The Theological Implications
Part 3: THE SHACK and Universal Reconciliation
Writing from the standpoint of being a one time “theological buddy” of Paul Young, author of The Shack, James De Young notes that the “the most serious error is Paul’s embrace of Universal Reconciliation which lies imbedded in the book.” When applied to Christianity, Universal Reconciliation (UR) behaves like a computer virus that first invades, and then infects the whole body of biblical Truth. Contradicting distinctive Christian teachings, UR proposes a dialectic that changes biblical beliefs about God’s love and justice, Jesus’ atonement, heaven and hell, and the balance between divine sovereignty and human responsibility.
In the composite of His being, the loving God is interested in personal relationships (John 1:12). But at the same time, He remains holy and just (Isaiah 6:1-7; Genesis 18:25). At one and the same time, He is both separate from and near to His creation and His creatures. At times, He even becomes angry with people (Ezekiel 16:26; 38:17-23). After all, how should God feel about and respond to the crimes and injustices He sees perpetrated by one group or individual against others? Is He to idly stand by and let the villains get away with it? If UR is true, then, yes. Love trumps anger and justice. But if UR is not true, the answer is, no. Sooner or later, in this life or the next, God will bring the bad guys to justice and punish them. This is the wrath of God. But in sync with a UR worldview, The Shack manifests aversion to the idea of divine wrath.
Alluding to a biblical statement in the book of James—by the way, biblical allusion can peddle spiritual delusion—the sensual Sophia tells Mack that Jesus and Papa chose the way of the cross, “For love.” The “all-wise-Sophia” then explains to Mack, “He chose the way of the cross where mercy triumphs over justice because of love.” Rebuking Mack, who is role-playing Judge, she asks, “Would you instead prefer he’d chosen justice for everyone? Do you want justice, ‘Dear Judge’?” (The Shack, 164-165) For salvation to be universal, God’s love (mercy) must overrule God’s justice (righteousness) and sense of fair play.
When isolated from the rest of Scripture, and on the face of it, James’ statement (“mercy triumphs over judgment,” James 2:13b), might seem to support the contention that God’s mercy will trump His justice in the end. But as the context shows (James 2:1-13), James is addressing the issue of equity between people, admonishing them to work out their relationships according to God’s rules (“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself . . . Do not commit adultery. . . Do not kill.”). If they discriminate against the less fortunate around them, if they fail to love their fellows, then they can be certain of one thing: “judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:13a, NASB). In other words, the first half of the verse affirms our accountability to God for how we treat others. Give no mercy in this life, receive no mercy in the next life (Compare Matthew 5:7.). On the other hand, the merciful will be exonerated, for in the last judgment “mercy triumphs over judgment” for them. Ironically, the first half of the verse affirms the opposite from what UR supposes the last half does; namely, that love overrides justice. But because God’s being is balanced, His love does not diminish His justice (Galatians 5:21; Revelation 20:10, 15; 21:8; 22:15). Yet one scene in the The Shack suggests otherwise.
In a comfortable, schmoozing, and relational conversation about the Canadian rock musician Bruce Cockburn, Papa says to Mack, “Mackenzie, I have no favorites; I am just especially fond of him.” Mack then responds, “You seem to be especially fond of a lot of people . . . Are there any who you are not especially fond of?” After pensively contemplating the question, Papa responds, “Nope, I haven’t been able to find any. Guess that’s jes’ the way I is.” (The Shack, 118-119) Bingo! God is as “fond” of Nero, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Saddam Hussein as He is of Jesus, or Mother Theresa. It’s all one big “circle of relationship” (“Kum Ba Ya”). As Morris comments,
The other religions of the world, in either ancient or modern times, lack a deep sense of the purity and holiness of God and of the ill desert of sin. It is thought unpalatable to man that God’s holiness must be taken seriously in any attempt to solve the problem of reconciliation.
Any universalism necessitates imagining a God at variance from His transparent self-disclosure in the Bible. So this exchange of divine wrath in favor of divine love causes The Shack to jettison the doctrine of Jesus’ penal and substitutionary atonement for sin.
Theologian Wayne Grudem explains that the penal-substitutionary atonement of Christ “has been the orthodox understanding of the atonement . . . in contrast to other views that attempt to explain the atonement apart from the idea of the wrath of God or payment of the penalty for sin.” Because in The Shack’s view divine love supersedes divine wrath, we would expect to find indication in the book that Jesus did not die as our representative to provide a penal-substitutionary atonement for sin. And this we find.
In a poignant moment with “deep sadness in her eyes,” Papa tells Mack,
I am not who you think I am, Mackenzie. I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It is not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it. (The Shack, 119-120)
Thus, a Christian reader is left groping to explain why Jesus died. We need to understand the relationship of human sin to divine punishment.
Though Paul Young vaguely infers that the atonement might be substitutionary (The Shack, 162), he does not, for reason of love eclipsing wrath, and for Papa’s co-crucifixion with Jesus, present it as the payment of a penalty for sin (Remember Papa said: “I don’t need to punish people for sin.”). The issue is not whether God needs to punish people for sin. After all, who are we to tell God what His needs are, or are not? The issue is whether God does punish sin, and according to the Bible, He has punished and still punishes sin.
