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 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.
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.
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 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.