God’s Not Dead (2014)

God’s Not Dead takes an enduring chain email urban legend popular with evangelical Christians, and builds any entire movie around it, depicting not only a war of words between a Christian college student and his atheist professor, but also a series of interconnected stories concerning the lives of several people dealing with their faith, or lack thereof.

Alas, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes of viewing God’s Not Dead to realize this film is actually religious propaganda of the worst kind, that reduces all of the world’s atheists, agnostics, and non-Christians to absurd, simplistic caricatures. With a Lifetime movie feel, and a dazzling array of straw man arguments about philosophy, science, and religion, this is nevertheless a film that was extremely (and depressingly) successful during its limited run in theaters.

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The film centers on a college freshman named Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) who finds himself in a philosophy class taught by Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo). The first class involves Radisson listing off the most famous philosophers in history (while pronouncing each name in the most pretentious way possible, of course) and noting what they all had in common: None of them believed in God.

God's Not Dead (2014)

Radisson, too, is a proud atheist, and he prefers not to waste class time talking about God, because surely his students will eventually come to the same conclusion he has: God doesn’t exist. So, in order to skip over that useless part of the curriculum, he wants each student to hand in a paper with three simple words on it: “God is dead” (a quote from Nietzsche, though whether the filmmakers actually knew that is anyone’s guess).

Naturally, everyone immediately follows the professor’s orders. But Josh, apparently the sole Christian in the entire class, is offended by the idea, and refuses to turn in the paper. In response, Radisson says Josh will have to get up in front of the class over the course of the next three lectures and prove that God isn’t dead. If the majority of his classmates aren’t convinced of the existence of God by the end of his third lecture, Josh will get a failing grade.

God's Not Dead (2014)

Josh seeks out the help of family and friends, but finds no support. In particular, his girlfriend doesn’t understand why he would jeopardize his education and his future law degree over a silly thing like standing up for his religious beliefs.

Josh then goes to speak with his pastor, Reverend Dave. Yes, “Reverend Dave”. He’s played by David A. R. White, one of the co-founders of the studio that made this movie, which would explain his prominent (and useless) appearance in this story.

God's Not Dead (2014)

Rev. Dave gives Josh a few Bible verses to study, and Josh works hard and burns the midnight oil doing research to prove the existence of God. But after his first speech, Radisson destroys all of his points, mainly by noting that Stephen Hawking, who is apparently the Smartest Person Who Ever Lived and also chief arbiter of all things faith-related, doesn’t believe that God created the universe.

Josh has no response to this and appears to be down for the count, but quickly makes a comeback in his second lecture when he quotes another scientist named John Lennox who disagrees with Hawking. After all the students leave, Radisson admits that he became an atheist at 12 when he prayed to God to save his mother from cancer, but she died anyway. Thus confirming that all atheists are of course secret Christians who hate God because of some past trauma.

God's Not Dead (2014)

Meanwhile, other characters struggle with their religious beliefs. We meet a “left wing blogger” named Amy (Trisha LaFache), introduced in an early scene where she interviews Willie and Korie Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame (and yes, they’re playing themselves. What, you think they’ve got better things to do?). She grills them about how they make money off inhumanely hunting and killing animals, and asks about the sinister way they always pray on their show, but the Robertsons just laugh this off and say she’s welcome to pray with them.

God's Not Dead (2014)

Amy then finds her life unraveling when she learns she has terminal cancer. She breaks the news to her rich, successful boyfriend (Dean Cain), who obviously couldn’t care less and dumps her on the spot.

God's Not Dead (2014)

Meanwhile, a Chinese exchange student named Martin (Paul Kwo), who’s also in Radisson’s class, finds himself compelled by Josh’s arguments even though he was brought up in a (theoretically) atheist country. He starts to question things during long distance phone calls to his father, who immediately shuts him down and tells him to do whatever it takes to get an A in the class. But Martin can’t help but shake the feeling that this Jesus thing is something he should look into.

God's Not Dead (2014)

There’s another student, Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu), who struggles with the traditional values of her Muslim family. We see her taking off her hijab when her father isn’t around, and soon she’s even secretly listening to Christian sermons on her iPod. But then her father catches her (after her punk brother rats her out), and throws her out of the house. Thankfully, Ayisha is able to seek refuge at Rev. Dave’s church.

