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.