“What is your humanities elective?” asks a helpful registration assistant at Hadleigh University.
The object of his inquiry? Freshman Josh Wheaton, who replies, “Uh, Philosophy 150. Radisson, 11:00 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.”
Noticing the cross and the Newsboys T-shirt the first-year student is wearing, the registrar suggests, “You might want to think about a different instructor.”
“Yes?” Josh responds, confused.
“Let’s just say you’re wandering into the snake pit. … Think Roman Colosseum. Lions. People cheering for your death.”
No one ends up actually cheering for Josh’s death in this movie. Still, the guy gets it mostly right, because Prof. Jeffrey Radisson isn’t just interested in teaching freshman why famous atheist philosophers such as Michael Foucault, Richard Dawkins and Albert Camus don’t believe in God. No, he’s an evangelist for unbelief and the complete repudiation of faith. And on the first day of class he makes his students write “God is dead” on a piece of paper, sign it and hand it in.
“I can’t,” Josh says, the lone dissenter. “I can’t do what you want. I’m a Christian.”
“All right, Mr. Wheaton,” Radisson retorts. “Allow me to explain the alternative: If you cannot bring yourself to admit that God is dead for the purposes of this class, then you will need to defend the antithesis: that God is not dead. And you’ll need to do it in front of this class, from the podium. And if you fail—as you shall���you will fail this section and lose 30% of your final grade right off the bat. Are you ready to accept that?”
He is. And Josh even ups the ante, suggesting that his classmates be the judges of how well he argues God’s case.
Josh’s dramatic, high-stakes stand against his professor is not only the right thing for him to do, it bears almost immediate fruit. Chinese foreign exchange student Martin Yip, for example, is moved by Josh’s courage to consider Christianity. And despite Martin’s father’s objections, the young man soon professes faith in Christ. A Muslim girl named Ayisha also seems to borrow some of Josh’s strength as she struggles with whether or not to admit her own conversion to Christianity.
More generally, we’re shown that Josh’s stalwart commitment to not letting God down inspires hundreds if not thousands of others who learn about what he’s doing by way of a Newsboys concert.
And in a parallel stand, a young woman named Mina, a former student of Radisson’s who became his girlfriend, decides to leave him because of his continuous belittling of her faith.
Helping Josh, Ayisha and Mina navigate their winding, at times agonizing, spiritual journeys is Pastor Dave. He’s a reverend who harbors his own deep doubts about whether he’s making much of a difference in people’s lives. But he ultimately sees that he is indeed having a significant impact.
When Josh has second thoughts about what he’s gotten himself into, Pastor Dave gives him two passages of Scripture to look up: Matthew 10:32-33 and Luke 12:48. The former—which Josh quotes out loud—deals with acknowledging God before men, something Josh does with his whole heart for the balance of the movie.
We see quite a lot of the in-class debate between Josh and Radisson, and some of the point-counterpoint gets pretty detailed. Josh, for instance, takes apart the famous quote from Richard Dawkins, who said, “If you tell me that God created the universe, then I have the right to ask you, Who created God?” Josh responds, “Even leaving God out of the equation, I then have a right to turn Mr. Dawkins’ question back ’round on him and ask, ‘If the universe created you, then who created the universe?’ You see, both the theist and the atheist are burdened with the same question of how did things start. What I’m hoping you’ll pick up from all this is that you don’t have to commit intellectual suicide to believe in a Creator behind the creation.”
Several other long scenes include similar theological and philosophical expositions explaining the reasonableness of faith.
It’s renewed faith that at least partially prompts Mina to leave Radisson. An ambush-style reporter, Amy, tries to stick it to the Newsboys backstage … and ends up on the receiving end of prayers by the group instead when they learn that she’s been stricken by cancer. As mentioned, Martin tells Josh that he’s become a Christian. And Ayisha risks everything to follow Jesus.
Speaking of Ayisha, we’re shown how bad it can get for some people when they profess faith in Christ. Namely that her conversion spurs her traditional Islamist father to disown her and kick her out of the house. And Josh’s girlfriend, Kara, works overtime trying to convince him to give up on trying to convince the class that God is alive, finally leaving him over the matter. Mina’s dementia-afflicted mother serves to stimulate thought about how serving God doesn’t always iron out all of life’s wrinkles.
“You prayed and believed your whole life,” Mina’s brother says to their mother, almost as an accusation. “Never done anything wrong. And here you are. You’re the nicest person I know. I am the meanest. You have dementia. My life is perfect. Explain that to me!” Then, in a moment of unexpected spiritual clarity, she does. “Sometimes the devil allows people to live a life free of trouble because he doesn’t want them turning to God,” she tells her shocked son. “Their sin is like a jail cell, except it is all nice and comfy and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to leave. The door’s wide open. Till one day, time runs out, and the cell door slams shut, and suddenly it’s too late.”
Indeed, in the face of difficulty, we hear a lot about God always being good, and having a plan for our lives.
When Amy waylays Duck Dynasty stars Willie and Korie Robertson on their way to church, she suggests that some viewers might be offended by the family’s Christian faith. Willie responds, “Hey, we’re not trying to offend anybody. If they don’t want to watch the show, they can turn the channel. As far as my praying to Jesus, my life and my whole eternity belongs to God. All this stuff is temporary. The money, the fame, the success, temporary. Even life is temporary. Jesus—that’s eternal.”
[Spoiler Warning] Even Prof. Radisson eventually admits that he hates God so much because of the pain he experienced when his mother died of cancer when he was 12. And he comes to Christ in the end … as he himself is on the brink of death.
Kara’s tops reveal cleavage. It can be inferred that Radisson and Mina are living together.
Ayisha’s father hits her twice in the face, then, in a rage, throttles her, marches her down the stairs of the family’s house and throws her out. She collapses, crying, outside the slammed door.
Somebody gets hit by a car. We see his body flip into the air before landing with a sickening thud on the pavement. Help arrives, but it’s clear that the victim’s ribs are crushed and that he’s bleeding to death.
“Dork” is used as an insult.
Mina buys wine, then serves it to guests—who complain that it’s ruined from being overheated in her trunk. A conversation references merlot and chardonnay.
Pretty much everyone who’s not a Christian in this story is villainized for being mean, abusive, grouchy or narrow-minded. Several such sinners are condemned to either death or terminal illness, as if they’re being punished for their attitudes.
What would you do if someone in a position of authority and influence in your life demanded that you renounce your faith? That’s the central question God’s Not Dead forces viewers to grapple with. And Josh Wheaton’s answer is to refuse. And then to explain exactly why he’s refusing.
When Martin asks Josh why he’s willing to risk Radisson’s destroying his law school dreams, the freshman says simply, “I just think of Jesus as my friend. I don’t want to disappoint Him, even if everyone else thinks I should. See, to me, He’s not dead. He’s alive. I don’t want anyone to get talked out of believing in Him because some professor thinks they should.”
The story is sometimes melodramatic. And there are moments of implausibility that emerge as the list of non-Christians behaving badly lengthens. But God’s Not Dead can always be seen focusing on the simple power of testifying to the Truth, no matter the cost. Josh makes a decision to let the chips fall where they may, delivering the gospel message bravely and boldly in a hostile environment. He carefully prepares to give his answers. And he always puts God first.
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.