God’s Not Dead: A Film Review
**Please be aware: this blog post contains spoilers for the film God’s Not Dead**
This is my third attempt at expressing my thoughts on this film. The first time, I took a stab at satiric writing and fake-gushed about how fantastic it was. The second time, I thought I’d do a character-by-character analysis delving into all the ways this film reinforced terrible stereotypes that have saturated the way evangelicals view those who believe differently than we do. But I realized as I wrote these things that while my issues with the film are quite legitimate, they don’t get to the heart of why this film is so problematic.
I believe the greatest travesty that God’s Not Dead committed was to reinforce the idea that Christians are courageous but persecuted in a culture that treats them with disdain and outright disrespect. The film played out on screen the same sentiments that many Christians want to believe about ourselves: we’re living in a culture that mocks and belittles our faith. We are modern-day martyrs, and we must fight to the end to defend the truth of God, and be kind but bold to those around us who are caught up in the bitterness of their own godlessness.
The main plot of the film’s storyline initiates when Professor Radisson, an atheist philosophy professor, demands that his students sign a statement that “God is dead” or receive a 0 for 30% of their grade in the class. We see the film’s agenda right from the start. Every student in the class has no issues with complying; they are all either atheists themselves, or willing to compromise their religious beliefs for the sake of a passing grade.
Every student except for one, of course. Josh Wheaton, a freshman who has been a Christian most of his life, refuses. In response, the professor challenges him to present the reasons for God’s existence in three 20-minute lectures, after which the professor will provide a rebuttal, and the class will determine the winner. Throughout this exchange—and truly, throughout the whole movie—Radisson is remarkably antagonistic, rude, and arrogant towards Wheaton. He is the absolute picture of the stereotype of atheists as hostile and rude, while Josh is presented as the kind young Christian victimized by his oppressive professor.
Throughout the film, other storylines emerge which are completely removed from the central conflict between Josh and Professor Radisson. Each of these reinforces the film’s agenda of presenting Christians as persecuted martyrs in a way that is laughably conspicuous. For example, a teenage Muslim girl named Ayisha who works at Josh’s college is revealed to have secretly converted to the Christian faith, despite having a father who is very fundamentalist and requires her to wear a hijab over her head and face in public. When he finds out, the man is outraged, and after kicking her, hitting her, and screaming at her, he drags her out of the house and excommunicates her from her family.
Now, I understand that situations like this happen, and that men and women born into the Muslim faith who convert to Christianity sometimes endure the rejection that Ayisha endured in the film. But this story’s inclusion in this movie felt problematic to me for many reasons. First, this sort of thing is not likely to happen in the United States. It is as though the filmmakers capitalized on the very real oppression that occurs abroad and dropped it into an American, privileged, middle-class context. Ayisha’s family seemed to be an ordinary American family, and in fact, the hijab is the only indication we have that she is Muslim. Her story just doesn’t fit well into this nation’s context of religious liberty.
Now, all of this is just the tip of the ice berg when it comes to the plethora of issues I had with this film. Granted, I understand why so many Christians are gushing with praise for the film—it reinforces all the beliefs most of them already hold and does nothing to challenge the status quo or make viewers think more deeply about the questions it raises. Instead, God’s Not Dead resolves those questions in the neatest ending imaginable. The Christians to whom this film caters would leave the theater feeling gratified and inspired, while everyone else—myself included—felt utter frustration at its unrealistic treatment of persecution, its stereotyping, and its rejection of any sort of complexity or nuance.