Over the last two months, CROSSROADS has hosted two movie nights. We watched both “God’s Not Dead” and “God’s Not Dead 2”. I’ll openly admit that I am more than “a little” cynical regarding the cheesiness of many made-for-church movies, but this series was pretty good.
The First Movie: Corny at Times, but Still “Real”.
“God’s Not Dead” (the first movie) follows the journey of a college student, names Josh Wheaton, who stands against a bitter, almost evangelical atheistic professor, Dr. Jeffrey Radisson. The Josh is pictured, as one might expect, as an extremely pious, devout Christian teenager surrounded by the ‘big bad’ atheists and agnostic believers who want him to give up simply to get a good grade. Understanding that all movies, not just church movies, over-generalize people and personalities to develop characters, this movie really didn’t do too bad of a job. The challenges Josh faces are realistic and the skepticism he encounters mirrors what many believers have experienced in their own lives. Josh’s girlfriend end’s up leaves him because he is willing to sacrifice his academic standing to stand up for his beliefs. The professor gives Josh three lectures to convince his classmates and they pan out as you would expect: win for the good guys, win for the bad guys, final battle that appears almost certainly to be a win for the bad guys when suddenly a breakthrough occurs leading to a win for the good guys.
If that came across as a ‘spoiler’, it shouldn’t. I’m not exaggerating when I say that most of these church movies are all the same.
There is also a couple parallel plot lines with the professor’s verbally and intellectually abused wife, the wife’s brother and brother’s girlfriend (are you still with me?) who contracts cancer, and several plotlines regarding students who suffer fates such as being disowned and beaten by an Islamic father and warned of never being able to return home by a Chinese father. There is also a story surrounding a pastor who advises Josh and an African pastor who provide comic relief. As cliché as these plotlines were in the movie, they are real things that actually occur and I have the feeling that many of the people who wrote the initial reviews of the movie on Rotten Tomatoes and other sites simply don’t understand the realities that some people face, even in ‘free’ America.
The biggest flaw I saw with this movie wasn’t in the movie, but in the way people seemed to watch and review it. I have no delusion that the entertainment industry is going to lean subtly liberal and likely be slightly more hostile towards evangelical Christianity. With that said, words like “pandering” and “melodramatic” appeared a few times. You know, it may be “pandering” or “melodramatic” to the reviewers of these movies who don’t like seeing empowerment of Christianity, but the issues faced in this movie weren’t manufactured and honestly weren’t really overly gratuitous, unlike in the sequel (more on that, below). Perhaps professors don’t regularly spar with students, but their beliefs are constantly challenged. My wife even faced this when at a public university in the ‘Bible Belt’ after a professor openly challenged the notions of religion in general, marriage, and other Christian concepts. He didn’t put you on ‘trial’; he just made you feel stupid. Then again, there are many out there who are alright with that because in their mind Christianity would either take an idiot or a fool to believe. Children really do get disowned by their families for their faith and relationships really do end because one side prioritizes God and the other doesn’t (2 Cor. 6:14).
The idea of persecution on a personal level, even if not a national level, is a real thing even in America. The concept of “Freedom of Religion” goes out the window when you are speaking to your neighbor or a coworker. In a faith which emphasizes personal relationships so much, the real threat to Christianity is personal, not legal.
Overall, this is a great movie and definitely not bad, even for the most cynical. The theology of the movie is scriptural and avoids so much of the ‘feel good’ Christianity that causes us to lose sight of the main thing. Not everyone in the movie comes to Christ, but some do. Even the professor accepts Christ in a moment. There is very little you will find in this movie to actually “take issue with” unless you are sitting down with the agenda of disliking the subject matter.
The Second Movie: A Bit Overly Pandering
“God’s Not Dead 2” brings in several of the same parallel plotlines to support a new story. In this movie, a teacher named Grace Wesley answers a questions posed by a student in class that directly asked about the parallels between Jesus and other non-violent activists throughout history. In her answer, she quotes sections from the Bible which ultimately leads to the school system placing her on administrative leave and contacting the ACLU to prosecute her for not issuing a public apology. A court case ensues with a growling, snarling ACLU lawyer playing the part of the ‘bad guy’ be being finally defeated in the end by a bold declaration of faith. While the first movie’s cliché ‘bad men’ actually had some root in reality, this movie was a bit more gratuitous in how it drew caricatures of opponents to Christianity. When mention was made of the ‘ACLU’, the camera shots seemed to take a darker tone, the voices of the actors got lower and more conniving, and the soundtrack made sure to let you know these were the enemies.
