The Shack, by William P. Young — reviews and other research resources

This is a collection of research research resources on The Shack, by William P. Young.

The publisher describes the book as follow:

Mackenzie Allen Philips’ youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later in the midst of his Great Sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend.

Against his better judgment he arrives as the shack on a wintry afternoon and walk back into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change Mack’s world forever.

In a world where religion seems to grow increasingly irrelevant The Shack wrestles with the timeless question, Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain? The answers Mack gets will astound you and perhaps transform you as much as it did him. You’ll want everyone you know to read this book.

Millions of readers love the book, with many people reporting that it has made a dramatic emotional impact on them. Some say the story provides a great example on how to handle tragedy, while others claim it confirmed what they already believed. even quotes a hyperbolic statement by Eugene Peterson, Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology, Regent College, Vancouver, B.C., Canada, who proclaims, “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ did for his. It’s that good!”

Most literary critics will likely disagree with the comparison.

More importantly, many Christian theologians and apologists point out that Young’s story — while, perhaps, a good read — is infused with bad theology to such a degree that Christians would do better to pass up on the story.

In her review of The Shack, Marcia Montenegro summarizes the book’s theological problems as follows:

• Portrays God the Father and the Holy Spirit in human form
• Portrays God the Father and the Holy Spirit as female
• States that God the Father and the Holy Spirit incarnated as flesh and blood
• States that God and the Holy Spirit became God the Son
• A demeaning of God’s majesty
• Undermines sin and the price Christ paid on the cross
• Undermines God’s righteous wrath and justice
• Undermines the Bible, the authority and written word of God
• The book’s Jesus character rejects the label “Christian” for those he will “join in their transformation”
• Sophia presented as a real person with divine powers
• Statements reflecting problematic views of Paul Tillich
• Implications of inclusivism
– Source: What’s At The Back of The Shack? A Look At William, P. Young’s The Shackoffsite Marcia Montenegro

Those who point out such problems often find themselves criticized by Christians who either claim theology in a work of fiction does not play an (important) role, or frankly state they agree with Young’s views.

Marcia writes:

Many will say this is fiction and therefore criticisms of Young’s theology in this book are off-limits or irrelevant. But Young is a Christian who places God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as central characters in his book, The Shack. Why insert obvious lessons that Mack, the main character, is learning about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit if we are to assume that God in this book is fantasy or fiction? The characters who represent God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit make speeches and give spiritual information and advice. Without this, there would not be a story. The fact this book has been a bestseller renders its views of God even more significant. No book presenting religious themes and characters should be immune from examination and, if necessary, criticism. Any reader is perfectly warranted by the book itself to critique any problematic theological content.

Albert Mohler, who serves as the ninth president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says “When it comes to The Shack, the really troubling fact is that so many readers are drawn to the theological message of the book, and fail to see how it conflicts with the Bible at so many crucial points. All this reveals a disastrous failure of evangelical discernment.”

He writes:

The publishing world sees very few books reach blockbuster status, but William Paul Young’s The Shack has now exceeded even that. The book, originally self-published by Young and two friends, has now sold more than 10 million copies and has been translated into over thirty languages. It is now one of the best-selling paperback books of all time, and its readers are enthusiastic.

According to Young, the book was originally written for his own children. In essence, it can be described as a narrative theodicy — an attempt to answer the question of evil and the character of God by means of a story. In this story, the main character is grieving the brutal kidnapping and murder of his seven-year-old daughter when he receives what turns out to be a summons from God to meet him in the very shack where the man’s daughter had been murdered.

In the shack, “Mack” meets the divine Trinity as “Papa,” an African-American woman; Jesus, a Jewish carpenter; and “Sarayu,” an Asian woman who is revealed to be the Holy Spirit. The book is mainly a series of dialogues between Mack, Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu. Those conversations reveal God to be very different than the God of the Bible. “Papa” is absolutely non-judgmental, and seems most determined to affirm that all humanity is already redeemed.

The theology of The Shack is not incidental to the story. Indeed, at most points the narrative seems mainly to serve as a structure for the dialogues. And the dialogues reveal a theology that is unconventional at best, and undoubtedly heretical in certain respects.

While the literary device of an unconventional “trinity” of divine persons is itself sub-biblical and dangerous, the theological explanations are worse.

The most controversial aspects of The Shack’s message have revolved around questions of universalism, universal redemption, and ultimate reconciliation.

