Before I get into the review I think I should say a few things. As a biblical theist I greatly desire the body of Christ to engage the culture as best we can. Obviously, a great way that we can do this is by utilizing one of the culture’s own venues: the cinema. But we should not be making Christian movies (that is, those movies with premises that trade specifically in Christian themes) simply so that we can say there are such things as Christian movies. Our films should be of a quality on par with the best that Hollywood can produce.
So far, unfortunately, we have not been able to pull this off. Christian movies still seem to suffer from that pedestrian polish characteristic of Saturday marathons on the Hallmark Channel. Don’t get me wrong, I want Christian films to have a significant presence in our culture. But, in order for that to happen, we must assess Christian films with the same criteria that we would any other movie, even the very best Hollywood has to offer.
Bearing that in mind, my endorsement for this film comes with some qualifications. That is, I think “God’s Not Dead” is definitely worth a viewing. But the movie is ultimately a mixed bag. On the one hand part of this film suffers from the same perfect storm as some of its forebears (think “Fireproof” or “Courageous”). What I mean is: some of the plot in “God’s Not Dead” is just downright ridiculous, some of the dialogue is awfully silly, and a lot of the cast sound like they’re doing a cold-reading of the script for an audition. On the other hand, several moments in “God’s Not Dead” are so well done that it leaves those other films far behind.
The story follows a number of characters over the course of several days. Amy (Trisha LaFace) is an animal-loving, God-hating professional blogger who loves conducting ambush interviews with believers like Duck Dynasty’s Willie and Korie Robertson. But, when she discovers that she has cancer, her faith as well as her love for Mark (Dean Cain), an incredibly cold lawyer, is tested. Reverends Dave (David A.R. White) and Jude (Benjamin Onyango) are trying to take a road trip but each car they rent continues to break down on the spot. Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu) is a college student who must hide her love for Jesus from her traditionally Muslim father (Marco Khan). Trouble comes when he discovers she secretly listens to Franklin Graham sermons in her room. And, finally, Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) is tasked with defending his faith in Professor Radisson’s (Kevin Sorbo) philosophy class after Radisson brashly requires all of his students to denounce God’s existence.
The Josh-versus-Radisson subplot was definitely the most interesting aspect of “God’s Not Dead.” Sorbo is the strongest actor of the bunch giving a very convincing performance as the smug atheist/antitheist who sneers at those superstitious types that believe in a grandfather in the sky, as he characterizes it. Harper holds his own against Sorbo as the young, college everyman thrust into a situation that he never asked for. Also, the subplot featuring Ayisha and her father was very interesting although slightly underused. I would have liked to have seen more of the consequences following her father’s discovery that she is, in fact, a Christian.
There were several aspects of the movie that were weak and, as I mentioned, rather silly. For example, Josh has a girlfriend (who appears to be uncredited) that is entirely too manipulative and over the top to be taken seriously. When she discovers that Josh is going to challenge Professor Radisson in the classroom she forbids him to do it citing their future as a reason. Huh? Honestly, once she disappears it quickly becomes obvious that her character was unnecessary in the first place. Also, the prolonged my-car-won’t-start shtick with Reverends Dave and Jude is so tiresome and unnecessary. The worst part of the movie, though (my wife and I laughed out loud when this happened), is when Amy tells her boyfriend Mark that she has cancer. His response: “This couldn’t wait till tomorrow?” I know his character is supposed to be the selfish, career-driven, lawyer-type but that line fell painfully flat.
As previously stated the most interesting subplot was the classroom interaction between Josh and Radisson. These scenes also contained the strongest dialogue. I found myself wishing that the filmmakers had trimmed the other subplots and further developed this one particular strain as the entire movie. If they had, the movie would have been a cool, apologetics-style “Inherit the Wind” for the existence of God. That is, the idea Josh has to put God on trial is very clever. The arguments presented in “God’s Not Dead” were articulated very well and represented some of the best that contemporary apologetics has to offer (albeit in a stripped, more accessible form). As a matter of fact, I am so proud of this aspect of the movie that I would like to tip my hat, as it were, to Dr. Rice Broocks who was credited for apologetics research on the film.
Josh makes a three-pronged case for the existence of God trading on two arguments and a refutation. I believe that these two arguments are so crucial to our everyday evangelistic encounters that all Christians should be familiar with them.
The Beginning of the Universe
As Josh points out, most believed in a steady state of the universe (that is, the universe was eternal) until recently when Big Bang cosmology showed that the depiction of creation in Genesis comports with this evidence that the universe began to exist. All of a sudden, those who perceived that Scripture went against Science now realized that Scripture had it right all along. A formidable argument for the existence of God based on the beginning of the universe is known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA). It essentially goes like this:
Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
The universe began to exist.
Therefore, the universe has a cause.
This argument is only meant to allow for a Creator. On its own it can’t take us the full distance to the God of the Bible. But, getting to a Creator is already such a huge task in and of itself that all Christians (especially college students) should familiarize themselves with the KCA.
The problem of evil
The problem of evil seems difficult at first blush since everyone has such a strong emotional reaction to the subject. Typically characterized, the problem goes like this: How can an “all-powerful”, “all-loving” God exist if evil also exists? The embedded assumption in the question is that no “all-powerful”, “all-loving” God would ever allow evil in the first place. Later, we find that this is the genesis (pardon the pun) of Radisson’s atheism. Many Christians have offered their own solutions to the problem of evil. For example, Leibniz suggested that God must allow evil to exist in the world He created since His goal was to create the best of all possible worlds. We know that certain virtues, like a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save the rest of his unit, would never exist unless someone was evil enough to throw the grenade in the first place. So it would appear that evil is a necessary feature for the best of all possible worlds.
In “God’s Not Dead” Josh first utilizes the Augustinian response. That is, the same freedom to do good also allows for the freedom to do evil. One cannot be free to do the one unless he is free to do the other. In this case God has not chosen to create evil but to create humans that are free. But these particular answers are not usually where the apologist goes with this problem. The real question is: How can anything be evil if there is no God? That is, if there is no objective moral standard to measure good and evil (e.g. God), then evil is rendered meaningless – a benign byproduct of someone’s subjective feelings. And this is exactly where Josh ends his argument, to great effect.
The best parts of “God’s Not Dead” are way better than the typical Christian films getting made each year. For that reason alone it’s worth a view. If this movie could have gotten rid of the weaker plot elements, dialogue, acting, etc. and focused on the classroom showdown, I think a lot more agnostics/atheists might have been curious to see it. As it stands, it still plays like a typical Christian movie tailored specifically to its own believing demographic, which is still a very good thing since we need to make sure that we are equipping ourselves to engage the lost (2 Peter 3:15). Even though the film did not meet all of my expectations I’m optimistic that, one day, we will have a section of the market that challenges the best the secular culture can muster.
“God’s Not Dead” is rated PG for thematic material, brief violence, and an accident scene.