Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “The three most important things about a film are- the script, the script, and the script”. Well, he also forgot the fourth thing, not being a piece of shit. And the fifth, knowing what niche your movie will fill. Any person making a movie must know what the tone of their movie is. A good example- Sharknado. It knows you’re just there for a good time, it’s there to develop some characters, get some good laughs, and you walk out with a smile and you probably see the sequel. It doesn’t masquerade as The Godfather, because it clearly isn’t. Michael Bay, I pray, doesn’t view himself as a visionary or a passed over genius. He makes shitty action flicks to make money and provide something to boost your testosterone levels.
And that brings us to God’s Not Dead. It’s essentially a modern day version of those anti-Soviet pro-Christian propaganda films of the 1960’s. Directed by Harold Cronk, a last name which is literally an onomatopoeia for when Batman punches a bad guy in the stomach, God’s Not Dead is about a good Christian boy standing up to the mean bad atheist professor. The main character, Josh Wheaton, is played by one Shane Harper. Now, Harper’s main roles have been this character, ‘Tenth Grader’ on an episode of Zoey 101, and one more role of note. If anyone reading remembers the show ‘Good Luck Charlie’. It was a Disney show which aired from 2010-2014. Harper played the asshole boyfriend whom Bridgette Mendler always had problems with. In my mind, I like to imagine Harper’s character in Good Luck Charlie took being dumped really hard and proceeded to become a radical Christian, leading us to the plot of God’s Not Dead.
So, the movie is essentially being held up by a former Disney kid star turned zealous Christian. What a recipe for success. That’s like trying to bake a cake and immediately putting in half a cup of laundry detergent. But whatever, maybe the villain will make us enjoy the movie. Except, that’s not really the point of the movie, a ‘Christian drama’, is it, to have us root for the bad guy? The film repeatedly tries to vilify the atheist professor, played by Kevin Sorbo, and does a terrible job doing so. I found myself rooting for him throughout the entire runtime and Harper’s character came off as an entitled twat. That’s not to say the film makes any attempt to bring dimension to Sorbo’s character, I simply found his attitude and the way he gave so much passion and anger in this Philosophy 101 class. I guess he’s salty he has to teach the most ungrateful want-to-be Socrates’ of California. And he does have a tragic backstory but the film I guess wants you to overlook it, which is incredibly stupid of them because of course I’m not gonna do that. This film probably inspired more doubt in Christianity than it ever did conversion or zeal. The remainder of the cast is rather immaterial yet terrible for many reasons, but suffice it to say it includes two people from Duck Dynasty. That came out of nowhere, thanks Harold Cronk.
The beginning of the movie is marked by Josh loving college and loving his girlfriend Kara. It’s very clear from the first scene Kara is a raging bitch. I mean this is a character that has very few redeeming qualities yet our main character is inexplicably in love. Gee, I wonder how long that will last. Josh is then assigned to a Philosophy 101 class taught by Professor Radisson. By the way Mr. Villain, your name is a hotel. Okay, carry on. The person assigning classes notices the giant cross dangling from our main martyr’s neck and warns him about the professor he will soon be meeting. Josh, the ignorant little doofus that he is, disregards this warning.
As it turns out, the guy assigning classes was not kidding. The very first thing Professor Radisson does when all his pupils enter the classroom is pass out pens and paper. Okay, innocent enough. He then tells his class that God is dead, I know it, everyone knows it, you all know it, just write it down and we’ll all be even steven. Then we can go into more riveting subjects like truth and morality. Woah, woah, woah guy. Most subjects require at least a second of discussing before jumping to conclusions. Even saying ‘the sky is green’ requires a second of ‘no, actually the sky is blue, are you suffering from dementia?” So to say the enormous statement proclaiming that basically every philosopher before you was an idiot, and billions of the people on Earth are wrong, I think, requires, at the bare minimum, a sentence of discourse. Radisson doesn’t even give the kids a courtesy, “What type of God would create such injustice in the world,” he just immediately gives them an opinion. I don’t think that’s how college works. I hope that’s not how college works, or I’m getting ripped off some 200 grand. Probably am anyway, truth be told. Secondly, the statement “God is dead” implies that God was once alive. Something that never existed cannot die. So, this creates an entirely new topic of conversation. If we assume God has died, when did he live? For what purpose? And is he actually dead, what evidence supports this? So to assume Radisson has thought all this over, and feels that a simple pen and paper will portray this message about critical thinking and about philosophy shows that this character represents a teacher of philosophy in the same way the Count from Seasame Street represents vampires.
