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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I think it’s important to view a range of perspectives on two of the latest flicks to hit the big screens: “Noah” and “God’s Not Dead.” These films are going to draw religious viewers simply based on their content. How do we approach them? What conversations do we have? Here, I’ve offered a few posts about each film. I’d love to read your own thoughts on either or both of these flicks. Yes, this is an owl post edition because I have a winter storm blowing through right now. So that’s fun. (This is my attempt to keep smiling.)
God’s Not Dead
An Apologist Reviews “God’s Not Dead”– Here, a Christian apologist discusses his viewing of the movie. His overall thought is that though it is at times simplistic, it may help awaken the need for apologetics within the church.
David Baggett Guest Post: “God’s Not Dead”– Noted Christian philosopher David Baggett takes on the film. He’s concerned that the film oversimplifies and caricatures atheists and Christians, without paying enough attention to the thoughtfulness of either.
Personal Comments on God’s Not Dead– Astrophysicist Hugh Ross shared his personal thoughts on the film. He thinks it is worth seeing for Christians, but also has reservations regarding its portrayal of the people involved.
A Christian Philosopher’s Thoughts on “God’s Not Dead”– This is a Christian apologist from a different [presuppositional] perspective offering thoughts on the film. To be fair, he is actually looking at the trailer. Can his comments be valid still? Check out the post and judge for yourselves.
Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah”– Over at The Gospel Coalition, the flick “Noah” is presented as having numerous issues, but it may start conversations and it also helps show the reality of evil before the Flood. Moreover, the reality of the spiritual realm is something that not enough people think of, but in the film the spiritual reality is very real and powerful.
I’m a Christian and I think ‘Noah’ deserves a four star review– In stark contrast to the above, Matt Walsh rips the film apart and also questions why any Christian leaders would be endorsing it or thinking of it as worthy viewing.
Sympathy for the Devil– In this post, Brian Mattson argues that the film is actually an ingenious way of portraying Gnostic ideas and Kabbalah. Essentially, his view is that the film is very explicitly Gnostic and portrays God as evil and the devil as sympathetic.
No, Noah is not Gnostic– In response to the claims of Gnosticisim, Peter Chattaway argues that one cannot conflate Kabbalah with Gnostic thought. Furthermore, he argues that Mattson gets several plot points and points of comparison wrong.
Both, and Then Some!
Hollywood, Movies, and the Bible: Should We Rewind on How We View?– Darrell Bock shares some thoughts on several recent movies with faith themes in them, such as “Noah” and “God’s Not Dead.” He offers practical advice regarding how one might view films with a discerning eye as well.
I have a nice range of posts set up for you. First, we look at the “God’s Not Dead” flick. Then, Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf! From there we survey the interrelationship between nature and Scripture, men and women as images of God, and young earth creationism and animal mimicry. I hope you enjoy them. As always, drop a comment here to let me know what you thought!
An Apologist Reviews “God’s Not Dead”– The movie “God’s Not Dead” is drawing a lot of interest from Christians. How does it hold up with it’s seeming purpose: to show that God is not dead? Check out this review by Nick Peters, a Christian apologist.
JRR Tolkien’s Translation of Beowulf: Bring on the Monsters– A translation from Tolkien of Beowulf may seem pretty ho-hum. After all, there are already English translations! But the book is going to be published not only with the translation, but also Tolkien’s notes and a couple essays. This is, of course, not to mention Tolkien is a renowned scholar of linguistics and so his translation is undoubtedly fantastic. I wait with barely contained glee for this one. Check out this post for reasons to get excited about the book!
Are Nature and Scripture Compatible?– Here, Luke Nix analyzes a number of ways to evaluate nature and Scripture alongside each other. The post has helpful flow charts to visualize this reasoning throughout. I highly recommend the read.
Male and Female: One Image, One Purpose– Men and women are both made in the image of God. What does that mean? How does it play out in our view of men and women? Check out this post by Mimi Haddad on the topic.
The “Good Creation” – Mimicry, Design, and Young Earth Creationism– How do creatures which mimic others (or the environment) reflect upon God’s creation? Check out this post which analyzes the question against the backdrop of young earth creationism.