In short, God’s Not Dead is a movie-length version of one of those email chain letters or Facebook postings that gives the spiel about how a student bested a learned Professor in class on whether God exists (see e.g. the Dropped Chalk Story or Student Einstein Humiliates Professor). There is one noticeable difference, however, which is that in this movie the student doesn’t turn out to be a young Albert Einstein.
Freshman student Josh Wheaton is sitting in the first lecture of a first-year philosophy class taught by Professor Radisson. Radisson is an atheist and begins the class by listing a whole bunch of philosophers who are atheists and demanding that the students (about 80-90 of them) all acknowledge the “primitive superstition” of religion by writing on a piece of paper “God is dead” and signing it. The only student who does not do this is Wheaton. Radisson then challenges him to prove his belief in God over the next three lectures, with the students deciding who wins the debate.
Of course, it seems absurd that no one else in the class apart from Wheaton had a problem with the outrageously inappropriate requirement from Radisson to sign a religious statement denying the existence of a deity. I guess no theists ever take introductory philosophy classes? Or if they do then they mustn’t have any conviction about their belief (or the common sense to tattle on the Professor).
This movie didn’t prove that a god exists but it did ably demonstrate that stereotypes are alive and well in American Evangelicalism (the production company of the movie, Pure Flix, seems like it belongs to the evangelical stream of Christianity). If you don’t believe in a deity then you must be a horrible person, devoid of ethics, and pumped up on arrogance and self-centeredness. This movie conveys the idea that Christian’s don’t believe in atheists. How so? Because the atheist characters are just silly caricatures. Seriously, has the writer of this movie actually conversed with any atheists?
Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) and Mark (Dean Cain) are caricatures drawn up by an overactive and fearful evangelical imagination. Apart from making his students sign a statement saying “God is dead”, Radisson is also portrayed as very narcissistic, arrogant, and obnoxious to his Christian girlfriend, Mina. For instance, he tells Wheaton that he is God in the classroom and mocks Mina in front of the whole Philosophy Department faculty at a dinner.
Mark is portrayed as a successful man of upward mobility who is an emotionless sociopath. In one scene he is at dinner with his atheist girlfriend, freelance journalist Amy, and tells her that he just made partner at a lawfirm. When she responds by saying that she has cancer, he berates her for telling him and immediately dumps her. Meanwhile, Mark’s mother is a sufferer of dementia and he refuses to see her and when he finally does go see her at the behest of his sister Mina (the same Mina who is dating Radisson), he openly mocks her and her faith right in front of her. His final scene is in his car where he receives a text from his sister saying, “God is not dead.” He throws his phone onto the backseat, which I take to mean that he has hardened his heart and is the atheist of the movie who does not convert. (His ex-girlfriend Amy, however, is converted by the Christian musical band, Newsboys).
If I was an atheist, I would be pissed at this movie.
Another stereotype is found in the portrayal of the movie’s sole Muslim character. Ayisha, a student at the same university that Wheaton attends, is a secret Christian in a strict Muslim household. Her father finds out about her Christian faith and what does he do? He violently abuses her and then throws her out onto the street. Was this portrayal of the sole Muslim character really necessary? It would be like if a Islamic version of this movie was made and the sole Christian character in it was a Pastor/Priest who molests children or a Christian parent who throws their child out onto the street for being gay.
Another character is Martin, a student from the People’s Republic of China and he, of course, is an atheist. When speaking on the phone to his father back in China he mentions how they are talking about the existence of a god in the philosophy class. His dad is portrayed as being quite scared of even talking about the prospect of a deity existing over the telephone because the government might be listening (“Why are you saying this? You never know who is listening”).
Another character is Pastor Dave who advises Wheaton early on in the film and then experiences some unfortunate trouble with vehicles, leaving him stranded on campus. But never fear, for this comes into play in Radisson’s climatic scene.
