Summary : I would point my fellow Christians to recent films such as Philomena and Higher Ground if they want those qualities in a film about faith.
God may not be dead, but He may wish to disassociate himself with this film all the same. God’s Not Dead is one of the leaders of this year’s surge of Christian films that have surprised at the box office. It tells the story of Josh Wheaton (no, none of the names here are subtle) who is a college freshman enrolled in Professor Radisson’s philosophy class. Radisson, a cartoonish Atheist bully played to aplomb by Kevin Sorbo, forces all of his students to sign a form declaring God is dead. Josh refuses and Radisson turns his class over to Josh to defend the idea of there being a God.
At this point I should point out two things about myself. First, I am a Christian. I don’t apologize or hide that fact. Second, I am a college professor. I sometimes do hide that fact. This film offends both those aspects of my life, but the Christian side a little more. Let’s talk about the professor side first. Radisson and Josh’s debates devolve into quoting lines from scientists, philosophers, and the Bible out of context at one another. This is not what professors do. You can’t quite distill Albert Camus or John Stewart Mill in a single line, nor the Bible. So the debate never has the academic rigor one might expect from a college classroom. Fine, lots of films get that wrong. Nor would any college professor turn grading and class over to the students. Nor are all academics atheist, effete, smug jerks as they are depicted at a department party. That’s all silly, but simply makes it a bad, unbelievable movie.
What’s far more upsetting is the Christian message in this film. Josh’s girlfriend (he met in youth group) abandons him at the first sign of conflict. Radisson’s girlfriend is a Christian he bullies and verbally abuses. A Muslim student is secretly a Christian who is abused by her stern, Muslim father (never mind that an early scene in his car makes him sound suspiciously like Josh). A secular humanist, vegetarian reporter (we know all this from the bumper stickers on her car) is diagnosed with cancer and then left by her Atheist boyfriend. She also gets put in her place by the cast of Duck Dynasty who enlighten her on why killing ducks is in no way cruel to them—just so long as you’re a good shot. Her atheist boyfriend also happens to be the brother of Radisson’s girlfriend. His mother also happens to have Alzheimer’s except in the moments when she channels a message from God to him. A local pastor is denied a chance to go to Disney World by his car repeatedly breaking down—until he prays about it. Then he shows up just in time to read Radisson his last rites. Got all that?
The problem is that none of these characters really contribute to the main plot of Josh defending God. Eventually they do all sort of tie together at a Newsboys Christian rock concert (Newsboys are product placed throughout this film on t-shirts and posters), but that’s just really an excuse for the Newsboys to play the film’s eponymous song. If they’re not important to the plot, then what are they doing here? God’s Not Dead seems preoccupied with portraying all non-Christians as evil and punishing them for their deeds. That may be sound theologically for some, but not for me. It’s also not good movie making as it makes the film seem cruel and mean-spirited.
The most distressing part is there seems to be the germ of a good film here. I’m serious. A film debating the existence of God using the great philosophers and theologians could be entertaining or even enlightening! This film is neither. I would point my fellow Christians to recent films such as Philomena and Higher Ground if they want those qualities in a film about faith.