words, ‘I don’t need to punish people for sin,’ cause problems for many astute theologians. But again, I think these words must be considered in the whole of the context of the conversation, and also within the main purpose of Young’s writing of The Shack.
First of all, it seems, in the specific context of the words above, that Papa (or Young) is looking to eradicate the overtly grotesque image of God as the great sinner-stomper in the clouds. I don’t think Young was trying to intrinsically teach that God is not just. For me, that seems to read a lot into a couple paragraphs. Rather, it seems pretty evident that Young was trying to swing the pendulum away from the depiction of God that many gather from only reading certain portions of the Old Testament. Please believe me when I say I am not trying to negate the Old Testament as God’s revelation. It is definitely part of His revelation. But that’s just it – it is only part of the story, and a small portion of the whole of Scripture. For the one who simply undertakes a reading of something like Joshua or Judges, especially the non-Christian, it leaves a partial picture of God, and it usually is somewhat skewed as well. Thus, I believe Young is trying to contest the idea that God is a really peeved-off, old man in the clouds looking to destroy any and every person.
Not only that, but considering that it seems one of Young’s main purposes in writing The Shack is to present the relational nature of the Triune God, it would only make sense that he would continue to emphasize such throughout the whole of the book. And I do believe that is what William Young is looking to accomplish. Therefore, in keeping with that goal, Papa goes on to state, ‘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.’
From reading these specific words, I can only imagine that Young is also trying to emphasize the restoring and saving nature of God, especially with the words, ‘it’s my joy to cure it [sin].’ Once again, it would be helpful to keep in mind the overall purpose and nature of the book – presenting God as a relational, personal and intimate One, quite contrary to even most Christian religious teaching. Thus, we see Papa underlining the nature of God to make things right.
Not only that, but the statement, ‘It’s not my purpose to punish it [sin],’ could possibly be in reference to temporal punishment for sin. If the author is trying to present the case that God does not presently judge sin prior to a final judgment, then I do believe he is mistaken. One can easily read the Scriptures (both OT and NT) and see that God does, at times, judge existing sin in this world (i.e. the conquest of Canaan, the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians and Judah by the Babylonians, Ananias and Saphira, those in Corinth who brought their selfish motives to the table of the Lord, etc). Thankfully He is abundantly gracious to not judge all sin right now. Yet, I will continue to re-emphasize the main point of the book, that being to communicate that our God is relational at His core. I do not think this necessitates that we overlook truth or teach contrary to truth. Yet, knowing Young’s continued goal of revealing our excessively religious understanding of the divine, I am open to give him the benefit of the doubt, though some would be interested in stoning me for such.
In the end, to take those few words from p119-120 and build a case against Young as one who does not believe in a just God who will punish sin does seem a bit over the top to me. If we reasonably consider things, and especially what seems to be the main purpose of the book in developing a case for the relational nature of the Trinity, I think we can lay at rest the heretical finger pointing that Young holds a problematic and unbiblical view regarding the justice of God.
Lack of God’s Sovereignty
For those who think I am letting Young off the hook too easily, I will let you know in advance that, for me personally, this is probably the biggest problem I have with the book, for I am one who holds to a high view of the sovereignty of God. Yet, I still don’t think this would ever warrant any label as heretic, nor throwing the book out.
I have two specific statements to consider from the book:
“Have you noticed that even though you call me Lord and King, I have never really acted in that capacity with you? I’ve never taken control of your choices or forced you to do anything, even when what you were about to do was destructive or hurtful to yourself and others.” (p145)
“Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.” (p185)
To just do a little theological summary, these words are dealing with what theologians refer to as theodicy. What is theodicy, you ask? It is basically our attempt to reconcile evil in the world with a belief that God is completely good. No doubt, we believe God is all good, or at least I do (see Psalm 16:2; 23:6; 25:8; 34:8; 68:10; 69:16; 145:3; and on and on and on). And I believe He is interested in working everything for the good of those called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28-38). Yet, there is no doubt we struggle with understanding how such a wonderfully good and benevolent God could allow such evil to continue in the world. And might I add that, since every previous generation has been dealing with this same question, I only assume humanity will continue to grapple with such until Christ returns. I will return to these thoughts in just a moment.
