Evangelicals Know Exactly How to Persuade Atheists: A Nice NDE!

Evangelicals Know Exactly How to Persuade Atheists: A Nice NDE! January 8, 2019

Recently, we reviewed the movie Let There Be Light. This movie bears many similarities to Kevin Sorbo’s past movie God’s Not Dead. I’ve explored that other movie quite extensively–but I missed one very important myth it contains. While watching Let There Be Light, I realized what that myth was. And gang, it’s a doozy. Today, let me show you one of the most pernicious myths evangelicals believe about atheists: that all they need is a big ole huge catastrophe in their lives to strong-arm them into believing in nonsense for no good reason.

NOT SHOWN: Jesus, angels, Heaven, Hell, golden cities that look like Borg cubes, etc.

(Spoilers ahoy for both movies.)

Professor Radisson Is Sure Dead.

First, a synopsis of the 2014 turkey God’s Not Dead:

In this movie, Kevin Sorbo portrays the atheist professor Dr. Radisson. Radisson teaches an introduction-level philosophy class. His life gets flip-turned upside-down when (record scratch!) a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ freshman student, Josh Wheaton, signs up for his class. Josh refuses to write “God is dead” on a piece of paper and Radisson loses his mind over it. The movie concerns a weird debate about Creationism that the two end up having during class time. The movie asks us to pretend that the debate will establish whether or not the Christian god exists. (In reality, it absolutely doesn’t.)

Radisson spends the movie being as big of a jerk as he humanly can toward Josh, who he hates for his freedom. But Josh fights the good fight and is rewarded by the students in his class, who decide that he has, indeed, definitively and for all time proven that the Christian god exists.

Radisson breaks down and admits sorrowfully that the reason he became an atheist was because his mother died of cancer when he was a child. Josh gets his AHA! J’ACCUSE! moment and Radisson is troubled.

Later, Radisson walks to a Newsboys concert to try to reconcile with his TRUE CHRISTIAN™ ex-girlfriend. He never makes it to the concert, however, because he gets hit by a car. Radisson converts–and then dies. The two TRUE CHRISTIANS™ on the scene rejoice.

Not a Lot of Light There, Really.

In this second movie, Kevin Sorbo plays Sol Harkens. The character acts like a weird caricature of a movement-atheist leader like Christopher Hitchens, all full of catchphrases and beloved of college students everywhere. He even wrote a new bestselling book with a zinger title, Aborting God. 

But like Professor Radisson, Sol is secretly totally miserable. He medicates his loneliness with booze, argues with his TRUE CHRISTIAN™ ex-wife constantly, and is losing his two sons to her annoying overreach and zealotry. The movie fully sympathizes with the annoying, overreaching zealot ex-wife and asks us to condemn the mean ole atheist who just hates her for her freedom.

Then one night Sol has a terrible car accident while swilling hard liquor while driving. While doctors race to resuscitate him, he enjoys a nice Near-Death Experience (NDE) about his third son, who died of cancer some time ago. This son’s death is what deconverted his dad and turned him atheist. The son gives him a cryptic catchphrase, which he remembers upon waking up.

Though the NDE shown in the movie does not look even one tiny bit Christian, everyone around him (except his mean ole atheist doctors and agent) interprets what he describes as totally Christian. Sol converts, becomes a wonderful person, gets divinely cured of his alcoholism, and wins back the love of his ex-wife and two living sons.

Then his wife almost immediately dies of cancer, but the movie ends on a note suggesting that Sol does not deconvert over it this time. He’s a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ now and such things won’t bother him so much anymore.

The movie poster. If there’d been actual clouds in the NDE, I might have forgiven a lot. But nooope.

The Myths of Atheism-According-to-Christians.

Often, Christians–especially evangelicals–attribute atheism to a personal disappointment like the death of a loved one from cancer. I mean, I get why they do it. They need a way to completely invalidate deconversions and atheism both. Millions of religious people develop cancer and die of it despite their loved ones’ prayers, and yet those loved ones still remain Christian.

Christian apologists have developed whole libraries’ worth of books and videos hand-waving away that pain and helping Christians maintain their beliefs despite getting glaring evidence that those beliefs do not accomplish what the salespeople in the religion say they should. Thus, apologists insinuate that anybody who does deconvert over such a thing obviously has some major flaw, especially pride, that prevents them from submitting to the Mad Blood God of the Desert.

