Review: God’s Not Dead

September 12, 2014

God's-Not-Dead

A number of folks in our congregation asked me if I had seen God’s Not Dead, the recent evangelical film which chronicles the plight of a freshman in college who is challenged to defend his faith. I had not seen it. Until now. The film has been a sensation in the niche market of Christian films, preforming extraordinarily well at the box office. And if Amazon reviews are a reliable indicator, it is much beloved by a good many people — currently at over 2,000 reviews with an average of 4.5 stars. [UPDATE: 14,000+ reviews as of March 2016]

The scenario which God’s Not Dead attempts to portray is important. It is something which Christian parents and their children need to have open and honest dialogues. In this regard, I hope this film may generate some much needed discussion.

But this is not the film we need! My review will be highly negative, with only a few positive observations along the way.

The Setup

The protagonist in our story is a newly arrived freshman on campus, Josh Wheaton. We know nothing about him except that he wears a Newsboys t-shirt and a cross necklace, which prompts a fellow student to warn him. About what? About the Philosophy 101 course on his schedule. The professor of the course is Dr. Jeffrey Radisson (Kevin Sorbo),  who is well-known for his avowed atheism and open disdain for religion. The next scene is Josh’s first day of class with Professor Radisson.

The scene starts decently enough. Kevin Sorbo portrays the professor. It is an enjoyable performance. He is a charismatic and very confident professor of philosophy, who doesn’t skip a beat in his Richard Dawkins-esque monologue. This monologue is targeted against the  primitive and infantile belief in a supreme being, who is now made obsolete by the advance of science. It’s a bit over the top, but that’s nothing compared to what happens next. The professor instructs the students to pull out a sheet of paper. Their first assignment is to write the words, “God is dead,” and then to sign their name underneath! Without any objections, the entire class obliges. It’s a large class of about 80 students, since this is a gen ed course. Yet the lone student who is struggling with writing, “God is dead,” is Josh. When the professor approaches Josh, he informs him that if he refuses to do the assignment, he will fail this portion of the class. Josh holds his ground, even while Professor Radisson mocks him mercilessly. The professor then gives Josh the option of defending his thesis that God is not dead — in front of the class during the next few sessions.

That’s how the movie begins. It’s ridiculous. It’s so painfully ridiculous that I was genuinely shocked and embarrassed as a Christian. The portrait of Professor Radisson is the fanciful product of an overactive evangelical imagination, an imagination too long steeped in fear. It’s a mockery of atheists and other skeptics, who have every justification to be angry at the film. It’s an exaggerated portrait, an unfair portrait, and an outright silly portrait. Philosophy professors do not require their students to sign a statement that God is dead. They would be reprimanded, and a sufficient number of students in the class would have refused — not just our protagonist. With the recent happenings at Cal State and Vanderbilt, there is not much that would shock me about the “benign guardianship” of our liberal elites. But this is dumb — nothing more than an obvious scare tactic in order to portray the professor as villainous as possible and Josh as the great martyr-hero. I was fully expecting Professor Radisson to next instruct the class to write 666 on their foreheads.

God’s Hero

Afterwards, Josh is walking through the campus with his girlfriend, who is not happy that Josh is jeopardizing his grades and potentially ruining their future together, with him hoping to enter law school. She encourages him to just comply with the professor’s demands, to which Josh responds, “I feel like God wants someone to defend him.” And sure enough, Josh is the man to do it. He is given four different class sessions in order to make his case for the existence of God. During his first session, he tells the class that they are going to “look at the evidence” and “put God on trial.” Seriously. These are real quotes. Surprisingly, his first point is actually not too bad. He states that, against Aristotle’s belief in a “steady state” universe without beginning or end, both Genesis and the Big Bang indicate a beginning to the universe. I was pleasantly surprised to see the Big Bang and billions of years in a film geared toward an evangelical audience, where Young Earth Creationism still has its ardent proponents.

But everything else is downhill from here. With each session, Josh gains in confidence, though he was already rather confident from the beginning. You would never know that he was a freshman. The point, of course, is to show that our Christian hero is just as confident and capable as the evil professor. The problem is that he’s a college freshman, not a professor. The film encourages the completely unrealistic expectation that any Christian, after reading a few Josh McDowell or John Lennox books, can take on any professor. I can assure you, every Christian at every university can tell you that this is just plain stupid.

