Image: YouTube

Have you heard the one about the Atheist University Professor who was famous at his school for mocking Christianity and a belief in God? You know, the one where a brave Christian student finally stands up to the teacher and calmly and articulately reveals the irrational basis of the “professor’s” atheism and thereby causes the professor to flee the room in shame, at which time the student shares the Gospel with his whole class?

Maybe it wasn’t “Atheism” per se.

Maybe it was Evolution.

Maybe that student was “Einstein.”

Maybe it was a Physics or Philosophy class.

Maybe there was a piece of chalk involved.

The story is always the same: an arrogant, frothing-at-the-mouth atheist faces a Christian student who exposes him as a fraud. Evil is shamed, Good is proclaimed.

Only, this never happened, at least, not that anyone can credibly verify. Snopes has two enlightening articles on this narrative: “Dropped Chalk” and “Malice of Absence.”  And, of course, there is a fantastic Chick Tract. We evangelicals love this story. We share it through chain emails and on social media. We love stories of haughty atheists being put in their place.

Now, thanks to Pure Flix Entertainment, this story has come to life in a new motion picture, God’s Not Dead:

As a friend said, this could be the first film to be based off of a chain email. There’s lots to poke fun at in this trailer. Hercules stiltedly quoting Shakespeare and Nietzsche. The title, which evokes the question: God’s not-dead what? The simplistic narrative of the evangelical standing up against the evil liberal atheist professor boogie man. But I don’t want us to write this off so easily, because this narrative is appealing to evangelical subculture, and honestly, it’s everywhere in evangelical culture.

Take, for example, dubbing April 1st “National Atheist Day” or memes about how dumb and irrational evolution or atheism is. And if you think about it, aren’t most public “debates” between Christians and atheists live dramatizations of this narrative? We send our brightest male Christian into the secular forum (the university) to put the cocky, liberal atheist in his place.

These stories comprise a popular evangelical trope and reveal a collective fantasy we have of humiliating arrogant atheists. We want to believe that atheists are not merely spiritually foolish (a clear, scriptural truth), but also haughty, stupid, jerks.

This narrative of the brave, Christian who stands up to the evil liberal professor is a subset of the larger American (human?) theme of the underdog. It’s David and Goliath (as one Snopes article points out). Only, this narrative creates several problems for Christians.

For one, these stories often lie. Even when they admit to being “fiction,” like God’s Not Dead, they still misrepresent the truth. It is quite possible to “lie” in a fictional story, which is what we see in the Chick Tract: the professor is both ignorant and arrogant while the Christian is brilliant and patient.

From my experience, it’s far more likely that your atheist professor is an intelligent person, and often Christian students are only “equipped” to respond to an antiquated straw-man of Evolution or atheism. Sometimes, the professor is incredibly gracious and sincerely concerned for you and the Christian is arrogant.

Stories like this can also give believers a false sense of security and superiority. We feel like atheism is obviously stupid and evolution is a fairy-tale for unthinking adults. We become sure in ourselves and our abilities to refute the unbeliever and in the unbeliever’s stupidity. We come to think that we have specific knowledge of the atheist’s perspective and can expose it easily. But what happens when a evangelical meets an atheist with really good questions? False confidence in a straw-man vision of atheism does nothing to build up the faith. If we are honest and humble, we ought to recognize that there are many difficult, troubling, and complex aspects of our faith. This honest recognition may mean the difference between a faith that weathers the storms of life and one which sinks under sudden and unexpected doubts.

If we truly want to minister to and protect our children when they go off to college, we need to stop preparing them to make fools out of their professors and start preparing them to prayerfully and faithfully look for answers to any significant questions they encounter.

Let our prayer be, “I believe, Lord; Help my unbelief,” rather than, “I believe, Lord; Help me mock his unbelief.”

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Although there may be times where it is appropriate to be blunt to unbelievers, indiscriminately sharing and wearing slogans which mock atheism as idiocy or blatant stupidity or even foolishness is unloving and unhelpful. While Proverbs may describe unbelievers as “fools,” it was not the practice of Christ or the apostles to go around sharing the Good News with a sign that read, “April 1st, National Atheist Day! Cause you’re fools! Get it?” Let them know us by our love, not our arrogance.

Instead of day-dream fantasies of embarrassing atheist professors, let us dream of loving and proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed to everyone.

This post was adapted from an earlier column, here.


  1. I hate that this article attacks a Christian effort to encourage students to stand up for their beliefs in the classroom. To my knowledge this movie is not about assaulting or humiliating atheists it’s about having the courage to stand up to them. The vast majority of college faculty are unbelieving agnostics at best, people who despise Christianity…this is a fact. These movies encourage Christian students (a vast statistical majority of which will lose their faith in college) to believe that they can be a light to the campuses they enter, even though the environment is terribly hostile to their faith.

