"The Shack" and the Atonement

Gary Johnson writes:

The Scriptural support for the doctrine of penal substitution, as we will see, is overwhelming. Nonetheless, there is perhaps no other single doctrine that has elicited such harsh criticisms, even from those claiming to be Evangelical.

B. B. Warfield, writing at the turn on the 20th century observed this growing hostility,

“The ultimate result has been that the revolt from the conceptions of satisfaction, propitiation, expiation, sacrifice, reinforced continually by tendencies adverse to evangelical doctrine peculiar to our times, has grown steadily more and more widespread, and in some quarters more and more extreme, until it has issued in an immense confusion on this central doctrine of the gospel. Voices are raised all about us proclaiming a ‘theory’ of the atonement impossible, while many of those that essay a theory seem to be feeling their tortuous way very much in the dark. That, if I mistake not, is the real state of affairs in the modern Church. I am not meaning to imply that the doctrine of substitutive atonement – which is, after all, the very heart of the gospel – has been lost from the consciousness of the Church. It has not been lost from the hearts of the Christian community. It is in its terms that the humble Christian everywhere still expresses the grounds of his hope of salvation. It is in its terms that the earnest evangelist everywhere still presses the claims of Christ upon the awakened hearer. It has not even been lost from the forum of theological discussion. It still commands powerful advocates wherever a vital Christianity enters academical circles: and, as a rule, the more profound the thinker, the more clear is the note he strikes in its proclamation and defense. But if we were to judge only by the popular literature of the day – a procedure happily not possible – the doctrine of a substitutive atonement has retired well into the background. Probably the majority of those who hold the public ear, whether as academical or as popular religious guides, have definitely broken with it, and are commending to their audiences something other and, as they no doubt believe, something very much better. A tone of speech has even grown up regarding it which is not only scornful but positively abusive. There are no epithets too harsh to be applied to it, no invectives too intense to be poured out on it.1

Individuals associated with what is called The Emergent Church are among the more out-spoken critics of penal substitution going as far as to call it cosmic child abuse.2 Recently Tony Jones, one time national director for the Emergent church, triumphally declared,

Some people today may find it compelling that some Great Cosmic Transaction took place on that day 1,980 years ago, that God’s wrath burned against his son instead of against me. I find that version of atonement theory neither intellectually compelling, spiritually compelling, nor in keeping with the biblical narrative.3

The author of The Shack shares this overt animosity for the doctrine of penal substitution as well, declaring in an interview that he rejects the doctrine explicitly. Not surprisingly, the Jesus of The Shack shares this perspective as well. This is another confirmation that this particular Jesus is to be classified as another Jesus (II Cor. 11:4) and part of another gospel (Galatians 1:6).


Our faith is in the Son of God, “who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) cf. 1:4. All of the essentials of the atonement are found here. His redemptive work is grounded in the love that expressed itself in the cross, the word “loved” being an aorist in tense and referring to the event of the cross as the issue of eternal electing love (cf. Eph. 1:3-6; 2:4, etc.). The verb, “gave,” means to hand over, to deliver over (cf. Rom. 4:25; 8:32; Eph. 5:2), and in this context suggests these important things:

First, His death was voluntary. He gave Himself. “The will of God is at the same time Christ’s will. He accepted his suffering and death consciously and voluntarily. The Son of Man, of whom is said that he is delivered up, gives himself. He gives “his life as ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He declares: “I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself” (John 10:17-18). His death is a deed. He is no martyr; he is the Mediator.”4

Second, His death was a penal sacrifice, for He had to deliver Himself over to the cross. The aorist of the participle again points to the cross as the event at which the delivering took place. And it was a delivering of Himself over to the divine penalty for sin. He, thus, was a sacrifice, and His sacrifice was designed to deal with the reality of our sin and guilt. Herman Bavinck helpfully develops this theme by noting that

inasmuch as the Reformation had learned to know sin primarily as guilt, atonement became central in the work of Christ. Sin was of such a nature that it aroused God’s wrath. Needed above all to still that wrath, to satisfy God’s justice, was the satisfaction accomplished by the “God-man.” He achieved it by putting himself in our place as the guarantor of the covenant, taking upon himself the full guilt and punishment of sin, and submitting to the total demand of the law of God. Hence the work of Christ consists not so much in his humility, nor only in his death, but in his total—active as well as passive—obedience. He accomplished this work in his threefold office, not only as prophet by teaching us and giving us an example and exhorting us to love but also as priest and king.5

