God’s Not Dead (2014)
Starring- Kevin Sorbo, Shane Harper, David A.R. White, Trisha LaFache, Hadeel Sittu, Marco Khan, Cory Oliver, Dean Cain, Jim Gleason, Benjamin Ochieng, Cassidy Gifford, Paul Kwo
Director- Harold Cronk
PG- thematic material, brief violence and an accident scene
WARNING: If you have to go to the bathroom, now’d be the time to do it. Oh, and spoilers.
Soooooooo… I caved. I think I always knew I was going to, even while I was publishing my repeated declarations that I would absolutely not be seeing God’s Not Dead for fear of what it would do to my blood pressure (nothing good, by the way). Nothing was ever going to persuade me to actually buy a ticket or intentionally rent a copy, but I always knew that, eventually, somebody in my social circles was going to obtain this and ask me to watch it with them at a time when I really didn’t have anything better to do. And even if I did have something better to do, morbid curiosity probably would’ve compelled me to join them anyway. People have been discussing this movie too much. I can’t not participate.
My original intention was to do my second live review on this movie. I actually watched it with my computer at the ready and took notes. But I looked at the raving screed I produced and decided that wasn’t something it would be a good idea to publish — not when the movie is this deeply tied into hot-button religions and political issues, and not when we so, so desperately need to have a productive conversation about it.
Actually, to be honest, part of me doesn’t want to write this at all, because I know I’m stepping into a cesspool of controversy here. At the same time, God’s Not Dead is more than a bad movie. It’s a movie that needs to be condemned, as widely and by as many different types of people as possible. It needs to be condemned by as many people as it takes to make sure everyone realizes exactly the depth of the cultural problem it represents and the negative attitudes it, whether by accident or design, reinforces.
“Whether by accident or design.” That’s a key phrase. I don’t like to judge. I don’t like to assume to know the hearts of other people. From my own experience, I understand how different one’s actions look to oneself than they do from the outsider’s perspective. So, I’m not going to pretend to know the writers. I’m not going to pretend to know the stars. I’m not going to pretend to know the director. But I also have to be as clear and direct about this as possible, so here goes:
Either the filmmakers know better and are lying to you because there’s money to be made in the culture wars; or they suffer from incredible and dramatic intellectual laziness.
I don’t know where the middle ground is in that. Historically, I like the moderate option. I like the one that lets me be nice to everybody. But when a movie, made specifically and openly for the purpose of conveying a point and producing an actual change in its audience, so loudly peddles easily disproven untruths about other people with the intention of making them look bad, what else am I supposed to think? Either the filmmakers are lying about this, or they failed a basic Google search.
I really don’t know which one of those I find preferable: that they’re knowingly slandering other people to make a quick buck or that they actually believe the slander. Regardless, God’s Not Dead is either hateful or ignorant, and even if it’s only guilty of the latter, the effect of that ignorance is still to spread hate. And as tempting as it is to say it’s “just a movie,” it’s more than that, especially since it’s a culture wars property that’s trying to make a specific point and is targeted at a large and politically powerful subculture. Yeah, it’s mostly preaching to the already-converted, but I’m not concerned about that. I’m concerned about the youth groups that are seeing this en masse and the number of children who are about to grow up watching it. That’s the sort of statement that’s going to get me in trouble, but I fully believe it needs to be said.
Here’s your premise, for those who aren’t aware: Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), a good Christian kid, ends up in a college philosophy class with Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo),
the devil incarnate an atheist who tries to make all of his students sign a pledge that God is dead. Josh, of course, refuses, so Radisson offers him an ultimatum: Prove to the class that God exists, or receive a failing grade.
Also, there are five or six Crash-style subplots that don’t have much to do with anything in particular.
My problems with God’s Not Dead wouldn’t be as intense if it was just a bad piece of Christian apologetics. I would still have my issues with it — and everyone should, really. Evangelical Christians should find it bothersome because bad apologetics only makes their position look more untenable, and everyone else should find it bothersome because, well, it’s wrong. But a movie can be worse things than intellectually wrong.
And God’s Not Dead is wrong, quite regularly. The lion’s share of the film’s screen-time is devoted to the classroom debate and, thus, to proving the existence of God. That’s a big subject to take on, and absolutely no storyteller should dive headfirst into something like that without doing some research — coming up with arguments, checking online to see what the other side might say in response to that, trying to deal with the counterargument, and working from there. That’s a simple Google search. This stuff is not hard to find. And that’s why I don’t know how it could be anything other than lies or pure laziness — or maybe an inflated sense of self-confidence in one’s own opinion. I could write seven or eight pages on the arguments this film makes that it treats as the final word on the matter that are actually very, very old pieces of the discussion that have extremely simple answers — I still have my transcript from when I was writing this live, so I have them handy. But this is already going to be a long piece of work, so I’m not going to strike at every detail.
I’ll start with the fact that it’s weird that this philosophy class spends the majority of its time fixated on science, with both Radisson and Wheaton exclusively quoting scientists (and it’s even dumber that the non-believers in the class treat the word of Richard Dawkins, of all people, as gospel). And what rapidly becomes clear is that neither of them knows a thing about science; they simply spend all of their time quoting people who do. In particular, Radisson’s entire argument seems to boil down to, “Stephen Hawking said it; I believe it; that settles it.” It becomes an issue of discrediting sources rather than examining evidence and debunking arguments.
When it gets into questions of philosophy, it just keeps failing Google searches. It’s also amazing to me that Radisson, an educated atheist who teaches philosophy at the college level, is totally baffled by really, really basic questions that he simply must have encountered at some point along his path to non-belief. I am terrible at science and only okay at philosophy (and even then, not super well-read), and I know more about both than Professor Radisson. This movie makes clear that there are very fundamental components of his worldview that he has not only failed to personally examine but that no one in his life has ever even challenged. Does Radisson not own a computer? Has no one ever contradicted him before? Do books confuse him? How is he a philosophy professor? How does he not notice the glaring contradiction in Josh’s explanation of free will’s role in the problem of evil? Josh also makes arguments about an atheist like Professor Radisson having no source of objective morality, and he asks typical questions like where he derives meaning in life. Radisson, for his part, seems shocked by these fundamental and extraordinarily common questions, like he’s actually never heard them before. Radisson, a philosophy professor, has no answer to a fundamental question about morality and meaning? Really? I’m not saying it has to be answer that everyone watching the movie will agree with, but there very definitely should be an answer. Because there are various answers. I know this, because I know what Google is.
But the really baffling thing about this movie is that it almost never actually makes an argument for God’s existence. It almost certainly doesn’t realize that this is the case. But it is. The vast majority of Josh’s arguments don’t involve evidence or philosophy or any sort of proof. All he does is basically say, “Well, I see your theory of evolution and raise you that God could have created the world through evolution,” and, “Well, the Big Bang could’ve been the way God did things.” He just agrees with most of what Professor Radisson says and then inserts God into it, usually without giving any particular reason. It’s reflective of the problem in many of these debates, with people attempting to shift the burden of proof around all sideways. The movie establishes that it’s Josh and God who are on trial, and yet, for some reason, the prosecution is the party that almost immediately ends up under the spotlight, being forced to prove that God didn’t do it. And its failure to do that is treated like the proof itself, which is a fundamentally flawed and totally ineffective way to have this conversation. And again, it’s very weird that Radisson, a philosophy professor, never once notices the logical fallacy being employed here.
Of course, Radisson wouldn’t. He’s an idiot. The film is very clear on this point: All atheists are idiots. All non-Christians are, really. Actually, that’s giving the movie too much credit. If all non-Christians were idiots, at least they’d be sincere idiots, and sincerity is a positive quality, which non-Christians do not possess. God’s Not Dead gets so high on how awesome and impenetrable it believes its arguments to be that Josh’s ego gets multiplied by ten, and by the final debate session, he’s not even arguing anymore. He’s just glaring at Radisson and smugly demanding to know why he hates God.
The worst part? Josh is right. Radisson admits it: It’s not that he doesn’t believe in God. He just hates him. It’s not explored in much depth, but it’s pretty heavily implied that this is true of just about all the non-Christians in the movie — the ones for whom the excuse is not that they just want to do whatever they want, anyway.
I can’t tell you how loathsome I find this. The movie, in doing this, takes the easiest and most dishonest route it possibly could have. It could’ve had its non-Christian characters be insincere or stupid (or better yet, neither of those), but instead, it decided it should go with both. The storytellers aren’t well read enough to even conceive of a reason why anyone would ever disagree with their worldview, so they have to assume it’s just belligerence. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve never met an atheist who secretly believed in God but just hated him. I can’t find any atheist bloggers or public figures who’ve made any indication of that either. (I have met theists who hate God, or at least have interacted with them online, but we actually have a variety of words for them — misotheists, dystheists, antitheists, maltheists. An atheist is someone who simply doesn’t believe that there is a God, which, again, is something that Radisson, a philosophy professor, would know.)
The effect of it is to end dialogue. By extension, the effect of it is to prevent understanding between theists and atheists. And since understanding is pivotal to grasping the needs and experiences of other people, it’s also a major hindrance to compassion and empathy. Thus, it’s a major hindrance to…what was that thing Jesus talked about all the time? Love? Yeah, that.
“Love” is not an emotion God’s Not Dead processes where non-Christians are concerned. This movie is outright slanderous in this regard. The way it treats its non-Christian characters is abhorrent, dishonest, and wrong — intellectually and morally. It makes no effort to understand them, to internalize their experiences, to try to empathize with the people they are and how they got to be that way. It judges them. Then, it makes up additional wrongdoing so it can judge them some more. Whether it’s because of ignorance or because of outright dishonesty, the result is the same — God’s Not Dead hates non-Christians. It finds them shifty, untrustworthy, and terrible, worthy of love and respect only after conversion — and even after that, they still might have to pay for their awful crime of disagreeing with Christians.
The non-Christians in this are all horrible human beings. Horrible. Wholly bereft of even the slightest redemptive qualities. Radisson is a domineering bully. He has no actual interest in teaching philosophy. He strong-arms everyone into doing exactly what he wants. He treats his Christian girlfriend like an uneducated subhuman (that Christian girlfriend, by the way, being someone with whom he began his relationship while she was an undergrad in his class). He stalks and threatens Josh. He comes near to physically attacking him in one scene. The scary part is that Radisson isn’t even the least sympathetic of the film’s non-Christian characters.
No, that designation is reserved for Dean Cain’s businessman, a character so wretched on so many levels that he’s only one tonal shift away from being a Bond villain. He broke this movie for me. Up until his “big scenes,” I mainly thought of the movie as wrong-headed, poorly made, and somewhat inadvisable in the way that it was treating its non-Christian characters. After the movie made clear what sort of character he was, I knew the whole production was beyond redemption. I knew that the notion of all non-Christians being morally compromised was a fundamental component of the storytellers’ worldviews — fundamental enough to shape every aspect of them. We are talking about a character who reacts to finding out his girlfriend has cancer by breaking up with her and berating her for not telling him in a more appropriate setting. We are talking about a character who refuses to visit his sickly mother and who openly mocks her dementia.
The other atheist is a blogger and militant vegan (that’s the sort of movie this is) who does ambush interviews with Christian celebrities — here meaning that she asks them basic questions with a snarky tone and acts surprised when they somehow manage to have an answer to something like, “You believe in God, right?” She’s smug, condescending, all-around unpleasant, and yet, easily the most likable non-Christian in the film.
And lest it only be atheists who get the short end of the stick here, there’s also a Muslim father (Marco Khan) who beats his daughter when he finds out she’s converted to Christianity and then throws her out on the street. I’m almost willing to give this one a pass, because Marco Khan comes so close to creating an actual character that the scene almost starts to play out as one with a conflict of conscience. But at that point, I can’t say that I that I was particularly willing to give the movie the benefit of the doubt.
In the end, some of these non-Christians get converted. Others don’t. The ones who do are converted solely on the basis of their fear of death, which is not the best way to conclude a movie that’s trying to make a logical argument for the existence of God.
Professor Radisson dies. That’s the mild way of putting it. He gets hit by a car. And given the context of the scene, it’s hard to interpret this as anything other than comeuppance. The film has not done anything to imply, at this point, that Radisson was included in Christ’s call to love everyone (his hatred of God, it turns out, stems from watching his mother die when he was a child, and when learning this and seeing Radisson break down, Josh’s reaction is not to apologize or to attempt to comfort him but rather to nail him with the final zinger and basically mic-drop his way out of the debate). He still converts with his dying breath, because even this movie understands that there’s an upper limit to one’s loathsomeness. But no one misses him, no one mourns him, he leaves no gap whatsoever, and the film rapidly starts cutting the audio from a cheery Newsboys concert over the accident scene. And then it high-fives Josh for being awesome. And that’s all anybody says about this. Radisson’s life had no value. The film comes close to arguing that no one’s does. But Radisson especially.
Conversely, the Christians are all portrayed extraordinarily well. Josh is basically perfect; he simply needs to be given the opportunity to act upon his perfection. The Muslim girl’s reason for converting to Christianity is never explored, but she is faithful and serene and steadfast in the face of persecution. There are a couple of pastors who are fun and funny guys you’d love to hang around with but can totally get serious and help you out when you need it. Radisson’s girlfriend is the only one who gets any real arc, but even then, it’s not clear to me what flaws she had other than dating an atheist.
I haven’t really even gotten to the premise yet. That almost seems useless to me at this point. But it needs to be addressed — the situation the film contrives with Radisson and Josh is utterly impossible, but it’s treated like a piece of reality. The film even ends with a list of real-life cases to send the message that non-Christians are totally like this; they control everything and are just waiting to trip you up or force you to deny your faith. I haven’t checked out all of the items on the list, but I did peruse the blog on the movie’s website and looked into a few of the cases it lists there. They come exclusively in two flavors: cases where significant details were omitted and cases where the whole thing went straight to court and was struck down immediately.
Radisson’s situation is completely ridiculous. I’ve been to college; I’ve seen professors using their position of authority to grandstand on political issues (though never religious ones, that I recall). The reason they didn’t get in trouble for it is because no one’s going to report a brief tangent.
Radisson’s entire class is structured around requiring his students to disbelieve in God. The trailers for this movie at least allowed me to believe that the “God is dead” thing was an actual assignment — which, for the record, wouldn’t be without value, as long as the atheists in the class wrote on the opposite subject; asking someone to write a paper arguing against a closely-held belief is a good way to put them in someone else’s shoes and examine their own unconsidered assumptions. It would actually be a very productive exercise for a philosophy class, but this class isn’t terribly productive. Or about philosophy.
But in the movie, it’s just Radisson handing out sheets of paper that say “God is dead” and requiring his students to sign it on threat of failure. In the real world, there is no way that would stand. No one would even consider letting that stand. Only the most strident of atheists would rush to defend his behavior.
And yet, the students know he does this. People in his social circles know he does this. Other faculty members know he does this. Despite this, not only has absolutely no one reprimanded him (it genuinely seems as though Josh is the first person to oppose this behavior, which is just weird), he’s actually up for department chair. It would only take one camera phone to expose this power-mad bully and end his career. But it’s allowed to stand. I guess the implication is that it’s all liberal academia, and they’re okay with this sort of thing. (In real life, it turns out that college professors, statistically, reflect roughly the same religious diversity as the rest of the population.) It’s just another way that the movie insists the world is a scary, dangerous place full of scary, dangerous people, and you always have to be on your guard. Otherwise, they’re going to get you.
I’ve said in the past, and I keep saying, that if I had the power to give everyone alive just one piece of knowledge, it’d be this: Every single person you encounter in your life is just somebody trying to get by. That’s it. It’s really simple, but I’m constantly finding myself mired in these circles where the only explanation for their worldview is that all of life is an evil conspiracy centered on destroying them. God’s Not Dead is a movie made by and for those people. God’s Not Dead is a movie that could stand to have that realization.
Honestly, the actual quality of the film isn’t worth talking about. I don’t plan to review a movie like this and examine it from a technical perspective, because you know what you’re getting. It hovers around the level of your average TV movie. The production values, acting, direction, etc. are mediocre. And anyway, none of that really matters in light of the truly important things it gets disastrously wrong.
In some sense, the quality of Christian movies has been improving over the years, but the filmmakers are still failing to understand the nature of everyone’s objection to them. I’m not saying that production values, direction, editing, and acting aren’t things that you should work on and improve, but these seem to be the only aspects of the process on which everyone involved is focusing. If you only focus on those, you’re not doing much more than cleaning up the packaging for something that is, at its core, still rotten.
Christian movies can scrape up the biggest budgets they can muster. They can find a way to incorporate bigger stars. They can study basic filmmaking fundamentals and figure out how to shoot, direct, and edit something in a visually effective way. Were they so inclined, they could even work on becoming better storytellers — even if you strip away how wrong it is about everything, God’s Not Dead still doesn’t work as drama.
But if they want to be taken seriously as a significant part of the cinematic landscape — if they want to be fully participating voices in the mainstream cultural dialogue — they’ve got to take the next step. It’s a dangerous step. It’s the step where you challenge yourself. It’s the step where you possibly confront significant elements of your worldview and find that there’s friction there. It’s the step where maybe you change. But it’s the only step that matters.
There was, in my live review, one paragraph that I would like to publish here. It reads: “If evangelical Christianity wants to make real art that actually challenges its own assumptions, tries to answer the big questions, and makes real changes in the lives of people who aren’t already members of the choir, it should make this exact movie, but the atheist should be a normal human. Not a raging, ridiculous jerk who’s one step down from a Bond villain. Have him be a pleasant and decent person, like most people, making arguments for the worldview to which he happens to subscribe. That’s what the real world is, so instead of making up a happy and easy-to-swallow alternative, deal with it. That’s what art is.”
And that’s about the long and short of it. Art — storytelling — is one of the ways in which we try to make sense of the world in which we live. It’s about empathy, about contextualizing the lives of others so that we see, in clarity, the parts of the world that don’t belong to us. It’s about improving our own understanding of others — and helping them understand us as well.
Art doesn’t always arrive at the right answer. Sometimes, it can only conclude that there isn’t one. But the answer isn’t as important as the process. It’s more important to make a good-faith effort than to be right. It’s more important to challenge everything you’re conveying through your characters against the lens of reality and the perspectives of others. It’s about balance, detail, intelligence, and, above all, wisdom.
And if you’re failing basic Google searches, well, it’s hard for me to give you the benefit of the doubt.
NOTE: I considered, with this review/essay/whatever-it-is, talking about my own religious inclinations for what would likely be the first time in this website’s history. I elected not to do that for one important reason: It would defeat my entire purpose if I either used my own group membership to bolster my credibility in some people’s eyes or if I allowed it to give them the excuse to write this opinion off before reading it. I decided that I’m dealing with the facts of reality here. Those facts are facts regardless of the religious lens through which I see them, so ultimately, my personal leanings would change nothing.
SECOND NOTE: I encountered, as I was perusing other reviews of this movie, a perspective from Patheos blogger Neil Carter (for the record, if, like me, you have some interest in religious matters, I highly recommend Patheos; you won’t find a larger and more personal collection of writings from dozens of different faiths, or lacks thereof). Carter is not someone I’ve ever really read before, but this post offers a unique and worthwhile take: What I Learned about Atheists from God’s Not Dead. There are interesting points made throughout, so read the entire thing, but this part, I think, is the crux of it:
“This is not love. You cannot love people while ignoring everything they tell you about themselves. You are not loving people when you refuse to listen to their stories. You are not loving them well when you decide before hearing them that you already know all that you need to know about them, overruling their own self-descriptions and self-identifications because you are convinced you know better than they do what’s going on inside of them. When you continually speak of people in terms to which they cannot agree, you are not showing them respect or validating them as real people. This movie represents a grievous failure to love people like me. If you watch this and then beg me to go watch it as well, it tells me that in some way you accept its presentation of what I am like even though I’m telling you it’s not accurate. If you say you are to be known by how you love, then this should upset you. The words may be there, but the thing your words promise is not.”