Both Radisson and Sol Harkens have backstories featuring the death of a loved one from cancer. Their stories both explicitly assert that these deaths are their real reasons for rejecting Christianity. In reality, however, they both get plenty of screen-time in which they relay perfectly acceptable intellectual reasons for rejecting Christianity.

However, their respective movies ask us to forget all of those actual reasons–because both characters sure will, once they get sufficiently close to death.

The Real Reasons, According to Christians.

And in this blunt-force treatment, we can see that the Christians who like these sorts of movies believe, as well, that the reasons atheists give for non-belief are not their real reasons. I’ve seen plenty of advice blog posts in the Christ-o-sphere spelling out this exact belief. These posts advise evangelism-minded Christians to burrow deep into their target atheists’ psyche. They must never accept atheists’ stated reasons for rejecting Christianity.

It’s just so insulting. But it sells so well to a certain subtype of Christian.

That subtype of Christian needs to believe that their beliefs are no-brainers. Their claims are so obviously true, they think, that anybody rejecting them simply must have some personal flaw causing them to do so. Atheists pretend not to believe, their leaders assure them. They truly believe, deep down. They lie about why they disbelieve Christian claims.

Therefore, Christians’ job in this worldview is to ferret out what really stops their target atheists from joining up.

Nightmare fuel. NOT SHOWN: Jesus, Heaven, Hell, angels with improbable numbers of wings, golden streets, eternal feasts, etc.

The Fear of Death As a Conversion Tool.

This same myth about atheists informs the common belief among Christians that what atheists need to move past their false reasons is a really good shaking-up. A huge threat to their lives will do the trick nicely. Atheists need to suddenly come face-to-face with a horrific eternity in Hell and being tortured forever and ever by a loving and merciful god. Then they’ll give up their lies and submit to this god.

The so-called deathbed conversion gets a lot of love from these same Christians for obvious reasons. Studies do not support the idea of one’s own approaching death being a spur toward belief. Nor do the anecdotes we hear from nurses and doctors. In the comments right here on this blog, I’ve noticed that community members in the health-care profession sure haven’t seen anything like that. A few people might, sure. It’s a big world and people can do all kinds of things sometimes. But in the main, no.

But Christians gonna Christian. They’re happy to prey upon those in desperate circumstances. Indeed, they think that desperate people are far more likely to accept their childish, manipulative sales pitches.

In that vein, Stephen Hawking and Christopher Hitchens, both avowed atheists, died as atheists. But right after their respective deaths, Christians spread rumors and urban legends about these men’s supposed deathbed conversions. In fact, they come up with these same rumors and urban legends about pretty much all of their declared enemies.

Terrible people feel soothed if, at the last second, those enemies finally totally admit being wrong about everything.

Bad Movie Medicine, Redux.

Let There Be Light contains a truly dismaying amount of medical ignorance even for a movie. Shocking, right?

SSJ very, very graciously allowed me to ask him some pointed questions about what I saw in this story. Very rapidly in our conversation, I realized that if anything I’d completely lacked vision about just how bad a movie’s medicine could possibly be. This movie opens whole new vistas of bad medicine in storytelling.

Here’s the grand list:

  • The initial car accident that almost kills Sorbo features what sounds like broken glass. If that was the windshield, then no, Sorbo wouldn’t have been just fine the next day.
  • SSJ had issues with Sorbo being on “massive amounts of blood thinners” that next morning. He said there’s a big bleeding risk when you put someone on these medications right after a bad accident.
  • This same doctor and others never say where Sorbo’s blood clot is, much less address it. Different clot locations demand different treatments. Also, SSJ wanted to know what body part they were testing and how, and the movie doesn’t show any of that.
  • Someone who’s undergone “cardiac and respiratory arrest for four minutes” is not “well enough to scram on out of there the next day.”
  • SSJ was cool with Sorbo clutching the right side of his chest when he collapsed at the speech after the accident. Myocardial ischemia can manifest like that sometimes.
  • He was however not cool with the glib panic attack diagnosis after the collapse.
  • Travis Tritt’s Mullet, an oncologist, comes to Mrs. Sorbo’s room to give her her diagnosis. SSJ was mystified at that; oncologists work in specialist offices “unless consulted.”
  • SSJ had encountered info about Li-Fraumeni syndrome in medical school. Like other commenters, he didn’t seem impressed with the movie using it to advance their pandering.

NDEs, Generally.

