Last evening I had the opportunity to attend an advance screening of the movie God’s Not Dead. Many had asked me for my take on the movie based on trailers, but now that I’ve seen the movie I’d like to offer a few thoughts. But first, for those who have not heard of the movie or seen the trailer, here is a synopsis from the movie website:
Present-day college freshman and devout Christian, Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), finds his faith challenged on his first day of Philosophy class by the dogmatic and argumentative Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo). Radisson begins class by informing students that they will need to disavow, in writing, the existence of God on that first day, or face a failing grade. As other students in the class begin scribbling the words “God Is Dead” on pieces of paper as instructed, Josh find himself at a crossroads, having to choose between his faith and his future. Josh offers a nervous refusal, provoking an irate reaction from his smug professor. Radisson assigns him a daunting task: if Josh will not admit that “God Is Dead,” he must prove God’s existence by presenting well-researched, intellectual arguments and evidence over the course of the semester, and engage Radisson in a head-to-head debate in front of the class. If Josh fails to convince his classmates of God’s existence, he will fail the course and hinder his lofty academic goals. With almost no one in his corner, Josh wonders if he can really fight for what he believes. Can he actually prove the existence of God? Wouldn’t it just be easier just to write “God Is Dead” and put the whole incident behind him?
My initial impression of the movie was good. Kevin Sorbo’s Professor Radisson was a strong challenger, not unlike the professors and teachers our college and even high-school students might face on some occasions, if perhaps on the confrontational/antagonistic end of the spectrum. Josh Wheaton is the understandably dumbstruck college freshman. Other seemingly disconnected sideplots help dispel the concerns that the movie is simply a delivery vehicle for Christian apologetics.
So How About the Apologetics?
It was in the area of apologetics that I had the most fears going into the theater. Often pop-Christian approaches to defending the faith are simplistic and give Christians a false sense of security at best, while at worst they are factually incorrect, illogical, and foster antagonism towards non-believers. The apologetics arguments in God’s Not Dead are not deep or involved, but that’s perhaps because they are actually given relatively little screen time; only a few minutes are given to the Josh’s classroom defense of God. This is perhaps for the best, because Christians seeing the movie are unlikely to master the nuances or even the basics of apologetics in such a short time anyway. Apologetics is not so easy to master, and the movie portrays that when, in response to Josh’s first presentation, Professor Radisson catches Josh off guard with a challenge he had never heard before. To his credit, Josh handles the situation properly, conceding that he was unaware of the challenge Radisson brings, and researching more to be able to answer the challenge (though at first he falls back on the ineffective “I still have faith” response).
One point of frustration was the subjective, almost relativist way in which the existence of God was addressed in a few instances. This took the form of two or three characters explaining that God is alive “to me.” I see this, however, as more a reflection of how the subjectivizing of Christianity has spread through the culture in the way we talk, rather than a conscious implication that God’s existence is subjective or relative. Students should also be aware that opportunities for direct conflict with a professor may not turn out as well as Josh’s did. As Greg Koukl reminds us, “Never make a frontal assault on a superior force in an entrenched position!” What I think the movie does well is to place the viewer in the position of really wanting to know the answers to Professor Radisson’s challenges, which I hope will spark in the Church a broader interest in apologetics.
Storyline / Characters
One overarching problem with the movie was that it was difficult to avoid seeing the story as a “Just So” Christian narrative, where things played out pretty much as a Christian audience would want, but that a secular audience would dismiss as just another Christian movie (unlike Courageous and especially October Baby). Sometimes the plot developments and dialogue were a little Christian cliché. That being said, a few times Christians were on the receiving end of criticisms they didn’t know how to answer, which I thought was good. I was glad that the movie showed God working through some of the unintentional or “accidental” connections the characters made with one another. Finally, I was glad to see that the film’s brief treatment of Islam wasn’t one-sided. When a Muslim character is discovered to have converted to Christianity, her father’s reaction is portrayed very negatively – but the film humanizes him after his initial angry outburst, showing his own heartbreak at disowning his daughter.
Perhaps because of the forcefulness of his acting, I found Kevin Sorbo as the atheist Professor Radison to be the most compelling character, even though he was a jerk! However, Shane Harper also did a good job as Josh Wheaton. Wheaton demonstrated growth as he struggled to do what he knew was right in the face of attacks from his professor and a lack of support from family and friends, becoming more confident in his interactions with Radisson. The interactions between Wheaton and Radisson were the high points of the movie for me.
As far as production value was concerned, I thought the cinematography and music were fine, and I only noticed two small factual errors, neither of which detracted from the story.*
The Upshot – To Go or Not To Go?
So… Should you invite your non-Christian or even skeptical friends to see it? No, probably not. The apologetic content is not sufficiently developed in the movie to respond to a skeptic’s challenges – what’s there is good, but brief. Secular people will likely have a very hard time sitting through the movie’s ending. Should you go see it? Yes. Should you take your family or youth group to see it? Yes! The movie isn’t perfect, but it’s strong where it counts – the main theme. Specifically, Matthew 10:32: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” I believe this movie will challenge Christians to be more bold in communicating their convictions and trust in Jesus, as well as provoke them to learn to defend Christianity well through apologetics. Just discuss the movie with them afterwards to firm up the message and point them in the right direction. Let them know that Ratio Christi – an organization of apologetics clubs for students – is growing across the country and equipping college students with the tools they need to stand up for their beliefs in winsome and convincing ways.
God’s Not Dead appears in select theaters March 21st.
*The two factual errors (just to prove that I’m an insufferable know-it-all) were first displaying 1 Corinthians 5 on an iPod screen when the sermon in question was actually about 1 Corinthians 15 (minor typo), and second stating that Stephen Hawking is the Lucasian Professor of Physics at Cambridge University. Hawking is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University.