In regards to the first quote from p145, many would follow with a great Amen after reading the words, ‘I’ve never taken control of your choices or forced you to do anything, even when what you were about to do was destructive or hurtful to yourself and others.’ For sure, many who lean towards a more reformed (or Calvinistic) view of God’s sovereignty, they have received their fair share of slack from those in the Arminian camp. Historically, many holding to the Calvinistic view have swung the pendulum so far as to almost embrace that human beings are robots in the hand of the Sovereign. Yet, some Arminians (or more semi or full Pelagianists) have swung so far the other side that we, as humans, are actually the only ones in control. Let me first say, that while I do believe God, as the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, can take control of our choices (yes, I lean towards a more reformed view), I don’t embrace fatalism. This is the teaching that emphasizes the subjugation of all events or actions to fate or inevitable predetermination. Fatalism seems to emphasize the robotic nature of humans. While, again, I embrace the sovereignty of God, I do not embrace the idea that we are robots. Rather, I try and hold to what I believe is a more healthy view – that Scripture teaches both. It is a mystery how God can be both sovereign and humans also be responsible for their choices, but I believe the Bible espouses both.
And so, with my more reformed view, I do believe God can ‘take control of our choices’. Yet, remember, I do not and will not embrace a robotic fatalism. Even in the midst of God’s sovereignty over all heaven and earth (and that means our personal choices), I still believe we make choices, hence I made a choice to write these articles on The Shack. I do not know how it all fits together, but I am willing to accept that God can ‘override’ our choices even in the midst of our choices, if that makes sense. For consider these two passages:
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; He [the LORD] turns it wherever he will. (Proverbs 21:1)
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.’ (Romans 9:14-23)
I don’t have time to go into great detail with these passages. But nonetheless, I am only relaying to you that I have a high view for God’s sovereignty amongst His creation. He is the potter, we are the clay, and that is the pure and simple truth. Or, to say it in the words of Paul: ‘But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?’ (Romans 9:20).
Now, picking back up on theodicy, our attempt to reconcile the evil of the world with the belief that God is completely good, I pick up some words from the quote from p185: ‘Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes.’
With such a statement, I do believe the author fails to consider certain Scriptures such as:
…that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things. (Isaiah 45:6-7)
Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it? (Amos 3:6)
The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12)
Also, consider whom it was that sent the angel of death into Egypt to have the firstborn sons put to death. It was the Almighty One – ‘At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock’ (Exodus 12:29). And those three passages above are interesting to consider. Many like to speak of God ‘allowing’ evil, calamity and disaster. But these Scriptures seem to speak of God being the cause. Ouuuch! Our God is not necessarily for the faint-hearted. And, the greatest pointer to God planning and outworking tragedy is in the death of His own Son.
…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:23)
…for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your [God’] hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:27-28)
This is where theodicy hits us, and hits us hard. God, I thought you were good? What is all of this? And if you thought I (Scott) was going to explain this in my article, you have got to be kidding! Again, this is something humanity has dealt with since the Garden, and we will continue to mull it over in our hearts and minds until He returns. And, even then, I am not sure He promises an answer to it.
But the conclusion I have come to in my own heart is this – If God is willing to plan out and ordain the death of His own Son on our behalf, the brutal murder of the One that was with Him from the beginning, the excruciating death and pouring out of the Father’s wrath on the only One who ever lived a blameless life, then I can lay to rest any animosity towards our God who seems to not only allow calamity at time, but orchestrate it. I am sorry if this is not where you find yourself. But I thought it worth sharing my own heart. I wonder sometimes if what we label as ‘bad’ is actually out of our overly sensitive emotional and finite state, or from the eternal and divine perspective? I would guess it is the former.
In all, I do believe that God even orchestrates tragedy, and of course, He would do it for good. But I would encourage us that, since we don’t always have the eternal and divine perspective, that we not go labeling everything that doesn’t help maintain our comfortable, western agenda as evil and bad. Trust me, I do not understand it all, as that is every human’s testimony. But I am still willing to cry with the psalmist:
Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable. (Psalms 145:3)
Yet, once again, bear in mind Young’s purpose in writing the book. For him to make such statements as found on p145 and 185, I can only imagine his purpose was to challenge the overly reformed, Calvinistic box that has been set up that presents humanity as ‘robots in the hands of an angry God’. And, for this, I can actually applaud Young.