Regardless, that devout hero Josh is he cannot bring himself to sign the sheet of paper. Miraculously, Radisson is extremely taken aback and sent into confusion, as if no one before has ever refused to sign the paper. Radisson, being the cocky villain cinema has groomed us for, challenges Josh to a three part debate where he has to prove the existence of God, who already kind of exists? Okay, so the whole notion of “God is dead” can mean two things, 1- that God was living and now he’s not, or 2- that God never existed and therefore the idea of there being a God is dead. This whole process is very convoluted because throughout the debates it’s clear that Josh is trying to prove the existence of God and Radisson is doing his own thing I guess. But whatever, the good Christian boy accepts the duel and takes to the Bible to prepare his arguments.
Remember the spawn of Satan girlfriend I mentioned? She tells Josh, making reasonable points I might add, to either sign the paper or drop the class. Provoking someone who grades you and ultimately decides, at least in part, your future academic prospects is probably not a wise thing. Later the movie proves she was right because at the end of the third debate Radisson tells Josh he can’t wait to fail Josh for making a mockery of his classroom. But of course, Josh must stand up for what he believes in. And so Kara drops his ass. He is now a single Bible loving guy. If he shaves his head maybe he can join a monastery.
About this time several subplots develop, they’re all very comical and take up large swaths of the runtime so I might as well delve into them. The one most pertinent to the main plot is Radisson’s girlfriend, Nina. Nina is a devout Catholic, and naturally that doesn’t gel well with Radisson. The one scene we see in their home consists of Radisson treating Nina like a housemaid and then berating her religion in front of his various fellow professors. Again, nothing but professionalism and creative character writing from Kevin Cronk, god bless him. This character exists for the sole purpose that Jesus exists in Christianity, martyrdom. In Jesus’ case, he existed and died for our sins. In Nina’s case, she exists so that Radisson can look like even more of a dick. Why bother making a character even somewhat morally good if you can just repeatedly vilify them? How about putting him in a wife beater and giving his some Pabst Blue Ribbon? Oh, shoot, then he’d probably be a practicing Christian.
There is a second semi-important subplot, and it is important only because this character returns for the sequel. Basically there is this girl Amy, who goes around confronting the members of Duck Dynasty with her iPhone 4S and yelling at them about typical left-wing social-justice nonsense. “How do you address people who might be offended by your worship of Jesus?” she asks one of the bearded Bible lovers outside their church, (this is a totally real thing that happens in real life, everyone who voted for Bernie is exactly like this). Troy or Bill or Elroy or whatever the fuck his bearded name is doesn’t really give her an answer and is mostly just confused by the question. Just something about how they don’t want to offend God. Also, for the record Amy, that is a stupid ass question. Everyone who watches Duck Dynasty probably owns a Bible in their home and goes to church on Sundays. Nobody from Alabama is taking a break from killing deer to be offended by the word ‘Jesus’. Nobody from California is doing that either, and if you are, stop it. Apparently, God has a personal vendetta for Amy as after her interview she is diagnosed with c-c-c-cancer! Uh-oh! How is Amy gonna get out of this one? The power of CHRIST! Yes folks, she renounces her evil leftist ways throughout the course of the movie and now believes in God. And as it turns out, this cures her cancer. Huh, who knew? Tell those lame douchebags over at the children’s hospital they’re clearly godless heathens possessed by the devil, because living is easy, just find God! Hey little Timmy, I know you have critical leukemia but maybe your Make a Wish celebrity can be Mel Gibson, and you guys can read the Bible together!
