From Camels With Hammers
When I was in college and still a Christian at a conservative evangelical Christian college, I remember talking to my friends about how hard it was to really make some of our beliefs feel real. Sure, we all completely believed things like that people were going to hell if they weren’t saved or that we would live after death, but did they really register? Did we really internalize these kinds of teachings as real facts? Did these beliefs determine our emotional reactions the way that more tangible truths of this world did?
What I was ultimately yearning for was some way to not just believe in Jesus and in all the beliefs involved in being a Christian only in some abstract way but as truly and fully as I believed more practical things. I was already living by my faith in a whole number of ways–it dictated my ethics, my (lack of) sex life, my choice of school, my course of study, my social circles, my commitment to prayer, to Christian fellowship, to spending my summers evangelizing as a camp counselor, etc., etc. Everything you could do to live Christianly and seek Jesus I was game for.
But no matter how much I truly believed and lived by faith, inevitably I could grasp that much of what we believed that was not graspable from the sensible world was still abstract and elusive. Sure, I could have intense spiritual experiences worshipping and feel God’s presence that way. Or when I would experience intimate community with my brothers and sisters in Christ, the oxytocin would be flowing through my brain and I would feel the love of Christ coursing through me, and us collectively. And I would look around and find signs of God’s hand in my life everywhere and feel spontaneous gratitude to God for all his blessings.
But, like many good Christians I was hungry for more of God. I wanted to see what the Bible taught as truer. I wanted to know it in my very bones.
And that’s a big part of what faith is about. Faith is not just about believing. It’s wanting to believe beyond just what you happen to feel to be true. It is wanting to feel like something is more true than what your senses tell you it is. It is wanting to commit to it more than your reason can assure you makes sense to commit to it. It’s wanting to be so fully immersed in your beliefs, nay, so fully immersed in the blood of Jesus that He is the realest thing your mind knows. He is the realest being of all, He’s beyond being, He’s the Word through whom the universe itself was spoken. He is the one through whom we have our being. As a Christian, faith is feeling this ultimate Truth as the ultimate truth that it is.
But for most Christians it is a lifelong struggle to keep the mind firmly in this truth. Like heroin addicts desperately seeking to recreate their first high, like people in loveless marriages desperate to recreate the euphoric infatuation of new love, many Christians struggle to really feel as blissfully in touch with the magnificence of God’s love and reality again and again.
This is why Christian faith beliefs are not like other beliefs. Sometimes Christians try to say faith is something all people have, even atheists have. But whereas everyone has a degree of belief, loyalty, trust, and hope, and these things are often loosely referred to as ”faith”. What Christians are talking about in faith is something different. It’s a commitment to believe, trust, hope, and be loyal. A desire to believe, trust, hope, and be loyal. Often it is a passionate sort. It is not rationally just saying, “Well, I see there’s a 50/50 chance this may be true, so I’ll commit to it only half way.” It’s saying, I don’t care that I might be wrong, I’m going to commit to this 100% and do everything I can to make myself believe it.
This is always a struggle, in no small part, because we have to really treat the world of our senses as a pressing reality. It is impractical and downright dangerous to so fully immerse ourselves in the Bible’s teachings that we take Jesus literally and fully expect that whatever we ask of him in prayer we will receive and that the heavenly father will give us better things than earthly fathers would. Most believers, no matter how devout, do not decide that Jesus is so absolutely reliable and prayer is as absolutely reliable as he promised that they do not need to take their kids to the doctor but can simply pray over them instead. The tragic minority of believers who deeply internalize that promise of Jesus to the point of denying their kids medical treatment all too often wind up grieving their dead children. Most Christians are much more practical people.
Similarly, I have never heard of Christians arranging paramedical emergency evangelization squads to go to accident scenes and witness to people who may be at risk of dying without accepting Jesus into their hearts. No one is proposing that we pool resources and energy into having such emergency evangelists accompany EMTs to the scenes of accidents so that while EMT’s stabilize their wounds, they can be talked to about their need for salvation. And were someone to be bleeding, dying on the street and an evangelist were to declare to people, “Stand back! I know the four spiritual laws” and start administering the Gospel to that person with all the earnestness with which a medical professional should be dressing his wounds, everyone would look on agape with bewildered horror.
Most religious people are more practical than that. Even though in theory they know that one’s immortal soul is more important than one’s earthly body, when they see an earthly body dying, they treat it with grave seriousness and make caring for it their first priority.
