Religulous meets The Reason for God

Charles Kiser —  October 28, 2008 — 16 Comments

I went to see Bill Maher’s Religulous a few weekends ago with an Independent Film Club I found on Most of the club’s members were thrilled to watch a movie that shared their perspectives on religion.

Obviously, my posture on controversial films like Maher’s is that it’s better to engage than censor. Christians would do well to know what a growing segment of Americans think about them, and Maher’s work is surely representative of many.

Maher points to the latest Pew Forum study, which reveals that 16% of American adults are unaffiliated with any religion. (By the way, our Percept studies show that Uptown’s unaffiliated population is 34-44%—more than twice the national percentage.)

Interestingly, one of my non-Christian friends was rather surprised that I planned to see the movie. He said, “I mean, I’m not even a religious person and I don’t like what [Maher’s] doing.” So maybe Maher isn’t representative of all 16%.

On the whole, I thought the movie was both hilarious and disturbing. I laughed and gasped all the way through it. I’ve seen very few “documentaries” that captured the audience’s attention the way Religulous did.

And I found myself agreeing with Maher throughout most of the movie. Many of the people he interviewed were missing the point, missing the teachings of Jesus.

But my agreement with Maher was simultaneously the source of my disappointment with the film. In short, he most frequently picked on the religious people easiest to pick on: nominalists and fanatics. The movie largely turned out to be a caricatured picture of religion based upon vignettes of religious crazies—which is a legitimate project in itself, don’t get me wrong.

But Maher almost totally misses the segment of religious people—Christians in particular—who are thinking and living more deeply into the way of Jesus.

I found myself turning to a book I’ve read recently as a way of helping me to process what I watched: Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. [This book is a must-buy. It will, in my opinion, be a (if not the) prominent apologetic for the next generation …not to be used as a ‘conversion book’, by any means, but as a conversation starter with skeptics.]

Here’s one pertinent quote:

Many people who take an intellectual stand against Christianity do so against a background of personal disappointment with Christians and churches. We all bring to issues intellectual predispositions based on our own experiences. If you have known many wise, loving, kind and insightful Christians over the years, and if you have seen churches that are devout in belief yet civic-minded and generous, you will find the intellectual case for Christianity much more plausible. If, on the other hand, the preponderance of your experience is with nominal Christians (who bear the name but don’t practice it) or with self-righteous fanatics, then the arguments for Christianity will have to be extremely strong for you to concede that they have any cogency at all. (52)

Keller goes on to explore the common spectrum used with nominal Christians on one end and fanatical Christians on the other:

In this schematic, the best kind of Christian would be someone in the middle, someone who doesn’t go all the way with it, who believes it but is not too devoted to it. The problem with this approach is that it assumes that the Christian faith is basically a form of moral improvement….

What if, however, the essence of Christianity is salvation by grace, salvation not because of what we do but because of what Christ has done for us? …. The people who are fanatics, then, are so not because they are too committed to the gospel but because they are not committed to it enough.

Think of people you consider fanatical. They’re overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, and harsh. Why? It’s not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving, or understanding—as Christ was. (57)

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Maher ends his film by proposing that the world would be better off without religion. Religion, then, is a mental neurosis of which people need to be healed.

The correct alternative is ignorance—to admit we have no idea what’s really going on with the spiritual realm and higher powers. Maher seems to hold to this belief as dogmatically as any religious fundamentalist or devout atheist would hold to theirs. The irony abounds.

Yet Keller would point out that secularism hasn’t been the answer to the world’s problems either. Take Communist Russia, for instance: a project based on atheism that didn’t turn out much better than the worlds created by religious crazies.

Perhaps the answer is not to reject religion—Christianity in my case—in favor of disbelieving secularism but rather to live more deeply into the way of Jesus. As Keller wisely states,

The typical criticisms by secular people about the oppressiveness and injustices of the Christian church actually come from Christianity’s own resources for critique of itself [e.g., the Prophets]….The answer is not to abandon the Christian faith, because that would leave us with neither the standards nor the resources to make correction. Instead we should move to a fuller and deeper grasp of what Christianity is. (61-62)

If you enjoyed this post, you’d probably also enjoy a much better review of the movie by my friend Steve Holt at Jesus Manifesto.