Next we come to Martin, a Chinese student studying abroad in the big world of America sponsored by his wealthy business owner father. And just like ninth grade history class taught me, students studying in places with greater freedom find a greater variety of new ideas. And Martin, he found the greatest idea of all, God! Somehow when Martin hears the Justin Bieber clone with a factory defect debate the cartoon villain, he finds that Good Luck Charlie’s boyfriend has some good points. Sometimes they even read the Bible together! However, when Martin tells his father innocently in Cantonese, his father yells at him angrily in Mandarin. Yep, a movie about Christian purity and religious superiority is- get this- culturally insensitive. Cantonese is a minority language in China made popular by the fact that the British had a treaty port in Hong Kong where it was the dominant language so the West has been exposed to great amounts of it. Mandarin is the primary language spoken by the vast majority of people, and is pretty different compared to Cantonese. It’s on par with Martin speaking Portuguese and his father replying in Spanish. Am I surprised the Christian fundamentalists couldn’t have literally one person who spoke Mandarin check this over? Am I shocked that a movie marked by basically glorified bigotry made a glaringly obvious and culturally insensitive mistake? Not particularly, no.
The last four idiots, I mean wonderful and complex multi-level characters, that round out the cast are two preachers, a Muslim, and a businessman. Sounds like the setup of a bad pub joke. For whatever reason, God has willed the two preachers to have a car that doesn’t work and He wants them to stay at his church all day for three days. Another wonderful group of scenes to pad out the nearly two hour runtime. One preacher has the heaviest accent and is just so positive and in your face about God it gets annoying. The other looks like he runs one of those ‘Pray the Gay Away’ camps. Get this Harold Cronk, I couldn’t care less about these two dickbags and their minor problems. If you thought Radisson had no redeeming features, you’d be right, but the businessman is pretty terrible too. He dumps Amy because she has cancer and makes fun of his mom who has dementia and likes God. Surprisingly, this character never faces any consequences, misfortune, or divine retribution. Perhaps Mr. Harold Cronk was making an ironic commentary on the fact that even in a world marked by piety the only real justice comes from ourselves, and our own moral satisfaction that we exist on this earth to befriend and touch the lives of others. Or, the far more likely scenario, this character was just forgotten about. Someone wrote him into a couple scenes and forgot to ever bother finishing his story.
Finally, a Muslim girl who hears the word of God and decides to convert, much to her religious father’s chagrin. Speaking as someone who has read neither the Qu’ran nor the Bible I mean they can’t be that different, realllly. It’s all the same stuff because they both worship the same God. They just disagree about the finer details such as who was the definitive prophet of God, Jesus or Muhammad? And I understand Islam is pretty harsh on a lot of things, but Christianity ain’t really any better. “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ,” (Ephesians 6:5). “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD,” (Deuteronomy 23:1). “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk, or coarse joking, which are out of place,” (Ephesians 5:4). So yeah, the Bible has a lot of weird shit. And the scene where her father finds out she’s a Christian she is listening to the Bible on her iPod. The movie is saying this Muslim girl listened to the Bible and is now a Christian. And then she gets kicked out of her home. Fun stuff. They speak different languages to each other in that angry conversation to! Wow, God’s Not Dead is teaching me all about the differences between languages and how you can put Persian and Arabic next to each other and you’ll probably get away with it.
All the lame side characters out of the way, the meat of the movie takes place in three sessions of vigorous debate in Radisson’s classroom. In his first lecture, he tries to get some people not to doubt that the Big Bang happened, but that God did it. He uses George Lemaitre, a theist and an astronomer, who said that the Big Bang corresponds to “Let there be light!”. Oh, and a girl in this college class asks what a theist is. Ask her what an atheist is, I’m sure she’ll tell you. But a theist? Duhhhh what is that? Radisson rolls his eyes at this comment, another action that ever so slightly pushes me further into his camp. So ‘let there be light’ corresponds with the Big Bang. Okay? I feel like, undoubtedly, people who believe in ‘let there be light’ had no idea about the true origins of the universe, just like Aristotle. They could only make guesses. Josh slams Aristotle for believing that the universe has always existed and will always exist. The scientists writing the Bible clearly were smarter than every scientist that ever existed until the first work to uncover the Big Bang. Heh, those stupid philosophers trying to use truth and reason and logic instead of just believing in the power of an almighty creator. Radisson then pulls out a Stephen Hawking quote (pulling no punches, God bless him) saying the universe can and will spontaneously create itself. Scientifically, there is no necessity to search for a creator, because the universe is its own creator. Josh is like “well ah jeez you just sunk my battleship” and leaves the classroom disgraced, and at a significant disadvantage going into his remaining two lectures. Classic film structure, your hero needs to take a few falls so it feels better when they stand back up. Except, this would be like if Rocky tripped running up the steps in Philadelphia and then carried a black eye for the remainder of the film.