That’s why when atheists accuse religious people of just praying instead of “doing something” I often chastise them for not getting it that “prayer is often just what people do after they’ve done all that they personally could and wish there was something more.” The people willing to pray are usually most certainly willing to go to doctors too. They have kitchen sink approaches to getting healed. Whatever will work.
So to a large extent Christians compartmentalize their beliefs. They live and feel by their beliefs where they’re relevant but also live and feel practically and in earthy ways when that’s most practical. The more devout believers earnestly want their Christian beliefs to permeate more and more of the world they see so they can live seeing reality completely structured as Christianity teaches and, in doing so, believe God more fully and know him more intimately. They are willing to stretch, and redefine, the bounds of practicality when it comes to fully believing and acting according to God’s truth, as opposed to worldly truths.
This brings me to the movie God’s Not Dead. In it, Reverend Jude (Benjamin Ochieng) is visiting America and is dying to fulfill a lifelong dream of visiting Disney World. Reverend Dave (David A.R. White) tries to put a damper on his enthusiasm, telling him that they have only the 16th tallest roller coaster. Reverend Jude tells him, no matter, when I am riding on it, “in my mind it will be the tallest”. This is Reverend Jude’s mindset. And it is epitomized repeatedly throughout the film whenever something goes wrong or right and he coaxes Reverend Dave to finish his mantra with him, “God is good all the time… and all the time God is good.” He is unflappable because no matter what happens he insists on assuring himself he’s riding the best roller coaster in the world. God’s. Every big drop is just part of God’s exciting gift.
Now the filmmakers behind this movie reveal themselves to be the kinds of Christians who want to see everything adamantly as Christianity would have it. They reveal this by their unwavering refusal to introduce moral ambiguities or any turns of events that don’t outright vindicate their faith and put it in the best light possible or its enemies in anything but the worst light.
The atheists in the film are all precisely as some Christians (and evidently these filmmakers) routinely claim they are. They are people incapable of loving, like Mark (Dean Cain) who upon learning his girlfriend Amy (Trisha LaFache) has cancer responds immediately by blaming her for ruining his dinner celebrating his promotion and then dumping her. When she says she thought he loved her he tells her to grow up and explains to her that love is just something we say when we want or need something. He views love in maximally cynical transactional terms. She no longer can be what he wanted so she’s “broken their deal”. Amy herself represents another trope of the bad atheist–she is a mean spirited, materialistic, contemptuous person only concerned with worldly success and who persecutes Christians because deep down she envies their Christians’ hope and really wants to be saved. Or atheists are authoritarian bullies like Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) who go beyond atheism to be dreaded antitheists, where antitheism is maligned as the wish for people to be forced not to believe in God rather than give them a choice like Christians do (and like God himself does). (Professor Radisson also gets to be a verbally abusive boyfriend who is dating a former student named Mina (Cory Oliver) whom he forces to call him “Professor” whenever they are on campus together.) None of the atheist characters are given any more nuance than their deep down pain and longing for Jesus. Amy’s cruelty is a cover for her hopelessness. Professor Radisson’s vindictive bullying is an expression of his grief driven hatred of the God he actually believes in in response to his mother’s death when he was 12.
And as for the Muslims? There are only two in the film. One is an authoritarian father who smacks his daughter Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu) around and physically throws her out of the house for confessing that Jesus is her Lord and Savior. And his son, the snitch who told him she was secretly listening to Franklin Graham on her i-pod. The message is clear. Christians don’t worship a demanding God who gives you no choices. Muslims do. Christians do not want to constrict your ability to think and choose for yourself in life. Antitheists do. The actually authoritarian dimensions of Christianity that are plainly there if you look at it honestly (and which I ran down in my first review of the film, based on the highly accurate trailer alone) are all denied and perversely projected on the enemies of the faith instead (as I predicted).
Evangelical Christianity is even presented as liberating to women–it’s the pastor who convinces Mina to leave Radisson and it is Christianity that liberates Ayisha from Islam’s suffocating veiling. All the damage done to women by Christianity’s obsession with “purity”, with husbands’ headship over wives, and with opposition to divorce is absent. But the only bad Christian in the film is the protagonist Josh Wheaton’s (Shane Harper) girlfriend who tries to tempt him away from standing up for his faith. She represents Eve. You know: Women. Such temptresses. So, there is that bit of misogyny worked in.
