I have often heard the phrase, “That’s just theology!” used in a derogatory manner to deride persons who inquire about doctrine and teaching on a particular matter that relates to Christian beliefs. The common misconception nowadays is that theology is for pastors or academics or old dead guys with long beards and weird hats. The truth is theology is a pursuit, an enterprise, in which all Christians are called to engage. What’s more, it is the pursuit, the enterprise of rightly understanding and articulating the contents of God’s self-revelation. Theology isn’t an academic subject, although it can be understood and practiced in an academic way. Theology is the task of every Christian mind to know God. This knowledge of God, when rightly applied, leads to greater worship and adoration of His marvelous character, and greater conformity to His ways.

Ultimately, whether you are a Christian or not, and whether you acknowledge it or not, you are a theologian. Yes, you. If you have a thought about God or ever did, you are a theologian. The question is, are you a good one? The Bible claims itself to be the Word of God.[1] With an understanding of the Bible being God’s revelation of Himself, all true and good theology is done with a view to rightly understanding and articulating its contents. Recently, a theatrical adaption of William P. Young’s 2007 fiction novel, The Shack, was released. The movie like the book has garnered much attention and raised many questions among audiences. My endeavor in this post is to give some thoughtful considerations to some pertinent issues related to The Shack.[2] By the end of this, I hope your mind will be spurred to insightful conclusions on the profitability of The Shack and be encouraged in maintaining vigilance against defective theological propositions in all their subversive forms.

God our Papa

In Young’s book, God the Father reveals himself to the protagonist, Mack, as a kindly overweight, African American woman named “Papa”. This unusual depiction of God is usually the first concern raised regarding the story. Let’s think about this for a second. Should God the Father being depicted in such a way really concern us? After all, God is certainly not a man. If God wanted to appear to us as a sweet, motherly, Aunt Jemima figure, He can undoubtedly do so, can’t He? Why put God in a box?

These are all very legitimate questions. For one thing, let’s consider that God has already revealed Himself. God the Father has very specifically revealed Himself as Father and has declared this in His word. While God is indeed not a man[3], He has truly revealed Himself as Father in the pages of Scripture. This is the title the Jesus consistently utilizes as he refers to Him.[4] Both the Old Testament and New Testament utilize masculine pronouns in their reference to God in addition to their overwhelming use of masculine imagery.[5] We can see that God has revealed Himself this way because it teaches us something about who He is.

What’s the harm in depicting God the Father in a way He has not used? When we depict God the Father with imagery alien to the way He has revealed Himself, we unavoidably obscure the reality He intends to communicate to us. God has called Himself the “King of all the earth” (Ps. 47:7 NASB). When we understand that when God reveals Himself, His revelation is not just true, it’s good and beautiful, we won’t be tempted to alter it for our imaginations. Rather, we will sanctify and submit our imaginations to the holiness of God.
Let’s be clear, God the Father is not some elderly, bald, white man with a Santa-like beard wearing a white gown in golden Aladdin shoes. Such imagery is as incorrect as The Shack’s depiction because it ignores how God the Father has chosen to reveal Himself. According to Scripture, which uses masculine imagery to convey God’s Fatherliness, Kingship, Headship, and Husbandry to His creation and particularly His redeemed people, God the Father is invisible and cannot be seen.[6] How we come to know God the Father is through a right relationship through the Son, Jesus Christ as revealed in holy Scripture. It is through repentance and faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ that we become the children of God. What a good, good Father He is!

Papa and Penal Substitution

Perhaps the most alarming theological concern is a very subtle remark against penal substitution. As Papa prepares breakfast for Mack and the rest of the Trinity at the shack, Mack cynically probes Papa about the supposed wrath of God seen in the Bible. Papa responds,

“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.” (p. 122)

Papa’s response to Mack in this instance is one of the most theologically subversive statements in the entire book. It is an assault on the work accomplished by Christ through his death for the salvation of sinners. Namely, the atonement. The technical term for the classic evangelical  view of the atonement is Penal Substitution. The doctrine of Penal Substitution (aka “Substitutionary Atonement”) refers to the teaching of Christ’s work of satisfying the just wrath of God against sin by bearing the full weight of the penalty for sin through his death on the cross in the stead of sinners.[7] This is how Christ accomplished salvation for the world, by dying for it. Through repentance and faith in God’s provision of Christ’s sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin, sinful human beings may be brought to a right relationship with God and may enjoy the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit forever.

This marvelous doctrine of penal substitution cannot cohere with any view of God that fails to see Him upholding  justice through the punishment of sinners for their sins. Most notably God reveals His determination to uphold justice in Exodus 34. The words of Moses declare, “[God] who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations'” (Ex. 34:7). The clear testimony of Scripture sees God as the avenger of justice who forgives sin, but never fails to execute righteous retribution for every sin committed. By faith we trust Jesus as the one who stood in our place as the gavel fell toward us.  At the heart of the Bible flows the precious lifeblood of God’s redemption through penal substitution. Any other conception of the atonement is toxic to the vitality of the Christian faith.

It is a common criticism that penal substitution portrays a bloodthirsty, brutish deity committing divine child abuse. It is strongly implied by Papa’s statements in The Shack. How can God truly demand the life of His beloved Son as the payment for sinners? How indeed. How deep the Father’s love for us. How vast beyond all measure! That He should give His only Son to make a wretch His treasure![8] When we firmly grasp the gravity of our sinfulness…Nay, when we are firmly grasped by the gravity of our sinfulness in light of the supreme holiness of God, we rightly see ourselves miserably ruined in ourselves. Yet, we awe at the loving grace of God that suffered the greatest cost and spared no expense to rescue us from our helpless estate and rejoice with the rapture of glorification that awaits us on the day we behold the face of our Redeemer.

A Final Word

Finally, I wish to pose a few questions for us to consider. Is Jesus the Lord and Love of my life? Is the fame and renown of God’s name my life’s ultimate priority? What will I surrender and submit to that cause? I submit to you that time is short and eternity is a sobering reality. False concepts of God are not just malignant, they are damning. If you have already seen the movie or read the book, don that knowledge like a fire jacket, arm yourself, and warn others to avoid the flames of false teaching! Christ above all things exalted!

“Only one life, ’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.”

– C.T. Studd

[1] The confessional document of the Southern Baptist Convention, The Baptist Faith and Message (2000) affirms, “The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter”. I am a Christian and Southern Baptist writing primarily writing to an evangelical Christian audience. The remainder of this article will assume the inerrancy and authority of the Bible.

[2] My assumption is that readers also have an idea of the basic storyline of the film/book and thus no extensive synopsis will be provided in this post.

[3] Num. 23:19

[4] Most notably perhaps, Matt. 6:9 and John 14:6

[5] Deut. 32:6; Ps. 68:5; Isa. 63:16; 64:8; Mal. 2:10; Matt. 23:9; 1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:6; etc.

[6] Ex. 33:20; Jn. 1:18; 1 Tim 1:17; 6:16

[7] See The Baker Compact Dictionary of Theological Terms by Greg Allison and Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem for similar definitions. The definition provided above is my personal articulation of the Biblical witness (See Isa. 53:5; Rom. 3:25-26; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 9:26; 1 Pet. 3:18; etc.).

[8] How Deep the Father’s Love for Us written by Stuart Townend