Charles Kiser


I’m a pastor, missionary, and contextual theologian in Dallas, Texas. I’m committed to equipping and coaching Christians to start fresh expressions of Christian community in Dallas County — communities of hospitality, inclusion, justice, and healing.

16 responses to Religulous meets The Reason for God


    Yes. Yes. Yes. Indeed!

    I applaud your efforts because the people with these attitudes are who need Christian love more than anyone.

    Marilyn Holland October 28, 2008 at 8:53 am

    Hi Charles,

    I am reading this book, also and find it so very interesting! Glad you put it on your blog. Keller makes some very amazing, logical points that I’d never thought of before.


    Charles, it’s interesting that you went and saw this movie. I was fairly disturbed (initially) about what Maher was doing, as he tends to blame Christianity for most of society’s ills.

    I hope y’all are doing great down there, and Christie and I would love to come and visit again soon.



    Great post.
    I really enjoyed the film and I am really enjoying “The Reason for God.”


    Loved your observations!



    I had a very similar reaction to the movie. I was most disappointed because I’d seen an interview with Maher where he claimed to be an agnostic because he couldn’t be arrogant enough to know anything for sure.

    I agree with you Charles, there was very little about Maher’s rhetoric or demeanor that suggested he suffers from even a slight case of humility. I also heard very little to support his claim to be agnostic.

    I laughed a lot…mostly the sad laugh often used to ward off acute bouts of depression.



    Very good post! In my experience people who are turned off by religion (and Christianity in particular) are so because of the hypocritical positions and practices of the religious. Christians claim Jesus is Lord yet by in large, many apper to live as though a particular political ideology is lord and the future hope. Christians claim to be followers of Jesus yet by in large many Christians live lives that appear nothing near of the life Jesus lived. Christians claim to be ‘not of this world’ but increasingly, the morals and values of many Christians are thorougly from this world.

    As a Christian I know that Christians will never live out a life of perfection that demonstrates the Lordship of Jesus, his lifestyle, and his morals and values. But that does not seem to be the problem. The problem seems to be that many Christians justify their ‘fallen’ living rather than confessing it as a broken behavior/philosophy and seeking after that which is of the Kingdom of God.

    My suggestion is that we learn to live more confessional lives. By that I mean that we do not lower the bar of Jesus’ calling to be disciples so that the bar conforms with our present ways. Having kep the bar set where Jesus himself set the bar (e.g., Matt 5.3-12, 48), we confess that our ways are not always His ways but by the grace of God, we are being changed by God to become like his Son.

    Great post!



    Let’s not give the world too much credit here. Sure, examples set by Christians leave much to be desired (and I don’t shrug this off) but at the core I believe most people deny Christianity because they are by nature objects of wrath and willingly deny any change in their lives.

    To be “poor in spirit” like Christ teaches you have to first lower yourself and admit how dirty and evil sin has made you; and empty yourself of any recognition that the power to change is in your hands. This primary step in the recognition of Christ as Lord is what most of the world denies.

    The world hated Christ (they killed him!). The world will hate us.

    And let’s remember; at the right times Jesus was highly “opinionated, insensitive, and harsh.” Read Matthew 23.

    Let us remain with the whole counsel of God.


    I agree with some of what you say here, Jr.

    At the heart of all people’s relationship with God (Christians and non-Christians alike) is the need to turn from our brokenness and the desire to write our own stories when God is the only capable author.

    Most of us don’t turn to God because we don’t want to admit our brokenness. We want to continue to write our own stories.

    I agree with that.

    I do not, however, believe our inherent brokenness is justification for complacency about Christian fanaticism or nominalism. Whether we like it or not, people form their perceptions of God based on their relationships with other people. Fascinating studies have been conducted, for instance, on the role of the biological father in forming a child’s perception of God.

    There are a lot of people out there who are seeking God but are turned off by religious/institutional versions of seeking God because they are inauthentic or hypocritical. They are afraid such versions of faith will make them worse people, not better. That’s not their brokenness coming out; that’s the image of God imprinted upon them coming out.

    The alternative for some of them is just not to be a religious or spiritual person at all. For others it’s to look to Buddhism or Eckhart Tolle.

    I meet these people every week in Uptown. I want these people to know that they don’t have to give up on Christian faith and seeking God just because religion/the institution misses the point.

    Interesting that you mention Matthew 23. Jesus’ words there were reserved not for non-Christian people who were in rebellion against their Creator but rather toward fanatically religious people who were missing the point with their rules!

