In March 2017 the movie The Shack will hit theater screens across the country. It’s a guarantee that Tim McCraw and Faith Hill’s original song for the movie, Keep Your Eyes on Me, will become a mega-hit. Whether the film itself is a blockbuster is yet to be seen, but without any doubt, some evangelical Christians will again charge Paul Young, author of The Shack, with heresy. Dr. Al Mohler recently wrote a blog entitled The Shack – The Missing Art of Evangelical Discernment, where he said,
“The Shack rests on the foundation of universal reconciliation… (The) fact is that the Christian church has explicitly identified these teachings as heresy. The obvious question is this: How is it that so many evangelical Christians seem to be drawn not only to this story, but to the theology presented in the narrative — a theology at so many points in conflict with evangelical convictions?”
I know both Al Mohler and Paul Young. I respect Dr. Mohler and his theological acumen. I have the honor of calling Paul Young a friend, and he’s been the source of great encouragement to me. After observing Paul Young minister to hundreds of people at the church I pastor, spending precious time with each person individually – never rushing to the next person or glancing at his watch as if he had other important things to do – I asked Paul Young his philosophy of ministry. He said, “Wade, there is no person or moment more important to me than the person before whom I stand at this moment.” I’ve attempted to model that philosophy of ministry ever since.
Dr. Al Mohler considers himself a five-point Calvinist. He believes God has a distinguishing love for “the elect” and the cross of Christ actually saves the elect. In other words, Dr. Mohler believes the people for whom God sent His Son to redeem are actually delivered (saved) from their sins at the cross by the work of Jesus (see Matthew 1:21). I understand Dr. Mohler’s theology and happen to agree with it, though I prefer to call them “the doctrines of grace” because I see these doctrines taught in Scripture.
Paul Young believes the same thing as Dr. Mohler regarding God’s unconditional love and the power of Christ’s cross. He simply disagrees with Dr. Mohler over “For whom did Christ die?” Paul Young believes Christ died for every sinner who has ever lived or ever will live.
Paul Young told me he is a “hopeful universalist.” He believes that our loving God sent His Son to die for every single sinner without exception. One day God will effectually reconcile every sinner to Himself. Paul uses the term “hopeful” universalism because he understands that the Scriptures speak of judgment, but Paul is “hopeful” that even in judgment, the love of God will eventually bring the sinner being judged to love for Jesus Christ. Paul Young is “hopeful” that the fire of God’s love will eventually and effectually persuade every sinner of God’s love in Christ. So Paul Young believes exactly like Al Mohler when it comes to the unconditional love of God and the efficacy and power of the atonement of Jesus Christ. Both men believe the cross actually reconciles sinners to God.
However, Dr. Al Mohler believes Christ saves selected sinners because God unconditionally loves certain sinners He has chosen to save, and not every sinner without exception. Paul Young believes God unconditionally loves every sinner the same, and Christ’s death reconciles every sinner to God. Again, Dr. Mohler and Paul Young both believe the same thing about God’s effectual love and the power of Christ to save. Where these two men part company is over “For whom did Christ die?”
Paul Young and I have discussed Christ’s atonement at length, and after listening to Paul describe the power and efficacy God’s love in Jesus Christ, I said, “Paul, you believe in God’s unconditional love and a powerful cross. You believe that since God intends to save, He will save.” Young agreed with my assessment. He said, “Wade, you understand my view of God’s unconditional love and the power of the cross to save sinners. Most people hear “hopeful universal reconciliation, ” and they think heresy. I do not believe anyone is saved apart from Christ dying for them.”
Dr. Al Mohler and others believe any expression of hope in universal reconciliation is “heresy.” I would suggest a little humility is in order. The root of the Greek word for humility is “knowledge.” Once Jesus followers are knowledgeable about the history of Christians disagreeing over the extent of His atonement (e.g. “For whom did Christ die?), the charge of heresy will be put to rest in the hearse of humility.
I was twenty years old when I first read God’s Everlasting Love to His Elect by John Gill. To this day, other than the Bible, no book has impacted my life more. John Gill showed me how God is love, and that the Father’s love is not drawn out by our loveliness nor diminished by our ugliness.
