On the cover of its April 8, 1966 issue, Time magazine posed the question, “Is God dead?” This question was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher, who claimed in 1882 (and several times afterward) that God is dead. The idea is not that God has somehow died or stopped existing, but that God never existed, and He is now irrelevant in a modern, secular society. A lot of people bought into this notion and answered the question, “Is God dead?” with a resounding, “Yes!” After all, we’ve accumulated enough information about the universe and our place in it to understand everything without any appeals to a supreme deity, right?
Well, apparently not. Contrary to a predictions by proponents of total secularism, we live in a world full of believers. God is still extremely relevant in the lives of billions of people around the world, including many world leaders. Faith plays a major role in all aspects of society, and that’s not going to go away anytime soon. So in 2011, the Christian band Newsboys stated their answer to Time magazine’s question in the form of their album and its accompanying title track: God’s Not Dead. The song instantly became popular in the Christian Contemporary Music scene, and it inspired the creation of a film by the same name that came out last month.
I saw God’s Not Dead last week, and I knew I had to review it. I have a lot to say about this film, both good and bad, so I’ve split this review into sections. I’ll start with a very broad overview of my thoughts on the film, followed by a few complaints, and finish by highlighting what I thought were praiseworthy aspects of the movie.
When I first heard of God’s Not Dead, I wasn’t excited about it. Their big draw was the guest appearance by Willie Robertson, and that’s just not something that appealed to me. But when I saw the trailer, it changed my mind. It was an appealing, professional-looking trailer with a neat concept. I was glad to see that the next big Christian film was at least going to look good. So I decided I would go see it. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one.
The initial reaction to God’s Not Dead was amazing. Theaters were packed. Financially, it outperformed all expectations, and that quickly led to other venues picking it up and spreading the movie around. Even the second weekend after its release, God’s Not Dead was still selling out. I went on a Sunday afternoon, which isn’t exactly a busy movie day, and still the room was packed, and there was a pretty substantial group waiting to see the movie when we got out. This movie is making a splash, and for good reason.
The message of the film is in its title, and it’s something people need to hear. Even though Nietzsche’s predictions haven’t come true, there are still people who believe that God is irrelevant in our society, and the movie serves as a unique way of telling people that God is alive and well. The message of the movie alone, apart from the quality or the cast or any qualms someone might have with it, makes it worth going to see. I think children, youth groups, young adults, older adults, and everyone in-between would do well to see this movie because it has a great, inspiring message that calls Christians to take action, and that’s something I support wholeheartedly. However, that doesn’t mean the movie was perfect.
The entire premise of the plot of God’s Not Dead has been criticized for being unrealistic, and I have to admit that as I watched the film, I did feel some of that skepticism welling up inside of me. For those of you who don’t know, the main plot of God’s Not Dead centers around a college freshman named Josh who takes on his atheist philosophy professor to prove God’s existence. On the first day of class, the professor tries to force every student to publicly state that God is dead. When Josh protests, the professor forces him to argue for God’s existence in front of the class, and the stakes are high. If Josh can’t prove God’s existence in three 20-minute lectures, his grade in the class will be dropped three letter grades.
Growing up, I heard the horror stories about going to college. “College professors are all atheists. They’ll try to talk you out of believing in God.” I’m sure you’ve all read the fictional story about the professor who openly argued with the Christian student in class about God’s existence only to proven wrong and converted to Christianity. But as I’ve gone to college and experienced it, I haven’t seen any of these horror stories become reality. My professors don’t attack students’ personal beliefs. They teach their subjects and respect each individual’s right to come to his or her own conclusions. That’s been my experience, at least.
Granted, I go to a private, religiously-affiliated school. I’ve heard that some public school professors can be a little less respectful and a little more hostile towards Christianity. But these stories are few, far-between, and not nearly as extreme as the stories I was told as a kid, or the story of Josh in God’s Not Dead. While it is the nature of film to portray extreme situations, I think this portrayal of a college professor may be harmful. It perpetuates the stereotypes about public college and may even dissuade families from sending their kids to good, public schools.
I’m not saying there aren’t any dangers associated with being a Christian in college. There are a lot of opportunities to be drawn away from faith in college. It is important to prepare students for the freedoms and temptations they will face when they go to college and to support them as they try to navigate that new world. But, Christian students should not go into college expecting that they will be forced to publicly defend their faith against hostile professors in the classroom. That’s just not realistic, and I hope that God’s Not Dead did not serve to perpetuate those false stereotypes within the Christian community.
So that was my main concern. A few others had to do with tokenism: using one character or small groups of characters to represent a complex, diverse group of people. There was one Muslim family featured in the film, and it included a lot of stereotypes. The father forced his daughter to wear the hijab (headdress) against her will, and he kicked her out of the house when she turned away from the Muslim faith. While these things do happen in the real world, I don’t think it’s fair to say (or imply) that all Muslim families are this way, or that Christian families aren’t capable of doing something similar (purity rings, anyone?). There was also only one politically liberal character, and she encompassed all kinds of stereotypes about liberals, including having a “Meat is murder” bumper sticker on her car and complaining to Willie Robertson about his family praying on their TV show. (Side note: Has anyone ever actually complained about the Robertsons praying on Duck Dynasty? I doubt it.)