James B. DeYoung of Western Theological Seminary, a New Testament scholar who has known William Young for years, documents Young’s embrace of a form of “Christian universalism.” The Shack, he concludes, “rests on the foundation of universal reconciliation.”

Even as Wayne Jacobson and others complain of those who identify heresy within The Shack, the fact is that the Christian church has explicitly identified these teachings as just that — heresy. The obvious question is this: How is it that so many evangelical Christians seem to be drawn not only to this story, but to the theology presented in the narrative — a theology at so many points in conflict with evangelical convictions?

Evangelical observers have not been alone in asking this question. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Timothy Beal of Case Western University argues that the popularity of The Shack suggests that evangelicals might be shifting their theology. He cites the “nonbiblical metaphorical models of God” in the book, as well as its “nonhierarchical” model of the Trinity and, most importantly, “its theology of universal salvation.”

In evaluating the book, it must be kept in mind that The Shack is a work of fiction. But it is also a sustained theological argument, and this simply cannot be denied. Any number of notable novels and works of literature have contained aberrant theology, and even heresy. The crucial question is whether the aberrant doctrines are features of the story or the message of the work. When it comes to The Shack, the really troubling fact is that so many readers are drawn to the theological message of the book, and fail to see how it conflicts with the Bible at so many crucial points.

All this reveals a disastrous failure of evangelical discernment. It is hard not to conclude that theological discernment is now a lost art among American evangelicals — and this loss can only lead to theological catastrophe.

The tragedy that evangelicals have lost the art of biblical discernment must be traced to a disastrous loss of biblical knowledge. Discernment cannot survive without doctrine.
– Source: The Shack — The Missing Art of Evangelical Discernmentoffsite, Albert Mohler, Jan. 27, 2010

Leading Christian apologist Norman L. Geisler and Bill Roach point out fourteen problem areas in Young’s theology as presented in The Shack:

The Shack may do well for many in engaging the current culture, but not without compromising Christian truth. The book may be psychologically helpful to many who read it, but it is doctrinally harmful to all who are exposed to it. It has a false understanding of God, the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, the nature of man, the institution of the family and marriage, and the nature of the Gospel. For those not trained in orthodox Christian doctrine, this book is very dangerous. It promises good news for the suffering but undermines the only Good News (the Gospel) about Christ suffering for us. In the final analysis it is only truth that is truly liberating. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). A lie may make one feel better, but only until he discovers the truth. This book falls short on many important Christian doctrines. It promises to transform people’s lives, but it lacks the transforming power of the Word of God (Heb. 4:12) and the community of believers (Heb. 10:25). In the final analysis, this book is not a Pilgrim’s Progress, but doctrinally speaking The Shack is more of a Pilgrim’s Regress.
– Source: The Shack: Helpful or Heretical?offsite A Critical Review by Norman L. Geisler and Bill Roach


  • Recommendation and Review: The Shack by William P. Youngoffsite [Pro] William Spencer, The Internet Monk

    Those inclined to look for emerging church error or general heresy won’t be disappointed, and I am sure Young enjoys some of this theological and traditional mischief. I’d recommend putting up the doctrine gun for the duration of this book, and letting the story entertain and explore. This isn’t a confession or a catechism, but it is something a lot of people will read and absorb. It is difficult to not be drawn into the central character’s “Great Sadness,” and the transforming experience that sends him back into the world a changed man is one all readers will find themselves envying. If you can read this book as what it was meant to be, and not as a chapter of someone’s Systematics, it will work on the level we most need such a story: our own sense of intimacy with God.

    (I’m not minimizing Young’s theology, and I don’t agree with all of it by any means. But this is a book to leave you talking, thinking, praying and worshipping. At least Young swung for the fences instead of playing it safe. It’s provided wonderful impetus for my prayers since reading it.)

  • “The Shack” by William P. Youngoffsite [Contra] By Tim Challies, author of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernmentoffsite

    It is clear to me that The Shack is a mix of good and bad. Young teaches much that is of value and he teaches it in a slick and effective way. Sadly, though, there is much bad mixed in with the good. As we pursue his major theological thrusts we see that many of them wander away, by varying degrees, from what God tells us in Scripture.

    This story is meant to teach theology that Young really believes to be true. The story is a wrapper for the theology. In theory this is well and good; in practice the book is only as good as its theology. And in this case, the theology just is not good enough.

    Because of the sheer volume of error and because of the importance of the doctrines reinvented by the author, I would encourage Christians, and especially young Christians, to decline this invitation to meet with God in The Shack. It is not worth reading for the story and certainly not worth reading for the theology.

