The Shack – A Journey from Pain to Truth to Error – Part 3: Truth to Error

In Part 1 of this series of articles we saw that The Shack and its theology arise from two pressures experienced by its author, Wm. Paul Young, and main character, Mackenzie Phillips: pain and the inadequacy of “traditional Christianity” to heal it. American Protestantism could not sooth Paul’s or Mack’s Great Sadness.

In Part 2 we saw the origin of the theology of The Shack in the “renaissance of trinitarian theology.”[1] This renaissance happened parallel to Paul’s experience of his Great Sadness. In one vein of the renaissance, Paul found healing. In The Shack he crafts a story of Mack learning Trinitarian Theology and finding his healing.

In those two parts, I assessed Paul’s movement from pain to Trinitarian Theology as, up to a point, a movement from pain to truth. The Trinity has been marginalized. A renewal of Trinitarian faith should happen. That is true. Pain brought Paul to this, and this much is good.

Tragically, however, the specific vein known by the name Trinitarian Theology gets carried away and falls into error. Trinitarian Theology, when it goes beyond what is revealed in Scripture, becomes a springboard for speculation. It becomes yet another Enthusiasm[2] that bases beliefs on intra nos sources, which are notions and experiences from inside us. Those beliefs overrule the extra nos means of grace, which are the external Word[3] and Sacraments. Giving authority to its speculations and Enthusiasm, it becomes a sola trinitas that overrules sola scriptura. This changes the doctrines of law, fall, sin, wrath, atonement, adoption, repentance, faith, and justification. Having changed those doctrines, it loses the Gospel.

The Shack expressly and purposely contradicts any understanding you ever had as a Lutheran of this compact confession of the Gospel:

How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:14)

This verse shows the actions of each person of the Trinity. Christ offers himself as a blood sacrifice. He offers himself through the Spirit. God receives and accepts Christ’s sacrifice.

By these actions, the Triune God worked for us “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood.” (Romans 3:24-25) In his Incarnation and state of humiliation, Christ was “made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2:17) “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” (1 John 2:2) “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

Trinitarian Theology portrayed in The Shack aborts the mission of propitiation. It abandons the work of exhausting the wrath of God upon Christ as our sin-bearing substitute. It does this by declaring there never was such wrath. It says the wrath seen at the cross is ours upon God, not God’s upon sin. Therefore Christ suffers not God’s wrath on sin, but our wrath. By suffering our wrath, Christ shows that all along, God had no wrath.

Repentance is the change of mind about wrath that the cross can inspire. By meeting us at our most guilty point, at the cross, where we inflict our wrath on God right while He is showing his imperturbable love for us, and by accepting us there in that crowning guilt, God reveals that there never was a wrath problem except in our insane minds.[4] When we believe that God never had wrath, that is repentance, a choice of relationship.[5] In The Shack, Papa tells Mack, “Forgiveness does not establish relationship. In Jesus, I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship”[6]

Trinitarian Theology teaches that the fundamental thing about God is perichoretic relationship.[7] Therefore the fundamental thing about creation is creating humans to share relationship,[8] the fundamental thing about sin is breaching relationship, and the fundamental thing about atonement is restoring relationship.[9] Sin is not that Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s Word. Sin is not unbelief in the Word. Sin is that they chose independence.[10] They chose going it on their own. That is perichoretic transgression.

Sin, as its own punishment, psyched out[11] Adam and Even into believing they were on their own. They believed God had wrath on sin and that they were alienated from the life of God. They projected that view onto God.[12] Our sin is to reject relationship, so we projected that sin onto God, believing that He rejects relationship with us. Man created that mythology about God.[13] Contrary to our projected mythology, wrath could not exist because perichoresis precludes out-of-hand that it could, unless we want to give to God’s therapeutic restoration of relationship the name “wrath.”[14]

Somewhere roughly around 600 A.D, the western church absorbed out of society a legal and forensic notion. This legal notion supplanted the perichoretic, relational teaching. Whereas the relational truth had been the church’s theory-of-everything,[15] now a legal notion was its theory-of-everything.[16]

Had the church not made this wrong turn, we would have known that Jesus came to the cross to reveal that:

The deadening whisper of our separation from God, of our rejection and abandonment, is here [at the cross] exposed to be mere fluff. For Jesus has included us all forever.”[17]

See what they did there, in saying “mere fluff?”

Thus, in The Shack, Papa tells Mack, “I 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 it.”[18]

How does He cure it? He cures it by a third stage of perichoresis. The story-of-everything in its briefest form has three stages:

  • Trinity (perichoresis of the persons of God)
  • Incarnation (perichoresis of God and man in Christ)
  • Union with Christ (soteriological perichoresis)[19]

We are not saved by vicarious sacrifice so much as by vicarious incarnation.

