Prevailing Views of the Atonement of Christ

This is one of those articles this writer has put together in order to have a clear and logical understanding of the two principal views of Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of men. Such an endeavor helps me to maintain a consistent understanding of the topic at hand, not only in my own mind, but it also helps me greatly in communicating what I believe to others. As Christians, being able to articulate why we believe what we believe is spiritually enriching, while at the same time extremely helpful when discussing biblical topics with other believers and unbelievers alike. On to the topic at hand – the two prevailing views of the Atonement!

There is very little doubt among Christians that, In his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ became the atonement, or sacrifice for the sins of mortal men. The Bible tells us that there is no forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood, in both the Old and New Testaments (Leviticus 16 & Hebrews 9). In the OT, atonement for sin was accomplished by the Jewish High Priests through the periodic sacrificing of ceremonially clean animals. In the New Testament, we are presented with the once for all atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the pure Lamb of God who lived a perfect life on behalf of all who repent of sin and believe the gospel.

Having established that belief in Christ’s sacrifice for the salvation of men, we can ask the crucial question: Did Christ die to merely make the salvation possible for those who repent and believe, or to actually guarantee their salvation? To try and answer that question, let us turn to what has been referred to as The Golden Chain of Salvation recorded in Romans 8:29-30:

29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

If you are asking “How do those two verses answer our question?”, you are asking the right question! Those two verses didn’t come to be called The Golden Chain of Salvation on a whim or by accident. The actually present to us the logical flow of the process of salvation, or how God saves men. We are told that those who are saved are those God first of all “foreknew”, followed by their “predestination”, calling”, justification”, and glorification.”

The key to answering our question concerning the prevailing views of the Atonement lies in the definition of the phrase “those whom he (God) foreknew”. It goes without saying that those who are “foreknown” by God are ultimately “glorified” in their salvation. It is also significant that everything that God does in these passages is expressed in the past tense – just something for you to ponder. What does it mean that God “foreknew”? There are two distinct possibilities, and possibly only two.

By itself, the term “foreknew” means literally “knew beforehand”. In our context, that seems to indicate that God either knew personally those who would be saved, or he knew something that would do at some point in time.

By far, the prevailing view in modern evangelicalism is that God, who knows the beginning from the end, knows all of the future actions of all men, and decided to save those who he knew would, at some point in time, hear the gospel message and come to believe in Christ as Savior of their own natural free will.

The other, less popular view, is that God knew beforehand those He would save in a personal way, not because they were somehow ‘better’ than others, or because he knew what they would do at some future point in time. We see a beautiful example of this view in God’s choosing of Israel for deliverance from bondage in Egypt:

“It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)

God didn’t choose Israel because of how great a nation it was or anything they might accomplish in the future. He had made a covenant with Abraham to eventually become a great nation out of which would come His Messiah that would impact all the nations of the world. In like manner, God, also in eternity past, set his love upon and chose all those he would deliver from the bondage of sin through His Messiah.

The last question we can ask is “What exactly does Romans passage actually say?” The text says “for those whom he (God) foreknew”, a personal pronoun. God knew specific individuals he would bring to salvation. The term “knew” used in the text is the same word God used when he called the Prophet Jeremiah:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)

As a final check, I examined over 15 different translations. All but three used the same phrase “I knew you. Two used the phrase “I chose you” and one used the phrase “I selected you”. As a matter of curiosity, I also checked the The Message (MSG) Bible, which claims to be a translation but is, at best, an ‘interesting’ paraphrase. The MSG used the phrase “I knew all about you”, which could support the most popular view of the Atonement, described earlier in this article.

To summarize, there are two main views of the Atonement of Christ. The most popular of the two is that God knew the future decisions of all men and chose for salvation those he knew would choose him of their own free will. The less popular view is that God knew personally, and set his love upon those he would save, and as a matter of sovereign grace, determined to bring them to salvation.

So what?

First of all, both views cannot be correct. Which is most faithful to the text of Scripture? Which do you believe and why? Does one’s view of the Atonement affect how we evangelize – how we share the gospel? Should it?

I won’t share my answers to those questions. After all, my intention in trying to make sense of it all was not to convince anyone of my opinion of the matter. Perhaps another article will address how views of the Atonement impact our evangelistic efforts.

Feel free to comment and let me know if you think I did what I set out to do – properly present the two main views of Christ’s Atonement.

Physical Healing And The Atonement of Christ

I recently read the testimony of someone who just started believing that healing is in Christ’s Atonement. I am thrilled and will always praise God when someone receives healing, whether it be through the God given talents of the medical community, naturally built in healing properties of the human body, and of course through prayer!

The question before us is whether or not physical healing is promised in the Atonement of Christ. It is my contention that it is not. I will set forth my reasoning from an identical portion of scripture used to say that it is. Turn first to Isaiah 53:5 in which we read:

“And by his stripes we are healed.”

That portion of scripture seems to be the lynch pin of the ‘there’s healing in the atonement argument. Some go so far as to claim that since Christ received 39 stripes and since there are 39 main groups of sickness/disease, that proves it! But does it?

