Religion in American Cinema: God's Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real, and Noah

This year seems to be the revival of the religious film in American cinema. Not that religious subject matter is something foreign to American audiences. The 1950s was dominated by sword and sandal epics like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments that took their inspiration from biblical source material. A press clipping from the release of Ben-Hur even claims that religion was the number one determinant for whether audiences would see a movie during that time period.

The 2000s saw a resurgence of biblical subject matter with The Passion of the Christ making a massive splash in 2004, somehow eking its way into the Top 10 highest grossing films of all time at that point. As well, smaller evangelical films like Fireproof (2008) and Courageous (2011) have connected with church-going audiences and made a healthy profit against their production costs. These financial successes have led both major studios (in the case of Noah and Heaven Is for Real) and independent evangelical production companies to seek out the so-called “Passion dollars”–i.e. the profits to be gained from targeting the wallets of Christian Americans, particularly evangelicals, who are the largest religious demographic in the United States. (For some reason, the often religious films of Tyler Perry are generally not discussed in relation to the “Passion dollars,” and so, for the sake of space, this article has left that discussion for another time.)

But none of these years were as jam-packed with films with religious subject matter as 2014 is turning out to be. It is only the beginning of May and already we have seen Son of God, God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real, and Noah. Only two of those films are major studio releases. Son of God is a film version of the popular The Bible miniseries that brought in big ratings for the History Channel, and God’s Not Dead, while being an evangelical indie feature, has raked in over $50 million at the domestic box office while only having cost $2 million. The end of the year will even see the release of the biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott’s retelling of the story of Moses starring Christian Bale as Moses and Joel Edgerton as Ramses. This year is chock full of religious cinema.

Quality-wise, these films are all over the map. Noah is a flawed but deeply personal exploration of grappling with the divine and humanity’s corruption of the world. Yet even despite its flaws, it’s worlds away from the blandness of Heaven Is for Real and the vitriolic offensiveness of God’s Not Dead. But despite the disparency in their artistic ambitions and successes, all these films share commonalities. They explore similar themes through a variety of means and shed light on the religious preoccupations of American Christianity. God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real explore the notion of proselytization, the religious persecution complex of the American Christian, and the individual’s relationship with the divine. Noah offers the counterpoint to God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real, demonstrating an alternative style of religious filmmaking and bringing those films’ preoccupations into sharp relief.

To Proselytize or Not to Proselytize

Conversion is one of the central aims of American evangelical Christianity. So when films come out backed by evangelical production companies and aimed at evangelical audiences, the films themselves are meant to preach to the audience. Often, like in God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real, the argument for adopting evangelical Christianity is worked into the plot of the films themselves. Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) in God’s Not Dead and Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) in Heaven Is for Real argue with opponents in their respective films, trying to convince them of the validity of their worldviews, and why they need to adopt their own Christian perspective.

The central premise of God’s Not Dead is freshman Josh Wheaton has three lectures to prove the existence of God in his introductory philosophy course or his atheistic Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) will dock 30 percent of his grade. His fellow students laugh at his wide-eyed naivety and Professor Radisson mocks his adherence to the worship of the “great grandfather in the sky.” Thus, it’s Josh’s job to convince his class and his professor that God exists. It’s also not enough that Josh eventually does succeed in his debate, convincing every single member of his philosophy class that God exists (including the obnoxious librarian girl who scoffed at his dog-headedness). Josh also has to open the door for Professor Radisson’s conversion. By so thoroughly destroying his professor’s worldview in his debate, Josh allows one of the film’s supporting characters, Reverend Dave (David A.R. White), to convert the professor when he’s tragically hit by a car at the film’s climax and left dying in a rainy intersection.

In the world of God’s Not Dead, opposing viewpoints cannot coexist happily, the vast majority of college students are atheists (even though the same town can apparently jam-pack an arena for a Newsboys concert later in the film), and a Christian cannot get through their day without having to argue for their religion. Of course, there are also a series of misperceptions God’s Not Dead makes off the bat regarding religious demographics, but that’s beside the point. The point here is that God’s Not Dead presents a world where the duty of the lone, ethical Christian character is to convert his fellow ignorant students and his antagonistically atheistic enemy. The film sees itself as an act of ministry, beginning its credits by encouraging the audience to send the text message “God’s not dead” to everyone on their contacts list.

