If The Shack isn’t heresy, it might be worse

I argued earlier today that the charges of heresy leveled at The Shack really don’t hold up. This was, of course, a rather controversial claim. But what I’d like to add to the previous post is that The Shack being non-heretical doesn’t make it okay at all. In fact, it might make it much worse.  How do I mean?

The most insidious lies often look a lot like truth. The most dangerous scams are the ones that have some genuine credentials. And in this case, a Christian book can cause more damage if its overall project is deeply flawed while nonetheless at a technical level skating past the charge of heresy.

Make no mistake: even if I’m right that Young’s sketchy-looking theology can mostly all be classified as muddy represenations of some orthodoxy traditions, that doesn’t mean his overall project is okay. It is skewed toward a progressive perception of God as essentially toothless love, as egalitarian relationality with no concept of standard or holiness. These are framed in a way so as to not technically violate any orthodox doctrines, but create a bizarre and deficient view of God. Tim Keller put it well in his reflections on The Shack:

But here is my main problem with the book. Anyone who is strongly influenced by the imaginative world of The Shack will be totally unprepared for the far more multi-dimensional and complex God that you actually meet when you read the Bible. In the prophets the reader will find a God who is constantly condemning and vowing judgment on his enemies, while the Persons of the Triune-God of The Shack repeatedly deny that sin is any offense to them. The reader of Psalm 119 is filled with delight at God’s statutes, decrees, and laws, yet the God of The Shack insists that he doesn’t give us any rules or even have any expectations of human beings. All he wants is relationship. The reader of the lives of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Isaiah will learn that the holiness of God makes his immediate presence dangerous or fatal to us. Someone may counter (as Young seems to do, on p.192) that because of Jesus, God is now only a God of love, making all talk of holiness, wrath, and law obsolete. But when John, one of Jesus’ closest friends, long after the crucifixion sees the risen Christ in person on the isle of Patmos, John ‘fell at his feet as dead.’ (Rev.1:17.)

All of this is far more dangerous and insidious when heresy is technically lacking. Where heresy is clear and obviously present, people can far more easily avoid danger. But when the danger hides behind orthdoxy, attempting to introduce a heterodox worldview behind technically orthodox doctrines, much more damage can be done.

This is the problem with The Shack. It takes the cover of acceptable doctrines in order to promote an imagination and worldview for Christian thought that funds modern progressive theology, the kind that leads to the dissolution of Christian beliefs on all sorts of important issues. So bear that in mind as a qualifer on my last post.

A reluctant defense of The Shack

One of the few things as bad as heresy is accusing people of heresy when it’s not justified.

Unfortunately, a lot of conservative Christians spend a lot of time doing just that. Especially the ones who get into Reformed theology, for whatever reason. This is a shame, and I wish we as a whole would repent.

This most recently has come to my attention with the hubbub surrounding the movie adaptation of The Shack. The heresy hunt has come out full-force, warning Christians not to go see what might just be the most theologically awful movie since The Da Vinci Code (but even more dangerous since it pretends to be Christian).

The problem for me is this: I think we’re dealing with mass hysteria caused by reactionary impulses rather than reasoned reflection. Some of the charges escape this fault, to be sure, but many of them have other problems (such as insisting that everyone but Calvinism is terrible theology, etc.).

Now, that said, I would not point to The Shack as good theology. That would be a stretch. I wouldn’t even use it as a Sunday school illustration because I think much of it is muddled and problematic. But to say something has bad theology is one thing. To call it heretical is on another plane altogether. I have no sympathy for this latter move in this particular case. We must always seek to give people the benefit of the doubt, read charitably, and interpret anything which can be interpreted non-heretically as non-heretical. Sometimes after doing all of these things we will still find heresy, but from what  I can tell this is not the case in The Shack.

