It’s been just over two years since the movie God’s Not Dead came out. When it came out on DVD, I saw it and wrote a review. I wasn’t a fan because God’s Not Dead wasn’t a movie about Christianity; it was a movie about cultural Christianity. It was a movie about the sort of shallow religiosity that I was taught when I was a teenager.
It was a movie where “theism” is the same as “Christianity”.
It was a movie where people become Christians without repenting of their sin or even mentioning Jesus at all.
It was a movie where the best part of the Christian life was attending a Christian Rock concert.
It was a movie where a freshman took on a PhD philosophy professor/atheist with a few pithy quotes and a couple of hours spent in a library.
It’s no shock that I really disliked the first movie; it showed the state of evangelicalism and pretty much explained why “I went to Heaven” books are always on the best seller list.
So, was God’s Not Dead 2 any better?
Not by much, mind you, but it was better…and I went in expecting to hate it.
I admit, I was somewhat surprised.
So here’s a summary:
The ACLU Prosecuting Attorney.
The Defending Attorney.
The Chinese Exchange Student.
The Pastor’s Friend
There’s also cameo’s galore from Lee Strobel, J. Warner Wallace, Mike Huckabee, Gary Habermas, Rice Brooks, Fred Thompson (RIP), Newsboys, Pat Boone, Sadie Robertson (daughter of one of the Duck Dynasty guys), some familiar faces from soap operas and even one of the original Ghostbusters.
THE MAIN PLOT:
The Student is in class one day and asks the Teacher if Ghandi and Martin Luther King were pacifists like Jesus was. The Teacher says “yes” and quotes Matt. 5:43-45. The Student’s parents somehow hear about it when a random boy sends them a text message…or something (the movie doesn’t really explain how they found out). So when The Dad and The Mom hear about The Teacher making a passing reference about you-know-who from Nazareth, they go nuts and contact the school, which is run by The Principal.
It seems that The Student’s parents are angry atheists who pride themselves on their tolerance and threaten lawsuits against anyone who makes any statement of which they’re intolerant. That includes The Teacher of their daughter (The Student). The daughter is going to go to an ivy league school and no teacher will get in the way, especially by making passing references to Jesus even though The Teacher likes their daughter (The Student) and is likely giving her an A+.
This whole mess leads to the ACLU getting involved. The ACLU takes legal action against The Teacher for her spouting of religious rhetoric. They send in a horribly evil, God-hating atheist prosecuting attorney. He’s just the bloodthirsty legal assassin the ACLU needs to make sure The Teacher pays for her sins!
But there’s hope for The Teacher! The Defense Attorney is a hot shot lawyer who is also an atheist, but not the angry or irrational kind. He respects The Teacher and wants to make a name for himself with a highly publicized court case. If anyone can stop the ACLU’s legal team, it’s an upstart rookie with next to no experience!
As one would expect, it ends up looking bad for The Teacher when things don’t turn her way, but after a bunch apologists take the stand and testify about how Christianity is reasonable, teenage kids sing “How Great Thou Art” and one of the Newsboys stops a concert to pray for the court case, the defense WINS! The atheist lawyer throws in the towel and accepts defeat, especially after his own legal assistant points out that the defense proved the existence of Jesus!
THE SUB PLOTS:
The Student has her own sub-plot. Her brother died recently and she struggles to deal with the pain of the loss, but she “asks Jesus into her heart” for no discernible reason and then life gets better…until she screws up the court case royally. Still, it’s a Christian movie and ends with everything all hunky dory.
The Pastor has a bunch of bad stuff happen to him. He has coffee spilled on him and spills his own coffee. He spends a half day answering the bible questions of The Chinese exchange student. He, and all the other pastors in their town, have their sermons subpoenaed for some reason, which is never explained (they don’t mention why anyone wants their sermons). The pastor willfully refuses to give his sermon transcripts to the authorities. He also ends up with him on jury duty until his appendix bursts and then he watches the trial results from his hospital. It’s assumed that he has ice cream at some point, but that isn’t shown or even hinted at in the movie (I just made that part up).