A Near-Death Experience (NDE) doesn’t always have much to do with a brush with death. Scientists researching the beastie have advanced a bunch of different theories about what they are and why they happen.

  • Various drugs can induce them, particularly DMT, which scientists published a study about just this past year.
  • Oxygen deprivation in the brain can reliably induce NDE-like fantasies as well.
  • Psychological interpretations run the gamut from dream sequences to “reliving the trauma of birth” to simple dissociation and depersonalization.
  • And yes, people have done tons of goofball, biased studies about them too. SSJ had a good larf about those. It’s tough to be an NDE gangsta.

SSJ had never actually encountered any patients claiming to have had an NDE himself, but I asked him about whether he’d even seen someone convert to religion after a big health scare. He hadn’t. He’d seen people reject previously-held beliefs. And he’d seen people drill down on their already-held beliefs. But he said he’d never encountered someone going from “on-the-fence to religious” as a result.

I wouldn’t reckon NDEs function much differently. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a lot of people having NDEs and turning into TRUE CHRISTIANS™ afterward–especially after an NDE that entirely lacked even a semblance of Christian imagery like Sorbo had in Let There Be Light.

NOT SHOWN: The saints sleeping till the Judgment.

No Atheists in NDEs?

However, the undeniable and simple fact is that worldwide, people who report NDEs all experience their own cultural expectations about their afterlife.

Despite that truth, many Christians have leapt upon NDEs as part of their infamous heavenly tourism genre. They greedily consume books and presentations that offer wide-eyed travelogues about brief, temporary visits to Heaven. Even when the people at the center of these books disavow them, as one boy did, their consumers don’t care. To them, these improbable tales constitute PROOF YES PROOF of their supernatural claims.

NDEs’ purely natural nature doesn’t mean they can’t be deeply, intensely meaningful, of course.

It just means that no supernatural stuff is involved in that meaningfulness.

And given how ALL of the heavenly tourism dreck Christians consume contradicts pretty much everything in the Bible, you’d think Christians would maybe not make up so many stories about really and truly visiting Heaven or seeing their dead relatives or whatever.

The Fear of Death as A Movie Prop.

Almost nothing about this movie could possibly have happened. Its sequence of events exists only to let Christians work out their tedious frustrations with those mean ole atheists who hate them for their freedom–and to soothe their own all-consuming fears about death.

So in that nature, this movie stands as a proud example of the movie-as-sermon breed.

A story that lacks authenticity–that can be easily picked apart, even worse–lacks faith in its own story’s sincerity. This one, like most other Christian movies, offers plastic, paper-thin characterizations that exist as caricatures, not real people. Those characterizations react the way the movie needs them to react. The director moves them around as needed to hit plot points. We don’t need a movie to be totally true to life, but we do need its characters to act and react as actual people would.

In this movie, however, the movie’s creators just wanted to beat the tar out of an atheist. They want to subject that atheist to experiences–and injuries–that they are certain would totally sway any real atheist. And because they’re the ones telling that fictional atheist’s story, that’s exactly what happens.

At the end, HOORAY TEAM JESUS! The movie has proven all of the tribe’s beliefs correct and vanquished their most-dreaded enemy, the mean ole atheist.

The Creepy Vultures of Christianity.

In the end, I really like this quote from The Guardian about rumors regarding Christopher Hitchens’ supposed deathbed conversion:

It is seedy in the extreme to seek recantations from people whose minds are failing and whose bodies are twisted with pain. The deathbed is the last place we will see. It ought to be the last place vultures fly to demand that we give a sober account of our beliefs.

rAmen. It is downright creepy and weird that Christians fantasize so much and so vividly about the torments that they think would need to happen to reduce atheists to such a shambles that they’d finally believe nonsense for no good reason. Neil Carter talked a while ago about how often Christians have said that to him, and I’ve gotten that same treatment many, many times.

If you haven’t yet had the dubious pleasure of receiving that sentiment, just wait. As long as petulant toxic Christians think that it’s not evidence that persuades (or dissuades), praying for misfortune (as this guide says not to do) becomes a very quick stone to leapfrog across to.

And they wonder why more and more people categorically reject them and their terrible religion!

NEXT UP: A new series about authoritarianism. I realized with a jolt (thanks to a comment!) that quite a few of our upcoming topics actually link right back to that one concept. I refer to it often enough that it deserves some love. So let’s dive into it–next time. See you soon!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.

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