This year’s seen a surprising prominence of Christian-themed films hit the mainstream, Jesus retelling Son of God, bestseller adaptation Heaven is for Real, Darren Aronofsky’s interesting Noah, the Nicolas Cage starring Left Behind (recently flopped in the US) and Ridley Scott’s Exodus. The break-out sleeper hit though, appears to be God’s Not Dead, an independent production from Pure Flix Entertainment that’s currently grossed over $60 million on a £2 million budget. Low-budget independent Christian films like this come out every year, and are usually pretty easy to ignore, but this one I just felt I had to see, and oh boy, was I letting myself in for it.
The primary plot of God’s Not Dead involves the conflict that occurs between an atheist philosophy professor and one of his Christian students during a lecture. At first, this sounds like something that could plausibly occur in a critical thinking class; but let’s look at how God’s Not Dead presents the situation.
Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) begins his class by listing off some famous atheist philosophers and scientists, clearly trying to imply that ‘these people are smarter than you, and they don’t believe in gods’. He then, before actually teaching anything at all, hands every student a piece of paper and requires them to write “God is Dead” on it, on the threat of failing the class if they do not.
Now I don’t have to be a philosophy professor myself to know that this is wildly illegal and could get Sorbo immediately fired. With this scene, God’s Not Dead begins to reveal it’s true self; it’s not interested in actually exploring ideas behind faith; it just wants to reinforce negative stereotypes of atheists. It seeks to suggest that, it’s those atheists who are bullies forcing their beliefs on the poor persecuted Christians of America (who in reality make up over 80% of the population and basically the entire government). Not only that, it’s also immediately fear-mongering about universities in a shameless attempt to posit that higher education institutes are dangerous places for Christians.
Almost all of Sorbo’s class comply without hesitation, except for one brave Christian boy called Josh (Shane Harper). He isn’t afraid to stand up to the Professor, believing that “God wants someone to defend him”, and I suppose missing the irony of the all-powerful God he’s arguing for being unable to defend himself. Sorbo finds this so outrageous that he’s willing to hand over time in his next few lectures for Josh to present his case, remember he still hasn’t even begun teaching.
This is the part of the film that I would have hoped might at least be slightly interesting, I enjoy listening to religious debates and have rarely seen a film dramatize one but God’s Not Dead has already been so unashamedly one-sided that I didn’t expect much by way of compelling arguments. Josh’s points are nothing that anyone even vaguely interested in the topic won’t have heard many times before; broad deistic arguments that don’t relate to Christianity at all. They’re all so clearly directed at people who are already believers, he’s not going to convert anyone with such weak ideas but the writers seem oblivious to this.
Of course, Sorbo is so threatened by these empty points that he – honestly – angrily confronts the kid in the corridor afterwards, coming close to physically assaulting him. He yells that he can fail him for this and “destroy his hope of gaining a law degree”. Yup, in the warped world of God’s Not Dead, atheist professors are people who will threaten to ruin a young student’s future just because they stand up for their religious beliefs. You might hope that this is the worst this film will stoop to in its attempts to smear non-believers, but it’s just getting started.
(*some spoilers, not that you should care*)
The film wastes huge amounts of time before actually getting back to the lecture contest giving us a couple of separate scenes with both Josh and the Professor. Josh’s girlfriend breaks up with him because he won’t give up on the lectures – now he’s a martyr you see, suffering for his convictions. Meanwhile, we’re taken back to Sorbo’s house for a dinner party. His house is portrayed as a kind of villainous lair, where he and his fellow smug atheists cruelly taunt his Christian girlfriend – yet another poor victim of those nasty non-believers, and a former student of his no less. By the way if you’re in any doubt as to whether Sorbo’s pantomime super-villain depiction of an atheist isn’t coming from a devout Christian perspective, check out any of the recent promo interviews he did for the film in which he’s just as happy to misrepresent them off-screen as he is on.
When we get back to the lecture hall, Josh worryingly turns to science, then to evil, he claims that without god, there’s no reason to be moral, yet another oft-repeated claim that’s long-since been rebutted. He again repeats explicitly that atheists are the only ones who force their beliefs on others, and need everyone to think like they do. Um, no Josh. Sorbo’s replies are nothing more than a huff and an appeal to authority – “Stephen Hawking doesn’t believe in God, you think you’re smarter than he is?” Obviously the film wishes to portray him as not having any actual rebuttal, and Josh goes on to say that “Science supports his existence”. No it doesn’t. That’s why you need ‘faith’.
This is of course just building up tension to the film’s would-be big dramatic moment – “Why do you hate God?” Josh asks of the increasingly irate professor.
“Because he took everything from me!” Sorbo storms back
Aha! Gotcha! You’re not really an atheist! No-one is. Everyone who claims to be can’t possibly have just come to that conclusion based on the evidence in the world around us. It must be because something bad happened to them and they blame God for it!