Let’s look at ALL of verse 5:

“But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.” (Isa 53:4-5)

Notice that in the very same verse, immediately preceding the portion taken out of context we find out exactly why Christ was wounded, as well as from what we are ‘healed’:

“But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.”

Simple rules of grammar tell us that it was because of our transgressions and iniquities that he suffered. To assert that physical healing was also provided for is to add to the text what is not there. That’s called eisegesis.

If physical healing / divine health is in the atonement and can be experienced by having enough faith,

  • Why did the Apostle Paul tell young Timothy to have an occasional drink of wine for his (Timothy’s) stomach troubles?
  • Why did Paul pray three times for the ‘thorn in the flesh’ to be removed, yet God told him “my grace is sufficient for you” but did not heal him.
  • Why did James encourage the sick to be prayed for by the elders of the church and not just counsel the sick to exercise their own faith?

Having said all that, which should be sufficient, let’s assume that healing IS part of the atonement. We are presented with a couple of issues we must think through.

1. Since salvation from sin is received by grace through faith, it’s quite logical to assert that physical healing is appropriated in the same manner – by grace through faith. In fact, those that teach healing as part of the atonement often make that very claim – that faith in the ‘healing promise’ is all you need. And that leads to a second issue.

2. If a believer has sufficient faith for salvation, but still suffers from sickness once in a while, or still has a disease, he/she is lacking strong enough faith to shed the physical illness. And that brings up the subject of the source of believing faith. Does it come from God, or is it something inherent to all of us from the day we are born? But that’s another subject, deserving of its own discussion. Back to our assumption that healing is part of the atonement and the matter of ‘levels’ of faith.

3. When the assumption is accepted there are two groups affected by it. First there are those who who sit in the pews (or auditorium seats). They sit there, subject to the ‘stuff’ of life, including sickness and disease, from which they want relief. Let’s call them the ‘sheep’. Then we have the preachers and teachers who tell the sheep that with enough faith they can be completely healed, and even walk in a state of ‘divine’ health the rest of their lives. It’s all up to the sheep and the strength of their faith. Let’s call this second group ‘wolves in sheep suits’.

The wolves know they have a steady stream of finances from those who are trying to build up enough faith to be healed, who are holding on to hope. Promise the sheep hope and they’ll keep coming back, for healing as well as a lot of other things that are part of their ‘best life now’. Some of the wolves even tie the promised healing to a mandatory tithe being given to their establishments. No tithe, no blessing.

I must confess that some years ago we believed that physical healing was indeed part of the atonement. That’s what we were being taught in the Charismatic church we attended. And to this day, I don’t consider the Pastor of that church to be the sort of ‘wolf’ described above. Deceived sheep become pastors. They did then and they do now.

Some genuine believers will die of sickness and disease still believing they just didn’t have enough faith to be healed. Shame on the wolves. They will be judged.

Does God still heal, even miraculously? YES! God heals whenever, however, and whomever he wants. It’s just not part and parcel of Christ’s Atonement. That was about human sin.

I rest my case.

The Work That Saves – by Horatius Bonar

The Work That Saves

   Done is the work that Saves!

      Once and forever done.

   Finished the righteousness

      That clothes the unrighteous one.

   The love that blesses us below

      Is flowing freely to us now.


   The sacrifice is o’er,

      The veil is rent in twain,

   The mercy-seat is red

      With blood of victim slain;

   Why stand we then without in fear?

      The blood divine invites us near.


   The gate is open wide,

       The new and living way

   Is clear and free and bright,

      With love and peace and day;

   Into the holiest now we come, 

      Our present and our endless home.


   Upon the mercy-seat

      The High Priest sits within;

   The blood is in his hand

      Which makes and keeps us clean.

   With boldness let us now draw near,

      That blood has banished every fear.


   Then to the Lamb once slain

      Be glory, praise and power,

   Who died and lives again,

      Who liveth evermore;

   Who loved and washed us in his blood,

      Who made us kings and priests to God.

                          – Horatius Bonar

Spurgeon on the Atonement

clip_image002"Many divines say that Christ did something when he died that enabled God to be just, and yet the Justifier of the ungodly. What that something is they do not tell us. They believe in an atonement made for everybody; but then, their atonement is just this. They believe that Judas was atoned for just as much as Peter; they believe that the damned in hell were as much an object of Jesus Christ’s satisfaction as the saved in heaven; and though they do not say it in proper words, yet they must mean it, for it is a fair inference, that in the case of multitudes, Christ died in vain, for he died for them all, they say; and yet so ineffectual was his dying for them, that though he died for them they are damned afterwards. Now, such an atonement I despise — I reject it."


The Christian Worldview as Master Narrative: Redemption Accomplished

Al Mohler, Monday, January 10, 2011

The third great movement in the Christian metanarrative begins with the affirmation that God’s purpose from the beginning was to redeem a people through the blood of his Son – and that he does this in order to show the excellence of his name throughout eternity. The God of the Bible is not a divine strategist, ready with a new plan in the event his original plan fails. The God of the Bible is sovereign and completely able to accomplish his purposes. Thus, when we come to the great act of God for our redemption we come to the very heart of God’s self-revelation.