Because I spent so much time on the whole idea of God’s sovereignty as presented in The Shack, my hope is to only briefly touch on the theology of open theism, at least for the reader’s sake.
Open theism basically asserts the idea that God is open to influence through prayer and the actions/decisions of humans. God knows everything that has been determined as well as what has not yet been determined, but He is open because of humanities own free will and choice.
Some specific quotes to consider are as follows:
“We have limited ourselves out of respect for you. We are not bring to mind, as it were, our knowledge of your children. As we are listening to you, it is as if this is the first time we have known about them, and we take great delight in seeing them through your eyes.” (p106)
“Because that is what love does,” answered Papa. “Remember, Mackenzie, I don’t wonder what you will do or what choices you will make. I already know. Let’s say for example, I am trying to teach you how not to hide inside of lies, hypothetically of course,” she said with a wink. “And let’s say that I know it will take you forty-seven situation and events before you will actually hear me – that is, before you will hear clearly enough to agree with me and change. So when you don’t hear me the first time, I’m not frustrated or disappointed, I’m thrilled. Only forty-six more times to go. And that first time will be a building block to construct a bridge of healing that one day – that today – you will walk across.” (p187)
You already know my thoughts on the sovereignty of God. I have a very high view. Open theism is somewhat of an Arminian, or even Pelagian, attempt at understanding God’s sovereignty and humanity’s responsibility for their choices. Remember, I embrace that God is both sovereign and we have been given the ability to make choices. Yet, I don’t always know how they fit perfectly together. But, I’m sure you do…
Now, it is my understanding that open theism can even lean as far as to say nothing is planned or determined by God because He is completely open to the choices of humanity. Well, I cannot personally embrace such considering the Scriptures quoted earlier, or the whole of the Bible. And I believe God not only knows all, but He has also planned it out. Yet, for me, what I find helpful is when I consider open theism as somewhat helping to explain what theologians might also refer to as anthropomorphisms in Scripture.
Sorry I keep throwing out the big ones, but they need to be discussed. In relation to God, an anthropomorphism is the attempt to attribute human characteristics to God. We actually see this all over Scripture. An example would be:
Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen. (Exodus 33:23)
We know that God, in His essence, does not have a physical body, and therefore does not have a hand, face or back. Jesus said, in John 4:24, ‘God is spirit.’ But here in Exodus, God has revealed Himself to Moses in such a way that He might relate with Moses, and us.
Another example might be prior to the flood:
And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Genesis 6:6)
Holding to a high view of God’s sovereignty, I don’t think humanity’s sin early on in Genesis had caught God off guard. He was well aware of what would take place. But, I believe God designed that His revelation of Himself would come to us in an anthropomorphic way, all that He might relate to us as finite creatures. If God had revealed Himself in all His glory, in all His infiniteness, I think our minds would explode. So, what does God do? He does what Calvin referred to as ‘baby talk’. He stoops to our level so we can have some understanding of Him. It is quite beautiful, for it proves His relational heart towards the crown of His creation, that is us, human beings.
I do believe that God is transcendent and completely other than us. But He has declared it from the mountaintops that He wants a relationship with us. And, so, while I don’t inherently embrace open theism, nor do I know if Young would claim such either, I am ok to see open theism as somewhat of another explanation of God’s revelation being anthropomorphic. They aren’t the same, but I see them as somewhat related. God inspired human beings to record His revelation, and that revelation is presented to us, at times, that God is somewhat like us as humans. But this was done so that He might be somewhat comprehensible and that we could have relationship with Him.
Thus, I do not believe it worthy of disregarding The Shack simply for its lack of a higher view of God’s sovereignty. And, as you tire of my reminders, do keep in mind Young’s main thesis – to convey the relational heart of God. The author has done that, maybe at the expense of having a low view of God’s sovereignty, yet I still don’t think it worth completely discarding the book. There are many things to learn from its pages.
My final article will come in the next couple of days in which I plan to look at the two big accusations against the book – modalsim (or a form of it known as patripassianism), a faulty Trinitarian view in regards to function, and a faulty view of the Father.