Movie Review: God’s Not Dead
“You’re traveling through another dimension . . . A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s a signpost up ahead: your next stop: God’s Not Dead.”
The fantastical and awkwardly overextended premise of God’s Not Dead, the latest ham-fisted offering from Pure Flix Entertainment, is one that has been revisited over and over again in an old urban legend concocted by the fundamentalist Christian imagination: A loud-mouthed atheist college professor has his proverbial ass publicly handed to him by a white male Christian freshman who defends the existence of God in the classroom. The most common variation of this urban legend is the one in which the Christian student uses the atheist professor’s own arguments to prove that the latter has no brain. After all, no one has ever seen, heard, felt, touched or smelled the professor’s brain. There are other versions of this anecdote that predate this one. It was dramatized in comic form by cartoonist and evangelist Jack Chick in his Big Daddy graphic tract, originally published in 1972. Another version stars a young Albert Einstein as the student who refutes his atheist professor’s presentation on the problem of evil.
God’s Not Dead is the feature-length treatment of this “Christian Student vs. Atheist Professor” urban legend, polished up for a new generation of aspiring Christian apologists who occasionally stop reading Internet chain mail to go to their local cinema. At 113-minutes, the movie features a cast of new characters and situations as fill-in material but retains the central premise of the aforementioned urban legends. The Christian Student character (Josh Wheaton) is played by Shane Harper. The part of antagonist character Jeffrey Radisson (the Atheist Professor) is played by Kevin Sorbo, best known for his titular role in the show Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, in one episode of which he found himself in an unfamiliar place and was “DISAPPOINTED!”
I know the feeling, Sorbules.
Wait a Minute. This Isn’t My World . . .
My appropriation of Rod Serling’s famous introduction to the classic Twilight Zone series at the beginning of this review is apropos, because the story laid out in God’s Not Dead takes place in a bizarre alternate reality that exists only in the perceptions of sheltered Christians who have had little to no exposure to what life in academia and higher education is actually like. Inhabitants of this alternate universe are subjected to the same horrors we experience in our reality: the Christian pop band Newsboys, Duck Dynasty, and Lee Strobel among them. There is also at least one instance of meta-level abyss-gazing, such as when we see the hero of the story reading a copy of Rice Broocks’ God’s Not Dead: Evidence for God in an Age of Uncertainty, the Christian apologetics book that inspired the movie. But there are also stark differences between the real world and the one imagined by the film’s writers. Following is a catalogue of some of the features of this Bizarro World. Let’s begin with the basic storyline itself:
In this alternate universe, atheists try to force nonbelief on Christians. In the real world, of course, it’s the other way around. But some background is in order. The movie begins with college freshman Josh Wheaton arriving on campus to enroll for his first semester. In order to fulfill the Humanities requirements for his pre-law degree, he registers for Philosophy 150. This course is taught by Professor Jeffrey Radisson, a rabid atheist who gives Josh and the other students much more than an introduction to philosophical thought. He demands that his students dispense with belief in God as a prerequisite for receiving a passing grade.
Professor Radisson begins the first class by naming several prominent philosophers and scientists who rejected the god hypothesis and argues that since all these “towering intellects” were and are atheists, God must not exist. After delivering this appeal to authority, Radisson then gives his students their first in-class assignment: write the three simple words “God Is Dead” on a signed piece of paper.
Continued participation in his class is dependent on fulfilling this assignment. But Josh Wheaton finds he cannot bring himself to write those words. When Josh informs the professor that he is a Christian and therefore will not capitulate to his demand, the professor decides to make an exception. “If you cannot bring yourself to admit that God is dead, then you will need to defend the antithesis.” He allows Josh 20 minutes at the end of each class period to make his case for the proposition that God is alive. If he fails to convince a majority of the class that God exists, he will fail the course.
This radical departure from all semblance of verisimilitude is obvious to anyone who is familiar to the politics of university environments. There are no public school classes wherein atheists rant against God or gods. And no professor, not even a tenured one, could possibly get away with requiring students to embrace his or her viewpoint as a prerequisite to participating in a course, especially not in a philosophy class. University-level philosophy classes in the real world generally discourage dogmatic assertions. I say this as a product of two years of college philosophy courses (philosophy being the minor I belatedly chose my sophomore year) and as someone who is sufficiently well-versed in First Amendment politics.
In this alternate universe, Christian persecution fantasies are real. When Josh accepts Professor Radisson’s dialectical challenge, he experiences the disapproval of his girlfriend Kara (Cassidy Gifford), who is also a Christian but whose academic ambition makes her less enthusiastic than Josh about defending the honor of a 2,000 year-old dead carpenter. In what may be a vague allusion to the nagging of the biblical Job by his wife in the Old Testament, Kara demands that Josh give up on debating the professor and just sign the professor’s “God is Dead” paper. She knows Josh cannot afford to flunk any freshman courses if he hopes to become a lawyer one day. But Josh proceeds with his in-class defense of God in spite of his girlfriend’s objections, and as a result Kara leaves him. The two remain separated throughout the rest of the movie and are never reconciled.
