Some time ago, I was a budding Christian evangelical apologist. Still in high school, I thought it was my Christian duty to argue against all the atheists who were threatening the faithful. I took to the Internet and started having conversations with people about subjects relevant to my then-evangelical beliefs: evolution vs. Creation, geology vs. the Flood, pro-life vs. pro-choice, etc.
For all intents and purposes, I could have easily been Josh Wheaton, main character of God’s Not Dead. But something happened when I started talking to others about my beliefs: I actually listened, and that has made all the difference.
One by one, as I discussed theological matters with people online and among my friends, the mainstays of evangelicalism began to crumble in my mind. Some beliefs lasted longer than others, but as I conversed with other people, heard their reasoning, listened to their stories, and critiqued or incorporated their ideas, I realized that maybe things weren’t quite as I was told. Maybe there was something more beyond the boundaries of what I was told I should believe.
Some of my beliefs would go untested for several years into my tumultuous college experience. I originally majored in computer science, and so my classes really didn’t challenge my faith. Having changed my mind on evolution at this point, I thought I was already free from the intellectual chains of evangelicalism, but I was so very wrong. It took the heartbreak of a shattered engagement and my mistreatment at the hands of a church to “awaken me from my dogmatic slumber,” so to speak. My ex-fiancee and my church at that time rejected me primarily because I desired truth over conformity. It hurt like hell to have my desire for truth rob me of everything I valued, but it was a wake up call to decide what I truly valued, and I discovered that I valued truth above all. I therefore dedicated myself to its pursuit.
At that point, I realized everything I had believed was fundamentally broken. The logical consequences of the evangelical beliefs I still held, where everything hinged on converting the unbeliever, were exactly what happened to me: evangelicals cast out all persons dangerous to the integrity of the tribe and who might lead people away from conversion to the so-called “right” beliefs. Dissent is allowed only so long as you are an evangelism project, but once you begin to tell others about your views and to persuade them to your side, you start to erode the authority of “God”, and that can’t happen.
Leaving that behind, I ventured off to study religion to figure out my place in the world. After a long series of events, I realized theology at my institution offered more of the same, so I studied philosophy, instead. That has been the springboard for me into so many new ways of thinking that I hardly recognize the person I was even just four years ago.
So when I see a movie like God’s Not Dead, and I see the fear it has of atheists, liberals, Muslims, and the like, I can’t help but think something is wrong. I know what it is like to dedicate one’s life to seeking the truth, and this isn’t it; it is the opposite. This movie actually hides from the truth! Why doesn’t the movie actually engage with the atheists, liberals, and people of other religions which it depicts? Instead, it chooses to attack straw men and forge a counterfeit victory at the end in order to pretend it has done something of substance. This movie is terrified of real discussion, or else the movie would put such discussion on display.
So what is there to fear? Why can’t a movie about a philosophy professor quote even more than one philosopher? The only philosopher it does quote — Nietzsche, from whom the movie gets its title — is taken entirely out of context:
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” — As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? — Thus they yelled and laughed.
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Yes, Nietzsche was an atheist, but his point here is much more subtle than simply to say that there is no God. The madman tells his audience that although many in Nietzsche’s time did not necessarily ascribe to belief in God, no one had even begun to parse the implications of the “death of God” for humanity and ethics. The madman is calling for humanity to seek out a new direction before it finds itself entirely lost, drifting aimlessly for lack of purpose.
But even if there is a God, the God of God’s Not Dead is dead in the way in which the madman intends, and the stench of this God’s death lays heavy like a fog over the evangelical culture which spawned this movie. The movie’s title only places a layer of irony atop the corpse of this dead God. That is, God is no longer necessary for the evangelicals who buy into the message of this movie. The word “God” remains as an element of language, but God as any sort of meaningful concept is almost entirely gone. The word “God” here means simply “my tribe” and all the euphoric feelings of belonging to a group.
Josh Wheaton only needs for there to be more people like him, and this need has blinded him from the reality of the people whom he wishes to convert. What horrendous self-absorption! What egoism! Are we to believe that the only thing everyone needs is to accept evangelical beliefs and to stick to a narrowly-define way of life? “God” is alive in this culture only as a word and nothing more. Thus, Josh’s adversaries are bad caricatures of reality, because his adversaries need problems that Josh can fix with evangelicalism, regardless of whether or not any such people exist outside the silver screen.
I understand the mindset. I was there. I remember telling my friend once that it was nice but ultimately pointless for her to go into the medical field if she didn’t help save the souls of her patients. I remember the warnings about Christian liberals — “cafeteria Christians” who picked and chose their beliefs, seemingly by their own preferences as far as I knew. I remember the apologetic coaching sessions about evolution and atheism and everything that was supposedly so bad about the world outside the Christian bubble. I even remember singing a song in children’s choir about how terrible evolution was supposed to be. For a long time, I bought into the whole thing. I thought everyone had a Jesus-shaped hole in their hearts and really just needed to convert.
But I listened. All the atheists out there, the Christian progressives, the liberals, the LGBT community, and so forth — I listened to them, and it turned out that life outside my little bubble was not at all like what I was told. The narrative inside the bubble was a cleverly-constructed lie hidden even from the liars. The death of God was invisible even to those who by their very actions had murdered God when they exchanged infinite passion for tribalism and conformity.
If there is a God, and I believe there is, He is not the corpse on display in the movie. The death of God in evangelicalism is immanent, yet it is as distant to them as the stars. The evangelicals who champion the message of this movie need to do a harsh reexamination of their values and ask themselves whether assimilation into Christianity really is the highest good. Maybe then will their blinders lift which keep them from seeing the truth which is right in front of them: the truth in the words of the atheists, liberals, Muslims, and all the rest of the people whom they inadvertently demonize and devalue through their hyper-focus on evangelism. Perhaps then will they realize that, despite our differences, we are all of us — atheists as much as Christians — engaged in the process of figuring out how to share a life here on this planet, and our common humanity unites us much more than our beliefs divide us.
We do not need the dead god which this movie offers. If we need a god at all, then it is a god who embraces all people as they are and leads us to pursue what is true and good in the world, not a god whose demands hide us from one another and set us apart.
Thus, contrary to the Newsboys’ message to spread the word that “God’s not dead,” spread this message: “God is dead. God remains dead. And the Newsboys (along with so many others) have killed him.”