It’s the movie that has churchgoers all across America creaming their proverbial Sunday Best. So, how does the film's finer points fare under an atheistic perspective?
“This is a cause for celebration,” the stereotypically exuberant African-American missionary proclaims. His accent is so thick and nondescript that, conceivably, he can be from anywhere: Ghana, the Dominican Republic, heck, he could even be a Continental descendant of the Moors, for all we know. His jubilance, however, belies the fact that, just seconds ago, he watched a man literally die before his very eyes. It’s OK, though, because he knows that lost soul punched a last-second ticket to the Pearly Gates, and thanks to the magic of SMS, hundreds of thousands of youngsters will be exposed to the same central message: “God’s Not Dead.”
As soon as I saw the giant cardboard display for the film -- helmed by Christploistation shlockmeister Harold Cronk and featuring Disney Channel castoff Shane Harper -- I just knew I was in store for some Grade A, misguided-as-misguided-can-get religious propaganda. The film itself is basically a feature length adaptation of the old “noble college student versus antagonistic unbeliever professor” chestnut, complete with all of the murky apologetics and “god of the gaps” arguments you’d expect such an undertaking to consist of. It’s more or less a big screen version of the Jack Chick tract “Big Daddy?” -- indeed, some of the film’s debate scenes seem to be direct recreations of that (uncredited) source material.
Of course, “God’s Not Dead” is a polemic film. All of the Christian-conservative organizations (and their alike-minded kin) think it’s terrific, and virtually everybody else in the world -- as apparent by the film’s Metacritic score -- think it’s a cinematic turd de resistance. Before we get too critical about the film’s Christian apologist arguments, I think it’s fair that we first examine the film as a piece of entertainment, and secondly, as a film with a clear-cut political agenda.
As a movie -- and just a movie -- “God’s Not Dead” is pretty boring and uneventful. It’s about this college frosh named Josh Wheaton (boy, I wonder where THAT namesake came from), who, despite being a freshman at the university, has been dating his girlfriend for six years. Ever since his youth group met hers, it’s been true love, we’re told.
So, its registration day on the campus green, and Josh has to sign up for a philosophy course to fulfill his “liberal arts” requirements. Everyone in the movie, it is perhaps worth noting, uses the term “liberal arts” with palpable disdain, as if it’s a waste of time that keeps pre-law students like Josh from finding out algorithms to predict the Stock Market or cure lupus and shit. He’s told that his professor is a hardcore atheist, and advises Josh to drop the course. However, that would mean Josh would have to reschedule his classes, and God forbid he -- gasp -- find another professor, or, you know, just take the class next semester.
The first day of the philosophy class, we’re introduced to Professor Radisson -- played by, of all people, Kevin “Hercules” Sorbo, whom most really owe some wicked back taxes to have signed up for this one. Harkening back to a completely-misconstrued Florida Atlantic incident, Radisson asks his pupils to write down “God is dead” on a piece of paper, so they can skip a few weeks worth of fruitless arguing, but of course, our hero Josh says he ain’t going to do it, and this leads to a challenge between instructor and pupil where the young ‘un has three class periods to “convince” his peers that God exists.
Since that’s not really enough meat for an entire movie, we’ve got a couple of side stories going on to fill up the running time void. There’s this redheaded blogger with a big schnoz who likes to Michael Moore “Duck Dynasty” cast members because her car has animal rights and pro-humanism stickers on it, and she’s dating Dean “Superman” Cain, who is this really unprincipled atheist businessman fellow who breaks up with her because she has cancer (and in an MRI sequence, it's also heavily implied that she has vaginal piercings, too). Dean’s sister is this theist brunette -- whom also happens to be Kevin Sorbo’s love interest -- whose mom has dementia and tells her pastor that her boy-toy gets “verbally abusive” with her just because he offers counterarguments to her Old Testament edicts. There’s also a Chinese student, whose dad is some big shot in Beijing who thinks the government is listening to his phone calls, and a “rebellious” teenager who goes against her Muslim father’s Sharia leanings by downloading MP3s of Billy Graham’s son’s sermons. And EVERYBODY is excited about the Newsboys coming to town, for a concert that in no way, shape or form will ever serve as a pivotal plot device in the film’s finale. Oh, I almost left out Pastor Dave and the aforementioned missionary, whom, for some reason, just can’t get their cars to start so they can go to Disneyworld.