God's Not Dead (2014)

And then Prof. Radisson turns out to have a Christian girlfriend, Mina (Cory Oliver), who he constantly berates for her beliefs, and he’s always embarrassing her in front of his snobby professor friends. Mina is also trying to care for her mother, who has dementia. She asks her rich, successful brother for help, but he’s a total dick about it. In the face of all this adversity, Mina finds herself turning even more towards the Christian faith that Radisson so disdains.

Oh, and we learn Mina’s brother is the Dean Cain character, providing the one tenuous thread that ties all these subplots together.

God's Not Dead (2014)

There’s also a really pointless storyline which I believe was meant to be comic relief, where Rev. Dave gets a visitor from Africa named Rev. Jude (Benjamin A. Onyango). They plan to go on a road trip to Disneyland, but every time Dave gets behind the wheel of a car, any car, it refuses to start.

God's Not Dead (2014)

At long last, we come to Josh’s final lecture. He’s nervous, but confident that God will help him win his debate and prove His existence.

However, before the lecture, Mina dumps Radisson, which totally sets him off. As Josh lectures about moral absolutes and the nature of free will, Radisson gets angrier and angrier, which Josh uses to his advantage. Eventually, he gets Radisson to openly confess that he hates God, thus proving Josh’s case, for how can you hate someone who doesn’t exist? And starting with Martin, this inspires the whole class to stand up one by one to declare that “God’s not dead!”

God's Not Dead (2014)

So that’s all settled, but there’s still almost half an hour left to fill, so everybody goes to a concert by a (real) Christian rock group called the Newsboys. Josh originally wanted to go with his girlfriend, but she’s a total bitch, so Josh takes his new BFF Martin instead. Mina decides to go to the concert by herself, as does Ayisha, who catches Josh’s eye, so apparently his devotion to Jesus has already helped him line up his next girlfriend.

God's Not Dead (2014)

Also, our liberal blogger Amy shows up backstage to interview the Newsboys. But she’s so despondent about her cancer diagnosis that she decides to confront some random Christian rock group about how awful God is to allow this to happen. So the group decides to hold off on the concert for a few minutes so they can sit down and pray with her, and she eventually makes her peace with God.

God's Not Dead (2014)

Finally, a defeated Radisson sits alone in his office. He finds a letter his mother wrote to him before she died. Inspired by her last wishes, he decides to make amends with Mina, and goes to track her down at the Newsboys concert.

However, there’s a sudden downpour, and as Radisson is crossing the street, he’s hit by a car, complete with Sorbo getting launched ten feet in the air and doing a slow motion fall to the pavement.

God's Not Dead (2014)

Luckily, Rev. Dave and Rev. Jude are nearby. But I don’t mean “luckily” in that either one of them has EMT training, I mean that Radisson is dying but God has made sure two reverends are around to help him accept Jesus back into his heart right before he croaks (which I guess is the payoff to the subplot about Dave and Jude not being able to go on their road trip).

Back at the concert, Josh gets a little recognition for his hard-fought battle when Willie Robertson appears up on the screen to call him out by name. In celebration of Josh’s efforts, Willie tells everyone in the audience (of the fictional concert, as well as everyone watching in the theater) to get out their cell phones and text everyone they know with three words: “God’s not dead”.

God's Not Dead (2014)

The whole crowd does this, and the film ends with Martin’s dad, Mina’s brother, and the now dead Prof. Radisson getting the text messages, and a closing crawl lists all the supposed real-life cases of religious persecution on campus that inspired this movie.

God's Not Dead (2014)

This is easily some of the worst Christian propaganda I’ve seen, and I grew up in a Southern Baptist household. The movie isn’t just insulting to the intelligence; it also gives a bad name to Christians who try to lead a good life and be tolerant towards others. From the beginning, the victim card is played, as if Christians are constantly being persecuted wherever they go, instead of being followers of one of the most popular and successful religions in the history of civilization.

The “debate” that forms the core of the film is just idiotic. From the moment the main character steps in front of the class, all he does is spout Biblical verses that really have no place in an academic debate, considering the Bible has been translated and re-translated so many times that’s there’s a good chance what was originally written is probably nowhere near what’s recited today.

He uses these verses to claim that the Big Bang and evolution were both predicted by the Bible, long before science figured them out. Okay, but even if that’s accurate, these aren’t really arguments for the existence of God, are they? They seem more like arguments that God can coexist with science, which I think most people already agree with. Nevertheless, the whole debate turns into a crusade against science, which unfortunately has become rather popular of late in a lot of Christian circles.

