God is Not Dead. And God is Not Small Either.

If you have seen the new movie, God is Not Dead, then you probably have strong opinions about it one way or another. In fact, all the reviews bear this out. Either people loved it and think it may just be what saves Western Civilization as we know it, or people are deeply offended by it and think it is one of the worst movies they have ever seen.

This movie lives on stereotypes: the atheist academic who tried to make his entire class in his image; the Muslim father with an obvious Middle Eastern accent and appearance who beat his daughter for believing in Jesus; the socially liberal reporter for the blog “The New Left” who had bumper stickers about loving evolution on her car; and, her upwardly mobile and conscienceless boyfriend who cared only about his next business deal. And then there were also the committed Christians who were actually pretty caricatured, too.

My feelings about the movie come from being a devoted Jesus follower and a hybridized Christian. I love Jesus, and I am also an academic. I am a committed witness to the redemptive power of Christianity, and I am frustrated by many aspects of the institutional church. I am liberal in some ways, and I am pretty traditional when it comes to some moral issues, too.

The stereotypes of academics, Muslims, and liberals were harmful, one dimensional, and counter to my life’s experiences. But the stereotypes that were the saddest for me were not these; they were the ones of Christianity.

Christians come in all shapes and sizes. We are not monolithic. And we never have been. We idiosyncratically follow Jesus into life’s most gut wrenching spaces. He is with us there awash in God’s love and with a unique transformative power.

My faith is not based on intellectual arguments about whether God is real or not, but on the undeniable moments of Divine presence that knit their way through life on this planet. I have a testimony, a story of faith and belief just like everyone does. And for me that story revolves around the redemptive power and faithful presence of Jesus. istock cross on rope

Christianity is a movement built brick by brick on the heartfelt testimony of believers.  This testimonial foundation was there from the very beginning. From the woman at the well (John 4) to Mary Magdalene running from the empty tomb to say, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20). Mary’s profession of faith and her devotion to Jesus did not win her a seat of honor in her culture. It probably did just the opposite; it put her more on the margins than she had been before.  Mary has even been marginalized and misunderstood by the church (and so has the woman at the well).

Christianity has always been most potent at the margins of society. And Christianity has always become most distorted when it gets tangled up with the human scaffolding of power and prestige. Jesus did his best work on the margins of society.

So why are so many Christians so anxious about being marginalized? Why are so many Christians offended by the broader culture not seeing eye to eye with us? From whence does the expectation come that all the institutions of our society should reflect Christian values? I got the feeling from the movie that we Christians are supposed to feel like someone is taking something away from us or threatening our faith by not allowing it to be mainstream. I am not sure how any of us could read scripture and spend time on Jesus’ path and think that being Christian in America was really ever mainstream.

Jesus was a marginalized person. If we are truly following him then why would we expect to be anything different? Jesus didn’t tell us to follow him into the most prestigious clutches of power that society has to offer. He didn’t tell us to build huge institutions or to close ranks against those who society rejects. The margins took him to those who needed him the most and to those who could truly see him. Jesus followers can’t very well be disappointed when we find ourselves at the margins. He is the one who takes us there.

Scripture tells us again and again that Jesus was all about transforming this world. He was absolutely driven like a magnet to metal to those in need of healing. He did not speak from empire or from ivory tower. He touched and wept and bled and listened and told stories and made connections. He spoke hard truth and extended healing touch to those others regarded as untouchable. And he made it his business to occupy life’s intractable ambiguity and suffering with healing intention.

When Jesus is portrayed as someone who simply came to give those who would listen the secret password to get into heaven (e.g. saying the statement that “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior” at some point before you die as suggested in the movie) I wonder how Christianity got reduced down to something so small. The power of his life, crucifixion, and resurrection are so much more mind-boggling and life-changing than simply where you and I, or anyone else for that matter, goes when this life is over. His act of self-emptying love, radical compassion, and revelatory truth gives us a new way to live in this world. It changes the way we orient ourselves to death and to life itself.

The single most disappointing caricature of this movie is the one that the movie hinged everything on in the end. If you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil it for you, but there is a moment at the end where one of the characters has one final chance to profess faith in Jesus before death. There is a line in the movie about God granting “one last chance.” Underneath this moment is the assertion that the most important job we Christians are charged with is bringing people to Christ by making sure they know the reality of hell if they don’t believe before they die.