I had always believed that Jesus … did something for us. I had not seen – even though Professor Torrance was telling us so fifty times a day, in his great phrase “the vicarious humanity of Christ” – that in Jesus something happened not only for us, but to us and with us.[20]

It would take thirty-three years, a horrible crucifixion, and a bodily resurrection and ascension to work out, but in the incarnate Son there is an astonishing coming together of the blessed Trinity and all creation – all fallen creation. The implications of Jesus’ identity are staggering. His existence as the incarnate Son means that you are included in the life of the Trinity. So am I; we all are.[21]

To make this work on an ontological rather than forensic basis, in The Shack Papa says:

When we three spoke ourselves into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human. We also chose to embrace all the limitations this entailed. Even though we have always been present in this created universe, we now became flesh and blood.[22]

Others in Trinitarian Theology have realized the error of that teaching, and perhaps Paul will walk that back, given time. But, the core error of an atonement that does not atone, so that we do not receive justification and redemption in Jesus, would remain. We only receive a kind of relationship that never considered justice, so that God no longer is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:26)

In the next article of this series, I will provide my critique of the atonement theory of The Shack. The theory cannot withstand scriptural examination. It is oblivious to the Lutheran teaching of the atonement (see Second Article in the Large Catechism). It collapses under its own weight, because of its self-contradictions and incoherence. It is oblivious to the intensive work of the Lutheran reformation to minister to people in suffering.


[1] 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.

[2] See Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article III, Of Confession, ¶¶ 3-13.

“So, will I see you again?” he asked hesitantly.” “Of course. You might see me in a piece of art, or music, or silence, or through people, or in creation, or in your joy and sorrow. My ability to communicate is limitless, living and transforming, and it will always be tuned to Papa’s goodness and love. And you will hear and see me in the Bible in fresh ways. Just don’t look for rules and principles; look for relationship— a way of coming to be with us.” Young, William P.. The Shack (p. 216). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

“The Law that once contained impossible demands – ‘ Thou shall not…’ – actually becomes a promise we fulfill in you. … But keep in mind that if you live your life alone and independently, the promise is empty. … Jesus laid the demand of the Law to rest; it no longer has any power to accuse or command. Jesus is both the promise and its fulfillment.” “Are you saying I don’t have to follow the rules?” Mack had now completely stopped eating and was concentrating on the conversation. “Yes. In Jesus you are not under any law. All things are lawful.” “You can’t be serious! You’re messing with me again,” moaned Mack. “Child,” said Papa, “you ain’t heard nuthin’ yet.” “Mackenzie,” Sarayu continued, “those who are afraid of freedom are those who cannot trust us to live in them. Trying to keep the Law is actually a declaration of independence, a way of keeping control.” Young, William P.. The Shack (pp. 221-222). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

“Religion must use law to empower itself and control the people needed in order to survive. I give you an ability to respond and your response is to be free to love and serve in every situation, and therefore each moment is different and unique and wonderful. Because I am your ability to respond, I have to be present in you. If I simply gave you a responsibility, I would not have to be with you at all. It would now be a task to perform, an obligation to be met, something to fail.” Young, William P.. The Shack (p. 224). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

[3] “Try as he might, Mack could not escape the desperate possibility that the note just might be from God after all, even if the thought of God’s passing notes did not fit well with his theological training. In seminary he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while educated Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges?” Young, William P.. The Shack (pp. 62-63). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

[4] “Here is amazing grace. In breathtaking love, the Lord’s way of relationship involves the shocking acceptance of our cruelty. The Incarnation involves the inconceivable submission of the Trinity to our bizarre darkness and its bitter judgment. What sin could be more heinous than rejecting— and then murdering— the Father’s Son, and what grace could be more shocking and personal and real than the Lord willingly submitting himself to suffer our wrath so as to actually meet us in our terrible darkness?” Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 186). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[5] Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 236). FaithWords. Kindle Edition. In The Shack, Sophia says to Mack, “Return from your independence, Mackenzie. Give up being her [God the Father’s] judge and know Papa for who she is. Then you will be able to embrace her love in the midst of your pain, instead of pushing her away with your self-centered perception of how you think the universe should be. Papa has crawled inside of your world to be with you, to be with Missy.” Young, William P.. The Shack (p. 177). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

[6] Young, William P.. The Shack (p. 247). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

[7] “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.

