Wm. Paul Young is best known as the author of the astoundingly successful book The Shack. He has also written two other works. All his books deal with pain and suffering and seek to offer hope.
Unfortunately, Young’s brand of hope, although it presents itself as Christian, and indeed has been understood as such by many, is not anchored in the biblical portrait of God at all. This book, Lies We Believe About God, lays bare Young’s understanding of some of the central tenets of Christianity for all to see. Those of us who were unhappy with the portrayal of God in The Shack have had our suspicions vindicated. Young’s conception of God is very unbiblical.
Where He Is Right
Saying that this book contains a false view of God is not the same as saying that it is entirely false. He has some strong words for the word-faith people (86-87). He correctly states that for God to change this world into a monument of His grace “speaks volumes” about His character (39). He is also spot on when he says that we are all individuals and God will relate to us as such (158), and in his insistence that we have intrinsic worth (32). There are a few things in the book where the author makes a good point or two. He can get you to agree with him.
More than once the honest reader will acknowledge that Young has described an issue well. Not in-depth to be sure, but he has sounded the right note. His aim is clearly to try to make God less like a cruel schoolmaster or an ever wakeful pedant, just waiting for us to trip up so we can be sorted out, or at least reasonably ignored. God is approachable.
The School of Pain
It does not take long to gain a genuine pity for Young. He has suffered. Moreover, a lot of his suffering has come, directly or indirectly, from the hands of those who should have known better. His father was emotionally abusive (29-32, 209-212) His parents were missionaries to West Papua, New Guinea, where Young grew up and from where he was wrenched to go back to his parents’ homeland in Canada (165-166). From watching an interview with Young, I discovered that he had been physically abused by the natives in West Papua within a stone’s throw of his neglectful parents. At a young age he was packed off to boarding school where he was similarly mistreated. There are some poignant lessons for missionaries and mission boards in Young’s stories, not least of which is that one can hardly claim to be doing God’s work when your children are mistreated, neglected, and even being exposed to danger and trauma while you are “building the kingdom.”
You can see that I have sympathy for the author, and any reader would. It is not that his parents were “bad people” (although his father comes across as quite odious). But they do appear to have been pretty clueless and even heartless in several crucial areas. Young has had to try to manage his distress more or less on his own while still believing that God is good. But I must return to that point presently.
The book has lots of stories. That won’t surprise anyone who knows anything about modern Christian publishing. Many of them are affecting. For example, there is a great story about his mother’s rescue of a “not viable” baby, and how he was given back to his parents grew, eventually becoming a pastor (chapter 7).
The real stories are mixed with the made-up ones from Young’s books, and together they create the emotional undercurrent the book relies on to “support” the author’s views. Indeed, it became clear to me that the 28 “Lies” he presents us with find most of their traction from these anecdotes; not from the Bible.
All that said, then, it’s time to examine the many theological problems with this book.
The Theological Errors in the Book
The heresies in Lies We Believe About God come thick and fast. They are embedded in the sympathy- rousing narratives of the book. As he puts it,
Each chapter refers to a statement I once believed and from which I have transitioned. (18)
I have no intention of going through all of the “lies.” From hereon in I shall concentrate on what I think are his most destructive ideas.
I’ll start off with the claim that the real trouble with us is not that we are born sinners. No, “we have become blind in the deceit-darkness we believe” (36). “Pride is a sin because it is a denial of being human” (227). Here is an even more definitive assertion:
Yes, we have crippled eyes, but not a core of ungoodness. We are true and right, but often ignorant and stupid, acting out of the pain of our wrongheadedness, hurting ourselves, others, and even all creation. Blind, not depraved, is our condition. (34-35)
Then comes an attempt at scriptural logic:
Remember, God cannot become anything that is evil or inherently bad … and God became human. (35)
Of course, this is rank Pelagianism pure and unalloyed. The belief that we are all inherently good deep down, and that our “sins” come about because of ignorance or our environment or whatever is the common currency of every religion and worldview but one: Biblical Christianity. It is a fact that all other views of mankind reject the doctrine of original sin. It is unique to the Christian worldview. Wm. Paul Young’s view is classic Pelagianism. Berkouwer describes it thus:
Pelagius became the great antagonist of the doctrine of original sin; he saw that doctrine as a flagrant contradiction to the essence of a free man who was created by God as a good creature. (G. C. Berkouwer, Sin, 430)
If we are, when all is said and done, good people, then God will be easy to mollify. As his logic above displays, this belief obscures from Young the fact that Jesus was a necessarily sinless representative of sinful people before a holy God.
2. No Hell
The twisted logic continues with his doctrine of Hell. In Pelagianism, what’s to punish? So here’s Young:
[I]f God’s nature is love then ours is, too, because we are created in the image of God. Any command to love is to call us to incarnate the deepest truth of our being, love. (46)
On page 134 the author cites Romans 8:38-39, and then asks if this is a list of things which cannot separate us from God’s love, what can?
You are a “created thing,” so therefore you do not have the power to separate yourself from the love of God. And whatever hell is, it cannot separate you from the love of God. (135)
This stunning misconstrual of Paul’s argument is inconceivable in a saved man. The apostle is referring to those who are “in Christ” (cf. Rom. 8:1), who are “led by the Spirit” and adopted in God’s family (8:14-15). Young completely overlooks the argument of Romans 8:5-11 about those who are of God and those who are not. How can he ignore the Apostle when he states, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His”(Rom. 8:9)? Plainly, the “us” who cannot be separated from the love of God are Christians whom God has adopted and to whom He has given the Spirit!
The metaphysics of this writer are truly derisory. From the pretext of God’s upholding of all things, he reasons that it is impossible for anyone to be separated from God (136). So he reasons,
So, if we continue this thought … perhaps hell is hell not because of the absence of God, but because of the presence of God, the continuous and confrontational presence of fiery Love and Goodness and Freedom that intends to destroy every vestige of evil and darkness that prevents us from being fully free and fully alive. (136, emphasis his)
Perhaps. But how can we know? We could do what Young fails to do and read what God says in its context. For example, how can we use these verses to promote belief in God’s fiery love?
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12:2)
If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. (Matthew 18:8)
And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:46)
It is not easy to imagine these ominous passages sitting placidly in the pink-tea coziness of Young’s ubiquitous love and freedom (cf. also Jn. 3:36; Isa. 33:14; Rev. 20:15).
In Part Two I shall discuss Young’s universalism
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.