Naturally, in the second lecture Josh comes back with a rebuttal to Hawking’s quote. Josh claims the universe creating itself as stated by Hawking has several logical fallacies according to this mathematics teacher called John Lennox who I’ve never heard of. The universe exists because it needed to exist, and thus it created itself. That’s pretty darn clear to me, the universe needed to create itself so it did. That’s the whole point of spontaneous creation. It’s spontaneous. You haven’t really said anything Josh. Radisson responds by saying, “This is the height of hubris!” Can you not love this guy? I should start working his lines in if I decide to start bickering with people who make minimum wage. “You don’t have any Shamrock Shakes? This is absurd, this is the height of hubris from the McDonald’s Industrial Complex!” Now Stephen Hawking is not a fan of philosophy so Josh brings that up and makes Radisson look like a moron. Good touch there, everyone knows the true way to achieve victory in debates is to insult the opponent, just ask our commander in chief. Our Hospitaller hero then moves on to Darwin, who famously said “Natura non facit saltum”, nature does not jump. And as he points out, nature actually did jump as most of the important and multi-celled cool animals were created relatively recently in the 3.8 billion timeframe of life on Earth. Well I think it’s clear the conclusion to draw here. Nature does have the capacity to jump and Darwin was wrong. But, Darwin lived 150 years ago. Science changes and most of his work will eventually be proven incorrect or incomplete. However, this says nothing about evolution. Josh doesn’t try to disprove evolution because evolution is a scientific fact, it happened and it keeps happening. Instead, he says “uhh God did it” and quotes one of the Bible verses where God isn’t smiting anyone but rather is feeling nice for a change and making fish in rivers and all that jazz. To sum up his argument, he discredited the opposing view not with facts but with rhetoric, said an incredibly weak and unfounded argument, then left. You can say evolution is real and God inspired it, fine. I got no problem with that. Believe whatever you want. But make it this righteous crusade against Darwin, science, and everything else is when you piss me off.
The last argument. The closing statement of Josh’s self proclaimed “trial of God”. And to be fair to Radisson, this isn’t a real trial. No real trial consists of the prosecuting attorney not making any arguments and just sitting in the corner and occasionally murmuring something. This is Josh standing up and preaching, in a way he himself has framed to make himself look like he is morally righteous, and the defender of a vicious and unceasing attack against freedom. It is an intentional decision by the character, and moreso by the writers to make Josh’s cause, that of Christianity, and the cause of Christians seem every bit as noble as Josh’s attempts to stand up to a fictional bully. So, Josh says the fact that evil exists is a powerful argument against theology. His response to that argument- God will one day fix it, and all y’all who love me are gonna be in heaven soon so who cares? Another weak argument. Even if it’s truth and there is a God who feels like that, what type of monster would that be? One who creates such needless suffering for so many and possesses such apathy towards people existing on his own volition. This isn’t proof that God allows free will, he allows free misery. There is something to be said about the need to face adversity to test yourselves, but there is no explanation for someone who is all powerful to allow such hatred and such torment to go on for no reason. Radisson rephrases my statement in a slightly more douchey way, then criticizes Go for creating moral absolutes, or a moral code of conduct. Now this is important, Josh says that God gives him a code of conduct and a moral way to live, his incentive is eventually reaching Heaven. Atheists have no incentive, and therefore no reason to be moral. There’s no point to anything without a God and a Heaven, and life has to have a point, therefore there is a God. Okay. Fair enough. If this is the viewpoint you have, I accept that. I share that same viewpoint, that there probably is some form of Higher Power and life ultimately extends beyond death. But do you know what Josh? Maybe Radisson is right. Maybe life doesn’t have a fucking point. As much as I’d like to think my life has purpose beyond my death, it could just as easily not. I think you’re right Josh. I know I’ve bashed you and will continue to bash you. I believe in a God, but it is not the God you speak of and my belief has nothing to do with you, not at all. Saying life must have a point isn’t an argument. Because life here on this blue rock in the middle of the cosmos could be pointless just as easily as it could be the most meaningful endeavor in the galaxy.