This brings me to my reluctant defense. I want to address the most common criticisms, and I will do this with reference to an image I saw on Facebook from Presbyterian Memes listing 13 heresies:

Phew, that’s a list. Here are my issues with it:

  1. This is not what is says. Though Papa does say, “We were all there,” and bears scars, this does not imply the heresy of patripassionism to which the point refers. Instead, it really only implies the orthodox and biblical doctrine of perichoresis, mutual indwelling, where the Father is in the Son, the Son is in the Father, etc., as John 14 and 17 mention.
  2. That’s not really what it says, so I’m not sure how to counter it. I am curious, though, how this is different from the popular view that God is required to damn people according to His justice (limited by His justice) and therefore cannot practice love without the atonement first.
  3. God did forgive all of humanity, regardless of whether they repent or not. That’s just universal atonement, which is the true and correct doctrine of the atonement despite Calvinist eisegesis and protest. In any case, how is this heretical unless Arminians and most Baptists and whatnot are all heretics?
  4. That’s just not what it said.
  5. That’s a superficial reading. Young is basically going with a more Eastern (in the sense of Eastern Orthodoxy and many early church fathers, not Buddhism and Hinduism) conception of God’s wrath/judgment which is based on the organic relationship between sin and death or non-being. Is this the normal Western framework behind most of Protestantism? No. Is it heretical? No.
  6. That is the correct, orthodox understanding of the Trinity, unlike the Eternal Functional Subordinationism being touted these days by people like Wayne Grudem and others.
  7. Meh, that’s a criticism which could be thrown at any Arminian, or C. S. Lewis’ “Thy will be done” view of Hell, etc. Calvinists may disagree, but it’s not heresy.
  8. That’s not really what it says, either.
  9. Again, while Young probably leans (or leaned) that way, the book does not make this explicit. Even then, whether universalism is truly heresy or not is a controversial and questionable issue.
  10. That’s a bit of a caricature, and what is actually in The Shack is no worse than the view of inclusivism (explained here), held by C. S. Lewis, the Reformer Ulrich Zwingli (kind of) who invented the purely symbolic views of the sacraments which most evangelicals these days seem to hold, and the great early church apologist Justin Martyr, among others. May be wrong, but still not heresy.
  11. I don’t remember what this is in reference to, sadly, so I can’t really comment on it.
  12. That’s also not explicitly taught in The Shack.
  13. It does not at all say, “The Bible is not true,” so this is silly. It certainly subordinates the Bible to Christ, but that’s just orthodoxy. It also does hint at a more progressive view of Scripture, but your view of biblical inspiration is not a matter of heresy one way or the other.

So, that concludes it. For these reasons I don’t think The Shack is heretical. Does it have problems? Yes. Does it lean towards social Trinitarianism? Yes. Is it very, very non-Calvinist? Yes. Does it have progressive and Eastern (in the sense of Eastern Christianity, again, not Buddism) tendencies? Yes. But are any of these things heresy? No.

I wish we as conservatives could start using charity, stop being contentious, and overall use prudence in how we throw around the term “heresy.” Human beings are at stake here, and they’re in as much danger from contentious heresy-hunting as they are from actual heretics.

Biblical terms we usually misunderstand

Does “saving justice” sound right to you? How about “holy love”? What about “gracious judgment” or “avenging mercy”? They should, but I suspect that for many, or most, of us at least some of these don’t really make sense.

Sadly, I’ve gotten the impression that over time our theological technicalities have led us to miss the actual meanings of many biblical terms. But these are important terms, and when we misunderstand them we misread the Bible and end up with confused theology. So without further ado, I want to list a few terms we tend to misunderstand:

Justice
Often, we think of justice as “punishment for wrongdoing,” but this is overly narrow. In Scripture, especially in the Psalms and the prophets, God’s justice is also connected with salvation, love, and faithfulness to the covenant (see Psalm 98, for example). Biblically, God’s justice is better described as His commitment to “rightness,” to putting things right in creation. This includes both salvation for His people and judgment for the wicked, healing for the hurting and destruction for the evildoers. This also connects with God’s righteousness and faithfulness. In Scripture, God’s justice includes a strong note of faithfully exercising His covenant responsibilities.
Mercy
The most common definition I’ve heard of biblical “mercy” is “not getting the bad you deserve.” Again, this isn’t necessarily wrong to say what it says, but Scripture treats mercy as a larger topic. Mercy in the broader sense is simply to alleviate suffering. If someone is suffering and you help them, it is mercy. This can, and in Scripture often does, apply to people who don’t deserve the suffering they are experiencing, like the exploited poor. But it does apply especially to us who are suffering deservedly under our sin, when God freely rescues us anyone.
Grace
In parallel to the definition of “mercy,” people tend to define grace as “getting the good you don’t deserve.” Again, though, this seems slightly off, although closer to the biblical usage. It seems closer to the biblical use to say that grace essentially means “gift.” The point of the gift isn’t specifically that someone doesn’t deserve what they’re getting, but that dessert has nothing to do with it at all. Gifts are regardless of merit or demerit, and are not specifically about what you don’t deserve (or what you do deserve).

