Several friends have recommended I watch God’s Not Dead (GND), and since the follow up recently released here at cinemas in South Africa, I thought I would get up to date. After watching the film I have been left with incredibly mixed feelings, of which we shall illumine here.
1. The Good Side.
a. The obvious positive is that the film stands up for the Christian faith. This, I believe (as an apologist), is a necessity in a culture where so many diverse, conflicting worldviews battle for supremacy. This fact would surely be one key variable as to why the film has proven to be quite a success. For example, it earned $60.8 million from 780 theatres with only a budget of $2 million. Pure Flix Entertainment clearly made ends meet, as Adam Markovitz of Entertainment Weekly said that it was ”the biggest surprise of the weekend” (1).
b. The film very importantly focuses on life’s most important question, that of God’s existence. So much rides on God’s existence. Meaning, purpose, moral realism, rationality and a host of other significant existential questions are ultimately decided on whether or not God exists. Even Richard Dawkins saw this when he penned that “The question of whether there exists a supernatural creator, a God, is one of the most important that we have to answer” (2). But what about the Christian religion? It is undoubtedly the case that if Christianity is true then there are eternal considerations. Eternity is a very long time. It is also a “time” (or existence rather), given Christian theism’s truth, that one will either live separated from God or be within his presence forever. These are important considerations for once one’s decision has been made there’s no going back. No-one could deny that these are important questions.
c. I think that the acting was relatively decent. I didn’t feel that it was too wooden, bad or weird. There are periods where the scenes themselves seem incredibly set up (we will touch on this below) but the acting itself was passable. I also tended to like the general scenery and settings. I think that the college environment was well articulated, even though it was home to some clearly put on, unrealistic scenes.
d. I would argue that the film well captures fundamentalist atheism; it just obviously misplaces it (more on this below). Professor of Philosophy Jeffery Raddison, an obnoxious anti-theist of whom is the films antagonist, claims that God is just a “big man in the sky,” that he is “dead,” a “myth” and a malevolent “celestial dictator.” These are quips that are commonly espoused by fundamentalist internet atheists as well as in several well-known New Atheist books. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would clearly come to mind. The point being is that the film captures the common quips and propaganda so widely spread within atheists camps.
e. Ultimately the film has a powerful story, or at least it tries to have one. Obviously it centers on God’s existence but it also includes the themes of human vulnerability, terminal illness (cancer), tragic accidents and death. These are powerful aspects to the human experience. The film clearly tries to implement these in order to manufacture a powerful narrative. Finally it seems, on its surface, to get the Christian message right. It highlights the temporal nature of the world and the materials that are within it. These would include the highly sought after and seductive things such as fame, money, and success. The film emphasizes that these are temporary but “Jesus… that’s eternal” (to quote Willie). The film likewise touches on Christian humility especially through Pastor David.
f. GND does touch on the fact that atheism is quite pertinent in philosophy and thus has influence. Some 72.8% of philosophers are atheists with a sizeable 49.8 of them being naturalists (9). As a Christian I love engaging philosophy but whenever I visit the philosophy section at the local bookstore atheists are everywhere (on the shelf, that is). For example, on a recent visit one could see The Age of Nothing (Peter Watson), The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins), The Moral Landscape (Sam Harris), God’s Not Great (Christopher Hitchens), and others. How any of these “philosophers” are actually philosophers is quite beyond me (I am not so sure about Watson though). One shouldn’t really be too worried after all this same bookstore has put Deepak Chopra in the Christian section… That’s like putting a baseball book in the teenage-fiction category as a best seller. However, the point being is that it seems the producers of GND wanted to engage an academic discipline where atheists are clearly most prevalent. If that was the goal then they at least got that right by choosing philosophy. Philosophy is clearly a better choice over biology (41% atheist), chemistry (26.6%), or psychology (33%).
g. The film gives an introduction to some solid theistic arguments. However, this also counts as a let down, at least for me who has interacted with these arguments (we will touch on this below). But for a general introduction to whet the appetite I think that the film demonstrates that reason and rationality can and does exist behind belief in God.
2. General Reception.
Other than achieving a 4.5/5 on Amazon the reception has been poor. Todd Van Der Werff, in one if his pieces, writes that “Even by the rather lax standards of the Christian film industry, God’s Not Dead is a disaster. It’s an uninspired amble past a variety of Christian-email-forward bogeymen that feels far too long at just 113 minutes” (3). I think that Todd is being a little bit unfair as I don’t think The Passion of the Christ, or Miracles from Heaven, or several other Christian industry based films, can be simply called “lax.” Reviewer Scott Foundas of Variety writes that “even grading on a generous curve, this strident melodrama about the insidious efforts of America’s university system to silence true believers on campus is about as subtle as a stack of Bibles falling on your head….” (4). Steve Pulaski, of Influx Magazine, is somewhat more generous writing that “God’s Not Dead has issues, many of them easy to spot and heavily distracting. However, it’s surprisingly effective in terms of message, acting, and insight, which are three fields Christian cinema seems to struggle with the most” (5). Alternatively many Christian leaders recommend the film. The Alliance Defending Freedom, for instance, endorses GND, “I believe Christians should go see this movie because it will strengthen their faith and help them question situations about how they stood up or backed down for their faith. It will also encourage them to share their faith more” (6). Another commentator believes that GND is ”a tremendously entertaining film that leads to God, not in addition to its quality but through its quality” (7),
3. My Critiques.
a. An obvious critique is the clear generalizations and stereotypes. I would argue that there is some truth to these stereotypes as a stereotype is not necessarily a false view. Stereotypes are generally just easier to “box” and categorize certain people, races and cultures within our minds. For example, the only Chinese people in the film are Martin, a student, and his businessman dad back in China. However, the Chinese do, in general, tend to be more serious than other cultures and the film plays on this. Martin evidently never smiles once prior to his conversion to Christianity. He is also always contemplative, undecided, and cold. There are obvious connections with Martin’s place in the film and the real persecution of Christianity back in China. Consider, the two main black people in the film. One is pastor David’s friend, and reverend, Benjamin Oyango. The other is a randomly introduced student in the philosophy introductory class. What’s the student’s name? It’s “G Dog.” And that about sums up the depth of his character. Oyango seems to enjoy more character development, film time and is generally warm, welcoming, and understanding. Then there are the Muslims. There is Misrab, the father of college daughter Ayisha of whom also has a smaller brother. Point being is that these Muslims are presented as getting around in an old, aged Toyota, and the dad is presented as being very oppressive. He forces Ayisha to wear a burka wherever she goes, this is because, according Ayisha, her “father he is very traditional.” Ayisha is, however, secretly a Christian. One day her brother discovers this (he walks into her room uninvited and sees a Christian sermon on her phone) and subsequently informs the father, Misrab. Misrab is outraged, strikes Ayisha, and kicks her out the house. This is not an unrealistic picture. This happens. In fact, in Islamic theocracies such as Syria and Afghanistan these, and worse, things happen to many, many people who do not submit to Allah’s will and to the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings. However, it would be amiss to associate such behaviour with all Muslims, which is a view that the film seems to support.
Then there’s the reporter Amy Ryan and her wealthy businessman boyfriend. Both are literally cut from cardboard boxes. Amy always seems to be busy and is also, in one scene, paranoid about some Christians poaching ducks, of all animals. Her boyfriend, on the other hand, is a full asshole. The boyfriend has an elderly mother who is suffering from amnesia and he is incredibly indignant towards her. Almost as if everything is the mother’s fault. All he cares about his making money and being wealthy (as if this is a representation of all business people). Even worse is when he finds out that Amy has cancer he drops her then and there pretty much over a restaurant dinner table. The point being is that none of this comes across as very realistic at all. It appears far more put on than anything else. It is likewise not difficult to spot the symbolism. Amy, as a reporter represents the media, who are thought to be biased against Christianity while living life without God, as her boyfriend does, leads to greed, nastiness and all bad things. The Christian victim mentality is everywhere.
And then there are the poor atheists. Professor Jeffery Raddison is presented as a bigoted atheist who forces his ideology on his philosophy students. Raddison has college friends who are likewise professors. All of them view religious belief as ridiculous and they always nod their heads in agreement with whatever Raddison says. How does the film clothe Raddison’s character? That’s easy to answer. He’s essentially a bully, incredibly arrogant, sarcastic, controlling, and a sore loser. Even worse, the film producers thought that it would also be a good idea to have him dating one of his students, Mina. This is literally how the film represents atheists. This is hardly a realistic picture of atheists. Not every atheist is a Richard Dawkins (and not even he has ever dated one of his students).
Moreover, and very unsurprisingly, Christians enjoy a good representation. Wheaton is a decent looking and obviously brave person for standing up to his professor. Pastor David and reverend Oyango are always humble, jovial, and peaceful. Mina, also a Christian, is the girlfriend of the bigoted professor Raddison. She likewise stands up for her faith which is met with condemnation by Raddison and his little group of nodding friends. Very little, if anything, from the Christian camp is presented in a negative light. However, everyone else (from Chinese people to businessmen) receives the rear end of the stick. Evangelical Christian Michael Gerson, was right in saying that “The main problem with God’s Not Dead is not its cosmology or ethics but its anthropology. It assumes that human beings are made out of cardboard. Academics are arrogant and cruel. Liberal bloggers are preening and snarky. Unbelievers disbelieve because of personal demons. It is characterization by caricature” (8)
b. The film is profoundly unrealistic and obviously depicts a false portrayal of reality. Yes, many Christians lose their faith in college (particularly because they’ve never actually known the evidence for their beliefs) and yes, some professors have an agenda against Christianity. However, it is incredibly unlikely that we will ever come across a professor of the likes of Jeffery Raddison. There might be an exception but it is incredibly unlikely. A professor may have a bias and this may come through in his teaching, but no professor would ever walk into a class, introduce himself as an atheist, and get everyone in the class to sign a piece of paper with the words “God is dead” on them. In what world would an entire class (50+ students) ever do this? Most of the class would be religiously orientated in some way whether that be Christian, perhaps agnostic, Muslim, Jew etc. Atheism, on the other hand, is still a small, but growing, minority of college students. I’ve been to two universities myself and today I can only recall three atheists with one of them being a lecturer and the other two students. Yet I found that there were many spiritualists, New Agers, Christians, and Muslims. Colleges and universities have a big religious representation, but clearly not in the universe of GND. Apparently everyone in GND feels contented and obliged to sign a piece of paper saying God is dead. In reality that would be a one way ticket to getting fired.
Following this Raddison presents several names of scholars on a white board to the class. All of those names are, or were, atheists, and even Dawkins is on there… This doesn’t make sense. Why is Dawkins mentioned in a philosophy class? He was a biologist. Is Raddison that incompetent (at least that’s what the film wants you to believe)? It would be like a Christian professor of science being so blinded by his faith that he begins introducing several names of theistic scientists and then on top throwing in Ken Ham for good measure. Yet, somewhat charitably, the rest of the names Raddison presents are familiar philosophers of the likes Camus, Nietzsche, Russell etc. Secondly, this is odd because philosophy isn’t about atheism, although a part of it would include going through philosophers, past and present, who do hold to such a viewpoint. If Raddison is really a professor of philosophy then that would entail him having a PhD and many years of experience. If anything the way he is presented is like an immature internet atheist and certainly no professor, whether an atheist or not. This is incredibly detached from reality and contrary to my own, and other peoples’, experience.
c. There is also just a bad take on atheists when it comes to debates. Yes, many atheists, like many theists, really do seem to be naïve when it comes to religious-atheism discussions and questions. But many aren’t, at least in my experience. Raddison is depicted as hardly being a competent atheist. Wheaton presents a persuasive argument from cosmology (more on the arguments in a bit) to the class. What is Raddison’s reply? A mere, roundly criticized, quote from Stephen Hawking. That’s not an argument. Moreover, Raddison repeatedly condemns and undermines Wheaton’s arguments because he is just a “freshman,” as if that remotely counts as an argument. We also find that behind Raddison’s façade of rationality is an intense distaste for God because his mother died from cancer when he was just 12. In my mind I can picture atheists squirming in their seats or turning over in their graves at such a representation. Yet to give credit where it is due this is not incorrect. Many atheists have an intense hate for God which is guarded by a smokescreen of rationality. I know this because I have experience dealing with them. But again it is wholly amiss to suspect that atheists are all like this, which is the impression that the film seems to give.
d. As far as I remember there are two (?) arguments presented in this film. One is the cosmological argument from the Big Bang, and the other being morality. My point being is that neither of these two arguments are presented via any deductive means, as say through the Kalam Cosmological Argument or the argument from Objective Moral Values and Duties. But this is hardly a treatment at all. The moral argument is a half-baked retort to Raddison (it does expose issues that atheists do have given their worldview) that is underdeveloped. The most we see is Wheaton’s argument from Big Bang cosmology (a sound argument but one that isn’t given justice in the film). However, this neglects several other arguments from Fine-Tuning, the Ontological Argument, from Jesus’ resurrection (odd since this film intends to promote a Christian agenda), and dozens more. The film, to do justice, should have at least tried to go for two or three solid theistic arguments. But it doesn’t.
c. The film is not really meant to be funny but it actually is on occasion. The film is evidently dealing with a serious subject and not trying to orientate itself in the direction of comedy. However, I couldn’t help but chuckle at one scene where Raddison accosts Wheaton outside class. Raddison, in much self-righteousness, says “I want to make things clear – in that classroom there is a god… I’m him. I am also a jealous god so do not try to humiliate me in front of my students.” This clearly attempts to caste atheists in the light of pompous pride. It also gives the impression that if one is an atheist that this is where they will end up. An arrogant, insecure, bigoted bully. Yes, we have a Richard Dawkins, but not all atheists are a Richard Dawkins.
Consider another scene where Ayisha is covering her head with a burka just prior to her dad picking her up. Essentially when her dad drives out of sight, after having dropped her at college, she takes the burka off for the day until the dad returns. In this scene, as she is putting it on, a fellow (and totally random out of the blue) student walks up to her and says, “you’re beautiful… I wish you didn’t have to do that.” Again, this was clearly just another one of several set-up scenes. This was so obvious I had to chuckle, and this is quite odd since it is a subject I don’t find very funny. I think it is quite disgraceful that Islam forces women to have to cover up in such a way. However, the film is trying to be serious and in doing so comes over comical. It fails spectacularly in this regard.
d. GND also seems to force in divine intervention. The film is about God, but it being about God doesn’t have to make it a film like Miracles from Heaven (the really inspiring true story about how God dramatically miraculously heals a girl). But GND tries to fit this same formula in some way or another. For example, it doesn’t happen through a dramatic healing but in the form of a car. Basically Pastor David and reverend Oyango want to go across country for some reason. However, the scene outside the church unfolds where we have David trying to start his car which won’t start no matter what he tries to do. David then calls a car rental agency to provide him with a new vehicle. The rental is delivered right to him in perfect working condition. Again David tries starting the engine but the same thing happens. The rental man takes the car back and replaces with another one. Same story, it won’t start. Obviously, as the film makes abundantly clear, (so that even blind people could spot it) God doesn’t want him and reverend Oyango to go anywhere. At this point viewers don’t know why this is the case until the film draws to an end. Basically, Raddison gets knocked over by a car while crossing the road. This accident occurs at the very same intersection that David and Oyango are at. Seeing this David runs over to the dying Raddison. And in a very cheesy way, and in an onslaught of rain, Raddison renounces his atheism and accepts Jesus as saviour (talk about a death bed conversion). This is just so badly done and ineptly planned that even I, as a Christian, couldn’t help but role my eyes. Again, conversion is something I take very seriously, instead the film made me laugh.
I think that everyone ultimately needs to be their own judge when it comes to GND. As I presented, I think there are some good points and bad points. However, it clearly feels that the scales are tipped in the direction of the bad points, which is unfortunate because the film had a very powerful, pertinent story behind it. However, for all to see the story was implemented rather disastrously through situations that would seldom, if ever, be experienced. The characters are also has hollow as clay pots and they’re clearly grossly generalized. The film is just entirely detached from reality in so many scenes and in so many ways that it is hard to take it seriously. Certain in film commentaries on the subjugation of women in Islam, and people’s means of salvation in Christianity, had me rolling my eyes and/or chuckling instead of me feeling moved in any way. The scenes were just so obviously put on they evoked a response that they didn’t wish to evoke.
However, I suspect that many will critique this film without realizing that it does have merit when it comes to presenting at least one, arguably two, arguments for God. These arguments are solid and persuasive, and I thus urge readers to consider them. Clearly GND is not the appropriate medium for that, but that doesn’t mean other mediums don’t exist.
1. Markovitz, A. 2014. Box office report: ‘Divergent’ heads straight for $56 million win; ‘God’s Not Dead’ inspires $8.6 million. Available.
2. Richard Dawkins quoted by Van Biema in God vs. Science (2006). Available.
3. VanDerWerff, T. 2014. God’s Not Dead is a mess even by Christian film standards. Available.
4. Foundas, S. 2014. Film Review: ‘God’s Not Dead’. Available.
5. Pulaski, S. God’s Not Dead (Review) Available.
6. Herd, A. 2014. Why the Movie “God’s Not Dead” was Made, and Why It’s Important to See It: ADF Exclusive Interview with Director Russell Wolfe. Available.
7. Olszyk, N. 2014. “Crash” Meets “Mere Christianity.” Available.
8. Gerson, M. 2014. Michael Gerson: ‘Noah,’ ‘God’s Not Dead’ are movies lacking grace. Available.
9. Bourget, D. & Chalmers, D. 2013. What Do Philosophers Believe? Available.