I reckon you can figure out the rest of the movie on your own. Josh’s first counter-lecture -- on why The Big Bang allegedly conforms to the teachings of Genesis -- doesn’t go over too well, and he gets really motivated and starts checking out a ton of library books and his girlfriend breaks up with him. His second lecture is all about why evolution is bullshit and some guy named John Lennox is right, and after that one, Professor Hercules decides to physically confront him in the hallway (not an action that would result in his termination or arrest, of course) to tell him that he’s going to give him what-for next time. Then the professor’s girlfriend breaks up with him, and the not-Muslim girl gets the dog shit beat out of her by her daddy, and on the third and final lecture, Josh “successfully” argues why morality can only come from God himself, how evil can simply be explained by free will alone, and that deep down, all atheists simply reject God because bad stuff happened to them in the past. With the utterance of “how can you hate something that doesn’t exist?”, Josh wins over EVERY last one of his classmates, and the professors runs to his office and reads a letter his dead mama wrote him. Dénouement City, here we come.
So, literally EVERYBODY in the film decides to go to the damn Newsboys concert. The liberal blogger sneaks into the building, and the band prays for her immortal soul, turning her Christian automatically. Meanwhile, Dean Cain is hanging out with his absent-minded mama, who tells him that atheistic success is actually a self-made prison, and when Kevin Sorbo attempts to amble across a walkway, SURPRISE! He gets waylaid by a hit and run driver. Thankfully, Pastor Dave is there -- thanks to his car not starting earlier -- so he can pray for Kev’s soul, turning him Christian right before he dies. It’s all part of God’s grand schema, he tells the dying professor. If God didn’t want him to accept Jesus, he says, why didn’t he die as soon as the car struck him? And with that, the atheist prof finds God, and at the concert, Josh, the not-Muslim girl and the Chinese boy that Josh seemingly has a crush on all groove to some good old-fashioned evangelical rock and roll, with one of the Duck Dynasty people telling the concert-goers -- and the theater patrons themselves -- to literally text everyone they know the message “God’s Not Dead.” A listing of about two dozen or so court cases about colleges infringing upon the rights of Christian students scroll, and this one is over and out.
So, as a film, the movie is, to use a technical term, “a real piece of shit.” As melodramatic and heavy-handed and syrupy as the film itself is, however, the underlying politics of the flick itself are rather insidious. To begin, atheists in “God’s Not Dead” get representation that’s about as fair as the Jews got in “Triumph of the Will” -- of the three atheistic characters in the film, all three are completely miserable, misanthropic materialists, whom have no real understanding of true human terms like “love” and “integrity.” In “God’s Not Dead,” it’s the atheists that are the ones that are blindly loyal, and one-dimensional, and excessively dogmatic -- the fact that 66 percent of the atheistic characters end up either dead or stuck with a terminal illness, I suppose, should tell you everything you need to know about how the filmmakers view the cultural “other” here.
At the end of the day, “God’s Not Dead” is hardly a spiritual film at all. Indeed, whereas movies like “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” and even something like “The Ninth Configuration” were inherently about man’s faith, this is a film steeped in political hatred, through and through. It’s not the love of the Gospel or Jesus’ teaching about charity and forgiveness that unite the heroes of the film, but rather, their communal disdain of leftist forces. As with countless straight-to-DVR propaganda flicks of the like, this is a film that absolutely revels in the thought of Christian persecution, to the point where you wonder if these people aren’t getting some sort of sadomasochist sexual titillation from their perceived repression. The target audience for this film are the kind of folks that express dire outrage over chain e-mails, oblivious to the full facts of the incidents but so empowered by believing they are being disempowered that things like “reality” no longer seem to matter. In a nation where three-fourths of its inhabitants believe in a higher power, films like “God’s Not Dead” are convinced, convinced I say, that the nation as a whole has some sort of conspiracy going on to silence them; of course, they would never, EVER put the shoe on the other foot and decry private universities that bar homosexuals from teaching, or the countless kids that were tossed out of loving, Christian homes for the sin of being gay, or even dating someone of the “wrong” color or ethnicity, or even the state-funded(!) school boards that seek to bar evolution from being taught, in this, the year two-thousand-and-motherfucking-fourteen. As a whole, the only thing “God is Dead” is 100 percent effective as, I would suppose, is oppression pornography for the Dave Ramsey-listening, WND-reading, Chick-Fil-A eatin’ evangelical set -- chiefly, those who complain about the alleged “War on Christmas” serving as cultural subjugation, while conveniently forgetting about clear-cut examples of actual historical subjugation like The Inquisition and The Crusades.
Perhaps the film could be a little more tolerable had the apologetics been a little more convincing, but alas, such is not the case here. Josh begins his campaign to convert his heathen classmates by stating that the Big Bang is the act of an “uncreated” creator, an example of the faulty “first cause” argument that’s been around since the days of Aristotle. The logic here is never really rebuked: if God can be an uncreated first cause, then why can’t the Big Bang itself be an uncreated first cause? Even Josh’s attempt to link up the Book of Genesis with the scientific rationale behind the Big Bang is biblically erroneous: per the first two sentences of the bible, the Earth and its waters were already formed before God said “let there be light” -- a fairly massive oversight that, right from the proverbial get-go, makes the Big Bang and the biblical story of creation completely incompatible. A secondary postulate served up by the heroic theist -- that the bible clearly states that the universe is expanding (thus, making it congruent with current cosmological theorizations) while most scientific theorists until the the 20th century got it wrong -- is just a big old steaming pile of horse shit, and then some.