[8]  “We are already completely fulfilled within ourselves. You are designed to be in community as well, made as you are in our very image. So for you to feel that way about your children, or anything that ‘adds’ to you, is perfectly natural and right.” Young, William P.. The Shack (p. 219). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

“From the first day we hid the woman within the man, so that at the right time we could remove her from within him. We didn’t create man to live alone; she was purposed from the beginning. By taking her out of him, he birthed her in a sense. We created a circle of relationship, like our own, but for humans. She, out of him, and now all the males, including me, birthed through her, and all originating, or birthed, from God.” Young, William P.. The Shack (p. 158). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

[9] “Jesus now spoke again. ‘Mack, I don’t want to be first among a list of values; I want to be at the center of everything. When I live in you, then together we can live through everything that happens to you. Rather than the top of a pyramid, I want to be the center of a mobile, where everything in your life— your friends, family, occupation, thoughts, activities— is connected to me but moves with the wind, in and out and back and forth, in an incredible dance of being.’ ‘And I,’ concluded Sarayu, ‘am the wind.’” Young, William P.. The Shack (p. 226). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

[10] “All evil flows from independence, and independence is your choice. If I were to simply revoke all the choices of independence, the world as you know it would cease to exist and love would have no meaning. This world is not a playground where I keep all my children free from evil. Evil is the chaos of this age that you brought to me, but it will not have the final say. Now it touches everyone I love, those who follow me and those who don’t. If I take away the consequences of people’s choices, I destroy the possibility of love. Love that is forced is no love at all.” Young, William P.. The Shack (p. 207). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

“Sarayu turned toward Mack; at least that was his impression. ‘Mackenzie, evil is a word we use to describe the absence of good, just as we use the word darkness to describe the absence of light or death to describe the absence of life. Both evil and darkness can be understood only in relation to light and good; they do not have any actual existence. I am light and I am good. I am love and there is no darkness in me. Light and Good actually exist. So, removing yourself from me will plunge you into darkness. Declaring independence will result in evil because apart from me, you can draw only upon yourself. That is death because you have separated yourself from me: Life.’” Young, William P.. The Shack (pp. 143-144). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

[11] “Evil has its stronghold in our doubt as to God’s goodness, and thus in our fear of separation from God. In believing the lie, we are irretrievably trapped in its confusion, pain, and projecting mythology. As Jesus bowed to be condemned by us, he suffered fully from our terrified faith in the lie of separation, and from the traumatic world of darkness that lie had engendered.” Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 202). FaithWords. Kindle Edition. “As we shall see, Jesus did not come to suffer punishment inflicted by his Father, or to twist his Father’s arm to accept us. We belong to the Father, Son, and Spirit; we always have, and always will. Jesus died because we are loved forever, and had gotten ourselves into such a profound and astonishing mess that it was utterly impossible for us to know this love and experience its freedom, joy, and life.” Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 130). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[12] Blindness in Trinitarian Theology means that when Adam chose independence, that changed his perception of God. It made God appear to be fickle like himself. He projected his sin onto God. That was his new mythology of God and it terrified him. The notion of wrath on sin is part of the blind mythology. Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (pp. 164-165). FaithWords. Kindle Edition; and Kruger, C. Baxter. Across All Worlds: Jesus Inside Our Darkness (Jackson, MS: Perichoresis Press, 2007; Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2007), pp. 23ff.

[13] “How do you relate to one who does not want to relate to you? How do you get inside blindness? How do you reach one whose projecting shame so disfigures your own face that he disowns your love and hides in fear at your sight? In our pain we, like Adam, have condemned ourselves, created a god in the image of our shame and handcrafted religions to go with it, all of which we project onto the Father and defend with a vengeance.” Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 172). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[14]  “Likewise, the wrath of God is not the opposite of love, as if the two were vying for control in God’s relationship with humanity. The love of the Father, Son, and Spirit does not play second fiddle to divine anger. As Papa said, ‘There is a lot to be mad about in the mess my kids have made and in the mess they’re in. I don’t like a lot of choices they make, but that anger— especially for me— is an expression of love all the same’ (121). Wrath is the love of the triune God in passionate action, saying ‘No!’ It is love’s fiery opposition to our destruction. Likewise, the judgment of God is not the divine ‘dark side’ finally having its say. To judge is to discern, to see into a matter and understand what is wrong in order to make it right and whole. Thus, as Pope Benedict said, ‘The judgment of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace.’ And as Sophia says in The Shack, “Mackenzie, judgment is not about destruction, but about setting things right” (171). Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 128). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

“Mackenzie, judgment is not about destruction, but about setting things right.” Young, William P.. The Shack (p. 182). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

[15] “Is there a god behind the back of the blessed Trinity, a divine Ogre in the back room, a cosmic Eeyore, perhaps, or a legalist who at any minute might appear and shame the goodness and love of the Father, Son, and Spirit? Is the relationship of the triune God under restraint, and only allowed expression on, say, Monday and Tuesday? Or is this relationship the abiding constant permeating the universe, the one free and stable, reliable and unchanging reality? If this relationship is not the truth of all truths, then something else ultimately calls the shots, and we can only hold our breath until that something else steps forward. I suspect most of us live in the frayed world between wanting to believe that we are loved for our own sake and the fear that such love is a pipe dream. Here is a critical question: Do you believe that you can change the Trinity? Can you alter the way the Father, Son, and Spirit relate to one another?” Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 123). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[16] According to C. Baxter Kruger in The Shack Revisited:

In the mix and flow of Western history, a legal understanding of holiness slipped behind the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Spirit and became the fundamental truth about God – at least in our minds. This holiness is not relational, not trinitarian, not the expression of love. And without our knowing it, this legal view of holiness was carried back into God’s inner sanctum, so to speak. How this happened over time is a long story, but you can see something of the point. When legal holiness became foundational for our idea of God, the biblical story was reframed in terms of law, guilt, and punishment. God is holy (legally speaking). We have failed; there must be restitution. The story of Jesus’ coming and death then followed this larger story, and his death was understood as God’s punishment for our sins. God, on this reckoning, is too holy (legally speaking) to look upon sin, and turned his back upon his own Son when our sin was placed upon him on the cross. In our place, Jesus suffered God’s punishment for our sins. You may be familiar with this version of the story. But Young puts nail scars on Papa’s wrists, too (97, 104, 109, 166, 224); and rightly so, for how could the One who dwells in the bosom of the Father suffer and his Father not experience his pain? What agony did Jesus bear that his Abba and the Holy Spirit did not also feel? How could there be a dreadful split between the Father and his Son? And how could there be a fundamental character difference between them, such that Jesus could embrace sinners, and indeed “become sin,” as the apostle Paul says, and the Father be unable to even look upon us.

Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (pp. 129-130). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

The inherent legalism of the Western Church trains our eyes to see Jesus’ suffering as the judgment of God upon our sin, and virtually blinds us to the more obvious point that Jesus suffered from the wickedness of humanity. It was the human race, not the Father, who rejected his beloved Son and killed him. The wrath poured out on Calvary’s hill did not originate in the Father’s heart, but in ours. The humiliation that Jesus bore, the torment that he suffered, was not divine but human. We mocked him; we detested him; we judged him. We ridiculed him, tortured him, and turned our face from him. It was not the Father or the Holy Spirit who abandoned Jesus and banished him to the abyss of shame; it was the human race. We cursed him.

Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (pp. 184-185). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[17] Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 206). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[18] Young, William P.. The Shack (p. 124). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

[19]  “My purpose from the beginning was to live in you and you in me.”

“Wait, wait. Wait a minute. How can that happen? If you’re still fully human, how can you be inside me?”

“Astounding, isn’t it? It’s Papa’s miracle. It is the power of Sarayu, my Spirit, the Spirit of God who restores the union that was lost so long ago. Me? I choose to live moment by moment fully human. I am fully God, but I am human to the core. Like I said, it’s Papa’s miracle.”

Mack was lying in the darkness, listening intently. “Aren’t you talking about a real indwelling, not just some positional, theological thing?”

“Of course,” answered Jesus, his voice strong and sure. “It’s what everything is all about. The human, formed out of the physical material of creation, can once more be fully indwelt by spiritual life, my life. It requires that a very real dynamic and active union exists.”

Young, William P.. The Shack (p. 116). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

[20] Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 144). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[21] Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (pp. 140-141). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

This means that the mutual indwelling of the blessed Trinity now includes us! In Jesus, the human race has been gathered into the Holy Spirit’s world. Adam’s fallen race has been embraced by Jesus’ Father and made his children forever. In Jesus, the love and joy, the fellowship and shared life, the staggering oneness of the blessed Trinity, have found us in our shacks— us: you, me, all of us— forever. In Jesus, “Papa has crawled inside of your world to be with you” (167).

Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 141). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[22] Young, William P.. The Shack (p. 101). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.

Paul also is profoundly confused about the nature of Christ’s state of humiliation, as is evident from this passage:

“But what about all the miracles? The healings? Raising people from the dead? Don’t those prove that Jesus was God— you know, more than human?”

“No, it proves that Jesus is truly human.”


“Mackenzie, I can fly, but humans can’t. Jesus is fully human. Although he is also fully God, he has never drawn upon his nature as God to do anything. He has only lived out of his relationship with me, living in the very same manner that I desire to be in relationship with every human being. He is just the first to do it to the uttermost— the first to absolutely trust my life within him, the first to believe in my love and my goodness without regard for appearance or consequence.”

“So when he healed the blind?”

“He did so as a dependent, limited human being trusting in my life and power to be at work within him and through him. Jesus, as a human being, had no power within himself to heal anyone.”

Young, William P.. The Shack (pp. 101-102). Windblown Media. Kindle Edition.


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