[Spoiler Alert: This review reveals certain elements of the plot but only to the extent necessary to convey the positive elements and the concerns with the film.]
With a bumper crop of ostensibly Christian films at the box office this spring, God’s Not Dead 2 has made an impact. As with the first movie, this movie is intended to highlight the cultural war which many Christians perceive in the United States. The writers draw up clear battle lines between the raging atheists and the peaceful Christians in both the protestors seen outside the courtroom and the soft-spoken teacher facing the hateful ACLU lawyer.
The film directs its message at a conservative Christian audience and has little interest in engaging with the identified enemy. “Stand up for your rights as an American no matter what the cost” stands as the rallying cry at the end of the movie, though there are also theological messages present.
Overall, the film was much better than the first (which I reviewed initially and later in response to feedback). The evolutionary ideas that colored the apologetics message in the first movie were absent. There was a higher view of God presented in this installment. One explanation of salvation actually included a mention of sin, and prayer was strongly emphasized. While you will likely find some things you don’t agree with, you will leave the theater encouraged in your faith, called to prayer, and emboldened to speak the name of Jesus. This is a movie that you will definitely want to see and one that is worth supporting.
While the sequel has a very distinct storyline, there are many carryovers from the original. We are reintroduced to Martin, the Chinese student, who continues to grow in his faith. At one point, he approaches Pastor Dave (who now has a working car) and asks him a list of questions about God. As you may have experienced, the answers lead Martin to more questions and a realization that God is so much bigger than we could ever comprehend. Dave’s African pastor friend, Jude, affirms this along with God’s goodness.
While the sequel has a very distinct storyline, there are many carryovers from the original.
Amy the blogger also returns, continuing her friendship with the Newsboys (who offer another concert cameo). Her character intersects in a way that allows the Newsboys to get back into the film, but that seems to be the main point of her character in the plotline beyond stirring up support for the teacher facing discipline. Overall, if you didn’t see the original movie, you will miss many of these details and may get a bit lost in the flow of the movie.
In general, the movie carries too many subplots with too little development of the main characters and storyline, but it is not quite as dizzying as the carousel ride of subplots in the first movie. There are some significant errors in the way the courtroom scenes are conducted, which may help build suspense but are very unrealistic. At times, the dialogue tries to preach but winds up stumbling through a bunch of clichés common to cultural Christianity. While I don’t pretend to be a film critic, there are some scenes that come off very well and are intensely emotional but others that fall pretty flat, dragging the movie down.
The caravan of Christian apologists and television personalities appearing in cameo roles is a bit overdone, as are the plugs for their books. Alongside these issues there are a handful of theological problems we will get to in a moment. Also there is the topic of a subpoena on sermons that seems to be simply a device to connect the movie to recent events and likely the point of contact for God’s Not Dead 3, which is probably already in production (make sure you stay until after the credits for a bonus scene). A theme that carries over from the original movie sets up strong caricatures of Christians and particularly atheists. The caricatures present something for everyone to complain about, whether a member of a public school union, the ACLU, a lawyer, or a faithful pastor.
The storyline flows from a teacher, Grace Wesley, responding to her student Brooke’s question about Jesus and His teachings as they relate to the nonviolent teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. Grace’s response acknowledges that “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.” In response to another student’s comment, she adds some additional commentary about those who would die for what they believe.
By the end of the day, Grace finds herself facing the wrath of the principal, the school board, and even her union representative. Somehow a text message from another student has turned into a threat from Brooke’s freethinking parents. Offered the chance to apologize for mentioning Jesus in the classroom, Grace refuses, asserting that she had done nothing wrong in answering the question. In short order, she is put on leave without pay and assigned a public defender (Tom) by the teachers’ union to face trial for quoting Scripture in the classroom.
The question of what a teacher can say in the classroom brings a very complicated answer. It is dependent on the specific district or state under which the teacher serves and the policies under which they operate. Each teacher signs a contract with the district that outlines the expectations. In essence, the teacher is an agent of the state to act in loco parentis (in the place of the parent) to educate the children according to the curriculum defined by the school board (whether at the state or district level). To speak beyond what that contract outlines is to violate the contract. This places many Christian teachers in the position of not being able to speak about their faith in any context, while others may have more latitude.
The question of what a teacher can say in the classroom brings a very complicated answer.
While there are often outside groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) who pressure school districts, threatening them to stop allowing certain practices, the school district in the film actually brought in the ACLU to “keep the blood off of their own hands” (their words in the movie). The case proceeds as a civil matter with Brooke’s parents suing Grace after being pressured by the rabid ACLU lawyer. Their hope of getting Brooke into a top-tier university is assured since the lawyer tells them every Ivy League admissions director is looking for a high-profile atheist martyr to add to the student body.
