SPOILER ALERT: (Oh come on, most humanists won’t see this anyway!)
This past weekend I subjected myself to the grueling, one-hour-and-fifty-three-minute experience of the new Christian film God’s Not Dead, in theaters now. As I purchased my ticket, I hesitantly asked the box office attendant if many people had come to see the film. I regretted the question the moment I heard her say yes. The anticipation was heightened by the thirty minutes of advertisements and movie previews displayed before me in the dark theater I shared with only fifteen other people. As the lights dimmed and the opening scene unfolded onscreen, I could already feel myself getting irritated.
It begins as a harmless, happy-go-lucky film about a young man excited for the first day of his freshman year of college. The weather is perfect, and everyone’s smiling and seems to have a little hop in their step. Then the proselytizing begins.
God’s Not Dead is like a Christian fantasy film. The “Perfect Christian Boy” (let’s call him PCB) wants to learn but the “Big Bad Philosophy Professor” won’t let him without renouncing his faith. PCB is met with powerful resistance in his quest to prove the “reality” of Christianity, but he never gives up. In the end, his dedication pays off as he converts his entire class and all the atheist characters into Christians. Everyone wins and there’s a big happy Christian rock concert at the end.
The contrast in personalities between the Christians and the nonbelievers in this film is painfully exaggerated. Professor Radisson (played by Kevin Sorbo), is abusively confrontational, arrogant, and uncompromising in every way. He mocks and embarrasses people of faith, including his girlfriend. The first assignment he administers to his students is the simple task of writing “God is dead” on a piece of paper in order to, as he puts it, “bypass all senseless thought” from the beginning. Our PCB, Josh Wheaton (played by Shane Harper), refuses the task as it would go against everything he believes. Radisson then challenges Josh to prove God isn’t dead and will only pass him if Josh can convince others. Challenge accepted.
It’s not surprising to me that the atheist characters are portrayed in a negative light, and predictably experience the worst luck of all the characters in the film. Blogger Amy Ryan (played by Trisha LaFache) is the stereotypical young, liberal woman who is confrontational in her interviews. She’s depicted as being in a lonely, misogynistic relationship, her health is declining for no apparent reason, and she is extremely unorganized and irresponsible. She even has an “American Humanists” bumper sticker—happy humanist symbol and all—on the back of her car. (Hey, we’re the enemy!) Then Amy gets cancer—and converts to Christianity by the end of the film, of course.
Professor Radisson’s end is essentially the same. He, who had been such a staunch atheist throughout the film, finds himself battling with his own personal demons and questioning his non-faith. He eventually realizes he made a mistake after driving away his girlfriend, so he sprints to find her at the place he knows she’ll be, the place where the entire town seems to be: a Newsboys concert. But on the way he’s struck by a vehicle (because, remember, only bad things happen to atheists). Conveniently, another character, Reverend Dave, rushes to him, not to give medical attention but prayer services. Because that’s what people need most when they’re dying in the streets, right?
As Radisson lies in the street in the pouring rain, his lungs filling with blood and his voice filled with fear, Reverend Dave insists he accept Jesus as his lord and savior. Lo and behold, we hear a shaky, dim Bible verse escape from the lips of the fading Radisson and he accepts Jesus just a split second before dying.
With all of the aggravating labels and annoying dialogue, there were a few unexpected surprises in the movie. In one scene, Radisson demonstrates his knowledge of the Bible to his opposing student, further explaining to him that there are many atheists who were once Christian and actually do have knowledge of the Bible and its contents. Indeed, surveys have shown that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than religious people. I also appreciated Josh’s admission that, no, religion doesn’t have all the answers, and, yes, there any many things about the Christian faith that he cannot explain. Still, Josh makes sure to explain the stupidity and ignorance of great minds like Richard Dawkins, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, and Albert Camus.
But the overt victimization of Christianity in this film negates anything positive. A Muslim girl gets beaten by her father for exploring Christianity. A horribly stereotyped Asian character converts to Christianity because it’s the only thing that “makes sense,” even though his father thinks it’s crap. It’s as if we all want to be Christians, but the world just won’t let us.
With every “Yeah!” and “Thank God!” belted from the small but vocal audience, it was apparent my boyfriend and I were the only nonbelievers present. This may have left a worse taste in my mouth than the film itself. I could hear them becoming empowered by the film. They seemed angry and intolerant of the atheist characters and were confident that they were seeing pure truth rather than what this film is: Christian propaganda. I knew that nothing I said would be well received by those who accept stereotypes as fact.
As for as Kevin Sorbo’s prediction that the film would convert atheists to Christians, I can confidently assure him that God’s Not Dead did nothing of the sort for me—if anything, the film only further solidified my stance. Films like this aren’t created to show nonbelievers “the light” or even make them question their lack of faith. Instead, they only strengthen Christian opposition to nonbelief and aim to put all secularists into the category of angry atheism, thereby widening the divide between belief and nonbelief. Moreover, a film like God’s Not Dead perpetuates misunderstanding and discourages exploration of any religion or philosophy other than Christianity. It’s disturbing to see such obvious brainwashing being fed to the masses—and only rated PG.