Christian persecution is a central theme in God’s Not Dead, one that is not limited to the harassment of Christian students by their more level-headed but abusive girlfriends and god-denying university professors. One scene features a Chinese foreign exchange student named Martin Yip (played by Paul Kwo) talking to his father about Professor Radisson’s class. When Martin intimates that he is harboring doubts about Professor Radisson’s anti-theist claims, his father has a moment of panic, in effect telling his son that he needs to stop talking about God because he never knows who might be listening. This warning fallaciously implies that there exists a strong and institutionalized anti-theist presence in China. The reality is that while Christians represent a small minority in China, religious and theistic belief of some kind is held by just over two-thirds of China’s population, with atheists representing a mere 14 percent or less of the population. Paul Kwo’s character does not even mention Christianity specifically when talking to his father, only referring to god-belief in general in reference to the heated discussions in his philosophy class. So apparently, the movie’s writers assume without explanation or elaboration that the God who is not dead is the Christian God by default. This brings me to the next item on my list.
In this alternate universe, adherents of other non-Christian religions are just as villainous as atheists. The movie features a side story about a young woman named Ayisha (played by Hadeel Sittu), a student at the same college Josh Wheaton attends. Ayisha is a Christian who must keep her faith a secret from her devoutly Muslim father. In the beginning of the movie, she is seen removing her traditional niqāb cloth from her face as soon as her father drives out of sight after dropping her off at school. Near the end of the movie, Ayisha’s father finds out that his daughter has been listening to Franklin Graham sermons on her iPod in secret and reacts by beating her and throwing her out of their house.
Ayisha’s story has no relation to the movie’s main storyline, and only twice is she brought into any proximity with the Wheaton narrative: first when she overhears him in the cafeteria quoting C.S. Lewis to his girlfriend and talking about debating the professor, and then at the end of the movie when she encounters Josh again at a Newsboys concert. Her character is introduced for the sole purpose of depicting Islam in a negative light.
The hard times experienced by Ayisha does happen to apostates from Islam in the real world, but by squeezing in this story the movie’s writers are not trying to raise awareness about the divisiveness of religion. Instead, the writers see in this side story an opportunity to push the idea that only the Christian God is the source of all familial compassion and tolerance. Never mind the fact that the Christian and Islamic God are one and the same Abrahamic deity. The film’s writers have sought to denigrate a rival religion by depicting the persecution of a Christian at the hands of Islam specifically, never once balancing their portrayal with instances of young atheists being beaten and kicked out of their homes by Christian parents, which also happens in the real world.
In this alternate universe, there is no such thing as a true atheist. Yes, God’s Not Dead promotes and perpetuates one of the most common and persistent myths about atheism prevalent among Christians today. The character of Professor Jeffrey Radisson is the perfect embodiment of the strawman atheist conjured up by Christians. Mean-spirited, petty, bitter, and prideful, he is a person for whom intellectual atheism is only a façade masking his hatred toward a God he really believes in deep down. In fact, the whole story that unfolds in God’s Not Dead can be accurately summarized by the following reductio ad absurdum:
ATHEIST PROFESSOR: “Hello class, I am your atheist professor. My position is that there is no god, and this needs to be your position too.”
THEIST STUDENT: “Sorry, but I’m a Christian. By the way, what tragic event occurred in your life to make you so angry at God that you would deny his existence?”
ATHEIST PROFESSOR: You’re right, something did happen that made me angry with a god I told everyone else I don’t believe even exists in the first place. To show you what I mean, let me overdramatically quote Shakespeare and the Book of Job in casual conversation that would make any normal person slap me.
The reason Sorbo’s atheist character ends up looking completely unreasonable and irrational in this movie is because the movie was not written by atheists. God’s Not Dead was conceived and written by people who do not have the slightest clue what atheism is and what it is not, and the movie is exactly what we would expect to see if the writer’s research went no further than reading Conservapedia’s page on atheism. In the real world, we atheists do not hate God. How can we hate something or someone that we say, with very good reason, does not exist? Saying that the atheists’ rejection of the hypothesis that a god exists is due to our hatred and anger toward God is like saying that the widespread disbelief in the existence of Cthulhu is attributable to hatred of Cthulhu.