    Jesus reserves his harshest criticism for the hypocritical and fanatically religious – the kind that Maher critiques in Religulous. His words to the broken are more often filled with comfort and grace.

    So in that way, Maher is kind of like Jesus.


    Personally, I didn’t find Christ by finally realizing how dirty and filthy I was in sin. In fact, had that been my first thought about knowing Jesus, I probably would have completely neglected the whole idea of Christianity.

    Why give my life to something that first makes me feel horrible?

    It’s when I began to know Christ and realized His love for me did I finally realize how low I was compared to Him. His love drew me in, not His wrath or hatred of my sin.


    Interesting take, and I cannot dismiss such a conversion. Likewise, however, we cannot dismiss the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands who have been brought to Jesus after realizing their sin in the face of the Glory of God (me being one of them) and even some of those conversions, no doubt, had to do with the knowledge of wrath that would come upon them without the Cross and nothing to do with love (in the cultural sense of the word) they felt.
    Certainly the message of the Cross is love; but a love more-so in the form of righteous judgment.
    Even in the face of the love of God; one’s sin must be understood in its capacity and grade. Once realized, it is exactly this “horrible feeling” that brings undismissable numbers to Christ. In other words, to some, the demand of righteousness can be more intellectually and spiritually movable than the personal satisfaction sought in a message of, at times, an undemanding love.

    And finally: There is no need for the cross if not for the wrath of God. None.



    I must disagree with your final statement. Appeasing the wrath of God – and substitutionary atonement in general – is ONE theory of atonement. Certainly there is scriptural validity for that view, but not as the full description of what took place on the cross. I do not agree that outside of appeasing God’s wrath there is no need for the cross.

    The act of the powerful Christ emptying himself in the face of violence and sin – not fighting fire with fire, so-to-speak – is a powerful way to understand what took place on the cross. Through Christ’s response to evil we are given the ability and model to do likewise. We do not have to respond to evil with more evil – we can show the expression of true love and willingly lay down that which is temporary to enter into that which is eternal.

    The Cristus Victor theory, which has its own limitations, declares that through the cross Christ was victorious over the enemies of sin and death. Christ entered fully into the grasp of the enemy and then in an undeniable display of superiority, brushed himself off and walked away – effectively showing the enemy to be impotent.

    For a people (Israel) who were expecting the return of a Davidic King and the restoration of the nation to a position of prominence, the cross holds yet more significance. Jesus was certainly the promised Messiah and yet he behaved very differently from the manner in which Israel anticipated. Rather than leading Israel in a grand military coup, Jesus showed them – and us – how to die. More than dying so that we don’t have to, Jesus died so that we would know how to.

    There is no reason, from the perspective of the cross, to view substitutionary atonement as even the primary expression. Again, I don’t intend to discredit the theory, yet those who choose to approach the message of the cross from the perspective of victory, freedom, healing and love can do so with a clear position of scripture and the history of the church to support them.


    Admittedly, my error was typing the word “only” when it came to the reason for Christ at the cross or what came from it. But in regards to scripture, I would hardly call the assessment of substitute atonement a “theory.” The following scripture references are a great starting point for the Truth in scripture in regards to substitute atonement: 2 Corinthians 5:21, Isaiah 53:4-5, Romans 3:25, 1 John 2:2, 4:10.

    It is true those all through church history have had ranging views of the atonement such as the ransom theory, the example of Christ, and the victory of Christ over evil. Additional Biblical descriptions of the atonement is that we go from being guilty to being forgiven; we are alienated from God to relationship to God; we are enslaved to we are set free; we are condemned to being pardoned; and we are facing enemies to being triumphant in Christ.

    But, while these are all true views, the root of the atonement is Christ taking the place of sinners and enduring the wrath of God as their substitute sacrifice.

    Human sin was destroyed at the Cross when Christ died for sinners who deserved eternal judgment. Any attempt to diminish the importance of the penal substitution of Christ diminishes God’s holiness and wrath, as well as the wicked depth of human sin.


    (Note: My previous comment had a lot from the new ESV Study Bible (Crossway, 2008) and an article by theologian Erik Thoennes called “The Work of Christ.”)

    In addition, this new release includes the definition of the word hilasmos (propitiation) that is used in the scriptures cited: “a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath and turns it to favor”.

