2014 has certainly been an interesting year for Christians going to the movies. We’ve already had the controversy about Noah, we’re currently seeing Christians respond very differently to Heaven is For Real, and we still have Exodus: Gods and Kings to go this December (a movie about the exodus starring Christian Bale as Moses). Another movie that has had a big splash within Christian culture, despite being panned by the critics, is God’s Not Dead, which tells the story of college student Josh responding to his atheist professor’s challenge that “God is dead” (along with several interconnected subplots). I saw the film last month with some students, and we had a great discussion about it afterwards.
I’ve been hesitant about whether to publish this review. I believe the film’s producers had good intentions, and I know many Christians have been encouraged and blessed by it. Moreover, the movie had some redeeming qualities. I especially appreciated the film’s evident belief in the difference that Christ can make in someone’s life, and its call for courageous witness in the face of opposition. Some of the debate between Josh and Professor Radisson was well done, and I thought Kevin Sorbo gave a strong performance as Radisson. But I had concerns about the movie as well, and I wonder if voicing them might be helpful in encouraging further reflection and dialogue about how we who follow Christ should relate to the increasingly post-Christian culture around us. I’ll just focus on the two issues that concerned me the most.
1) Will non-Christians feel they were portrayed in this film in a respectful, or even a realistic, manner?
When Christians make a film, lots of different kinds of people are going to watch it. For some people, it may be the only exposure they get to what Christians are like. So we should be sensitive and tactful about how we are coming across, both in the film’s explicit themes and ideas as well as what is implicit in its tone, style, and subtext. We should be careful and generous, for instance, in the way we portray those with whom we disagree, and especially those outside the Christian faith. The Bible calls us to give a reason for the hope we have to unbelievers with “gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15), and part of gentleness and respect is depicting others fairly, without over-simplification or distortion.
Unfortunately, in God’s Not Dead, the characters lack any kind of nuance or complexity. The non-Christians are bad guys, the Christians are good guys (with the exception of Josh’s girlfriend—but her nagging of Josh seems designed only to further highlight his courageous resolve in taking down Radisson). Worst of all, the non-Christian characters in the film are presented in terms of extreme caricatures. There is the militant atheist professor who requires his students to renounce God within the first five minutes of the first day of class. There is the harsh Muslim father who physically abuses his daughter and throws her out of the house for becoming a Christian. There is the maverick lawyer who couldn’t care less that his girlfriend just got cancer. And there is the liberal blogger who is astonished that Willie Robertson (from Duck Dynasty) thinks its okay to kill animals. Setting aside whether the anti-environmentalism helped or hindered the film’s main message, I think Muslims and atheists and environmentalists watching this film will feel that Christians have portrayed them at their worst.
I believe a more realistic and more biblical characterization would reflect that good and bad compete in every human heart, since non-Christians are made in God’s image, and Christians follow someone who said “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). By maximizing the bad in non-Christians, and minimizing the bad in Christians, the film’s tone feels self-congratulatory, and its message comes across as ham-fisted and preachy. This movie is more likely to reinforce an “us vs. them” mindset between Christians and non-Christians, I fear, than to contribute to real dialogue, or evangelism, or friendship, or understanding.
2) Does this film portray a realistic and sustainable vision of Christian witness in the world?
The central plot-line of the movie, focused on Josh’s debate with Radisson, ends in a highly charged scene with Josh completely dismantling Radisson in the debate, prompting Radisson’s personal confessional of his hatred of God, and then converting the entire class to theism while the speechless Radisson leaves his own classroom. Various subplots share this grandiosity and melodrama (death-bed conversions, cars starting miraculously through prayer, all uncertainties visibly vindicated as serving God’s purpose, etc.). I worry that the film as a whole portrays an overly idealistic, romanticized vision of what it means to represent Christ in this world.
Not all faithful witness produces such singularly spectacular results. Sometimes you can pray with all the faith in the world and your car still won’t start. Sometimes you witness to your friend faithfully but they don’t convert, or even listen. Sometimes, when you have a militant college professor, you are called to more modest, respectful, limited forms of dialogue. By all means, Christians should stand up courageously for the truth—but that probably does not mean humiliating their professor and converting the entire class. Christians should also exhibit humility and listening in academic contexts, remembering that they are there mainly to learn.
In my experience, our witness to non-Christians often comes successively, in small steps, in non-grandiose ways, over long stretches of time, or through patterns we can never fully discern. God often calls us to bunt to get on base, not hit a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth. By not upholding more modest forms of Christian witness, the film runs the risk of implicitly devaluing them.
I’m thankful for the sincere efforts of God’s Not Dead to respond to real and pressing cultural challenges. I hope this review will prompt us towards greater self-awareness and reflection within the body of Christ as we seek to share Him faithfully, humbly, and winsomely to those around us. “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:5-6).