Friday, October 24, 2008

Sin Separates

Part 2: THE SHACK and Universal Reconciliation

By Pastor Larry DeBruyn

The Christian underpinnings of The Shack make it necessary for the allegory to deal with fallen humanity’s relationship with God, for as the prophet told Judah, “[Y]our iniquities have made a separation between you and your God” (Isaiah 59:2). For reason of sinning, the Bible depicts man to be living in a broken world and estranged from God. Thus Papa explains to Mack why things are the way they are when she says to him, “The world is broken because in Eden you abandoned relationship with us to assert your own independence.” (The Shack, 146) Consistent with the allegory’s antiauthoritarian and antinomian bent, The Shack defines sin as abandoning relationship.

But the Bible defines sin as breaking God’s rules, for as John wrote, “sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4). The dynamic of sin is more than deserting relationship with God. In the allegory’s explanation of the world’s brokenness and the importance of relationship over rules, a theological inconsistency arises. It is this: To explain his “sin-is-abandoning-relationship” theory, the author refers to the very Eden narrative in Genesis where God ordered Adam, “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Emphasis mine, Genesis 2:17). Ironically, by breaking the rule of God, Adam broke relationship with God. For doing so, God expelled Adam from Eden. So rules do have something to do with relationship. In fact, rules are tests of relationship! “Thou shalt not murder,” it seems to me, would have been a good rule for Missy’s killer to have obeyed. If he had, there would have been no Great Sadness.

Though for reason of God’s grace, obedience to rules does not determine a person’s relationship with Him (Ephesians 2:8-9), but His rules do define what a relationship with Him looks like. Those who love God will not place other gods before Him. Those who love other persons will not abuse them. Anyone can say to someone else, “I love you!” Some men use the statement to manipulate and use women. They say it but do not mean it. So the greater question becomes, “Do you love me?” The Apostle Paul wrote that “love does not” (Emphasis mine, 1 Corinthians 13:4). Love is more than saying. Love is doing, and to that end, and as the Ten Commandments indicate, rules define “doing” love.

So the question becomes, after ruining our Eden by our sin, after having broke “relationship” with God, how can we reconciled to Him? Note: Though we need to be reconciled to God, God does not need to be reconciled to us. He has done nothing untoward to offend us. But before dealing with our necessity to be reconciled to God, William Paul Young’s position should to be noted; that is, he believes in a Universal Reconciliation* (UR) which finds basis in God being reconciled to the world.

Wayne Jacobsen, one of Young’s collaborators and editors in writing The Shack, admits that Universal Reconciliation was part of the book’s “earlier versions because of the author’s partiality at that time to some aspects of what people call UR.”[7] And according to a professor and acquaintance of the author, “Paul’s embrace of universal reconciliation . . . lies embedded in the book.”[8] But just what is Universal Reconciliation?

In the words of one theologian, Universal Reconciliation,

. . . maintains that Christ’s death accomplished its purpose in reconciling all humankind to God. The death of Christ made it possible for God to accept all humans, and he has done so. Consequently, whatever separation exists between a human and the benefits of God’s grace is subjective in nature; it exists only in the human’s mind. [9]

In short, Universal Reconciliation holds that without exception, and for reason of Christ’s atonement, all persons are saved. The world needs to do nothing to be reconciled to God, for according to Papa, she is fully reconciled to the world.

While talking with Mack, Papa leans forward, crossing her arms on the table, and says to him, “Honey, you asked me what Jesus did on the cross; so now listen to me carefully: through his death and resurrection, I am now fully reconciled to the world.” (Emphasis mine, The Shack, 192) In a later conversation, Papa tells Mack, “In Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship.” (Emphasis mine, The Shack, 225) Rightly, the allegory points to Jesus’ cross as the centerpiece of reconciliation. But wrongly, on a number of counts, Papa’s statements can be misleading.

First, God’s state is not one of being reconciled to the world. In fact, God does not need to be reconciled to the world for He has never done anything to estrange Himself from the world. About the New Testament passages dealing with reconciliation between man and God, James Denney commented in his classic work, The Death of Christ,

Where reconciliation is spoken of in St. Paul, the subject is always God, and the object is always man. The work of reconciling is one in which the initiative is taken by God, and the cost borne by Him; men are reconciled in the passive, or allow themselves to be reconciled, or receive reconciliation. We never read that God has been reconciled. [10]

Denney’s statement contradicts Papa’s.

To see whether Denney’s observation is correct, we should notice three central New Testament passages that mention man’s reconciliation to God (Romans 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21; Colossians 1:21, KJV). In each of these passages, God is the subject of reconciliation, and man is the object. In these passages, man is reconciled to God, and not the other way around. We quote.

For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. (Emphasis mine, Romans 5:10)

And all things are of
God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. (Emphasis mine, 2 Corinthians 5:18-20)

And you
, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled In the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight . . . (Colossians 1:21-22)

These Scriptures do not reveal God is reconciled to man. God possesses no “need” to be reconciled to sinners. While through the cross God reconciles sinners to Himself, it is not the other way around. In this regard, the two adverbs which modify “reconciled” in Papa’s statement are troubling.

The first adverb “I am now suggests there was a time when God was not reconciled to sinners.[11] The adverb describes the state of something in the present that was not the case in the past. But as has already been noted, the cross did not reconcile God to sinners, but rather sinners to God. From God’s perspective, the atonement made the world savable.

