Atheist Film: Winter Light

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 14, 2009 in Atheist Film & TV

There aren’t many atheistic films. Probably, this is because the planet is extremely religious, and many religious people would complain less about a movie that glorifies ultraviolence and misogyny than one that glorifies disbelief in gods. The highly educated elite are mostly atheists, but the largest swaths of the ticket-buying public are highly averse to atheism.

winter_lightSo on occasion I will blog about an overtly atheistic film my readers may enjoy. My first selection is Winter Light (IMDB: 7.8, RT: 79%).

Winter Light (1962) is one of the most-revered1 films from Swedish master Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007).2

The plot of Winter Light follows Tomas Ericsson, the pastor of a small rural church whose faith is lost to doubt, apathy, and anger.

Jonas, one of the church members, comes to Tomas for encouragement. He is worried about the Chinese, who are rumored to be developing an atomic bomb. Tomas realizes he is unable to help Jonas because he has lost his own faith in God. When Tomas fought in a war as a young man, he could not reconcile a loving God with the atrocities he witnessed. Tomas tells Jonas that things make more sense if God doesn’t exist, because then we don’t need to explain away man’s suffering.

If there is no God, would it really make any difference? Life would become understandable. What a relief.

tomas_winter_lightThis is not exactly the encouragement Jonas expected, and he leaves. Tomas stares forward, an epiphany in his eyes. The winter light shines on him as if a revelation from God: God does not exist, and Tomas is free. Free from having to explain away the unexplainable. Tomas falls before the crucifix at the front of the church and declares:

Now I’m free. Free at last.

Marta, a church-going atheist in love with Tomas, is there. She embraces Tomas with joy. Sobbing and shivering, Tomas confesses:

I had this fleeting hope that everything wouldn’t turn out to be illusions, dreams and lies.

I remember those months of my own deconversion quite vividly. When I finally admitted I could no longer believe, I thought I had lost everything. Only months later did I realize I had finally become free.

Back to the plot. A woman arrives to announce that Jonas has killed himself. Tomas goes to Jonas’ home and helps cover the body, but he cannot comfort Jonas’ wife. Marta confesses her love for Tomas again, but Tomas rejects her. His dead wife was the only woman he ever loved, he says.

Tomas goes to his second church for the 3pm service, but the hunchbacked keeper of the church grounds, Algot, is the only one there.

Algot questions Tomas about the suffering of Jesus. Why should there be so much emphasis on Jesus’ physical suffering? It must have been horrible, but it only lasted a few hours. Algot, on the other hand, has suffered most of his life from a painful physical deformity. Algot thinks Jesus must have suffered far worse from something else: the silence of God. Jesus tried to bring salvation, but his disciples didn’t understand, the speakers of the Law abandoned him, and Peter denied him. And finally:

When Jesus was nailed to the cross, and hung there in torment, he cried out, “God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” He cried out as loud as he could. He thought that his heavenly father had abandoned him. He believed everything he’d ever preached was a lie. In the moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship? God’s silence.

Tomas can only reply: “Yes.”

Later, Marta kneels in the pews and offers a prayer:

If only we could feel safe and dare show each other kindness. If only we had some truth to believe in. If only we could believe.

With only Marta, Algot, and the organist attending, Tomas begins the service with the usual liturgy:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. The whole earth is full of His Glory…


  1. Indeed, Andrei Tarkovsky himself named it as his second favorite film of all time. Two of his other favorites were also Bergman films: Wild Strawberries and Persona. []
  2. Bergman’s 1966 film Persona is, I think, the greatest film of all time. I even recorded a downloadable DVD commentary for it. []

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevin June 14, 2009 at 7:10 pm

I’m sure you’ll be inundated with suggestions, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.  It’s one of my favorites, and I’ve used it many times in the classes I teach.


Taranu June 14, 2009 at 9:05 pm

Wow I didn’t know about this film. Thanks for sharing and I hope you will blog about the movie “God on trial” as well. It is my favorite atheistic film.


lukeprog June 14, 2009 at 10:16 pm

Yes, God on Trial was great!


Dace June 15, 2009 at 2:19 am

“The winter light shines on him as if a revelation from God: God does not exist…”
Great line :)


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