God’s Not Dead, the religious dramedy aimed at the Christian market, stormed the Top 5 box office this weekend through intense marketing and an intriguing premise: An angry atheist professor (played by Kevin Sorbo) threatens to flunk the one freshman in his class willing to stand up for God, unless he can argue God’s existence in front of the class.
The success isn’t totally unjustified. There’s been a rise in Christian movie-making professionalism since the days of the Left Behind movies. The camera work is professional, with lots of close-ups of Sorbo and his Mephistophelean goatee, the acting is a cut above the usual religious film, though a familiar tone of smiling-through-tears uplift still reigns supreme. Thankfully, at no point does Professor Radisson drop his chalk.
I caught a weekend show in the dark heart of secularism, New York City, crowded with kids, perhaps a church group, who sniffled through the emotional parts and whooped at the David-slays-Goliath moment, before the characters headed out to the show by eteran Christian rockers Newsboys – and the ultimate deus ex machina climax.
After opening his Philosophy 101 class by calling a roll of brilliant minds, all atheists, Professor Radisson browbeats his cowering Hadleigh College freshmen to quickly dispose of the God concept into signing papers that declares “God Is Dead,” enabling them to move on to more fruitful topics. Only one student – Josh Wheaton, played by a low-key Shane Harper – refuses, and the sneering Radisson gives him an ultimatum: Prove God exists via a three-part presentation in front of the class, or face a failing grade.
Josh loses his domineering girlfriend, and even has his lawyer future threatened in a ludicrous scene, but perseveres in his prepwork, as you can tell by his growing stack of library books. Without even a montage for assistance, he quickly becomes a suspiciously glib and confident apologist armed with slick Powerpoint presentations — though I am curious what creationists think of Josh using the Big Bang theory and evolution to support Christianity.
There are subplots galore, very loosely tied together (most of the characters don’t even meet each other) which sap energy from the intriguing premise of an intellectual battle royale featuring God in the dock. One particularly pointless one involves greedy businessman and atheist-by-default Mark, played by Dean Cain, whose scenes were apparently spliced from a PG-rated Wolf of Wall Street.
Sorbo, best known for the Hercules TV series, is surprisingly convincing as the arrogant prof, though he does come off like one of those well-dressed Satans popular in Christian films. But as his clashes with Josh get increasingly vengeful and unhinged, it becomes clear that there will be no serious challenge mounted to theism. The set up – smooth-talking brilliant professor versus callow freshman – is a classic David-and-Goliath setup, and we all know how that story ends. One can’t make the devil too interesting, or give him too many good lines.
You don’t get to hear names like Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, and C.S. Lewis name-dropped at the multiplex every day. But the promise of a charged, full-blooded debate on God’s existence had drowned in sentiment and evasive solutions by Act 3. That oh-so-rational professor is unmasked as just another wounded soul, “angry at God.” And since you can’t be mad at someone who doesn’t exist…checkmate, atheists!
The two other alleged atheists in the film, greedy and self-absorbed, also get their predictable comeuppance. To the filmmakers, the only good atheist is evidently a dying one. Some thoughtful Christians don’t care for the uncharitable portrayal of the atheist characters, and wonder how such caricatures help spread the gospel.
The atheism on display in God’s Not Dead is just intellectual window-dressing, covering for some deep trauma or character flaw. Intellectually convinced atheists do exist, but the filmmakers apparently don’t believe in them.