Grace Wesley is neither a troublemaker nor a crusader. But when this conscientious Christian and public high school history teacher answers some honest questions about Jesus posed to her by a struggling, seeking student, she soon finds herself in trouble and at the forefront of a crusade … to prove that God is still not dead.
Grace is first dragged into the principal’s office, then before the school board and, finally, into court as the ACLU leverages her “religious” responses as a way to drive the wedge between church and state even deeper than it already is.
It’s high school junior Brooke Thawley who asks those innocent questions (both in a private conversation and, later, in class). She’s struggling to make sense of her brother’s tragic death. And when Grace asks Brooke how she’s doing, the girl knows her teacher genuinely cares (unlike her own parents, who don’t seem to be grieving much at all).
Grace’s principal and the school board are in lockstep agreement that she’s violated district, state and federal statutes by quoting the words of Jesus in class. But Grace knows she hasn’t done anything wrong, and so she humbly yet courageously refuses to issue an apology. Her appointed lawyer, a newbie legal eagle named Tom Endler, initially pushes her to back down for the sake of her career, not understanding her relationship with God. But he’s ultimately inspired by Grace’s spiritual convictions, and he works doggedly to defend her before the judge and jury.
That ensuing trial (which pits Tom against outspoken atheist attorney Pete Kane) delivers some significant history lessons that shed light on some now commonly held notions and misconceptions about the legal division of church and state in the U.S. The core courtroom conflict revolves around the question of whether Grace’s quotation of Jesus involves a violation of that “division of church and state.” Eventually, Grace and Tom settle on a legal strategy in which they try to prove that because Jesus was a real historical figure, His quoted words are as acceptable to talk about in a history class as those of Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.
Brooke, meanwhile, applies what she’s learned in class about nonviolent protests to organize pro-God picketing at school and the courthouse. And it’s worth mentioning that Grace’s noble character is also evident in the way she cares for her aging grandfather, Walter, who lives with her.
Brooke is grappling with big questions about life, death and faith, which prompt her to ask her teacher, “You never let anything get to you. How do you do that?”
“Jesus,” Grace says.
And then, in class, when Brooke wants to know how Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitments to nonviolent protest compared to Jesus’ teachings, Grace replies, “The writer of the gospel of Matthew records Jesus as saying, ‘You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you will be children of your father in heaven.”‘ Then she quotes Dr. King: “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method.'”
Grace tells Tom, “Just because certain facts happen to be recorded in the Bible doesn’t mean they stop being facts.” And as they expand on that in court, they call on expert (real-life) witnesses such as Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Christ; and James Warner Wallace, a former homicide detective who wrote Cold Case Christianity, an exploration of the credibility of the on-site witnesses to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
As far on the other side of this issue as it’s possible to get, Pete accuses Grace of wanting to “preach, not teach,” and he worries that “if we grant Ms. Wesley the right to do that, and by extension, everyone else, to violate the law solely on our own private beliefs, then our society will crumble. I believe that.” He tells Tom, “You know what hate is, Tom? I’m not talking about the fairy tale stuff, I mean real hate. I hate what people like your client stand for. And what they’re doing to our society.” He spits, “We’re going to prove once and for all that God is dead.”
By all this, Grace is troubled but never bowed. “I would rather stand with God and be judged by the world than stand with the world and be judged by God,” she says. “I am not going to be afraid to say the name Jesus.” When she confesses to her grandfather that she hasn’t been hearing much from her Savior lately, he offers this nugget of homespun wisdom: “Honey, you of all people should realize that when you’re going through something really hard, the Teacher is always quiet during the test.” He also says, “In this day and age, people seem to forget that the most basic human right of all is the right to know Jesus.”
When Rev. Dave ends up on the jury—and then must be excused for health reasons—his African friend, Rev. Jude, admonishes him to always trust that God is at work. Dave is involved with a group of pastors who are concerned about being asked to submit their sermons by their local government. And he tells another pastor, “If we stand by and do nothing, the pressure that we’re feeling today is going to mean persecution tomorrow. … So whether or not we admit it, we’re at war, war of Ephesians 6, not against flesh and blood, but against the powers of this world, against the spiritual forces in the heavenly realms. And if we insist on denying this, then we’ve already lost.” Rev. Dave ultimately risks imprisonment while trying to protect the ministers’ right to speak freely from the pulpit.
Other characters from the first God’s Not Dead movie also show up: Chinese student Martin continues to expand his newfound faith, even when his father disowns him. And Amy, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer before finding God, struggles with how hard it is sometimes to feel His presence.
It’s Martin who helps Brooke grow spiritually after she’s told she can no longer talk with her teacher. He eventually helps her pray the sinner’s prayer. They and others frequently quote Scripture and engage spiritual subjects. And as happened in the first film, the Newsboys appear at the end to sing their hit “God’s Not Dead.”
There are a couple of low-cut tops.
Martin’s father slaps him across the face during a heated conversation about the young man’s Christian faith. Someone collapses in the courtroom.
A confrontation between two students produces the put-downs “idiot” and “loser.”
None, other than a reference to such things being prohibited in the courtroom.
Most of the non-Christians here (with the notable exception of Tom) are depicted as caricatures—angry atheists, uncaring parents, scowling accusers. Elsewhere, it could be argued that Brooke should not have barged into the courtroom demanding to be heard.
God’s Not Dead challenges American Christians to grapple with the fact that freedom to express their faith is under fire. God’s Not Dead 2 does too.
It is indisputable that such freedoms are indeed taking heat in our culture—sometimes in small ways, other times in more significant ways. The list of real-life legal challenges seen scrolling through the credits aptly illustrates this. “Cases where the religious freedoms of everyday men and women are being restricted by courts and government agencies are sadly quite common today,” says Michael Scott, producer and founding partner of the Christian film distribution company Pure Flix. “Our hope is that we can start a conversation in the country with this movie about how critical the right to believe—and to talk about that belief in public—is to our nation.”
To accomplish that, Melissa Joan Hart’s portrayal of Grace—as well as the trials she faces for standing firm in her faith—feels closer to reality than even the student-vs.-professor stand-off in the first movie. It’s really not all that hard to see how a sincere believer like her could these days end up in a world of hurt. And it is, then, truly inspiring to watch her flounder but not fold, cry but not collapse as she stands up for her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
There’s also an undercurrent of us-vs.-them caricatures here that may, for some, stymie the open conversation Scott wants. Still, the core of this story is what we wrote earlier: Grace’s trial delivers some significant history lessons that shed light on some now commonly held notions and misconceptions about the legal division of church and state
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.