“On “God’s Not Dead” And Why Being An Atheist Doesn’t Cause Car Accidents”
by Kyle Durbin
Like many youth pastors, I took my youth group to see “God’s Not Dead” over the weekend. We had just seen “Noah” the previous week, and it only seemed fair and appropriate that after seeing a secular film based on a biblical story, we experience an evangelical film about a faith-based story. I should stress that I am going to try my best to be sensitive in my comments here. As if defending “Noah” wasn’t difficult enough, I understand how passionate many Christians are about films such as “God’s Not Dead,” and in part, for some very good reasons.
Let’s start with a few take-aways from the film. It is very nice to be able to attend a film in a public movie theatre that openly and unabashedly proclaims a Gospel message, speaks the name of Jesus, and quotes scripture freely, and I feel it is very important for people, especially youth, to see that it can be perfectly normal for major-market films with a certain amount of celebrity power to freely and confidently produce the Christian message. This becomes even more important for young adults wading the rough waters of a university education, where often, “liberal” and “anti-theist” (as the title character of the film puts it) are quite synonymous. The scenes between Josh Wheaton (clearly named after Joshua, the biblical defender of the faith [see Joshua 24:15: “Choose today whom you will serve…but as for my family and I, we will serve the Lord], and Wheaton College, the alma mater of none other than Billy Graham) and Professor Radisson (played by an incredibly diabolical Hercules, er, I mean, Kevin Sorbo) were the absolute highlights of the film and often proved to be quite entertaining and thought provoking.
However, this is where my investment in the film stopped. There were too many blaring problems for me to take the whole thing seriously, and I too often found myself considering how damaging the stereotypical portrayals of the minor characters in the film were rather than being encouraged by the fearless evangelical efforts. Let me make this very clear. Not all strict, devout Muslim fathers are abusive of their daughters. Not all liberal, vegetarian bloggers are out to slam Christian entertainers, nor do they require cancer in order to be saved. Not all lawyers are the biggest jerks of all time (especially not if they once played Superman, i.e. Dean Cain). Not all missionaries are large, happy go lucky black men with thick African accents. Not all Chinese speaking Americans are skilled only in Math and Chemistry and have authoritative fathers who apparently live in the back seat of a taxi. And finally, being an atheist doesn’t cause car accidents, being an atheist doesn’t mean God is going to off you, and if you do happen to get killed in a freak car accident while atheist, God is not “smiling” during the whole thing, as one character in the film suggests. I get it, if you’re a Christian and you are sitting in the movie theater, there is a chance these thoughts aren’t going through your head. Rightfully so, because thankfully, most of us don’t think that way. That’s not what I’m worried about. What I’m worried about, and what is as damaging or possibly even more damaging than these stereotypes, is that if a non-Christian saw this film, there is a very good chance they are going to walk away from the movie theater not thinking, “God’s not dead,” but instead, thinking this is exactly what Christians think of liberals, Muslims, vegetarians, atheists, etc…
The writers of “God’s Not Dead” produced a script where it was Christians against the world, or for the matter of Josh Wheaton, Christian against the world. Let me offer, again, that while in college, it is sometimes nice to have reminders that this is not the case, and this film took strides in that direction, but thank goodness even more so for all of the active campus ministries that provide these safe havens and foundations of the kingdom of God at universities where Christians are often the overwhelming minority. However, in much of American life, this story does not hold up. It is not us vs them, no matter how many laws get passed, no matter how many little league games get scheduled on Sunday mornings, and no matter how many court cases featuring Christians vs liberal Universities the producers of God’s Not Dead could scroll during the end credits. In the world of “God’s Not Dead,” non-Christians are clearly depicted not only as the “others,” but as the “enemies.” And who is going to “defend God” from these “anti-theists?” Mr. upper-middle class, white, American male himself, Josh Wheaton. The other characters? The offended mistress of the professor, the Chinese exchange student, the Muslim daughter? The best they could do was go to a Newsboys concert (writers comment: I love the Newsboys, they put on an incredible concert, and the scene between them and the woman suffering from cancer was considerably moving), but give us Captain America and he can defend the faith for all of them!
