The plot of God’s Not Dead could have come straight from a newspaper headline: A Christian college freshman steps into philosophy class to find an atheist professor asking the students to write “God is dead” on a sheet of paper. Unwilling to concede, the student takes the professor up on his challenge to defend God in front of his class.
The timeliness of Pure Flix’s film, which will be released in select theaters March 21, is among its highlights, including strong performances by Shane Harper (Good Luck Charlie) and Kevin Sorbo (Soul Surfer). While the end of the film falls into some unbelievable and cheesy moments that are sadly common in faith-based films, the film touches upon some important themes in this day and age: Can intelligent people believe that God exists? Is atheism as much of a belief system as Christianity? What causes people to reject God? What does it mean to do God’s will in your everyday life?
The film, rated PG, plays like Love, Actually or Valentine’s Day in that it jumps between loosely connected storylines all centered around issues of faith. Some stories are stronger than others. The most believable and interesting story follows Christian student Josh Wheaton (Harper) and his acerbic philosophy Professor Radisson (Sorbo) as they debate the existence of God, quoting popular arguments by atheist Richard Dawkins and Christian apologist John Lennox. Rather than a dry debate, it dives into why they believe what they believe and how it affects those around them. Another strong storyline portrays an agnostic journalist who starts her own faith journey after finding out she has a terminal illness.
The film also looks at Radisson’s strained relationship with his Christian girlfriend, a pastor’s friendship with a visiting missionary from Africa, a successful businessman (Dean Cain) wrestling with his elderly mother’s dementia, and a Muslim man who finds out his daughter converted to Christianity. The sheer number of different characters makes it difficult for the viewer to connect with all of them, and a few of the stories—specifically the one about the Muslim family—needs more context to deal with a sensitive topic.
Still, the film is definitely a conversation starter for those questioning the existence of God. That’s what attracted Harper, who is better known for his work on the Disney Channel, to the script in the first place.
“I think that the kinds of things Josh talks about in the movie are things I was already interested in,” said Harper, who recently took an online theology course through Moody Bible Institute. “It was a regrounding of my faith, while some of the facts were completely new.”
To prepare for the film, Harper had to memorize 23 pages of monologue, much of it dense apologetics. He said that studying those arguments and sitting in the classroom set gave him a taste of college, something the 21-year-old has yet to experience. In the final cut of the film, about half of his classroom debate is cut out to keep the film at an appropriate length.
The film includes cameos from Duck Dynasty stars Willie and Korie Robertson and CCM artists Newsboys, whose 2011 album inspired the title of the film. The high-profile names have increased the buzz around the film, with more than 1 million views of the film’s trailer on YouTube and 780,000 likes on its Facebook page. But not all the attention is positive: The trailer’s comment section is filled with attacks from atheists as well as some Christians and lengthy debates about God.
While Harper is uncertain about how the film will be received by a wider audience, he hopes viewers see compassion in it that leads to deeper conversations. “I don’t think it should be a big deal [to talk about faith]. Everyone wonders about their purpose in life,” he said. “What you choose to put your faith in has huge implications and obviously, it’s a very personal subject so sensitivity is a valid feeling. But we shouldn’t be acting like people lose their humanity because they disagree.”