Third, his death was substitutionary. It was “for me,” Paul says, a personal reference that is expanded to all the elect in other places in his writings (cf. Eph. 5:2; Gal. 1:4). Incidentally, as S. Lewis Johnson pointed out, it is never said in the New Testament that Christ loves the world. He loved the church, and He loves me; the special relation that He bears to His own is the New Testament stress (cf. Rev. 1:5).6


The apostle has set forth for us the true nature of the cross-work of Christ. It is found in the voluntary, penal substitutionary sacrifice of the Son of God who, uniting us with Himself, has died our death under judgment and has raised us up with Him in His resurrection. Thus, any notion of the atonement that avoids penal substitution ends up with an equally distorted understanding of Christ’s resurrection.

J. I. Packer’s comments on our text deserve reflection.

The measure (‘gave himself’) and the personal particularity (‘for me’) of the love of the atonement-maker for Paul, and by parity of reasoning for every other believer, is here made plain, and so is God’s way of freeing us from the dominion of the death-dealing law that by nature all denizens of this fallen, evil world are under. What does God do? He exchanges our sin-serving existence for a Spirit-led existence by incorporating us, invisibly and intangibly, yet really and truly, into the space-time, trans-historical death and resurrection of our Savior, who now through his indwelling Spirit can truly be said to live in us and shape us as we live our new life in faith-fellowship with him. Atonement—Christ’s dying for us—is thus foundational, says Paul, for entry upon the new life—Christ living in us—which is a life totally free from sin’s penalty and significantly free from sin’s power and ruling over us also.7

The Shack presents a gospel that is devoid of the central feature of the cross of Christ: that of penal substitution. The author, William P. Young, not surprisingly, talks like Brian McLaren, who likewise speaks contemptuously of penal substitution as “divine child abuse.”8

Long ago, J. I. Packer addressed this distortion.

The penal substitution model has been criticized for depicting a kind Son placating a fierce Father in order to make him love man, which he did not do before. The criticism is, however, inept, for penal substitution is a Trinitarian model, for which the motivational unity of Father and Son is axiomatic. The New Testament presents God’s gift of his Son to die as the supreme expression of his love to men. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son’ (John 3:16). ‘God is love, . . . Herein is love, not that we love God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’ (I John 4:8-10). ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ (Rom. 5:8). Similarly, the New Testament presents the Son’s voluntary acceptance of death as the supreme expression of his love to men. ‘He loved me, and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20). ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends . . .’ (John 15:13f.) And the two loves, the love of Father and Son, are one: a point which the penal substitution model, as used, firmly grasps.9


1 The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield IX (rpt. Baker, 1981) p. 297.

2 Cf. Steve Chalke, The Lost Message of Jesus (Zondervan, 2003) p. 182. He writes, “The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement “God is love.” If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil.” (p. 182). Brian McLaren and N. T. Wright gave Chalke’s book glowing endorsements.

3 http://www.blog.belief.com/tonyjones/2009/04/why-jesus-died.html

4 J. V. Gendern and W. H. Velema, Concise Reformed Dogmatics (P & R, 2008) p. 480.

5 H. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics III (Baker, 2006) p. 345.

6 S. Lewis Johnson Jr., class lecture notes, Systematic Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Fall, 1984. I owe my analysis of this passage to Dr. Johnson.

7 J. I. Packer, “The Atonement in The Life of the Christian,” in The Glory of The Atonement eds. C. E. Hill and F. A. James III (IVP, 2004) p. 411.

8 B. McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In (Jossey Bass, 2002) p. 102.

9 J. I. Packer, “What Did The Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution,” The Tyndale Bulletin (1974) p. 17.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Dr. Clark,
    A question from a friendly reader.
    Would you be willing to provide more scripture for the assertion that Christ experienced the legal penalty for my (or any other Christian’s) sins?
    I ask because it seems to me that, for example, the Catholic Church would hold to a version of atonement that would not run afoul of Warfield’s worries: They don’t make a theory of atonement impossible but instead speak of its various aspects, including the sacrificial, satisfying, etc. In other words, it seems that Anselm’s view of the atonement could explain the scriptures marshaled above without positing a legal penal substitution.
    For example, Galatians 2:20 has Paul saying simply that Christ died “for me”–which could just mean that Christ’s death was for his interest. This does not (automatically) entail penal substitution as the notion of satisfaction could work here, too.
    In my mind, Jesus becoming a curse for us might work better as a substitutionary argument; but I have not yet thought about whether my own objection would undercut that as well.
    ps-Digging the natural law discussion, having read Grabill’s book among others.

