Maybe the reason it’s so hard to portray God in a movie is it’s so hard to capture what a perfectly holy being would look like.
We’ve never experienced what’s like to be sinless, so we can’t find a way to really capture that sinlessness in a fictional story.
However, we can relate to evil. An exploration of evil that shows evil exists and its effects on people may help people understand God better (by seeing what he isn’t) or show why they need God in the first place.
While not usually thought of as a Christian film, The Exorcist explores this idea in a very compelling way.
The film’s writer William Peter Blatty (who also wrote the original novel) explained in a 2011 article that he drew inspiration from reports of a real exorcism in 1949.
He reasoned that if one could prove demons existed, “what a help it would be to the struggling faith of possibly millions, for if there were demons, I reasoned, then why not angels? Why not God?”
The film’s plot examines this idea by giving viewers a mystery (Blatty said in another interview he saw The Exorcist as a detective story) of why a young girl starts behaving so strangely.
As her behavior gets worse and worse, her mother tries every natural solution to make her better. Medicine fails. Therapy fails. At last, the mother is forced to face the possibility that something demonic is behind her daughter’s illness.
And then a supernatural intervention, via a priest who gives up his own life, gets rid of the demon.
We don’t see good spiritual forces literally show up when the demon gets exorcised – no lightning from heaven, no angels appearing to suck the demon out of the girl. What we do get is a radical sacrifice as a priest gives up his own life to save the girl.
That sacrifice presents us with what Blatty calls “The mystery of goodness” – an act of goodness so radical it must come from God in some way.
So, the film gives viewers with a problem: if demons exist, no natural solution can stop them. So what defenses do we have?
The only answer can be power from God — God-given strength to fight back, or God-given love to give oneself up to save others.
Philosophically speaking, this kind of argument falls under offensive apologetics.
In defensive apologetics, you make a case Christianity is true. For example, you can argue for God’s existence, as Lee Strobel does in The Case of Christ.
In offensive apologetics, you show the other options don’t work. For example, you can argue atheism doesn’t give people enough motivation to be good, as Peter Hitchens does this in Rage Against God.
The Exorcist simply takes that kind of apologetical argument and applies it to storytelling.
Once you’ve shown people that supernatural evil exists, you can get them to think about God, because they now need a good response to that evil.
Any thoughts about this? Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear them.
Also, stay tuned for the next article in this series, where I examine another possible way to show divine encounters in films.