It would seem that to the filmmakers, being an intelligent or well-educated person is inherently bad and soul-destroying and immoral. For instance, Radisson is probably the most miserable person you’ve ever met, and his inner circle of sociology and philosophy professors are just plain evil. Even the cancer-ridden blogger is a total bag of misery who won’t let those Duck Dynasty folks hunt in peace. With intellectuals, humanitarians, and those looking to protect animals and the environment on the hit list, it’s no wonder so many people turn away from religion.

And even the characters who start out as non-Christians and soon see the folly of their ways are subject to various forms of punishment. Amy, the blogger character, gets diagnosed with terminal cancer at a young age, and not even finding Jesus is going to save her. Ayisha, our token Muslim character, is beaten by her father and kicked out of the house for being a Christian. (And notice how this movie is convinced that all devout Muslim women are being violently oppressed by their fathers/husbands, and couldn’t possibly be wearing head scarves because they want to.)

God's Not Dead (2014)

Martin comes from the officially atheist country of China, and by the end of the film, he’s been saved, though you get the feeling that when he goes back home and tries to share the good word with his friends, he’ll disappear faster than Kenneth Bae after a stay at the Pyongyang Hilton. And then of course there’s Radisson, who ends up as roadkill just as he’s accepted God into his heart. The only non-believer who makes it out of the film without anything horrible befalling him is Dean Cain’s character, though it’s strongly hinted at by his ill mother than he’s going straight to Hell when he dies.

God's Not Dead (2014)

Though, perhaps going from Superman to this is its own special kind of Hell.

The moral of the story appears to be clear: God may not be dead, but if you’re not a Christian, you soon will be, and He’ll make sure you have the most horrible, painful death possible.

From a cinematic viewpoint, this film belongs in the garbage. The movie has the same bland, flat, gray look of a thousand other low-budget features made purely to cash in on Louisiana tax credits. The dialogue is incredibly cheesy, and about on the level of the worst made-for-TV movies. The acting is equally bad, but then again, what do you expect when Kevin Sorbo gets top billing?

God's Not Dead (2014)

There’s also way too much going on, with several stories colliding in a way that just makes things overly complicated. I suspect the film was going for some kind of Crash-like epic made up of intertwining stories, without realizing that a) Crash is an awful movie, and b) nearly none of the characters have any relation whatsoever to the central story of Josh’s lectures. I mean, the only reason Ayisha is involved at all is she happens to bump into Josh right before the closing credits.

The film purports to be aimed at those questioning their faith, but it’s quite literally preaching to the choir. If you want to feel empowered in your religion and see it strengthened in the face of two hours’ worth of straw man arguments, this is the film for you. But for the rest of us, the movie isn’t remotely persuasive or entertaining and is just plain insulting to anyone who’s not a Christian. Though, I think devout Christians should feel the most insulted of all by God’s Not Dead, because it makes them look terrible.

[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]

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  • Wizkamridr

    I like Kevin Sorbo and Dean Cain even if they aren’t the greatest actors out there. I love Cain in all the crappy hallmark and lifetime movies. I was raised Christian and can’t stand these type of movies. I’d rather watch and laugh at Bible Man with his bat suit and lightsaber.

    • MichaelANovelli

      At least Bibleman was willing to use scientific evidence in his crime fighting…

      • Wizkamridr

        I think Bibleman was poking fun at itself. At least the episodes I watched. I loved the villain. It was cheesy like Power Rangers and that’s why I liked it.

        • MichaelANovelli

          Well, the time period where Bibleman was made (the original, anyway, before the new guy came in and things got kinda anti-Semitic) is that, at least as I remember it, being overtly religious just wasn’t a thing. Hell, I lived in Utah at the time and everyone being Mormon only ever came up when they were specifically giving us shit for being Catholic. I don’t know why being very public with one’s religion has become the big fad in recent years. It’s kinda weird.

          • Wizkamridr

            I was raised Mormon, but never gave shit to anyone. I only had problems with Jehovah witnesses. They always told me I was going to hell.

