God’s Not Dead tells a familiar story (the lone hero delivers salvation to the community by defeating the forces of evil) filtered through a modern Evangelical mindset that seeks victory in its war with an out-of-control culture. Here are the story details: a freshman student (the too-aptly named Josh Wheaton) at a major university won’t compromise his Christian faith by fulfilling a course requirement of his atheist professor, namely to sign a statement affirming that God is dead. The professor then requires the student to give three twenty-minute lectures—one in each of the next three class meetings—to prove his point that God is not dead, with the class serving as the jury. If the student fails in his task, he will fail that section of the course—and possibly the course overall, while also apparently putting at risk his hopes of getting into law school.
An Unconvincing Approach
While I certainly believe that students of faith will sometimes have troubles in classrooms led by non-believing professors, the way in which this movie presents its story leaves the final product completely unconvincing. A couple of quick examples will have to suffice:
- No atheist would recognize him or herself in the atheistic characters in the movie. I mean, who responds to news of a friend’s cancer diagnosis with, “Couldn’t this have waited until tomorrow?” If a Christian writer or filmmaker can’t portray an atheist that’s recognizable to other atheists, it’s best to go back to the drawing board until you get it right. Otherwise, your movie will alienate and infuriate the very people you claim to be concerned about. Furthermore, the way the atheist characters are written opens up the filmmakers to claims of hypocrisy: just as the “bad guys” in the movie openly mock the Christians, so too do the filmmakers create mocking caricatures for their bad guys. We Christians need to be better than this.
- No freshman student is going to be able to put together presentations like those we see in the film on his own and in such a short period of time. The fact that Josh is completely alone on the campus, with no one to help him or even to bounce ideas off of further compounds the problem. Either this is the only college campus in America that doesn’t have Christians on it, or Josh isn’t bright enough to seek out those Christians for some assistance. Either way, it makes the fact that he comes up with those presentations all the more unbelievable.
I could critique any number of other things in the film from the way characters are mere mouthpieces for ideas rather than anything resembling human beings or the way the villains are shown to be both non-Christians and terrible people (as if the former was not enough for these filmmakers). However, I want to focus on two particular points that reveal a dangerous strand of thinking in Evangelicalism today.
This film handles death in despicable fashion. As the wicked, atheist professor sees his godless fiefdom crumbling, he steps off a curb in the middle of a raging thunderstorm and gets hit by a car. That the storm came up right before that moment is the first indication that this death is an act of God. Further, notice the God’s-eye view of the camera in the moment after the car hits the Professor. This indicates even more strongly some kind of sovereign act, a meting out of eschatological judgment on someone who hasn’t once in this film experienced the love of Christ through God’s people. Harsh. What are we left with? God kills this man in a car accident in order to convince him to convert moments before expiring. At least in the Bible God announced His judgment before it came. The resulting conversion is no victory when God has blood on His hands.
But if that wasn’t enough, the two “mature” Christians in the film extend this despicable view of death. The final line of the movie comes from the African missionary friend of the pastor (both of whom just so happened to be at the scene of the accident). With police and ambulance sirens still flashing in his eyes at the scene of the death, the missionary calls the moment a cause for celebration. While he acknowledges the pain involved in death, he also expresses his pleasure that the dead professor is joyful now that he’s with God. Apparently, we can celebrate the death of one of God’s image-bearers, but only because he has just converted from atheism to Christianity.
That this line is the final moment in an ostensibly Christian film shows a deep misunderstanding of the Christian teaching about death. Death is always a tragedy. It should be treated be as such. The Bible calls death our enemy. It should be treated as such. Our enemy certainly did not originate with our Creator. That Christians are celebrating the man’s death at all, not to mention while the sirens are still flashing, is one of the most calloused moments I’ve seen at the movies in some time.
A New Kind of Martyr Story
I believe God’s Not Dead to be a uniquely American Evangelical take on the ancient Christian martyr story tradition. In those ancient tales from the first centuries after Christ, the martyr suffered imprisonment, harsh questioning, torture, and ultimately death. The popularity of the stories involved the opportunity for hearers to appreciate the perseverance and faithfulness of the martyrs, but also the opportunity to identify with Christ in His suffering.
God’s Not Dead turns that ancient story form on its head in important ways. Although the situation is set up to reveal persecution, the protagonist suffers little outside the indignity of a few snide remarks and vague threats. But most importantly, God’s Not Dead doesn’t end with the Christian dying in identification with Christ as the ancient martyr story would have prescribed. Rather, the American Evangelical spin sees not the persecuted but the persecutor die, while victorious Christians stand over him in triumph and receive praise before thousands.
Popular American cinema has long had a fascination with the lone hero destroying the wicked. That this has nothing to do with the role of Christians in the world seems not to have occurred to the Evangelical filmmakers in charge of this project. This film is so fascinated with the triumph of Christians in their carefully constructed culture war that it completely casts aside the fundamental Christian values of suffering and self-sacrifice. Josh sacrificed virtually nothing and received the accolades of thousands for it. If Jesus had followed Josh’s pattern, he would have been threatened, told non-believers why they were wrong (He only ever challenged His own religious community), and then been praised for winning the argument. That kind of Jesus would require him taking a rhetoric class, not offering Himself as a sacrifice.
God’s Not Dead is a dangerous film because it rips the self-sacrificial heart out of Christianity’s chest. I hope non-Christians never see it (that they might not have one more reason to hate/dismiss Christians). And I hope that the Christians who see it will not simply look to have some pre-conceived notions or fears affirmed. Rather, I hope they will see through the movie’s errors about image-bearing human beings, death, and winning the “war” between Christians and non-Christians. As Christians, we need to be better at reaching out to people, not destroying them; at serving them, not standing against them; and at loving them, not hating them.