Book Review: Burning Down the Shack, by James B. De Young
â€œThe number one error of The Shack,â€ James De Young summarizes in an appendix to his critique of that influential bestseller, â€œis that Paul Young commits the great evil that he faults the human race for committing from the beginning onward. Paul Young makes the number one evil in the world...to be the independence from God that Adam and Eve exercised in the Garden of Eden.... Yet Paul Young himself indulges the great sin of independence. By embracing the basics of universal reconciliation, Young creates his own view of how love and holiness or justice relate but does not reflect all those texts that talk about the judgment of God on the unbelievers who reject himâ€. This analysis, which I find indubitably correct, goes far toward explaining the root error that has sprung up in many bitter fruits, which, elsewhere, De Young enumerates: â€œPaul Young improperly redefines the meaning of the Trinity and the special roles of God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He distorts the nature of Christ's crucifixion, the nature of sin and punishment, the wrath and judgment of God, and the nature of God's love and having a relationship with him. He has no place for the devil, the enemy of every Christian. He has corrupted the nature of forgiveness, the nature of faith and reconciliation, the nature of salvation, the very meaning of the gospel, who the children of God are, what the bible is, and the role of the institutions of the church, the state, and marriage. Indeed, he rejects the latter, twice calling them a 'trinity of terrors'â€.
These accusations are supported with a multiplicity of troubling quotations taken directly from The Shack; and they serve as evidence of what great errors God in his righteous wrath is often well-pleased to plunge them into who have rejected the sole sufficiency of his own self-revelation in the inspired scriptures, and have turned instead to fashioning God after their own imaginations and the councils of their own hearts. This bestseller has sadly influenced the spiritual perceptions of countless persons. I ardently urge you, if you are one of that number, to take a moment to consider very soberly and seriously if the picture of God that Paul Young has painted in The Shack is in accordance with the God who has condescended to reveal himself in the bible.
De Young's book may help you to undertake that sober consideration. Because of his previous, personal acquaintance with Paul Young, the author of The Shack, he is aware of the latter's spiritual journey, which resulted in a wholesale acceptance of the false teaching of universal reconciliation, and the life-changing effects that this error had upon him. The telltale signs of universalism, as De Young points out, are suffused throughout the entire novel; but his personal knowledge of the author vindicates one's finding of such elements, and serves to assure the uncertain reader that they really are there and they really are of a destructive nature, and attended by devastating consequences.
Of course, the false teachings of The Shack are not so hidden that they must be brought to light by long, laborious trains of logic, but they often lie right on the surface. De Young has helpfully collated many of these heretical sentiments, and deals at length with all of them, often in a clear and helpful manner. Some of the novel's false doctrines, which he treats of at length, I will reproduce here: God the Father says, â€œWhen we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully humanâ€; â€œAlthough Jesus is fully God, he has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anythingâ€; â€œI don't need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It's not my purpose to punish it; it's my joy to cure itâ€; â€œIn Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationshipâ€. Jesus says, â€œI don't create institutions â€“ never have, never willâ€; â€œI have no desire to make [people] Christiansâ€. The Holy Spirit says, â€œI have a great fondness for uncertaintyâ€. These and many other direct quotations show a great multitude of errors, many of them serious enough that they have been condemned as heresy by the Church throughout its history (e.g. the heresy of â€œPatripassianism,â€ which says that God the Father suffered on the cross, and which Young clearly teaches, making his imagined character of God the Father to have nail prints on his [her!] wrists, among other things).
In addition to these and other direct quotations, De Young also summarizes and debunks many false teachings that are the subject of extended discourses in the novel: errors such as the belief that, in the â€œcircle of relationshipâ€ both in the Trinity and between God and men, there is no authority and no submission; the belief that all people are God's children, and he could never send them to eternal punishment just because they sin against him; and that all three persons of the Trinity were crucified on the cross.