Beyond this, an adequate understanding of human sin brings us to the inescapable conclusion that there is absolutely nothing that the human creature can do to rescue himself from his plight. We find ourselves in an insoluble situation and are brought face to face with our own finitude. What is worse, all our efforts to solve the problem on our own lead only into an even deeper complex of sin. We are rebels to the core, and our attempts to justify ourselves lead only into deeper levels of sinfulness.

When we come to the rescue of sinners, the Christian narrative points directly to Jesus Christ as the one sent by God to die as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin and to inaugurate the kingdom of God as Israel’s Davidic messiah.

Of course, Jesus Christ does not enter the biblical narrative only at this point. As the prologue to the Gospel of John makes clear, Jesus Christ is the eternal Logos through whom the entire cosmos came into being (John 1:1-3). The Word through whom the worlds were made now enters human existence, assuming authentic humanity, in order to identify with us and to save us from our sins. The doctrine of creation leads to the doctrine of redemption, for the cosmos was created as the theater of God’s redemptive acts.

Redemption is God’s work from beginning to end. The Gospel explains that God, in order to maintain his own righteousness, must to exact an adequate punishment for sin. Yet, while we were his enemies, God saved us by providing the very sacrifice that he required.

Just as God revealed himself in the most exclusive terms (monotheism), he also reveals his gospel as exclusive of any other means of salvation. And as at every other point in the story, we are completely dependent upon the Bible for our knowledge of Christ and of the Gospel. It is only through the Bible that we come to understand who Jesus is—very God and very man—and to understand the purpose for which he came, suffered, died, and was raised from the dead. We come to understand that the Gospel alone explains how the requirements of divine justice can be satisfied and sinful humanity can be rescued from the wrath of God.

Once again, God’s sovereignty and holiness are displayed even as the drama of redemption demonstrates God’s power and character. The Gospel does not reveal God’s mere intention to save. At every turn, the Bible reveals God’s power to save and his determination to do so for the glory of his own name.

The plan of redemption is set out in Scripture through a succession of covenants that find their fulfillment only in Christ. As the New Testament makes clear, there is one Gospel that is addressed to all people and all peoples. God’s determination is to redeem the people from every tongue and tribe and people and nation in order to show the excellence of his name.

The Christian worldview must also be framed around the fact that God is calling out a people, cleansed by the blood of his son. Over against the autonomous individualism of contemporary American culture, the Christian narrative establishes our identity in Christ as part of a new humanity. This new humanity is, in this age, established as the church. Those who come by faith to know the Lord Jesus Christ are incorporated into the life of the Church as a foretaste of the fullness of life in Christ that will be fully known in the kingdom yet to come.

Every worldview must explain if there can be some rescue from the human predicament, however that predicament is described. The master narrative of Christianity defines that predicament in straightforward terms — we are lost, dead in our sins, and the very enemies of God. But, thanks be to God, we are not left there. The Gospel of Jesus Christ declares salvation and redemption to all who believe in him.

Our salvation is not a matter of therapy or technique. There is nothing we can do to earn or to deserve God’s salvation. But what we were powerless to do, God did in Christ. No other promise of salvation will do. The Christian master narrative excludes all other means of rescue and redemption. This central truth explains why the Christian worldview is filled with such hope, but is grounded in such humility. God is saving a people from every tongue and tribe and people and nation, and the story of our redemption is the great turning point in the narrative, but it is not the end of the story.


Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., serves as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

The Main Thing is Still the ‘Main Thing’

Well, 2011 is here now and like many others, we’ve spent some time looking back at 2010. There are a lot of good memories of our children and grandchildren, supporting cancer foundation efforts, hosting Colorado College international students, and having room in our home for ‘sojourners’ of various sorts. Perhaps two of the most significant ‘recollections’ of 2010 were the following:

Our son Daniel, who had confronted his condition apart from Christ and met his Savior the year before, was married to a wonderful girl here in Colorado Springs last April. They live not far from us, and it is a delight to watch them grow together as a married couple, as well as spiritually.

Our six year old grandson was only recently riding in the car with his Mom and Dad in Virginia, and broke out in tears over ‘bad things’ he had done. His Mom and Dad lovingly explained to him why none of us ‘deserve’ heaven, also explaining Christ’s perfect life and sacrifice for our sins, and a six-year old trusted in, and professed Jesus as his Savior!

We noticed a common thread in both our son’s and our grandson’s meeting with the Savior. They both faced their ‘bad things’ (sin); realized their condition before a Holy God, and in the spirit of repentance, received God’s provision through the death of His Son, on their behalf. The only difference between them is the depth of understanding a thirty-something might have and that of a six year old. Whatever that might be, they both dealt with the most fundamental issue at stake in the salvation of fallen people, the issue of ‘sin’.

Way back in 1973, a psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, authored a book titled ‘Whatever Became of Sin?’ (New York: Hawthorn Books). After an extensive survey of the ills of human kind, the doctor concluded that something basic must be wrong with the human race, whether one uses such terms as sin, crime, wrongdoing, mental illness, etc. There was then, and there still is a tendency in psychiatric circles to blame all the ‘bad things’ people do on external issues or society in general. He found such complacency toward the idea of “sin” that he thought the question should be the title of his book.

