Atheists bad, Christians good. That’s my four-word summary of God’s Not Dead.
This anti-atheist movie would be more effective if it didn’t portray every atheist as smug, angry, selfish, obnoxious, and unhappy. In contrast, nearly every Christian is kind, happy, generous . . . well, you get the idea.
The movie’s two protagonists are atheist philosophy Professor Jeffrey Radisson and Christian student Josh Wheaton at fictional Hadleigh University.
Professor Radisson is a bully who on the first day of class uses his bully pulpit to require that each student sign a “God is dead” statement or else convince him that God’s not dead — and, failing that, receive an F in the course. Radisson has been doing this for years, presumably without a complaint from students, other faculty, or administrators. In fact, he is about to become head of the Philosophy Department. He has a live-in girlfriend whom he started dating when she was his student, and he continually berates and belittles her in front of his academic colleagues. She turns to Christianity and finds the strength to get out of this abusive relationship after talking to Pastor Dave (more about him later).
Freshman Josh Wheaton is the only student in Professor Radisson’s class who refuses to sign the “God is dead” statement. Everyone encourages him to sign for the sake of his future career as a lawyer — except for Pastor Dave, who gives Josh the strength to enter Professor Radisson’s lion’s den, armed with Matthew 10:32-33: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown.”
Radisson allows Josh three consecutive class sessions to make his case for God. Josh wisely requests that the class act as jury, and Radisson agrees. Perhaps Josh knows that most American students, just like their parents, believe in God despite signing the “God is dead” statement. (As a former professor, I think a rare accurate portrayal in the movie is of students who focus primarily on grades and are willing to say anything to improve them.)
In the first session, Josh cites the Big Bang as evidence that God created the universe according to Genesis (“Let there be light”). Despite countless possible rebuttals, Radisson simply quotes physicist Stephen Hawking saying that spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, and why we exist. He then taunts Josh by asking if he thinks he’s smarter than Hawking.
In the second session, Josh refers to Hawking’s comment that philosophy is dead, adding that perhaps their philosophy class shouldn’t exist. Professor Radisson is speechless, though he could have told Josh that Hawking is a physicist, not a philosopher, and that you can be an expert in one field and not in another. (The Hawking quote from Radisson was formerly a question for OnFaith panelists, and here’s what I said then: “As accomplished a cosmologist as Stephen Hawking is, no scientist would ever declare, ‘Hawking said it, I believe it, that settles it.’ Scientists require evidence, not an appeal to authority.”)
A vindictive Professor Radisson later confronts Josh for having the audacity to embarrass him in class and threatens not only to fail him, but also to make sure he never becomes a lawyer. When Josh asks Radisson why he’s an atheist, Radisson replies that his mother died when he was 12, despite his prayers, so Radisson hates God for killing his mother.
In the third and final session, Josh rightly asks Radisson how he could hate a God who doesn’t exist. Again, Radisson has no response. (Real atheists, not the straw men atheists that some Christians invent, don’t hate God any more than they hate the Easter Bunny.) Josh then calls for a student jury vote, and they all agree that “God’s not dead” as a bewildered Radisson leaves the room.
Other atheists in the movie include a snide, self-centered journalist and her atheist boyfriend. When she tells him that she has terminal cancer, he asks why this news couldn’t have waited until the following day because she has just spoiled a nice dinner, and he immediately ends the relationship. She later breaks down while interviewing the Newsboys, a Christian rock group, and they convince her to become a Christian because that will give her hope.
The movie has a happy ending, at least for some Christians, because a car runs over Professor Radisson. Pastor Dave just happens to be nearby and encourages Radisson to become a Christian seconds before he dies.
The most effective way to convert atheists in the movie is not by reason or evidence, but by personal tragedy. Perhaps this will inspire some Christians to pray that atheists contract cancer or undergo some other misfortune, because the film reinforces the “no atheists in foxholes” cliché.
The premise of the movie is ridiculous. Christians and atheists alike would be appalled if an institution of higher learning expected students to sign a “God is dead” statement. Universities that promote critical thinking must not require students or professors to believe a certain way and never question or change their beliefs. But shouldn’t that hold true for both public and Christian universities?
As dogmatic as the fictional Professor Radisson is, he at least gave ample class time to a student who had a different opinion. Not necessarily so at some Christian universities. Perhaps Josh “Wheaton” is meant to represent Wheaton College, a Christian institution where students and faculty are expected to affirm a statement of faith and educational purpose that includes “God created Adam and Eve, distinct from all other living creatures.” It’s not difficult to see how such affirmations of faith might discourage critical thinking.
Charleston Southern University, in my hometown, expects faculty and students to accept core values that include the Bible being inerrant and infallible. Dr. Richard Johnson, a religion professor there, once invited me to debate the existence of God on his campus. However, the university wouldn’t allow it and the debate took place at a nearby church. After the debate, Dr. Johnson asked if he could speak to the secular student group on my College of Charleston campus. I readily agreed, and he also invited me to speak to his religion class. But the day before I was to speak, I was disinvited because his university objected. In an article about the incident in the Charleston Post and Courier, I said it reflects poorly on an academic institution that allows only one point of view.
The God’s Not Dead movie is probably intended for those who believe the myth that Christians in this country are being persecuted. (I suppose that’s why so many politicians hide their Christian beliefs and pretend to be atheists.) At secular universities, students and professors are free to discuss and debate a full range of controversial ideas, including whether God is dead. And that’s a good thing.