De Young also deals well with the common argument that, as this novel is only fiction, it is illegitimate to rail against the doctrines espoused by the book's protagonist as if they were the author's own. On the contrary, the doctrine espoused by this fictional work is the very thing that is having such an impact on so many people. The overwhelming consensus, among those who approve of it, is that it has changed their perception of God and the nature of their relationship with him; but if this is the case, then it has given them a false god and a matrix of heresies to trust in: whether that image of â€œGod,â€ which they purport to be helpful and even life-changing, comes through the vehicle of doctrinal treatise or popular fiction, it is a false god nonetheless.
Although I am grateful to De Young for his work, and find much value in his exposing the many false teachings and heretical statements in the book, yet for the record, I must say that I do not find myself fully sympathetic to some of his own theology. I think he himself is somewhat errant on a few points, and that, because of that errant tendency, he has not always been able to deal quite as well as he otherwise could have with Paul Young's errors. One of the most disconcerting of De Young's erroneous statements comes from a faulty understanding of Hebrews 6, with a troubling effect on the power of God to produce a new heart of faith even in those who by nature disbelieve, and which therefore, by necessary implication, either makes salvation impossible for all (because all are by nature unwilling to believe) or gives them who choose to believe an opportunity to glory in their own wills. I quote: â€œFinally, if Hebrews 6:3-6 says that it is impossible for God to renew to repentance those who turn away and reject him, then it is impossible for God to do something that would allow mercy to triumph over justice. That something is to overturn the human choice to disbelieve and disobey the gospel and, according to the claims of universalism, to bring a person through the purifying powers of hell so that the person repents and comes out of hell to God. This verse says that God cannot override a person's unbelief, but the universal reconciliation asserts that God's love must do thisâ€ (emphasis added). It is true that the doctrine of universal reconciliation is patently wrong; but De Young is also wrong here, and if he is right, then our desperate cry must be, â€œWho, then, is able to be saved?â€. But praise God, that he is able to do the humanly impossible, and grant true faith and repentance to those who, before he regenerated them, refused to believe! I bring this up only to say this: while I would recommend Burning Down the Shack for its helpful cataloguing and explaining a multiplicity of heretical elements in The Shack, I would not recommend it for constructing a true, biblical theology in its place.
With this final point I close: I think that the fundamental error which De Young perceives in The Shack, namely, an attempt to portray the doctrines of God's character independently of his gracious condescension to reveal himself through the scriptures, is not brought out so clearly with regard to the central, presumptuous, and altogether blasphemous tenet of the whole book, that it is ever permissible to portray the one true and living God of the heavens and the earth according to a fashion or pattern of our own devising. When Israel bowed down before the golden calf and said, â€œThis is Yahweh, who brought us up out of Egypt,â€ they did not consider themselves to be idolaters, for they falsely professed themselves still to be worshipping Yahweh, the true God â€“ but they had presumed to give him a form by which he had never permitted himself to be revealed. The Almighty God of the universe has condescended to reveal his character through his perfect word, and finally, even by his perfect Image and the very Radiance of his glory, even, that is, through the eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ; and woe to anyone who, madly despising that infinite condescension and immense grace, chooses instead to bow down to an idol of his own imagination! To anyone who says, â€œIt is but fiction, one must understand the artistic intentions of the author,â€ I reply, â€œAnd who are you, O man, to spurn God's second commandment, and frame God in terms of an African woman named 'Papa' and an Asian woman named 'Sarayu,' when God has never revealed himself that way? Who are you to put thoughts and words in the mouth of the Almighty which he himself never uttered, and which never entered his heart?â€. If one should grind this book to powder and make all those who embrace its teaching to drink it down and expel it in the latrines, he would be doing less than such intolerable presumption warrants. If you fear for your soul and tremble to despise infinite Majesty and balk at omnipotent Dominion, whoever you may be who has read The Shack, then I plead with you to read it only with a heart full of terror at those who presume to fashion God in their own image, and a humble resolve to submit to the true God of scriptures, fully and perfectly revealed in Christ alone, so that in him alone you may find mercy and grace on the coming Day of Judgment.