The biggest problem with The Shack, the one that grieves me the most, is that it offers a sugar pill to treat a cancer. It seeks to reconcile the existence of a good God with a world that is obviously filled with evil, to explain human suffering in the face of divine sovereignty. That is a good aim-many people, believers and nonbelievers, struggle to believe in the goodness of God when faced with suffering like what Mack has seen. But Young seriously fumbles the ball in seeking to answer Mack’s questions.
There are points where it looks like things are going in the right direction: Mack sees that outside God, he has no frame of reference for judging good and evil, and that in questioning God’s rule of the universe, he is accusing God of wrong. But at the crucial moment, when he brings up his daughter’s murder, he is told that that event had nothing to do with God.
“But I still don’t understand why Missy had to die.”
“She didn’t have to, Mackenzie. This was no plan of Papa’s. Papa has never needed evil to accomplish his good purposes.” (165, emphasis added)
Of course, no one says that God needs evil to accomplish his purposes. But the Bible is plain that he uses evil to accomplish his purposes-to carry out his plan. This is entirely compatible with humans making real choices with real consequences. That is why Joseph can say to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20). It’s why Peter can say of the murder of Jesus that he was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” but also “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).
This does not make God the author of sin– in upholding the universe by the word of his power, he uses sin sinlessly to bring about his own glory and the good of his people. The free agency of man and the divine sovereignty of God are not mutually exclusive. But Young’s assumptions about free will cause him to make human autonomy the one thing with which God will not interfere: “If you could only see how all this ends and what we will achieve without the violation of one human will” (125). Ultimately, free will in The Shack becomes God. It is the thing to which God must submit, the ultimate reality to which even he is subject.
Of course, the biblical teaching of God’s sovereignty over all things, including human suffering, is initially hard to confront. On the face of it, Young’s answer seems so much nicer. But I can testify from personal experience that the knowledge that no suffering I experience comes apart from my Father’s plan is a great comfort. Think about it– if our suffering is not part of God’s plan, where does it ultimately come from? Can’t he see it coming? Couldn’t he stop it? Or must he play defense, reacting and trying to make the best of the devil’s– or our– attempts to foul things up? On the contrary, consider Charles Spurgeon’s response to the suffering in his own life:
It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him, not sent to me by his arrangement of their weight and quantity.
The Shack tries to tackle some of the most difficult questions of the Christian life. These questions are real; they are legitimate; they are crucial. But the best The Shack has to offer in response is a God who shrugs his shoulders and says, “I didn’t have anything to do with that.” The sometimes-bitter pill of God’s sovereignty is harder to swallow, but it is the answer the Bible gives, and it’s ultimately the only answer that brings real hope to those who suffer.