My response to the movie is pretty much what it was to the book. It’s a very affective movie. It’s emotionally moving. But how it affects us emotionally isn’t the measure of whether it’s a good movie. And too often Christians use that measurement—for instance, in worship songs that make us feel close to God but actually are about us rather than God
We don’t understand how much God loves us, and the loving embrace of the three characters, including Papa as a woman, gets that across. The idea of seeing God face to face is wonderful. I often think how happy my parents and others I know are who now see God face to face. When I was a kid, I had a book I loved called If Jesus Came to My House about Jesus visiting a child, and I kept thinking about that during the movie. How great it will be to be with God face to face.
We believe God is good and therefore trust that He’s at work even when we don’t understand it. The movie makes that point really well. When we begin to apprehend how good God is and how much He loves us, we can trust Him like a child trusts a good and loving parent. We rest in that.
The movie makes an effective point about how we place ourselves in the judgment seat over God and others, and we have no place there. We’re playing God, and that’s not our place. That really spoke to me because I can be very judgmental.
In the conclusion, the narrator says that after this healing experience of grace, Mack was quick to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. When we’ve really experienced grace and remember how much grace and mercy God gives us—how humbling, but comforting, grace is—that is how we become.
But, while there are affective and true things in the story, there are some very fundamental problems.
The most fatal flaw is imaging the Trinity—we should not do it because it misrepresents the Trinity and cannot accurately represent the Trinity. The Trinity isn’t physical, so any physical representation will mispresent the truth of the Trinity. Greg has always said not to use illustrations to try to explain the Trinity because every one of them actually defines a heresy. That’s the case in The Shack—it’s impossible to represent God accurately in physical form, therefore we should not do it.
We can accurately define the Trinity even if the words cannot capture the full mystery of the Trinity. Augustine’s definition of the Trinity: The Father is God, the son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet they are not three Gods, but one God. The Nicene and Athanasian Creeds work out some of the details of the Trinity. The Athanasian Creed says we cannot divide the divine substance in our understanding of the Trinity, and there’s no way to avoid that when picturing the Trinity in a movie because the three persons can be represented, but not the single divine substance, the unity of the three persons. The Trinity is not physical and it’s totally unique, so there is no way to represent it without going to one error or another.
Any physical representation of the Trinity will necessarily mislead us about God’s true nature. That’s probably why God prohibited it in the Second Commandment.
Some have compared the Trinity in The Shack to Aslan of Narnia, but they aren’t parallel. Aslan is a Christ-like figure, not the Trinity. Jesus did take on physical substance, so He’s different from the other two persons of the Trinity, but the Father and the Spirit are and have always been immaterial. Tim Challies has a good article talking about the different genre types that show why the comparison doesn’t work. Aslan is in a fantasy world, so Aslan isn’t Jesus. C. S. Lewis wasn’t trying to make a direct representation of Jesus; Aslan is a character like Jesus. But The Shack takes place in the real world and has characters in this world meant to be the Trinity. It can’t help but make claims about the true God. The kind of literature makes a difference in how to interpret these characters.
There’s a problem with portraying Papa, the Father, as a woman. The Bible tells us about qualities the Father has that we understand as more feminine—a hen gathering her chicks—but God revealed Himself as Father and we should not mess with that. The Bible describes some of God’s qualities in feminine terms, but all of His titles, names, and pronouns are masculine. It’s how He chose to make Himself known to us. Papa says to Mack that He’s appearing as a woman because of Mack’s bad relationship with his father. People these days think it’s okay to change the pronouns in the Bible. But God has revealed Himself in words He chose. Papa says He’s known by many names and the Bible gives many names for God, but not the one she says in the movie, Elousia.
There’s confusion in the roles of the Trinity—Papa has nail marks on her wrists. She says, “What happens to my Son leaves a mark on me,” meaning Papa was there with Jesus. But the Father was not crucified. I think the Spirit had the nail marks, too. Again, there may be an emotionally appealing point there, but it’s not biblical, and it’s confusing the persons of the Trinity.
Papa says she doesn’t punish and she isn’t wrathful. God doesn’t punish His children, He disciplines us. But He does punish unredeemed sinners. The Bible tells us God is wrathful. He’s loving and He’s just. We can’t solve the problem of evil, pain, and suffering by leaving out part of what the Bible says about God.
The view of salvation is unclear. “I’m especially fond of everyone,” is the refrain. Well, yes. But if God loves everyone and doesn’t punish, does everyone go to Heaven? In the movie, Jesus says His way isn’t a religion and He’s not a Christian. I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean. Maybe He doesn’t fit stereotypes?
There’s always a limitation to how much can be explained theologically in a story like this. There’s a certain amount of imprecision that all kinds of errors can be read into. But that’s all the more reason not to recommend this movie and book. It says some things that are biblical, many things that aren’t biblical, and says some things imprecisely, so it’s not clear. Even if a fictional narrative can’t tease out all the theological niceties, it can state things in ways that aren’t vague and misleading.
God’s revelation limits us by what God has told us about Himself, and these aren’t details to be tinkered with. Christians have gotten used to using Scripture for our purposes, snatching verses out of context, asking what this means to me rather than what God meant. God tells us about Himself, and we need to work out our understanding within those boundaries.
We cannot solve the problem of pain and suffering by limiting what God has told us about Himself—He’s loving and wrathful. The God of The Shack is only loving. While that’s incredibly comforting, and something we can relate to, it’s not the Bible’s God.
Because fiction can have so much emotional power, it can bypass our critical thinking, and we accept ideas without evaluating them. This is the problem with so much popular culture. It’s no less a problem with Christian fiction.
For all the good in this movie, the flaws are too serious because they are about who God is. Many Christians never learn about the Trinity. They never learn the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, which are teaching tools. They don’t understand the Trinity, so their views are shaped by things like this movie. As a result, they have a false view of God. None of us can know God completely in this life. We can’t fathom all the details of the Trinity. But we must be faithful to the biblical revelation because that’s how God has made Himself known to us.
Paul Young, the author of The Shack, has just published a non-fiction book describing his theological views. He's clarified the ambiguities and answered questions that were unclear in the book and movie. And it's not historic, biblical Christianity.