When I found out that a second installation of God’s Not Dead was due to be released, I was less than enthusiastic. The plot for the new movie revolves around a teacher, who was asked a question in class about Jesus and incorporated Scripture into her answer. This lands her in a trial which considers whether she acted against the law in presenting a religious text as evidence. At some point, the legal proceedings turn into a debate about the reliability of Scripture, however, as the prosecutor seems to argue that Jesus never existed, a position to which even the most skeptical scriptural scholars do not seem to cling fast. That is not to say that there are no people out there who believe in such nonsense, but merely that most serious scholars on both sides of the issue of the Divinity of Jesus would be quick to disavow them.
Along a similar vein, the original God’s Not Dead’s main plot follows college freshman Josh Wheaton (played by Shane Harper), who stumbles into a freshman philosophy course taught by Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo), a committed nihilist. On the first day of the course, Professor Radisson informs his students he will forgo the section on God’s existence if everyone is willing to write three simple words on a piece of paper and pass it on to him. The three words are, “God is dead.” As one might expect, Wheaton gallantly declares that he is a Christian and, therefore, cannot complete this request. Radisson challenges him to a debate, where the former will be defending the existence of God and the latter will be trying to disprove it. This agreement is problematic from the beginning. First, the debate is framed incorrectly. Wheaton defends the position that the Christian faith can be proved by reason, whereas Radisson defends the position of atheism. Second, the students—mostly freshmen with little philosophical knowledge—get to decide the winner.
Regarding the first point, one has to question whether Professor Radisson has passed his Master’s Comprehensive Exam, since he could have won the case by simply quoting Aquinas. The latter is very clear that the Christian faith cannot be proved by reason. If it could, then God’s revelation would be unnecessary. If a real encounter with the Divine did occur, then we would expect for there to be an exchange of information that could not otherwise be reached by reason alone. On the other hand, he does argue that while the Christian faith cannot be proven by reason, the Christian can successfully respond to any argument against it, but this is not what their argument is about. Neither is theirs the correct frame, namely one side arguing the positive that a God, defined as an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-benevolent Being, exists and the negative denying that claim. In this debate, the truthfulness of the Christian religion is inconsequential. A consistent Christian, therefore, must answer the question “Can the Christian religion be disproved?” in the negative and the question “Does God exist?” in the positive. Conflating these two separate questions is a bit like climbing Mount Everest with a pair of slippers. Josh’s argument also feeds the myth that science and religion are in opposition.
Second, the idea that a philosophical debate can have as its conclusion at the common consent of a mostly-random group of non-experts is problematic. A certain decision by more than 600 Athenians regarding the fate of Socrates may come to mind or, more importantly, the decision of the Sanhedrin regarding Jesus. Truth is not measured by common consent, nor does it depend on what the majority thinks. As the Gorgias mentions, it is quite easy for the pastry chef to convince non-doctors that he is a doctor. Whether theism or atheism is correct, the agreement of a group of freshmen on the matter holds little weight in the matter. Because this is a Christian movie, of course the class ultimately is convinced that God does in fact exist. Let’s suppose the opposite had happened, how does this affect whether the theist or the atheist is right?
Lastly, a point about the movie as a whole. The Christian religion has been around for two thousand years and the philosophical position of theism has been argued for at least another five centuries on top of that. During that time, a large number of very bright people have had great penetrating insights into this topic. As far as I am concerned, I am fully committed to Aquinas’ points that God exists and that the Christian religion cannot be disproved. Many brilliant people have, are, and will continue to show the veracity of those two points. As such, the Christian can contend with the very best that atheism has to offer and confront the challenge of the atheist. We do not need to set up straw-men in order to embolden our cause, because we can engage with the actual arguments head on and demonstrate their flaws. There is no need for a Christian version of Religulous. Movies like that one only serve to highlight the lengths that the New Atheists have to go to in order to show that their arguments hold something resembling coherence, which is why serious atheists such as Thomas Nagel are ready to admit that their ranks bring nothing but shame to the atheistic position. Of course, a movie correctly portraying the theistic arguments for the existence of God might be slightly less than entertaining. Well, perhaps this is not the best topic for a movie, then. This is serious work, so let’s afford it the seriousness which it deserves.