  2. I like what you have to say but curious about one thing…….You said, and I quote, ” Incidentally, as S. Lewis Johnson pointed out, it is never said in the New Testament that Christ loves the world. He loved the church, and He loves me; the special relation that He bears to His own is the New Testament stress (cf. Rev. 1:5).” This is confusing to me because John 3:16 says, For God so loved the WORLD that He gave His only begotten Son. So not sure what you mean by saying that was never said in the new testament?? Thanks, Mickie

  3. Dr. Clark,

    There are lots of other problems with the book as well, including an extreme antinomianism and a radical egalitarian view. Young is a disciple of Jacques Ellul, a Barthian “Christian Marxist” theologian. This book made its way into my congregation a couple of years ago and I ended up having to preach against it. The results of my efforts can be found here:


    Kindest Regards,
    Brian Carpenter

  4. Brian and Scott,
    I read, “The Shack” about 1 1/2 yrs ago and loved it..wow..thought it was amazing, even though there were a few things that didn’t sit right with me. I think the Enemy can have a real subtle attraction. Then i started to research it more and realized it was really off base. My pastor has invited, “The Shack” author, Mr Young, to our church to speak and our pastor says he only wants us to invite the unsaved and doesn’t want us to invite other church friends. I know our pastor has a passion for the Lord and the Word,,,I don’t doubt that, but I wrote him an email, in love, and told him that i disagree with bringing this man in because i think he presents a watered down gospel (I should’ve said a twisted gospel). He told me that i need to remember that it is fictional and that Paul in Acts 17 opened up a conversation using an idol. (I disagree with the context he is referring to!!) He also told me that this book has opened doors to speak to people that would’ve never even listened to a word about God. He also told me that yes, he has read all of the controversies and that he and I can just agree to disagree on this topic. It is very confusing to see some powerful men of God advocating, “The Shack”. Just yesterday I saw that James Robison, whom I really like, had him on his show and also, “The Trinity Broadcasting” Station invited him on too. If this book is so wrong why can’t these strong Christians see it or believe it? Am I making too big of a deal out of, “The Shack?” I still, in my heart, don’t think I am.

    • Hi Mickie,

      I don’t think you’re making too much of The Shack. There are limits to what we can say or do to bring people to faith.

      To take your pastor’s argument. Paul started with the idolatry of the Athenian philosophers in order to convict them of their sin! If The Shack did that there would be not controversy from orthodox evangelicals. The Shack doesn’t do that, however. The Shack is closer to committing idolatry than exposing it for what it is. The Shack is arguably guilty of blasphemy.

      Further, The Shack re-tells the story of redemption in a way that changes it. That’s what happens when we re-tell the story as opposed to simply telling the story. The assumption of The Shack is that people won’t believe if we tell the story. Well, that’s true, sometimes people don’t believe but that shouldn’t stop us for telling the story! It didn’t stop Paul at Mars Hill. Most of the Athenian philosophers didn’t believe, but Paul still preached the resurrection.

      If Paul were using the method of the The Shack then he would have re-cast the story of salvation in terms that were more palatable to the philosophers. He did the exact opposite. Your pastor is right to appeal to Paul at Mars Hill but your pastor has quite misunderstood the effect of such an appeal. Mars Hill teaches us to do exactly the opposite of The Shack.

      Fwiw, there’s an episode of The Heidelcast coming this Lord’s Day that deals with this question of what tactics we’re allowed to use to try to reach the lost.

      Stay tuned.

  5. Scott,
    Thanks for your insight on this….i appreciate it! I definately agree with you that we need to stick to telling, “The Story” and yes,,,The Shack doesn’t convict us of our sin. I also just listened to Pastor Brian’s sermon concerning this, the link he posted above, and that was also helpful.

Comments are closed.