In this alternate universe, liberals are stupid too. The mental image of the “liberal elite media” held in the minds of conservative Christians and Fox News devotees is shamelessly brought to life in the character of Amy Ryan (played by Trisha LaFache). This character could have been written by Ann Coulter, that terrible person whose book Godless: The Church of Liberalism is probably familiar to the film’s writers. A journalist for the New Left website, Amy Ryan is an up-and-coming member of elite society who makes her living by being a reactionary and condescending troll. Sporting her “Meat Is Murder” and “I Heart Evolution” bumper stickers, she spends her days seeking out conservative and Jesus-loving celebrities such as the Newsboys band members and Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson and his wife Korie (all of whom make frankly annoying cameo appearances in the movie) and asking them the types of stupid and irrelevant questions that conservative Christians might ask if they were pretending to be liberals.
In this alternate universe, college freshmen who love Jesus are smarter than veteran philosophy professors. Given the poor quality of the apologetic arguments featured in God’s Not Dead, we can be sure that Nietzsche is not rolling over in his grave. In the story, Professor Radisson’s inner hatred toward God overrides his rational faculties to such a degree that we the viewers are subjected to a very unsettling and highly implausible spectacle: A professor of philosophy at an institute of higher learning repeatedly fails to intelligently counter the simplistic and unoriginal apologetics of a freshman Jesus freak.
The apologetic arguments in defense of theism as presented by Josh Wheaton in the movie are spectacularly bad and can easily be refuted by atheist laypeople in our real world, let alone atheist philosophers and scientists. At one point in the movie, Josh actually says, “I feel like God wants someone to defend him.” This implies that the God conceived of in the movie is far from the all-powerful, all-wise creator of the cosmos envisioned by most theists. But more to the point, this line gave me the hilarious mental image of God face-palming in dismay at his choice of a defender.
But let’s not forget that this is an alternate universe in which atheists stand no chance against theistic arguments of any kind, no matter how bad. In the movie, Professor Radisson’s responses to Wheaton’s defense of God for the most part come in the form of appeals to authority and ad-hominem attacks (i.e., statements to the effect of, “The greatest scientific mind in the world today says the universe need not have been created. What do you say to that?” and “How can you possibly be right in disagreeing with the atheist scientists I quoted? You’re just a freshman!”)
Ultimately though, the movie’s writers care not at all about making a strong intellectual case for Christianity. Their interest is in making blatantly emotional appeals to faith. Not a single nonbelieving character becomes convinced of the alleged truth of Christianity through reasoned argumentation. Instead, one character turns her life over to Jesus not long after learning that she has cancer. Another character becomes a Christian in the final moments of life just after being struck by a car while crossing a busy street. In a sickening display of the callousness exhibited by fundamentalist religionists toward human life, the evangelist who is on the scene of the accident remarks that “This is a night to celebrate” just after the person dies. This evangelist is the same character (played by Benjamin Ochieng) who repeatedly chants the mantra “God is good all the time, and all the time God is good.” Who needs ipecac with lines like this?
. . . DISAPPOINTED!
I do not use the word “disappointed” in reference to the movie itself, which turned out to be just as terrible as I expected. Rather, the movie’s surprisingly good reception among moviegoers is what I find disappointing. The movie raked in $8.6 million on its opening weekend, despite the fact that it opened on just 780 screens nationwide. Also disappointing is that the general public has not given Hollywood any incentive to invest in films that portray atheism and general skepticism and critical thinking in an appropriately positive light. God’s Not Dead is just the latest entry in a long list of movies that sing the praises of faith and magical thinking and denigrate nonbelievers. God’s Not Dead is sure to contribute to the already-widespread distorted understanding among the public of what atheism is and what it isn’t and to drive a wedge between theists and atheists, in effect widening the communication gap between theists and atheists.
On the other hand, God’s Not Dead has been foisted on audiences at a time when a wider awareness of atheism is beginning to show in the wider culture, and this may indicate that the movie represents at least some portion of the Christian subculture going on the defensive. If nonbelievers active in the skeptical movement can overcome the barriers set up by Hollywood studio executives who have an impulse to cater to the faith and piety of most of the American public, maybe some groundbreaking inroads can be made. If I were asked to conceive and develop an idea for a movie that could serve as the atheists’ answer to God’s Not Dead, my idea would be something along the following lines:
I envision a modern adaptation of Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the posthumously published pro-reason book by the Enlightenment-era philosopher David Hume, featuring a script which rewrites in modern language the long dialogue held between Hume’s three characters and sets these characters in a modern university setting in which a theistic professor is attempting to smuggle in Intelligent Design creationism in a biology class. Instead of drawing from a bad apologetics book by Rice Broocks for research and inspiration for thematic elements, such a film could draw on, say, Guy P. Harrison’s recent book 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian. Such a movie could be written in a way that fairly exposes the flaws in theistic claims while at the same time appealing to both sides of the god debate by not resorting to the modus operandi of God’s Not Dead, which is to alienate the opposing side of the debate through strawman representations of their beliefs and character.