Finding God In The Shack
June 4, 2009
Finding God in the Shack: Seeking Truth in a Story of Evil and Redemption
By Roger E. Olson
IVP (February 2009)
Roger Olson's Finding God in the Shack (IVP Books, 2009) is an extended review and discussion of the theology articulated by William Young in his earlier novel The Shack. It is an extensive survey that is broadly sympathetic to Young's perspective but which does not shrink back from voicing occasional notes of dissent and criticism. A review of Finding God in the Shack is therefore, in one sense, a review of a review which tends to a rather cumbersome exercise in circumlocution: I am discussing Olson's discussion of Young's discussion! For that, let me beg your indulgence.
Olson's helpful method is to move through The Shack thematically. Space will not allow a detailed discussion of every point made, but I do want to engage with three important areas raised by Olson and by Young before him: the problem of evil, doctrine of the Trinity, and the doctrine of forgiveness.
The Problem of Evil
In response to the question, "Where is God in senseless, innocent suffering?" Olson immediately sets his sights on those who affirm that "God is in control" (p 19). Olson pushes us to face the perversity and brutality of human evil. In the face of such horrors how can God be in control? He finds the very idea theologically dissatisfying. He recounts the story of one Christian philosopher whose son died. "(The philosopher is ordained in a denomination that teaches God's meticulous providence- that whatever happens planned and caused by God for a greater good.) As he stood by his little boy's grave he thought, 'I will never tell another person whose child has died, 'It was God's will.'" (p.20, parenthesis original)
The problem of evil is, of course, central to The Shack and is therefore of necessity a recurring theme in Olson's discussion too. And again and again Olson seems to take particular aim at Calvinism's supposed response to this problem. What is most objectionable about his attempted critique, however, is its persistent misrepresentations of classic confessional Calvinism on this point. No denomination I am aware of, however committed to "God's meticulous providence" they may be, teaches that God causes everything that happens. As the Westminster Confession of Faith articulates it, confessional Calvinism does not teach God's control of everything in a direct, 'hands on' way, as though he were the only cause, but affirms rather that, "God, from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty and contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established." (WCF, 3:1, emphasis added) The liberty and contingency of second causes is established by God's decree, not undermined by it.
Additionally Olson fails to see that what may indeed be a pastorally inappropriate use of a truth does not demonstrate the total invalidity of that truth. It may not be wise to say to a grieving parent, in the fresh agony of their grief, "it was God's will", yet it may become a source of profound comfort to that same parent in days to come to realize that no suffering, however awful, is aimless, and no evil, however dark, can dethrone the God of justice and love.
Olson answers the question, 'where is God in suffering' by affirming with The Shack that God suffers with us. "The God of The Shack is not some distant controlling deity who inflicts pain on us for some greater good without feeling it himself; God is right there with us like any good parent would be." (p.23) "If God cannot suffer, there is no adequate answer." (p 24). If all that is meant here is that God is not remote and unfeeling towards suffering, then who can argue?
But it is hard not to conclude that such language conveys something far more objectionable: a God who, himself, becomes a victim of the problem of evil too. Such a vision of God and his relationship to suffering does not relieve the difficulty the problem of evil generates. Rather, it aggravates it. I do not need a God who has become a victim along with me. When all else is overcome by pain, I need a God who alone transcends it and defeats it. I cannot hope in a redemption that is provided by a God who cannot save himself from pain. At the Cross, God is no a mere victim; no man took Christ's life from him. He had power to lay it down and power to take it up again. I need a God who goes to war against suffering and triumphs over it and who will one day utterly destroy it, because he is essentially free from it.
Neither will Olson's retreat to free will do in his attempt to 'solve' the problem of evil. All human free will does as an explanation for suffering is push the problem further back. Olson objects to a God of 'meticulous providence' and proposes a God who is 'in charge but not in control" (p. 53), who limits himself and respects human freedom so much that he refrains from stepping in to prevent suffering and evil. "According to The Shack divine interference to stop all evil and suffering is not an option for God. Why? This is a mystery. God tells Mack it's because of 'purposes that you cannot possibly understand now.' (p. 22). In other words, God has a plan, and it involves respecting our freedom, but why God sometimes interferes is something we cannot know." (p. 48) Why, it must be asked, does this absolve God of the responsibility for the presence of evil and suffering in his universe? If such a God knew what would result from such self restraint why did he engage in it? The answer Olson, and The Shack, offer is because God has a plan and an inscrutable purpose.