What is hell? A place of eternal torment where those who answered the eternal password to get into heaven wrong will suffer for their mistake? I am a committed Christian and a student of scripture and I don’t buy it! If you read scripture closely, including the Book of Revelation, there is plenty of evidence for universal salvation just as there are suggestions of eternal damnation.

The truth is we Christians do not have the definitive answer on this question.  And my experience of God leads me to err on the side of an eternity that is beyond my imagination when it comes to healing and grace.

The God of love and justice who goes to the lengths God went to through Christ (even to the point of descending into hell for the purposes of liberating those captive to suffering and bondage) is surely big enough, powerful enough, and grace-filled enough to put into motion a universe more excellent than one that includes eternal torture.

There is a good chance that hell is an idea human beings have leaned on to try and create change and accountability since we are not always good at making those things happen ourselves.

Given who we are and how God made us, hell creates a glaring contradiction in God’s beautiful and providential symmetry of love, relationship, and grace. Consider German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher’s assertion that if there is a heaven, if there is a such thing as eternal bliss, then there can be no such thing as hell. The point is that God created us as so deeply interconnected with creation and to all other people that I could never exist in an eternal state of bliss if there are others who are being eternally tortured. The fact of another’s eternal torture disallows the possibility of my eternal bliss.

Our interdependence with all other beings resonates with me in the deepest places of who I am and how God touches and teaches me. The kind of love that God pours out is not one that human beings can replicate or even completely understand. And we certainly cannot put limits on it or say where it starts and stops. To turn Christianity into something that limits God is more troubling to me than all the other stereotypes of the movie put together.

God is not dead. Amen to that! And the other good news is that God is not small.  And God is not reducible to what we think we know.  Nothing can separate us from God’s love—not cruelty or judgment, not differences of opinion or diverse theologies, and not movies that need simple answers when it comes to life’s most complicated questions.

16 thoughts on “God is Not Dead. And God is Not Small Either.”

  1. Emily Wigger says:

    Thank you, Marcia! I so appreciate your work.

    1. Marcia says:

      Thank you, Emily. I appreciate your comment and affirmation. I pray that all is well with you.

    2. Rebecca Hodges says:

      I second that Emily!

      1. Marcia says:

        Thank you, Becky. Have you seen the movie?

  2. Beverly Rudolph says:

    Thank you, Marcia, for saying eloquently what I am thinking!

    1. Marcia says:

      Thank you, Beverly. Blessings to you.

  3. Thank you, Marcia, for putting in such eloquent words what I have been trying to think and say to folks for many years who have been putting forth that “password theology.”
    You help me understand my own, deepest beliefs with this post. Susan

    1. Marcia says:

      Thank you, Susan. I think many Christians have groped for ways to talk about these things. Our beliefs and our voices can be drowned out by what seems like a very loud representation of our faith. Sometimes the “still small voice” can’t get a word in edge wise!

  4. Joe Moore says:


    God is not Dead and God is not Small, I do agree with you there. However, I believe that it is a bit naïve to assert that there is no truth in each of the “stereotypes” in this movie. I can see parts of myself, my life experience, my family, my friends and my coworkers in each of these “stereotypes”. On nearly every major college campus you will find an atheist professor that would like nothing more than to persuade students to his/her views, and many do in not so subtle ways. It may not happen on the first day of class, but it will be exposed during the semester. This movie is overt in the exposition of that point, but from a Christian and artistic point of view I think our youth need to be “smacked in the face” with the idea that their faith will tested in many ways when they enter the typical college setting. Mine was.

    The other “stereotypes” you mentioned are very real people, people like me and others that I encounter on nearly a daily basis. Sadly, I don’t often stop to dive deeply in to their life situation to witness to them. We become too involved with work and money to give God the high priority he deserves in life. We allow earthly relationships to stand in the way of a greater relationship with God. We allow ourselves to pass by people of Middle Eastern descent, only to assume that they are not Christians and have no possible interest in Christianity. Furthermore, we forget how much they have at stake, should they take that leap of faith to follow Christ, just as many of the early disciples had to walk away from family everything they had ever known. Sacrificing our personal comfort zone to stand strong for God is not common in our day. We constantly have our world view twisted by media, business and politicians; shouldn’t we be reminded of that? It doesn’t matter whether you turned to God in a Billy Graham revival or on your death bed, God knows your heart. You make not like the simplicity of “passwords”. The Bible tells us there is not a 20 step process to the acceptance of Christ. There is a “password” to eternal life with the God of Heaven, honestly asking Christ in to your heart and turning away from your old ways. The simplicity reminds us that we can come to Christ in whatever deprived state that we may be in and he will accept our honest plea, no money or power or position or perfection is needed.

