Even by the rather lax standards of the Christian film industry, God’s Not Dead is a disaster. It’s an uninspired amble past a variety of Christian-email-forward boogeymen that feels far too long at just 113 minutes. Resembling a megachurch more than a movie, it’s been designed not to convey any particular message, but to reinforce the stereotypes its chosen audience already holds. It weirdly fetishizes persecution, and many of its story decisions—like randomly tossing in Duck Dynasty stars Willie and Korie Robertson or concluding on an endless concert from popular Christian rock group Newsboys—seem designed to simply get butts in seats. To say God’s Not Dead preaches to the choir would be an understatement. It’s the pastor, staring in a mirror, preaching to himself.
The most worthwhile moments of God’s Not Dead come from Kevin Sorbo, of all people, who plays the film’s mustache-twirler of a villain, professor Jeffrey Radisson. Professor Radisson teaches an introduction to philosophical thought course that asks students, on the first day, to write on a sheet of paper that God is dead, then sign it for credit, so that he can move past the early stuff and get to the things he finds more fulfilling. As Radisson, Sorbo is playing a transparently awful person, but he has fun with his most villainous moments and even locates a few notes of sorrow and regret in Radisson’s backstory.
That makes it all the easier to side with Radisson against the film’s protagonist and supposed hero, young Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), a freshman who ends up in Radisson’s class and decides to not just refuse to write that God is dead but also take the professor up on his challenge to somehow prove the existence of God in front of the class. Josh does this mostly by arguing that maybe he can’t prove God exists but Radisson can’t prove he doesn’t either, and by using complex computer animations of the galaxy that recall Fox’s recent reboot of Cosmos, which he apparently pulled together in his spare time over a couple of days. (Josh is evidently fine with both the Big Bang theory and evolution, but only if God’s behind them.) Josh, and the film that takes his viewpoint, doesn’t dare actually engage with Radisson’s arguments; any legitimate critiques of Christianity are ignored in favor of suggesting that all atheists are just haters who need someone to ask them to point out on the doll where organized religion touched them.
Because God’s Not Dead appears to take much of its inspiration from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, a half-dozen other plots that have little to nothing to do with Radisson and Josh’s battle are indifferently sprinkled throughout, the better to work in as many other email-forward antagonists as possible. The superfluous side characters include a woman who has converted to Christianity right under her Muslim family’s nose, a liberal blogger who receives a troubling medical diagnosis, a Christian woman who fears she is “unequally yoked” to a non-believer, a hip pastor and his African missionary friend who just want to go to Disney World, a douchebag businessman who adds nothing to the film except for getting to be played by Dean Cain, and a young Chinese student who frequently calls his father back in China to tell him about God and allow the audience to stew thoughtfully over the threat of communism. The film’s screenplay even finds room for a subplot involving the Newsboys, even though the band doesn’t show up until the film is mostly over.
As in Magnolia, the way these storylines come together is meant is provoke contemplation of a central thesis. But the frog shower in Magnolia provided more compelling proof of God’s existence than anything in God’s Not Dead. The movie’s deck-stacking arguments could be refuted in a matter of seconds by a pro-atheist subreddit. Sorbo leavens the film from time to time, but director Harold Cronk has absolutely no idea how to frame shots or pace scenes, and too many of them stretch on interminably and indifferently. Christian films are often done in by their need to follow a literal come-to-Jesus storyline, but at least movies like the Kirk Cameron vehicle Fireproof offer up an earnest intensity that makes them somewhat watchable. God’s Not Dead reduces all of its characters to props in an object lesson.The film’s closing credits open with a lengthy list of recent court cases in which on-campus religious groups have argued their First Amendment rights have been infringed upon. There’s far more drama in these cases, reduced to a series of blurbs, than in the movie’s central plot. But if God’s Not Dead had actually engaged with its story or characters, it wouldn’t have had time for reality-star cameos and rock concerts. Cronk sort of knows what a movie looks like, but he doesn’t get how hilarious it is that he concludes his own film with the rom-com cliché of someone running through the rain to profess his love—in this case, to Jesus. Even the usual Christian stakes of going to hell aren’t really an issue here. Instead, the film finds its stakes in the suggestion that the greatest persecution of all isn’t dying for your beliefs, but being forced to accept that other people might believe something different.