To be honest, I was actually excited to see this movie ever since I heard about it sometime last year. While I'm being honest, however, I was also a little nervous since faith-based movies often have a tendency to be a bit cheesy and fake. I went to the movies yesterday hoping to see an inspiring, encouraging faith-based movie but also expecting another cheesy Christian movie with bad acting and canned apologetics. While there was a bit of cheese, a couple instances of less-than-stellar acting, and a handful of canned apologetics, I was actually quite pleasantly surprised with the movie as a whole. Below is a brief, spoiler-free overview of the movie followed by what I believe are some the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the film.
The primary plot (see trailer here) is centered on a college freshman named Josh Wheaton. Josh is a committed Christian who finds himself in a philosophy class taught by Professor Radisson, an outspoken atheist who requires his students to either sign a piece of paper declaring that God is dead or else defend the antithesis in front of the class. Josh refuses to sign the paper and decides to argue for God's existence despite the fact that it could cost him his grade and his future. Several other subplots dealing with different challenges to faith or providing comic relief are interwoven into this main plot.
This film did several things very well. First, it demonstrated the importance of being bold and standing up for one's faith. Many of those who oppose faith in God are very vocal and bold in their stance and they are often quite articulate and persuasive. My college philosophy professor was actually quite similar to Radisson's character, and my faith was challenged in his class. Thankfully, I came out on the other side with a stronger faith, but I have had friends who ended up losing faith in similar situations. At one point in the film a pastor tells Josh that since many of his classmates would probably never come into a church, his presentation in class may be the most meaningful exposure that they would ever have to God. A central theme of the film is Matthew 10:32-33 where Jesus says that that he will acknowledge anyone who acknowledges him and deny anyone who denies him. We live in a time where belief in God in general and Christianity in particular are becoming less and less popular and it is as important as it ever has been for us stand up and be bold, which, as this film also demonstrates, can be risky and costly. Jesus spoke about the cost of discipleship, a topic that is too often neglected in American Christianity. God's Not Dead also did a commendable job of addressing some of the tough questions that confront Christianity, especially regarding the problem of suffering and evil. They provided some framework for answers while still respecting the fact that some of these questions have no clear, cookie-cutter answers.
One of the film's strengths also contributed to one of its weaknesses. While I appreciated the main character's boldness to defend his faith, he was at times as arrogant and demeaning as his atheist opponent. There were a few opportunities where he had the opportunity to display compassion and Christ-like love and instead he used them to argue or embarrass his opponent. I felt somewhat ashamed when the audience cheered during these moments. Atheists are not the enemy; they are victims of the enemy. While it is necessary at times to stand up against them we must also remember that we are also fighting for them. Our prayer and our goal should always be for them to have a change of heart and come to know the Lord, and I believe that love and compassion are far more effective at this than arguments and debates. Additionally, the film almost made it seem as if the atheists are the bad guys. The atheist characters in the films were all arrogant and mean. This caricature, while helpful for a movie plot, is not an accurate representation of real life. I know several atheists who are some of the kindest people. Again, the battle is not between Christians and atheists. Also, a large portion of the debate was centered simply on the existence of God, which, while important, is not the end of the story. It is not simply belief in God that brings salvation, even the demons believe in God (James 2:19). I would have preferred to see a stronger emphasis on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Finally, I don't think the Duck Dynasty cameo's added anything important to the film. Instead, it felt a little forced and a little cheesy.
It would probably be easy to nitpick and find all kinds of other faults with the film. It's easy, and dare I say, fashionable, to be cynical and judgmental toward well-meaning Christians doing their best to make the world a better place. It's easier to sit back and criticize than it is to get out there and actually do something. I give two thumbs up to the folks at Pure Flix for putting it out there and actually doing something. Overall, I think they produced an honest, compelling, and entertaining movie that has the potential to challenge, sharpen, and encourage Christians to proclaim their faith with boldness.
If you have not yet seen this film, I recommend that you go see it and show your support. If you have seen it, share your impressions in the box below.