There are brief scenes of the three lectures where Wheaton is given time to convince his classmates that a god exists. Wheaton decides to tackle the massive undertaking of proven God’s existence by using the big bang theory. He states that, until very recently, scientists had it wrong as to the origins of the universe, but “the Bible had it right” because the Bible is apparently some sort of an ancient scientific textbook. (Later on in the film, The Newsboys say that, “We believe God gave us an instruction manual”). That is classic evangelical claptrap wherein the Bible is some inerrant guide and manual in all facets of life (even science!).
This arc of the story culminates in the final showdown between Josh Wheaton and Professor Radisson. Theoblogger Kevin Davis (After Existentialism, Light) has done a great job summarizing the ridiculousness of this part (here and here):
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.
Later on that evening, Radisson is reading a letter from his mother (who died when he was a kid), moving him to reconcile with Mina (who had just dumped him). He realizes she is probably at the Newsboys concert and while on his way walking there, he is struck in a hit-and-run. Pastor Dave and his missionary friend, Reverend Jude, just happen to be on the scene and according to Jude, who must have x-ray capabilities and thus can give a prognosis with his clairvoyant powers, all of Radisson’s ribs are broken and his lungs are rapidly filling with blood. He is dying. Dave asks Radisson, “Do you know Jesus?” With his dying breaths, Radisson tells Dave that he is an atheist and that he is not ready to die. But, like the penitent thief on the cross, Radisson pours forth a death-bed confession of Christ and is saved. I actually shed a fear tears at this death scene, but I also cried at the ending of Armageddon and at most Disney movies… so yea.
A particularly odd part of this death scene was that Jude said, “This is a joyful thing! Painful yes, but incredibly joyful!” And I was thinking, sure that’s neat that the guy had a deathbed repentance, but he was just tragically and unexpectedly mowed down by a fuckin’ car! But I guess he is gonna be in heaven now and that’s all that matters, right?
Apart from the horrible use of stereotypes, this movie also has another big problem. Kevin Davis states it well:
Josh has converted the entire class. How? By proclaiming the love of God in Jesus Christ? No. By preaching repentance and forgiveness in the cross of Jesus Christ? Nope. By mentioning at least something vague about Jesus Christ, the promise of redemption, the hope of glory, or any of the sort? No again. The message of the film is clear. You don’t need Jesus or the Holy Spirit to convert a classroom of students to belief in God. Reason alone is a sufficient bridge from unbelief to belief. No “foolishness” to the Greeks here. Sorry, Paul. “God is alive,” and you don’t even need to change your heart of stone to a heart of flesh.
The movie did have a few brief mentions of Jesus (I was surprised they didn’t have a scene discussing the “four spiritual laws” formula and the penal substitutionary model of atonement). But on the whole, this movie was entirely about proving a generic creator god, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus. Considering this movie sprung forth from the evangelical stream, I was quite surprised by this focus on a generic god.
All in all, this movie, like a lot of evangelical apologetics, is basically a safety blanket for evangelicals. It taps into and plays on their fears. It appeals to the persecution complex that is found in fundamentalist evangelicalism where the “us versus them” paradigm reigns supreme.
Also, what evangelical movie would be complete without the following things:
- A cameo from one of those bearded Duck Dynasty guys
- The obligatory reference to Lee Strobel
- The obligatory reference to C.S. Lewis
- The high Christology of Jesus-is-my-BFF (Wheaton says: “I think of Jesus as my friend”)
- The “free will” answer as the panacea to the theodicy question (if there is a good god, then why so much evil)
- The notion that atheists are amoral fucks (Wheaton says that atheists “have no moral absolutes”)
- The portrayal of the Bible as being an inerrant textbook and instruction manual
God’s Not Dead is an odious movie made with the best of intentions, yet you know what they say about good intentions… they pave the way to hell. The movie portray Christians as people who are irreverent, stupid, and who pigeonhole non-Christians into offensive stereotypes. In short, this movie was like a movie-length Jack Chick tract.