    Challies has published a booklet titled, The Shack: Unauthorized Theological Critiqueoffsite “We will look at the book with a charitable but critical eye, attempting to understand what it teaches and how it can be that opinions about the book vary so widely. We do this not simply to be critical, but as an exercise in discernment and critical thinking. We will simply look at what the author teaches and compare that to the Bible.”

  • The Shack: Liking it Won’t Send You to Helloffsite [Pro] Michael Patton, Parchment and Pen

    In the end, I thought that the book was decently written, thoroughly engaging, and theologically sound. I would recommend it, not as a basic theology novel, but as a good attempt to deal with the problem of pain in a creative way that will cause one to step outside their box for a while. Don’t let it create a new box (as is so often the case when people get out of one box, they jump right into another), but consider it’s perspective and you will be fine. In other words, reading or liking The Shack will not send you to hell (at least I hope!).

    PLEASE NOTE: I puposefully did not read many reviews of this book so as not to try to jump on any band wagon, one way or another. However, I have caught the wind that most conservatives don’t like it much. Am I missing something?

    Patton followed that post with Seven More Points About The Shackoffsite and concluded, “I am not saying I agree with all of this dude’s theology. I could take him apart piece by piece with the significance of his Arminianism assumptions and make it sound as if what he is teaching is going to topple the faith, but that would be dishonest and lack wisdom and perspective. All I am saying is that I don’t see any major line being crossed.”

  • The Shackoffsite, [Mixed] Ray Ciervo, Thomist Tacos For The Soul

    The book may be helpful to people who receive the message of forgiveness and abandon themselves to God. Readers ought to remind themselves that the book is fictitious but makes some theological statements that aren’t true. The troubling part is that some statements are true and others aren’t. This serves only to confuse unsuspecting people.

    The Shack has taken on a life of its own. Producers are speaking about making this a movie. Again, this is unfortunate because it creates unbiblical illusions about God. Although it portrays God as approachable, that is both true in one sense and untrue in another. It is true that God is approachable, but not without conditions. The conditions are believing in Jesus as Savior. The Shack gives the impression that there is no distance between humans and God. According to the Scripture the distance is made by sin and must be bridged by Christ and His atoning work. Our culture wants an approachable God without the cross, without the blood of Christ. Cultures may want an approachable God, but Scripture is clear about what the right way is; we can only approach God through the person of Jesus.

    The Shack is a good read, a welcoming story. However, it has some pitfalls as I’ve mentioned. I find this to be the most disturbing thing about the book. It’s kind of like running into low clothes lines. My recommendation is to read with caution; enjoy the story but don’t take the theology seriously at all.

  • What’s At The Back of The Shack? A Look At William, P. Young’s The Shackoffsite [contra] by Marcia Montenegro, CANA

    Despite some emotionally gripping twists and turns in the story, and the insights Mack gains through the tragedy of losing his daughter, the undermining of sin and the distorted, if not outright inaccurate portrayals of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are too pervasive to recommend this book. While the book offers the important message that God is loving and desires to comfort those who are hurting, and that he is with us when we are in the darkest places of the heart and mind, it is just as necessary to know God in all of his aspects, which he has revealed to us in his word. All of God’s attributes are always present in perfect balance, but the view of God in this book is a portrait way out of balance.

    Undoubtedly, some readers will sense God’s love and grace in the book and may benefit from this. However, good results cannot excuse the serious biblical departures though many will undoubtedly defend the book on this basis. Even if unintended or done in ignorance, erosion or distortion of biblical truth is serious and should not be shrugged away. Sadly, we are in a time now when “doctrine” is an undesirable word (despite instructions in the New Testament to hold to sound doctrine), and when those who critique poor or bad theology are cast in a bad light. None of this, however, should dissuade a Christian from evaluating material according to the Bible.

  • Reading in Good Faith: The Shack is a tale of tragedy redeemed, not a theological treatiseoffsite [Mixed, but mostly pro] Derek R. Keefe, posted at Christianity Today‘s

    The Shack‘s most prominent critics see troubling theological claims inherent in the story. Some argue, for example, that its Trinity is modalistic, others that the book is anti-church. … Yet in order to give a work a fair hearing, we have an obligation to engage it on its own terms. A “good faith” reading of The Shack involves, among other things, attending to Young’s reasons for writing, his intended audience, and its particular literary form.