    While many try and take “wrath” out of the word translation due to the uncomfortable feeling they have in this understanding or because of the pagan beliefs in their gods’ anger, it doesn’t make it any less what it means for the One True God. Furthermore, it is not a bad mannered or evil tempered wrath (like with the pagan gods) – it is a righteous and just wrath against unrighteous, unjust, and unrepentant sin.

    -end addendum-



    I’m not sure why you balk at the term “theory of atonement” – it does not insinuate that something is untrue or without Biblical evidence. It is a very common term to refer to the various ways to describe the biblical message of the reconciliation and atonement of humanity to its creator.

    What the word “theory” does do, on the other hand, is force us to remain humble. The word says that what we are talking about is larger than us. We are taking the words of the Bible and speaking them to one another – as your own scripture reference in 2 Corinthians points out – we are the ambassadors. We are not the king.

    By referring to a “theory of atonement” we are saying “this is how I read it.” (which before you raise issue with that language, remember it is the very way that Jesus posed the question regarding the greatest command of the Law).

    Regarding your scripture references, I don’t necessarily take issue – other than that I prefer to look at broader scope of a letter or message than 1 verse here and there. Again, I already admitted fully that subsitutionary atonement is a biblical description. However, to provide a list a proof texts (for a point already conceded) doesn’t show why that description should have primacy over others. I could provide a similar list of scriptures for many other atonement theories – all that proves is that they are biblical.

    However, we also could look at larger trajectories in scripture and see that God’s wrath is rarely the point…it is often the last ditch effort of gracious creator engaged in every imaginable tactic to get the attention of his unruly – but still beloved children. You pointed to the suffering servant in Isaiah – if you continue reading through to chapter 58 you’ll notice that what God desires is mercy, not sacrifice. Appeasing the wrath of God through sacrifices, at least here, is secondary to showing grace, mercy and compassion – because this is the type of God in whose image we are created.

    I won’t argue one bit that the wrath of God is an important and recurring theme in scripture, but I am far from convinced that it is the primary message.

    As for your comment that: “Any attempt to diminish the importance of the penal substitution of Christ diminishes God’s holiness and wrath, as well as the wicked depth of human sin.”

    That is a pretty bold statement. Any attempt? Again, are we really qualified to make such a claim? I’m not trying to start a fight here, but such statements seem to me an attempt to bully people into agreeing with you. If you set things up so that if I don’t agree with you – even down to how much we should emphasize one aspect of the biblical message over others – I’m diminishing God’s holiness (as if any of us has the power to do such a thing), then that’s a bit of a conversation stopper isn’t it?

    Personally, I’m going to say that talking about reconciliation doesn’t have to always be a message about “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” And I do not see in any way that God’s holiness is dimished by that – and I find it interesting that we should even feel compelled to put God’s wrath up next to his holiness as preeminent descriptors. I’ll argue all day that it is perhaps more central to the overall message of Scripture to say that “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”

    Of course this quote is from Exodus 34, where God came down and proclaimed his name to Moses. You’ll notice that the rest of verse 7 says, “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.” I affirm that truth and yet also put it secondary – as the text does – to God’s compassion and graciousness.

    I’m sure that you will have a well thought out response – which I look forward to reading. However, I’ve stated my case and my desire is not to be engaged in drawn out arguments – so I offer to you the last word.

    grace and peace.


    Grace and Peace to you as well:

    I’ll take you up on the last word offer; and I appreciate this discussion as it comes to a close (at least here).

    I see God’s wrath and love as inseparable terms. Likewise, and because of this, I believe justice lacks love without wrath (propitiation).

    1 John 4:9-11 reads – following the “God is love” statement
    “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

    If we read that for what it says, it means that God’s love was manifested in His son taking our place – being punished for our iniquities (i.e. taking God’s wrath upon himself). Therefore, the crucifixion is the very incarnation of love.

    Love and wrath are not incompatible at all. As Isaiah 53:10 reads: “But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief”

    This wrath was the ultimate outpouring of God’s love.

    In an article written on Expiation/Propitiation, Jeremiah Russell states the following: “The effect of atonement is directly linked to God’s wrath. If God has no wrath or anger towards sinners, there is no need for propitiation. Mere expiation will do. If there is expiation without propitiation, God is both indifferent to sin and therefore unjust. Propitiation is the only way God can offer mercy and forgiveness to sinners and, at the same time, be just. ”


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