Kevin Sorbo (yep, Hercules) plays a smug, evil, atheistic college professor who belittles and antagonizes Josh Wheaton and anyone else who dares stand up for the idea that God exists. As a result, the young student Wheaton’s duty–which is literally forced on him by Professor Radisson–is to defend the existence of God or risk failing a philosophy class that rarely if ever discusses much philosophy.
God’s Not Dead has a few isolated but truly precious successes that keep the film from being a total waste, but they don’t outweigh the vicious and cliched writing, the mediocre acting (except from Sorbo, of course, and a few others), or the excessive running time of a story that ends well before its movie does.
The premise is full of logical issues.
At least the opening to God’s Dead–the “Not” is amusingly written in afterward–is pleasant enough. Students walk through a college campus, many of them beginning their first semester, and there’s no dialogue to distract from the nice music and settings. Some of these moments seem forced–don’t buy that bottle of wine; you’ll oversleep and miss your first day of classes!–but they aren’t as grating as they could have been. That part comes soon enough: our protagonist, such as he is, finds himself face to face with a professor who immediately begins his class introduction by demanding a denial of faith from every single individual in the room, lest they fail. It’s uncertain whether any of these people ever discuss this blatant religious discrimination to the dean of their philosophy department. Imagine the public-relations backlash if a Christian professor at a public university told atheists to convert, fail, or leave, but here, the hopes of a class of eighty individuals lie on the shoulders of a boy who’s literally just started his college career.
Sorbo’s poorly written but enjoyably performed Professor Radisson seems much less concerned with teaching actual science or philosophy, or even caring for Josh Wheaton’s and the other students’ academic and intellectual health, than with simply making Wheaton look like a fool. To that end, the boy is given the sole responsibility of debating the existence of God with his atheism-loving professor–and said professor wants to be the judge of his own debate.
Ayisha, a girl from a … Muslim? family (they look Middle Eastern but don’t go to a mosque or do much of anything) attends this same university, and her father frankly looks like a bigger pop-culture stereotype of a terrorist than anything I remember seeing from 24. United 93 was less uniformly hostile in its depiction of Muslims than this movie is, and that one was all about terrorism. Regardless of how “controlling” the girl’s father is, he still doesn’t stop her from attending an ordinary university and is evidently willing to drive her.
Another girl, an animal-rights supporter who stages a rude interview with two individuals making a useless real-life Duck Dynasty cameo, finds out she has cancer. She doesn’t believe in Jesus. There is very little else to say about her character, and despite her honest acting efforts, the movie does nothing else to make her an interesting or likable person. In the meantime, following a blatant ad for the Christian band Newsboys (who appear in the film and are one of its few competent elements), Josh and his girlfriend are having an argument about how to resolve his dilemma. She wants him to at least give the professor an impression of denying God, so that the class will move on, but Josh is having none of it. This is understandable, but Josh walks a thin line between being “courageous” and coming across as a person who refuses to consider advice or differing points of view.
It gets worse.
The debates begin, and literally one of the first things out of Wheaton’s mouth is that no one can disprove the existence of God. Shifting the burden of proof isn’t going to convince his professor or anyone else in the class, and with faulty arguments like this, I question whether Josh will actually succeed in his planned career (law–but the only class he’s shown participating in is his overbearing and heavily misdirected philosophy course). After some god-of-the-gaps statements, Kevin Sorbo looks way too charismatic to be anything but likable even while B-grade thriller music is playing over him.
Wheaton needs to find a Christian fellowship on or near his campus, but he really doesn’t receive (or seek?) a great deal of emotional or moral support from other believers. Many of the other individuals his age in the film are content to deny God and move on without making a peep, and the movie comes across as being less about glorifying God or even the body of believers than about glorifying Josh and his I’m-all-alone stand for the faith. Radisson physically grabs Wheaton without apparent consequence and begins interrogating him, and as if that weren’t enough, Wheaton’s girlfriend unceremoniously dumps him.
The romantic relationships in this movie are ugly, without exception. There is no foundation in the aforementioned relationship, and if it ends that quickly, Josh is better off without her, no matter whether he realizes or appreciates it. Another student is involved in a relationship with her professor, and what a Christian girl sees in an ardently atheistic teacher who shows little else but contempt for spiritual people and especially for Christians, I have no idea. At any rate, despite this questionable and potentially disastrous misjudgment of character, his words and caresses become so flirtatious at one point that I literally begin expecting the movie to do an abrupt fade to black.
This is not the only time the film sends questionable messages through its imagery; Ayisha, the previously mentioned secret Christian, is a gorgeous girl lying down on her bed, and–no, the movie doesn’t go down those paths. She’s listening to sermons on her headphones, and when her younger brother finds out, he assumes she’s converted and immediately threatens to tell their parents. (She has, but do Muslims not study the Bible in this setting? Do Christians not read the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon or the works of Richard Dawkins, or does even so much as reading something automatically imply that you wholeheartedly believe it? In fairness, if her father is as “controlling” as is said, though he’s done little in the film up to this point, he might have simply forbidden his family from reading certain books, but this is a boring picture of Islam, whether accurate or not.)
I’ll just say that there’s a noticeable amount of alcohol consumption in this movie, portrayed negatively in some scenes and normally in others. I mention this because I don’t know how many people in the target demographic might be sensitive to depictions such as this, and I would hate for any movie, much less a Christian film, to trigger withdrawals or relapses in viewers who might be struggling with overcoming addiction.
This story doesn’t seem useful enough.
One of this movie’s truly best decisions is to showcase a girl going through relationship counseling after she has been abused. The honest desire of others to help her heal her emotional wounds, and to expect better treatment from her romantic interests, is sincere and beautiful and is probably the single most successful piece of writing in the whole story. It also highlights one of the movie’s biggest aggravations for me: I see the big question being not, “Does God exist,” but rather, “What difference does that make?” Even if we assume yes for the sake of argument, what does that say about how Christians and nonbelievers should treat one another, and what should that say?
Faith in this movie doesn’t really amount to much–standing up for God can easily come across like a hollow testimony if it’s not accompanied by a sincere passion for the needs and concerns of others. What does faith look like in action–if Radisson had an honest physical or emotional need to tend to, would Wheaton be ready and willing to do all he could, in God’s provision, to care for this professor, no matter how poorly he treated his students, even without a guarantee that said professor would be any more inclined toward Christianity because of it? I have no idea, because none of these characters, Sorbo’s included, come across like they have multifaceted personalities or outside interests beyond some contrived romances. I’m going to spoil and say that the big bad atheist’s reason for being such has nothing to do with skepticism and more with a cynical (the movie toward him, and him toward God) distrust of the Almighty ever since his mother died of cancer when he was a child. Regardless of the movie’s explanations and excuses for why this and other tragedies happen, where are all the atheists who don’t “hate” God or the idea of one but simply don’t see an honest and rational reason to believe? This was bothersome in Angels & Demons, which I wouldn’t say portrayed Christianity in a positive light, and it’s bothersome here.
The debates end in a fashion that isn’t hard to see coming, but the movie just keeps going long after its principal conflict is resolved. Two characters are on the receiving end of short but violent acts, one of them brutal and the other stylized, that I don’t think are appropriate for young or sensitive viewers. The movie ends with a Newsboys concert set against people asking to follow Jesus, but the story really could have spent more time exploring how this faith affects moment-to-moment decisions in ordinary circumstances that aren’t played up for drama.
I hope and pray that faith means more than just spam-texting “God’s Not Dead” to one’s contacts, because Christians, atheists, and people of other idea systems need to know in word and in action that they are loved, valued, and cared for, no matter what they believe and no matter how moral or defensible their ideas are.
Conclusion: A failure, but less of concept than of potential
It’s not that God’s Not Dead was doomed from the start. Its lack of subtlety does it no favors, but there’s plenty of room for storytelling that seeks altogether to honor God (The Robe, which I loved) or simply to be thought-provoking (The Last Temptation, which I also greatly enjoyed).
Of this film’s many problems, many of which are technical (inconsistent acting, music that can sometimes be very loud, and laughable dialogue that can sometimes be too quiet to hear), among its biggest is its simple refusal to humanize its characters outside of what they bring to the movie’s central conflict. The Help succeeded grandly here. These people don’t feel like people, and even being Christian, never mind being anything else, isn’t enough to keep an individual in this setting from being repulsive. Most of the atheists I know are not “bitter” or “hostile” toward God or at the least toward people who believe in Him, and the ones that are, sometimes use language that is far beyond what would be appropriate for this movie.
The main character is so difficult to enjoy watching that I found myself caught off guard whenever I actually agreed with something he said (the details of which escape me now), even if I never quite began rooting for the villain as I did with James Cameron’s Avatar. There is more than enough room for a film that showcases practical Christian altruism and its costs–Wall-E and Kiki’s Delivery Service, of all things, come across like secular yet reasonable depictions with strong role models–but this isn’t it.