March 21 marks the nationwide opening of the movie “God’s Not Dead”—“the best Christian film ever,” I’ve been told. I’ve seen the film in a pre-screening and I agree with that assessment, but what do I know? The teenage boy who came with us was the one who gave it that glowing review, and his word carries a lot more weight than mine, I’m sure.
Still, I’ll make so bold as to say that among films made by Christian production companies, it’s the best I’ve seen. Its message is strong, and except for a few moments of humor, there isn’t a hint of it being contrived, as too many Christian movies have been. Those moments could almost be taken as self-deprecating parody of the easy-miracle Christian film genre. I say “almost” because in the end . . . well, that would be telling.
The film has much more to say more than its trailers suggest (here and here). It’s about faith being lived out under severe pressure, not only in the classroom as the trailers emphasize, but also in home and family, and in believers’ encounters with other religions and other values.
The classroom is certainly at the core of the movie, however. Professor Radisson (played by Kevin Sorbo) requires his Philosophy 101 students to write “God is dead” on a piece of paper, sign it, and turn it in. Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) refuses, conflict rises quickly, and the plot is off and running.
I first heard about the movie last fall on Facebook, where someone was already asking dismally whether this classroom confrontation was going to be about chalk not breaking. Maybe you know the story: An atheistic professor challenges Christian students to pray that a piece of chalk would land without breaking when he dropped it. The story isn’t true, and “God’s Not Dead” doesn’t stoop to retelling it. That’s not how the confrontation plays out, and it’s not the way Shane Harper’s character makes his case for the faith.
Instead he reasons, explains, and defends it rationally. I serve as the National Field Director for Ratio Christi, a nationwide student apologetics alliance that helps equip college students with reasons for confidence in Christianity, and to help them become actively engaged in sharing their faith. I’d be extremely pleased to hear that any of our students did as well under pressure as Shane Harper’s character did. I was gratified to see the movie present such a positive portrayal of reasons for belief in Christ.
There’s a second question I’ve seen raised about the film: “How realistic is it? Do professors really require students to give up the faith?” The answer to that is a bit more complicated.
Yes, there are faculty members like Professor Radisson. A student at Dartmouth told me of a professor who asked students to leave their "religious biases" at the door, and then proceeded to attack the Bible and the faith on a regular basis. Another student told me, “My genetics professor kept on referring to how these religions are myths and how Christianity was against evolution.” A mid-career student related a situation in Psych 101 where “the professor came in the room and just said, ‘If anyone in here believes in God, you’re insane and you’ll need to leave, or leave your belief at the door.’” The late Professor Richard Rorty famously announced his intention “to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable.” A philosophy instructor at Portland State University has recently published a “Manual for Creating Atheists.”
So yes, there are a few Professor Radissons out there. They are, thankfully, not that common. Most students will never meet one. That doesn’t mean they won’t encounter anti-Christian pressure, though. It may be subtle in some cases, but it’ s pervasive.
In 2007, Gary A. Tobin and Aryeh K. Weinberg published a study at JewishResearch.org, reporting that more than half of professors hold “cool” or “cold” feelings toward evangelical Christianity: “Faculty feelings about Evangelicals are significantly cooler than any other religious group, leading Mormons as the least liked religious group by 20%.”
Greg Lukianoff, a liberal atheist and president of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) writes in “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate,” “Almost from my first day at FIRE, I was shocked to realize how badly Christian groups are often treated.” He goes on to say, “When I talk about this issue I often get a lot of pushback: surely the idea that evangelical Christians are disfavored on college campuses is just some kind of right-wing propaganda.” He sets that impression straight with story upon story of discrimination and double standards directed specifically against Christians.
Much of that pressure is in the sphere of morality. Michael Munger, a Duke University professor, reportedly said that “he is not aware of a single faculty member [at Duke] who believes gay marriage should be not be allowed and that overall, there are very few conservative faculty members. Duke, nonetheless, is the most welcoming place for conservative views that he has experienced.”
I know from experience that, walking around campuses like William and Mary or Ohio State University, I’m far more likely to see posters announcing “Sex Week” or some gay-rights initiative than any Christian gathering or any morally conservative initiative. I had one intense conversation at Ohio State with a student complaining vehemently about Christians’ interference with “gay rights.” I tried several time to speak calmly in response. Each time he cut me off. Finally I asked whether I as a Christian might have the right to finish speaking a sentence. “No!” he bellowed.
But I was there on campus that day with other Christians. There is strength and encouragement in that kind of unity. Jesus never sent out His disciples one by one, but always two or more at a time. If there’s one thing that troubles me about “God’s Not Dead,” it’s that the student stands up for Christ virtually alone. That makes him a great model of living strong in a tough and lonely situation, but a situation like that should never be. Where does a student find strength, courage, and resources to live for Christ on campus? The best answer is, not alone, but in significant fellowship with like-minded believers.
Last week during the Q&A following a talk I gave in Midland, Michigan, someone asked, “What do we tell our children about why they should go to church when they get to college?” I answered, “Who’s paying for their education?” The crowd there laughed, as I expected; then I explained that I was speaking only partly tongue-in-cheek. There’s research suggesting that the first two weeks can make a tremendous difference in students’ spiritual experience at college.
Therefore, parents, I recommend you require your children to visit strong some campus ministry like Cru, InterVarsity, Navigators, or any of the great denominational ministries, at least once during those crucial first two weeks as a freshman. Ratio Christi in particular stands ready to equip and encourage students who want or need to know more about reasons for confidence in Christianity—whether they have that rare professor who pushes them directly toward atheism, or whether they’re simply navigating the often challenging spiritual atmosphere of the typical college campus.
My teenaged friend found a lot to like in “God’s Not Dead.” It portrays a reality that includes but extends beyond the college campus, and it provides a picture of what spiritual strength can look like when it’s under pressure. It opens this weekend. I recommend you bring a friend along. You’ll have plenty to talk about when it’s over.
Image copyright Pure Flix Entertainment. “God’s Not Dead” is rated PG for thematic material, brief violence, and an accident scene.
Tom Gilson is the national field director for Ratio Christi, the chief editor of “True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism,” and the author/host of the Thinking Christian blog.