In the movie, we never learn the district’s policy on teaching about religious ideas. However, it is obviously prejudiced. The question about Jesus comes up in a history class discussion where Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are the examples. As you probably know, both of these men were motivated by their religious views—Gandhi by the Hindu doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence) and Reverend King by the teachings of the Bible and example of Jesus. This point comes out clearly during the trial in a discussion of Dr. King’s motivations.
The disappointing turning point in the film comes when Grace realizes that she doesn’t have to acknowledge Jesus as God or that the Bible is His Word to win the case—she only has to get the jury to think she presented Jesus as a historical figure from a historical document. “Listen! This isn’t about faith, this is about history,” she proclaims before a flurry of activity seems to turn the case around, giving her hope of winning. She reasons that to win the case, “We can separate the faith-based Jesus from the historical Jesus.”
To be sure, this is a reasonable defense since she was a history teacher talking about a historic figure using a historic reference—something she should have the legal right to do. While the court case never looks to affirm Jesus as God, Grace still believes He is.
The trial presents several paradoxical elements. As Tom seeks to defend Grace, in his opening arguments he intentionally points out that her beliefs are really what are on trial. He then proceeds to build a case that ignores her faith, focusing solely on Grace’s statements as a history teacher talking about a historical figure. Which is it? As the story progresses, these two worlds seem disconnected with Jesus the God-man not being allowed into the courtroom but appealed to in the prayer room. If her faith is the reason she is on trial, is her faith in a mere historical Jesus? Surely it is not because Jesus the man offers no hope of salvation.
At several points in the film, characters boldly proclaim that the right to believe is a fundamental right. It is also noted that the most basic right of all is to know Jesus. On these points, the film departs a bit from Christianity into nationalism, promoting ideas that are true in America and not the world at large. While it is appropriate to exercise the rights granted to us in our nation’s Constitution and its amendments, these are not necessary to our identity as Christians. Martin, being Chinese, knows this full well. In asserting our religious liberty rights, we can call the government to act in a fair and just manner, but we should never confuse this with the gospel. Every Christian has the absolute right to proclaim the gospel, but there may be consequences for exercising that right under various governments.
Every Christian has the absolute right to proclaim the gospel, but there may be consequences for exercising that right under various governments.
As Christians, we need to take care to distinguish our rights as citizens of a nation and our rights as either children of Adam or children of God. Wrapping our Bibles in the Stars and Stripes is not the way to advance the kingdom of God—preaching the gospel is. While we can be extremely thankful to God for giving us the liberties we have in this country, we cannot find a biblical promise that God will ensure we have those privileges—just ask Martin. While we can agree with the defense attorney’s explanation of the “separation of church and state” in our country, we can’t forget that so many of our brothers and sisters around the world have no opportunity to assert their rights as God’s image bearers.
However, there is biblical precedent for Christians to use their civil rights when unfairly accused. Paul appealed to his rights as a Roman citizen to avoid unlawful punishment (Acts 22:25), so it is not biblically wrong to stand for the rights that are protected by the government we live under. But we can thank God that the gospel does not depend on being able to exercise our civil rights in comfort (Acts 4:18–20).
Sadly, I do not recall one mention of God as the author of Scripture. While there are a few uses of “God’s Word” and the like, the emphasis is on the human authors (e.g., “the writer of the Gospel of Matthew said . . .”), not their divine inspiration, though we might assume the Christian characters believed these things. It would be hard to imagine how anyone would come away from this film knowing that Christians believe the Bible is inerrant or inspired. However, commendably there are multiple references to the accounts of Scripture rather than using the word story, as is so common today.
Frequently, the characters refer to the Bible as the source of truth, offering Christians wisdom as they seek to understand how to act in the world. Martin acknowledges the impossibility of obeying the beatitudes as Pastor Dave offers him counsel from the Bible. At several points the characters look to the Bible for guidance, quoting popular passages and affirming their truth as they seek to trust in God in the midst of uncertainty. In the characters’ personal lives, the Bible is held high—a commendable aspect of the film.
As the Christian expert apologists present their testimonies to the court, the Bible becomes a mere historical document—one that can be examined and judged to be true based on various rational criteria. In the courtroom, the Bible is just a book. In the classroom, it’s just another historical document to reference alongside the Constitution or the letters of Dr. King and Gandhi. But in the church, it can be used for more than that. But why this disconnect? Should this be a Christian’s attitude toward Scripture?
