The Shack, review by William Paul Young PDF Print E-mail
Book Review
The Shack
By William Paul Young
Seldom does one have the opportunity to review a work of fiction written by a friend that has risen to the
top of best seller lists. Recently The Shack has been approaching sales of one million copies. There is even
talk about making the book into a movie. But while the novel breaks sales records, it also breaks with the
traditional understanding of God and Christian theology. And therein lies the rub. Does a work of Christian
fiction have to be doctrinally correct?
From the viewpoint of the plot, the story is quite common. The book is the fictional retelling by Willie of
the story of his friend, Mackenzie Phillips, who has been estranged from God for several years. His past
experiences under an abusive father leave him bitter toward God, the Bible, and the ministry. When his
youngest daughter is kidnapped and brutally killed in a mountain shack, Mack’s anger freezes his total
outlook in sadness and despair. Then one day he returns to the shack and encounters the Trinity in the
form of a large African woman (“Papa” =the Father), a Jewish carpenter (=Jesus Christ), and a small
Asian woman by the name Sarayu (=the Holy Spirit). By their discourses with Mack these three lead him
on a mythical journey to discover a fresh meaning of God’s love and forgiveness.
Who is the author? William P. Young, a man I have known for over a dozen years. About four years ago
Paul embraced “Christian universalism,” and has defended this view on several occasions. While he
frequently disavows “general universalism,” the idea that many roads lead to God, he has affirmed his
hope that all will be reconciled to God either this side of death or after death.
Christian universalism (also known as universal reconciliation) asserts that love is the supreme attribute of
God that trumps all others. His love reaches beyond the grave to save all those who refuse Christ
throughout their lifetimes. Even fallen angels, and the Devil himself, will one day repent, be delivered from
hell enter heaven. There cannot be left in the universe any being whom the love of God does not conquer;
hence the words, universal reconciliation. This view of future destinies claims many texts that seem to
assert that the reconciliation Jesus accomplished on the cross extends to all creatures (Rom. 5:18; 2 Cor.
5:16-20; Col. 1:19-20), that all universally will confess him as Lord (Phil. 2:6-11), and that God’s desire
that all be saved (1 Tim. 2:4) will be accomplished. Nothing can thwart God’s will and love.
On current web sites the editors of The Shack indicate that they worked with the book for over a year. The
editors went through and eliminated, they claim, the universalism as defined above. Yet a careful reading
shows that The Shack rests on the foundation of universal reconciliation. This is not unexpected when the
author (in his “Acknowledgments”) cites many writers who have influenced him, several of which are
Many others have pointed out the theological errors they find in the book. They fault Young’s view of
revelation and the Bible, his presentation of God, the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ death and the meaning of
reconciliation, and the subversion of institutions that God has ordered, such as the government and the
local church. But the common thread tying all these errors together is Christian universalism. A study of
the history of universal reconciliation that goes back as early as the third century shows that all of these
doctrinal deviations, including opposition to the local church, are characteristic of universalism. In modern
times it has undermined evangelical faith in Europe and America. It has joined with Unitarianism to form
the Unitarian-Universalist church.
By comparing the creeds of universalism with a careful reading of The Shack one discovers how deeply
universalism is embedded within the book. Here is the evidence in brief:
1) The universalist creed of 1899 affirmed that “there is one God whose nature is love.” Young
asserts that God “cannot act apart from love” (p. 102), and that God purposes what he does
always as an expression of love (p. 191);
2) There is no eternal punishment for sin. The creed of 1899 again asserts that God “will finally
restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.” Similarly, Young denies that Papa
(God) “pours out wrath and throws people” into hell. God does not punish sin; it’s his “joy to cure
it” (p. 120). Papa “redeems” final judgment (p. 127). God will not “condemn most to an eternity of
torment, away from his presence and apart from his love” (p. 162);
3) There is an incomplete picture of the enormity of sin and evil. Satan as the great deceiver and
instigator of the temptation to sin goes unmentioned in Young’s discussion of the fall (pp. 134-
4) There is a subjugation of God’s justice to his love—a central tenet of universalism. The creed of
1878 asserts that God’s attribute of justice is “born of love and limited by love.” Young affirms that
God chose “the way of the cross where mercy triumphs over justice because of love,” and that this
is a better way than that God should have exercised justice (pp. 164-165);
5) There is great error in the portrayal of the Trinity. Young asserts that the whole Trinity became
incarnate as the Son of God, and the whole Trinity was crucified (p. 99). Both Jesus and Papa
(God) bear the marks of crucifixion in their hands (contra. Isa. 53:4-10). Young’s error leads to
modalism, that God is singular and at different times assumes the different modes of Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit, a heresy condemned by the early church. Young also makes God into a goddess;
moreover, he breaks the second commandment by imaging God the Father as a person;
6) Reconciliation is effective for all without exercising faith. Papa asserts that he is reconciled to
the whole world, not just to those who believe (p. 192). The creeds of universalism, both of 1878
and 1899, never mention faith;
7) There is no future judgment. God will never force his will on anyone, even in his capacity as
judge, for this is contrary to love (p. 145). God submits to humans, and humans submit to God in a
“circle of relationship”;
8) All are equally children of God and loved equally by him (p. 155-156). In a future revolution of “love
and kindness” all people out of love will confess Jesus as Lord (p. 248).
9) The institution of the church is rejected as diabolical. Jesus claims that he “never has, never
will” create institutions (p. 178). Evangelical churches are an obstacle to universalism.
10) Finally, the Bible is discounted in this novel. It is a book of guilt rather than hope,
encouragement, and revelation.
Near the beginning of this review I raised the question: “Does a work of fiction have to be doctrinally
correct?” In this case the answer is yes, for Young is deliberately theological. The fiction serves the
theology, not vice-versa. Another question is: “Do not the good points of the novel outweigh the bad?”
Again, if one uses doctrinal impurity to teach how to be restored to God, the end result is that one is not
restored in a biblical way to the God of the Bible. Finally, one may ask: “Could not this book lay the
foundation for seeking a growing relationship with God based in the Bible?” Of course, this may be
possible. But in light of the errors the potential for going astray is as great as the potential for growth.
Young offers no direction regarding spiritual growth. He discounts the Bible and the institutional church
with its ordinances. If one finds a deeper relationship with God that reflects biblical fidelity it will be in
spite of The Shack and not because of it.
Young has written a creative, provocative novel. Unfortunately, its creativity strays from an evangelical
understanding of core doctrines. In the sixth century the church of Jesus Christ called universal
reconciliation heresy, and it has treated this belief as such ever since.
James B. DeYoung, Th.D., is Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western
Seminary, where he has taught for over thirty years.
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