God on Trial

September 17, 2008 at 10:12 am 10 comments

Over the weekend I finished reading The Shack, a novel about which there has been a lot of hubbub in Christian circles recently.

My two-sentence review: Author William Young depicts God and his character in a way that will be largely old news to many readers, but radical for some; the questions he poses of God and about God should certainly provoke thought in all readers. Although the Shack is overly sappy and a bit patronizing at times, it definitely has its profound and provocative moments.

If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Meanwhile, here’s one point that struck me…

An inappropriate question?

After finishing The Shack, I read a negative reaction to the book over at Boundless. The author of the review, Gary Thomas, challenges Young not only for providing inadequate (heretical?) answers, but for asking what he thinks are inappropriate questions

Our duty, says Thomas, is to accept the mystery of God, and there are certain questions we ought not ask: 

Job had a lot of questions to ask God, and he asked them in an impertinent manner. Instead of answering Job’s questions, as “Papa” does in The Shack, God responded, ‘Listen now, and I will speak. I will question you, and you shall answer me.’

Specifically, Thomas takes Young to task for putting God on trial in his book.

The narrator’s main contention against God is this (paraphrased): ‘You’ve created and/or allowed a world that has hurt me deeply; what do you have to say for yourself? Why should I believe in you anymore?’

Thomas criticizes The Shack for depicting God as being willing to answer those questions:

For 2,000 years, Christians have believed that God sent His Son because He put us on trial and found us wanting. The proper response of humans is, ‘I have sinned and fallen short of Your glory. Have mercy on me.’ Today’s believer and non-believer is far more likely to respond, ‘There’s evil in the world; God, if You really exist, explain Yourself!’

Ask humbly, but do ask

Sticky issues, methinks. 

It’s true, The Shack does come close to crossing the line in the way that it “channels” God, and Thomas has a point that impertinent questions are out of line. God is not obligated to answer our questions, and surely it can’t be right for us to try to hold the omnipotent God accountable for the way he runs his universe. (Even supposing He were in the wrong, there’s not much a pawn can do to the chessmaster, right?)

On the other hand, I think Thomas is too willing to shut down human questions. Biblically, there is nothing wrong with asking questions of God; God actually seems to handle it just fine. 

For example, although it’s true that God does appear to chide Job for being too cocky, it is also true that he still interacts with Job and engages his questions. Additionally, God defends Job against the latter’s friends, who, God says, “have not spoken of me what is right, as  my servant Job has” (Job 42:8).

Further, God was willing to take some rather “cheeky” questions from Abraham, Moses, David and others, and he never appears to be fazed by it. Quite the contrary, he seems to want to engage with his servants’ questions; he goes out of his way to invite them to dialogue (e.g. God’s conversation with Abraham before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen. 18; also his conversation with Moses about destroying the Israelites in Ex. 32:7-14).

So I’m not much in favor of a shut-up-and-do-whatever-God-tells-you-to-do mentality. That sort of blind obedience is not exactly the biblical model. Seems to me that God is fine with our questions, if we ask humbly.

But that’s a key word–humbly.

Personally, I think Young is respectful enough in his questions, although perhaps sometimes speculative or presumptive in his answers. Regardless, though, there’s definitely a fine line. Biblically, as Thomas points out, it is God who is the judge; He is not the defendant. That’s a point worth remembering.


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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Matthew  |  September 18, 2008 at 8:49 am

    I definitely understand the motives on both sides: On one hand we want to ask questions so we can understand; on the other hand we want to protect God from our questions and preserve His right to answer if He chooses. But I don’t think we need to be too worried about protecting God. In the times people have gotten “too close,” God has done a swell job at keeping things in perspective. Thanks for the post…I had been thinking about that book also.

  • 2. Jamie  |  September 18, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    Matthew: Have you read the book? If so, would be curious to hear your perspective…

  • 3. Jason  |  September 18, 2008 at 4:46 pm

    I think questions are important – sometimes they are the only things that keep us connected to God during difficult times. And agree with you and Matthew that God is big enough to handle them.