While we don’t find it particularly surprising that the issue of ‘sin’ has been largely removed from secular arenas, it should be absolutely startling to find the topic of sin and the dreaded “S” word omitted, or treated lightly, from many ‘pulpits’ across America, and virtually taboo in many ‘Christian’ small group discussion venues.

What does all that have to do with reminiscing about our son and grandson? Maybe not much to readers of this blog, but to its author it’s a really BIG deal, and a great comfort to know that the central issue of the message of the gospel, the main reason Christ was sent to earth, to die for the sins of men, was the central issue of their meeting their Savior and professing faith in Him.

You see, as we look across the landscape of evangelical Protestantism in America these days, the central issue of the gospel message appears to have changed. We hear all sorts of things presented as ‘fundamental’ to the gospel message; meeting our temporal needs, fulfilling our desire for meaning, transforming society, lifting up the poor, and even making us rich and healthy.

Admittedly, all of these ideas about the gospel latch onto a perceived problem and say, “That’s what the gospel is all about!” But are any of those things what the gospel is really all about? Are any of those things the fundamental problem the gospel addresses?

The Bible says “No, none of them.” The Bible clearly teaches that humanity’s fundamental problem is our sin and God’s wrath against us because of our sin.

God’s wrath against our sin is the fundamental problem the gospel addresses. Jesus died on the cross as a propitiation, a sacrifice that turns away God’s wrath (Rom. 3:23-25; 1 Jn. 2:2, 4:10) in order that we would be saved through faith in him.

  • “Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? “His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by him” (Nahum 1:6)
  • “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18).
  • “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6)
  • “Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev. 6:15-17).

I wish I knew the number of hours I spent last year discussing with professing Christians, both in online forums and face-to-face, the fact of the issue of ‘sin’ being at the center of the message of the gospel. There was a time in the Christian church when that was a ‘given’. I fear that time is long gone. When Paul’s very specific definition of the gospel (1 Cor 15:1-4), “that Christ died for our sins” is called ‘personal opinion’, we have a very serious problem in the church. When a professing Christian, who has claimed to have read the Bible, states that sin is ‘part’ of the gospel and the plan of redemption, but NOT central to its message, we either have a serious problem in the church, or a complete failure of our schools and learning institutions to teach us how to read a book and pick out its major theme.

I will proclaim on my deathbed, as I sometimes do now, that the duty of a Christian to share the gospel, the ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ , is by far the greatest privilege bestowed upon the children of God by their eternal Father! We must do so faithfully and accurately, whether people like the message or not, trusting God to do His work and save His people. If I, or you, ‘lead’ someone to Christ with ‘secondary’ promises pertaining to this life the main focus, but without making the main thing THE ‘main thing’, all we are doing is helping lost friends and loved ones think they are saved while still bound for Hell. Will their blood be on our hands?

Food for thought for the New Year. . .


The above was adapted in part from a Q&A section of 9Marks ministries.

What Did Jesus Come To Do?

To reveal the Father (Matt. 11:27)

“All things have been committed to me by my Father.  No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

To be a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28)

“just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

To serve (Matt. 20:28)

“just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

To save the world (John 3:17; Luke 19:10)

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

To preach the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 4:43)

“But he said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”

To bring division (Luke 12:51)

“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”

To do the will of the Father (John 6:38)

“For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.”

To give the Father’s words (John 17:8)

“For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them.  They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.”

To testify to the truth (John 18:37)

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.   Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king.  In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

To die and destroy Satan’s power (Heb. 2:14)

“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil.”

To destroy the devil’s works (1 John 3:8)

“He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning.  The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.”

To fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 5:17)

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

To give life (John 10:10,28)

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full… I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.”

To taste death for everyone (Heb. 2:9)

“But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

To become a high priest (Heb. 2:17)

“For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”

To atone for sin (Heb. 2:17)

“For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”

To proclaim freedom for believers (Luke 4:18)

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.”

To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:19)

“to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

To bring judgment (John 9:39)

“Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

To take away sin (1 John 3:5)

“But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin.”

To preach (Mark 1:38)

“Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else — to the nearby villages — so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.'”

To call sinners (Mark 2:17)

“On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.'”

To know who is true (1 John 5:20)

“We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true.  And we are in him who is true — even in his Son Jesus Christ.  He is the true God and eternal life.”

The above list represents only some of the things Jesus came to do. Most of us are familiar with them all, and you might even have a favorite reason among them. Regardless of whether you know them all or not, or which one might be your favorite, they are all wrapped up what the Angel told Joseph about his betrothed, Mary, and in the command given to Joseph:

“She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

The reason we hold that to be true is because all of the problems of mankind are the result of the first Adam willfully disobeying God and ushering sin into God’s perfect world.

So if, in this Christmas season, or any other time the question “What did Jesus come to do?” comes up, just repeat what the Angel told Joseph. What an opportunity it might bring to share the ‘rest of the story’, and lead a lost soul to the Savior!

We ALL Believe in a Limited Atonement.

If you believe in the atonement, but you do not believe that all men will eventually be saved, you believe in a ‘limited atonement’. Either you limit the atonement to those who of their own ‘free will’ decide that they want salvation, or you limit the atonement to those whom God elected to salvation before the foundation of the world.

