The Shack: A Journey from Pain to Truth to Error – Part 1: Pain

The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity[1] is a presentation of Trinitarian Theology and perichoresis[2] in the form of story, novel, and dialogue. This Trinitarian Theology is both like and not like our Lutheran confession of the Trinity.[3] The differences are contrary to the chief article on which the church stands or falls: justification and the redemption we have in Jesus.[4]

The theology and the story arise from two pressures:

  • Pain, loss, and suffering.
  • The perceived inadequacy of Calvinistic and Wesleyan-Arminian evangelicalism to heal pain.

Calvinism, with its limited atonement, double predestination[5] and Augustinian doctrine of original sin, law, and wrath, is seen as too mean[6] and rotten[7] to heal. These doctrines are taken as basically making you doubt that God wants you to be saved.

Weslyanism, Arminianism, and synergistic Americanized Evangelicalism lay on the sufferer too heavy a series of burdens, such as the burden to accept Jesus as your personal savior[8] and lead a sanctified life. Those performance demands lead to defeat and despair that only add to pain.

The Shack’s author “cried out to God for healing, rededicating himself and his life a hundred times, until his ‘rededicator’ finally burned out.”[9] It is not funny, but I must admit, I laugh when I read that, and I suspect that many of you Lutherans out there did the same at the words “rededicator” and “burned out,” particularly those of you who have been delivered from performance driven Evangelicalism.

These two pressures – pain and the inadequacy of “traditional Christianity” – drive a person in pain to look for something else, or drive those who try to help persons in pain to find something else.

Mack, the main character in The Shack, had a severely abusive upbringing by his hypocritical Christian father. Besides being a child abuser, his father was a drunk and a vicious wife beater. At a youth revival when he was 13, Mack told a church leader about his sense of guilt for failing to step in and help his mother on multiple occasions when his father beat her unconscious. The leader told Mack’s father. When Mack got home, all members of the family except his father were absent.

For almost two days, tied to the big oak at the back of the house, he was beaten with a belt and Bible verses every time his dad woke from a stupor and put down his bottle. Two weeks later, when Mack was finally able to put one foot in front of the other again, he just up and walked away from home. But before he left, he put varmint poison in every bottle of booze he could find on the farm.[10]

Mack became a performance driven people pleaser. He excelled at seminary and in work following school.

While camping with his children, his lifeguard skills kicked in and he launched into the lake to rescue a kid who fell out of a canoe. While occupied with this, a serial killer who had been casing the campground seized his opportunity to kidnap Missy, Mack’s precious little girl. Leaving his signature ladybug pin, the killer let everyone know Missy had been taken by a criminal none of whose many victims had been found.

The massive search leads to the shack, an abandoned and dilapidated dwelling in a mountain forest where, on the floor by the fireplace, lay Missy’s torn and blood-soaked red dress. Missy is not found.

Mack goes into “the Great Sadness.” He tries to embrace a stoic, unfeeling faith, but “it didn’t stop the nightmares where his feet were stuck in the mud and his soundless screams could not save his precious Missy.”[11]

About three and a half years later, one day, there is a note in the mailbox from Papa, who we will learn is God the Father. It says, “I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together.”[12]

Mack goes to the shack, the place of his loss and pain, and meets the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the forms of a large African-American woman (Papa or Elousia), a Middle-Eastern man (Jesus, Yeshua, Joshua, or Jesse), and a small, wirey Asian woman (Sarayu), respectively. He also meets Sophia in a cave.

Over the course of the weekend, through activities, events, experiences, and extensive didactic dialogues, Mack is taught Trinitarian Theology. This theology heals his pain.

This theology in a nutshell (which can only be an unfair oversimplification and an annoyingly long sentence), is this: The Triune God, whose persons are all about love and relationship, meet you in your shack, where your Great Sadness is, where your Missy’s blood-soaked red dress stained the wooden floor, where your failed independence, pain, loss, and guilt ruin your life, and reveal that they include you, always have included you, and always will include you, your Missy, her murderer, your abusive father, and everyone else in their perichoresis – their interpenetrating dance of loving relationship – which, when you believe this gospel, heals your pain.

The author, Wm. Paul Young, whose friends call him Paul, is able to make the pain vivid owing in part to his talent as a writer, but also to his own severely abused childhood.[13] Paul knows pain, and he connects with people who know pain.

Give him credit. Paul cares about people. He is devoting his life to trying to help people with pain, alienation, and guilt. He originally wrote The Shack just for his children, to include them in what was going on inside of himself,[14] to show them what healed his pain.[15] Later it turned into a public phenomenon, where Paul wants us to know that we are Mack.[16]

We Lutherans are in a unique position. On the one hand, we sympathize with important parts of the critique of Reformed and Arminian Protestantism that led to the theology and novel of The Shack. We have profound disagreements with them starting right at the doctrine of the Incarnation with their lamination theory[17] of the two natures in Christ.[18] Because “all theology is Christology,”[19] from there, many errors flow, and those errors do inhibit the delivery to sinners of their medicine, the forgiveness of sins. The person who feels unforgiven feels the way Trinitarian Theology complains that Calvinism and Arminianism leave you: in pain without God.

