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.
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.