The Bible tells us that physical death is God’s continuing punishment for sin. Though we may deny we’re sinners, we cannot claim exemption from death. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12; Compare Genesis 2:16-17.). So if God possesses no “need” to punish people for sin, then why not abolish death now? But excepting the generation of the translation (1 Corinthians 15:50-56), we are all destined to die. As a pundit put it, “The statistics on death are overwhelming. One out of one person dies!” Death happens. I know, for as a pastor, I’ve officiated at hundreds of funerals. So about the inference that God doesn’t punish sin, let’s get real. If He still punishes sin in time, how can we be sure He won’t punish sin in eternity? We can’t, and this fact brings us to consider the death of Jesus.
Though men dispute the reason for Jesus’ death, and whether or not He was raised from the dead, they do not dispute that He died. That’s history. He lived. He died. In light of death’s cause, that it remains a continuing punishment for sin, the begging question becomes—why did Jesus die? Did He die to be punished for His own sins? If so, then He was just another sinner like the rest of us because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). But the Scriptures declare Him to be sinless (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 1:19). Thus, did He, as opposed to the forbidding idea that He died for His own sins, vicariously die as the penal substitute for the sins of others? The Scriptures declare this to be the reason Christ suffered and died (Isaiah 53:4-6; 2 Corinthians 5:21). In fact, that’s why Jesus said He would die (Mark 10:45) Now either Jesus deserved to die for His own sin(s), or He died for the sins of others. As Donald Macleod summarizes:
People speak with horror of ‘the penal theory of the atonement’. But what happened to Christ on the cross? He died. And what is death? It is the penalty for sin! . . . On that cross He was dealt with as sin deserved. The glory of it is, it wasn’t His own sin. It was our sin. He bore the sin of the world (John 1:29). 
As with other world religions, and believing that people want a relationship with God, universal salvation rejects the idea that sin is a personal offense against God that deserves punishment (Contra Psalm 51:1-4; Romans 3:21-26; 1 John 2:2; 4:10.). Therefore, the demand for penal propitiation of sin becomes unbecoming of a “touchy-touchy-feely-feely” god who has been manufactured by our emoting culture and church.
So if all persons are saved (i.e., universally reconciled), then the question arises, “Why the cross in the first place?” Robertson McQuilken summarizes the dilemma. He writes that universalism,
. . . undermines belief in the atoning death of Christ. For if all sin will ultimately be overlooked by a gracious deity, Christ never should have died. It was not only unnecessary, it was surely the greatest error in history . . . Universalism . . . demands a view of the death of Christ as having some purpose other than as an atonement for sin. 
Thus in the salvific scheme of universalism, Jesus died for some reason other than that we might be forgiven for our sins.
Beginning with Abelard (1079-1142), liberal Christianity proposes that Jesus died to provide mankind with an inspiring and sacrificial example. Though His death does give us that (John 15:13), the implications of His atonement are far more profound.
As I see it, the atonement theory of The Shack seems to be that Jesus died to inspire people to become more selfless as they seek “relationship” with God and with each other. (The Shack, 225) One theologian frames the liberal theory of the atonement: “If there is anything liberal theology is agreed upon it is that the frequent biblical references to God’s wrath (anger, displeasure, indignation, rage, vengeance) must be interpreted down to mean something like frustrated love.” And that is exactly how The Shack interprets God’s wrath. Persons not choosing relationship with God merely frustrate His love for them, a love which in the end, will universally win out.
In a Universal Reconciliation scheme of redemption, divine wrath needs to be toned down. This may explain why The Shack pictures Papa as having been co-crucified with Jesus. (The Shack, 95, 102, 107, 222) As evidenced by the Jesus-like scars on her wrists, Papa had magnanimously borne her own wrath. Perhaps Papa even atoned for her sins. Who knows? But in that Papa was crucified with Jesus, it cannot be held that Christ suffered and died alone as man’s penal-substitute. (The Shack, 96) In a supreme exhibition of love, Papa took the hit herself. This is the ancient heresy of modalism in which the three members of the Trinity are so fused in their relationship that any personal distinction between them is lost.
According to the worldview of The Shack, Hell cannot exist because evil, however it may be perceived, is not real. It’s a mirage. Sarayu (the Holy Spirit) tells Mack, “Both evil and darkness can only be understood in relation to Light and Good; they (i.e., ‘evil and darkness’) do not have any actual existence.” (The Shack, 136) The logic of universalism might be constructed like this:
- The omni-present God of light is omni-benevolent toward all people.
- Hell would be a restricted, dark, and malevolent place.
- Therefore, assuming God’s omni-presence and benevolence, hell can’t exist.
Thus, as a place of “eternal punishment” and “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30, 46), universalism denies the existence of hell. God is “fond” of everyone. Universal Reconciliation cannot allow for a place where men are eternally separated from God, where any hope for “relationship” with God would be devastated. However metaphorical it might be, I think of the sign over the inferno in Dante’s Divine Comedy, “All hope abandon ye who enter here.” Hope can’t happen in hell.