This is the film’s ‘I am Spartacus’ moment, the formerly passive students begin to stand up one by one, declaring their belief in God, having all been completely turned around it seems by Josh’s vacuous appeals. The Professor walks out, hanging his head in shame. One boy, a Chinese exchange student, comes to Josh to tell him that he’s now going to dedicate his life to Jesus, interesting as Josh made no mention of Jesus, yet another example of how many evangelicals don’t seem to realise that there’s a huge step between convincing someone that a deity could exist and convincing them that it’s your specific deity.
This Chinese exchange student is also one of several supporting characters who have their own subplots. God’s Not Dead is not entirely about the central thread of Josh versus Professor, it fancies itself as a sort-of Christian ‘hyperlink’ film in the vein of Crash or Magnolia.
The Chinese kid is basically a stereotype, he’s been sent there by a wealthy, strict father who just wants him to get the best grades. When he calls up his father to ask about his curiosity in religion, his father simply asks what his professor thinks, and tells him to just agree with him.
There’s also an obnoxious reporter called Amy, who’s introduced by showing us an ‘I Heart Evolution’ bumper sticker on her car. She’s then seen accosting one of the stars of Duck Dynasty, who plays himself and is basically there to advertise his reality show during the film. All of these sub-plots are essentially there to cement the films primary message; Christians = good, atheists (and Muslims) = bad. This is never more shameless, and insultingly obvious than when the reporter tells her fellow atheist boyfriend (another washed-up nineties TV actor, Dean Cain) about the terminal cancer she was diagnosed with earlier in the movie. Cain, a big corporate guy, brushes off this revelation as a personal inconvenience to his day, then breaks up with her. No, really, that’s his reaction. Again the message is clear, as a non-Christian, he feels no compassion for others. It’s also revealed that Cain is the brother of Sorbo’s girlfriend (the connections in this movie are sub-Love Actually). Their mother has dementia, and of course he doesn’t care about her, even taunting her for her beliefs.
Another notable character is a Muslim girl named Ayisha. She’s introduced getting dropped off by her strict father. After he drives off she immediately removes her hijab, and is later seen replacing it when he picks her up. Ayisha hasn’t just lost interest in her parent’s religion though, she’s actually a secret Christian! When she goes home, she’s caught listening to a Christian audiobook by her younger brother, whom she begs not to tell her father. Naturally he does, then – get this – her father responds by beating her and kicking her out of the house, all sound-tracked by a Christian power ballad.
The most boring of all these sub-plots involves a local pastor and his missionary friend who’s just come back from Africa. The missionary just wants to visit Disneyland, but their car won’t start. After getting a new car, that also won’t start, they pray together, and the engine works! A miracle!
A big Christian band called The Newsboys are playing in town (nope, me neither) and all the kids are going. Amy has snuck her way backstage to try and interview the band. In the course of their exchange, they realise something is wrong and she breaks down and admits she’s dying. The band deduces that maybe she came back there to try and find Jesus, she says she really hopes its true, and they all pray together. Because without Jesus, she’s alone.
If you thought this film couldn’t sink any lower, you’d be mistaken, as it waits until the end to pull its most sickening manoeuvre. Sorbo, dejected and alone, after his defeat, and his girlfriend leaving him, decides to go to the concert in a hope that he might see her. As he’s walking there, he’s suddenly hit by a car. Co-incidentally, the pastor and missionary whose car wouldn’t start are nearby and run over to him. And what do they do? Call an ambulance? Try to help in any way? Nope, they immediately decide that he’s definitely doomed and start preaching to him. So yeah, they use this dying man’s final moments to shove their religion on him, even asserting that it was a “gift” that he didn’t die straight away so they had time to make him accept Jesus. It’s horrible, and the film plays the whole thing out like it’s a big celebratory moment, even directly stating this. It’s the filmmakers revealing their true desires, after all the talk, they really want these atheists to just fucking die.
To cement this, it then cuts to everyone having one hell of a good time at the Newsboys concert. Suddenly Duck Dynasty guy appears on a big screen there to get one more advert in before the movie ends. He’s caught wind of Josh’s valiant efforts and wants to congratulate him. He then tells everyone to text the film’s title to everyone they know. The film then ends with a card telling the audience to do the same. Yep, demonstrating vast hypocrisy, this movie that’s spent so much of its time whining that atheists are forcing their beliefs on others actually ends by telling Christians to spam people with messages about their beliefs.
I’m slightly ashamed I’ve written so much about this terrible movie now. I do wonder how I’d feel if a movie with content this awful was really well shot and acted, but God’s Not Dead spares me that. The filmmaking is amateurish, the dialogue weak and the acting bland, bar Sorbo’s ridiculous, over-the-top villain.
The worst thing about God’s Not Dead is its overall message, it purports to dramatize collisions between different beliefs but all it’s actually saying is atheists are bad people to whom bad things happen, while Christians are good people standing up to oppression. It stereotypes, demonizes, and spreads misinformation. It’s an embarrassment for Christians, and an insult to atheists, or basically anyone with taste.