Compare this to Heaven Is for Real, where Todd Burpo seeks to convince his congregation that his son Colton actually went to heaven while on the operating table. I haven’t read the book upon which the film is based, but the film version of Heaven Is for Real makes clear that it’s the churchgoing community surrounding Todd that needs convincing, not some non-religious public. Of course, this conveniently leaves out the fact that the real Todd Burpo eventually wrote a bestselling book based off his son’s experiences that took a much stronger stance on its desire to convince skeptics, but the narrative we get in the film is restricted to Todd convincing his congregation.

Early in the film, Todd goes to visit a psychologist, Dr. Charlotte Slater (Nancy Sorel), to get a professional opinion on what could be causing his son’s visions. Slater is avowedly an atheist. Todd says that that fact may cause her to give a more objective opinion on the subject. She offers her possible rationale for Colton’s visions and Todd isn’t convinced. Importantly, though, he doesn’t argue with her. He merely poses the question of how to rationalize something that you’ve experienced that is completely irrational and leaves it at that. At the end of the film when Todd comes unequivocally down in favour of defending the validity of his son’s experience during a sermon at his church, Dr. Slater is in the audience listening, but the film makes no mention of whether Colton’s story has converted her or not. It doesn’t seem to matter. Todd and her can peacefully coexist.

In Heaven Is for Real, the main opponents to Todd are his church board, consisting of Jay Wilkins (Thomas Haden Church) and Nancy Rawling (Margo Martindale). Eventually, Todd successfully convinces them of Colton’s story by playing to their own desires to know what happened to their dead loved-ones. In a graveyard conversation, Todd tells Nancy that if God loved his son Colton, surely God loved her enlisted son who was killed in the Middle East. There’s nothing biblical about Todd’s argument. It plays into human frailty and desire for closure the same way a medium does when they supposedly commune with the dead.

The ministerial attitude of these two films reflects their different corporate interests. God’s Not Dead was funded by evangelicals as an act of ministry. Josh Wheatons’ argument for the existence of God is the film’s argument. His conversion of those surrounding him mirrors the film’s desire to convert audiences. As a Hollywood studio project Heaven Is for Real doesn’t seek to convert audiences in such a shameless fashion. Instead, it seeks to placate them with a nice, milquetoast story about how the afterlife is calming and that heaven is real and exists in the bland, American way pop culture has determined it to look like.

Both of these films stand in marked contrast to Noah, which doesn’t attempt to convert or placate its audience, but instead challenge it to recognize the parallels between the doomed world of the film and our own world. It’s a film made by a major Hollywood studio and directed by a non-religious auteur. It has no illusions of being a ministerial tool. Even the characters in the film don’t attempt to convert those around them. Not once does Noah (Russell Crowe) preach to Tubal-Cain’s (Ray Winstone) mobs to convince them of the error of their ways. In the film, it’s already too late. Humanity is doomed, and all Noah can do is follow God’s plan, save the animals, and teach his family to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.

All three of these films give interesting portraits of American attitudes towards proselytization. God’s Not Dead takes the conservative stance of active conversion as the sole goal of the Christian. Heaven Is for Real stands in for the indistinct spirituality of nominally Christian America. It seeks to placate the religious and avoid offending non-believers, while ultimately championing the white, middle-class American dream by transforming heaven into a spiritual version of the safe, comfortable, and pleasurable destination everyone is supposedly working towards in this world. The characters in Noah only concern themselves with their private morality. They are separate from a wicked world, bolstering their own faith in light of divine judgment.

Christian Persecution Complex

God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real also reflect American Christianity’s preoccupation with its own perceived persecution. In the New Testament, Jesus predicts that his followers will be persecuted by those around them. Evangelicals take this to indicate that if a Christian isn’t being persecuted, they aren’t doing it right. In fact, American evangelicals may have a persecution complex, especially when it comes to how Christianity is treated within academia.