As the antithesis of the standard Hollywood film in which romantic love and family represent salvation. All the major characters wind up alone and happy with Jesus instead. Our girl raised Muslim leaves her family behind. Josh leaves his temptress girlfriend. Mina leaves Professor Radisson. The kid straight off the plane from China converts after Josh’s arguments for the existence of God persuade him, upsetting his dad. Amy finds Jesus after Mark disillusions her with secular love by revealing to her that she was fooling herself into seeing him as something he was not. All these characters wind up together at a Newsboys concert celebrating at the film’s end.
But it’s what happens simultaneously with the Newsboys concert that is the film’s real climax. And it reveals the filmmakers’ most earnest wishes for how the world would be and how Christians would spontaneously respond to it. And it is more chilling and frightening a picture of Christianity than any of the depictions of atheists or Muslims. Ironically, the people who come off looking the worst in this film are the Christians who most fully internalize their beliefs and see everything through them. The atheists are bad, but at least Radisson and Amy have some anguish you can empathize with, and Radisson even gets in a couple sincere, passionate speeches from the heart about the problem of evil and the dangers of religion. Amy gets sympathy as devastated in the face of death. It’s the Christians who wind up frighteningly, inhumanly, indifferent, even joyful, in the face of evil.
To get what I’m saying, we need to ruin the ending.
To set the scene Professor Radisson has, by this point, predictably had his big defeat in the classroom. (I’ll write another post all about that.) His student, Josh, who refused to write down that God was dead and so had to prove God was not dead to the class or receive an F for 30% of his grade, has pulled a Tom Cruise from A Few Good Men and gotten Professor Radisson to emotionally confess he hates God and thereby betray that he actually believes in God. He’s been rendered speechless. The whole class has stood up and declared that God is not dead.
Presumably, he’s on the verge of at least softening his stance on Christianity if not repenting and becoming a Christian outright. He has been left speechless by Wheaton in the classroom and gone back to his office. Night has fallen and he has reread a letter his dying mother had written to him about how she knows God is in control and hopes that he “will remain in the joy of the Lord” all his life. He calls Mina but gets her voicemail. He sees the Newsboys are in town and presumably knows she’ll be at the concert so he starts hurrying there.
On his way, it suddenly starts to rain, drenching him. Radisson sarcastically says, “that’s perfect” and we’ll find out in a moment the ironic reason that it is unexpectedly perfect indeed! The reason it is surprisingly perfect is because the rain makes it so hard to see that Radisson is struck by a car and suffers fatal injuries that do not kill him instantly! He has just minutes to live! Just enough time to get saved! Hallelujah! And by dying he will go straight to glory and be blissful for eternity! Praise Jesus!
I’m sorry, I know this sounds like I’m mocking Christian beliefs. Because it is ludicrous to present Christians as saying such ghoulishly callous things. Sure, they believe in an afterlife and that it’s better to be saved on your deathbed than burn for eternity, and that heaven is wonderful and those who die are theoretically luckier to be there than here. But Christians are human. They emotionally appreciate the graveness of death. They don’t literally shout “Hallelujah” at people’s deaths. They don’t smile and sing songs and envy the lucky guy who died because he’s with Jesus. They are somber. With every bit of optimism they can muster they affirm that the lost is “in a better place” or “free from pain at last”. But they mourn. They compartmentalize their supernatural hopes so that they don’t crowd out all room for emotional appreciation of the seriousness of earthly loss.
But, like I said at the start, some Christians can’t handle any compartmentalization of God. They want to live and emotionally respond precisely as their beliefs logically would have it. And the filmmakers, and their representative Christian role models, Pastor Jude and Pastor Dave, are going to make them paradigmatic men of faith. Men who so live in the truth and reality of the Gospel that they don’t feel about a dying man what worldly, earthly, compartmentalizing, realistic, practical humans do.
They don’t care about saving his body. They rush to the body like those ludicrous emergency response paramedical evangelists I hypothesized earlier. They act with all the life-saving seriousness of actual life-saving EMTs. But, like something out of anti-Christian gallows humor, they treat his soul instead. To my non-believer’s eyes watching, this was a sickening game of pretend. People impotent to save what is real, his earthly life, acting with dead seriousness to preserve what is purely pretend, his eternal soul.
They are in emergency mode trying to get him to say the silly Lord’s Prayer as though it is the magic incantation that his entire salvation hinges upon. This is the kind of God these filmmakers believe in? One who, if the pastors cannot do emergency evangelism quickly enough in your dying moments will send you to hell? But if they can use their ace Gospel spreading techniques in time you can go to heaven? God needs this verbal assent to this arbitrary modern day little formula for salvation in order to save you? He can’t project out and figure, “Well this Radisson guy was mad I killed his mom with cancer when he was 12 (which, I gotta admit was a dick move on my part, so I can’t really blame him). And he means well and he seems to have been coming along at the end, going to a Newsboys concert where he may have decided to worship me and let the whole killing his mom thing go…” No, God sees the car hit Radisson (we’re assuming of course, to be theologically correct, that God didn’t make the car hit the guy, these things just happen) and God rubs his hands together thinking, “oh boy, this oughta be good, let’s see if he accepts my salvation before he loses consciousness or if I get to send him to hell!”