What I liked about the first movie was the emphasis on the fact that all of us are sinners and that Christ is the only cure. The boyfriend/girlfriend couple facing cancer in this first movie was composed of two people who openly mocked Christianity. By the end of the movie, one of them was saved but the other one wasn’t. That said, the very end of the movie seems to place the remaining unbeliever in a more positive light showing that to every unsaved person there is hope and an opportunity. The evil professor makes a profession of faith, albeit immediately before dying, and the emphasis is placed on his soul, not his actions. This is completely lost in the second movie as the lawyers are undoubtedly the bad guys (even participating in a monologue about ‘hating everything about Christians, and I mean real hate’ through gritted teeth). The emphasis of evil being the work of the devil was lost.
This is not a small point that can be easily overlooked if you’re watching the movie looking for some kind of spiritual moral. In Ephesians 6:12, Paul writes…
For we are not struggling against human beings, but against the rulers, authorities and cosmic powers governing this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm.(Ephesians 6:12, CJB)
God’s Not Dead 2 loses this lesson. It pits believers against non-believers which couldn’t be further from how Jesus ran his own ministry. Jesus sought out the ‘evil ACLU’ lawyers of the day. Jesus spent time with the tax collectors, whores, criminals, and social rejects to reach them with love and compassion. Even though the movie was attempting to personify a ‘system’ in the lawyer, and to that end I don’t really have a huge issue with their creative point, it did so in a way that didn’t focus on the redemption of others. The principal who pushed the lawsuit didn’t have a revelation, the evil lawyer didn’t have a change of heart, the judge (who was said to be hostile towards Christianity) simply ruled on the case and left. What this amounted to was a diet of sugar for an American Christian mind that is already too bloated on “feel good” theology.
The truth of the matter is that standing up for our faith is meaningless without redemption. If we stand up for an ideal only to reinforce those who already belong, then what was the point? As Christ said to the Pharisees, “The ones who need a doctor aren’t the healthy but the sick.” (Matthew 9:12, CJB) While “God’s Not Dead 2” had tons of feel good moments that jerked a tear and while it told a very, very good story about the willingness to lose everything for your faith, even in the face of almost certain defeat, it did so at the expense of what Christians believe is ‘the main point’ in the redemption of souls and the building of disciples.
Before I leave anyone with the notion that it was all bad, let me bring up one huge highlight. Just as in “God’s Not Dead”, “God’s Not Dead 2” had several subplots throughout the picture and the most impressive theological lessons were often in these stories, not the main plot of the court case. A Chinese student from the first movie continues to meet with the pastor, learning about the Bible and reaching a point where he finds himself having to answer questions for another young believer. He holds his faith even when surprised by a visit from his father who issues an ultimatum: lose your faith or be disowned. The student acknowledges that he can’t simply stop loving Christ to which his father replies, “Then I no longer have a son.” This plot definitely harkened back to the first movie: real, personal plots about things that happen every day. In this example, the son never got his father back but his faith did grow. He continued to seek relief in the Word of God, eventually approaching the pastor and saying he wanted to be a minister and preach in his homeland of China (not sure if you keep up with the news, but the Chinese aren’t big fans of preachers). This subplot showed the building of a disciple, boldness in the face of persecution, and answering a call for something greater. Those are all lessons that we should be happy to impart to our of our teens today.
Bottom Line: Go watch both movies. They’re entertaining and will jerk a few tears. Just be aware that our relationship with God goes far deeper than teary movie scenes and feel-good triumphs over “bad people”. God has called us all to a life far more glorious than anything that Hollywood, even ‘Christian Hollywood’, will ever be able to capture. Guard your heart against things that are easy and convenient which may conflict with the teachings of Christ. With that caveat, it’s definitely a ‘fun’ movie and one worth seeing. If nothing else, you’ll get a kick out of seeing Dean Cane and the dude who played Hercules in that 1990’s sitcom.