    Young says he wrote the book at his wife’s prodding, to explain his 11-year journey of healing with God to their six children. The “shack” in Young’s story represents deep personal wounds, both suffered and inflicted. The book is spiritual autobiography (in one web interview, Young says Mack is “basically me”) cast in an alternative world, an imaginative attempt to condense 11 years into a weekend of conversations. These are words offered by a 53-year-old father to his children, a fictionalized tale of his relationship with God mended in deep darkness.

    Therefore, it’s tricky to speak definitively of The Shack’s theology. Young could have written a theological treatise, a spiritual memoir, or even a long poem. Instead, he wrote what he calls a “parable” (not an allegory). That should give readers pause about confidently reading off a systematic theology from the book.

  • At the back of The Shack: A torrent of UniversalismoffsitePDF file [Contra] By James B. DeYoung, Th.D., Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary.

    I have known William “Paul” Young for several years, and participated with him in a Christian “think-tank” until 2004. I have recently read his novel, The Shack. While this book is very creative and has its helpful points, I believe that Paul is using this literary form to promote a doctrine known as universal reconciliation. I encourage readers of Paul’s novel to read my review of this book, and my critique of the tenets of universal reconciliation. Both my review of his book and my critique are here on line. Behind The Shack is a stream of questionable theology, questionable both for what the book says and for what it doesn’t say in our understanding of God, Jesus Christ, the Spirit, sin, judgment, reconciliation, the destiny of the unrighteous, how God’s love and justice relate, and the institutions that God has established. The book’s most telling claim is that “mercy triumphs over justice because of love” (ch. 12 ).
    – Source: James B. DeYoung, The Shack Reviewoffsite

    See also DeYoung’s review published by Spurgeon Fellowship JournaloffsitePDF file as well as a Comparison ChartoffsitePDF file of teachings: The Shack, Universal Reconciliation, and the Bible.

  • Looking for God in William Paul Young’s The Shack — A Book Reviewoffsite [Contra] Annette Gysen, editor at Discovery House Publishers in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

    The great tragedy of this novel is that undiscerning readers, moved by the plotline, think that they are coming to a greater understanding of God and the Scriptures, when in fact they are coming to a greater understanding of Young and the god he has created.

    In the end, it’s difficult to find good reasons for reading this book, and those who read it must exercise great care and discernment. We certainly shouldn’t be encouraging seekers, young Christians, or those who want to understand Scripture and God better to look to Young’s ideas. If we want to know the truth about a historical figure, we turn to the best source about the person. Imagine this scenario: A novelist writes a story about George Washington. Many of the incidents in the plot and the writer’s characterizations of Washington are different from what we know to be true from historical accounts that have been derived from Washington’s own writings and the writings of his contemporaries. The novelist’s ideas are a product of imagination and not fact derived from careful research. A Ph.D. student writes his dissertation, but bases his thesis on this novel, which contradicts what history tells us to be true. How foolish will this student appear to his advisors when he presents his findings!

    And yet millions of readers are reading The Shack, a work of fiction that portrays the Trinity very differently from the way God portrays Himself in His Word, and claiming that they now understand the Trinity, forgiveness, and salvation in a way they never have before. How disappointing that they have not come to know God through the truth of His Word, which is sufficient: “The holy Scriptures . . . are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15–17).

    It is sad that so many can be persuaded by so little. All that we read—whether it is fiction, nonfiction, science, or history—must be evaluated by the ultimate source, Scripture. This does not mean that we may only read those things that are in accord with and based on Scripture. It just means that we may not derive our understanding of God and His truth on works of art that have exchanged the truth of God for a lie. While Young’s ideas are disturbing, how much more disturbing are the responses of those who are adopting his ideas—the product of his imagination—as truth and reality? May we take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

  • What You Need To Know About The Shack: A Review Articleoffsite [Contra] Barry Traver, minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

    To those who would suggest that The Shack may be bad theology but good literature, I offer two brief comments: (1) the book is poorly written (I’ve not found any fans of the book who regard it as well-written fiction or literature) and (2) it is really impossible to extricate the theology from the fiction (The Shack ceases to be The Shack if you ignore the book’s subtitle, “Where Suffering Confronts Eternity”).

  • Review of The Shackoffsite [Contra] Gary Johnson, pastor of Church of the Redeemer in Mesa, AZ.

    As we have already documented, the central character in the novel, Mack, rejects the view that the Bible is God’s final word. “In seminary he had 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…Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book” (pp. 65-66).