The image of Christians being people who descend on the weak, the sick, the dying, to spiritually manipulate them on their deathbeds is extremely offensive to many non-Christians. The Christians who routinely spread lies about deathbed conversions because they don’t care about the consciences of non-believers. They care about whatever propaganda tool they can get. They care about claiming souls. They care about dominating you however you can. All the pretenses about concern for your free will aside, they want to capture your soul. The idea that someone in their dying moments needs to be harangued by people to change their religion is sick. It’s this sort of comprehensive Christian mindset that makes them so invasive, which makes them prowl hospitals trying to convert vulnerable people. It’s this exploitation of weakness–this exploitation of anything they can figure out to wring a conversion out of someone that is so fanatical and disgusting. I get it, they really think eternal souls are at stake. That’s why spreading the false beliefs of Christianity is harmful. Because people can act ghoulishly, manipulatively, and disrespectfully from a sincere concern for others’ souls.
And the scene is really the kind of portrayal of Christians that had atheists written it in an attack on Christians I would have complained was way over the line. When real life Christians see someone bleeding to death in the street, they are as concerned as anyone to save his actual life. They don’t act like spiritual EMTs and then literally celebrate a job well done when the man’s life is gone before the real EMTs can do anything. I’m serious, in the film, they literally celebrate when he dies. The role model Christians in this film also literally tell the man struck by a car that he just received an act of mercy because it gave him a chance to repent. You want to talk about bullying? Take a God who “lets” you (*wink* *wink*) be hit by a car and then “mercifully” doesn’t heal you but lets you lay in agony on the ground while his followers swoop in and ask you, “Now do you want to give in?” No, no, nothing bullying about that at all. It’s those mean antitheists who want people to accept only what is rationally demonstrable to believe in. Those guys are the real authoritarians…
When Radisson dies, these Christians act as though they are so certain that he is now in heaven, having accepted Jesus into his heart just before dying, that they literally treat the dead man as enviable for now being able to know more about God than they do, for getting to meet Him. While he is dying, they manipulatively exploit his expression of fear at dying by using it as an evangelistic tool in order to talk about how Jesus was scared when he died too. They trivialize the tragedy of his stolen life by rationalizing that he only had to endure a few moments of pain and now is getting to have an eternity in paradise.
These responses to death are inhumanly cold and detached from reality. They are not ideal. Fortunately real life Christians are rarely so heartlessly consistent in their baseless beliefs. Their visceral emotions are too bodily and too real to let them feel the platitudes they mouth either as euphorically or sanguinely as the monstrous true believers in this film do. Real life believers can look at the horror of death and not be in total denial about it emotionally. Their consolations about heaven are desperate hopes that they try to muster as much confidence as they can in.
This movie’s characters shows how sick it would look if everyday Christians all over the place really did internalize a belief that death is just an exciting chance to go be with Jesus. It’s macabre how dangerously shut off to appropriate feelings about evil they would become.
When you can be reconciled emotionally to any evil inflicted on humanityout of your full immersion in the pie in the sky fantasy that God redeems all evil for good, then when you learn of a Christian murdered you can say, “Oh praise Jesus! Lucky old Sam gets to be with God now!” When you learn of a genocide of Christians you can chuckle without hesitation thinking, “Oh, those lucky lucky martyrs! They must be God’s favorites, the way he accelerates their return home!” This is a kind of twisting of human feelings that only cultishness creates.
The most dangerous person in the world is the one who passionately loves you with a dangerous conception of what love or reality is, such that they eagerly subject you to evil thinking it’s good. This death scene presents the limit point of the dangers of trying to work yourself up into truly believing what is completely contrary to all the senses and reason. It’s a warning to non-believers and reasonable believers everywhere–don’t become like these people.
But possibly the most disgusting and galling thing about all of this is is the hypocritical way this scene glosses over and betrays the very claim that Josh Wheaton made that was meant to be such a powerful counter-push to Radisson’s authoritarian antitheism. Where Radisson acted like he knew everything, Josh took the humble road. He claimed that the debate over God’s existence was really a push. Sure he couldn’t prove God’s existence, but neither could Radisson disprove it.