Thus, it’s entirely appropriate that God’s Not Dead takes place in a university setting. It forwards the idea that intellectuals, all of whom are liberal atheists, seek to actively prey on Christians. In fact, almost every single encounter between believers and non-believers in God’s Not Dead is framed through persecution. Primarily, there is the relationship between Josh Wheaton and Professor Radisson. Professor Radisson stands in for both atheists and intellectuals as supposed enemies to evangelical Christianity. He belittles Josh’s views in front of his philosophy class, and when Josh stands up for his beliefs during the debates, Professor Radisson feels threatened. In an after-class encounter, Professor Radisson tells Josh that he’ll make it his life goal to ruin his career ambitions. All because Josh has the temerity to stand up for his own beliefs in a secular academic setting.

At the climax it’s revealed that Radisson used to be a Christian until his mom, a devout believer, died and he grew to hate God. This reveal highlights the fact that in the worldview of God’s Not Dead, atheists are all anti-theists, that their lack of belief is born out of hatred and anger, and that they actively seek out to destroy Christians’ lives. Of course, they’re also susceptible to conversion if only God can mortally wound them all and make sure a kindly pastor is waiting nearby to give them a deathbed conversion.

The other enemies of the faith in God’s Not Dead are less prominent, but also reflect the bogeymen of evangelical America. Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache) is a left-wing, vegetarian journalist who ambushes people like Willie and Korie Robertson and the Newsboys, “holding their feet to the fire” over their supposedly ludicrous religious and political viewpoints. Of course, all it takes for Amy Ryan to learn the error of her ways is a terminal cancer diagnosis. When she shows up at the Newsboys concert at the end of the film, the Newsboys sniff out that the source of her anger is that she doesn’t feel loved. They proceed to tell her that God loves her and pray for God to heal her. Amy Ryan joins the list of converts, but only after having her worldview shattered and her entire life destroyed.

The final member of the triumvirate persecuting evangelical America is Misrab (Marco Khan), a Muslim father who keeps his daughter Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu) on a short lease, forcing her to veil her face when she goes off to school. Ayisha is secretly a Christian, and when Misrab finds out about Ayisha’s faith, he beats her and throws her out of his home, disowning her. In the film’s most offensive scene, Misrab rains down blows on Ayisha in slow motion as some inspirational tune plays overtop. Ayisha then flees to Reverend Dave, who gives her shelter and tells her that she did the right thing standing up to her father. Problem solved. Her relationship with her family is destroyed and she has no place to live, but it’s fine because she can go to a Newsboys concert at the end. In God’s Not Dead, the intellectuals and the journalists are converted because they’re Americans, but the Muslims are ignored, written off after Ayisha flees her father’s violence. All three of these types of people are portrayed as persecuting Christians at every turn. God’s Not Dead thrives off setting up strawmen, having those strawmen attack our Christian heroes, and then burning those strawmen down.

Heaven Is for Real is much less zealous in its portrayal of persecution, although it’s still occupied with it. Most of the conflict in the film is Todd Burpo having to convince his congregation and the surrounding world that he’s not pulling a fast one on them. Essentially, he is trying to convince them that he’s not Josh Wheaton from God’s Not Dead, going around attempting to convert everyone, but instead is just another ordinary American man who feels the need to defend his beliefs.

In one of the film’s best scenes, Todd sits down with his church board, including Jay and Nancy, and has to defend his outspoken comments on Colton’s vision of heaven. In a rare moment of self-reflexivity, Nancy says that she doesn’t want their church to become a haven for whackos who use the Bible to excuse using their brain. Her comments seem to reflect the filmmakers’ concerns on how a skeptical audience will view the film. The filmmakers’ tool for defending against any such insinuations of zealotry is to establish the ordinariness of Todd and his journey to faith. In the scene, Todd defends his comments and eventually Nancy and the other church board members come over to Todd’s side when they understand that he merely seeks to bolster his belief in his son. The film frames the notion of persecution around one man encouraging his church and family to make a leap of faith, and his church and family being reluctant to do so.

As it did with its notions of conversion, Heaven Is for Real also frames its conflict as something that remains mostly within the church. Sure, Todd suffers derisive comments from fellow members of the volunteer fire brigade and the secular media hound his family, but his real opposition are his fellow church members. He seeks to convince them of his son’s story. The way the film believes it succeeds in its arguments is by showing Todd as a likable, ordinary, all-American father whom the audience can sympathize with.

