Although I failed to see the movie, God's Not Dead, when it was in theaters last spring, knowing the basic plot - A Christian kid decides to defend the idea that “God's Not Dead” to an atheist philosophy professor – I made a note to myself to preview the movie for possible use in an apologetics series with my high school teens.
I finally did so last night.
While some of the classroom scenes of the kid defending God are alright, after watching all of it, I can say with confidence that I will never use this movie (or any part of it) with my teens.
For five reasons:
1. It's terrible. The fact that this movie was well-received by and heavily marketed to Christians should have been my first clue that it would be terrible. (This tends to be the case: The louder the praise from Christians, the worse the movie. We tend to willingly rejoice over bad art as long as it uses enough Christianese.) Yet, I was still surprised at how truly awful it was. The acting was bad and it was filled with cliché after cliché.
2. It's portrayal of the Islamic faith. God's Not Dead portrays a lone Muslim family: An overbearing dad, zealous about forcing his daughter to wear a head covering; A daughter – who later converts to Christianity despite her family's opposition; And her younger brother. Midway through the movie, we're taken inside this family's home. The daughter lies on her bed covertly listening to a Franklin Graham sermon. Her younger brother catches her doing so. She begs him not to tell her father. He does anyway. Soon the father appears and begins slapping the daughter's face repeatedly. He then forcefully escorts her out of the house, making it clear she's not welcome to return.
There are so many things wrong with this depiction of the Islamic faith. Among them, it feels like the writers of the movie have never actually met someone who's Muslim or made any attempt to understand their faith. Those who are Muslim are more than just Christian bait. Even though our beliefs may differ, there is much about the Muslim faith that Christians can and should respect. God's Not Dead fails to depict any of those things. Instead, it capitalizes on the two things that far too many Christians wrongfully believe about the Islamic faith: That all Muslims are violent and that theirs is a tradition in which all women are abused.
3. The way in which it rejoices over the death of the atheist philosophy professor. Spoiler alert: Near the end of the movie, the atheist philosophy professor is struck by a car and killed. As he lies dying on the ground, a pastor appears. The pastor leads him in the sinner's prayer. As a result, despite this man's death, the movie ends with a joyful tone.
To be clear, we should rejoice when people make commitments of faith. That said, death is always sad and grief is never bad. As we see in the person of Jesus (who weeps with Mary & Martha at Lazarus' tomb even though he knows he will soon raise Lazarus from the dead), the Christian God is a God who is with us in both mourning and rejoicing. As a result, we need not be afraid to live in the tension of both. Portraying Christians as people who simply ignore the hardness of death and instead rejoice over someone's death bed confession makes us appear sadistic.
4. It's overly simplistic nature. Despite the fact that the movie deals with people being rejected by their family, serious illness, and relationship break-ups, it makes it appear as though in the end, every Christian is happy. And why wouldn't we be? We have Jesus and he is all we need... Right?
Such a depiction is overly simplistic. What's more, it's not true to the Gospel. There, Jesus speaks of the hardness of following him; Of the fact that doing so requires us to “pick up our cross”. And even though I realize such a reality isn't good for marketing... It's much more true to life.
5. It's narrow portrayal of evangelism. The movie ends with the kid who defended God attending a Newsboys concert where of course, they sing “God's Not Dead”. Before doing so, they encourage every person in the audience to text all of their contacts three simple words: “God's Not Dead”. Of course, everyone does – a feat which seems monumental and life-changing in the movie. The movie then ends with a challenge to all of it's viewers to do the same.
I have a hard time calling such efforts “evangelism”. If it is, it's cheap, ineffective evangelism.
Good, effective evangelism happens in the context of relationships. It involves someone sharing how their story intersects with God's story in a way that invites conversation, questions, and doubts. It's rarely a one-time effort but rather an ongoing process – a process that almost always also strengthens the believer's faith.
As I wrote about in The Jesus Gap
, I wholeheartedly believe that apologetics and evangelism have an important place in faith formation. That's why I continue to do apologetics series with my high school youth ministry. To that end, I would love to see a fantastic movie that I could use as a discussion starter with my teens in such a series.
Unfortunately, God's Not Dead is not that movie.
In actuality, it's a movie that does far more harm than good for Christianity. Though I can't imagine why a non-Christian would sit through a movie this awful, if non-Christians were to actually see God's Not Dead, I fear they'd leave thinking the sole mission of all Christians is to convert others to a religion that acts only as an insurance policy after death.
There's so much to the Christian faith than that.
Good, effective evangelism doesn't just tell people this in obnoxious, obtrusive ways... It invites them into our lives and shows them this reality by how we live.