Josh’s second lecture is about as error-ridden as his first. He starts off by saying that Stephen Hawking and his kin are guilty of believing that the universe needed to create itself, and since nothing can arise from that which doesn’t already exist, everything from the atheistic Big Bang framework to Evolution is a bunch of manure. Slighting his professors appeal to authority, Josh cites the fairly obscure preachings of Gavin Jensen (whose degree, it is perhaps worth noting, is in graphic design) as a counter appeal to authority, then makes the asinine claim that since Earth life has gone from prokaryotes to humans in just 3.8 billion years, it’s far too little time for the Darwinian sciences to take effect. After all, Josh, reminds us, wasn’t it Darwin himself who said that “nature doesn’t jump?”
The character’s suspiciously professional looking PowerPoint slides offer virtually no hard evidence to refute the hard sciences that contradict his religious leanings. In fact, pretty much all of Josh’s argumentation is based on hypothetical logical presuppositions, which don’t actually ADDRESS the realities of evolution or cosmological sciences at all. For everything wrong with Josh’s take, here’s a fairly interesting diatribe that covers pretty much all of the scientific and philosophical bases for you.
Which brings us to the third and (diagetically) decisive argument, which is about the nature of evil and free will. Here, Josh does away with science altogether and tells us that since humans have free will, we are allowed to deviate from god’s wishes and embrace sin and all of that other nasty shit. HOWEVER, Josh also says that God is all-knowing and all-powerful, and since he controls and dictates every human life by “circumstance,” that means every moment in our life is, essentially, pre-determined. It’s a logical error you could drive a truck through: if an omnipotent being guides us throughout our entire life, how in the blue blazes is it possible for us, as individuals, to have anything that even remotely resembles free will? God, he tells us, is about choice, ultimately, a matter that demands faith (aka, thoughtless allegiance) and not empirical knowledge. And from a logical fallacy to outright insanity, he argues that ONLY morality can come from God and his desires, and if God’s morality didn’t exist, then how come his professor looked down upon cheating? This is quite possibly the most fascistic element of the entire movie, and definitely the most troubling; per the Christian adherents, the only pathway to a noble, charitable, meaningful and altruistic existence is through THEIR specified blueprints -- without God existing, Josh tells us with all the fury of a fiery despot, “everything is permissible,” and as such, life itself has no inherent meaning. The deadening crux of Josh’s argument is so nihilistic, it makes Nietzsche seem like a glib optimist: the ONLY thing that makes life worth living is death, for all of the universe and all of reality is utterly insignificant compared to existence on this plane outside of existence that NO ONE HAS EVER SEEN OR COULD POSSIBLY VERIFY THAT YOU CAN ONLY ACCESS BY BELIEVING EVERYTHING WE TELL YOU TO. If the liberal statists in “God’s Not Dead” are terrifying absolutists and tyrants, then I suppose that makes born again Christians, by virtue of their own philosophies, an ideological force of subjugation on par with 20th century communism's heaviest hitters.
The ending of the film is vague, yet ominous -- the wooed Christian youth celebrate their (canonically, unacknowledged) triumph over atheistic oppression at the concert, which is symbolized by the very real death of their professor. Of course, this means everybody fails the class by default, but who cares! Our opposition was removed, by the greatest and most humanistic force we have -- the death of those fostering ideological differences, with the auger of divine wrath exonerating us from feeling guilty about their own expiries. The frenzied youth all gleefully march towards the reward of death, their only real reason to be in this form of existence being to forcibly make everybody around them believe in the same post-death reward/punishment they do. If divinely-endorsed free will does exist, then it’s the Christian themselves that seem most hell-bent on taking it way from everybody else.
Of course, it’s a little silly to go off on such a long-winded rant against something like “God’s Not Dead,” which is clearly preaching to the choir with no aspirations of winning over the opposition with things like “fact” and “reason.” Ultimately, it’s just another propaganda movie, a stupid little flick for neo-cons to mentally masturbate to and give smug, well-represented church people yet another excuse to run around claiming victimization.
It’s not a good movie. As propaganda, it’s even worse. But as a commentary on the mindset of today’s evangelicals? Folks, this might just be the most terrifying movie of the year; films about real-life zombies, after all, are always more horrific than films about the fictitious brain-dead.