William Paul Young: Orthodox Novelist

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Since 2007 it has been my privilege to be close friends with William Paul Young, author of the international bestseller, The Shack.  In almost ten years Paul and I have lectured together across the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Mexico.  Paul himself has traveled to over 20 countries to speak about The Shack.  Ironically, the book was never intended to be a book at all.  Originally it was written as a story for his kids, given as a gift for Christmas.  It did not occur to Paul that his story would be published, not to mention become an international bestseller with over 20 million books in print.  He had no idea that his book would enter that rarified air of being one of the top 100 books of all time or that it would become a major motion picture, which will hit the big screen on March 3rd.

It fascinates me, as a theologian, that while millions have been liberated by Paul’s story and his vision of God, many others have been angered by his insights.  I have personally met thousands of women and men whose lives have been transformed both by The Shack and by Paul’s ministry. Yet some have argued that he is a heretic, a universalist who has abandoned his evangelical faith, the propagator of the greatest deception in the last 200 years, a liberal, a radical theologian, and even a modalist.  Some have even drummed up an old paper that Paul supposedly wrote back in the early 2000’s as proof that he is Satan’s son incarnate.  As a Trinitarian theologian, such accusations simply blow my mind.  Academically, I have read everything Paul has published, and many other non-published stories and essays.  Personally, I have been with Paul as he taught thousands, and then in a room with just a few, and as he sat for hours listening to the tragic tale of an individual’s life, and after 7 days lecturing when he was exhausted.  Never once, in public or private discourse, or in the behind the scenes, exclusive conversations have I ever heard a single word or thought from Paul that made me doubt his Christian orthodoxy.  He is a lover of the Nicene Creed.  On a human note, I have never met a person more alive with the Spirit of Jesus, or more simple and real than Paul Young.  I have told him many times that when I grow up I want to be like him.

Yet the criticisms persist in some quarters, even, or perhaps especially the bizarre ones, some even from scholars who should know the history of Christianity.  So I decided to interview Paul about the ‘issues’ to set the record straight.  Or, at least give him a chance to speak simply and directly about the parts of his thought that others claim discredit his orthodoxy.  In my opinion, Paul Young is as orthodox as St. Athanasius, whose work in the early Church set the definition of orthodoxy and thus of heresy as well.  In fact, when I was reading The Shack for the first time I was reminded again and again of Athanasius.  Here is an example.  Athanasius said, “The God of all is Good, and supremely noble by nature.  Therefore He is the lover of the human race.”  The Shack is a story that has found a way to reveal this God in our hearts.

(Baxter) “So, let’s begin. Paul, my dear brother, welcome. It pains me, but I think it prudent to ask you some questions for the benefit of those who have been told all manner of evil about you.”

(Paul) “I know, Baxter, but we always have fun together, and you know where I stand.  Usually when we get to talking, life and light happens for both of us.”

(Baxter) “Now, that is the truth.  I cannot count the times when my brick wall was broken in our conversations and Jesus showed up in ever new ways for me.  I am grateful for you, personally, spiritually, theologically, and professionally.  It is a joy to be with you and to stand with you for the real gospel.  We should be able to cover the issues in 6 questions.”

(Paul) “Fire away.”

1- (Baxter)  “Are you a heretic?  I know the answer to the question, but I thought I would give you a chance to hold forth.”

(Paul)  “Of course not.  Orthodoxy, as you said is defined by Athanasius and the Nicene Creed.  I stand with the Creed.  In our conversations through the years, I have come to understand why the Creed came to be.  And I definitely agree with its heart.  Not sure about ‘the one baptism for the remissions of sins part,’ but that is the only statement that causes me pause.  As you said, heresy is defined by allegiance to the Nicene Creed, and I would add, to its vision of Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of the Father incarnate.  I align myself with those leaders, sisters and brothers with the ancient Church.  Now, I do have questions about what is called ‘Orthodoxy’ in modern American evangelicalism.”

(Baxter)  “As do I, but let’s wait and deal with that later.  Well, perhaps not.  Is it not true that The Shack was written to help your children see through the vision of God that you were taught, the harsh God whose heart, if we may so speak, is more intent on judgment and punishment than on love, and certainly One that seems to relish on being absent to us in our stupidity than being present to love and care?”

(Paul)  “Love, as John says, is the deepest dimension of God’s very being.  Some have objected to my saying in The Shack that God cannot act apart from love, but how can God be love, not just love on occasion, but be love in essence, and do anything that does not flow from that love?”

2- (Baxter)  “Let me introduce here that very objection. Some say that you pit the love and mercy of God against his justice and righteousness, or even wrath.  For me, the wrath of God, for example, is not the opposite of the love of God, as if the two were opposing parts of God’s personality.  The wrath of God is God’s love in action, passionately and personally opposing our destruction.  Would you agree with that statement?”

(Paul)  “Yes, definitely.  The wrath of God is real, and may even be everlasting, but it belongs to His love. His wrath serves His love, his relentless affection set upon us all from eternity, affection that is determined to bring us to His heart, which is our true home.”

(Baxter) “A ‘destroying affection,’ as George MacDonald says.  The Lord’s affection destroys our sin and darkness that we may be free to live in His embrace.”

(Paul) “I wholeheartedly agree.”

3- (Baxter)  “I want to talk more about the wrath of God as the expression of His heart for our blessing, and not a contradiction within the Father’s heart toward us, but what you just said brings up yet another question, this one about universalism.  You say in The Shack that most roads lead nowhere, but Jesus will travel down any road to met us.  I think the incarnation is exactly that.  The Father, Son and Spirit in Jesus have crossed all roads to meet us in our blindness so we can share in Jesus’s own relationship with His Father in the Spirit.  Does that mean to you that all, without exception, will be in heaven?”

(Paul)  “I hope so, but hope is not a conclusion, or a doctrine.  We do not proclaim that all will be in heaven.  I believe that Jesus has embraced us all, (Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor), all races, colors and creeds, and I believe he has done so forever.  The cross is the place where heaven and earth meet, the space where the mercy of God gathers all the broken.  But that is not to say that all of us will come to believe, or to know that this is the truth, or as you would say, the truth of all truths.  I hope so.  I will certainly not be disappointed if all come to know and experience the truth of their inclusion in Papa’s family.  The New Testament leaves us with this hope, but not with the declaration, not with the therefore all will come to know and believe the truth so as to experience its life and freedom.”

(Baxter)  “That is good, but let me press you, academically speaking.  You put these words in Papa’s mouth: “I always get what I want.”  Now, given that Papa loves everyone, and every single person on earth has been embraced by Jesus, and Papa wants all to know the truth and live in its joy, doesn’t that mean that everyone, without exception will come to the place, to this experience, and so make their way to heaven?  I know, heaven is interpreted in a thousand ways, but you see my point?  And here we should talk about hell as well, but one thing at the time.”

(Paul)  “I did write that and wouldn’t change it today, but if I knew that what I wrote to my kids would be read by the world, I think I would’ve been slightly more precise at points.  And this is one of those points.  What I believe is just what I said.  Everyone is included, even murderers like Saul of Taursus.  And some have suggested that my inclusion of murderers proves that I am a heretic, but we are all murderers according to Jesus’s definition of hate in our hearts.  What? Are we to exclude Moses, David, Saul, the tax gatherers, the sons of thunder?  Either Jesus meets us in our shame and sin or this whole discussion is a sham that touches only the self-righteous.”

4- (Baxter)  “It pains me here, but let me shift gears again.  In modern evangelicalism it is said that everything comes down to a personal relationship with Jesus.  Do you believe that a personal relationship with Jesus is necessary to salvation?”

(Paul)  “Of course.  How could anyone escape their own hell without a real and personal relationship with Jesus.  Look, my life fell apart.  You know my story; everyone does.  I was suicidal, seriously, down to planning my death in a place where my body would never be found by my family.  Jesus met me.  Papa met me.  The Holy Spirit met me in my great sadness.  I am not sure what people mean by a personal relationship with Jesus, but I would be dead if Jesus had not made his love real to me in my destitution.  Without such an encounter, we are certainly loved forever, but lost in our own darkness and pain.”

5- (Baxter)  “Okay, I am with you on that, but let’s go another, yet not unrelated way. Do you believe in hell? I understand that you have been there personally.  You experienced the writhing of soul and the gnashing of teeth in this life, and you know I am not making light of your journey, but do you believe in what some have called ECT, Eternal Conscious Torment?”

(Paul)  “ECT? They have reduced such a horrendous idea to three letters?”

(Baxter)  “They have indeed.”

(Paul)  “For real?  Like that is not the saddest thing in the universe, and they hide what they are suggesting with three letters?”

(Baxter)  “Brother, I am not joking.  There are many, even some scholars, who argue that God has designed the body of the wicked to burn forever while supernaturally sustained so that their misery can be prolonged indefinitely.  And that for the glorification of divine justice.  Some even apparently enjoy the idea that the ‘righteous’ will rejoice in the everlasting suffering of the ‘wicked’ as it will magnify the glory of God’s holiness.”

(Paul)  “No, I definitely do not believe in that hell.  But hell itself, whatever it may mean, I think is real.  Both in this life and in the next.  And I believe that it is terrible, but hell is on the side of Jesus and his Father.  Hell is not outside of Jesus.  All things were created in Him and through Him and by Him and for Him.  Nothing can possibly exist apart from or outside of Jesus; John and Paul are emphatic on that. So hell is real, but it has to be understood in relationship with Jesus.  I think hell is what we experience, now and hereafter, when we live in rebellion and alienation to who we really are in Jesus.  But Jesus has met us in our hell and intends to deliver us from our own evil.  How that turns out, I do no know.  We are back to the question of universalism.  I am not in a position to say either way, but I can say that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit do not have an abandoning chip in their being.  They will never forsake what they have created.  So I am hopeful, but I have never and will never speak definitively on how it all turns out.  I trust the love of Papa.  That is good enough for me.”