But how is this a more satisfying account of the problem of evil than to say that God decrees whatsoever comes to pass, superintending even evil, albeit in such a way that he does no violence to the will of his creatures, and all because of his ultimate purpose and plan? In the end, far from providing an adequate theodicy, Olson and The Shack merely succeed in sounding like the objector to God's total sovereignty in Romans 9:19-22, "You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?" Olson's alternative vision of God arises from clay objections, but the Potter remains sovereign for all that.
We must all live with a certain degree of mystery. It is preferable however, in the light of Biblical teaching, to rest our confidence while suffering on a good God who remains in control, even of my suffering, rather than on the conviction that God somehow suffers with me. One is left wondering how exactly, if God is not in control, will God's purposes come to pass?
The Doctrine of the Trinity
Secondly, Olson's affirmation of The Shack's social Trinitarianism is troubling. Olson is right to point out that The Shack works hard to avoid Modalism. Whatever we might wish to say about the characters Young invents to depict the three Persons of the Godhead, each of them affirm their essential unity and their distinct personality. What is more problematic is the 'shape' of their relationship with one another.
"According to The Shack, God is 'a circle of love'. There is no hierarchy or power struggle within God. Hierarchy is a human construct and a result of the fall of humanity into sin. When Mack asks if there's a 'boss' among the three persons of the Trinity, God acts somewhat bewildered. Mack asks if the three persons have a chain of command. Jesus responds, 'Chain of command? That sounds ghastly!' (p. 122). God lectures Mack (and us) about power: 'Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it.' (p. 122-23) God, Young tells us, has within himself no final authority or hierarchy, only love." (p. 37)
Subordinationism is clearly in Young, and Olson's, sights here. And no-one who embraces orthodox Nicene Christianity will disagree with the statement that there is no, and can be no, hierarchy of being in God. The Father is not greater in power, authority, dignity or deity than the Son or the Spirit. The Son and the Spirit are not less than the Father. They do not derive their being from an act of the Father's will by which he established their existence. The Son is the Son because he is eternally the Son of the Father. The Father is the Father because he is eternally the Son's Father. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit because he proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son. There is no hint here of superiority or inferiority of essence. If this is all Young and Olson wish to defend and articulate, then we have no argument with them. However, once again it becomes clear that rather more is going on. It is not ontological but economic subordination that Olson rejects. He says, for example, "More recently some evangelical Christians have been arguing that there's a chain of command within the Trinity, with Father over Son and Holy Spirit. And this hierarchy transfers to human beings, so husbands rule over their wives. For Young, love shapes the Trinity's relationships, not hierarchy." (p. 37-8)
Olson takes issue with the idea that, while each person of the Trinity is consubstantial and coequal and without any priority of essence, nevertheless there is said to be an order, a submission and subordination in role of the Son to the Father and the Spirit to the Father and the Son. He suggests that this is a recent innovation adopted by some evangelicals to bolster their complementarian view of the relationships between men and women in marriage and in church.
He is, of course, correct to notice the important connection between our doctrine of the Trinity and our view of human relationships (about which more in a moment), but he is simply wrong to suggest that the notion of economic subordination is a novel argument, made recently by complementarians. Listen, for example, to Charles Hodge speaking of the Nicene Creed,
"The creeds are nothing more than a well ordered arrangement of the facts of Scripture which concern the doctrine of the Trinity. They assert the distinct personality of the Father, Son and Spirit; their mutual relation as expressed by those terms; their absolute unity as to substance or essence, and their consequent perfect equality; and the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, as to the mode of subsistence and operation. These are Scriptural facts, to which the creeds in question add nothing; and it is in this sense they have been accepted by the Church universal." (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, London, Thomas Nelson, 1883, Vol. I, p462, emphasis added) For Hodge at least, the economic subordination of the Persons in the unity of the Godhead is simply historic orthodox Trinitarianism.