There are some bizarre moments, like when Professor Radisson tells Josh after class, “Do not humiliate me in front of my students,” which is followed by the threat, “If you continue with this charade, I will destroy any hope of you getting a law degree in the future.” Professor Radisson is a completely one-dimensional character, in a film with only one-dimensional characters. Everyone is stereotyped in an exaggerated manner. The good guys are really good, and the bad guys are really bad. The Christians are kind and thoughtful. The non-Christians are mean and flippant. This inability to deal with the complexities of the human personality is, frankly, amateurish and pathetic. If this is Christian artistry today, God help us. You would never know that we have Shakespeare and Tolkien in our heritage.

Worst Moment in Film History

I have not disclosed the most ridiculous moment in the movie. Here is the scene: During Josh’s fourth and final performance in front of the class, Professor Radisson engages with Josh in a tit-for-tat, where Josh comes across like a rock star lawyer. (Think of A Few Good Men with Cruise versus Nicholson.) Josh is blasting away about the immorality and meaninglessness of life without God, and the professor is responding from the Dawkins playbook about the “disease” of religion and so forth. It all culminates with Josh yelling at the professor, “Why do you hate God?!” Radisson responds, “Because he took everything from me,” in reference to the death of his mother when he was a child. “Yes, I hate God.” Josh deals the final blow, “How can you hate someone if he doesn’t exist?”

Booyah! You see what happened? The professor’s rejection of God is not about reason. It’s about emotions. It’s about the loss of his mother. Josh even declares that Radisson knows that the reasons are on Josh’s side. Atheism is not about reason. We’ve already seen how easily Josh has been able to demolish all of the rational objections. So it must be about something else. Emotions. Nevermind that this is exactly the same tactic that skeptics use against Christians. After this heated exchange between Josh and the professor, each student begins to stand, one by one, declaring, “God’s not dead.” (Think of Dead Poets Society and all the students declaring, “Oh Captain, my Captain.”) Over and over, “God’s not dead. God’s not dead.” Eventually the entire class is standing. Remember, this is the same class that wrote, “God is dead,” with their signatures just a few weeks prior. Josh is so persuasive that he wins over the entire class!

That, my friends, was the most ridiculous moment in the whole movie.

Other Characters

There are other characters in the film — various sub-narratives that lend support to the overarching narrative between Josh and Professor Radisson. We have Amy, a young and attractive journalist, highly ambitious and highly condescending toward Christians. She gets cancer, and when she reveals this to her equally driven boyfriend (played by Dean Cain), his response is callous beyond imagination (“This couldn’t wait until tomorrow?,” since he was celebrating his promotion) and he dumps her. Trisha LaFache plays Amy, and I thought she did a fine job. She lends a great deal of empathy to her character. Throughout her struggle, she is alone and afraid. Amy eventually comes to faith at the Newsboys concert at the end of the movie. Yep. Everything comes to a resolution at a Newsboys concert. Professor Radisson, while on his way to the Newsboys concert, gets hit by a car and, while he is dying on the street, the minister in the movie (who happened to be present at the intersection) shares the gospel message and Radisson finally relents and accepts Christ for his salvation. There is also a Muslim girl who is severely beaten by her father for secretly being a Christian (after her brother catches her listening to Franklin Graham sermons on her iPod). And there is Martin, a Chinese classmate of Josh who comes to faith after hearing his arguments in the class. And, finally, there is the minister, who actually has some solid practical wisdom in the film.

The End

The film ends with Newsboys’ lead singer giving a shout-out, during the concert, to Josh. He praises him for “defending God’s honor” and “putting a smile on God’s face.” Before the rolling credits, we have an exhortation on the screen: “Join the movement. Text everyone you know. God’s not dead.”

That’s right. They will know us by our texts.

28 Responses to “Review: God’s Not Dead

  1. Cal said

    I’ve yet to see the movie, but the trailer turned me off instantaneously.

    An evil, buffoonish atheist professor, what a joke! Your analysis was spot on. No one is really like this, not publicly at least. In the trailer he grabs Josh and says “in my classroom, I’m god”. Wow. I understand narcissism, and the hostility towards genuine Christianity in many universities, but this is, as you say, fearful fantasies.