    I love the main message of this movie. You and I can make a difference when we are willing to risk it all for the mission he has called us for, and that is because Jesus lives. We need more movies of its kind. I’ll gladly be challenged by a writer/ director about what a “Christian movie” should be and about putting my faith into action. It is not a theatrical masterpiece, and was it a little cheesy in parts, yes! However, it served as a reminder or better yet a challenge to defend and share the faith that is being attacked and understated on a daily basis.

    Hell is seperation from or absence of God. I believe that God allows us to choose to be seperated from him, we are not robots that automatically receive a course correction for Heaven at some point in the future.

    He lives! May God grant me the strength to acknowledge and proclaim that, more often, each and every day, and to everyone I meet.


    1. Marcia says:

      Thank you for taking the time to share some of your experience and your reaction to the movie, Joe. I think the distinctiveness of each of our beliefs is a vivid illustration of how diverse the Christian faith is. Your experiences are obviously very different than my own and, yet, God meets us each in our own experience and calls us to be faithful and tell the truth. That is exactly what I did and I trust that is what you are doing, too.

      And therein lies the complexity of the issues you and I are discussing. The Bible and the Christian witness are not without some very real spaces that give rise to a variety of interpretations and deep convictions about what being a Jesus follower means.

      For instance, I have spent almost my entire life directly connected to a college or university campus. My parents are both college professors. I have been a student at six different institutions of higher learning including small liberal arts colleges and urban universities. I have been directly connected to two state university campuses, also. All but about four years of my forty five years of life I have been a part of an academic community on a college or university campus. And in all those years I have never experienced an atheist professor who was trying to get me to abandon my faith.

      I have studied scripture and religion with Christian scholars, Jewish scholars, Buddhist scholars, Muslim scholars, and agnostic scholars. I have studied with professors who may have self-identified as atheist, but that was never obvious in class nor did I ever feel at a disadvantage because of my Christianity. All of my experience does not disprove the fact that there are atheist professors who might have an agenda. But my experience does suggest that the existence of atheist professors trying to disprove Christianity on university campuses is not always the case.

      The definition of a stereotype is a belief that is widely held but oversimplified. Stereotypes are tempting because they make us think that something that may be true sometimes is actually true all the time. I don’t think I ever suggested that there is no truth in the stereotypes, at least I don’t find that in what I wrote. Stereotypes work because they connect just enough to experiences and/or assumptions to have some traction. That’s what is dangerous about them, too. The extreme nature of these caricatures feed into some pretty destructive assumptions about certain groups of people–Muslim people, academics, and liberals. And in my experience the stereotypes presented in the movie do not cohere with my direct relationships with people of these groups.

      I was particularly troubled by the depiction of the Muslim family. I have friends who are Muslim who experience discrimination and hatred often on a daily basis. The stereotypes of the movie are destructive if they are meant to “smack” anyone in the face–Christian youth or Muslim people, or anyone else. Your metaphor, however, does resonate with me in how I experienced the depiction of the Muslim family. These stereotypes did feel aggressive at times and this one in particular raised up a visceral reaction in me. I felt embarrassed that I, as Christian, might be associated with such a view of Islam. Does that mean that there are no violent Muslim people? Of course not. There are extreme examples of violent people (especially violent men) of every faith. But, the point of the stereotype here was destructive, not instructive. It exacerbated misunderstanding, it did not cultivate respect or love or generosity in anyway. For that reason, it is a problem for me as a Christian.

      The danger of stereotypes is that they can provide an easy pathway toward things like racism, hatred, and discrimination. My Christian faith calls me into difficult conversations and it calls me also into relationships with people who are different than I am. I learn so much from them. I hope they learn from me, too. When I meet someone with a different perspective I welcome the chance to hear their story even as I am honored when they would like to hear mine. I do not think we need more reasons and opportunities to embrace stereotypes. The world and God are better served if we make it our business to disrupt them as Christians and encounter each person in his/her God-given uniqueness.

