What would you do if you had to sign a piece of paper that said that God was dead? Sure, we know that Cassie Bernall said she believed in God in the library at Columbine, but have you ever considered how you say that God is alive (or dead) in little moments throughout your life? That’s the crux of freshman Josh Wheaton’s (Shane Harper, Good Luck, Charlie) problem in the first semester course of Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo): he has to sign a paper saying that ‘God is dead’ to pass the class.
Duck Dynasty’s Willie and Korrie Robertson, The Newsboys, Dean Cain, and David A.R. White highlight the cast, but the film’s poignant, heart-and-mind aimed focus is on the battle between Wheaton and Radisson. Sure, Wheaton’s girlfriend thinks challenging Radisson is a threat to their five-year plan, and White’s Pastor Dave gets involved as Wheaton’s advisor, but ultimately, it all comes down to the debate in the class: will Wheaton be the ‘only Bible’ his classmates read?
White’s pastor tells Wheaton to check out 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 before my Father in heaven.” It’s classic proof-texting, but it’s also an acknowledgment that we can’t just expect our ‘way of life’ to share what we believe, but we actually have to be prepared to speak when the time is right.
Based on the book by Rice Broocks, the film spins off of a similar Internet forward that spins through the cycle every few years. I took this copy of the presentation from Truth or Fiction online:”A notorious atheist professor at the University of Southern California is known for challenging students about their faith. He dramatically drops a piece of chalk to the floor saying that if God existed, he could prevent the chalk from breaking. This happens year after year until a particular Christian student becomes a part of the class. This time, when the professor drops the chalk, it bounces off his clothing and ends up harmlessly on the floor. The stunned professor runs from the room in shame and the student preaches the Gospel to the remaining class members.”
Radisson and Wheaton go round and round, and there’s certainly not a skirting of deeper issues, like creation, the origin of God, etc. Stephen Hawkins gets some good airtime, and Wheaton’s arguments are torn into by Radisson. The fact that an atheist believes in something (or actually believes in nothing) becomes abundantly clear throughout the film, but it also shows that what we believe matters to us, even if it is, again, a belief in nothing.
I found myself in the same situation in my freshman year in college, with a professor who thought the idea of god was trivial and foolish. I refused to talk about god in those terms and this infuriated her, but over time, my willingness to calmly share why I believed one thing allowed others to speak to it as well. Did I convince her? No. But it was a time when denial of god would’ve betrayed who I was, and I wasn’t willing to go there.
I love the quote (attributed to Francis of Assissi) that says, “preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” Unfortunately, too often, we aren’t willing to speak up, which is certainly NOT this film’s problem; too often, movies like these prove to be too preachy, lacking artful exploration of the subject. I still haven’t made up my mind here, but for what it is, I think this film’s actually pretty good. The characters (except for maybe Sorbo’s Radisson) have fleshed out, real-world complexity, like Wheaton and his girlfriend, a young woman trying to explore her Islamic upbringing, and a young reporter trying to negotiate her new diagnosis with cancer.
In the end, the ‘proof’ of God isn’t an argument- God’s existence is unprovable in mathematic equations. But the proof of God can be seen in the relationships, experiences, and moving of the Spirit in people. The challenges of our first-year student are merely the focal point in a string of events and conversations that allow us to hear the argument, and consider it for ourselves. Will it be enough to convince the disinclined? I don’t know. But it may open our eyes to the way we consider our words and actions and whether or not we’re prepared to explain what we understand about God, for ourselves.
Personally, I don’t think God needs our defense, which allows me to express what I believe without being ‘defensive.’ I think, too often, we act like if we don’t ‘win an argument,’ that we’ve done a disservice. But I believe God gives us the grace to believe, and he provides that grace to others, but we don’t actually make them believe. So, I do think the debate is important because it allows Wheaton’s students to see that not everyone agrees with Radisson, so it’s more of a witness than an actual ‘defense.’