    I do think that someone like Josh, an unknowing freshman, might actually stand up for themselves, that they ought to trust that the Holy Spirit will put words in their mouth at crunch time. But it won’t look like this. It won’t necessarily be a lawyer/journalist in the tradition of Strobel. And it certainly won’t hinge on general theistic arguments. This is a Christian movie right? Why wasn’t the axis “Did Christ rise from the dead?” Instead, it’s whacking strawmen of Ditchkins, which is already a real-life caricature.

    And finally, where is love?

    Cal

    • Kevin Davis said

      And finally, where is love?

      Precisely. Where is Christ? And, where is love? I will probably do a follow-up post about the “worst scene in film history,” when the entire class is converted. This is disturbing. Profoundly disturbing. Conversion without Christ.

      And, yes, the whole thing is a fantasy.

  2. Good thing the professor got saved, because they don’t serve breakfast in hell.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Indeed, they took him to their leader.

      Ah, Newsboys and the 90’s. Fond memories. At least they had Peter Furler back then.

  3. Kim Fabricius said

    How awesomely (;)) embarrassing. But here’s an idea: read the film as a double parody, i.e., on both atheism and faith, giving it a new title: Monty Python’s God’s Not Dead.

  4. moldmaker said

    Do you think the overwhelming praise in the reviews has much to do with the fact that there is not very many positive films about Christianity. By the way Kevin, I’ve just been following you for awhile now and I love the blog. I do have an idea for a post that I would like to get your opinion on, is there a way to email or contact you thru the blog.
    Thanks

    • Kevin Davis said

      Yes, there is a dearth of films that feature Christianity in a positive light, and I even found that to be somewhat refreshing while watching the film. There is also a tendency among Christians, especially evangelicals, to root for the home team, overlooking or making excuses for the obvious defects. From both an artistic and theological perspective, the film is a terrible mess, and evangelicals should know better — and I speak as an evangelical, albeit on the borderlands perhaps.

      My gmail address is in the “about” page (one of the tabs under the banner). Replace “at” with @, of course.

  5. CarterS said

    Oy. I already knew I didn’t want to see this, but it’s even worse than I thought. Did no one even look up where the reference comes from? Nietzsche would be spinning in his grave if it weren’t for the moustache…this kind of evangelical back-slapping reveals that it doesn’t know anything about atheism, and doesn’t care; it’s like Nietzsche and Camus never happened. I’ll pay attention to this kind of stuff when an evangelical can create a sympathetic atheist character. Not before.

    • Kevin Davis said

      “Back-slapping” indeed.

      We have plenty of theologians in the evangelical academy who are able to describe and portray atheism in a sympathetic and nuanced light. Unfortunately, reactionary ideology and just plain laziness is more common among the popular apologist-types. This movie fosters the worst, not the best, within evangelicalism.

      • diglot said

        “reactionary ideology and just plain laziness is more common among the popular apologist-types”

        Quoted for truth. I need to jot that down.

  6. Joel said

    There aren’t that many, but they do exist. The French movie Of Gods and Men a few years back was well received.

    Most of Terrence Malick’s movies feature Christianity at least in the background and sometimes more, most prominently in The Tree of Life (it even quotes Job for the epigraph). He is one of my favorite directors, but tends to be pretty divisive for stylistic reasons.

    Going farther back, The Mission was a very good movie in the 80s and featured some big names, including Robert de Niro and a fantastic soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. The conversion scene is probably the best ever put on film.

    • Joel said

      That was meant to be in reply to Moldmaker’s thread above.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Yes, I love The Mission, and I’m glad that you highlighted the conversion scene. It is, indeed, a remarkable scene. I have not seen Malick’s films, though I have heard many good things about The Tree of Life. I have been hoping that Netflix or Amazon Prime would include it, but they have not.

      Among my favorite Christian-themed films, I would also include The Apostle, Chariots of Fire, The Nun’s Story (Audrey Hepburn’s finest performance), and Amazing Grace.

      • Cal said

        I like The Mission too. Especially how forgiveness is key to conversion. But I was sad how the movie was not subtly framed around liberation theology and violence as the answer, and the gospel truth, to politiking bureaucracy and Constantinian synthesis.

      • Joel said

        It is sympathetic to at least some forms of liberation theology, but I don’t think it portrays violence as the answer. There’s no definitive judgment about whether Rodrigo or Gabriel are right about the use of violence. Actually, I’ve always thought the movie slightly leans toward Gabriel’s pacifist side because Rodrigo’s violent resistance doesn’t really accomplish anything in the end.