On the other hand, just as Protestants tend to see the whole universe of options as confined to the Calvinist-Arminian rivalry and are oblivious to the Lutheran way, in reacting to the insufficiencies of Calvinism and Arminianism to heal pain, Trinitarian Theology continues on in oblivion to the Lutheran way, and thereby has tragically missed the balm in Gilead.[20]

In the next article of this series, we will look at something that happened parallel to Paul’s pain of his Great Sadness. Parallel to Paul being in his Great Sadness, in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a “renaissance of Trinitarian theology.”[21] A vein of this renaissance becomes the theology of The Shack.


[1] Wm. Paul Young, The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity (Newberry Park, CA: Windblown Media, 2007). This article is based on the Kindle edition.

[2] “If today’s devotees of trinitarian theology learn only one technical term, perichoresis should be it.” Roderick T. Leupp, Renewal of Trinitarian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), pp. 71-72, quoted in James D. Gifford, Jr., Perichoretic Salvation: The Believer’s Union with Christ as a Third Type of Perichoresis, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), p. 15.

The sharing between the Father and Son in the Spirit is so deep and genuine, the intimacy so real and personal, that our minds are forced to move even beyond the rich notion of face-to-face fellowship into the world of mutual indwelling and union. The relationship of the Son and the Father in the Spirit is a living and unobstructed fellowship of love of the deepest order. They know one another fully. They live a fellowship of unqualified personal interchange and communion in the Spirit, which is so flawless, so rich and thorough and true, that there is literal mutual indwelling. The Persons pass into one another and contain one another without losing themselves. When one weeps, the other tastes salt, yet they never get so entangled or enmeshed that they lose themselves and become one another. The beautiful word perichoresis (peri-co-ray-sis), my favorite theological word, says both things at once.[6] Perichoresis means mutual indwelling, or interpenetration, without loss of individuality: “The doctrine of the perichoresis links together in a brilliant way the threeness and the unity, without reducing the threeness to the unity, or dissolving the unity in the threeness.”[7]

Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (pp. 112-113). FaithWords. Kindle Edition. (Citing at n. 6, Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, pp. 168ff. Quoting at n. 7, Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (London: SCM Press, 1981), p. 175.).

Perichoresis is to dance or flow around, mutual movement, mutual indwelling. Each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love. See Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, (New York: Penguin Group, 208) p. 215.

[3] People of Reformed, Weslyan-Arminian, and Enthusiasm backgrounds tend to have little knowledge or appreciation for the role of the Trinity in the Lutheran faith. They are oblivious to the reasons Luther restructured the Creed in the Catechism as part of his making the Catechism evangelical again. They are oblivious to its repeated and continual place in the liturgy, its place in the Sacraments, its place in a Lutheran’s daily prayers, and to the Lutheran understanding of the Trinity in our atonement, repentance, justification, and assurance.

[4] Luther called this doctrine the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae (‘article of the standing and falling of the church’): ‘…if this article stands, the Church stands; if it falls, the Church falls.’ In XV Psalmos graduum 1532-33; WA 40/III.352.3. In the Smalcald Articles, he said:

The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 3:24-25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23-25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us … Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls [Mark 13:31]. … Upon this article everything that we teach and practice depends, in opposition to the pope, the devil, and the whole world. Therefore, we must be certain and not doubt this doctrine. Otherwise all is lost, and the pope, the devil, and all adversaries win the victory and the right over us.

Luther, Martin, Smalcald Articles, The Second Part, Article I, The Chief Article, paragraphs 1-5 in McCain, Paul Timothy, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, 2nd ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), p. 265.

[5] Double predestination means not only predestination of the saved to salvation, which the Lutheran church confesses, but also predestination of the lost to damnation, which the Lutheran church rejects.

[6] “‘Missy was next to ask, ‘Is the Great Spirit another name for God – you know, Jesus’ Papa?’ Mack smiled in the dark. Obviously, Nan’s nightly prayers were having an effect. ‘I would suppose so. It’s a good name for God because he is a spirit and he is great.’ ‘Then how come he’s so mean?’ Ah, here was the question that had been brewing. ‘What do you mean, Missy?’ ‘Well, the Great Spirit makes the princess jump off the cliff and makes Jesus die on a cross. That seems pretty mean to me.’” Young, William P.. The Shack (pp. 20-21). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

“’But –‘ Mack paused. ‘What about your wrath? It seems to me that if you’re going to pretend to be God Almighty, you need to be a lot angrier.’” Id., p. 124.

“Weren’t you always running around killing people in the Bible? You just don’t seem to fit the bill.” Id.

