Mar 23, 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.)
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.
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?
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.]