The following adverb, “I am now fully,” implies that nothing else is needed for reconciliation to occur.[12] Papa’s declaration makes it seem that, as far as God is concerned, reconciliation is a done deal—that peace between God and man has been secured when in fact it has not. Yes, on the basis of Jesus’ atonement, God offers the “olive branch” of reconciliation to people, but it does not stand that they are automatically reconciled to God or are moved to accept His peace plan (i.e., the Gospel). As has been pointed out, people do refuse to believe the Gospel thereby short circuiting relationship with Him. It cannot therefore be rightfully stated that God is “now fully reconciled to the world.”

Second, the world’s standing is in fact, not one of being fully reconciled to God. The “atonement” of Jesus forces nobody into “at-one-ment” with God. Though the cross makes reconciliation with God accessible to man, it is not thereby consequent that all persons will receive the reconciliation He offers, for God does not coerce people into relationship with Him. He invites, but does not impose. Thus, after declaring others and himself to be “ambassadors for Christ,” the Apostle asks, “as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (Emphasis mine, 2 Corinthians 5:20). If everybody stands “now fully” reconciled to God, then Paul’s plea is unnecessary. But in the cross, God is simply saying to man, “These are the terms by which you may be reconciled to Me. Now, it’s your move.” Theologian Thomas Oden states that the completed work of the cross is an offer . . .

to receive God’s reconciling act. Until that occurs through repentance and faith, the sinner remains behaviorally unreconciled to God, even though God offers it already as a gift . . . [13]

But obviously, there is a sense in which, despite the cross, all persons do not receive God’s pleading invitation to be at peace with Him. For whatever the reason, many persons ignore or refuse God’s invitation. They are not moved. They follow their own spiritual agenda. For example, the agenda of some is atheistic. They mock the thought of God’s existence. The agenda of others might be hedonistic. They love “feel-good” experiences more than God. Others are narcissistic. They love themselves more than God. Others in life are materialistic. They love things more than God. If any of these attitudes dictate our lifestyle, then Scripture declares that, “the love of the Father is not in” us (1 John 2:15). Of spiritual infidelity, James states: “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (James 4:4). There are those who mock the Gospel, who think of it as either foolishness or a scandal (1 Corinthians 1:23). Do such attitudes and responses evidence a state of being at peace with God? Without exception, all persons are not “fully” reconciled to God, for if they were, they would all be saved. So the question arises, how can someone be reconciled to God?

Adolf Schlatter stated that because reconciliation is an aspect of justification, “reconciliation occurs by faith” (Romans 5:8).[14] Absent repentance for sin and faith in the Gospel, persons will remain un-reconciled to God (Romans 1:5; Hebrews 11:6). Though God extends the olive branch of peace to people, many refuse to accept the divinely initiated overture thereby imploding the whole reconciliation process. They refuse to accept God’s peace plan. The sinful rebels remain at war with God. We turn now to address the theological implications of universalism—how UR affects other vital Christian teachings.

Stay tuned for the riveting conclusion . . . .

The Truth:

"But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him" neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." (1 Corinthians 2:14)

7. Wayne Jacobsen, “Is The Shack Heresy? LifeStream Blog,
8. An acquaintance of Paul Young, a “theological buddy,” has written an extended essay that tracks The Shack’s universalism. See James B. De Young, At the Back of the Shack a Torrent of Universalism (Damascus, Oregon: Revised May 2008, 39 pages). Professor De Young’s essay can be downloaded online in a PDF format at ( Like Jacobsen in the preceding quote, De Young states, “About four years ago Paul embraced universal reconciliation, and strongly defended his decision” (p. 5).
9. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998) 1027.
10. Emphasis mine, James Denney, The Death of Christ (Minneapolis: Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, Inc., 1982 Reprint) 103. Morris also states: “It is interesting to notice that no New Testament passage speaks of Christ reconciling God to man. Always the stress is on man being reconciled. . . . It is man’s sin which has caused the enmity.” See Leon L. Morris, “Reconciliation,” The New Bible Dictionary, J.D. Douglas, Organizing Editor (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962) 1077. Further, of the eleven New Testament mentions of reconciliation, “in every instance man is said to be reconciled to God.” See John F. Walvoord, Jesus Christ Our Lord (Chicago: Moody Press, 1969) 179.
11. As dictionaries define the word, “now” means “at this time or moment . . . nowadays.” See The Random House College Dictionary, Revised, Laurence Urdang, Editor in Chief (New York: Random House, 1988) 911.
12. The word means “containing all that can be held; filled to the utmost capacity; . . . complete; entire.” See Ibid. 534.
13. Thomas C. Oden, The Word of Life, Systematic Theology: Volume Two (Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press, 1989) 356.
14. Adolf Schlatter, The Theology of the Apostles, Translated by Andreas J. Köstenberger (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999) 246.

*UR is the belief that every person who has ever lived is, or will ultimately be, either before or after death, reconciled to God. Historically, universal reconciliation leads to Unitarianism which denies the biblical Trinity. After all, if God saves all persons, who needs Christ and His atonement on the cross, or the application of salvation to the human soul by the Holy Spirit? Universalism makes the Trinity unnecessary!