Previous to reading Gill, I had been infected with the delusion that God had a holy hatred for sinners and Jesus had a longing love for sinners. I wrongly believed that the Father desired to punish sinners because of His holy nature of justice, but Jesus offered Himself to the Father as a Substitute for undeserving sinners. My notion of a bi-polar God bothered me, but I just assumed that justice and love were mutually exclusive— until I read Gill. Then I began to see that God is love, and when He moves to save His people, He saves them in love, through love, by love, and for love through Jesus Christ. The Father and the Son are one in motive. “For God so loved the world….” (John 3:16).
I never personally struggled with what some call God’s distinguishing love for His elect. In other words, it never bothered me to believe that God unconditionally loved some sinners and not all sinners. In my mind, since every sinner is the source of his own sin and rebellion, I felt that if God chose to unconditionally love an innumerable company of sinners instead of every individual sinner, who can complain that God is unjust (see Romans 9)?
For me, God graciously and unconditionally loving selected sinners from every family, nation, language group and culture (e.g. “the world”), and giving His Son to deliver His people from their sins, while at the same time holding other sinners accountable for their volitional sins, is no problem. We all make decisions to love certain persons unconditionally (e.g. spouses, children, family, etc…) I might say to you, “I love the person to whom you are married, but I don’t love your spouse like I love my spouse.” I unconditionally love my bride. I chose my wife. I didn’t choose yours. I’ve never struggled with believing that God chose to love many sinners, but not all sinners. I figure every sinner deserves nothing good from God, so any sinner who is the recipient of His unconditional love, mercy, and grace is one sinner more than the number of sinners who deserve it. That’s why salvation and the gift of immortal life is is an act of God’s grace. Nobody deserves it.
But in my journey of Christian faith, I have discovered that not all Christians are as comfortable with God’s distinguishing love as I am. Some believe that God’s love abides upon each and every sinner to the same degree. The idea that God has a distinguishing love for His Bride bothers some Christians immensely.
It bothers Christians like my friend Paul Young, author of The Shack.
And it bothered a Christian named George McDonald (1824-1905).
You may have never heard of George McDonald. It’s your loss if you have not. Christian writers and thinkers like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Oswald Chambers, Mark Twain (yes, there are reasons I call Mark Twain a Christian), and a host of other superb Christian writers revered George McDonald.
George McDonald believed in hopeful universal reconciliation, just like Paul Young.
When a Bible teacher first explained the doctrine of predestination to George McDonald, it is said that George burst into tears. Although the teacher sought to assure George that he was one of the elect, George became very distraught with the idea that God loved some sinners, but not every sinner. He had nightmares.
George grew up and eventually became a Congregational minister. In time, George was asked to leave his Congregational ministry for suggesting that the consuming fire of God’s love would eventually overcome sin and rebellion in every human being. In other words, George McDonald believed in hopeful reconciliation. After his pastorate, George McDonald turned to writing. His influence through writing became enormous. Most American evangelicals have never heard of George McDonald, but we have read books written by authors George McDonald mentored.
C.S. Lewis called George McDonald “my master.” Lewis had picked up a copy of McDonald’s book Phantastes at a train-station bookstall. “I began to read,” says Lewis, “and a few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier.”
G.K. Chesterton said McDonald’s book The Princess and the Goblin “made a difference to my whole existence.”
Mark Twain was greatly influenced by George McDonald, as was the great Christian devotion writer Oswald Chambers who said, “It is a striking indication of the trend and shallowness of the modern reading public that George MacDonald’s books have been so neglected.”
George McDonald would eventually write many books, but two of them, Robert Falconer and Lilith, show his intense dislike for the idea that God’s saving love is given to some and not to others. C.S. Lewis describes in George McDonald: An Anthology how McDonald kept the “worthy” portion of his Scottish Calvinism while renouncing the doctrine of predestination: “In the very midst of his intellectual revolt (from Calvinism), McDonald forces us to see elements of real and perhaps irreplaceable worth in the thing from which he is revolting.”
