Christians have been delighted to discover lately that movie theaters have been featuring an unusually high number of films with overtly spiritual or Biblical themes. Among them have been “Son of God,” “Heaven is for Real,” “Noah,” and “Mom’s Night Out.” In December, we will see the release of a movie on the Exodus, with Christian Bale playing Moses, and there is reportedly another movie in production on the life of Mother Teresa.
One of the most talked about films of this sort is “God’s Not Dead,” which depicts the plight of Christian college student Josh Wheaton, who is challenged by atheist Professor Radisson in an intro to philosophy class. The tension begins when the professor requires all of his students to sign their names to the assertion that “God is dead.” When Josh won’t do it, he is challenged to make the case for God’s existence before the class. Presented simultaneously are several sub-plots that depict other spiritual struggles: a young businesswoman who discovers she has cancer; a pastor becoming cynical about the frustrations of his life; a Muslim girl who tries to hide her conversion to Christ from her family.
Some of the most compelling moments in the film come when Josh surprises his professor with a thoughtful, well-researched apologetic for the existence of God. Of course the professor rolls his eyes at Josh’s arguments, but some of the young man’s points carry some weight. For instance, when a classmate asks Josh who created God, Josh turns the question back on the student: if human beings are created by the universe, then who created the universe?
We also come to learn later more about Professor Radisson’s reasons for rejecting God. His mother became ill when he was 12 years old, and God refused his plea to spare her life. As a result, the professor has come not just to disbelieve in God – he hates God. It’s a key moment in the film when we discover something very true about the nature of unbelief – it’s much more than an intellectual problem.
So, is this a film to be recommended? Sadly, I have to say no. On more than a few occasions, it wasn’t just Professor Radisson who was rolling his eyes.
First of all, is it really plausible that a freshman student is going to leave his well-studied and experienced philosophy professor speechless in his own class after just a few nights of personal study about the existence of God? Of course it’s possible for common Christians to persuade educated philosophers in the power of God’s Spirit (Acts 4:13), but Josh’s success in the classroom seemed too quick, too easy, and too unrealistic.
Secondly, the characters in the film are over-the-top distortions of real people. The film presents atheists, Muslims and highly-motivated business people as cold and ruthless, while Saint Josh the Righteous marches forward in his impeccable integrity and godliness. Real people are simply more complicated than that, and good movies will show more than just straw man caricatures to make their point. Frankly, if I were a Muslim or atheist watching this film, I would find these depictions quite offensive.
Lastly, there is a point in the film when one of Josh’s classmates, a student from China, tells Josh that he wants to be a follower of Jesus. Here is an opportunity for Josh talk to the student about whether he understands the Gospel; to perhaps lead him in prayer; to direct him to a church where he can be baptized and enter into the fellowship of God’s people. But what does Josh do? He takes his friend to a Newsboys concert, as if commitment to CCM is the unmistakeable mark of a true profession of faith.
Let’s hope that some of the other Christian-themed movies are better than this. It is true that God is not dead, but this movie will not go far to persuade any but those already convinced.