I thought of trying to add some other ones, but these are the bigguns I’ve been thinking about lately, so I’ll leave it at that. Try these alternative definitions out for a test drive in your Bible reading.

When the world is absolutely broken

[Trigger Warning: I am not the world’ biggest fan of trigger warnings, but I’m also not their worst enemy or opposed to them all in principle. In this particular instance, I feel the need one for, because this post will include discussion of child sex trafficking and related abuses.]

I just finished another one of Steven James’ Patrick Bowers books (see here for my last post on them).

It was hard.

This most recent offering, Every Crooked Path, tackles the topic of child sex trafficking. It is dark and frightening, and as a father myself I often needed to intentionally keep my imagination at bay lest I fall into despair at the idea of my children going through the events it describes. A lot of people should probably not even attempt to read it.

This isn’t to say that James is gory, graphic, or gratuitous. He’s pretty reserved in how and what he describes, but even so the things which are going on, and the gaps he leaves to the imagination, are harsh. The plot is about a group of child porn producers called the Final Territory. They kidnapped children, often brazenly, and kept them for molestation/torture/porn production for 6 months to a couple of years. Sometimes they would even go live and take requests.

To get away with all of this, they made use of the Dark Web, a massive underground part of the Internet which connects through Tor, a highly encrypted and anonymous network which must be accessed by a special Tor Browser.*

What is awful in this book is not so much the story itself, which if nothing else we can always remind ourselves is fiction, but the real-life data and information it contains. The story never happened, but the background which makes it plausible is basically factual. Children as young as the ones in this book are being taken. They are being abused. They are being molested, exploited, and put on the Internet (particularly the Dark Web) for the entertainment and profit of more people than you would be willing to imagine. And it’s not just a few children. There are thousands and thousands throughout the world.

This just brings me, then, to thinking about how absolutely broken this world is. It—including all of us who make it up—is depraved, wicked, broken, and self-destructive. We are evil, our communities are evil, this world is evil, and evil is ubiquitous. We live so much of our lives in largely willful obliviousness, pretending that our personal bubbles are the norm, with our highs as the normal highs and our lows as the normal lows.

As if this were not bad enough, we are often personally complicit in the worst ways of the world. The topic of Every Crooked Path is a prime example. It is our second glances that lead to lust, our lust that leads to watching porn, our watching porn that makes us want more in quanity and intensity, and our increasing demand that leads to a thriving and corrupt market which reaches out to include abduction, murder, torture, and molestation.

We are all guilty. We are all damnable. The world we create and live in, the world which creates us and lives in us, is rotten to the bone and devoid of all hope in itself. Nothing from among us is sufficient to solve this. None of us have the power to end these atrocities. We can fight, and we must in order to stem the tide of evil, but the corruption in the world is too extensive to be truly and fully healed by human efforts, even divinely blessed and Spirit-empowered ones. The problems run too deep for anything but total gut job, for humanity to be broken down all the way to the roots and built a new. We are stuck on a plane far too finite and compromised to solve the absolute brokenness of the world.

There are only two options once we realize and accept this. We can cling to eschatology or fall into nihilistic despair. Or, to put it in simpler words, we can hope for Jesus to return or give up all hope for all things. The world is either worthless and meaningless, with this present evil age being a fluke of cruel apathy, or it has a destiny in resurrection. If the former, we have nothing. There is only extensive and pointless suffering and brief, superficial joy, both of which are ended when we collide with death. If the latter, there’s a reason to breath and fight. We can’t prove which of these is true. But only one choice of these allows us to survive in the absolute brokenness. We need faith for absolute restoration. We need to cry out for an absolute Savior.

*It’s not actually difficult to access the Dark Web. It’s as simple as downloading and installing the Tor Browser, which is just a modified version of Firefox. But the Dark Web is a labyrinth, hard to search, and many websites can only be accessed if someone on the inside gives you the URL. Also, as a side note, the Dark Web is not all bad. It’s also used by political refugees/dissenters, whistleblowers, persecuted religious groups, ordinary people in heavily censored countries, and even law enforcement or intelligence agents.

No, you are not a soul

You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.

C. S. Lewis

Amen, right?

By no means!

