Joe and the Unnamed God

Before Tom Hanks starred in dramas like Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, and Cast Away, he presented a heartfelt prayer in Joe Verses the Volcano to an unnamed god. (Clip below.) This prayer and the entire film beautifully portray how our intuition points to the existence of a higher power.


Joe Verses the Volcano starts as Joe Banks and other downtrodden employees take a meaninglessly circuitous route to a dead-end job. After a number of missteps and breaking his shoe, Joe finally steps in a pothole full of water. He looks up to the sky, and motions his hands to communicate, “What gives?”

Only two minutes into the movie, Joe effectively prays his first prayer, which is one of lament. While his gaze upward implies that he directs this lament to God, I would note that lament often implies the existence of God.

Joe expresses more than sadness. A frown would have done that. Instead, he effectively asks “why?” We do not ask for explanations from inanimate objects. Nor would it make sense to ask an impersonal universe. But the sorrow that asks, “why?” implies a belief in the one who can answer, even if we feel anger towards that person. In fact, the anger itself implies the underlying belief that a person is responsible for what happens.

Joe’s path to work gives reason for lament.

We have begun to assemble a belief in God. When life does not go as we feel it should, God is the person to whom we feel anger and the one to whom we direct our lament when no other people are in the room.

Moral Virtue

Believing he only has months to live due to a “brain cloud”, Joe agrees to jump into a volcano as a human sacrifice. At sea, en route to a pacific island, he has a conversation with the ship’s captain named Patricia.

Joe: Do you believe in God?

Patricia: I believe in myself…

Joe: I’ve been doing some soul searching lately, been asking myself some pretty tough questions. You know what I found out? I have no interest in myself. I start thinking about myself, I get bored out of my mind.

Patricia: Well, what does interest you?

Joe: I don’t know… Courage! Courage interests me.

Joe does not find satisfaction focusing on himself, but he yearns for something larger, something he can admire, dare I say worship. Then, he thinks of courage, a moral virtue.

As I’ve written previously, scripture proclaims that God is love. In so doing, the Bible identifies God as the moral ideal. He is not just loving, He is love itself. Applying this to all moral virtues, He is not simply courageous, He is courage itself.

On the one hand, God is not simply a powerful person who created the universe, but he is an objective moral principle. On the other hand, the moral principle must have a personal nature. Why? Courage does not exist on its own. It only exists in a person who embodies it.

Let us add to our intuitive definition of God. He is the moral ideal that we long for. Rather than being satisfied in ourselves, we work to transform ourselves to fit this ideal. This is worship.

Awe and Thankfulness

After a typhoon destroys their boat, only Joe and Patricia survive by floating on oversized luggage. Exhausted and dehydrated, Joe nears death. Seeing the moon rise, being amazed at the size of the moon, he musters all of his strength to stand in worship, and he prays:

Dear God whose name I do not know… thank you for my life… I forgot… how big… thank you… thank you for my life…

Joe does not worship the moon, nor is he simply amazed at its size. Rather, as scripture says, “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). He expresses awe to the God who created it all.

Why do people feel wonder when they look in the sky? Why would we be impressed with large rocks, distant balls of plasma, or vast emptiness in between? Or if you feel more awe looking at the ocean waves or majestic mountains, what is so special about lots of water or tall things?

None of these compare with the value of a person. Is it simply irrational to be impressed with large inanimate objects and spaces while we overlook the human next to us at the DMV? If it makes sense to look at the moon in awe, this is true because we are actually in awe with the person who made it, who thought of it in the first place.

In other words, just as our instinct to lament points to a God, so does our awe. Rocks, even big ones orbiting the Earth do not deserve praise, but persons. Our impulse to wonder teaches us that a person would be responsible for the vast universe (and the life within it), and not solely impersonal forces.

This leads to thankfulness for our lives. Not simply happiness, but thankfulness. When we experience goodness, we feel a pull towards thankfulness.

At times, this means thanking other people, but there are instances when we experience something great that we cannot attribute to another human. In these cases, to whom do we feel thankful? Again, it makes no sense to be thankful towards a thing or an impersonal universe, but to a personal God.

We complete our intuitive definition of God (based on Joe Verses the Volcano.) He is the one to whom we express lament and thankfulness. He is the one to whom we are in awe, whether impressed by moral virtue or by the universe we live in.

Whose Name I Do Not Know

Despite all Joe knew intuitively, he still did not know God’s name. This reminds me of the story in the book of Acts which resulted in the name of this blog, As Your Poets Have Said.

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17: 22,23)

Paul goes on to explain the message of Jesus, also identifying how this lines up with insights provided by Greek poets.

This altar to an unknown god is in Rome, showing that expressions of faith to unnamed deities also happen outside of Athens and Joe Verses the Volcano.

We have two takeaways.

First, let us acknowledge what we already know. Let us pay attention to our intuitions. Are they true?

  • Does it make sense to ask, “why?”
  • Does it make sense aspire to virtue?
  • Does it make sense be in awe?
  • Does it make sense to express thankfulness for the good in our life, even when another human is not responsible for it?

If yes, let us follow the implications and acknowledge that a divine person is behind it all.

Second, starting from what we know, let us seek this God. After all, Paul goes on to describe that God acts in this world and in our lives “so that [people] would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”

Investigate Jesus. Read the scripture. Try living it out. In this way, keep learning and adding to your understanding and experience. You’ll find that God has been drawing you, and He will reveal more of himself.

7 thoughts on “Joe and the Unnamed God”

  1. Another good one! An inspiration for those who have not yet done so to say to God, “If you are real, if you are there, show me.” And then do not be surprised to see Jesus Christ, His Son.”

    He is a God of revelation!

    PS: That is a really fun movie for those who enjoy romantic comedies

    1. Great encouragement! Thanks for adding it here. As one of our friends like to say, “Jesus Christ is his own best witness.”

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