In their testimonies, it seems that the expert witnesses unwittingly acknowledge the ACLU lawyer’s claim that it is acceptable to proclaim the truth of the Bible in a house of worship, but not in a classroom or a courtroom. They did not talk about the Bible as the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God on the stand, but we must trust they would in their church meetings or personal devotions. Overall, this contrast presents a schizophrenic view of the Bible in the film. The experts do not say the Bible is untrustworthy or false, but they only support it based on human reasoning rather than acknowledging the role of their faith in accepting the Bible as truth (1 Corinthians 2:10–16). In the courtroom scenes, the Bible is evaluated only empirically, not through the eyes of faith.
To the credit of the producers, the movie presents a view of God that is fairly high. There were several poignant acknowledgements of God’s sovereignty over the affairs of man. Grace prays to her Father, acknowledging that He is in control, asks for courage, and closes her prayer in Jesus’s name. God the Father and Jesus as the Son of God are clearly presented by the characters (though the Holy Spirit is not mentioned), putting plain and precious truths in the ears of the audience. In a climactic scene that I won’t spoil for you, Jesus is glorified before all who heard.
As in the first movie, the call to suffer as a disciple of Christ is clearly portrayed in this sequel. Martin, Brooke, and Pastor Dave all experience significant threats— each of them choosing to follow their Savior rather than the world. Grace expresses this truth beautifully as she faces losing every earthly possession she has:
I would rather stand with God and be judged by the world than stand with the world and be judged by God.
Martin experiences that cost in this film in much the same way that the Muslim girl did in the first film. In an interesting scene, Martin is answering Brooke’s questions about God. She notes that it is going to make her family life hard. Martin agrees but fails to encourage her with his own testimony or the words of Jesus in Luke 12:49–53. (Since he’s a new Christian, however, this is understandable.) Through her trial, Grace also acknowledges she might lose everything, and Pastor Dave chooses a path that brings him into conflict with the government.
The Jesus presented in the courtroom scenes is a Jesus who can be understood by appealing to man’s reasoning. A defining claim comes from one of the expert witnesses who proclaims he turned from his skeptical views based on his own reasoning and the technique of “forensic statement analysis.” Through this technique he concludes the Gospels contained reliable accounts of the words of Jesus. When questioned by the ACLU lawyer about whether his faith colors his interpretations, he tells the lawyer, “When I began I was a skeptic. . . . I am not a Christian because I was raised that way or it would accomplish some goal in my life, I am simply a Christian because it is evidentially true.” Sadly, this testimony tacitly denies the role of the Holy Spirit or the exercise of faith in order to trust that the Bible is true. From the courtroom, we get the impression that man’s ability to judge whether God’s Word is true or not is based solely on their own reasoning.
From the courtroom, we get the impression that man’s ability to judge whether God’s Word is true or not is based solely on their own reasoning.
As mentioned earlier, this presents a kind of strange dichotomy in the film. In the courtroom and the classroom, Jesus is presented as merely a historical figure. In the courtroom, we can determine the attributes of this Jesus by appealing to reasonable scholars and historical sources—even atheist scholars. His existence is considered to be indisputable, and his life can be reconstructed by examining history—we can prove this Jesus by relying only on “historical sources.” In fact, there is even a scholar who has developed a set of “minimal facts”—with which “everyone” agrees. We should be careful with separating the Jesus of “history” from Jesus the God-man since this is something Scripture does not do and liberal scholars are prone to.1
For a Christian to approach Jesus and the Bible in such a way is to offer a tacit acknowledgement that the Bible really isn’t the Word of God. It communicates that the Bible isn’t really reliable unless, using your own autonomous reasoning, you agree that it is. It places man in a positon of judgment over God’s Word, telling God whether He was right or not. Is that really what we want to do—invite people to judge Jesus based solely on historical details found in mere historic documents?
This approach tends to deny the effects of sin on humanity, telling the unbeliever that he can determine what is true and false about Jesus by simply allowing his own thinking to be his guide. But we know from the Bible that man’s mind is corrupted by the effects of the Fall. Paul acknowledges this fact in many places, reminding us that God’s Word is foolishness to those who are perishing. It is not through clever human arguments that we can hope to bring about changed hearts and minds, but the Word of God going forth with power, accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit, in the hearts of those hearing (e.g., Romans 1:16–17; 1 Corinthians 2:1–5).
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.
Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:18–25)
Ken Ham has used the analogy of a soldier going into battle but laying aside his sword and armor because his opponent doesn’t believe it should be used in battle. Just because the skeptic does not believe the Bible is the Word of God does not mean we should not use it as the weapon that it is (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12). As we draw the sword of the Word, it will do its work. We can offer our reasoned defense of the faith, but that reasoning should be firmly grounded in God’s Word, not rational philosophies (Colossians 2:1–10).