The above quote was supposedly said by C. S. Lewis, one of our favorite theological writers of the modern age. The sentiment is echoed all over the place in Christianity. People complain about their bodies and long for the day that they will be free of them in heaven. When people sin, they excuse their sin by saying they didn’t mean to do it, but their passions or instincts got the best of them. People who struggle with body image are always reassured that the body doesn’t matter; only what’s inside counts. The underlying dogma is clear: your body is not really you. It’s just a temporary shell. Your soul is the real you, and you may even be better off without a body.

This is antichrist.

I could go on for a long time on why this is so wrong, but I’ll focus on the problems with Gnosticism and resurrection. So, Gnosticism:

A strict separation of body/soul doesn’t resemble the Bible at all, but is closer to the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. The Gnostics were a heretical cult in the early church. They believed many problematic and even ridiculous doctrines, but a core distinctive was their view of the physical and the spiritual, or the material and the immaterial. Matter and flesh came from an inferior, perhaps evil, creator, whereas spirit and soul came from the true and good God. So they saw the body as at best irrelevant and at worst an evil obstacle to salvation. But the spirit was the true and good self which could reach salvation through enlightenment. Unfortunately, while not guilty of all of the heretical ideas in Gnostic thought, the whole “you are a soul, not a body” thing really does get its shape from this kind of thinking.

The problems with this approach go on and on. For one, this reasoning is what led to the heresy that Jesus was not completely human, or only had the appearance of a body (called Docetism). Yet John calls them deceivers who “do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” or (as the NLT puts it) “deny that Jesus Christ came in a real body” (2 John 1:7). Jesus was God made flesh. This flesh is essential to the Incarnation which saves us.

This view also leads to some of the moral problems of Gnosticism, which continue even today. If your body isn’t really you, only the soul, then perhaps you should practice extreme asceticism, denying yourself every bodily pleasure to instead live hungry, cold, and alone. Then your soul can focus on God. On the other hand, if the body isn’t really you, it might make sense to brush off moral responsibility in your body. What does it matter what you do if it’s just your body? Many Gnostics used this to justify sexual immorality, but even today in evangelical Christianity it can lead us to blame our bodies for our sins and insist that our souls are actually pure. (And in a less direct way, this leads to the unrealistic and extremely dangerous thought, “He seems harsh and jerkish on the outside, but he’s actually a good person once you get to know him.”)

Besides the Gnostic connections, another problem with this soul-centered view is resurrection. Jesus’ bodily resurrection is at the heart of the Gospel, and ours follows from it. The Apostles’ Creed literally says it as, “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh.” Paul made this point powerfully in 1 Corinthians 15. Some people in Corinth, probably influenced by Greek philosophy, were saying that there wouldn’t be a physical resurrection. Paul rebuked them and pointed to Jesus, saying the Gospel was at stake.

In fact, I think the popularity of this deviant view is why so many Christians underemphasize, or even don’t realize at all, the saving importance of Jesus’ resurrection. According to the Bible, Jesus’ resurrection is the source of our regeneration (1 Jn. 1:3), justification (Rom. 4:25), sanctification (Rom. 8:11-13), and glorification (Rom. 8:23). In a certain sense, resurrection is salvation, and we will not be “fully” saved until our bodies are raised for eternal life with Christ in renewed creation. If we miss this, we miss a major element to the Gospel. For the Bible, the body is not an addon, a shell, or an obstacle. It is saved, redeemed, and glorified in Christ.

Now I realize there are some who would object on the basis of the war between the spirit and the flesh. After all, Paul says this: “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Doesn’t this mean that your physical body is corrupt and that your spirit/soul is pure? Not really. For the acts of the flesh are “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Gal. 5:19-21). While many of these are body with the body, they are all rooted in the heart, and some of these only take place within. Thus the flesh as Paul speaks of it against the Spirit is not the human body. What the flesh actually means is debatable (I favor the view that it refers to natural humanity living without relation to God but only to humanity), but it doesn’t mean human body by itself.

To conclude, let’s drop the dualist silliness. You are a body and a soul. Your body without your soul is dead, and your soul without your body is naked. God made us to be both. We cannot ignore the body, but must let our body and soul serve as instruments with which to glorify God. For we will be raised forever, to live bodily with Christ.

Oh, by the way, it is a most likely a myth that C. S. Lewis said the above quote. Thankfully. (Though to be honest, I’m unsure whether he might have agreed.)