August 11, 2014

God's Not Dead: Fictitious "Gotcha"

[There are plot spoilers in this review, but most of them you might have guessed about an inspirational Christian film before you even began watching it; i.e. happy ending for pretty much everyone.]

Since its recent release to dvd, I had the opportunity to watch God's Not Dead. I realize there have already been plenty of Christian reviews, and I probably have little to add to what has already been said. Many have already pointed out some major theological errors, the most obvious of which are decision theology (a conditional gospel) and theistic evolution; others have pointed out the main character's juvenile apologetics. So I don't feel the need to go there. (But if you're interested, here are a couple of decent reviews: God's Not Dead Revisited from Answers in Genesis and God's Not Dead but Christian Screen Writing Is by Jon Speed.)

As other writers have pointed out, the film is not all bad. Most of the good things reviewers have pointed out deal with the high production value and market success of a Christian film. They also recognize that it attempts to share the gospel, and that is an admirable goal. I don't think any Christian wishes to detract from those things. But it does have some glaring problems, which should give Christians pause before endorsing a film—especially if endorsing it for evangelism purposes.

For this review, I want to zoom out and discuss primarily the basic premise of the film. The movie promos claim that while the protagonist of the movie, Josh Wheaton, is a fictional character, his story is true. It's true only in the sense that Christians are being persecuted in colleges and universities. But aside from that, major portions of the movie were so far from believable that at points they bordered on comical.

Josh Wheaton is confronted by a spiteful Prof. Radisson.
So let's start with the believable parts. It's believable that a growing number of educators are hostile to Christianity—that some would publicly humiliate a student for being Christian, or threaten failure in order to force compliance with a progressive worldview. It's believable because it happens. The antagonist, Jeffrey Radisson, is badly written and over-the-top, but if we're viewing this with just a wide-angle lens, we can at least say that the premise isn't far off. If you've read anything by prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, some of the venomous comments made by the film's antagonist are not too cruel to be believable. (But, as Jon Speed pointed out, the movie settles for stereotypes that are unhelpful. Atheists are not all mean people who eat their young; Christians are not all nice, either.)

Likewise, it is believable that a student of conscience would stand up to such academic bullying, even under the threat of failure, because that is what Christ has prepared us for. The extra features on the dvd spotlighted some examples of real students undergoing persecution for their faith, e.g. being threatened with expulsion from a graduate program for refusing to counsel a lesbian couple. Christians are undergoing persecution for their faith in America in quiet ways that will never make the headlines. In that respect, this movie is good in that it shines a spotlight on a real problem.

But the believability stops there. The atheist philosophy professor, Radisson, gives Josh Wheaton the chance to defend God's existence in front of the class, presumably to embarrass him. He gives the freshman three 20-minute blocks of time to prove that God is not dead. After that time, we are asked to believe at least three unbelievable things: 1) that all 80 of Josh's classmates were convinced of God's existence, 2) that the professor who wanted to destroy Josh's faith would allow himself to be lectured and even bullied by his student in a contest that Radisson himself controlled, and 3) that shortly after being so humiliated, he would convert.

The cause of my incredulity is not that I don't believe in the miracles, or that I think the Holy Spirit is incapable of converting a room full of unbelievers. But when you consider that Josh's arguments were weak, that he tried to use evolution and the big bang as proof that Genesis was correct long before science caught up with it (huh?), and that he never mentioned Jesus once... well, there's no reason why any skeptic should take his side. And without the Word, there's no means for the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of his classmates. Despite all this, one particular classmate tells Josh after the final debate that he wants to follow Jesus now. Assuming that the one prior on-screen conversation they had was their only interaction, all he could possibly know about Jesus is that he is Josh's friend.

The entire premise of this movie smacks of those Christian email forwards and Facebook memes in which a young student poses some clever arguments to a science teacher who unwisely tries to argue for God's non-existence. One boy asks the teacher if he has ever seen his own brain, thereby demonstrating that we can know something exists without being able to observe it. They always purport to be true stories. One version suspiciously claims a young Albert Einstein to be the child in the story, but the rest use no names or places—sure indicators that they are fictitious. They are intended to give us that satisfying "gotcha" feeling that Christians will likely never experience in the real world. Unbelief is not won over by clever arguments. It refuses even to be embarrassed.

Josh makes his final case. Images courtesy of Pure Flix.
The reason I'm pointing out what I consider to be a dangerously flawed premise in this movie is that it gives Christians false expectations about their evangelism efforts. The fictional pastor in the movie pointed Josh to Matthew 10:32 for assurance: "Therefore whoever acknowledges me before men, him also I will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven." This passage is appropriate, because it indicates that our reward for confessing our faith is not an immediate or visible one. In fact, Jesus says much elsewhere to the same effect: "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Mt 5:11-12). Nowhere does the Bible promise visible fruits for defending the faith. So it's difficult to justify Christ's promise of persecution and hardships with the movie's implication that if you defend God's existence in public, you'll be rewarded with a veritable Second Pentecost. (Oh, and you might also be publicly celebrated by thousands of people packed into a Newsboys concert.)

Last week, I had the privilege of doing some door-to-door canvassing with a gentleman from my congregation who has been doing it weekly for almost two decades. (His partner in evangelism was recently called home to his Savior.) Someone once asked them how many new members they had gotten as a result of their efforts. They replied confidently, "None." Why bother then? They answered that Jesus tells us to preach the good news. He doesn't seem to care how many people walk in our door, so long as the seed is scattered. It's as simple as that. Really, the answer is love—love for Jesus, who redeemed us, and love for the unconverted, who need God's salvation as much as we do.

So... can we do better? I suggest that a movie that depicts the reality of Christians being persecuted, even killed, for their faith would be much more compelling than a sanitized, Hallmark version of Christian conflict in which faith turns all the bad guys into good guys. Look at what's happening to believers in Iraq at the hands of ISIS. Or in Syria. There's plenty of evidence there that Christians aren't getting happy endings. To be fair, the film does show a girl who converts to Christianity from Islam and is thrown out of her home. But that thread is left unresolved, with an artificial happy ending appended to it.

A Christian film cannot claim to have added anything significant to the case for God's existence unless it can tackle the problem of pain head on and not flinch. Many of Jesus' own apostles met gruesome deaths. Where's the comfort in that? Where's the "gotcha" moment? Their comfort was in a Savior who was delivered over to death for their sins and raised to life for their justification (Ro 4:25). They didn't need the satisfaction of knowing that they had won an argument over God's existence.

I suppose the only real "gotcha" moment a Christian can experience will be the Second Coming—but then, I highly doubt that when we see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Mt 24:30) our reaction will be, "Ha, atheists! We were right all along." No, I think that terrifying event will drive any hint of arrogant gloating from our minds. We'll have far more glorious things to think about. I suggest that instead of constructing fictional "gotcha" moments for Christians to bask in, we should instruct them in biblical teaching about evangelism, the theology of the cross (of persecution), and apologetics. We can encourage and equip them with Christian community. We can hold up examples of faithful Christians who have carried out their calling, even sometimes to bitter ends. And we can offer prayers to those who are witnessing every day in the mission fields—those far away, and those in our own back yards. And as always, we would do well to remember that we are called to scatter that seed as well.

"Here am I, send me, send me!"

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