A movie review of
Directed by Stuart Hazeldine
A few nights ago, my wife Katie and I attended an emotionally moving, even if a bit clichéd and melodramatic, presentation that encouraged us to reflect on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and on the age-old question, “Why does God allow evil and suffering?” But we were not at church, and we were not in an academic lecture hall. We were at a movie theater.
We were watching The Shack, the new movie based on William Paul Young’s best-selling 2007 novel by the same title. The book has been the subject of a great deal of criticism on account of some of its troubling theological claims.1 Rather than offering another review of the book here, my aim is to provide a theological review of the movie on its own terms.
The first thing to note about The Shack is that whatever we say about its theology (not to mention its screenwriting and acting), in a culture that values shallow entertainment over substantive enquiry, it is remarkable that any major motion picture would encourage its viewers to wrestle with important theological issues. Unfortunately, although the movie offers a poignant and potentially healing response to the problem of evil and suffering, it also is suggestive of some unbiblical theology about the nature of God and the unique truth of Christianity.
God in Three Human Persons?
One of the unbiblical teachings that seems to be suggested by The Shack is that God the Father, and perhaps also the Holy Spirit, became incarnate along with the Son.
After struggling for years with grief, guilt, and anger at himself and God, the movie’s main character, Mack, receives a mysterious note in his mailbox inviting him to visit with God at the very shack where his young daughter was brutally murdered years before. When he arrives at the shack, Mack meets the three divine Persons of the Trinity in the forms of a black woman (the Father, “Papa”), a Jewish man (the Son, Jesus), and an Asian woman (the Holy Spirit, whose name “Sarayu” is a Sanskrit word that means “wind”).
What should we say about this representation of the Godhead? First, Jesus taught His disciples to refer to the first Person of the Trinity as “Our Father” (Matthew 6:9). Yet, the Father is not human and does not have a human sex or gender. The Bible clearly teaches that God’s image is reflected by male and female alike (Genesis 1:27) and that His children come “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9, ESV). All people are bearers of the image of God and all who place their faith in Jesus for salvation are equally members of the body of Christ, regardless of nationality, race, and gender (cf. Galatians 3:28). Nevertheless, The Shack’s fictional representation of the three Persons of the Trinity in human form might lead viewers to develop an unduly anthropomorphic conception of the Godhead. It might also communicate the unbiblical view that all three Persons of the Trinity became incarnate.
In fact, at one point in the movie, Papa reveals crucifixion scars on his wrists as evidence that he suffered with Jesus on the Cross. This scene seems to suggest that the Father not only became incarnate, but also was crucified along with the Son (as the book explicitly claims2). This teaching stands in stark opposition to the Bible and the ancient Christian creeds, all of which attest that it was the Son, and not the Father or the Holy Spirit, who became incarnate and died on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins.
What’s in a Name?
Another theological problem in The Shack is its implicit suggestion that Christian beliefs about the nature of God are irrelevant to true faith. In a conversation with Mack about Christianity the character of Jesus denigrates religion and remarks, “I don’t care what you call him. I just want to see people changed by knowing Papa.” This sentiment is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Juliet who muses, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The problem, of course, is that different religions do not simply refer to the same God by different names; rather, they hold different, and in many cases contradictory, beliefs about God’s nature and character. Contrary to what The Shack suggests, people of different faiths do not all have faith in the same God.
Moreover, in Scripture names matter. Names connote character. In fact, God’s name is so important to Him that the third of the Ten Commandments instructs the Israelites, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7, ESV). This does not mean that God privileges a particular language’s translation or pronunciation of His name. But to suggest that all religions’ names for God, and the theologies those names connote, are equally valid (or unimportant) is to dishonor God’s holy name.
No Unredeemable Evil
The problematic theology in The Shack unfortunately detracts from some valuable aspects of its response to the problem of evil and suffering. One valuable element of the movie’s response to the problem is its hopeful message that there is no unredeemable suffering. God offers forgiveness even to the worst of sinners (so we should too!) and He is able to bring good out of even the most horrific evils. The movie also clearly communicates that although God allows suffering, which He then redeems, that does not mean that He is responsible for causing the suffering. As Papa explains to Mack, “I can work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies. That doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies.”
The Healing Power of Our Suffering God
Another valuable element of the movie’s response to the problem of suffering is its poignant portrayal of a God who suffers with us. In The Shack the divine Persons never try to explain to Mack why his precious daughter was allowed to suffer and die, but they share in his deep sorrow, demonstrating their unfailing love for Mack and his daughter.
As I watched the movie, I was reminded of the Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, whose son Eric died in a tragic mountain-climbing accident. In his book, Lament for a Son, Wolterstorff writes, “Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it. But I never saw it. Though I confessed that the man of sorrows was God himself, I never saw the God of sorrows. Though I confessed that the man bleeding on the cross was the redeeming God, I never saw God himself on the cross, blood from sword and thorn and nail dripping healing into the world’s wounds.”3 He explains that through his immense grief over Eric’s death he finally was able to see that, in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins, “God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. … Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.”4
I have never had to endure a tragedy like the one Nicholas Wolterstorff and his family suffered or like the one fictionally depicted in The Shack. I cannot even imagine the pain of having to bury one of my children. But reading Wolterstorff’s lament helps me to see God’s suffering love more clearly through the prism of my tears.
Even if we cannot understand why God allows His children to suffer, we can be comforted and healed by the knowledge that in Christ He suffers with us and for us and that one day He will redeem all our suffering. On that great day, God will come to live with His children, not for a weekend in a mystical shack, but for all eternity in the new heaven and the new earth, “and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Revelation 21:3–4, ESV).
To be clear, I do not encourage you to go see The Shack. The potentially healing aspects of the movie’s response to the problem of suffering are unfortunately bound up with unbiblical suggestions about the nature of God and the uniqueness of Christianity. Rather than spending your money on a movie ticket, I encourage you instead to buy a copy of Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son or C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed and The Problem of Pain. And if you are suffering, my prayer is that you will let the one true triune God meet you in your suffering so that your heart might be healed.5
Adam C. Pelser is an associate professor of philosophy. He writes and teaches on ethics, emotions, virtues, and philosophical theology. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCPelser.
- See, e.g., Hank Hanegraaff, “How Should a Christian Think about The Shack?,” Christian Research Journal 31, 5 (2008): 54–55.
- Wm. Paul Young, The Shack (Newberry Park, CA: Windblown Media, 2007), 99.
- Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 81–82.
- Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 81.
- DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the US Air Force, the US Department of Defense, or the US government.