Simplistic apologetics and poor filmmaking combine to form God’s Not Dead, a Newsboys vehicle that will undoubtedly become a youth group hit.
The plot is fairly straightforward — Dr. Radisson, a bitter philosophy professor who just so happens to be an atheist, begins his class by forcing all of the students to affirm that “God is dead.” First-quarter freshman and Christian hero Josh Wheaton decides that this is unfair, so he takes up the mantle to defend what thousands of Christian apologists have failed to convincingly do: prove that God exists.
Or not quite.
The arguments put forth in the film are a defense of creationism, which is its own separate argument from the original premise. This debate is supposed to be taking place in a freshman philosophy class, so a physics and biology debate seems out of place. The only time they address philosophical issues such as theodicy and the nature of God is through emotional outbursts that lack any real substance.
If the whole storyline sounds like a chain email that made the rounds a few years ago, it’s not by accident. The basic plot structure isn’t even the only thing it shares with those chain emails — it even concludes by instructing the audience to text the name of the film to everyone on their contact list.
The film itself also suffers from an inexperienced team, and it shows. It wouldn’t be a large problem if the rest of the film were pretty good, but the unpolished camerawork contributes to the ever-growing list of problems.
The main problem with this film is the simplistic way it treats its characters. Wheaton, played by fairly new actor Shane Harper, is a blindly believing Christian. This is not because he is defending Christianity against modern science, but it is the way he refuses to consider the opposite side of the debate as anything more than an enemy, making him seem distant and ignorant. The film doesn’t have to be about a faith struggle, but some indication that this process was helping him learn or at least grow as a Christian by questioning his own values would have lent him a far more realistic persona.
The only other character with any semblance of depth is Radisson, who has it out for Christians because his mother died of cancer when he was a child. This is almost an offensive way to view the atheist community. The film refuses to admit that there are atheists who choose to come to that conclusion without being somehow slighted by God. This completely devalues the victory in the end. This film doesn’t really want to give anyone who’s not a Christian a favorable portrayal, though.
There are quite a few side stories that weave together in a small way, but mostly stand on their own. For example, a reporter that functions as a cameo machine brings both the Newsboys and the Robertson couple from Duck Dynasty into the film for no reason other than that they’re famous Christians. There is also a rude lawyer, a converted Muslim who secretly listens to Franklin Graham to avoid her father’s condemnation, and a woman who dates the professor, so the audience can see what a jerk he really is. These side stories are all one-dimensional, but they really represent the film’s missed potential.
Contrasting the faith of a Muslim woman’s with the Christians’ would have been interesting, showing that both Christians and Muslims struggle with atheism and secularism. The atheist professor dating a Christian woman could have made him sympathetic, showing his internal conflict between what he knows to be the logical truth and the faith that he sees in his girlfriend. A decent portrayal of a non-Christian character would have lent this film more authority and realism.
Although this film has many, many problems, it is a testament to the power of film that it still holds weight.
The tools of emotional manipulation are clear and present, but they are still effective. It drives the audience to dislike some characters but earnestly desire the salvation of others.
It will most likely prove to be a powerful tool for churches in making evangelists out of young Christians.
Runtime is 113 minutes. Don’t get sucked in.