If we base our arguments for the existence of Jesus on the mere historical evidence and people believe He existed, we should not be surprised if they go on to deny His existence later when someone presents a more convincing argument. What you win them with is what you win them to. (In fact, it was surprising to me that the producers chose not to offer any contrary testimony to counter the experts who trusted that the Bible was accurate.) One of the experts claims that we can reconstruct the basic Jesus without the Bible. Neither of these statements can stand up to biblical scrutiny. Only the Bible presents Jesus as the eternal Son of God.2 People become Christians by exercising faith in Jesus and repenting of their sins, not by determining that the evidence for His life points to His existence. As an apologetic, this may play a part in removing false perceptions, but no one has become a Christian by simply determining Christianity is “evidentially true.”
If we follow the biblical pattern and proclaim the truth of God’s Word and who Jesus is—the Son of God in the flesh—we can leave the results of changing hearts in God’s hands. We don’t have to present Jesus as a mere man or the Bible as a mere history book to win the skeptic or defend ourselves in a court case. In fact, to think our wise words and forensic techniques can do so is folly. As an example, the Apostle Paul was confident in pointing to the resurrected Savior in his trials before various government officials. While there is room to speak of facts in this type of courtroom situation, can a faithful Christian divorce those facts from the fullness of who Jesus is and what the Bible is?
As Grace is asked about her conversion, she talks about a mystical experience in which Jesus spoke to her through a church sign. This is where her faith journey began, but she never tells Tom how she came to know she was a sinner in need of Christ’s salvation. The message he hears from her is a bit shallow. It does leave the question, “Who do you say that I am?” ringing in Tom’s ears, but never provides him an answer. On the other hand, a young lady prays and acknowledges her sin, asking God to forgive her in Christ. While we don’t see how she learned these truths, they are clearly expressed as she acknowledges Jesus as Lord (coupled with an Evangelical cliché).
As is common, practically everything turns out on the positive side for everyone. Their prayers are answered in the best way, and they move along their path to the American dream. While this makes us feel good at the end of the movie, it might not be the best way to communicate the truth of living in a fallen world.
While we can surely use evidences to confirm what we know to be true from Scripture, power to change hearts and minds is found in the message of “Christ and Him crucified.”
As the battle lines are drawn, the movie forgets that the ACLU, the rabid atheistic protestors, and the public schools are not the ultimate enemy, though they may be used by the enemy in a temporal sense. Rather, these people are taken captive by the enemy and need to hear the hope-giving, soul-cleansing message of the gospel. They don’t merely need us to prove to them that Jesus was a historical person or that Christians can stand up for their rights; they need to be called to repent of their sins, looking to the Lord of Glory who died on the Cross to provide forgiveness and eternal life rather than the condemnation they have stored up for themselves. While we can surely use evidences to confirm what we know to be true from Scripture, power to change hearts and minds is found in the message of “Christ and Him crucified.” I trust that in the deleted scenes we would find the clip where Grace prays as fervently for the salvation of her accusers as she does for her Father to take the cup from her.
The film can be commended for acknowledging God’s sovereignty over the affairs of men. It also presents very encouraging examples of prayer and trusting God in the midst of uncertainty. The faithful witness of a Christian living a life of virtue in front of her coworkers is a great reminder of our call to live in a manner worthy of our calling. The call to seriously consider the truths of the Bible is important for us to share with skeptics. The acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord of our lives and the Bible as the source of truth we are called to live by are great reminders for each child of God. We can encourage one another to stand up for what is just and to seek a lawful redress when our civil rights are violated.
I would caution you to consider carefully the courtroom scenes that presented an empirical, evidentialist apologetic that pointed to Jesus as a simple historical figure. I would also encourage you to find a deeper and more biblical understanding of some of the Christian clichés presented. However, the film is definitely worth seeing and talking about with an open Bible. I am certain that the wise Christian can use it as an opportunity to have Christ-centered conversations with other Christians. There are many apologetic resources that can help Christians understand the historical truths that confirm the things we know by faith. We would all do well to study those things so that we would be ready to have an answer for everyone who asks us about the hope that we have—a hope in Jesus Christ who is so much more than a historical fugure.
We can all agree with Grace and emulate her boldness
I am not going to be afraid to say the name Jesus.
And with the Apostle Paul we can affirm
Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. (2 Timothy 3:12)
I pray that along with Grace you will not be afraid to speak the name of Jesus—the Jesus who was both God and man as revealed in the Bible and who came to bear our sins and rise victorious over death. Only that Jesus brings good news to us and to those we may see as the enemy.