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.

Jesus will judge Joe’s salvation, so you don’t have to.

Stop it.

Stop trying to discern who is “really” saved and who isn’t.

I say this as a simple message I’ve slowly learned from reading Scripture. Simply put: there is never a Biblical command or permission for us as individuals in the Church to make decisions about whether other individuals in the Church are actually Christians or not.

There are similar issues, to be sure. We are commanded to discern false teachers, but their position of authority and destructive impact, not to mention their peculiar relationship to the churches they teach, makes their case quite different from Joe in the pew. We are also commanded to discern between false churches and the true Church based on the criteria of love, holiness, and sound doctrine (specifically, a right view of who Jesus is). And finally, we are certainly commanded to judge between good and evil actions and lives, and to call our brothers and sisters to repent if they sin.

But, none of that is the same as a command or permission to decide whether Joe two pews down is a “real Christian” or something else.

There is no such command. Nor is there such a permission.

If Joe is participating in the life of the Church through a local congregation, we have only one proper response: accept him as a brother. If he is a living a life or espousing doctrines that contradict the Christian faith, we may and should by all means call him out and ask him to repent. If he doesn’t, we should certainly exercise church discipline up to and including excommunication, cutting him off and kicking him out. But until (and perhaps only until) that point, we are only allowed to treat him as a wayward brother, someone who has strayed from the truth and needs to return.

The one thing we have no right to do is try to decide whether we’ll see him in glory on Judgment Day. We can’t declare him “real Christian” or “fake Christian,” or speculate about the negative possibilities for his eternal destiny. Why? Because until he is removed from the congregation (which he should be if he persists in unrepentance), we have no ground to stand on from which to make such a judgment, even as a personal opinion. We have only one option: take his baptized identity for granted and treat him as a member of Christ’s Body. Apart from Jesus’ promise to be with us when two or three are gathered to execute church discipline, we don’t have any basis for saying otherwise. So our job is to treat them all as brothers until Jesus comes back to sort out His own household. He is the Judge who sees in the depths of the heart and knows the reality of all faith or pretending. He will make sure of who is His far better than we ever could.

So in case it’s not obvious exactly what I’m proposing, I’ll break it down:

Treat everyone in the congregation of the Church as a “real Christian.” Period.
If they sin or adopt heresy, call them to repent.
If they continually refuse to repent, boot them out.
Treat everyone outside the Church as outside of Christ. Period.

I think this solves lots of problems, and I think it’s Biblical. Nowhere in Scripture do we find commands or permissions to try to discern between true and false, real or fake, members of the Body. Instead, we find strong church discipline and letters which address whole churches as believers. We find acknowledgments than human judgment is utterly fallible and based on the outside, and that only God sees the heart for what it is.

Note that, again, none of this is to say we can’t judge sinful lives and behaviors as sinful, and even seriously so, or judge heresies as heretical. We must do these things, and do them consistently without compromise. But we aren’t permitted to go from “Joe is living sinfully right now [or for a long time]” immediately to “Joe isn’t a Christian.” We instead must bind ourselves to the form of the Church and its authority in this age, where we come together and go through the appropriate processes of discussion and discernment to execute discipline or encourage restoration.

Anything beyond that is a presumption of Christ’s own prerogative over His Church, a denial of His own right to discern and define His bride.

This is not, I want to emphasize, just a part of the “Don’t judge,” “You don’t know their heart!” or “Your Christian walk is just between you and God” cultures. We must judge right from wrong, darkness from light, goodness from evil, and obedience from rebellion. People’s actions do expose, to at least some degree, their hearts. And our walk with God is not our own, but is part of a collective pilgrimage of the whole Church in which we are all members of one Body whose lives affect and determine each other.

But none of that puts us in a place to discern the core: what actual relation someone in Christ’s Church has to Christ. How are we to know who will repent, who is going through a David/Bathsheba fall, who is disrupted like Peter, or who was like Judas all along? We cannot know from our limited perspectives what is really going on, and we must defer to Christ. Our only responsibility is to remove the wicked person from among ourselves, but love them before, during, and after.

Basically, as Romans 14:4 says, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”