          • KLLRFRST

            JW’s don’t believe in Hell. They believe that unbelievers will remain dead in their graves instead of being resurrected on Earth after God remakes it into a Paradise again. (I was raised in that cult, and wasn’t able to get away until I left for college)

  • seiler88

    This film is akin to a shotgun (and given the Duck guys I wonder if it was intentional). Many valid points but not much put behind them. I have said this to other atheists that I have debated but there is a ton of material behind this and it is impossible to get it all across in a short conversation or movie ( or internet post). What this movie did was say ‘here are a number of things to think about’ and then left the audience to go dig in after the credits roll and since it was a movie with a limited run time it really had no choice but to that. The other option was to pick one thing and really dive in to that which would then leave it open to the ‘there are other arguments’ line. Classic Catch 22.

    Now you were wrong in claiming that the Bible had been mistranslated. Things like the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient writings confirm that we have done a very good job keeping Scripture.

    Also I disagree with you in saying that the characters were miserable because of them being intellectual. I happen to be an active Christian with a scientific background so I find that to be hollow and I also know the language the film is speaking.

    As for everyone being a cartoon? Yea, no excuse their.

    • Sean Tadsen

      I’ll admit that “mistranslated” might be an over-simplification. I think the issue is more about language changing over time. If you’re using a fairly modern translation, there’s no problem; if you’re not, there almost certainly will be.

      The KJV (the go-to for certain Christian groups) was published in 1611, back when Shakespeare was alive, and plenty of people misinterpret Shakespeare. Example: when Hamlet’s mom says “the lady doth protest too much” she’s not saying the queen in the play is complaining, she’s saying the character is making promises she can’t keep (“no, husband, if you die I’ll remain loyal to you and won’t remarry, even if it makes sense and is politically a smart move”), and all because the meaning of the word “protest” has changed over the centuries. Mistakes and misinterpretations like that are bound to happen. And that doesn’t get into the issue of treating all Biblical scripture as being literal rather than metaphorical.

      As to your first point, I think that could have been easily fixed by the movie-makers not including all those extra plot threads and focusing on the kid and the debates, which are ostensibly the focus of the movie. Do we really need that whole thing about the Muslim girl? Or the Chinese kid? The blogger woman with cancer? What does any of this add to the movie? It all seems like filler. At a guess, I’d speculate that all that’s there because the movie-makers maybe didn’t want to delve into their chosen subject (possibly for fear of alienating their core audience by implying that atheists might have a point) and expected their viewers to automatically side with the main kid because he’s the protagonist, leaving them with about forty minutes of story to stretch over the better part of two hours.

    • Murry Chang

      Have you ever read a Bible from even 100 years ago? The language between that and modern versions is totally different and even in that amount of time the change in language has produced a change in meaning. And you’re going to say that the Dead Sea Scrolls line up almost exactly with, say, the KJV? I think not friend.

  • danbreunig

    Oh, for the days of Rock: It’s Your Decision.

  • Endorenna

    Ugh. This movie. Ugh.

    Actually, most Christian movies for a while now. Ugh.

    They’re bland, with terrible dialogue, terrible acting… the list goes on. And they usually make Christians look terrible. I say that -as- a Christian.

    If it makes anyone feel better, the majority of young Christians I know (young as in, below 40 or so) hate this movie with a passion because it’s so horrible. The people I know who like it are basically Christian soccer moms.

    Seiler88 basically sums up my opinion on this movie in his post below mine, so I’ll stop here instead of typing for an hour.

    • Chris Palmer

      I can think of only three religious movies that I enjoyed: “Saved!”, “Dogma” and “God Lives In The Himalayas”. Of those, only one explicitly states that God exists, two are severely critical about his followers and the one you don’t know has the protagonist going through hell for an answer from God (although his survival is left very ambiguous).

      • mpedone

        I would have to watch it again, but I seem to recall “Saved!” being critical of the over-zealous, with the overarching message being one of tolerance, even for your enemies. Again, I might be wrong. It and “Dogma” strike me as good religious movies, because they don’t take this “us vs them” stance, and instead show a way we can all co-exist.

        • Chris Palmer

          You are correct about Saved!’s message.

          Incidentally, God Lives In The Himalayas is about a kid who is naturally distraught when his mother burns to death. He decides God can answer his questions, and, after being directed by an old man, takes some friends on an ill-advised journey through the Himalayas. Most of them die, but the kid gets his answers (his name is Siddarth, so that’s a given) and goes off to play with his friends. The last shot shows him in the audience at a religious festival (also shown earlier in the movie). I’ve only seen it once (apparently there’s no audience for Nepali movies?), so I might not be remembering it well enough.