Still, even with all of that, I can deal. I can accept that the diverse cast was an attempt at inclusivity. I can accept that the protagonist had to be played by somebody and the director chose someone who resembled the everyday, ordinary American kid to the intended audience. I can accept that Josh Wheaton didn’t prove that “God’s Not Dead” nearly as much as he suggested that his professor simply couldn’t prove that “God Is Dead.” I can accept that sometimes, vegetarians do get cancer, sometimes lawyers are jerks, and sometimes muslim youth risk their lives in becoming Christians (not accept, as in, approve of, but, accept, as in, acknowledge the reality of). What I can not accept is the director’s and writer’s decision that the atheist professor needed to die. This is not good news. Regardless of the last minute conversion, this is not what God desires. This seemed like at best, a scare tactic to non-Christians to “turn or burn,” and at worst, a universal “We gotcha!” from the production company and Christian audiences everywhere. This attitude does not “change hearts and minds,” nor does it convince anyone to “desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness.”
When Professor Radisson is struck by the car, and the missionary (who apparently works part time as a surgeon) proclaims, “his lungs have collapsed, he doesn’t have long,” the pastor in the film who has been searching for a chance to make a difference seizes his opportunity to dive headfirst into a sermon on repentance and belief while holding the dying mans head off the ground. I can literally hear my non-Christian friends now telling me, “If I ever get in a car accident, please send me a paramedic, not a preacher.” Believe me, I want all of my friends to experience the redemptive, transforming, saving power that Christ can have on our lives, but I hope they don’t need to get struck by a car to get to that point. Yes, I understand, sometimes these things do happen, and in tragedy, if people experience saving grace that leads to momentary faith and hope in this life before eternity in heaven, I will celebrate with them when I get there, but to say the only way they’re gonna make it is to suffer unimaginable pain and tragedy and ultimately death, that doesn’t teach Christians anything about responsible evangelism on earth, here and now, among so many people who are living in their own hells, because they have not yet experienced or recognized God’s love. All that is, is ascension, without resurrection. (Please note I don’t say Resurrection with the capital R, lest anyone suggest I am denying our ultimate Resurrection). God (or we) may be more concerned with eternal life in heaven, but it doesn’t mean Christ isn’t incredibly concerned with abundant life on earth. I would have been content to see a tiny seed planted in Professor Radisson’s heart, which it seemed like we even got glimpses of, making the climax of this film even more disheartening. I’ll admit, when he was leaving his office, after reading the note from his mother, even I was tearing up. But then, to kill him. Honestly, even a 10% turn towards grace with a “future filled with hope,” (Jeremiah 29:11) would have been much more effective.
So, as a Christian, should you see “God’s Not Dead?” Absolutely, and have your trust in Christ reenergized by the fact that there are plenty of others out there whose beliefs are so sincere that they were right there in the movie theatre with you, or just by the fact that Christian celebrities and production companies do exist. Be confident that, while there will always be those who challenge your beliefs, it is quite rational to be intellectual and Christian at the same time. I will proudly tell you that Nietchze was absolutely wrong with his infamous claim that “God Is Dead,” because I’ve experienced so much of the living power of Christ through God’s constant revelation, not only through the bible, but through so many people who have touched my life, and yes, this includes Christian music and films. Heck, I can’t wait to sing the song “God’s Not Dead” on Easter Sunday at my church! But if you’re not a Christian, I’ll leave the decision to see the film up to you. I’d much rather you grab a Bible and come talk to me about it anyways. Hopefully this film raises some good questions and starts some brilliant conversations, but the world is not as black and white as the script would lead you to believe, and neither is God. Of course, based on that comment, according to the rationale of one climactic scene in the film, we must conclude that “God’s Not Dead,” or perhaps, even more powerful, “God is.”