    Young would prefer a God who communicates with us in our thoughts rather than on paper (i.e., the Bible) (p. 195). Realizing the subjectivity of such revelation, he assures us that we will “begin to better recognize [the Holy Spirit’s] voice as we continue to grow our relationship” (p. 196). The centrality and sufficiency of Scripture is openly questioned. Instead, God now communicates through an endless variety of ways, all of which are in the arena of personal experiences.

  • The Shack: Four Walls, Five Reviewsoffsite [Mixed] Fred Sanders, who is described at The Scriptorium as “an evangelical thinker with a passion for the great tradition of Christian theology. You probably can’t believe how interested he is in the doctrine of the Trinity, but he is also interested in the visual arts, iconography, the history of ideas, literature, and most other subjects.”

    In this original review Sanders examines the book from five perspectives: that of the Kids-Book author, the Naïve Believer, the Worried Theologian, the Literary Snob, and the Haiku Artist.

    As the Naïve Believer he writes:

    I admit I cried. Even though some parts of The Shack didn’t seem quite right to me, and I don’t know what I think about all of it, this book really got to me. Through the character Mack, I got to see a glimpse of how God deals with his children: He comes to them and meets them where they are. I think I already knew that about God, but The Shack helped me realize it at a much deeper, more real level. …

    The main idea of The Shack is that you can’t run away from the dark, messed up places where you suffered. God wants to meet you in those very places, those shacks, to redeem them and you. He doesn’t want to justify your suffering, but he does want to redeem it.

    I’m recommending The Shack to my friends and looking forward to using it as jumping-off point for deep conversations!

    But the worried theologican in Sanders says:

    The Shack, in its central images, metaphors, and scenes, systematically de-emphasizes Scripture and teaches readers to prefer any other form of revelation over biblical revelation.

    With such an incomplete and vague account of salvation, The Shack is unable to accomplish what it undertakes in its teaching with regard to the status of unbelievers. Since the Jesus of The Shack doesn’t want people to be Christians, there are no terms available within the vocabulary of The Shack for having a clear discussion of non-Christians. Young has taken the slogan “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship,” and attempted incoherently to make a worldview out of it. The Shack may not cross the line into unscriptural affirmations of universal salvation, but it rushes right up to the line and only avoids crossing it by by sacrificing clarity.

    And as the Literary Snob he writes:

    I avert my attention from the labored theological discussions and the tear-jerking revelations that bring the book to a conclusion. Not a word of the characterization is credible on any level. Jesus could start any of his sentences with the phrase, “Mack, my therapist says that…” and the sentences would ring just as true. Having bounded to success over the warnings of 26 editors, Mr. Young has earned the right to scorn critical advice. But let me offer one word of caution in case he decides he has more than one book in him: Until you can write believable human characters, please resist the temptation to write dialogue for God. Even Milton didn’t really succeed at at it, after all, and Dante knew not to try.

  • Discernment and The ShackoffsitePDF file [Contra] Dino Geraci, founding Pastor of Calvary South Denver, MCOI Journal, Winter/Spring 2009 (see page 10)

    Young has said he never meant for those quotes in his book to mean he believes in Universalism. He has said his critics are too deeply invested in a God of judgment to read his book in the spirit in which it was written.

    The confusion and misunderstanding might go away if Young would affirm historic, biblical belief. Creedal theology does serve a purpose in that we don’t “play telephone” with doctrine. Statements of faith have real value.

    One of the great challenges any writer faces is to write in such a way that his core message is understood. What is the core message of The Shack? I have read the book twice—once quickly and once carefully.

    The core message of The Shack seems to be: Nearly 2,000 years of historic, biblical Christianity has had it all wrong—well, maybe not all wrong. Yes, there is a God; and that God is a God of unconditional love. Nevertheless, Young contends that God may not be as angry with sin as He has described in His Word—the Bible; and there probably is some sort of universal forgiveness that results in the ultimate redemption of all mankind. Does Young assume the Bible has a lot of great stories, characters, beliefs, concepts, and doctrines; but hey, human experience is at least as important? Yes, the God of the Bible reveals Himself in Trinity, but Young’s book presents his Trinity as just a modified form of modalism very similar to that of Oneness Pentecostals.

    So, if you want genuine and profound healing from trauma and/or abuse, and you desire true and lasting answers to life’s deepest questions, The Shack offers more psycho-babble than hope.


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This post was last updated: Jan. 28, 2010