  • mamba

    Yeah this movie has the same problem as most Christian movies have…they simply cannot accept the fact that a person can be decent and NOT a lover of God. Their brains cannot handle the very thought, and that makes it annoying.

    This movie took that and ramped it up to absurd levels (though Left Behind went pretty absurdly evil as well with some scenes) Honestly, if these people made Gandhi, they’d have a scene with him screwing a hooker or slapping someone just to show that he’s sinful without God.

    Kevin’s character could have just been a decent person who’s an atheist teacher (like thousands really are in the world). Nope, he HAD to have loved God at one point and then felt betrayed and actively HATES god. Naturally the movie punished him for it.

    Related to that, ever notice how these kind of movies (form loving peaceful Christians) REALLY love being creative with their retributions? It’s almost a form of cathartic release for them to show everyone suffering and being doomed horrifically in life just because they don’t worship God. Do Christians really love the suffering of others so much, because it’s a CONSTANT theme in their movies, lectures, etc…

    Anyway, yeah, dumb movie, and I hope that even Christians hate it too, because it doesn’t make them look good at all if that was the goal.

  • NixEclips

    “Preaching to the choir.” Absolutely the main problem with modern Christian films. I remember watching A Thief In The Night, as a kid, and being terrified. That movie seemed to be aimed straight at the non-believers, showing you the shitstorm awaiting you after the rapture. Left Behind is Sesame Street in comparison. (According to my memory.)

  • NameWithheldByRequest

    As someone who minored in philosophy back in my 20’s and who’s getting his masters a couple decades later, this film had me laughing and cringing and fuming. A Truly exasperating experience. Need it even be said that a philosophy professor would never simply gloss over all the arguments for the non-existence of gods because he already knows such gods don’t exist? Nonsense. I’m not saying such professors don’t exist, although I’ve never heard of any such thing happening, but they would be an insignificant minority if they did. Why? Because the point of a philosophy course isn’t to spoon-feed students answers, it’s to teach them how to think, not what to think. If I’d been in Kevin Sorbo’s class, I would have refused to sign any such “god is dead” statement, and I’m an atheist.

    Another thing, it is ironic that the only institutions of higher learning in the United States that force students and teachers to sign statements concerning belief in a deity are Christian schools. There have been a few incidents of these students being expelled and teachers being sacked because they made statements that were deemed somehow “anti-Christian.” I know of no cases in which a Christian in a secular university was forced out of a philosophy class or failed because they held such beliefs.

    A final note. The phrase “god is dead” is not an atheist claim. If you know your Nietzsche, you know that this was spoken by “the madman” who is “looking” for god. Nietzsche, when he uses this phrase, is not saying that god doesn’t exist, but that we’ve “killed” him by no longer believing in him (although people are still unaware of this having happening). That is to say, that gods are no longer relevant to modern society. Nietzsche took it for granted that gods did not exist, and consequently nowhere made any arguments for disbelief. Now, it’s almost certain that Nietzsche was an atheist, but affirmative arguments for atheism are almost totally absent from his philosophy, which is why you’ll find both atheist and theist admirers of Nietzsche.

  • Sardu

    Yeesh. Yeah, as a conservative Christian Bible thumper myself I still find this sort of thing utterly indefensible. There is no logical argument or scientific case that can be made for God. You’re either going to believe that He is at the bottom of it all because He in some way reveals Himself to you, or you’re not. And I believe that morality is objective. You can be moral with believing in God. I’m afraid to watch this. I doubt I ever will.

  • mamba

    Some teacher…he just asked the kid to prove that God’s NOT dead.

    That’s to say, he asked him to prove a negative, which is logically impossible. (“Prove you don’t have an invisible intangible unicorn following you around”. You can’t…it’s only possible to prove you DO have one since there are infinite reasons you MIGHT have one to explain yourself. Same idea.)

    THEN he tells him that if he can’t, he’ll fail the entire course. He’s going to actively punish the kid for literally not doing the impossible. I’d think the dean would like to hear about this…

    He might as well have thrown him out of class for just having an opinion. Of course considering this was written by uber-christians, that’s probably what they would do, since being comfortable with differing opinions are NOT the hallmark of a fundamentalist Christian!!!