In some ways God’s Not Dead is a compelling story: an inexperienced but sincere Christian college freshman faces the daunting challenge of defending his belief in God against a stridently combative atheistic philosophy professor.

It’s touted as the stuff of David and Goliath updated for contemporary times.

With a current box office take of over $4o million, this little-film-that-could has “activate[d] the faith-based audience,” per its creators’ stated intention. In the Hollywood wasteland of sex, violence, and profanity, this audience has found God’s Not Dead a refreshing oasis. Of the film’s more than 1.2 million Facebook followers, many have proclaimed it “inspiring,” “uplifting,” and even “awesome.” Over 80% of audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes rate it 3.5 stars (out of 5) or higher.

Much of the real “stuff” of the Christian life—the co-suffering with Christ, the challenges of faithfulness, the necessary sacrifices, the risk of real persecution, and learning to turn the other cheek—is conspicuously absent.Critical reception, on the other hand, is decidedly lower, at around 15%. Todd VanDerWerff at the AV Club calls God’s Not Dead “a mess even by Christian film standards,” Michael Gerson of the Washington Post labels it “graceless and clueless,” and Claudia Puig writing for USA Today says it is “preachy,” sporting an “implausible” premise.

What may account for this discrepancy lies in the story’s conflict and the target audience’s identification with that conflict. Beating the odds isn’t just a recurring theme or subtle motif of God’s Not Dead; it’s arguably the film’s driving impetus. Bolstered by the movie’s central message—that Christians live in a world increasingly hostile to their faith—the core demographic can readily dismiss negative appraisals as evidence of the secular animosity dramatized on screen. Self-fulfilling profit-sy, if you will.

Pure Flix Entertainment, which produced the film, has capitalized on the contrast between audience reception and critical response. Their webpage highlights mainstream media’s “shock” and “surprise” at its box-office success. And of the film’s few merits, the community encouragement offered is probably the most beneficial. When I went, the theater was filled with families, clusters of friends, and church groups. Viewing God’s Not Dead was clearly a social affair, including much audience participation—laughing, clapping, and amen-ing at the appropriate times. Fans felt connected with one another, Christians united in service of Christ, Davids against the collective Goliaths of this world.

Or not. Unfortunately, what the film gives with one hand it takes away with the other. Despite—if not because of—its pep-rally atmosphere, merchandising line, and unabashed promotion of popular Christianity, God’s Not Dead erects some real stumbling blocks for viewers, obstacles that are cloaked by the movie’s triumphalist tone.

On the surface, the film appears concerned with Christian faithfulness: Josh Wheaton wrestles to decide if he will drop his philosophy class, assent to his professor’s demand and affirm “God is dead,” or prepare and deliver three twenty-minute class lectures that defend God’s existence. In the process he loses his (completely vacuous and compromising) girlfriend, struggles to keep up with his other classes, and risks rejection from law school, all to do the right thing.

These and other gestures toward difficulty, however, only mask the rather easy faith the film peddles. Little serious risk does Wheaton take in his stand against Professor Radisson. How can an eighteen-year-old novice be humiliated if no one truly expects him to best a seasoned philosopher at his own game? And who would expect that? What actual prospect is there of Radisson preventing the freshman’s admission to law school, four years hence? And clearly Josh is better off without his badgering, benighted girlfriend.

Here’s the thing: the cross Christians are called to take up by God’s Not Dead is more akin to a merit badge, a gold star on a class assignment, a “smile put on God’s face,” as Willie Robertson describes Josh’s achievement at the film’s culminating concert. A brand of Christianity is depicted in the film, but largely through emblem—a Newsboys t-shirt here, a cross necklace there. Evangelism reduced to mass communication, texting “God’s Not Dead” to all concertgoers’ contacts.

Such appalling superficiality should give Christian viewers serious pause. There are enough barriers in the way of authentic faith already; reinforcing the idea that evangelicals are willing to rest content with shallowness at best, reveling in it at worst, shouldn’t be among them.

Much of the real “stuff” of the Christian life—the co-suffering with Christ, the challenges of faithfulness, the necessary sacrifices, the risk of real persecution, and learning to turn the other cheek—is conspicuously absent.

The film also relies on surfacy tokens as stand-ins for real pain and heartache. With Radisson, in fact, the writers seem callous to that pain, offering platitudes divorced from loving context. When Radisson wonders why God denied his childhood prayers to spare his mother’s life, Josh responds, “Sometimes the answer is no.” However true, Josh fails to recognize this painful moment of transparency as a chance to make a real connection, to show some empathy, to build a bridge, to share in another’s pain.

Josh’s third apologetics session compounds this callousness, yet in doing so achieves the film’s climax. Turning from reasoned argument, Josh assumes an intellectual assent not earned. “Science supports [God’s] existence. You know the truth!” he exclaims to Radisson. The utter implausibility of the professor’s stunning defeat aside, Josh’s triumphalist attitude is unbecoming and unworthy of the audience’s applause, particularly in light of our call as Christians to win people, not just arguments. The film’s assumption that Christians need not “commit intellectual suicide” is right, but a rationality truly resonant with Christian faith can’t be fashioned into a weapon.

Josh would have been more compassionate to address Radisson’s hurt on a relational level than to exploit it in a public forum. The filmmakers would have been more charitable to avoid assuming that atheists disbelieve God for purely psychological reasons. Viewers would be more discerning to recognize that lovingkindness better shows Christ’s relevance to this world than does a three-word text and trumped-up emotionalism.


  1. I saw the film. It wasn’t great, but it could have been worse. One aspect that I simply don’t see any negative reviewers taking into account is the stunning confrontation between the elderly woman with dementia and her son. I thought that bit of dialogue was actually profound and moving. Furthermore, nothing bad happens to the son, and in fact he rejects salvation in the end. Also, the way Radisson treats his girlfriend rang painfully true. So there were definitely some human moments in this film.

    1. I took away a similar sentiment about the film. I wish they had done more with that particular storyline too.

      The main plot’s ending was pretty cheesy and cliched, of course. But I appreciated the various angles trying to portray what some Christian folks go through in various stages of life. Also, it was somewhat amusing to have 90s Superman & 90s Hercules together in the same movie.

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  3. There were certainly parts of this movie that could have been improved, but no movie can cover everything. The focus was clearly on providing evidence for the existence of God and suggesting Christianity was the ultimate outcome of given evidence. The sub-plots dealt with the difficulty some face in making a decision to follow Christ.

    Clearly a young lady being thrown out of her home for accepting Christ or a Chinese boy being disowned does not count as real suffering according to Marybeth. Perhaps only death or beatings count as real suffering. I guess the producers should have called her and asked what counts as real suffering.

    While Josh’s reactions were not always the best, the movie succeeded in recognizing that many people reject God because of pain, not because of a lack of evidence. That is anything but surfacy.

    Sometimes you have to win an argument before you can win a person, the two are not mutually exclusive.

    I find this review to be lacking in a variety of ways. No, this movie will not win any Oscars, but the message clearly struck a chord and it was an honest look at the difficulties that can come with making a decision to follow Christ along with the role of the church in that process. Maybe texting of Facebooking “God is not dead” is cheesy and surfacy, but the conversation my wife had with her wiccan friend after seeing this movie was not!!

  4. When Radisson wonders why God denied his childhood prayers to spare his mother’s life, Josh responds, “Sometimes the answer is no.” However true, Josh fails to recognize this painful moment of transparency as a chance to make a real connection, to show some empathy, to build a bridge, to share in another’s pain.

    Very well said, Marybeth. This is the point that the movie misses or missed in its presentation. Christianity is relational; it starts first with a relationship with Christ; then moves out to relationships with others to win them or encourage them – to show compassion and loving kindness in the midst of pain. Josh missed one great opportunity to show Christ’s love and the Father’s love in sending Christ to be our savior and comforter.

    It makes me proud to be your “mama!”

  5. The film certainly left itself open to a variety of criticisms but, taking it for what it was, I believe there was potential to take away a number of positive and impactful messages. That said, In response to Josh missing the opportunity to build a relationship with his Professor, while said point is worthy and wise for real life, it wasn’t what the film was about. He was given an assignment in a classroom and he performed the task. Maybe a more relevant criticism should be to ask why the film chose to portray an atheist and philosopher as so antagonistic towards Christianity, even to such the extent that he finds it appropriate to threaten Josh in personal ways. It is clear that the Professor does not like Josh or respect him or his ambitious and sincere stand for his faith. Not all atheists are angry, vindictive and blatantly hurtful (re: The Professor’s condescending attitude toward his girlfriend). Perhaps if the film took place outside of an academic institution and with a less angry antheist, it may have been more appropriate to criticize the filmmakers for not showing the importance of relationship when evangelizing.

    1. I enjoyed the movie God is not dead. I liked that it showed that their is a cost to follow Jesus Christ. Yes there were times that Josh could have handled something different than he did such as with the professor when he admitted how angry he was at God, but I liked that it also showed our flaws as well. I believe that training in righteousness is very important but I well know the anxiety that comes to Christian and Atheist alike when we expect someone to attain a standard that truly we have not attained our selves. GOD did not hide the flaws in people’s thoughts and emotions and actions in the bible And yet these same ones learned to become victorious in Jesus Grace and Mercy. The Atheist or agnostic whether they are mad at God for the tragedies that God allowed to happen or whether they don’t want God messing up their fun but not without cost sin life perish because they do not trust that God loves them. I loved that the hardened Athiest professor got saved. It made me reflect on my own salvation though I was not nearly as intellectual and I probably was closer to the portrayed scumbag rich guy without the money but chasing after the things of this world and being selfish and all about me. I reflected back how God reached me through affliction and brought me to repentance. What a miracle working God we serve. What looks impossible to us God is well equipped to handle. I loved that another hard heart was softened toward the Lord.

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