The Chinese exchange student asks the pastor a bunch of Bible questions, gets slapped, and decides to become a pastor (if he’s open to going to Singapore, I hear that Harvest City Church has some openings).
The Blogger has a crisis of faith after her cancer goes away and she realizes that she might not believe in God now that she’s healed and has no need for him. So, she does what all bloggers who have recovered from a life-threatening illness do: calls Michael Tait from the Newsboys! He gives her encouragement and she then blogs about the whole court case with The Teacher and the ACLU, but things start to look bad when the court case takes a turn for the worst. So, she calls Michael Tait again during a concert and he takes the call, stops the concert, and then gets the audience to prayer for The Teacher’s court case. As the bible says: “The prayers of a Newsboy are powerful and effective”.
WHAT I LIKED:
I’ll admit that after the first one, I went in expecting to hate this movie. I wasn’t a colossal fan, but I didn’t hate it.
I think it was better than the first one as far as production values went, but I’m not really a reliable critic with any worthwhile opinion on those sorts of technical things.
At least this movie mentioned “Jesus” and had a way better grade of apologetic presentation. The sections in the courthouse where Lee Strobel and J. Warner Wallace were speaking was interesting enough that it might actually lead to some people investigating their work more. That’s always welcome and their stuff is a decent enough entry-level defense of the Christian faith. I’ve reviewed Cold Case Christianity on Amazon and it’s a book a gladly recommend.
The movie was also based on real court cases that have recently either gone through the courts or were on trial at the time of production. In as much as the plot seemed far-fetched, I know that sort of stuff actually happens. It definitely doesn’t play out like the movies (I don’t think Lee Strobel and J. Warner Wallace ever show up in court as Christian “experts”), but it’s not nearly as far fetched as the first movie.
Finally, when The Student has a crisis moment and asks Jesus into her heart, she mentions God forgiving her for her sin. I don’t know why she would have said that since she isn’t told about her sin by the person who’s sharing the gospel with her, but in this movie there’s at least a passing mention of sin when someone “prays the prayer”. That’s a step up from the first movie as well.
WHAT I DISLIKED:
The Christianity in the movie looks a lot like what I recognize as Christianity, but it’s not. God’s Not Dead 2 is another movie where the Christianity it portrays is simply cultural Christianity. It’s another movie about the sort of shallow religiosity that I was taught when I was a teenager. It’s another a movie where “theism” is the same as “Christianity”.
It’s another movie where people who share the gospel don’t really understand what the gospel message is, but deliver some sort of talk about God and Jesus and stuff and then people pray a prayer about Jesus “coming into their heart” and their lives get better (which seems to be the motivation behind the prayer).
It’s another movie that shows just how much influence the Charismatic movement has had over Evangelicalism. Half the characters in the movie get direct propositional messages from God. One of the characters in the movie got “saved” because she saw a church sign and God spoke to her through it and asked her “who do you say that I am?” Nobody in the movie takes the Bible seriously or has any below-the-surface knowledge of it. They just pull out random feel-good verses and then do a subtle form of positive confession where they say them out loud and then tell God that they’re trusting him to do whatever it is that they want.
All of that is just a reflection of the sad state of Christian culture, but I’m not surprised. The last few people who started coming to my church were verbally shocked that my pastor preaches from the Bible in church. They had apparently gone to other churches in the area and had trouble finding a church with a pastor who preached from the Bible (as in opened it, read it and tried to explain it). That fact says bad things about the state of evangelicalism in my neck of the woods.
Still, there were two theological problems in the movie that I’d like to point out:
The first problem was that when The Teacher and The Defending Attorney were thinking about her offensive reference to Jesus, they had a landmark moment where they realized their winning strategy. They realized that she was referencing Jesus as a historical figure, not the Jesus of the Bible (even though she was quoting the Bible at the time). They went off about how one can talk about Christ as a pure historic figure, separate from the biblical accounts of him, and divorce that Jesus from the guy who’s in the Bible. Therefore, she was making a historical reference rather than a religious proclamation.
