A Faith-Based Movie with Troubling Worldview and Weak Craftsmanship
I firmly believe that Christian movies can be artistically excellent. Granted, efforts such as Amazing Grace, Babette’s Feast, Ben-Hur, Chariots of Fire, and Hacksaw Ridge are few and far between across the span of cinema history. (The list doesn’t become much longer even when you add “Judeo-Christian” flicks such as The Prince of Egypt and The Ten Commandments.) All the same, movies like those refreshingly display the potential for filmmakers to marry wonderful craftsmanship with a biblically-grounded perspective; those two things aren’t at odds with each other, even though they have rarely happened together.
All of that said, God’s Not Dead, which is perhaps one of the most well-known Christian movies from recent years, doesn’t reach high standards of quality. More importantly, the movie leaves much to be desired even in terms of worldview. The worldview problems here lie not so much in the messages that characters speak as in how the filmmakers handle those characters and the story.
As general info about God’s Not Dead: The plot includes a handful of interwoven storylines, but the central focus is a Christian young man (named Josh Wheaton) entering his freshman year of college. That character enrolls in a philosophy class taught by the atheistic Professor Radisson, who ends up challenging him to prove God’s existence in front of his classmates. The movie was directed by Harold Cronk, written by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, and released in March 2014. It wasn’t a huge success at the box office but was nonetheless profitable, gathering $65 million on a production budget of $2 million. Since its release, God’s Not Dead has been a flagship product for its studio Pure Flix and has generated two sequels: 2016’s God’s Not Dead 2 and 2018’s God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness.
As far as the artistic value goes, the filmmakers sacrifice admirable craftsmanship in order to deliver messages with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. All of the characters are underdeveloped; they exist to be plot devices and stand on soapboxes, rather than to have interesting personalities or grow in emotionally satisfying ways. The technical attributes (such as the cinematography, the film editing, and the score) exhibit almost no creativity or ingenuity. At least two of the subplots (a Muslim girl converting to Christianity against her father’s wishes and a Chinese exchange student questioning his atheistic upbringing) could be the basis for an intriguing movie. But the various threads share too much arm-room here for the filmmakers to do any of them justice.
To the actors’ credit, they often do what they can to bring nuance and dimension to the cardboard characters. Also, although the movie had a shoestring budget of $2 million, the production values are thoroughly sufficient.
The issues with God’s Not Dead‘s worldview largely derive from how the filmmakers paint the professor and a few other non-Christian characters as barbaric antagonists whom we should boo and root against, rather than as actual human beings. While is it true we will occasionally find those who are truly hostile toward the Gospel, it is troubling that the filmmakers rely on this to provide dramatic tension and thus suggest it is the norm. (Plus, the filmmakers resort to discrediting Radisson’s atheistic perspective by attributing it not to reason but instead to childhood trauma.) A few of the non-Christian characters sooner or later find themselves with tragic fates that seem to be a work of divine judgment. Again, this is a heavy-handed treatment that does more to try separating “us” and “them” than to bring people together in loving dialog.
What is more, God’s Not Dead implies that Christians can be content with reaching out to skeptics through public debates or through electronic communications (like text messages and social media). We never once see a Christian and a non-Christian engaging in civil discussion about each other’s convictions. By the way, almost all of the many Christian characters are virtually devoid of sin issues. One of the two exceptions is Josh’s overbearing and fastidious girlfriend Kara. The other is Radisson’s sweet girlfriend Mina, who is inexplicably in relationship with the professor despite her beliefs and even lives with him. Needless to say: What’s up with the portrayal of girlfriends in this movie?
In short, God’s Not Dead does little to inspire Christians to be gracious or loving toward those who oppose the faith. (Bible passages of relevance here include Romans 12:17-21 and 2 Timothy 2:24-26.) As extra food for thought, it’s troubling to consider the filmmakers’ suggestions that our almighty and self-sufficient God somehow needs Christians to defend his existence before others. And, at one point, an elderly Christian lady attributes considerable power over circumstances to Satan, rather than emphasizing that he arranges nothing outside the plan and authority of God (cf. Job 1:6-12).
Amid these unfortunate items, there are some reasons to commend the worldview in God’s Not Dead. I appreciate that the movie encourages Christians to boldly speak about Jesus Christ even when others might threaten or abhor them. (On that note, a pastor character appropriately cites Matthew 10:32-33 during one scene.) In addition, I’m glad that the filmmakers depict the cost to human relationships that following Christ can entail, which causes me to think of Luke 14:26. And, of course, we can commend the movie for ardently defending the existence of God, the Creator and Master of the universe. Still, aside from those worldview positives, God’s Not Dead is more detached from reality than any of the fantasy or superhero movies I’ve seen.
Although the movie is low on objectionable content and has a handful of redeeming factors, I believe parents should think twice before allowing their children to see it. Do we want children to believe that Christianity leads to echo chambers like any other worldview? Or that God depends at all on human efforts to advance his glory? Or that atheists (as well as non-believers in general) somehow deserve God’s favor less than Christians, despite how we are also sinners, saved only by his amazing grace?
I should note that recent years have delivered a whole collection of faith-based movies which, although not artistically excellent, are at least better made than God’s Not Dead. (The Case for Christ, I Can Only Imagine, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Polycarp, Risen, and The Star come to mind as examples.) More importantly, those movies are much stronger at encouraging us to honor and glorify the Lord, not only through what we profess but also through how we live.
Shouldn’t Christians expect more from faith-based movies than what God’s Not Dead offers?
Note: God’s Not Dead is available for viewing on DVD and Blu-Ray, as well as through the streaming services Pure Flix and Amazon Prime.