‘God’s Not Dead 2’ Review | Disinherit the Wind
Not all works of art are created equal, but all works of art should be judged equally; that is to say, on their own merits. A film like Spotlight, for example, is intended to operate as a serious drama, so its quality is largely determined by how seriously it can be taken. A lighthearted comedy like Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is intended to elicit some chuckles, so if you laugh then it, too, could be reasonably declared a “good” movie.
But films like God’s Not Dead and God’s Not Dead 2 are unusual. The acting, the filmmaking and the storytelling are often amateurish, which is distracting and to the films’ detriment, but these stories reveal themselves – quite consistently – to be less about formal drama and more about providing comfort to their audience. These movies assure a target, Christian demographic that A) everything they believe in is true, B) the world really is out to get them, and that C) in the end, they will all persevere anyway.
And on that level these movies seem to succeed, and if that was all there was to it we could call it a day. But the problem is that the God’s Not Dead movies also explicitly exist to make certain arguments, and those arguments are wildly fallacious. If a film exists to make a convincing case, and completely fails to make a convincing case, then you can’t call it “good” in good conscience.
In the first God’s Not Dead, a young college student tries to prove to his peers that God exists, despite the protests of his professor, who claims otherwise. The idea – to dramatize the ongoing and passionate debates between atheists and theists – is a perfectly decent starting point for a movie, but the original film insists that, unlike God, atheists do not actually exist. Atheists are presented only as disenfranchised former Christians, Christians who haven’t found Jesus yet, or Communists.
More importantly, any attempt at logical discourse is rendered moot, because God’s Not Dead tells non-believers that they are all horrible people unless they convert to Christianity, and that’s hardly catching flies with honey.
God’s Not Dead depends entirely on a “straw man argument,” in which both sides of the conversation are presented from a single, biased perspective, so that any opposing viewpoints are inaccurately represented to make them sound worse than they really are. Christians are portrayed as universally decent people, but non-Christians are portrayed only as abusive monsters, so that any argument those non-Christians make can be dismissed because, reasonable or otherwise, it’s coming from individuals whom the audience is encouraged to pity and/or hate.
In God’s Not Dead 2 this trend continues: non-believers are depicted here as soulless opportunists who don’t care when their own children die, or black-suited lawyers who will stop at nothing to destroy religion for no particular reason, or nameless bureaucrats who make vague and utterly baseless threats.* They oppose a Christian hero who is entirely without flaw. Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) is a kindly teacher with an ailing, elderly father (Pat Boone) whose reasonable discussion about Jesus Christ as a historical influence on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is blown completely out of proportion and transformed into a potentially landmark court case with drastic ramifications for the separation of church and state.
And again, that’s not a bad idea for a movie. Actual events, many of them very reasonable, are often exploited by the multimedia hype machine, and are transformed into larger issues by those with lofty and self-serving agendas. But one of the key areas in which God’s Not Dead 2 fails to make a convincing case for itself is in its steadfast refusal to admit just how routine this inciting incident really is. It takes over half the movie for the hero’s defense attorney to realize that although claiming that Jesus was the “son of God” may be a violation of school policy, acknowledging Christianity’s pervasive sociopolitical impact is necessary to teach a course in history.
It’s such a simple and convincing argument that it’s the one schools already use to talk about Christianity without getting into trouble, because that’s how logic works. But the film doesn’t bring that up until it’s too late, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a trial, and the film wouldn’t have a plot. So instead simple logic is treated here as some kind of brilliant intellectual breakthrough, one that boggles the mind of non-believers everywhere.
And that’s another problem: non-believers spend a lot of time boggling in the God’s Not Dead movies. Christians present their seemingly bulletproof arguments and atheists are only allowed to respond with bemused condescension or dumbstruck wonder, instead of with intelligent follow-up questions. Atheists and agnostics are not afforded the dignity of having a halfway reasonable point to make. But theologians all get to testify in court, with hardly any cross-examination to speak of.
It’s hard to trust God’s Not Dead 2, because the film doesn’t even seem to trust its own message. To make its case, it pretends that all non-believers are despicable unless they convert, and that Christians have never ever done anything questionable. And again, even that wouldn’t even be so bad if God’s Not Dead 2 was made exclusively for Christians, but it is explicitly about opposing points of view, so presenting one of those points of view as absurdly illogical and forcing it into the mouths of grotesque villains makes the whole enterprise suspect.
If any movie treated Christians as badly as God’s Not Dead 2 treated atheists, then Christians would be entirely justified in making another God’s Not Dead movie about it. This film tries to be reassuring to certain members of the audience but everyone else is being explicitly told that they are not welcome, and that they are less than human if they have a different set of beliefs. It is a mean-spirited and unpleasant film for non-Christians, and by presenting itself in such a judgmental way it also makes Christians look bad to outside parties, because they are being represented to the rest of the world with mean-spirited unpleasantness. That’s not fair to Christians either. Everyone deserves better than this, atheists and theists alike.
Bad argument, little comfort: God’s Not Dead 2 is no good, on its own merits. Let us never speak of it again, until the sequel, which is set up after the closing credits, and already makes no sense whatsoever.
*Correction: There is one atheist who isn’t a monster. He is a lawyer who proves Jesus Christ was real and seems ready to convert by the time the movie ends.
Top Photo: Pure Flix
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.