The story begins with Lee and his wife, Leslie, enjoying a meal at a restaurant with their daughter, Alison, who is saved by, Alfie, a Christian nurse from choking on a gumball. While Lee is thankful for the nurse’s intervention, he writes off her presence at the restaurant as coincidence. Leslie is persuaded that something more significant is at play. She accepts Alfie’s invitation to attend church with her and ultimately comes to accept the gospel.
Horrified that his wife has bought into what he perceives to be the Christian delusion, Lee, without informing her, sets about on a two-year mission to disprove the claims of Christianity—focusing on the claim of Jesus’ resurrection. Along the way, he interviews a series of experts in various fields, hoping to uncover the proverbial silver bullet, but expert after expert fails to provide him with the evidence he seeks.
While conducting personal research into the validity of Christianity’s claims, Lee simultaneously investigates a case involving a policeman injured in a shooting. His investigation leads him to write an article accusing a man of perpetrating the shooting but is later confronted with the reality that his own bias in that case prevented him from seeing the truth. He realises that he has made the same error in his quest to discredit Christianity and finally submits his mind to the truth before him.
Pure Flix’s God is Not Dead was (fairly, in my opinion) accused of presenting Christian opposition in a completely strawman fashion. This film tries to be a little more balanced. Ultimately, it is still a faith-based film, and so it naturally approaches the subject matter with a faith-based bias, but it certainly takes a more well-rounded approach to its source material.
From a production standpoint, filmmakers have tried hard—successfully, I think—to make the 1980s setting believable. Mike Vogel is believable as the angry, atheistic title figure, while Erika Christensen (ironically, a scientologist) shines as Lee’s believing wife, Leslie, who prays fervently for her husband’s conversion.
The narrative traces the increasing pressure that Leslie’s newfound faith places on the marriage, and while some of the tension between the couple is arguably overplayed, it gives some insight into the difficulties that many mixed marriages may face.
The story admirably points to the fact that the Christian faith is necessarily based in historic truth. As one of Lee’s Christian colleagues tells him, if the resurrection can be disproved, the entire house of cards will come tumbling down. It is not a story of a man’s personal experience with Jesus, but of an unbeliever wrestling with the historic truth claims of Christianity.
At the same time, the film argues that Christianity is about more than pure reason and intellect. Lee will believe only what he can hear, see, smell, or touch—hard evidence. In his mind, he is on the bench and God is in the dock. God must provide all the evidence that he requires to prove the reality of the Christian faith.
It would be easy for filmmakers to tell a story in which the evidence set forth is incontrovertible so that any analytical mind can do nothing but accept it. That is not the narrative that is weaved. Instead, Leslie understands that, apart from God’s grace, Lee will never see the light. She prays, time and again, for God to give Lee a new heart—to remove his heart of stone and give to him a heart of flesh (see Ezekiel 36:26).
Does the movie clearly articulate the gospel? Not quite. Little is made of sin—the ultimate obstacle to belief in the resurrection. Nevertheless, it is a compelling retelling of Lee’s journey from scepticism to faith. And it should be viewed in precisely that light.
Mark Dunbar, writing at TheHumanist.com, believes that “no one will be convinced (or should be anyway) by the evidence presented in the film.” Simran Hans calls the film’s defence of the resurrection “a straw-man argument unlikely to have nonbelievers queuing up to be baptised.” The Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus argues that the film is “better at preaching to the choir than reaching the unconverted.” If the film intends to convert the unconverted, it certainly misses the mark, but like all apologetics work, that is not (or should not be) its intended purpose.
In the film, Leslie understands the hard truth of conversion: If God does not do the work of giving a new heart, the unbeliever will not see and embrace the truth of Christianity. The film is a highly condensed version of Lee’s book, which, while compelling, should also not be used as a tool to persuade the unpersuaded. Apologetics has limited value in persuading the hearts of unbelievers and far greater value in strengthening the faith of believers. Like the book, this film will serve the believer far better than it will the unbeliever.
Unbelievers will no doubt find great cause to entrench themselves further in their scepticism. Believers may be tempted to think that the evidence presented in the film—if, perhaps, accompanied by a reading of the source material—provides a slam dunk case for the authenticity of the Gospel accounts. Ultimately, the film will be best enjoyed by those who avoid both extremes and instead sit down to enjoy a biopic of one man’s journey from scepticism to faith.