Talking about Shack Author William P. Young Denies Penal Substitution (MP3) – David Westerfield > Weblog

Shack Author William P. Young Denies Penal Substitution (MP3)

Mar 10th, 2009 @ 1:07 PM by David.

Interview by Kendall Adams with William P. Young, author of The Shack:

(To hear the specific denial, fast-forward 16 minutes into the audio)

I realize many people have a love affair with The Shack. I know some of those very people. They find it to have really given them a ‘fresh’ perspective of God and see Him in a new light, especially in the midst of suffering. As with The Purpose Driven Life, I Am Second, etc., though there are legitimate concerns about the methodology of each, I do not doubt this also can be used by God to bring people into maybe hearing about the Gospel clearly from someone else, you know, a friend or something. The Lord used TBN as an instrument in my salvation, even with Tammy Faye Baker’s busted up hair and make-up. So we have no clue how the Lord may work in others lives to reveal the truths of the Gospel. He can use broken truth presentations of all kinds to reveal Biblical truth. It is His work alone after all, right?

Now, I have serious issues with Young’s presentation of the nature of God in the book (reading it now actually), but have been trying to be generous with it where I can, reading it as the work of fiction it is. Despite being a fictional story, it seems to be marketed as a book that will change your view (understanding) of God. And so my one main critique so far has been that it is attempting to convey a confused picture of the God of the Bible to an already extremely confused culture. This simply doesn’t help anything, and in fact gives some form of a license for people to ‘imagine’ God however they may like, despite what Scripture has concretely revealed. This is very dangerous in itself.

But, it is a work of fiction after all, right? And many friends of mine have said that how Young deals with suffering and God’s sovereignty in the book are (at least to some degree) commendable. So I decided recently to pick it up and give it a whirl so I can give my own thoughts. All that to say, I have been giving it the benefit of the doubt so far, despite Albert Mohler’s and Mark Driscoll’s warning of the heresy laden throughout it, which I don’t doubt, I just want to see the work for myself.

But then this interview came along (though I will continue to read the book of course, because I want to read it all for myself). As it is said in this review, “The Shack is consistently being read and marketed as one that changes readers’ perception of God, and the Christian life.  William P. Young’s own website ( bears an advert for the book with the title, ‘God as you’ve never seen him before’ which is clearly a supposed benefit of reading The Shack.”

So based upon the premise that this book is changing people’s understanding (theology) of God, this specific denial absolutely puts the nail in the coffin for me for what the guy is offering as a picture of the God of the Scriptures in the book (as if the distorted picture of the Trinity was not enough). Theological points are always systematic, meaning individual doctrines are never viewed in isolation but are always connected with others doctrines. Falter on this one understanding, especially one at the heart of the Gospel, and the whole house falls.

In the interview, Young has specifically rejected penal substitutionary atonement, the very heart of the Gospel we proclaim, that Christ, as our substitute, took our place on the cross, willingly bearing God’s just wrath for our sins. And in the interview, even before he denies this crucial, crux-point of the Gospel, he clearly demonstrates to possess a flawed view of the justice and holiness of God, which necessarily affects his view of wrath, which is then necessarily going to affect his view of the atonement.

At the end of the interview, in contrast to the interviewers’ recommendation of the book Pierced For Our Transgressions, Young recommends a book on atonement theory that includes some of the most prominent, Gospel-rejecting scholars of our day entitled, Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification & the Victory of Christ. After looking at the site for this book, I can’t help but think that all the questions that are asked sound oddly familiar to the Garden of Eden in which Satan asks of Eve, “Hath God said?”

Based upon this recommendation by Young, it is much clearer now where he is coming from in his views as it pertains to the cross. The book includes Marcus Borg as a contributor. Need I say more? Though I certainly would be interested to hear N.T. Wright’s views in the book as well, seeing as how he came to the defense of Alan Mann and Steve Chalke in which they call penal substitution a form of “cosmic child abuse.”