I’m not saying that the filmmakers purposely put these characters into the movie to perpetuate stereotypes. The characters have very important functions within the plot of the movie, and some of them are very compelling. Also, it’s impossible to represent a diverse group of people like Muslims or liberals in a two-hour film, and there was a limit on the number of actors they could hire. I just want viewers to be careful that they don’t let these specific portrayals of single characters affect their understandings of whole groups of people.
After reading all that, you may get the impression that I hated God’s Not Dead. That’s not the case. I really enjoyed the movie. I just didn’t appreciate some of the stereotypes the movie was perpetuating, and I hope that viewers will be careful about which aspects of the movie they choose to incorporate into their daily lives and which parts they dismiss. Because there is a lot that a Christian can take away from this film. I’d like to highlight just a few of the things I liked the most about it.
What I Liked
First of all, the movie looked great. I love to see Christian professionals using their skills to praise God and spread His message of love, and I think this film does that. I’ve seen some Christian films that were obviously low-budget or amateur, and they just aren’t as effective. God’s Not Dead looked as good as any other movie you’ll see in theaters these days, and I really appreciated that.
The soundtrack was also really great. It was nice to see Christian filmmakers collaborating with Christian music artists to make the movie better. Of course the Newsboys song “God’s Not Dead” was featured prominently, but other songs like Shane Harper’s “Hold You Up” and Stellar Kart’s “Ones and Zeros” were also included. I left the movie thinking, “I’ve got to have that album.” And if a Christian film can draw people to listen to Christian music in their day-to-day lives, I think that increases its impact remarkably.
I was afraid that the cameos by Willie Robertson and the Newsboys would be distracting from the plot of the movie, but they actually tied in really well. God’s Not Dead has a very large cast. It tells a lot of stories and weaves them together in a very real—but also very convenient—way. The Robertsons and the Newsboys aren’t in the movie a lot, but their appearances are important. I think the filmmakers found a good balance between not featuring them too much and still living up to their promises of including them in the film.
God’s Not Dead also presents the gospel in a clear, effective way. I’m not sure how many non-Christians will see this movie, but the ones that do will walk out knowing the story of Jesus Christ and the effect He has on people’s lives. Christians struggle sometimes to find a way to tell others about Jesus in a way that doesn’t seem pushy or cliche. God’s Not Dead didn’t come off as either of those. Instead, it was heartfelt and appealing. I don’t think the main purpose for God’s Not Dead was to convert people to Christianity, but I’m sure it was a goal the filmmakers had in mind, and it has the potential to do just that.
But, the film is also realistic in that it doesn’t end with everything being perfect. Yes, some of the characters come to Jesus and have their lives changed during the film, but others do not. There are some loose ends. Not everyone is redeemed. Even though that’s sad, I think it’s a good thing that this film doesn’t have a perfect happy ending. If Christians see the movie and think everyone they share Christ with will instantly convert, they’ll have unrealistic expectations about evangelism, and they’ll get discouraged when things don’t go the way they want them to. The movie has a satisfying ending that also leaves the audience with realistic expectations for life, and that’s rare in movies nowadays.
But the best thing about God’s Not Dead, and my favorite thing by far, is its message. Like I said before, the movie has a very plain, clear message that anyone who hears the movie’s title is going to get. Many people won’t believe it, but they can’t deny that the belief that God’s not dead is a popular one, and it’s not going away. The message that God is alive is an empowering one to Christians. It encourages them to live their lives as if the God they serve is alive and present with them. The movie itself encourages Christians to tell everyone they know that God’s not dead. It gives a clear call to action, and I think that’s something that is desperately needed in the Church today.
Is God’s Not Dead a perfect movie? No. Does that mean you shouldn’t go see it? No. You definitely should. There’s a reason it’s so popular. It’s a good movie with a good message that we all need to hear. Hopefully it will inspire you to live your life as if God is alive because (spoiler alert) He is! I would recommend God’s Not Dead to anyone who asked me about it. It’s appropriate for any age, and it has something to offer to everyone. Just to be clear, I think you should go see this movie.
I think you should also be careful while watching this movie. Let it encourage and inspire you. Let it give you hope that God’s not dead and that the people around you know it, too. Just don’t let it give you any unrealistic ideas about people like college professors, Muslims, and liberals. Just like there are stereotypes about Christians that don’t apply to you and me, there are stereotypes about those groups of people that don’t apply to them. So enjoy the story, but don’t get too caught up in it.
Because ultimately the story, even if it is flawed, is just a medium to get the point across, and it does that well. If God’s Not Dead is any indication of the direction Christian film is headed, then I’m hopeful. As Christians, we need to be spreading the message of God’s love every way we know how, and film is a very powerful way of doing that. So go see the movie, tell your friends about it, and remember: God’s not dead!