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Why God’s Not Dead is Going to Fail

The new Christian film “God’s Not Dead” will fail because its unsympathetic portrayal of atheists reduces from a potential conversation starter to a piece of insider-propaganda.

The trailer for the new film God’s Not Dead has been getting a lot of buzz in Christian circles. The film comes out next week. Unless this trailer is totally ironic, God’s Not Dead is following the tradition of Christian cinema in making a film that’s going to generate more heat than light. Rather than building bridges for conversation, God’s Not Dead looks like it’s going to further alienate Christians and Atheists.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for films that explore the question of God’s existence. But it doesn’t look like God’s Not Dead will do it well.

The trailer looks pretty straight-forward. We meet Professor Raddison (Kevin Sorbo) first quoting Macbeth and questioning how a good God could exist in a world full of evil:

“Life’s a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Act V, Scene 5)

We then meet the main character – Josh Wheaton. Josh is a Christian kid at a big secular university. His first class is Philosophy 150, which he’s warned away from because of the professor. The professor in question – Raddsion – then introduces the class by saying,

I want to bypass senseless debate altogether and jump to the conclusion that every sophomore’s already aware of: there is no God.

He then tells everyone to write “God is Dead” on their paper – presumably for a grade. Of course Josh refuses and the film’s central conflict is established: he and Raddison are going to debate!

The core problem is that the film portrays the villain – Professor Raddison – as a caricature of real atheists.

The film seems to present itself as a reasonable response to hostile atheism. But while I have certainly met a few atheists who act like Raddison, none of them are professors. No University worth its accreditation would allow that sort of blatant abuse of students to go on in the classroom. A student who experienced something like Josh would have plenty of recourse to appeal the professor’s behavior to the University.

Raddison is presented as the atheist who’s mad at God for some previous slight (it may be the death of his mother hinted at in the trailer). In any case, what motivates Raddison is hatred and anger, not honest, intellectual inquiry. Again, while I’ve met some atheists like Raddison, the vast majority of atheists I’ve met are not emotional atheists. To present Raddison as such is to do a huge disservice to the very persons it’s trying to reach.

A basic rule of healthy discussion is that you critique the very best the opposite position has to offer. Not the worst, or the fringe. This is a rule God’s Not Dead looks to be breaking.

I can’t imagine a non-Christian watching this film and thinking, “You know what? Christians really have it tough in this culture. Universities should ease up on them!” What the film (apparently) depicts is simply too far removed from reality to engage non-Christians in a compelling conversation.

Therein lies the rub. God’s Not Dead doesn’t seem to be interested in a conversation. It wants to shore up the the Evangelical persecution myth we like to tell ourselves.

It’s the same problematic narrative the “documentary” Exposed perpetuated a few years ago. We like to feel like we’re in the minority, that everyone is out to get us. So we create the myth of the Evil Secular University that’s just waiting to devour our under-prepared children into its godless pagan agenda. (Maybe that way we have someone other than ourselves to blame when our children aren’t interested in the faith we offered them?)

But even were we to grant the film’s ridiculous premise, still the fatal flaw is that nowhere did Jesus say, “They will know you are my disciples by your carefully worded arguments”. Preparing kids to go to college as shock-troops equipped for war with godless professors is the wrong tactic.

Jesus told us the world will know we are his by our love. So if you are actually worried about your kid going to college, why not teach him to embody the Fruit of the Spirit? Practice living the Sermon on the Mount with her. Engender a love and compassion for your enemies, not fear, hatred and combat.

Oh, how about those bizarre, non sequitur cameos?

  1. Willie & Korie Robertson Don’t know who they are? That’s okay. Neither did I. They’re the current Duck Dynasty front-couple. Why are they in this film? From what the trailer shows us, the plot needed them Christians love them some Duck Dynasty right now.
  2. The Newsboys a.k.a. A Christian band that was wildly popular in the late 90s, then found a resurgence when Michael Tate of other-90s-Christian-supergroup-DCTalk-fame joined the band (think of the current incarnation of the Newsboys the Christian knock-off version of Velvet Revolver. Or maybe Van Hagar.) Does the plot necessitate some sort of cameo? I doubt it. But we’ll see.
  3. Dean Cain? Yes, the most loveable Superman of them all appears as… some sort of evil executive? His role is unclear. Maybe he’ll turn out to be the Devil in a surprising PLOT TWIST!

If Christians want to be taken seriously, we have to start making better films. And that begins with scripts that are more than flimsy propaganda pieces.

In short, God’s Not Dead looks to be another bad Christian film that’s less about engaging the world on helpful terms than it is about cashing in on our Evangelical desire to reaffirm our worldview. We’ll see next week when the film comes out, but I’m not holding my breath.

YOUR TURN: Are you planning to see God’s Not Dead? What do you make of the trailer?

By JR. Forasteros

JR. lives in Dallas, TX with his wife Amanda. In addition to exploring the wonders that are the Lone Star state, JR. is the teaching pastor at Catalyst Community Church, a writer and blogger. His book, Empathy for the Devil, is available from InterVarsity Press. He's haunted by the Batman, who is in turn haunted by the myth of redemptive violence.