        Also, the ending slightly hints at the possibility of repentance for the bishop.

      • Joel said

        Oh yeah, I knew I was forgetting something: The Scarlet and the Black is a good one.

        As for Malick – Days of Heaven is streaming (last I checked) and is well worth seeing. It’s my favorite of his, actually, and possibly the most visually stunning movie ever. Religion is a background part in it, but with some obvious allusions.

        If we include Judaism, the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink draws quite heavily on the book of Daniel in interesting ways.

        I like Shepherd Book in Firefly/Serenity too. Despite a couple of questionable theological statements, he is generally a wise, compassionate, and lovable man.

      • Kevin Davis said

        Yeah, I noticed that Days of Heaven was streaming, so I added it to my list. I think you’re right about The Mission — it’s ambiguous and appropriately so. And I agree about Fireflly — great characters, including the minister.

    • Of Gods and Men was brilliant.

  7. Robert F said

    When contemporary Christians produce “art,” including and perhaps especially popular “art,” that so poorly reflects the truth of the human world around them, reducing it to caricature (and they do this very, very often), it inevitably supports the suspicion among perceptive non-believers that, since Christians are so badly out of touch with the truth about human reality, they are even less likely to be in touch with the truth about divine reality. It in fact produces the same suspicion in me, a Christian, about many other Christians, both the ones who produce this “art” and those who gleefully consume it. This is why it’s so embarrassing, and cringe-worthy.

  8. Robert F said

    Where is the Christian filmmaker who is up to producing a compelling film in which the atheistic antagonist is someone as winsome, sensitive, intelligent, formidable and warmly likable as, say, Albert Camus? How about a fantastical film along the lines of “The Great Divorce,” in which Camus and Simone Weil meet in a kind of purgatorial afterlife and contest the truths of humanistic atheism and Christian faith against each other, with arguments drawn from their respective lives and works, flashbacks and everything, and Weil ever so subtly draws Camus toward the shore of Heaven? How I would love to see a film that ends with Camus ever so tentatively and ambiguously turning in the direction of Christian faith, even as he stands in the gray and diminishing purgatorial light!

    • Kevin Davis said

      Yes and amen!

      Even apart from the purgatorial aspect, it seems to me that a Roman Catholic is far more likely to create such a sensitive and compelling portrait. We can think of Flannery O’Connor or the Catholic years of Graham Greene. If you have not read The End of the Affair, then you definitely must.

      • Robert F said

        I have read Greene and O’Connor. The End of the Affair is a marvelous, morally realistic novel. And there are also the deeply Christian novels of Francois Mauriac, and Georges Bernanos, that great French Catholic writer and moralist. If you haven’t read Bernanos Monsieur Ouine, you should. It’s a masterpiece of 20th century literature (I only wish I were able to read it in the original French), and frighteningly prophetic of the current state of affairs in our world. Monsieur Ouine himself is perhaps the most convincing embodiment of civilized evil I’ve ever encountered in any novel. Like the villain of God’s Not Dead, he is a professor (retired), but poor Professor Radisson would not know what to do with Monsieur Ouine if he had the misfortune to meet him (“Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?..”); neither would our hero Josh.

      • Kevin Davis said

        I’ve read The Diary of a Country Priest and loved it. Professor Francesca Murphy at Aberdeen (now Notre Dame) had us read it for her class on Catholic theology, and it is long overdue for me to re-read it. I’ll also check into Monsieur Ouine.

  9. […] It is worth highlighting and further commenting on, as I called it, “the most ridiculous moment” in God’s Not Dead. As a reminder, here is the description in my review: […]

  10. diglot said

    Thanks for the review. I was wondering whether this movie would be bad or really bad. From your review it sounds like it is an even worse category.

    Having been part of contemporary evangelicalism for the better part of ten years, I’m really not surprised by the apparent caricatures the movie gives of atheists.

    But to ignore Christ and focus upon a generic deity? That’s bad even for evangelicalism.

    • Kevin Davis said

      But to ignore Christ and focus upon a generic deity? That’s bad even for evangelicalism.

      Exactly, that’s the greatest tragedy of all in this film.

  11. […] (After Existentialism, Light) has done a great job summarizing the ridiculousness of this part (here and […]

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