It can also be charged that UR is fatalistic. Freedom of choice is violated to such a degree that even atheists are forced to spend eternity with a person they do not like in a place where they did not want to go—with God in heaven. There are fools who mutter in their hearts, “No God” (Psalm 14:1; 53:1). Sadly, the Bible describes some people as “haters of God” (Romans 1:30). Are we to project that such individuals, who in this life possess deep animus toward God and who have spent the majority of their lives despising and/or denying Him, will derive one moment’s enjoyment from being in the presence of the One whom they loathe? Will God grab these despisers and deniers by the nape of their necks and drag them “kicking and screaming” into heaven? Thus, C.S. Lewis wrote:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. 
Similarly, Alister McGrath also remarks: “Universalism perverts the gospel of the love of God into an obscene scene of theological rape quite unworthy of the God whom we encounter in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Absent faith in and acceptance of the truth, the differences between God and sinners are irreconcilable. Exhibiting that people can and do reject “relationship” with God, even after extensive pleading to be reconciled, Jesus lamented over the ancient Jewish nation, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Emphasis Mine, Matthew 23:37, KJV). If any person refuses relationship based upon the terms of the Gospel, they will remain un-reconciled to God—forever. But Christian believers have been reconciled and possess an eternal relationship with God through the penal and substitutionary blood atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. As a hymn writer states:
In my place condemned He stood—
Sealed my pardon with His blood:
Hallelujah! what a Savior!
Guilty, vile and helpless we,
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
Full atonement! Can it be?
Hallelujah! what a Savior! 
"For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Corinthians 5:21)
15. De Young, Back of the Shack, 3. De Young notes that, “The greatest doctrinal distortion in the book is Paul’s assumption of universal reconciliation” (p.3), and that the book’s storyline has “universal reconciliation at its base.” (p.4)
16. “A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God, than there are to His love and tenderness.” See Arthur W. Pink, The Attributes of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975) 82. After describing the fear of a little boy who, because of intimidating scenes recorded in the Old Testament, thought of Jehovah as a “dirty bully,” a liberal preacher explained: “We have long since rejected a conception of reconciliation associated historically with the idea of a Deity that is loathsome. God, for us, cannot be thought of as angry . . . who because of Adam’s sin must have his Shylockian (i.e., ruthless money-lending) pound of flesh.” See G. Bromley Oxnam, Preaching in a Revolutionary Age (Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Series, 1971) 79. The book comprises the Lyman Beecher lectures on preaching at Yale Divinity School, 1943-44.
17. The allusion is to James 2:13, where the second half of the verse states, “mercy triumphs over judgment” (NASB).
18. Morris, The Cross, 250-251.
19. Emphasis Mine, Wayne Grudem, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994) 579.
20. Donald Macleod, A Faith to Live By, Understanding Christian Doctrine (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2002) 151.
21. Contra Romans 3:11 which says, “there is none that seeketh after God.”
22. Robertson McQuilken, The Great Omission, A Biblical Basis for World Evangelism (Waynesboro, Georgia: Authentic Media, 2002) 41.
23. Vernon Grounds summarized that Abelard’s “view of our Lord’s passion, exhibiting the great love of God, so frees us from the fear of wrath that we may serve him in love.” Grounds notes that by subordinating “everything to the controlling idea that the cross” is the demonstration of God’s love, man’s love for God is “almost automatically” drawn out in return. Ground’s summary of Abelard’s theory describes the meaning of the atonement presented in The Shack. See Vernon C. Grounds, “Atonement,” Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, Everett F. Harrison, Editor-in-Chief (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960) 73.
24. Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd., 2005) 553.
25. Papa tells Mack, “Don’t ever think that what my son chose to do didn’t cost us dearly. Love always leaves a significant mark . . . We were there together.” (The Shack, 96) This statement is made in spite of the fact of Jesus’ cry, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
26. Brian D. McLaren disdains “violence and war” writing that it “is one of the reasons many of us have become critical in recent years of popular American eschatology in general, and conventional views of hell in particular.” See Everything Must Change (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007) 144. Nobody I know likes violence and war. I don’t. Yet the testaments, both Old and New, from beginning to end, contain it. Is the eschatology, McLaren and others are critical of, American, or biblical? Remember: America did not hatch the Bible.
27. C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, The Best of C.S. Lewis (New York: Christianity Today, Inc., 1969) 156. I thank Dr. De Young for drawing my attention to Lewis’ quote.
28. Alister McGrath, Justification by Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988) 106. Again, I note that Dr. De Young drew my attention to Lewis’ quote. Though he is an Arminian within the camp of open theism, Clark Pinnock states: “Universalism is not a viable position because of the gift of human freedom.” See William Crockett, General Editor, Four Views on Hell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996) 128.
29. Philip P. Bliss, “Hallelujah, What a Savior!” The Celebration Hymnal (Dallas: Word/Integrity, 1997) 311.