    1. Can you cite the fact that the “vast majority of college faculty are unbelieving agnostics at best, people who despise Christianity?” Moreover, can you indicate how you know that a “a vast statistical majority [of Christians] of which will lose their faith in college?” It sounds like you are claiming that it is a fact that most academics are hostile to Christianity. How do you know this, outside of tropes from evangelical sub-culture? The notion that people who do not agree with our beliefs are simply hostile to faith and are waging a “war on Christianity” instead of having legitimate questions and understandable concerns does nothing more than create Christians who are hostile to unbelievers and blind to real questions that unbelievers have. Not every academic is Richard Dawkins, and not every person who disagrees strongly with us is a hostile enemy. Certainly, there are hostile bigots who only wish to tarnish faith. But many unbelievers, particularly academics, are intelligent and sincere people who have struggled with real questions of faith and matters of doubt but do not have the background of a Christian home.
      Finally, if Christians go to college and abandon their faith at the first sign of intelligent opposition to that faith, it is a faith they need to abandon. If our Christianity cannot stand up to a sincere question from a kind unbeliever, it indicates that we have not seriously analyzed our own minds and hearts and are unprepared to confront difficult questions, particularly our own questions.
      I cannot comment on the content of this movie, but this article is not an attack on a noble practice of evangelical Christians. It is a call to intelligently confront our own doubts and the doubts of others with love and patience. To pretend that we are completely certain in every aspect of our faith in the face of any opposition is not only foolish, it is dishonest and dangerous.

    2. I spent 7 years as a graduate student in a large, public university. Many of my professors were agnostics and atheists, as were many of my fellow grad students, but nobody ever mocked or undermined my faith, and when I talked about theological beliefs in class and graduate seminars (when it made sense to bring up with the content) I was treated with respect as a peer.
      I have never heard of real-life professors being as oafish as Kevin Sorbo’s character in this trailer. In fact, my most dramatic interaction about faith in a classroom was when I taught a course on religion in american public address, when a conservative evangelical student was mad he didn’t have a chance to “defend his faith” in the way he wanted, because of the kinds of questions I was asking in the class.
      Your assertions about college professors do not align with my experience at all.

      Alan, thanks for this thoughtful post!

    3. I don’t see it as an attack as much as an encouragement for them to clarify their own thoughts about faith so as to be able to engage comfortably and confidently in debate with the non-religous. I think you’ll find that the vast majority of college professors are not dour Christianity-haters. They are generally thoughtful and considerate people, respectful of others’ beliefs. I won’t say there are no angry and disdainful atheists, but they are not as common as you may think. You simply need to be prepared to have a reasoned and respectful debate with a humble and respectful atheist. There are many of them out there.

  2. I am a professor.

    Any decent professor can guide students socratically toward a particular point of view (and often they do so by “choosing to stay impartial”), but some heavy handed tactics do exist and they are not hard to find with google:
    Stomp on Jesus anyone?
    In one class you can only take the pro-choice side:
    Wear a rainbow even if you oppose gay rights?
    How about reading about the baby Jesus Butt Plug in class?
    Of course, you can google many more yourself.

    To answer the questions why we do not have records of students standing up–there is a simple power imbalance. The professor has spent 21-23 years in school and the student is in his 13th or 14th so it is simply not a fair fight. Moreover, the professor has the power of the grade and this too poses a problem for the would-be hero of the story. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that professors have no agendas. As a lot, they lean to the left. Some indoctrinate overtly, some covertly. Most have missionary-like zeal. Few are truly objective (though most claim to be).

    -Dr. Gerdes

  3. I was linked to this site by someone of Facebook and I just want to say, from an Atheist’s point of view, I do not and do not know, personally, any Atheists who like to or want to mock people of religion. I know those people exist, but it’s not most of us, and most of us don’t like smug Atheists any more than we like smug Christians. I don’t care what religion you practice as long as you don’t use it as an excuse to mistreat people. Spending a large chunk of my childhood being taught that everyone is equal in God’s eyes and then growing up and realizing there are an awful lot of people who don’t think that is what lead me here in the first place. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not sorry to be here or missing something in my life, I don’t like being poked at or belittled to my lack of faith any more than people of faith like being poked at or belittled for having it. I’m not a bad person for it, or in need of prayer or to be taught something that I didn’t know. I already know and I know it’s not for me and I didn’t need a teacher or anyone else to help me come to this decision.

    And that said, I just wanted to point out that the Nietzsche quote is always taken out of context, here is the full quote:

    “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

    In the context of the time, Europe was becoming increasingly secular and Nietzche had been disillusioned by Christianity because he believed that it was practiced in a way that was antithetical to Jesus’ teachings. He believed that the “death” of God would lead to a lack of objective truth or morality and, to my knowledge, he never called himself an Atheist (although his critics did).

  4. My wife and I just saw the movie today and sorry I think this review is unfair. You sound just as arrogant by trying to make it seem like you would be more gracious in a discussion, presentation, or debate like what happened in this movie than the student did. And sorry when new atheists like Richard Dawkins call Christianity dangerous he sounds like he might have some anger towards our God. Also what does Snopes have to do with this anyway? This film is inspired by the many court cases where liberal universities have tried to silence or even punish Christians for standing up for their faith. One last thing Jesus did get angry from time to time. He didn’t do it out of hate mind you but he did put people in their place. Ok one other thing. I have enjoyed some of the articles here in the past and will probably continue to do so but in regards to this one I have to disagree with you. You should focus more on “Heaven is for Real”. That movie and book should be more concerning for us.

  5. caricatures of people in movies and tv happen all the time- it’s just that it is usually a christian being shown as a kook or a conservative being shown as mean, etc. this form of poor writing or story construction or character development seems to be acceptable though

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