That, my readers, is exactly what the Liberals have been doing for over a century. That’s what is called “historical Jesus studies”, and whoever injected that into the movie needs to be graciously invited to take a long walk off a short pier. I was really disturbed to see that sort of talk, but not really surprised. I’m guessing that nobody associated with the movie either had the theological chops to spot that problem, or thought it was a problem in the first place. Still, the separation of the Jesus of History and the Jesus of Scripture always ends in the same outcome.
That brings me to the second problem: the “minimal facts” approach to defending Christ’s resurrection. There was a scene where Rice Brooks and Gary Habermas are being interviewed by governor Mike Huckabee, and they talked about how almost all the experts agree about the facts surrounding Jesus’ resurrection…therefore the resurrection itself is some sort of inescapable reality for honest skeptics.
What the movie didn’t tell you is that Habermas’ approach presents the resurrection as the most likely hypothesis explaining 12 historic facts.
What are those facts?
- Jesus died by crucifixion.
- He was buried.
- His death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope.
- The tomb was empty (the most contested).
- The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus (the most important proof).
- The disciples were transformed from doubters to bold proclaimers.
- The resurrection was the central message.
- They preached the message of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem.
- The Church was born and grew.
- Orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship.
- James was converted to the faith when he saw the resurrected Jesus (James was a family skeptic).
- Paul was converted to the faith (Paul was an outsider skeptic).
Those are all the facts that are agreed upon by the “experts”.
Let me rephrase that: From all four gospels, which contain 89 chapters of historical record regarding the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, experts can only agree on those 12 facts about Jesus’ resurrection. That’s it.
So, you know what you’ve got?
Notice something else: if you believe those 12 facts and believe that Jesus rose from the dead, you still don’t have anything close to Christianity. You don’t have Christ’s deity, or his prophecies about his own death, or God doing the resurrecting, or anything Jesus said or did whatsoever. You only have an ancient Jewish teacher rising from the dead, for a mysterious reason, and a bunch of guys starting a religion about it.
That’s not going to ever get you to any form of Biblical Christianity. That’s one of the reasons why I only defend Christianity as Christianity. There are no “baby steps” to Biblical Christianity and belief is a work of divine grace, in response to the Spirit-empowered word of God penetrating the heart. I don’t pretend the Bible is semi-rational to the disbelieving mind; it’s not. The Bible says that the gospel is foolishness to the disbelieving (1 Cor. 2:14) and I believe the Bible.
Also, Habermas’ whole project is horribly flawed. What Habermas doesn’t tell you is that an overwhelming majority of the “experts” don’t agree with his conclusions at all, and the “minimal facts” approach only has a hypothetical chance as long as there’s scholarly consensus regarding the list of “minimal facts”. The scholarly consensus changes regularly, and I’ve heard lists of “minimal facts” that contain anywhere from 12 facts to 7. Once scholars get wind of what Habermas doing (as if they even care), they can shut down his whole process by changing the consensus.
Believe it or not, the resurrection of Jesus would be true even if all the religious studies professors at every university disagreed regarding any list of minimal and innocuous facts about it.
Should you see God’s Not Dead?
Sure. Watch it with your kids.
It’s not that bad, and the mediocre messages it gives you are coming at you from far more than “Christian”movies. Besides, it’s definitely way better than most of the other schlock that Hollywood is pushing out. There’s a bunch of good messages you can take from it:
It shows that prayer works.
It shows people quoting the Bible when they have struggles.
It shows that Christians can intelligently stand up for what they believe in.
It shows that God’s highly involved in the lives of everyone he touches.
It shows that Christians being thoughtful and supportive of one another in difficulties.
It shows Christians standing up for their faith in the face of violent opposition.
Take those messages from it, and talk about those messages with whomever you watch the movie with.
Be alert to the theological junk getting smuggled in the back door, but by all means enjoy the movie and misinterpret it in your favor. Fill in the blanks with good theology and make it better than it is.
Until Next Time,
Lyndon “Trying to be positive” Unger