In the latter case, there will certainly be some who are saved because God ‘appointed them to salvation’ (Acts 13:48) and therefore they will come to faith in Christ; a multitude no man can number, we are told in Revelation. In this case, the death of Christ on the Cross actually secured for all eternity the salvation of those chosen by God for salvation.

If man’s natural ‘free will’ limits the atonement to those who make the right decision, not only is the salvation of men ultimately up to those who do so, there is also a possibility, no matter how remote, that all men will reject Christ. After all, Christ died to make salvation ‘possible’ for those who choose rightly, but didn’t actually secure the salvation of any!

I ask you “Which of the above scenarios potentially limits the atonement to the greatest extent?”

I leave the answer to you. Just think about it.

The Shack: Helpful or Heretical?

A Critical Review by Norman L. Geisler and Bill Roach

The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity by William P. Young (Wind Blown Media, 2007, 264 pp) is a New York Times best seller with well over a million copies in print. Literally hundreds of thousands have been blessed by its message, but its message is precisely what calls for scrutiny.  Responses to The Shack range from eulogy to heresy.  Eugene Peterson, author of The Message predicted that The Shack “has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!” Emmy Award Winning Producer of ABC Patrick M. Roddy declares that “it is a one of a kind invitation to journey to the very heart of God. Through my tears and cheers, I have been indeed transformed by the tender mercy with which William Paul Young opened the veil that too often separated me from God and from myself.” ( People from all walks of life are raving about this book by unknown author “Willie” Young, son of a pastor/missionary, and born in Canada. He is a graduate of Warner Pacific College in Portland, Oregon.

The Background of the Book
The Shack is Christian fiction, a fast-growing genre in the contemporary Christian culture. It communicates a message in a casual, easy-to-read, non-abrasive manner. From his personal experience, Young attempts to answer some of life’s biggest questions: Who is God? Who is Jesus? What is the Trinity? What is salvation? Is Jesus the only way to Heaven? If God, then why evil? What happens after I die?
             In the final section of the book titled “The Story behind THE SHACK,” he reveals that the motivation for this story comes from his own struggle to answer many of the difficult questions of life. He claims that his seminary training just did not provide answers to many of his pressing questions. Then one day in 2005, he felt God whisper in his ear that this year was going to be his year of Jubilee and restoration. Out of that experience he felt lead to write The Shack. According to Young, much of the book was formed around personal conversations he had with God, family, and friends (258-259). He tells the readers that the main character “Mack” is not a real person, but a fictional character used to communicate the message in the book. However, he admits that his children would “recognize that Mack is mostly me, that Nan is a lot like Kim, that Missy and Kate and the other characters often resemble our family members and friends” (259).

The Basic Story of the Book
             The story centers on a note that Mack, the husband and father in the story, received from “Papa,” who is supposed to be God the Father. It reads, “Mackenzie, It’s been a while. I’ve missed you. I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together” (19). From this, the story moves through the personal struggles Mack has with such questions as: Why would someone send me this letter? Does God really speak through letters? How would my seminary training respond to this interaction between God and man?  The story takes a turn when Mack’s son almost drowns while canoeing. During the chaos his daughter is abducted and eventually killed. This is what caused Mack to fall into what the book calls “The Great Sadness.” This time period is supposed to reflect his spiritual condition after the death of his daughter and the questions he has been asking for many years.
            Grieved with the death of his daughter and the possibility that the note might be from God, Mack packs his bags and heads for the shack. The point of this journey is to suggest that his traditional teaching, Sunday prayers, hymns, and approach to Christianity were all wrong. He comes to the conclusion that “cloistered spirituality seemed to change nothing in the lives of people he knew, except maybe Nan [his wife]” (63). In spite of being an unlikely encounter with God, Young uses this fictional encounter as a vehicle for Mack’s spiritual journey and encounter at the shack.
            While at the shack, Mack discovers that God is not what we expect Him to be. In fact, God the Father is a “large beaming African-American woman,” Jesus appeared to be “Middle Eastern and was dressed like a laborer, complete with tool belt and gloves,” and the Holy Spirit is named Sarayu, “a small, distinctively Asian woman.” The book identifies these three people as the Trinity (80-82). After trying to reconcile his seminary training with this new encounter with God, he concludes that what he had learned was of no help.

An Evaluation of the Book
            Young’s point is clear: forget your preconceived notions about God, forget your seminary training, and realize that God chooses to appear to us in whatever form we personally need; He is like a mixed metaphor. We cannot fall back into our religious conditioning (91). The Shack attempts to present a Christian worldview through the genre of religious fiction, but just how Christian it is remains to be seen.

Problem One: A Rejection of Traditional Christianity
Beneath the surface of The Shack is a rejection of traditional Christianity (179).  He claims that traditional Christianity did not solve his problem.  Even Seminary training didn’t help (63).  He insists that Christianity has to be revised in order to be understood, reminiscent of McClaren’s Emergent Church book titled, Everything Must Change.  However, one might question whether it is Christianity that needs revision or Christians that need to be revitalized. One thing is certain; Christianity should not be rejected because it has some hypocritical representatives.  To be sure, some Seminary training is bad, and even good Seminary training doesn’t help, if you don’t heed it. But the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater.  Christ established the Church and said the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Mt. 16:16-18).  The Shack, as gripping as its story is, trades a church occupied with people who hear the Word of God  preached for an empty shack where there is neither.

