The Shack: Bad Theology - Good Theodicy
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
Recently, I took in “The Shack” at a theater in my hometown of Kernersville with a group from church. It had been some years since I read the book (authored by William P. Young) after its controversial release. When reading the book back then, I noted that there was much to disagree with from a theological perspective regarding the composition of God. I also was concerned with the Universalist perspective that seemed to be nesting within Young’s text. However, I also found that there was truth in its pages regarding the benevolence of God when the characters in the cast (mainly Mac) encountered the existential problem of suffering and pain. After viewing the recent movie, I observe bad theology yet good theodicy.
In the seminary topic of theology proper, a student will study the doctrine of God. Who is he? What is he composed of (spirit or a body)? What about the Trinity? Is the Godhead composed of three parts or is it one Divine unity in three persons? What about the metaphysical composition of Jesus? Was he simply a great human prophet whose ministry God blessed or was he God himself? In treating these questions, conclusions should be drawn from what is observed in scripture about God. In arriving at who God is (understanding that we cannot have a complete understanding of this because of a limited human perspective), an orthodox Christian perspective (or that perspective which supports the traditional understanding of Christianity from its historic roots) is gleaned from the pages of the Bible itself.
From this jumping off point (an analysis of scripture), we can make observations about who God is (in a limited sense of course). In “The Shack,” the Godhead or Trinity is figured prominently. We observe that the three persons of the Trinity are presented in the movie as three different human beings. I will assume that the reader will know the general descriptions of the three people portrayed as the Trinity in the movie and also the general plot of the movie. As God the Father is portrayed as an African-American female, the main problem is that God, the Father, has a human body. In Colossians 1:15-19, it states that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Thus, we observe two persons of the Trinity in this passage with the Father being invisible and that he (the Father) could/can be observed in the person of Jesus when he ministered on the earth and also now in heaven. So, God, the Father, is immaterial yet Jesus is God in the flesh. Thus, when “Papa” (the Father) is displayed in the movie with any sort of body, this would not be an accurate portrayal of God the Father from a Biblical perspective because God does not have a flesh and blood body. The same holds true for the character of Sarayu, who was portrayed by an Asian female who represented the Holy Spirit. The corporeity of Sarayu is also counter to the composition of the Holy Spirit as described in the New Testament as the Holy Spirit is immaterial and does not have a physical body. Furthermore, in relation to our relationship with the Holy Spirit, Ephesians 3:16 describes the empowerment from the Holy Spirit within your being. Also, New Testament testimony of the immateriality of the Holy Spirit comes from the encounter of the disciples with the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter two where the Holy Spirit filled them with the evidence of speaking in tongues.
Of course, Jesus portrayed in the movie, as a middle-eastern man would be an accurate depiction of “God in the flesh” as portrayed in the New Testament. However, three flesh and blood persons as the Trinity is not an accurate portrayal of the Godhead as inferred from the New Testament. I was encouraged that the movie cured some of the problematic Universalist and hierarchical concepts mentioned by the members of the Trinity in the book where there was no hierarchy within the Godhead and where all persons of all faiths would eventually get to God through Jesus Christ albeit many after death. The characters in the movie just did not discuss these heterodox topics so that was a big advantage that the movie had over the book. Turning from the negative aspects of the movie to positive ones, the love and unity observed between the members of the Trinity resonated with the audience and me. Also, the love and patience with which the various members of the Trinity related to Mac (the lead character in the movie) was an attractive portrayal of the loving disposition of God towards humanity as observed in scripture (see below).
In contrast to the “fleshly nature” of God portrayed in the movie, I believe that the handling of the issue of theodicy (or one’s theory of the problem of pain and suffering along with the belief in a good God) was a success. Dr. Eleonore Stump, who is the Robert J. Henle Chair in Philosophy at Saint Louis University, states that amidst the back and forth of scholarly discussion on the problem of pain and suffering, there really should be a discussion as to the emotional trauma that one experiences. She (Stump, 1991:197-198) submits that in discussing the problem of evil, one should go beyond providing “a morally defensible reason for God to allow suffering.”  Why does a good God allow us to experience pain and suffering? In this way, I think that the movie is effective. The explanations that it gives for the reason terrible things can happen to good people and why God allows them to happen are a good start to explaining the disposition of God towards humanity from our perspective. In Mac’s accusation of God allowing the cruel death of his daughter, Missy, God tells him that he has an incomplete picture of things and even when Mac doesn’t understand things, God is working out things for his good. In further interaction with the Trinity, the Holy Spirit (Sarayu) asks Mac about his level of confidence in knowing for sure what is good or evil. With billions of people who believe that they are right on a particular topic, how is it that you (Mac) think you are a capable judge?