But what is at stake in this doctrine? For Olson, and Young, economic subordination involves hierarchy, which of necessity demands the nasty imposition of law to regulate that hierarchy, which in turn can only mean the failure of love within the Godhead. If there is hierarchy there cannot be love. That is the operating assumption Olson and Young make. Olson equates subordination with "domination", which, he says, is a sign of our fallenness and not "part of the order of love that God intended." (p. 37) This seems to suggest that, in his view, law is incompatible with love, and that subordination and submission must infer domination. One wonders what he does with Romans 13:10 where love is the fulfillment of the law? What does it say of God that he gave us his law? In John 10:18 Jesus spoke of his death and resurrection as "this command I have received from my Father". How domineering and loveless the Father must have been to require such obedience from the Son (which sounds strangely like subordination of roles to me)!
Moreover, if there is not a loving, voluntary submission of the Son to the Father, and the Spirit to the Son and the Father in the economy of the Trinity then Paul's appeals to Trinitarian order in 1 Corinthians 11:3ff., as he calls men and women to fulfill their roles in marriage, are rendered quite incomprehensible. That Young (and Olson) have the subversion of gender roles in mind as the logical outworking of their doctrine of God is strongly implied, at least, by the characters developed to illustrate the Persons of the Trinity. Papa (God the Father) is a middle aged African-American woman, and Sarayu (the Holy Spirit) is an ephemeral Asian lady. While, strictly speaking, gender is not an appropriate quality to ascribe to God, nevertheless what can it mean to call God Father, if the Father is portrayed as a woman? What does it mean for human fatherhood, which surely is to learn from the heavenly archetype?
The Doctrine of Forgiveness
In a chapter entitled "Does God Forgive Everyone Unconditionally?" (p. 67) Olson demonstrates that The Shack advocates a doctrine of universal forgiveness. "According to the Shack God is so good that he has already forgiven all humans for everything they have done or will do." (p. 68) Olson, quite rightly, takes issue with Young on this point. "It would be better to say that God, in Christ, has laid the groundwork for forgiveness; he has done everything necessary to forgive us." (P. 75) While I agree that God does not forgive everyone, I think Young sees the implications of a doctrine of universal atonement more clearly than Olson does. Young is driven to his conclusion (that everyone is forgiven) by his conviction that Jesus' death paid for the sin of all people in the same way without exception or distinction. The logical implicate of that is that all people must stand forgiven before God. Either, "It is finished!" for everyone without exception or it is not. Young believes it really is finished for everyone without exception, but viewed from his own theological presuppositions Olson's dissent from that conclusion seems quite groundless.
However, he does agree with Young when it comes to something that looks very like Karl Rahner's 'Anonymous Christian'. "Without using the term 'anonymous Christian', they say, essentially, the same thing: that many people who are not organizationally Christians are Jesus followers because they love him and do his works. I agree with the author of The Shack about this." (p. 113) Olson and Young are inclusivists. They believe that one may be a Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu, and remain such, and yet be an 'anonymous Christian', someone who, without knowing that that is what they are doing, nevertheless comes to love and serve the one true and living God who has come in Jesus Christ. God, according to Olson, "is not a stingy God who parcels out salvation only to those who call themselves by a certain religious label or even who say the right words." (p. 113) But is it really 'stingy' to call people to repentance and from idolatry? Is it not simply the demand of a sovereign love that is jealous for its own glory? Surely it is the most extraordinary extravagance to lavish mercy on even one rebel sinner when all the world deserves wrath?
In conclusion, the one abiding and fundamental problem with Finding God in the Shack is that hard as you might look you will not find him here. The God of Finding God in the Shack is a politically correct deity whose gospel is softer and gentler and whose solutions to the great problems of evil and human pain are anemic and incomplete.
David Strain is the Senior Pastor of the Main Street Presbyterian Church in Colombus, MS.
David Strain, "Finding God in the Shack", Reformation 21 (June 2009)
This article was published in Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation by broadcasting, events, and publishing. This article and additional biblical resources can be found at AllianceNet.org
© Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals Inc, 1716 Spruce St. Philadelphia, PA 19103
Our Sovereign God, A Collection of the first three years of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology
Precious Blood: The Atoning Work of Christ by 2008 Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology