God's Not Dead (The Movie)

Stephen J. Drain's picture

Whom are you worried about? Whom do you fear, that you would act so deceitfully and not remember me or think about me? Because I have been silent for so long, you are not afraid of me.” – God (Isaiah 57:11).

I remember the apprehension I felt when I registered for Philosophy 150, World Religions Class. I knew what I was potentially getting myself into. (Out of the frying pan and into the fire.) I expected to be tried and tested in that class, but I signed up anyway. Thus six months ago, when I saw the preview for the movie “God’s Not Dead”,[1] I was very interested in seeing it because, in a way, I related to it.

 

Scene: Registration desk. Freshman Josh Wheaton, wearing a Newsboys t-shirt and a cross around his neck, signs up for Philosophy 150. The student registrar warns Josh: “You might want to think about a different instructor.”

“C’mon, man, it can’t be that bad.”

“Think Roman Coliseum, people cheering for your death.”

But Josh signs up anyway and the student registrar makes sure Josh knows the last possible date on which he can still drop the class.

Scene shift: First day of class. Professor Radisson enters the class and flips over the board on which we see the names of about twenty famous thinkers from the last two and a half millennia: Democritus to Noam Chomsky, Friedrich Nietzsche to Betrand Russell, David Hume to Richard Dawkins. Professor Radisson tells the class that all these men, though differing on many things had one thing in common. What was it? They were all Atheists. Since such men were all in agreement on this, was there really any sense in working through the arguments for and against God’s existence? “I’d like to bypass senseless debate altogether,” says Radisson, “and jump to the conclusion which every sophomore is already aware of, there is no God.”

What the professor has thus far stated is, of course, false on many levels. Simply from a logical perspective his argument is a faulty and fallacious in that it is a non-sequitur; it does not follow: The conclusion that there is no God, does not follow from the premise that all these famous men agree that there is no God. After all, believing apologists could counter with a list of great and famous theists, from Augustine to Pascal, Aquinas to Newton, from Kepler to Christ (Ha!), all of whom believed in God. His argument is also faulty in that it is “the bandwagon fallacy”, i.e., “These people believe it to be so; therefore it must be so.” (See also “appeal to authority”, “argument ad populum” or “appeal to the people”, “authority of the many”, etc.) Also during the course of the professor’s introductory talk he badmouths belief in God as being mythological, silly superstition, etc. (Think of his wording about “senseless debate”.) So he has also “poisoned the well” by disparaging any opposing viewpoint or person who would adhere to such a viewpoint.

As one Christian review put it: “Prof. Jeffrey Radisson isn't just interested in teaching freshman why famous atheist philosophers such as Michael Foucault, Richard Dawkins and Albert Camus don't believe in God. No, he's an evangelist for unbelief and the complete repudiation of faith.”[2]

Now some may think that the movie is simply setting up a straw-man professor in order to knock him down. In one review we read: “[T]he plot ties into the current [general trend of thought] among some Christians, the ones who feel persecuted by secularism” and “In this film, academia stands in for all those other arenas where Christians are supposedly shouted down and punished for voicing Biblical dogma…. Never mind that this persecution complex may be unwarranted; after all, we live in a country where the First Amendment protects all religions from government encroachment…”[3]

A review in Variety tells us that this movie “wants us to know that Christianity is under attack in the old U.S. of A. — attack from the liberal, ‘Duck Dynasty’-hating media, from titans of industry leading lives of wanton decadence, from observers of non-Christian faiths, and worst of all from the world of academia, with its self-important evolutionary scientists and atheistic philosophes [sic]. (The pic takes its purported inspiration from dozens of real-life court cases, indexed in the end credits, in which Christian groups have battled universities over the right to assemble, disseminate literature and be officially recognized.)”[4]

In response to the authors above, I am here to say that, in my experience, this professor is only a caricature as to his wearing his anger and hostility on his sleeve. After all, I have sat in classrooms with professors who walk all over theism, the Bible, Christianity, and Christians. There are others who have experienced this as well.[5] In the movie, Professor Radisson tells Josh, “In that classroom, there is a god; I’m him.” I have seen and experienced professors just like that, though they are usually much more happy about being the god of their classrooms than is this fictional professor. Their hostility, though much more jovial, is still hostility. It does exist. (One might read a book like David Limbaugh's "Persecution" or even Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett's "Christianity on Trial, Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry.")

So Professor Radisson continues his opening monologue: “All that I require from each of you, is that you fill in the papers I’ve just given you with three little words, ‘God is dead.’” To make things worse, the professor tells everyone to sign their names below the statement. Josh watches as students begin writing. But just in case there might be a few dissenters, the professor tells the class that if everyone is in agreement, they all will be able to skip this first third of the syllabus. However, if anyone does dissent, then the class will have to plow through the lessons, be graded or tested on it, and, the professor makes certain to point out, this part of the course will certainly be the most difficult.

Radisson has now successfully stacked the deck and potentially pitted the entire class against any student who decides not to write “God is dead.” By now everyone appears to be writing the statement, signing their names, and passing down the papers. Josh is shocked. The professor walks up the aisle collecting papers until he gets to Josh, sitting on the aisle, blank paper in front of him.

“Mr. Wheaton, is something wrong?”

“I, I can’t do what you want. I’m a Christian.”

“All right, Mr. Wheaton, allow me to explain the alternative: If you cannot bring yourself to admit that God is dead for the purposes of this class, then you will need to defend the antithesis, that God is not dead. And you'll need to do it in front of this class, from the podium. And if you fail, as you shall, you will fail this section and lose 30% of your final grade…”

When Josh asks who would judge such a debate, the professor answers, “Why me, of course; it is my classroom.”[6]

“Well,” Josh says, “with all due respect, I don’t believe you will be an impartial judge, since you’ve been very clear on your position.”

“Then who?”

“Them,” Josh says, pointing to the students.

The professor accepts Josh’s proposal.

Now although Josh does not sign the paper, he is still not sure as to whether he wants to go through with the challenge. After all, not only will it add to his workload, but he doesn’t see how he could possibly win a debate against the professor. (Someone later points out that it’s an unfair fight when a professor with decades of experience challenges a student to a debate.) Josh struggles with what he should do. He sees the professor’s hostility to all things God and Christian and by accepting the challenge he almost certainly guarantees himself a failing grade in the class. This would affect his GPA, possibly his future school choices, maybe even his career path. Josh’s girlfriend who has their entire future together planned out, forbids Josh to do it.

Josh knows he could still drop the class and walk away. But something deep down inside won’t allow him to take the easy way out. He receives some much needed advice, however, when his pastor points out that Josh’s “acceptance of this challenge may be the only meaningful exposure to God and Jesus [the students will] ever have.” To help Josh decide, he gives him two passages of Scripture to look up: Matthew 10:32-33 and Luke 12:48. Once Josh reads these verses, he knows what he must do.

He accepts the challenge.

Josh’s time at the lectern is spent defending the idea that faith and reason are not opposites. From this point on a lot of time and computer graphics are spent asking and answering questions about evolution, the Big Bang, creation, and how a Creator could fit into the different theories that scientists have put forth. (Unfortunately, way too much time is spent trying to incorporate what scientists theorize about the origins of the universe and mankind. “In the beginning God”—Genesis 1:1 is our foundation as opposed to “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” or “In he beginning there was nothing” as the movie Noah tells us.[7]) But what Josh tells the class is, “What I'm hoping you'll pick up from all this is that you don't have to commit intellectual suicide to believe in a Creator behind the creation.” Perhaps Josh should have just given the professor and all the students a copy of C.S. Lewis’ book, “Miracles” to read.

Professor Radisson responds to Josh by quoting renowned physicist and Cambridge professor Stephen Hawking who has said, “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. The universe didn't need a God to begin; it was quite capable of launching its existence on its own.”

Que?

Spontaneous creation?

What would be the proper response if you saw a new car sitting in my garage and asked me what car company made it and I responded by saying, “This car did not need a manufacturer to exist; it was quite capable of launching existence on its own. After all, there is a law of gravity you know.”

Yes, I know what the proper response would be to such a statement.

Nonsense by any other name is still nonsense. I have mentioned, in passing, elsewhere how philosophers spend time asking questions such as, “How do we even know that we exist?” Well, here we find scientists talking about how something can create itself. Does this really need to be discussed? Yes, of course, I’m probably too stupid to understand it. “Surely I am more stupid than any man” (Proverbs 30:2, NASB).

In the movie, Josh eventually answers the professor, in part, by saying that Hawking has also said, “Philosophy is dead” and if Hawking is correct, there is no reason for Philosophy 150 in the first place.  

Of course, the other side might now say, “Aha! Josh has now used a fallacious argument called an ‘appeal to improper authority,’ since Stephen Hawking is a physicist, Josh has no right to cite him as an expert on philosophy.” Yet we can say the same thing, “Since Stephen Hawking is a physicist, no one can cite him as an expert on God.” And, since Hawking (and every other human being) was not alive to witness the genesis of the universe, all scientists are doing is guessing anyway. That’s why we call evolution a “theory.” As the philosopher Popper said, the scientific method “consists [only] in the falsification of theories, not the inductive verification of them”.[8]

But I digress, as usual.

On Josh’s last visit to the lectern, he attempts to deal with “the problem of evil.” Why does it exist? Why would a good and/or all-powerful God allow such a thing as evil to exist? He answers with the “free will” argument. I will not go into any more detail on this response, though one can find answers such as Josh gives here and here.

Now besides the debate between Josh and Professor Radisson, we are also introduced to several sub-plots and supporting characters: A student from the atheist People’s Republic of China, a young girl with a strict Muslim father, a humanist indie blogger, a pastor who questions whether he is making any difference for Christ, and two adult children and their mother with dementia. Each of these characters is connected by, let us say, six degrees of separation.

Despite the fact that I very much liked the movie and that I, personally, was drawn in emotionally, I did have some problems with it. First, it seemed that at least one Christian in the movie, if not two, had no problem dating a person who was not Christian. This is not a good choice for any Christ follower. (See 2 Corinthians 6:14.) Secondly, it really irks me when Christian people are sloppy with their wording. For instance, when speaking to a fellow student, Josh says, “I mean, to me, He’s not dead.” Ugh! This sounds like subjectivism. Following this we hear the Newsboys, in their song “God’s Not Dead”, sing “God’s not dead, He’s surely alive, He’s livin’ on the inside…” Christians often mix these two different theological concepts and, in doing so, confuse the truth of God. Yes, God does live in us by His Spirit, and, yes, Christ is alive. But, in my opinion, to present an argument for God being alive, or Christ being risen, by saying that He is living inside, is a horrible argument. We would be better to point to the testimony of the biblical witnesses, the empty tomb, etc. (Read my arguments for Christ being alive here, here, and here.) Those two statements sound as subjective as those who say they know their dead parent is watching over them. Christians should know better.

My last disagreement with the movie is a disagreement with the way we Christians often handle apologetics: We often leave Christ out of the picture. I have been guilty of it and I know others have been guilty of it as well. We present our arguments regarding science, evolution, philosophy, worldviews, morality, etc., and leave Jesus out for some reason, perhaps thinking that when the unbelievers begin to doubt their own worldview, we can present Jesus to them. This is a problem. Only Christ can free the captives (Luke 4:18, 2 Timothy 2:26, John 8:32 and John 14:6, Romans 8:2, etc.)

Perhaps instead we should heed Paul’s words when he wrote, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Perhaps our argument against any Philosophy Professor, Stephen Hawking quote, or Richard Dawkins’ argument could begin with, “Do you think that this person’s words will stand up longer or have the impact that the words, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ have had? Do you actually believe that this person’s life and testimony is weightier than that of Jesus Christ who said…” (Just a suggestion for myself and all others who dabble in apologetics.)

At least we have one good biblical example of someone using an apologetic approach. Paul in Athens. Scripture tells us that “he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17). Still, Paul was absolutely “preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18). Yet he also felt free enough to use a secular source, a Greek poet, to underscore what he was telling them (Acts 17:28), just as we will sometimes quote others, scientists, philosophers, writers, who do not believe in God to underscore what we are saying.

Unfortunately, I read some pretty harsh reviews by Christians who seemed against the whole concept of debates such as this. Some were offended by Josh’s opening statement, “We’re going to put God on trial” which they mistakenly believe is a violation of the commandment, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4:12, Deuteronomy 6:16).[9] I guess they would also criticize C.S. Lewis and his book entitled, “God in the Dock.” (As per Wikipedia: “The dock, the place where the accused in a criminal case stands in a British courtroom hence the expression ‘in the dock’, meaning on trial in court.”)[10] It appeared to me that these reviewers don’t seem to believe that apologetics even have a place in the realm of Christian interaction with the world.

“The idea that putting God on trial is somehow a good thing ought to be repulsive to us as Christians….” we read in one column. “What we know to be blasphemy, in the case of this movie, is celebrated as relevant evangelism.”[11] It continues: “The reason why Christians aren’t as offended with this apologetic approach is because they’ve been taught for too long that the foolish atheist (Psalm 14:1)–who suppresses the truth he already knows in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18)—ought to be engaged with evidence that demands a verdict.  They believe that a spiritually dead person (Ephesians 2:1-4) is able to reason himself into spiritual life without the incorruptible seed of the Word of God (1 Peter 1:22-25) or the agency of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5-8).”[12]

The problem with this argument is that it assumes the Christian who uses apologetics is not using Scripture and is not praying that God, by His Spirit, will open blind eyes and regenerate the unbeliever. All Christians should admit that apart from the Word of God and the Holy Spirit, no one will be saved. I agree with this completely.

Now a secular critique of the film, on PsychologyToday.com, dislikes it for different reasons: “Radisson is willing to skip covering the God section of the course if the students will simply write 'God is dead' on a piece of paper. No professor worth his salt would ever do this with any subject. For example, the whole point of a philosophy class is to learn how to do philosophy—not to regurgitate facts or the opinions of the professor.”[13]

I’m guessing that this writer has not been in a philosophy classroom in quite a few years.

The review continues: “Contrary to the entire essence of philosophy, Radisson comes to his philosophical conclusions for completely irrational and emotional reasons. He is an atheist not because he has evaluated the arguments and evidence, but because he’s mad about his mom dying when he was 12.”

But can we not say that many people who do not believe in God, do not believe in Him because they consciously desire not to believe in him, not on any evidence pro or con; they choose the evidence they prefer. (It’s the same thing of which many unbelievers accuse Christians when they say things such as, “You only believe that stuff because you can’t handle real life and therefore need a crutch.”) As seen above, the Bible tells us that people don’t believe because they reject the evidence and follow what they desire instead:

“because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:19-21).

Lastly, I read quite a few reviews where people did not like the fact that the atheists and unbelievers were portrayed as one dimensional horrible people. Now I find it odd when unbelievers complain about the one dimensional portrayal of themselves or atheists. After all, Christians have been portrayed as one dimensional (usually evil and wicked, chomping at the bit to blow up abortion clinics, set up theocracy, and kill our enemies with axes) in films for a long time.[14] When have we ever heard the voices of unbelievers saying, “Stop with the one dimensional portrayals of Christians in the movies; after all, there are many wonderful, decent, Bible believing Christians out there”?

But as my friend Chris said to me in an email: “Why would you expect unbelieving sinners to behave the way you would expect believers to behave / love enemies / turn the other cheek? [Or] Why would you expect believers to behave like unbelieving sinners and dish out ‘a taste of their own medicine’? [Although] I doubt that the intention of the film’s makers was to dish out ‘a taste of their own medicine’. The expressions in movies of attitudes on both sides might just reflect what they tend to believe about the other side … unbelievers have more than enough examples of Christians (no sense trying to decide whether they were ‘real Christians’) doing all sorts of things that can be rightly criticized… and vice versa … and the ‘natural man’ loves to attack enemies, while the ‘spiritual man’ is commanded to love enemies...”

One reviewer writes, “Do we really have to go for the jugular with the stereotypes or is it possible that someone could write well enough to reflect the fact that in most cases, people who are liberal and atheistic are actually nice? Did these writers not know of the relationship between Christopher Hitchens and Christians like Doug Wilson? If this movie purports to be evangelistic, and must at least hope that some of their fruit would come from the ranks of atheists, perhaps the writers might want to portray atheists realistically rather than as a stereotype. ”[15]

I accept this criticism from my Christian brothers and sisters. Jesus told His disciples, “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16, ESV). Let us take His words to heart. Let us also listen to the Apostle Paul when he writes, “And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 timothy 2:24-26).

May the only true God, who is not dead, help us when we witness, when we mix it up with non-believers who wish to proselytize others, and when we use our God given gifts from writing blogs to making movies.

God’s not dead.

He’s truly alive.

Christ’s tomb is empty.

 

_______________________

Feel free to read columns I have written elsewhere here:
http://www.examiner.com/christian-perspectives-in-philadelphia/stephen-j-drain

______________________


[6] The conversations prior to this point have been taken directly from the move and/or the trailer. Here, however, I am paraphrasing as I remember.

[8] “The Great Philosophers: From Socrates to Foucault”, copyright 2005 Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2006 Barnes & Noble Books, page 142.

[12] Ibid

[14]I think of Reverend Veasey in “ColdMountain” the whore-mongering character who impregnated his slave, tried to kill her, advocated stealing, etc. I think of half of the antagonists in any Stephen King novels or movies: The crazy mother in “Carrie”, the preacher in the meth business in “Under the Dome.” The crazy woman serial killer kidnapper in “Misery.” Mrs. Carmody, the crazy religious nut, in “The Mist.” The crazy preacher in “There Will Be Blood.” The crazy murderous mother in “The Rapture.” The crazy murderous religious family in “Frailty.” Pedophile bishop in “V for Vendetta”. The crazy murdering pastor and church members in “RedState.” The cruel, sadistic, lawbreaking warden in “Shawshank Redemption.” (Oh, wait, that’s another Stephen King movie.) And even though I liked the movie “The Apostle” with Robert Duval, it was heavily hinted that he was a philanderer and a wife beater. Shall I name more? Everyone in the movie "Saved!" Here are some interesting sites to visit: “Christians Shown As Hateful Stereotypes in Today’s Movies” at http://newsbusters.org/blogs/katie-yoder/2014/01/14/book-christians-shown-hateful-stereotypes-today-s-movies#ixzz2xalc1s8m as well as “Good, Bad, and Ugly Christians in the Movies” at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/juneweb-only/6-9-41.0.html?start=1 and finally “Top Ten Christian Stereotypes In A Movie - Part One” at http://sonsofasaph.blogspot.com/2012/09/top-ten-christian-stereotypes-in-movie.html

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briansea's picture

Great post!

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