One of the biggest films in the last ten years of Christian films was God’s Not Dead, a commercial success that spawned a trilogy. It’s a rather interesting film to look back on and give a second watch, something I generally do not do with Christian movies. While God’s Not Dead is not a boring movie, it is a very “Big Eva” movie. Big Eva refers to the industry surrounding Evangelicalism: books, speaking engagements, prominent positions, etc. It’s a protective guild of elites. God’s Not Dead relies heavily on this influence and also feeds Christian celebrity culture at the expense of crafting a compelling story grounded in reality.
The premise of the movie is that a Christian college freshman must defend God’s existence in a class where the professor has declared that God is dead. This is a realistic premise for a movie; however this is far from the only thing God’s Not Dead has going on. The most glaring flaw in this movie is that it has six plots.
- Josh Wheaton vs Jeffrey Radisson
- Chinese student named “Martin”
- Girl in Muslim home that works at the cafeteria whose apparently been a Christian for about a year
- Lefty blogger with cancer
- Reverend Dave and his African missionary friend visiting who can’t seem to leave town
- Jeffrey Radisson’s girlfriend whose mom has dementia and is also a Christian and brother is an atheist
The problem with all of these plots is that they don’t all come together in the end. Multiple character’s are unaware of the other plots and circumstances, meaning if you took them out, it would have no impact on the main plot. And thus one of the greatest flaws in this movie is that it does not invest enough time in it’s main plot, the plot people actually came to see.
Big Eva Mentality
Having already described what is meant by Big Eva, God’s Not Dead constantly relies on the Christian celebrity culture, as though the plebian Christians are dependent on their celebrity patricians of the faith. The two most prominent examples in this film are Willie and Korie Robertson of Duck Dynasty and Newsboys. The problem with the former is that they serve no purpose in the movie other than to promote the movie to their audience outside of the movie. Their actual role in the movie is redundant. They cite, to the Lefty Blogger, Matthew 10:32-33. However, this was unnecessary as this verse is cited again in the main plot to further gird the loins of Josh Wheaton. The audience only needs to hear the verse cited once, and the Robertsons were the clear redundancy in the plot. Willie Robertson also returns to give a message telling the crowd at a Newsboys convert to text their friends “God’s not dead.”
The movie also acts as though every Christian in a general area will be keenly aware of a Newsboys concert in town, and all of the Christian or would be Christian characters gravitate towards it at the end.
Our protagonist is Josh Wheaton, a college freshman who decides to take a first year philosophy course. Josh Wheaton is a stereotype, and I debate whether he is an intentionally well crafted stereotype or an accidental stereotype. Take the fact that he has a girlfriend of four years that he met at some youth group event. They plan to get married after their four years at college. This is a parental fantasy. I would argue that it is not biblical to date for 7-8 years before getting married, but it’s about the notion of getting married after college. Being realistic, you can’t have both purity culture and an aversion to getting married while in college. This is one of the details that shows how out of touch the writers were with young Christians. Josh Wheaton is otherwise intelligent and quick on his feet. Honestly, I don’t think we got enough of him. And he is basically a construct of “Big Eva” youth.
Our main villain in God’s Not Dead is Jeffrey Raddison, played by Kevin Sorbo. I believe they did a good job creating a realistic and obsessive professor. Jeffrey Raddison is an overly rigorous philosophy professor determined to convince others in the lack of existence of God. It’s hard to create a villain that is so realistic but not one dimensional. For instance, if you were to create a movie where the woke mob is the villain, they would be portrayed as one dimensional characters because they are in real life. This is a man who hates Christianity but has a Christian girlfriend that he’s verbally abusive towards because he cannot move past his own struggle. This is a man who holds onto the “God is dead” papers his students submit like a serial killer looking at his trophies.
The last main character in this movie is God. God is somewhat of an interactive character in the movie that weaves the plot together. What comes across as coincidence and small world, two tropes of bad writing, the plot explains by crediting God. If you aren’t a fan of cheesy movies, you won’t like this.
The stakes of God’s Not Dead are exaggerated or entirely contrived, as though the writers did not know what it’s like to be in college. Josh Wheaton is in Philosophy 160, a more advanced first year course than 101 or 105. Josh Wheaton has the last twenty minutes of three class periods to prove the existence of God. It’s worth mentioning that the movie takes place within the first two weeks of a college semester, generally the least busy weeks. Josh is convinced he needs to take this class for his college schedule, despite having pre-law as a declared major, not working a part time job, and being a college freshman. Put more bluntly, he has plenty of time to take a risk and defend God with the biggest risk being not getting his money back if his has to drop the class should he fail. He is not working, so he has no excuse for not being able to make up time.
Secondly, I would argue that the main plot does not go far enough. We only see brief glimpses of the maximum of 60 minutes of lectures in which arguments for the existence of God could have been made. There are hours of debate on the subject that could have been adapted into a screenplay. But we don’t get a whole lot. In the end, Josh succeeds because he provokes Jeffrey Radisson into admitting he ordered the proverbial “code red.” This worked in A Few Good Men because there was severe risk in provoking a superior officer in court, but upon a second viewing, it did not hold up in God’s Not Dead.
It’s not difficult to see why this movie was a commercial success. It relied on the success of Christian celebrities to carry the project that did not have the merit to stand on it’s own. This reliance also hemorrhaged its ability to reach a wider audience, instead catering to an exclusively Christian one. However, this film is above average within Christian film and decently entertaining.