The Trinity further submits to Mac that the brokenness that manifested in the murder of Mac’s daughter Missy has been percolating since the fall of Adam. But then in response, Mac is wondering how God could have allowed Missy to experience this terrible death? In reply, the Trinity states that it can work good out of terrible tragedies. However, in no way does it mean that It (the Trinity) caused them. Furthermore, God states that there never has been any promise of a pain free life but that while she was being murdered, God was with Missy (evil is here because of the fall but also God is with each one of his children when it befalls them). In a very moving scene from the movie, God, now in the form of a Native American man, leads Mac to find the body of his daughter. In this touching scene, Mac wraps the body of his daughter, in a sheet and as he is carrying her to bury her, he is chanting, “I forgive you” (referring to the murderer) over and over even as the Trinity is comforting and assisting him in this painful task. Earlier in the movie, the Godhead tells Mac that he needs to forgive the murderer and at this juncture in the movie, Mac takes their advice to heart. Throughout the movie, Jesus is working on some sort of woodworking project as he is a carpenter and at the end of the movie it is observed that the project Jesus was working on all along was Missy’s casket. The burial scene depicted the loving care of God for both Mac and Missy. In a subsequent scene, Mac is given the opportunity to see his beloved Missy and it is obvious that she is content and happy, playing with other children, and in the presence of Jesus (she is obviously in paradise/heaven).
Another positive aspect of the movie was the love that each member of the Trinity had for the other. This was portrayed well when Mac sat down with them for dinner in the early part of the movie. It was obvious that there was great affection amongst the member of the Trinity and also for Mac. I thought that a shared meal was quite a fitting setting for the movie-makers (and Young) to place the Trinity and Mac together. This dinner gathering to me was evocative of the marriage supper of the lamb where the children of God are brought together at a meal to celebrate their newfound entrance into heaven and union with Jesus (Revelation 19:6-9).
This resonates with me. Planned, special meals are normally those occasions that functional families look forward to the most. The birthday of a loved one or a special holiday meal are always occasions where goodwill is in abundance. This goodwill is amplified by the smells and tastes of special menu items. Also, another aspect about what makes these meals special is the person making it. Oftentimes, it is either mom or grandmother who are the loving chefs who create these memorable and delectable treats. Sometimes, granddad or dad grills the meat in his own special way. In this meal portrayed in the movie, it is “Papa” who is the loving maker of the meal. In this and other scenes in the movie, the movie cast/writers do well in portraying the love and care of God for humanity in their care for Mac.
Of course, I do not have some secret conduit of knowledge from God regarding God’s disposition towards those with who he is in relationship with. Rather, I look at scripture and observe that the words of Jesus and the other Bible authors lead us to similar conclusions as to what is portrayed in “The Shack.” In several different scenes, the dialogue and action of the movie portrays a God who is so personal with Mac, that He was intimately familiar with the details of Mac’s state of mind and emotional hurt. This is in accord with the words of Jesus in Luke 12:6-7. God is intimately familiar with our circumstances and values us greatly (God knows us so well that the hairs on our heads are numbered). Also observed in Matthew’s Gospel is the injunction of Jesus to cast your cares upon him in order to receive rest for your souls (11:28). This speaks to God’s desire to carry your burdens for you. Similarly, God also desires to help you with your anxieties because of his love for you. God wants to lighten your load if you will only give them to him (1 Peter 5:7). Another scripture reference where the compassion of God is exhibited is in Psalm 46:1 where the Psalmist proclaims that God is our “refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble.” Similar themes are included in the following Psalms as well (3:3-4, 23:4-6, 55:22, 37:39, 40). In John 16:33, Jesus wants us to be of good cheer because he has overcome the world. The constant provision and protection for those who trust in God is exhibited in Deut. 31:6; Jos 1:5 where the well-known promise, “I will never leave you or forsake you” is located. Similarly, the resurrected Jesus just before his ascension, proclaimed, “I am with you always (Matt. 28:20).” Similarly, the attentive nature of God towards his children can be discerned when Jesus mentions in Matt. 6:8 that the Father knows what you need before you even ask him for something in prayer. These various scripture references highlight God’s care and provision for those who are in relationship with him.
As mature Christians and also as Christian leaders, I believe that it is important to check out books and movies that have made an impact on culture. If we do not do this, then how can we speak prophetically into the culture that we live in? Understanding the controversial nature of “The Shack” after reading it years ago, when the movie came out recently, I wanted a young adult group that I am involved with now to see the movie for themselves in order to judge the merits of it. After seeing the movie as a group, we then discussed it during our next meeting. We discussed both the negative and the positive aspects of the movie. What was really productive about viewing the movie is that we did not only discuss the negative aspects of how God was portrayed, but this portrayal of God was used to discuss who God really is from our limited perspective. So, this was a great opportunity to discuss the Trinity and the various persons within the Godhead. This made for a great transition into the topic of “Who Jesus Is” and a discussion of how the identity of Jesus impacts us today and then on to other related topics. We also discussed the problem of pain and suffering and how the explanation within the movie did well as a beginning point to discuss this issue. So, I believe that movies like “The Shack” should be seen and discussed by the church at large. Relatedly, I do not believe that these movies should be shunned and dismissed merely because there may be some error within them. Rather, we should analyze movies like “The Shack,” we should discuss the negative aspects and the positive aspects of movies and books, and we should use them (popular movies and books) as aids to reveal what scripture says on relevant cultural issues and trends.
 Stump, E. 1991. “The problem of evil and the desires of the heart” in The problem of evil ed Adams, Marilyn. New York: Oxford University Press.
Link to “The Shack” trailer: