God's Not Dead was produced by Pure Flix, an evangelical movie studio and distribution company which had been creating Christian films for about 10 years before God's Not Dead. According to Russell Wolfe, co-founder of Pure Flix, the concept for film came about when the studio was looking for ideas and were suggested to make a film about apologetics. Around the same time, the Alliance Defending Freedom (a conservative, evangelical lobbying group which has been labelled as a hate organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center) were telling the producers stories about apparent Christian persecution, which inspired the campus setting of the film.
That's the official story at least. I can't be the only one who has heard of the urban legend of the "atheist professor" while growing up in the church. God's Not Dead cribs liberally from this myth, even down to some of its arguments which, as one writer puts it, makes this the first film based on a chain email. Kelly Kullberg has also argued that the producers of God's Not Dead stole her own life story, which caused her to sue them for $100 million. This lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, with the judge claiming that the film and her own script weren't similar enough to constitute copyright infringement. Whether this is because Kelly Kullberg was also ripping off the atheist professor story or not is unclear.
God's Not Dead ended up being a surprise hit at the box office in its limited theatrical release, bringing in around $65 million on a $2 million budget, despite having no real mainstream star power or marketing associated with it. As I have written about in the past, this success came about from the free viral marketing that churches offer these kinds of projects - the pastor tells their congregation to go see this movie because it will affirm their faith, and so the film has a built-in audience that it doesn't even need to dedicate a marketing budget towards to reach.
The story of God's Not Dead is structured in a manner similar to Paul Haggis' Crash, with a number of characters' narratives intersecting, and all centred on an overarching theme, in this case Christianity and faith. The main plot revolves around a student named Josh Wheaton who takes a philosophy class taught by the notoriously hostile Jeffery Radisson. Radisson tries to get everyone in the class to declare that "God is dead", but Josh refuses and is forced to defend his position over the course of the next three lectures, while Radisson grows increasingly hostile at his defiance. Meanwhile, we're treated to a few side-plots: Amy is a hostile liberal journalist who gets cancer, her boyfriend Mark is a psychopathic and self-interested businessman (there isn't really any thrust to his scenes beyond that), his sister Mina is Radisson's girlfriend (or wife maybe? It isn't clear at all and I have heard conflicting answers) who is growing apart from him because she is a Christian, Ayisha is a secret Christian within a very traditional Muslim family, and Pastor Dave and Pastor Jude can't get their car to start when they want to go on vacation (seriously, that last one is a subplot which gets a lot of screentime during this film).
Eventually, this all culminates in Josh winning the debate against Radisson, most of the atheist characters convert to Christianity and Radisson gets hit and killed by a car, being converted on his deathbed by Pastors Dave and Jude (and thereby justifying all the screentime they've had throughout the film on their seemingly pointless subplot). Everyone rocks out at a Newsboys concert and the film encourages everyone to advertise the film for them (again, seriously).
With the plot out of the way, let's get to the positives for God's Not Dead first. For the most part, this is a very competently-made film. The directing and production values are better than you're probably expecting - it certain looks like an independent film, but not an amateur made-for-TV movie. The acting is also mostly solid across the board, with only Josh's girlfriend putting in a clearly bad performance (although she is dispensed from the plot pretty early on, luckily).
Other than that though... hoo boy. I'm just going to get the technical issues out of the way first; the editing is really weird sometimes. For an early example, Radisson is handing out pieces of paper to his class to sign "God is dead" on, when the film suddenly cuts away to Pastors Dave and Jude arriving at the airport. This cut was made for seemingly no reason, and I can't understand it because it deflates the tension of the classroom scene. The only justification is that at the end of their scene the pastors say "God is good", which is then contrasted by Radisson saying "God is dead" before cutting back to the classroom, but this doesn't justify that first, abrupt cut in the slightest. There are weird edits like that sprinkled throughout God's Not Dead, in part due to its story structure. That said, the script is definitely the main issue in this film, and it brings down an otherwise competent production. I'll get to the broader implications of the script later, but for now aside from the pastors and maybe Josh, the characters are, on the whole, very one- or two-dimensional at best, serving more as object lessons rather than fully-realized characters. Obviously, that is a major issue for a character drama like this. Furthermore, this film's script is just plain dull for the most part, stretching itself thin over an almost 2 hour runtime. I recall that around the 40 minute mark I was feeling like the movie was starting to drag, and then I saw that there was still more than an hour left and I just thought "How!?!" Honestly, the film could have done better by focusing much more on the main plot, maybe building some tension by actually giving us some insight into Josh's research (he just sort of shows up with his big presentations each time), and show us more of the strain that this stand was apparently putting on him (he loses his girlfriend due to ridiculous circumstances and Josh says that he is falling behind on his school work because of it, but we never really see how this is really weighing on him).
Still, God's Not Dead would have probably just come and gone without a fanfare if that was all that was wrong with this film's script, but I think we all know that that is far from the case. God's Not Dead fails spectacularly in two main departments: its apologetics and its portrayal of Christians vs non-Christians, both of which I feel are rooted in the filmmakers' ideological bases. I feel like the filmmakers were expecting a negative reaction from the secular world when they made God's Not Dead, but I do not think that they were expecting that the most vehement drubbings of the film would be from within the Christian world itself, due to these two major flaws.
Let's start with the apologetics. Both Josh and the film itself are quite explicitly tasked with proving that God exists, but their arguments in favour of God are not particularly compelling. Josh presents three lectures which I'll boil down simply:
- The Bible always contended that the universe didn't always exist, whereas science assumed the universe had always existed until the Big Bang was discovered, implying that science shouldn't be taken as an absolute. He also argues that something had to have caused that Big Bang to occur in the first place. When a student asks who created God, he says that that's based on an assumption that God must be created.
- When faced with Stephen Hawking's assertion that the universe created itself, Josh uses some quotes to undermine Hawking's authority and suggest that since Hawking also said that philosophy was dead, taking him at his word would contradict Radisson's entire career. He then says that evolution doesn't prove where life came from and claims that in a cosmic sense, life and all of evolution has occurred very suddenly (that particular argument was just confusing when watching and, on review, makes no sense - it's just plain wrong, evolutionary time isn't measured on a cosmic scale, it's measured on an... evolutionary scale).
- Josh argues that evil exists because of free will and that we can join God in heaven because He allows evil to exist temporarily (also very funny in this part, the filmmakers use a slide of The Creation of Adam by Michelangeo and airbrushed Adam's dick off so as not to offend any prudish evangelicals in the audience). He argues that without God there are no moral absolutes, although Radisson would say that cheating on a test would be "wrong". Josh quotes Dostoyevski, saying that "without God, everything is permissible". Josh then makes the claim that "science has proven God's existence" without any basis, and gets Radisson to admit that he hates God, to which Josh asks "how can you hate someone who doesn't exist?"
I don't really want to spend a lot of time breaking down these arguments (if you're interested, there's a good article on Psychology Today which does just that), but suffice to say that they don't even come close to proving that God exists, despite Josh's assertion otherwise. Most of his arguments are just turning atheistic arguments back at themselves or creating an intellectual uncertainty that an individual could choose to fit God into. At best, his arguments convey that we don't know where life came from, so if you want to believe in God then that's your choice, but that's still a failing grade when your stated task is to prove the existence of God. Even worse, while Josh could conceivably make a case that God exists in general, he instead makes his task basically impossible by immediately restricting himself to proving the existence of his own Judeo-Christian God. This results in quite a few potential objections that could have been made towards Josh, but are never brought up, such as that his argument over evolutionary leaps sounds an awful lot like he's trying to justify the creation narrative, of which there is absolutely no evidence. It's clear that the filmmakers did some apologetics research (there's even someone credited with this in the film crew), but I question whether they put the film's claims up against real philosophers or academics. If they did, then it certainly does not come across in the film, because the arguments are clearly weak. All that said, considering that this film is clearly directed towards the evangelical bubble, it's expecting its audience to already have formed the same conclusion as the filmmakers, meaning that the need for strong proof is basically non-existent.
The other big issue with God's Not Dead's script is its portrayal of Christians vs non-Christians. Let's start with the Christians: they're all portrayed as intelligent, respectful, happy, even-tempered people which everyone should aspire to be like, from the applauded heroism of Josh, to Ayisha's faith in the face of persecution, to the eternal optimism of Dave and Jude. The one exception to this is Josh's girlfriend, Kara - she is set up as someone who is a Christian, but when Josh decides to stand up for his faith she constantly orders him to just lie and sign the paper. She's also a total idiot: she picked a crappier school in order to be with him, she has the next 50 years of their life together mapped out and him failing this philosophy class is enough to derail the whole plan. Kara is an awful, stupid shrew of a character who only exists to up the stakes for Josh when she breaks up with him (although considering how he reacts, they weren't going to last 50 more years anyway) and to contrast against the "virtuousness" of Josh. I'd argue that, based on the way Kara is written, we're meant to her as"lukewarm" or "not a real Christian", since she does not give God priority in her life.
In contrast, let's look at our atheist characters... individually, because holy crap is there a lot to say about all of them. Let's start with Mark, played by ex-Superman Dean Cain - Mark is an unabashed, self-described asshole businessman who only cares about making himself better off. In his introduction, he won't even give directions to his girlfriend unless she will do something for him in return (I keep having to make this same aside throughout this review, but again, seriously). Even when his girlfriend tells him that she has cancer, he accuses her of "breaking our deal" that their relationship is just about getting something out of each other for personal reasons, and then immediately breaks up with her because a cancer-striken girlfriend is a total drag. Oh, and he also has a mother with dementia who he refuses to see because she won't even remember that he was there. And to put a cherry on top of it all, it is very much implied that Mark is the one who hits Radisson with his car and then leaves him to die. Mark is a deplorable, selfish, unsatisfied, loveless person who is very clearly meant to be the object lesson for Josh's assertion that "without God anything is permissible". Put simply, Mark is meant to represent the fundamentalist idea that atheists are amoral (it's a pervasive enough idea that even atheists tend to think it's true), but is such a cartoonish dick that you have to wonder if the filmmakers really think that there's anyone like this. Look, I shouldn't have to say that being religious doesn't make you a moral person any more than being an atheist makes you amoral. In fact, if the filmmakers had done some actual philosophy research, they would have known that ethics and morality are an entire school of thought in their own right which doesn't require a religious background.
Next we'll look at Amy, Mark's girlfriend who is a gotcha journalist and blogger. Amy is clearly intended to be a left-leaning character, although thinly drawn and from the perspective of someone who obviously doesn't understand why a leftist might legitimately hold those kinds of beliefs. This is shown early on when Amy ambushes... sigh... Willie Robertson (of Duck Dynasty fame) and his wife. Her interview questions consist of the following: does he hunt (duh), what gives him the moral right to maim animals ("I don't maim 'em, I kill em!") and what does he say to people who are offended that he prays on his TV show (he shuts her down with Bible verses). Naturally, Willie throws out some way-too-eloquent-to-be-real answers and Amy doesn't even respond or react to them with her own questions or follow-up. Look, obviously there are anti-hunting people, just like there are people who don't want to see prayer on TV, but these are definitely a very small minority - most reasonable people don't really give a shit about either. Now, what if Amy had been upfront about the sorts of things that actually rile people up about the faith of the Duck Dynasty crew, the sorts of things that a real journalist would probably be interested in capturing in an interview? Would it have seemed like the secular world is just targeting people of faith unjustly? Would his rebuttals have seemed to reasonable when he's trying to explain that he doesn't hate gay people? Somehow I doubt it.
Anyway, Amy gets cancer out of nowhere and spends most of the film grappling this grim reality after Mark dumps her. By the end she's back to her old tricks, sneaking into the green room with the Newsboys before a concert and asking the band "How can you sing about God and Jesus as if they're real?" Umm, because they believe that they are, duh? The band then throws out some more very obviously scripted answers which cause Amy to break down and convert out of absolutely nowhere. If Mark is meant to represent the amorality of atheism, then Amy represents the liberal media. However, in addition to making Amy a really poor journalist in general, the filmmakers once again show that they don't understand why Christianity is so often "targeted" by the media by not realizing that it is the beliefs associated with Christians which come under fire (such as homophobia or, ahem, anti-intellectualism), rather than belief itself.
Rounding out the main atheist cast is Jeffery Radisson, Josh's philosophy professor, representative of the "liberal elite" in education... I have a ton of notes to get through on this one because he is so, so bad. Before we even meet him, Josh goes to enrol in his class and is discouraged from doing so because Radisson has such a history of anti-religious fervour that the entire school is well aware of it. Somehow Radisson has never been disciplined for being blatantly discriminatory, even though he starts every semester off by trying to get everyone to sign a paper to say that they agree that "God is dead" (the act of which, he reveals, is worth a whopping 30% of the students' total grade!?! What kind of a bullshit class is this?). Radisson seems simultaneously shocked when Josh denies this, and smug in his belief that a first year philosophy student won't be able to prove the existence of God.
As events unfold, a number of things about Radisson's character become more and more clear to the viewer. First of all is that he is incredibly hostile and clearly nursing a personal grudge, which is truly apparent when he stalks and confronts Josh after class on a couple occasions and tells him that he'll freaking destroy his future for defying him. Radisson ends up being straight-up dictatorial, wanting all his students to fall in line with what he believes and turning into a giant man-baby in the face of any sort of dissent. This is also demonstrated in Radisson's relationship with Mina, a former student of his who he somehow fell in love with despite the fact that she is a Christian! During a faculty dinner party, Radisson constantly belittles Mina and her faith for no other reason than because he is a smug, misogynist dick, which the entire faculty goes along with (because they are all atheist monsters as well, even down to shark-like glances at Mina when she pipes up about her faith). When Mina (understandably) breaks up with him, Radisson says that he won't accept or allow Mina to leave him, a move which obviously doesn't work. I mean, who aside from a narcissist or a sociopath would think like that?
As Radisson's life just falls to pieces, between Mina leaving him and Josh "beating" Radisson in each debate, it's revealed that Radisson is such a militant atheist because when he was 12, his mother died of cancer. God didn't answer his mother's prayers or his, so he hates God for taking her away from him, a fact which proves to be the coup de grace in the final debate. This makes Radisson demonstrative of the infuriating fundamentalist belief that "there are no atheists", since they can't even conceive of the reasons why someone could logically and reasonably not believe in God. The end of the film seems to suggest that his experiences have caused Radisson to undergo a fundamental change in his life and he goes to try to reconnect with Mina before changing his life and becoming a better person. Just kidding about that last part, the filmmakers have him get hit by a freaking car and make a deathbed confession to Pastors Jude and David (justifying their role in the plot and implying that this was all part of God's convoluted murder plan), rather than provide first aid to the severely injured man. It all makes Jude and David come across as callously perverse in a sense, as they say that this deathbed conversion is a cause for celebration - I mean, I understand their logic, but a dude just freaking died here.
Beyond all that, Radisson is just further proof that the scriptwriters don't understand the kinds of people this movie is supposed to be portraying, nor did they bother to consult any. I doubt there's any atheist philosophy teacher who hates God so much that he would avoid even discussing him. I mean, if I was in that class I would take the invitation to sign "God is dead" as a teaching tool to show the class that you're not supposed to take anyone's word for granted - this is a philosophy class after all, which is supposed to be about the art of solving problems using logic. Radisson also seems to hold quotes from scientists such as Stephen Hawking (even on subjects he is not accredited for such as theology and philosophy) to a level bordering on reverence. When Josh dares to challenge Hawking's belief that the universe created itself, he scoffs at Josh's insolence. It's almost as if the scriptwriters believe that an atheist believes that science or scientists are inerrant on the same level that evangelicals hold their Bible. Even the philosophical quote that makes up the film's title, "God is dead" from Nietzche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is botched in this film so badly that I had to look up to make sure that my interpretation of it wasn't wrong (it wasn't). Radisson claims that the phrase means that it is settled that God does not exist, nor has he never existed. Rather, this quote is tied to a very specific time and place - the advent of the Enlightenment and modernity at the turn of the 20th century had brought about social changes which were causing belief in God to plummet in the Western world. As a result, the concept of an "absolute moral reality" (God) was now meaningless, which would lead people into nihilism. As David Kyle Johnson puts it:
"Radisson doesn't know what the phrase 'God is dead' means. [...] He thinks it means that 'God never existed in the first place.' The phrase, coined by Friedrich Nietzsche, means nothing of the sort and in fact has nothing to do with God's existence. Instead, Nietzsche was trying to argue that belief in God no longer affected how people live their lives; specifically, God was no longer used as a moral compass or a source of meaning: If only Radisson, and the makers of the film, had bothered with a four second Google search."
Oh and I would be totally remiss if I forgot to mention the worst subplot in the film, the one revolving around the only non-Christian religious character, Ayisha's father, Misrab (is... is that intended to be a pun on miserable? Bloody hell...). From his introduction, Misrab comes across as controlling and traditionally conservative in his Islamic faith, most notably by forcing Ayisha to wear a niqab in public and questioning her when he sees someone make casual conversation. From her introduction Ayisha shows that she does not want to wear the niqab, taking it off whenever her father is not around to see her. Misrab comes across as very sinister from little more than the way that the camera frames himself and Ayisha. It is later revealed that Ayisha has secretly converted to Christianity when we see her listening to a sermon by... Franklin Graham!?! Oh what the literal fuck were the filmmakers thinking when they dropped that name bomb here? Could they be any more tone-deaf? Again, bloody hell, this is the worst subplot in the whole damn film. Anyway, Ayisha listens to Graham's sermon and then her brother sneaks up on her for absolutely no reason, sees what she's listening to and then tells Misrab. Misrab goes into a rage (presumably because she's listening to other religions, but who knows, maybe he's suitably pissed that she's listening to Franklin bloody Graham) and begins angrily slapping Ayisha in an incredibly uncomfortable domestic abuse sequence that ends with him throwing her out onto the streets as both of them cry at the circumstances that led them to this outcome. As villainous and reprehensible as Misrab is, I can at least understand where he's coming from here and see that what he's doing is breaking his heart, rather than just being cartoonishly evil like the atheist characters. I realize that this sort of awful shit happens, but bloody hell, what does it say about the scriptwriters when the only non-white family in the whole movie is a stereotypical, misogynist, domestically abusive Muslim family, especially considering the sort of audience this film is supposed to be catering towards?
Part of the problem with Ayisha and Misrab's subplot is that I question whether the scriptwriters really knew what they were doing with it, or whether they just threw it in for an example of Christian persecution and an opportunity for some serious melodrama. I feel like the main reason this was added to the movie was because most of Josh's proofs of the existence of God could apply to Islam as well, so the filmmakers felt the need to show that they were just as wrong as the atheists. Islam ends up being a contrast to Christianity - whereas the Christians are free and don't hate women, the Muslims come across as dangerously old-fashioned and violent. The thing is though, this subplot is disingenuously one-sided. For example, while the film portrays Islam as being stifling and oppressive to women, I have seen and heard numerous stories over the years of women who have left the Christian church because of the way that it treats women. The sort of Islamic tradition on display in God's Not Dead is a clearly conservative one rooted in "sharia law", which is not too far off from the sort of theocracy that American evangelicals seem to hypocritically push for. Furthermore, Misrab tries to comfort Ayisha early in the film, saying that:
"It's hard living in their world and being a part of it. A world you can see but can't touch. I know they seem happy, but know that when you look around at all these people, there is no one who worships God, not the way he deserves and demands to be worshipped. We must never forget who and what we are. That is the most important thing."That statement could have just as easily been given to, say, Paster David and no one would question it, but I'm not sure the filmmakers even realize how their depiction of Muslims in this film really isn't far off from the reality of Christians. After all, how many LGBT youth have been disowned or thrown out of their houses by supposedly Christian families for coming out of the closet*? There's just so much disingenuous cognitive dissonance in the portrayal of Christians and Muslims that it's just as insulting as the characterization of atheists.
If I haven't made it obvious, I feel like a lot of this film's failings stem directly from the filmmakers' skewed evangelical ideology. This is quite evident throughout the film as I have already stated, from the lack of understanding of basic philosophy (in a movie about a philosophy class), to the arguments convincing only to someone who already believes in them, to the insulting depictions of "the other". It even shows up in the little moments throughout the film - at one point, Josh and Pastor Dave estimate that, out of 80 students in Radisson's class, Josh is the only one who has ever been to church. This is a preposterous estimate considering that nearly 80% of Americans are Christians, but it belies the belief shared by evangelicals that they are an oppressed minority (growing up in an evangelical household, I certainly believed this too). As Alissa Wilkinson said, "White evangelical Protestants, who make up the lion’s share of the so-called faith-based audience, are the only major religious group in America who believe they face more discrimination in America than Muslims do. And nearly eight in 10 white evangelical Protestants believe that discrimination against Christians is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities". This is made all the more obvious by the end credits, which list a number of "examples" of Christian persecution in America... if you count business discrimination, largely revolving around refusing to serve homosexuals and providing health care for abortions, as "persecution".
The filmmakers' conservatism also plays into some of the film's failings. Now, I don't believe that there was an explicit intent to make God's Not Dead into a piece of conservative propaganda, but the filmmakers very clearly fall on that side of the political spectrum, from the people they choose to credit onscreen (Lee Strobel, Franklin Graham, Willie Robertson, etc) and those that influenced the film off-screen (the Alliance Defending Freedom). This leads to such previously mentioned failings as having a Muslim character listening to Franklin Graham, to having Amy be a left-wing caricature. Sean Paul Murphy, a scriptwriter for Pure Flix, actually might have some insight into how politics were influencing the studio's direction by the time God's Not Dead was being produced:
"I grew up watching indie films of the 80s and 90s, those filmmakers managed to make art with small budgets because they had a passion for the medium. It's not the budgets. It is a disregard for the art of filmmaking. And faith films will not get better until the audience demands something better, but they tend to evaluate films solely on the message itself. As for the counterproductive hatred of atheists and other non-believers, I tried to buck that trend. In Hidden Secrets, the first film produced by Pure Flix (but its second release), my co-writer and I sought to create a fuller, more sympathetic portrayal [...]. Nowadays, however, the audience reward films that fight the Culture War for them. It is easier to generate anger than compassion. I have no interest in that."As a result, we've got a film with aspirations to sway agnostics towards God, which claims that it has empirical evidence for His existence, but which fails to even understand the positions of those it is arguing against. Meanwhile, it draws in Christians with cameos from celebrities within the evangelical bubble, has a cross-promotion with Christian music label Inpop Records (which provided the film's soundtrack, including the title song), sets up a blatantly cynical viral marketing campaign which encourages the audience to tell everyone to watch the film and provides an affirmation that everyone's out to get the poor, innocent Christians. After all, the conflict in this film stems from a hostile atheist forcing his beliefs on a Christian, when that Christian was content not to force them on anyone.
In summation, God's Not Dead is just a boring movie to watch, with a crappy script and extremely problematic portrayals of Christians and non-Christians at its core which undermine any sort of debate which they may have been trying to foster. It's not even like I fundamentally disagree with the premise of the film (I do believe in God as well), it's more the filmmakers wrongheaded notion that the world is suppressing Christianity that's the issue. There is a line of thought on this film which claims that this film is about "being forced to accept that other people might believe something different", or that the filmmakers hate atheists and relish in their suffering, but I don't believe that is the intent. Their conception of them is, however, downright insulting, owing to a profound lack of imagination and empathy. When it comes down to it, I just don't believe that evangelicals understand why it is that students tend to grow out of the church when they go off to school, and the answer is, quite simply, evangelicalism. When you create such a rigid, dogmatic and fragile structure which requires a denial of science and intellectualism, coupled with a belief that every word of the Bible is infalliable, and that this is the only way to be a true Christian, then of course they're going to come to the conclusion that it's all wrong. Maybe if they could actually step outside of the evangelical bubble, then perhaps they could have come up with some stronger arguments for why God is not dead**.
Be sure to come back soon when I cover the next entry in the series, God's Not Dead 2!
*I'd recommend reading Unfair by John Shore for some heart-wrenching examples of this.
**Sigh, why did they call this "God's not dead" anyway, considering the quote it's named after is "God is dead"? The only thing I can think is that the producers assumed that there wouldn't be enough audience members familiar with Nietzche's quote, and therefore "God is not dead" would be less natural-sounding than "God's not dead". Again... doesn't give much credit for the intelligence of your audience.