At the end, Josh says something that extends beyond the purpose of the movie. Believing in God is just that, believing. It’s a choice, yes/no/maybe. You could’ve stopped there God’s Not Dead. You could’ve cut to black mid-sentence like the Sopranos, giving me a sour taste in my mouth but not revolted. But you didn’t, you couldn’t, and now I have to keep tearing open your rotten cadaver. The crazed atheist professor you’ve contrived cannot accept that his well-organized debate has turned into a simple internet straw poll “Do you God, click here for yes”. I’m not sure what anyone would expect when you give someone with a viewpoint like this a platform. The viewpoint Josh holds is a valid one, one anyone can hold. But I mean he’s a damn in-your-face Christian, there is no way that this discourse would ever become more than a slightly more dignified version of those people who scream about Jesus outside baseball games. Anyone with a brain bigger than a walnut and with a modicum of common sense would be able to infer that. Not the Robbie Rotten of philosophy professors though, I suppose. Regardless, through enough yelling Josh manages to pry out that Radisson used to be a Christian then stopped after his mother died despite his prayers. Therein lies the second grade level crux of the story, someone who was pious became not after someone close to them died. A common thing that happens amongst the millions of Christians, I’m sure. A completely fair and valid coping mechanism, right? Not according to Harold Cronk, fuck with the Lord and you’ve got a one way ticket to h-e-double hockey sticks. But before that, a Disney actor will come and make you look like a total idiot.
Not so surprisingly, Radisson realizes that he was probably incorrect to be such a hardass about religion, and goes to make up with his girlfriend, Nina, who had dropped his ass just like Kara had done to our innocent hero. That’s admirable, right? Someone who was admittedly too harsh is now going to make amends with those whom he had possibly disenfranchised. As it turns out, Nina and most of the rest of the cast is going to a concert of this Christian rock group, The Newsboys. They made the song that shares the name with the film. It’s bad and overproduced. And the lyrics don’t make any sense. “God’s not dead, he’s surely alive, living on the inside roaring like a lion. He’s roaring. He’s roaring.” But whatever, we need to know will Nina forgive her spurned lover? Is he going to revisit, I don’t know, a church and be flooded with memories? Nope, on the way to the concert Radisson gets hit by a car and dies.
You probably thought that was a joke right? Nope. Radisson gets hit by a car on the way to seek forgiveness from his girlfriend and probably from God. However as he lays dying on the street, who else would come to comfort him? That’s right, his own guardian angel, the Pray Away the Gay Preacher! Amongst other biblical comforts, the Aryan Apostle tells Radisson that he is gonna die really soon as his lungs have collapsed in on themselves and he is internally bleeding like a sieve. That is about the worst bedside manner I’ve ever seen. But in his bloody, crushed, pulpy state Radisson realizes he was wrong to shun the benevolent God and becomes a Christian again. I was in hysterics the first time I watched this scene. This whole movie has been the most melodramatic, over the top, film that has treated itself with the utmost seriousness. However, I think it’s message is very clear. Be a Christian or God will fucking wreck you.
This whole film has carried itself as if it was the first century AD and Christians were still being fed to lions in the Colosseum. Christianity in the majority of the world, most certainly in the United States is a majority religion and is well tolerated. There is no perceived war on Christianity or on God, and there hasn’t been since about 2000 years ago. This movie was made by people who are incapable of accepting the diminishing role of religion in modern society, a natural process already seen in Europe. Also I’d imagine these are the same people who are still upset about Roe vs. Wade and the fact that gays can now be treated like everyone else. I’ll put this in biblical terms so maybe Harold Cronk can understand- You are not Paul. You are not God. If you wanted to make a film about religion and the benefits it can bring, you’ve done a terrible job. Coming from someone who does believe in something greater than myself, you haven’t convinced me of anything except that I should not be drinking whatever Kool-Aid you were on when you made God’s Not Dead.
Fun side note: As is sometimes the case with low budget films, God’s Not Dead reaped an enormous revenue, some 62 million dollars with a budget of only 2 million. And you know what that means folks? There will be a sequel, hell, maybe if we’re lucky we can get Josh to do a crossover movie with the Avengers.