Problem Two: Experience Trumps Revelation
            An underlying problem with the message of The Shack is that it uses personal experience to trump revelation.  The solutions to life’s basic problems come from extra-biblical experience, not from Scripture (80-100).  Non-biblical voices are given precedent over the voice of God in Scripture.  These alleged “revelations” from the “Trinity” in the shack are the basis of the whole story.  While biblical truth is alluded to, it is not the authoritative basis of the message.  In the final analysis, it is experience that is used to interpret the Bible; it is not the Bible that is used to interpret experience. This leads to a denial of a fundamental teaching of Protestantism.

Problem Three: The Rejection of Sola Scriptura
            The Shack
rejects the sole authority of the Bible to determine matters of faith and practice. Rather than finding a Bible by the altar in a little old country church and getting comfort and counsel from the word of God, he is instructed to go to an empty shack in the wilderness with no Bible and get all he needs to cope with the tragedies of life from extra-biblical voices. The Shack’s author rejects what “In seminary he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture…. God’s voice had been reduced to paper…. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients…. Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book” (63).
            However, the Bible clearly declares that “Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, emphasis added).  Indeed, our comfort is not found in extra-biblical revelations but is realized in that “through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).  In short, the Bible is sufficient for faith and practice.  No new truth beyond the Bible is needed for doctrine or living the Christian life.  Of course, this does not mean that God cannot bring biblical principles to our minds when needed through various experiences, even tragic ones. He can and He does. Nor does it mean that God cannot guide in circumstances that help us in the application of biblical principles to our lives. He can and He does. But these experiences bring no new revelation. They are merely the occasion for God focusing our attention on the only infallible written source of His revelation, the Bible and the Bible alone. To forsake this fundamental principle is to leave Protestantism for Mysticism.

Problem Four: An Unbiblical View of the Nature and Triunity of God
           In addition to an errant view of Scripture, The Shack has an unorthodox view of the Trinity. God appears as three separate persons (in three separate bodies) which seems to support Tritheism in spite of the fact that the author denies Tritheism (“We are not three gods”) and Modalism (“We are not talking about One God with three attitudes”—p. 100).  Nonetheless, Young departs from the essential nature of God for a social relationship among the members of the Trinity.  He wrongly stresses the plurality of God as three separate persons: God the Father appears as an “African American woman” (80);  Jesus appears as a Middle Eastern worker (82).  The Holy Spirit is represented as “a small, distinctively Asian woman” (82).  And according to Young, the unity of God is not in one essence (nature), as the orthodox view holds. Rather, it is a social union of three separate persons. Besides the false teaching that God the Father and the Holy Spirit have physical bodies (since “God is spirit”—Jn. 4:24), the members of the Trinity are not separate persons (as The Shack portrays them); they are only distinct persons in one divine nature.  Just as a triangle has three distinct corners, yet is one triangle. It is not three separate corners (for then it would not be a triangle if the corners were separated from it), Even so, God is one in essence but has three distinct (but inseparable) Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Problem Five: An Unbiblical View of Punishing Sin
            Another claim is that God does not need to punish sin. He states, “At that, Papa stopped her preparations and turned toward Mack. He could see a deep sadness in her eyes. ‘I am not who you think I am, Mackenzie. I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It is not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it’” (119).  As welcoming as this message may be, it at best reveals a dangerously imbalanced understanding of God.  For in addition to being loving and kind, God is also holy and just. Indeed, because He is just He must punish sin.  The Bible explicitly says that” the soul that sins shall die” (Eze. 18:2).  “I am holy, says the Lord” (Lev. 11:44).  He is so holy that Habakkuk says of God,  “You…are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong…” (Hab. 1:13).  Romans 6:23 declares: “The wages of sin is death….” And Paul added, “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19).
            In short, The Shack presents lop-sided view of God as love but not justice. This view of a God who will not punish sin undermines the central message of Christianity—that Christ died for our sins (1 Cor. 15:1f.) and rose from the dead.  Indeed, some emergent Church leaders have given a more frontal and near blasphemous attack on the sacrificial atonement of Christ, calling it a “form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful father, punishing his son for offences he has not even committed” (Steve Chalke, The Lost Message of Jesus, 184).  Such is the end of the logic that denies an awesomely holy God who cannot tolerate sin was satisfied (propitiated) on behalf of our sin (1 Jn. 2:1). For Christ paid the penalty for us, “being made sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God through him” (2 Cor. 5:21), “suffering the just for the unjust that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).

Problem Six: A False View of the Incarnation
Another area of concern is a false view of the person and work of Christ. The book states, “When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human. We also chose to embrace all the limitations that this entailed. Even though we have always been present in this universe, we now became flesh and blood” (98).  However, this is a serious misunderstanding of the Incarnation of Christ. The whole Trinity was not incarnated.  Only the Son was (Jn. 1:14), and in His case deity did not become humanity but the Second Person of the Godhead assumed a human nature in addition to His divine nature. Neither the Father nor Holy Spirit (who are pure spirit–John 4:24) became human, only the Son did.