    Sounds like an interesting book.

  • 4. Matthew  |  September 18, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    Jamie: I am unlearned

  • 5. Luke  |  September 19, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    Haven’t read the book yet but supposedly have a copy on the way from Audrey’s grandpa. Seems like many Bible characters had tough questions for God. Habbakuk comes to mind as one of my favorites. I think God is capable of handling tough questions without our help. 🙂

  • 6. Crystal  |  October 17, 2008 at 8:26 am

    Thank you for this post. I’m dealing with my own needs to examine the story of Job and reading this has given me a perspective I’ve been working with, but in a more articulate form.

  • 7. Robert Sutherland  |  October 26, 2008 at 8:04 am

    You might be interested in this online commentary “Putting God on Trial: The Biblical Book of Job” (http://www.bookofjob.org) as supplementary or background material for your upcoming study of the Book of Job. It is not a sin to question God, to demand answers from God. There is a time and a place for such things. It is written by a Canadian criminal defense lawyer, now a Crown prosecutor, and it explores the legal and moral dynamics of the Book of Job with particular emphasis on the distinction between causal responsibility and moral blameworthiness embedded in Job’s Oath of Innocence. It is highly praised by Job scholars (Clines, Janzen, Habel) and the Review of Biblical Literature, all of whose reviews are on the website. The author is an evangelical Christian, denominationally Anglican. He is also the Canadian Director for the Mortimer J. Adler Centre for the Study of the Great Ideas, a Chicago-based think tank.

  • 8. Gerald M.  |  February 26, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    Seems as tho’ Jesus has invited us to question God, or was He only bluffing when on the night of His trial He invited the disciples into a friendship relation. (John 15: 14 to 16) Friends look out for each other, and Jesus wanted friends and not someone who was willling “to shut-up and do-as-you-are-told” mentality. There would have been no point to giving earth-humankind the “indivduality with
    its power to think and to do” if all He wanted was robots. Further,
    Jesus did not come to judge but to heal and save, or there would have been a stoning the day the Jewish leaders brought that prostitute without her male partner in crime! One more point, according to Revelation 14:6 and 7, God is on trial. And Paul in Romans 3:4 echoes David’s perception (Psalms 51:4 last part). As for Job, it seems to me God was not so much aiming His comments at Job as much as He was at the four erstwhile friends!

  • 9. theprovingground  |  June 18, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    A few weeks ago, I had about two hours to kill in Barnes and Noble, so I found a copy of The Shack and read it in one sitting.

    My initial thoughts were that there is basically zero plot development, only slight character development. It is full of overused cliches (such as the Joseph’s Coat aspect of the bloody dress) and is, as a rule, very predictable. What was different was the appearance of the Trinity. In a way, it reminded me somewhat of The Secret Life of Bees.

    I read /The Shack/ like I’d read any other book. With no context, letting the book speak for itself. This can at times be a disadvantage, but I’m not willing to give someone slack for the fact that it was never to be published.

    Alice in Wonderland seems to have had a similar background: Lewis Caroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) wrote it (not therapeutically, of course) and submitted an unfinished document to his friend and mentor, George Macdonald. Macdonald’s children loved it and encouraged him to publish it. He submitted it to MacMillan, and it became an instant success. The fact that Alice is almost impossible to understand helped its success, of course.

    The Shack seems to me to be relatively easily understandable. It attempts quite bravely to explain the Trinity, which is something that is generally avoided these days. In fact, throughout church history, few people have actually tackled it. Another positive aspect is that it’s not Calvinist in approach, emphasizing free will and explaining it in a way that is at least relative to the notion of arbitrary predestination.

    However, I have difficulties with Young’s explanation of Christ’s humanity and his understanding of who exactly died on the cross. Scripture emphasizes that that it took a man to bring death into the world, and the death of a man to bring life into the world. Many books have been written on the topic, and I think Young tries to find an overly simplistic explanation.

  • 10. Klaus G.  |  June 18, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Oops! That was me. Sorry about that. Was signed in with my development account. 🙂


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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