      As someone who has studied scripture for years I just don’t find the “password to heaven” message to be what it is all about. I hear that you do. Reading scripture is humbling and awe-inspiring. The Bible teaches me and has a hold on me like no other text. I am thankful for the life that it calls me toward. And I also have found that I meet God the most potently in the contradictions. It does not bother me that you and I have a different interpretation of scripture. God is surely present to us in that space of ambiguity. I give thanks that we are all held in the generous mystery of a loving God.

      Thank you, again, for being a part of this conversation, Joe. I hope you will continue to share your story. I would welcome the chance to hear more.


      1. Joe Moore says:


        Thanks for your thorough reply. I do agree with many of your statements.
        I see this movie an artistic interpretation of the Christian faith; it does not define my faith. Every artist has their own way of delivering a message and we have the ability to critique that message. The Bible is not an artistic interpretation, it is the directly inspired word of God, and as such it does define my faith and is not open to my critique.

        I see our culture getting louder and wanting everything wrapped up in a nice short text message. I believe that the artistic interpretation in this movie may reach some that need a very “loud” and direct message. Some lost people will be brought home through the use of this movie.

        As for the stereotypes of the Muslim family, I too had a visceral reaction to the slap in the face. I felt sorry that a daughter would have to hide her faith, sorry that a father’s trust was betrayed, impressed that her younger brother was so loyal to their father’s authority, saddened for both that an important family connection had been severed and personally challenged by the thought of risking it all if it were me in her situation. Not many children of Muslim families will be subjected to physical violence for walking away from their faith. I think the movie reminds us a bit, in a very difficult way, that some around the world do risk their personal safety to believe. Persecution at the hands of family or government officials is real, fir believers and missionaries, maybe not here in the comfort of the US. Would I be proud to show this clip to my Muslim friends? No, I would not. I also would hope that most Muslims would not judge me or the validity of my faith on the basis a movie scene.

        As for the “password to heaven”, no, of course I don’t believe it is as easy as speaking the words. I also don’t believe that you need a doctorate in theology to enter the kingdom of heaven. God wants people to be in right relationship with him, through the saving grace of Jesus, right where they are. I think life can become more challenging as we deny the temptations of this world, but it can also become more rewarding and peaceful as we recognize God’s grace and look toward the hope of Heaven.

        Again, the movie is not perfect, certainly not in my “top 10”; but many of the basic themes hold:
        • Leaving the comfort of your family and home church to go away to a secular college and experience your faith being tested
        • Not allowing the relationship with a boyfriend/girlfriend to take higher priority than your relationship with god
        • Becoming unequally yoked to a mate and thinking that you can easily live with it or change them
        • Believing that there is no God, having your mortality brought front and center, then wondering what happens if I don’t survive, what is really on the other side of this earthly life
        • Hatred of life or God because we had a negative or majorly disappointing experience in life, and the hope of returning like the prodigal to a father who eagerly awaits us

        I can only hope that this artist’s work will be used by God, he uses us imperfect people everyday.

        God Bless You,


        1. Marcia says:

          Dear Joe,

          Thank you for continuing the conversation. I appreciate it very much. I resonate with much of what you share here and I am blessed by the way God has used the movie to have a discussion with you and with others about things that really matter.

          I pray that Christians can cultivate the trust in God we need to engage in these difficult and important conversations on lots of issues. It is a great sadness when our faith is used to shut down dialogue and testimony. And I have always been deeply moved and enriched by the places where Christianity cleared space for sharing truth and wondering aloud with those who see things differently than I do.

          Thank you again, Joe. I hope you will keep reading and continue to share your perspective.

          Peace to you,

  5. Caren says:

    Preach it Marcia!

    1. Marcia says:

      Thank you for reading, Caren.

  6. Dub Graham says:

    After reading your blog, Marcia, I don’t need to see the movie. Thanks for your wisdom! I had never heard of Friedrich Schlerermacher, much less his argument against the view of a lot of Christians about Heaven and Hell. I hope he’s right. My fundamentalist friends insist I’m headed to hell, since I refuse to agree that those who don’t have the password to Heaven are condemned by a loving Father to Hell. I tell them: “I don’t want to go there. I have a touch of claustrophobia and want to go someplace less crowded.

    1. Marcia says:

      Thank you, Dub, for reading and for commenting. And thank you for sharing some of your experience. I appreciate your good humor and your impulse to rest your confidence in God’s love. I think you are on to something! So good to hear from you.

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