Don’t gloss over what Lewis is saying about McDonald. In the midst of rejecting God’s distinguishing love, McDonald kept his readers focused on the real worth of Calvinism. If the “real worth” of Calvinism is not God’s distinguishing love, then what is it?
McDonald believed in and wrote with a real sense of God’s majesty, sovereignty, and power. McDonald absolutely believed that God does as He pleases at all times, or else He would not be God. This was the portion of Calvinism that McDonald deemed worthy.
What McDonald despised was the belief that God chooses to save some sinners but not all sinners. So George McDonald believed in hopeful universal reconciliation.
C.S. Lewis never fully adopted George MacDonald’s eschatology of universal reconciliation. However, Lewis did challenge the traditional doctrine of hell, showing how much he was influenced by McDonald. Lewis also wrote about hopeful reconciliation in his book The Great Divorce.
In The Great Divorce, Lewis writes of a person named “MacDonald” (coincidence?) who appears as a heavenly guide. McDonald shows how a person who continually spurns God’s love might spend eternity in total isolation and darkness. Then, a character named “Lewis” challenges the heavenly guide (McDonald) by reminding him that he (McDonald) had believed in universal reconciliation while he lived on earth (sound familiar?). MacDonald responds that indeed he believes “it is possible that everyone will eventually be saved,” but “we cannot know this with certainty.” That’s up to God. This is why George McDonald and C.S. Lewis refer to it as hopeful universal reconciliation.
George McDonald believed that God, during the judgment of sinners in hell, could eventually and effectually convince every sinner of His love for sinners in Christ Jesus. In time sinners could freely and volitionally bow their knees to the Lord Jesus Christ, coming to an understanding of God’s love for sinners. In time, according to McDonald, all of God’s creation could be reconciled to God.
This is exactly what Paul Young hopes in The Shack.
Hopeful universal reconciliation is not heresy. Paul Young, George McDonald and other Christians who hope in universal reconciliation believe in a loving God and a powerful cross. The disagreement with men like Al Mohler and myself is over the question, “For whom did Christ die?”
C.S. Lewis came very close to embracing the universal reconciliation of his master George McDonald, but C.S. Lewis is certainly no heretic. Questioning the eternality of hell (as Martin Luther did versus John Calvin), or postulating a hopeful universal reconciliation (as George McDonald, C.S. Lewis and Paul Young have done), does not place one outside the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy.
John Piper once tweeted “Goodbye Rob Bell” when Rob Bell published Love Wins, a book that questions, but does not deny the existence of an eternal hell. During that same time period, John Piper extolled C.S. Lewis as the greatest influence in his life. Both men, Rob Bell and C.S. Lewis, asked the same theological questions in their writings. C.S. Lewis asked his questions wrapped in a narrative of fantasy, while Rob Bell spelled out his questions in plain English.
John Piper has never tweeted “Goodbye C.S. Lewis.” Could it be that it’s far easier for us to fire the gun of heresy at those we’ve never taken the time to thoroughly read, or if possible, get to know as friends?
If a person chooses to reject the doctrine of God’s distinguishing love and finds comfort in hopeful universal reconciliation, we who follow Jesus might be careful before we charge our fellow believer in Christ with heresy. Both Calvinism and hopeful universal reconciliation believe in a God of love and an efficacious cross. The difference is over “For whom did Christ die?”
The only alternative to denying God’s sovereign, selective love or God’s universal love is to turn God into a weak, impotent deity with fickle love dependent on the performance of His subjects. A god with fickle love isn’t good news. It’s rotten news. When we make our god as fickle as we are, we have turned our god into a person just like us.
Thankfully, God is not like us. His love is an artesian spring that is not drawn out by our loveliness nor diminished by our ugliness. He is love. His love continues. His love never ends. His love can’t end because God continues and He never ends, and God is love (I John 4:8).
Both Al Mohler and Paul Young believe the same thing about God’s unconditional love and Christ’s effectual death. They just disagree over for whom it was intended.
So go and enjoy The Shack.
It is not heresy.