It’s presented as though the evidence is really, at the end of the day, a toss up (maybe favoring God’s existence–but just some). Smart people disagree. So you’re free to believe as you wish. What matters, Christians, is that, as Josh assures the worried believer, “it’s not intellectual suicide” to believe in God. Some smart people do it. Therefore you can too. Many Christians are content with that. They engage with apologetics not to make sure they’re right but to get permission from smart people to go on believing as they want. They’re not really scrupulous about this. They don’t want to personally go to the trouble to look at every atheist counter-argument and make sure it’s wrong. They don’t want to look too deeply into apologetic retorts they are taught and make sure they have no weaknesses. They want to get the impression that there’s a smart reason to believe and feel all the justification they need. And just being convinced it’s 50/50 they’re right–heck, even just a tiny chance they’re right, is enough for them. They can believe so long as there’s some chance they’re not wrong.
But this is precisely the danger of faith brought to screen. The Christian apologist tries to present himself as humble: “See, I don’t claim to know, I’m saying no one knows, unlike this dogmatic atheist over here who arrogantly thinks he knows all the answers!” But then the Christian turn right around and makes a 100% commitment to their Christian beliefs that are, on his own pretenses of admission, merely 50/50 likely to be true. Or some similar uncertain confidence. Even if the believer feels 75% sure or 90% sure, he’s not really sure.
But faith means being like I was in college and like Reverend Jude wants everyone to be. Faith is committing to believe more than the rational evidence warrants. It is being desperate to make yourself believe, trust, hope, commit, and be loyal like you’re 100% sure despite not being. It’s not humbly saying, “well here’s this belief and since I’m not sure it’s true but it might be, I’ll live by it tentatively. It might be true, so I will take precautions in case it is. But it might not, so I’ll take precautions in case it’s not. I’ll moderate my feelings and my commitment to this thing and the way I let it influence my perceptions and decisions to the extent that it is actually likely to be true and not let it run everything I think, feel, and do because it might not be true.” That’s what humbly accepting you really don’t know something looks like. The truest person of faith does not do that.
The truest faith is to attain what I wanted to be in college. The ability to so see one’s supernatural beliefs as true that you no longer see even the starkest facts of the material world as all people, even most believers in their eventual practicality, do. The truest person of faith “walks by faith, not by sight”. Truest faith is the characters in this film who talk themselves into an astonishing indifference to another human being’s untimely death, occurring before their eyes. To them, this evil means nothing. The guy was given an act of mercy since he had time to repent and he only suffered a little bit and now he’s with Jesus.
It’s not that they say, “Well, we don’t know, maybe there’s hope he’s in heaven. I really hope that.” They are not the humble people Josh claimed Christians were when he talked about not knowing. Were someone to really in their guts internalize an idea like “we don’t know, there might be a God and we might have heaven to look forward to or there might not” then they would feel anguish that they do know this guy lost the one life they knew he had while he only might have another life in heaven now. That would be a more rational and humble and humanly compassionate way to respond to someone’s death.
But rather they they experience jubilant elation as though they are certain the dead man is really alive in heaven and convinced nothing bad really happened. They selfishly choose to ignore the very real possibility this man died prematurely, senselessly, and all in vain, is incredibly callous. They are certain not because they have rational reason to be but because they want to be, even if they’re wrong. They have willfully cut themselves off from even the possibility, that the film supposedly admitted to earlier, that they are wrong and that this man has been robbed of decades of happy life senselessly.
They want to disconnect from feeling empathetic sufferings of their fellow human beings. They want to so much believe God is good all the time and all the time God is good that they refuse to acknowledge the truth of real, unredeemable, agony and feel it with others. The audience is to be encouraged to be unambivalently happy for the rest of the main characters as they party down at a rock concert in scenes intercut with those portraying Professor Radisson’s death and our pastors’ serenely joyful responses to it. Because all is well with the world. Let’s party. This is the irrationality and reality-warping character of faith epitomized and idealized. This is the repulsive extreme of Christianity’s demand to place commitment to God over solidarity even with one’s fellow human beings if necessary. It is anti-human. It is profoundly intellectually irresponsible. It is deeply morally repulsive and evil.
And thankfully most Christians are much too human to ever have quite so much true faith.
I find their lack of faith reassuring.
I find their support of this film troubling.
See also Final Thoughts Inspired by “God’s Not Dead”: What Makes Some Evangelicals So Intolerable