“But if you are God, aren’t you the One spilling out great bowls of wrath and throwing people into a burning lake of fire?” Id. See also the critique of the sermon by Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God,” and of Calvinism generally, in Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (pp. 53-56). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[7] “Mackensie, … You don’t believe that Father loves his children very well, do you? You don’t truly believe that God is good, do you?’ ‘Is Missy his child?’ Mack snapped. ‘Then no!’ he blurted, rising to his feet. ‘I don’t believe that God loves all of his children very well!’” Id., p. 167.

[8] Dr. Luther explains the Third Article of the Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.” Small Catechism, The Creed, Article Three. On the inability of sinners before regeneration to convert themselves to God or make a decision for Christ, see:

[9] Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 7). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[10] Young, William P.. The Shack (p. xii). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

[11] Young, William P.. The Shack (p. 62). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

[12] Young, William P.. The Shack (p. 4). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

[13] “By the time Paul was six years old, he had been emotionally abandoned, physically and verbally beaten, and sexually abused – repeatedly. To say the least, he was crippled inside from his early days in life. No child – no person – can withstand such trauma. It creates a lethal roux of shame, fear, insecurity, anxiety, and guilt. These invisibles coalesce into a damning, debilitating, and unshakable whisper: “I am not all right. I am not good, not worthy, not important, not lovable, not human,” which haunts every single moment of life. How does a child, or anyone, cope with an inner world of such anguish? No one can.” Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (pp. 5-6). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[14] “The inside world, the world of the invisibles, of pain and turmoil, of shame, broken hearts, and broken dreams, is the world that drives us all.” Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 5). FaithWords. Kindle Edition. “The story behind the story is the gut-wrenching hell that Paul Young suffered in his own life.” Id.

[15] “There is no healing in religion. Healing happens when you meet Jesus in your garbage can – or your shack – a place Paul, like most of us, tried hard to deny even existed.” Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 8). FaithWords. Kindle Edition. “The Father, Son, and Spirit, whom he calls Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu, are not myths like Santa Claus, the white, blue-eyed Jesus, and the tooth fairy. They are real. They meet us in our pain; in our anger, bitterness, and resentment; in our shame and guilt and powerlessness; in our miserable, broken relationships – and in our deadly religion – and there they love us into life and freedom.” Id., pp. 10-11. “Mack found no real help in the very ‘religion’ with which many of us have grown up. To be sure, he eventually found serious healing, but the price was the deconstruction of almost everything he had ever been told about God, about himself and others, about life – though not of what he had heard whispered to him in the Spirit.” Id., p. 14.

[16] “Lesson One of the story is that we are Mackenzie. The astonishing embrace enfolding him is the truth about us. We are known, loved, and delighted in by the Father, Son, and Spirit, just as we are, whether we believe in God or not. The truth is we have already been embraced by Jesus’ Papa and by the Spirit. That is what the coming of Jesus was all about. The blessed Trinity has already met us in our shacks. In Jesus they have pitched their tents inside our garbage cans. We belong to the Father, Son, and Spirit. We always have, and always will; Jesus has seen to that personally. But like Mackenzie, we have wrong eyes; there is so much hurt, we cannot possibly know the truth or believe it – yet. But so it is.” Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 26). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[17] Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article VIII, The Person of Christ, para. 13.

[18] The Reformed theory of the Incarnation is as if two different kinds of wood were glued together. This limits the extent to which the second person of the Trinity is incarnate in the man Christ Jesus. The glue of that lamination is an insulator between the two natures. There is no communication of attributes between them. This distance between God and man in Christ sets up a persisting distance between God and many everywhere. For example, Christ is present in Communion only spiritually, not bodily, on the belief that Christ as man cannot be everywhere present. Trinitarian Theology remedies this with the perichoresis of God and man in Christ. They don’t know that the Lutheran confessions of the Book of Concord already had overcome the inadequacy of faulty views of the Incarnation by its confession of the personal union of the two natures in Christ. The personal union makes both the God Christ Jesus and the man Christ Jesus able to be, in his whole person, including bodily, present in Communion. We reject the notion that because Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, He cannot simultaneously be bodily present at many Communion altars. He can, and besides, the right hand of God is not a physical location. The right hand of God is everywhere. Epitome of the Formula of Concord, Article VII, The Lord’s Supper, para. 12. The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, Article VIII, The Person of Christ.

[19] David P. Scaer, ‘All Theology is Christology: An Axiom in Search of Acceptance,’ Concordia Theological Quarterly, Volume: 80 Number: 1, 2016, p. 49-62. Scaer, David P., (eds. Dean O. Wenthe, William C. Weinrich, Arthur A. Just, Daniel Gard, and Thomas L. Olson), All Theology is Christology, (St. Louis: Concordia Theology Seminary Press, 2000).

[20] Jeremiah 8:22; 46:11.

[21] Christopher Schwöbel, ‘The Renaissance of Trinitarian Theology: Reasons, Problems and Tasks,’ in idem, ed., Trinitarian Theology Today: Essays on Divine Being and Act (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 1–30.

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