Problem Seven: A Wrong View of the Way of Salvation          
         Another problem emerges in the message of The Shack.  According to Young, Christ is just the “best” way to relate to the Father, not the only way (109). The “best” does not necessarily imply the only way, which then means that there may be other ways to relate to God. Such an assertion is contrary to Jesus’ claim, “I am the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes unto the Father except through me” (John14:6).  He added, “He who believes in Him [Christ] is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of  the only begotten Son of God” (Jn. 3:18).  Jesus is not merely the best way, but He is the only way to God.  Paul declared: “There is one God and one mediator between God and Men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).

Problem Eight: A Heretical View of the Father Suffering
          The book also contains a classic heresy called Patripassionism (Literally: Father Suffering).  Young claims that God the Father suffered along with the Son, saying, “Haven’t you seen the wounds on Papa [God the Father] too?’ I didn’t understand them.  ‘How could he…?’  ‘For love.  He chose the way of the cross… because of love’” (p. 165).   But both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed (A.D. 325) made it very clear that it was Jesus alone who “suffered” for us on the Cross. And that He did this only through His human nature.  To say otherwise is to engage in “confusing the two natures” of Christ which was explicitly condemned in the Chalcedonian Creed (A.D. 451).  Suffering is a form of change, and the Bible makes it very clear that God cannot change.  “I the Lord change not” (Mal. 3:6).  “There is no shadow of change with Him” (Jas. 1:17).  When all else changes, God “remains the same” (Heb. 1:10-12). 

Problem Nine: A Denial of Hierarchy in the Godhead
The Shack also claims that there is no hierarchy in God or in human communities modeled after Him.  He believes that hierarchy exists only as a result of the human struggle for power. Young writes of God: “‘Well I know that there are three of you.  But you respond with such graciousness to each other.  Isn’t one of you more the boss than the other two…. I have always thought of God the Father as sort of being the boss and Jesus as the one following orders, you know being obedient….’ ‘Mackenzie, we have no concept of final authority among us; only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command…. What you’re seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power…. Hierarchy would make no sense among us’” (121).
        However, Young cites no Scripture to support this egalitarian view of God and human relations—and for good reasons since the Bible clearly affirms that there is an order of authority in the Godhead, the home, and the church.  Submission and obedience are biblical terms.  Jesus submitted to the Father: “O My Father,… not my will be done but yours” (Mt. 26:39). “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death…” (Philip. 2:8).  In heaven “then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him, that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).  Children are to submit to their parents: Paul urged, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord…” (Eph. 6:1).  Likewise, women are urged: “Wives submit to your own husband, as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22). “The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3).  Members are to “obey your leaders” (Heb. 13:17).  Indeed, citizens are commanded “to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient…” (Titus 3:1). 

The hierarchial order in the Godhead is the basis for all human relationships.  And pure love does not eliminate this; it demands it.  The Bible declares; “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 Jn. 5:3).  Portraying God as a Mother, rather than a Father, reveals an underlying anti-masculinity in Young’s thought.  He wrote, “Males seem to be the cause of so much of the pain in the world. They account for most of the crime and many of those are perpetrated against women…. The world, in many ways, would be a much calmer and gentler place if women ruled. There would have been far fewer children sacrificed to the gods of greed and power” (148). He does not explain how this would not be a hierarchy if women “ruled” the world.

Problem Ten: Ignoring the Crucial Role of the Church in Edifying Believers
         The Shack is totally silent about the important role the community of believers plays in the life of individuals needing encouragement.  In fact there is a kind of anti-church current born of a reaction to a hypocritical, legalistic, and abusive father who was a church leader (1-3).  However, this is clearly contrary to the command of Scripture.  A bad church should not be replaced with no church but with a better church. God gave the church “pastors and teachers, to equip the saints…for building up the body of Christ…” (Eph. 4:11-12).  Paul said, “To each [one in the body] is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7).  Young replaces a Bible-based church in the wildwood with a Bible-less shack in the wild. Comfort in bereavement is sought in a lonely, Bible-less, empty shack in the wilderness where one is to find comfort by heeding deceptive presentations of God. At this point several scriptural exhortations about being aware of deceiving spirits come to mind (1 Tim. 4:1; 1 John 4:1; 2 Cor. 11:14).  As for the need for a church, the Scriptures exhort us “not to forget the assembling together as the manner of some is, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as we see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:25).  Without the regular meeting with a body of edifying believers, proper Christian growth is inevitably stunted.

Problem Eleven: An Inclusivistic View of Who Will be Saved
         While The Shack falls short of the universalism (“All will be saved”) found in other emergent writings, it does have a wide-sweeping inclusivism whereby virtually anyone through virtually any religion can be saved apart from Christ.  According to Young,, “Jesus [said]…. ‘Those who love me come from every system that exists.  They are Buddhists or Mormons, Baptist, or Muslims,…and many who are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institution…. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians.  I have no desire to make them Christians, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa….’ ‘Does that mean…that all roads will lead to you?’  ‘Not at all…. Most roads don’t lead anywhere.  What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you’” (184).

