So a few weeks back I wrote a piece about this article on The Shack which I thought was dumb, and I spent like 4,000 words bagging it. I’d like to spend a bit more time talking about The Shack today – but not attacking this person or that person. Instead, I’d like to look at a particular part of the book and distinguish between a few different levels of meaning. Depending on which level you’re looking at, the scene is going to make more or less sense from a theological perspective.
So it’s Chapter 11, ‘Here Comes Da Judge’. Protagonist Mack is sent into the woods by Jesus, and enters under a mountain where he finds Sophia, the personification of God’s wisdom. Sophia persuades Mack to admit that he blames God for not preventing the abduction and murder of his daughter Missy, which is an entirely fucking reasonable reaction, and then she asks him to judge the morality of the whole world. If you can judge God, her logic goes, why shouldn’t you judge everybody? She then forces Mack to choose three of his five children to go to hell when they die – the other two get to spend eternity in heaven. Mack refuses to choose and ultimately offers himself as a sacrifice in place of his children. Sophia tells him that he has chosen well, and it all becomes a big metaphor for how God so loved the world that he entered into it and made a path to salvation through his own death.
So that’s the set of events. Let’s rip through some of the theology. There’s two main things going on in this chapter, theologically – obviously the first is the whole ‘Choose yourself instead of damning them to hell’ thing that becomes a metaphor for Christ’s activity. It’s a way of humanising God and making the crucifixion more understandable by filtering it through the experience of what a real father might feel in the same situation. And that’s cool!
The second thing is a theme of ‘You don’t get to ask God what’s up’. The whole crux of the book is that Mack can’t understand why God didn’t save Missy – in this scene, when he admits that he blames God for not saving her, he’s sort of led into a trap because of it. The hubris of accusing God is followed by the invitation to judge the whole world – which is not a position Mack wants to be in, because it involves judging his kids and potentially damning some of them to hell. To me, that scene echoes the Book of Job, where God spends a chapter or so bringing the biggest amount of divine sass in the history of the world. This is Job 38:4-5: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?” God’s going to town on this guy – and it’s because Job dared to question why this was happening to him. Note again: it’s entirely fucking reasonable to ask why all these terrible things are happening. We’re not going to go into the ins and outs of Job today though – just note the parallel between the two scenes and we’ll move along. Like Job, Mack blames God for his suffering, and like Job, Mack is put in the hot seat because of it. But where God is asking rhetorical questions of Job, God (or Sophia, whatever) asks Mack to make what is potentially a real-world judgement.
So that’s all sort of the basic intention with the theology. It’s relatively superficial, in the sense that it’s pretty obvious, but also if you start trying to dig deeper into it the theology doesn’t hold together that well. The basic premise of this situation is that Mack has to pick two kids to save and has to damn the other three – so immediately there’s questions about how that number is chosen. None of the kids are perfect, because they’re kids and kids do stupid things – so none of them are getting saved because they’re perfect. Why that number then? Is it arbitrary? Is the idea that Heaven is only so big? Why is there a number of kids that must be damned rather than a stable bar of ‘good behaviour’ that each child is measured against? Wouldn’t that be fairer? It’s unclear where these constraints are coming from.
Alright, well, can we hypothesise where they might be coming from? It might be that God or Sophia just picked a number and told Mack to run with it, which is fine, but it just makes the detail not super theologically relevant. That number has no greater significance for doctrines of God or doctrines of sin or salvation or any of it – it’s just not super important. So if Mack’s challenge of ‘Damn some of your children to hell’ is meant to help us understand the situation that God is in, this is a detail that doesn’t transfer properly. It doesn’t mean that the book is theologically ‘wrong’ or whatever though, just don’t be a dumbass and assume it transfers cleanly across to God.
Let’s follow the logic through. Why would God only be able to save a certain percentage of people? That would seem to suggest that there’s some higher or perhaps parallel power constraining God’s ability to act. God should be able to do whatever He wants – that’s kind of the point of being God. Similarly, we can’t argue that there’s a lower power (say, a human power) preventing Him from saving people either. It’s not like we can ruin God’s plan to save our souls – if God wants ’em saved, they’re gonna be saved. This is something Aquinas talks about – he argues that humans can’t stop God executing His will, but fortunately it’s part of God’s will that we can do whatever we want. This idea that, like Mack, God is in a predicament that He can do nothing about – it doesn’t really hold up. And that’s fine – just don’t read the book as if Mack’s predicament can be perfectly mapped onto God’s situation.
The main difference, then, is that God isn’t forced to choose who He’s going to save. Instead, He chooses to allow us to live our own lives and make our own decisions and – Aquinas would argue – damn ourselves to hell. The more interesting question, really, is why would God make that decision in the first place? Why would He freely and willingly submit Himself (and us) to all of the horrors of the world? I don’t really suppose anybody’s got an answer to that, except maybe God, and He’s not talking.