Based on this interview, with these presuppositions in place, it is clear Young has intentionally sought to paint a picture of God in the book that is contrary to how He has clearly revealed Himself to us in His Word. Sure, Young believes it’s Biblical, but under close scrutiny, it clearly is not. And so goes postmodern theology, where you are the standard-bearer, not the Scriptures. And on this point of penal substitution in particular, his distorted view is at the very least passively (if not actively) implied at various points in the book based upon his own words in the interview.

If Christ did not substitute Himself for sinners, taking the Father’s just wrath upon Himself on our behalf, in our place, then what in the world is the good news of the Gospel? That God merely loved us enough to die on the cross, non-violence triumphing over violence, without any regard to God’s own Name, glory and honor being smeared by sin, justice due to that sin, and Christ Himself satisfying divine wrath? That is the (theological) liberal’s gospel, not the evangelical Gospel. Or did Christ rather come to effectually accomplish something, namely the assuaging of God’s wrath in our place, i.e. propititiation?

Young’s view of the Gospel is severely distorted and frankly dead wrong because of this denial. Do I advise people not to read it? No I think you should even for the sake of knowing where others are coming from. But know beforehand that the picture of God presented is severely distorted and that the author’s own understanding of the Gospel is flawed. It is very disappointing and saddening to hear Young affirm a view of the cross which is poisonous.

And this is what I do not like about fad-driven Christianity in evangelicalism in America: we accept and market a product (in this case The Shack) based primarily on emotions first, because it “feels” right and may be a good story, and only after that will we analyze it in a constructively critical manner based upon the Word of God. Shouldn’t we be doing this the other way around, while doing our best to be kind and generous to all with whom we disagree? Call me a doctrine cop if you want: when you outright disbelieve this pivotal truth of the Gospel message, as Paul said to the Galatians, you are anathema, it is condemnable, for it misses the very heart of it.

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” – Galatians 1:8-9

I want to remind us all that many of those who have gone before us in church history have died, given their lives, over doctrine. These are not unimportant things. Heresy is called heresy for a reason, because those who believe heretical doctrines result in them being condemned, because though they confess Christ with their lips, they disbelieve the Biblical Gospel in their hearts. The book of Jude is a stark warning speaking to this point. I suggest we listen to it.

Now do I know Young’s heart at all? Absolutely not! I would never even presume to, for I don’t even know my own heart and it is a restless evil, who can know it? Though this now should bring us to call into account whether he believes the Biblical Gospel or not, for all I know he himself may very well be saved and believe this truth in his heart, though he is severely deceived in his understanding. I’m not even delving into any speculation on this point. It is not my place to do so. Many times, what we claim with our lips is not always what lines up with what our hearts believe. I claim no knowledge of what he actually believes. That’s not the point. To speculate on such a thing is fruitless and potentially dangerous.

But the point is that those who deny orthodox doctrine, particularly the heart of the Gospel itself, and outright deny the central “offense” of the cross spoken of by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1, can have no assurance they are saved from God’s wrath and may even rest under it now. No one can know this of course. But as Albert Mohler has keenly said, “I can’t read a man’s heart, but I can read his arguments.” And the arguments espoused by Young in this interview outright deny the main intention of the cross. That is serious. Very very serious. What he confesses with his mouth in this interview is flat out wrong. It is very unfortunate and saddening, because to be honest, I wanted to give the guy the benefit of the doubt.

And I would like to add that this severely grieves my heart. I do not stand as one in judgment over him as if I have it all figured out. But there are truths that if not believed lead people to hell. Jesus, Paul, James, John all made this clear. This is a reality people do not like to think about in our culture. Nevertheless, it is true. And as believers in the Gospel ourselves, we must uphold it. I mourn that he would blatantly deny the primary emphasis of the Gospel message, I do not gloat. It honestly makes me sad that those who take the name evangelical are now turning away from the thrust of the New Testament message by reinterpreting it or outright dismissing. So very sad! May we pray for Young and his understanding of this central truth in the Scriptures and may we too check our own hearts and beliefs in light of this revelation.

Related info:

What is penal substitutionary atonement?

Albert Mohler’s talk from the T4G conference last year, entitled, Why Do They Hate It So? The Doctrine of Substitution (MP3)

For a list of great reviews of The Shack by various people, go here.

To read a good, thorough exegetical defense of penal substitution, pick up Pierced

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