Again, there is no biblical support for these claims.  On the contrary, the Scriptures affirm that there is no salvation apart from knowing Christ. Acts 4:12 pronounces that “There is no other name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved.”  1 Tim. 2:5 insists that “There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.”  And Jesus said, “unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (Jn. 8:24).  For “whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (Jn. 3:36).  And “whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (Jn. 3:18).

Problem Twelve: A Wrong View of Faith and Reason
        The Shack embraces an irrational view of faith. It declares: “There are times when you choose to believe something that would normally be considered absolutely irrational.  It doesn’t mean that it is actually irrational, but it is surely not rational” (64).  Even common sense informs us that this is no way to live the Christian life. The Bible says, “’Come now let us reason together,’ says the Lord” (Isa. 1:18:). “Give a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15); “Paul…reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2). “These were more fair-minded [because] they searched the Scriptures daily…whether these things be so” (Acts 17:11). “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but test the spirits whether they are of God” (1 Jn. 4:1, emphasis added in above quotes).  Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and reasonable Christians would add, “The unexamined faith is not worth having.”

Problem Thirteen: It Eliminates Knowledge of God
       According to Young, God is wholly other; we can’t really know Him.  He wrote: “I am God. I am who I am.  And unlike you…” (96). “I am what some would say ‘holy and wholly other than you’” (97). “I am not merely the best version of you that you can think of. I am far more than that, above and beyond all that you can ask or think” (97).  One basic problem with this view is that it is self-defeating.  How could we know God is “wholly other”?  Wholly other than what?  And how can we know what God is not unless we know what He is?  Totally negative knowledge of God is impossible.  Further, according to the Bible, we can know what God is really like from both general and special revelation. For “Since the creation of the world his invisible attributes are clearly seen…even his eternal power and Godhead…” (Rom.1:20).  As for special revelation, Jesus said, “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also” (Jn. 14:7) and “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (Jn. 14:6). God does speak of Himself in His written Word (2 Tim. 3:16), and when He does it tells us something about the way He really is. His words are not deceptive but descriptive.

Problem Fourteen: It Entails Divine Deception
         According to The Shack, God is revealed in ways contrary to His nature. The Father is revealed as a black woman and having a body when He is neither. The reason given for this is that in love God revealed Himself in ways that would be acceptable to the recipient (who had a bad father image) but were not so.  But this is case of divine deception.  God is a spirit (Jn. 4:24) and He has no body (Lk. 24:39). God is never called a “Mother” in the Bible. It is deceptive to portray God’s Nature in any way that He is not, even though ones motive is loving (91-92).  A lie told with a loving motive is still a lie.  Of course, when God speaks to finite creatures He engages in adaptation to human limits but never in accommodation to human error.  Portraying God as having a black female body is like saying storks bring babies.  Young calls it a “mask” that falls away (111). But God does not have masks, and He does not masquerade.  “It is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18). Paul speaks of the “God who cannot lie” (Titus 1:2). It is only the Devil, the Father of lies, who engages in appearing in forms he is not. “For even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). To be sure, there are figures of speech in Scripture, speaking of God as a rock or a hen, but they are known to be metaphorical and not literal, since there are no immaterial rocks and God does not have feathers.

          The Shack may do well for many in engaging the current culture, but not without compromising Christian truth. The book may be psychologically helpful to many who read it, but it is doctrinally harmful to all who are exposed to it. It has a false understanding of God, the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, the nature of man, the institution of the family and marriage, and the nature of the Gospel. For those not trained in orthodox Christian doctrine, this book is very dangerous. It promises good news for the suffering but undermines the only Good News (the Gospel) about Christ suffering for us.  In the final analysis it is only truth that is truly liberating.  Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32).  A lie may make one feel better, but only until he discovers the truth.  This book falls short on many important Christian doctrines. It promises to transform people’s lives, but it lacks the transforming power of the Word of God (Heb. 4:12) and the community of believers (Heb. 10:25). In the final analysis, this book is not a Pilgrim’s Progress, but doctrinally speaking The Shack is more of a Pilgrim’s Regress.

*Dr. Geisler has a BA, MA, ThM, and PhD (in philosophy). He is an author of some 70 books and has taught philosophy and ethics at the College and Graduate level for fifty years. He is currently Distinguished Professor of Apologetics and Theology at Veritas Evangelical Seminary ( His articles and materials are available at

What was in the Cup?

The night he was betrayed and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus went to a quiet place to pray:

“And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” – Luke 22:41-42

Jesus’ prayer was also recorded in Matthew and Mark:

“Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” – Mat 26:42

“And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. “And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”” – Mar 14:35-36

In the gospel of John, again in the Garden, Jesus again mentions the cup, after Peter cut off the ear of one of the soldiers:

“So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” – John 18:11

I am quite sure Jesus knew what was contained in the cup, but do we? Was it the series of trials and beatings to come? Was it his death on the Cross? Or was more than that?

That is the question left to you this Thursday morning, 2010. What was in the cup?