6- (Baxter)  “Paul, I have thousands of questions, and we could go on and on, which I would love, but in the interest of this short interview, can I ask at least one last question?”

(Paul)  “Since when did anyone keep you from asking another question!”

(Baxter)  “I am certainly guilty of that.  But I have the joy of talking with you regularly.  Nevertheless, I think we must address one more thing in this session.  I have read everything written on The Shack, including, and perhaps especially all the criticisms, and of you as a person.  Much of it is sad, if not bizarre from an Orthodox perspective, though some questions are fair enough from an academic vantage point, but the accusations that you personally have set out to mislead or to deceive are reprehensible.  How do you respond to the fact that some folks, not the millions who have been freed and healed, but the folks who tell others that you are the antichrist?”

(Paul)  “That is a sad one. At my best, I smile, not without tears as you know, but I smile.  They are my people, for the most part.  I mean, The Shack definitely challenges the way we in the West have been taught to believe about God.  I believe, as you said in your Athanasius quote, that God is good, all the time. The God I was taught was a no show in my crisis.  As I contemplated suicide, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit showed up in my utter despair.  That relationship saved my life and has given me hope every moment of my life.  Kim, my wife, endured me and my darkness, and without her fury and love I would not have survived, but the love of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, which I call Papa, Jesus, Sarayu in The Shack, are more real to me than my own life.  Joy is not an idea to me anymore, an ideal that I can attain if I do everything right.  Joy is knowing the embrace of Papa in my darkness, in relationship, inside His/Her relentless affection for me especially where I believe I am unlovable.  So when the bizarre accusations, as you called them, come crashing down on me, I return to trusting Papa all over again, and joy sustains me.”

(Baxter)  “At another time I will ask you the thousands of questions I want to ask.  But for now, Thank you for your time and for your heart. And I thank you for braving the seas of saying what we all know but find too beautiful for words, or even at times to believe.”

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Showing 10 comments
  • Brad Jersak

    Fantastic, warm, clearheaded interview! Love you guys!

  • Chris

    Thanks for this interview. It’s crazy that you have to actually respond to such criticism, but you do it so well. Thanks to Baxter for posting this, and thanks to Paul for your story.

  • Jack Lockard

    It is both amazing and bewildering to me how people stubbornly stick to their view of an anger retributive god, a god whose holiness demands justice. Unfortunately that god is of our own making out of the knowledge of good and evil and a demand for what we perceive as justice.

    How could you not want to be caught up in Papa’s embrace that is freely given (just like Paul does). Bask in God’s love that will set things right (His justice). Baxter, I am so thankful there are guys like you and Paul and John MacMurray and others spreading the message of the God of Grace whose love endures forever.

  • John

    Read The Shack multiple times and can’t wait to see the movie

  • Joy Lewis

    I’ve read The Shack 8 times and have seen the movie twice! Needless to say, Papa has met me in my quest for Truth…answering the many missing pieces and questions I’ve had since sitting in church as a little girl. I am very thankful – overwhelmed really, to be the object of God’s relentless affection!!! Prayers, blessings, and thank you a million times over for your faithful and bold sharing in the face of all the baffling controversy!!!

  • Brett Harwood

    Thank you for such an awesome interview! Being able to share this will go a long way in, not only defending Paul’s credibility and point of view but, helping my friends to further understand the whole purpose behind his awesome novel! Thank you both for your willingness to be used of Holy Spirit to heal hearts and thus further His kingdom!

  • Linda Glovier

    I read the book a number of years ago and also had the privilege of hearing William Paul Young speak in Florida. I remember him telling of his relationship with his own father and he was praying for a healing. I was wondering if that relationship had been healed. And I remember him relating the story about his mother later on in life meeting up with a man that was speaking somewhere. And she gave the man the real story of his miracle birth from a physician that discarded him after thinking he was not alive from the delivery. (I don’t remember exactly how he told the story as it was years ago, could he relate it again to me.) Thank you.

    • Jack Lockard

      The story about the miracle birth you referred to is in Paul’s latest book entitled “Lies We Believe About God”.

  • Gary Feister

    Thank you! Both of you have been instrumental in my discovery of the relentless and beautiful triune God. Blessings to you both!

  • Manny

    When I grow up, I want to be like you guys/ LOL love the work you both have gathered and have been liberal with. Can’t wait to meet y’all and ask my thousand questions.

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