At the heart of this book is a portrayal of God’s immanence. Young pictures God the Father, as a friendly “very large black woman” named “Papa,” Jesus as a jean-wearing guy who clumsily drops the bowl of sauce and says, “true that,” and the spirit as a partially transparent Asian girl. All three talk in a friendly, familiar way with Mack. The endearing, sometimes almost mushy love these three exhibit is appealing from the standpoint of our relationship with God, and I think this aspect of God is biblical, even if exaggerated in this story.
Unfortunately, God’s transcendence, justice, authority, and truthfulness are lost in this portrayal.
Lack of transcendence
I was uncomfortable with the notion of this large woman representing the Father who, according to scripture, “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.” This is the same God who warned Moses that nobody can see God and live. Immanence is stressed in the Bible through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but the Father always stands for pure transcendence.
In the Bible, people usually fall on their face when confronted by God. Paul was blind for three days—and these encounters only involved the Son. In The Shack, the relatively irreverent Mac repeatedly throws caustic charges at God the Father:
“How can you say that with all the pain in this world, all the wars and disasters that destroy thousands?”
“But the cost!... It all sounds like the end justifies the means, that to get what you want you will go to any length, even if it costs the lives of billions of people.” 125
One’s credulity is stretched constantly by the plot anyway, but I found my credulity reaching the breaking point with this picture of a man challenging God the Father’s legitimacy and fairness to his face. No sufficient answer is given—Papa just gives smiling assurances that it all works out for love.
Lack of justice
The justice of God completely disappears in Young’s portrayal. And for this reason alone, I’m not surprised the book is popular with emergent thinkers. I think this is a major theme in emergent theology—they have virtually eliminated justice as an attribute of God. One emergent book after another heaps scorn on any portrayal of God as one who promises death to sinners.
This is why so many emergent thinkers have been questioning the penal substitution understanding of the cross of Christ. McLaren and Chalke are completely baffled as to why God would find it necessary to inflict pain on his son. They have both referred to this idea as “cosmic child abuse.” If God wants to forgive sin, they wonder, why doesn’t he just do it? That question makes sense for a human, or a God without the attribute of justice. The emergent god is way too nice to do anything like judging people in hell. An all-loving God unconcerned with righteousness and justice would never do something mean like that.
In The Shack, Mack asks papa whether she is especially fond of all or are there those who she is not especially fond of. She answers,
Nope, I haven’t been able to find any. Guess that’s jes’ the way I is.”
Mack, was interested. “Do you ever get mad at any of them?”
“Sho ‘nuf! What parent doesn’t? There is a lot to be mad about in the mess my kids have made and in the mess they’re in. I don’t like a lot of choices they make, but that anger—especially for me—is an expression of love all the same. I love the ones I am angry with just as much as those I’m not.” 119
Mack is incredulous. Responding to his amazement, papa says,
“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.” 120
In fairness, God doesn’t say sin is okay in this book, but the absence of justice is a glaring flaw. Apparently, we don’t need to be adopted through conversion to become a child of God. All humans are his children, and all entitled to his love as sons and daughters.
Other emergent themes emerge as well. We'll cover these in the next post.