I recently had the chance to watch “God’s Not Dead,” a film which presents a story in which a college student decides to take a stand for his faith against the pressure of an atheistic philosophy professor. A summary of the plot may be found here. As an apologist with an MA in the field, I thought my comments might help provide some insight into the film. I’ll offer a look at some aspects of the film which I wanted to address. Feel free to chime in in the comments with your own thoughts.
The movie presents a clear picture of the need for apologetics. When challenged by attacks on the faith it is important to always have a reason for the hope within (1 Peter 3:15). Josh Wheaton–the protagonist–put together a decent presentation of various evidences for theism in the snippets that viewers get through the film. Of course, these are very simplified and don’t address several major issues with the arguments, but it gets the point across. It also, I have noted through conversations with others, spurred much interest in the area of apologetics. That’s awesome!
That said, I think there are some issues with even the arguments presented in the film. First, after Wheaton has presented the cosmological, design, and other arguments for theism, he is challenged by Professor Radisson on the notion that one just has to choose between atheism and theism. Wheaton acknowledges that yes, it is a choice. Now, there are a number of issues with this portrayal. First, it treats the balance of evidence as a kind of 50/50 proposition, which is, I would think, hardly the position of anyone. Second, it presents a view of belief in which we can just choose what we believe. This is called “doxastic voluntarism” which is a fancy way of saying that one can believe propositions at will. But that is a highly controversial position (just try to force yourself to believe that “Fairies fill my refrigerator every morning” and you’ll see the folly of it) and also flies in the face of biblical accounts of what faith is. Third, here I’ll tip my bias a bit and say I’m fairly well convinced that the balance of evidence is hardly 50/50 but actually compelling.
Another difficulty with the apologetic in the film is that it seems like the lynchpin argument offered was actually just a point of rhetoric. Wheaton presses Professor Radisson and asks “Why do you hate God?” and follows it up with [paraphrased]: “How can you hate someone who doesn’t exist?” This is the last straw and what prompts the class to vote by standing to say that “God’s not dead.” Although I think rhetoric has a clear place in the Christian apologetic (and has since the earliest times: see the apologetic works of Lactantius and Arnobius in the 200-300s AD), I thought it was an odd choice to make it the climactic argument for God. Perhaps it was because this added to the drama of the moment–and I suspect that’s right–but it did so at the cost of detracting from whatever apologetic the film could put forward.
I did, however, appreciate the interaction with some top scholars like Hawking and Lennox. I think it is very important for Christians interested in apologetics to read the top scholars in their fields in order to best get acquainted to the arguments.
Characters or Caricatures?
The way the Muslim father was portrayed was problematic. In the beginning of the film we see him dropping off his daughter and showing great concern for her. Later, he shares an intimate discussion of his faith and the importance of obedience in his background. But then, when it is revealed his daughter has converted to Christianity, he not only kicks her out of the house, but he also immediately hits her more than once. Now, I make no claims to being an expert on this, but I know from anecdotal evidence only that people are indeed kicked out of their homes for converting to Christianity (and sometimes for deconverting), and this is surely a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing to address this as an issue.
But the problem I saw was that the Muslim father’s immediate reaction was violence, without any explanation or any background for thinking this would be a reaction. The rest of the film up to this point had shown him as a caring father who was concerned for the faith and well-being of his daughter. To have him immediately turn to violence when she converted was jarring and I think it speaks to our cultural presuppositions about the religious “Other” to portray the “Other”–the Muslim–in that way. We need to move beyond such stereotypes and into genuine dialogue with those of other faiths, always looking to share the light and love of Christ with them.
On the positive side, the film did do a great job speaking to the importance of reaching out to others like the young man from China. It also emphasized missions in a number of ways, like centering some major plot points around a very amiable character as a missionary.
I appreciated the comments about the work of a pastor, in which Pastor Dave in the film was comparing his own work to that of a missionary friend’s and felt his own day-to-day tasks were mundane and trivial. The answer given by the missionary, however, was essentially that such work is part of the work of God as well and that we each occupy a place which God has put us in to make an impact on the world. I thought this was a great message and one that deserves further exploration.
On the other hand, I thought that the pastoral care at points in the movie presented some difficulties. For example, Pastor Dave’s conversation with Josh Wheaton before Wheaton decides to for sure stand up to his professor boiled down to a couple citations (not even quotations) of Bible verses to look up later and the comment that “It’s not easy, but it’s simple” [I may have the order in this quotation wrong]. I’ll be blunt: I think that this is actually a gross oversimplification. Quoting Matthew 10:33 (click for reference) does not actually make the issue facing Wheaton “simple.”
For example, would it be “denying” Christ to acknowledge that one might not have the resources available as a freshman student in a general studies philosophy class (and not a major) to take on a philosophy professor on the topic of God’s existence? I don’t think so. One could instead acknowledge that both the clearly adversarial tone taken in the environment and one’s own lack of knowledge or expertise in the area make it likely that one may actually harm the body of Christ by, well, looking like a freshman non-philosophy student outmatched by an atheistic philosophy professor. Wheaton, of course, has the benefits of film, so he is able to put together a beautiful powerpoint each week and manages to pound the books so hard that he can articulate the cosmological, design, and other arguments within a few days. But is this a realistic perspective? Moreover, is it a “simple” application of the passage to our lives?
“God’s Not Dead” awakens people to the need for apologetics. That is a great compliment, because it is a much-needed awakening. However, it has several issues (including those mentioned above) with the presentation of apologetics, its portrayal of the “Other,” and the oversimplification of several arguments, positions, and even pastoral care and reading of texts. In short, it’s a mixed bag.
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