Unlike God’s Not Dead, it doesn’t argue much for the logical validity of Colton’s experiences. it argues for the emotional truth of what Colton and Todd feel. For Heaven Is for Real, persecution often remains within the Christian community itself. That the film comes down on the side of Todd, defending Colton’s story, could also insinuate that persecution comes from the faithless and cowardly members of the Christian community who refuse to live out their faith in public like Todd does, risking their jobs and their reputations as rational people. So although much of Heaven Is for Real veers away from fixating on external persecution of evangelicals, it does ultimately settle on a similar point as God’s Not Dead, being that Christianity requires a believer to suffer persecution, or they’re not a true believer.

It’s interesting comparing the depictions of persecution in God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real to the ones depicted in Noah. In Noah, Noah is struggling against an evil world that actively seeks to destroy him. There is no middle ground here for persecution. His family is the last bastion of faith in the world and Tubal-Cain’s hordes want to destroy them and steal their ark. Of course, Noah is a biblical tale, so it’s expected that the extent of persecution is heightened. But comparing the intense persecution in Noah to the modern-day persecution in God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real highlights how perceptions of persecution have changed over time.

God’s Not Dead sees persecution as intellectual mockery and Heaven Is for Real sees it as fellow believers failing to support one another’s faith journeys. Both of these depictions amount to little more than wounded pride on the part of the Christian. These films depict modern-day persecution as people telling Christians that what they think is stupid or some Christians having doubts about the faith experiences of others. But these aren’t precisely persecution, at least not in the way the majority of believers of any religion over time and around the world would define it. True persecution involves physical violence, financial loss or social ostracism, which these films, at most, only gesture towards. They’re not about a few individuals being oppressed by a majority, but rather about a large group of people being annoyed and opposed by another large group of people.

The acts of persecution in these films are merely excuses for the characters in the films to take up the mantle of defending God. They’re ways for the characters to exercise their own religious pride. They’re lives aren’t threatened, nor are their beliefs deeply challenged. They’re merely made uncomfortable. I’m sure Noah would have prefered everyone to merely doubt him and go on their merry way.

The Individual and God

These three films also act as an interesting litmus test for the popular American notions of God’s connection to the individual. For each of the films, the more evangelical the film is, the more immediate and direct the connection between God and the individual is.

The evangelical God’s Not Dead puts forward that Josh is taking up the debate with Professor Radisson because God is compelling him to. The film accurately uses the language of real-life evangelicals, who often speak of “God telling” them to do something or “feeling compelled” when referring to religious decisions in their lives. When questioned by a fellow student why Josh agreed to the challenge, he tells the student “I just think of Jesus as my friend. I don’t want to disappoint Him.” In one of his lectures in his philosophy class, Josh refers to the common evangelical notion of a vertical line from God intersecting with the horizontal line of the world and humanity.

When Josh is struggling with accepting Professor Radisson’s challenge, he goes to Reverend Dave for comfort. Reverend Dave recommends two verse of scripture: Matthew 10:32-33 and Luke 12:48. These verses have to do with acknowledging God publicly before others. Josh reads them and their message is incredibly clear to him. He has to participate in Radisson’s debate. There’s no ambiguity over God’s message to him. God’s Not Dead depicts the believer as having uncomplicated access to God at any time and an unambiguous understanding of his ways and will. Prayers are always answered. The meaning of biblical passages are never contextualized. They’re always abundantly clear and related directly to the matter at hand. One character refers to the human conscience as the Holy Spirit speaking through a person’s mind. The relationship between God and the individual is unambiguous and direct. Following the Bible, most Christian describe God as living within the Christian believer. The evangelical worldview of God’s Not Dead goes further by emphasizing the individual believer’s access to God’s will through their own personal interpretation of scripture. The problem is that this worldview largely ignores the complexities of interpretation and the ambiguities of discerning the divine will. God’s Not Dead says that Christians have direct access to God’s Word, which is abundantly clear.

Heaven Is for Real is less straightforward in its connection between God and the individual than God’s Not Dead is. Todd Burpo struggles throughout the film with whether he believes his son’s story of going to heaven. Todd is a pastor and he prays often, but he never receives visions or clear answers in the forms of readily-digestible biblical passages. He tries to understand why God would choose to speak to his son, but gets no definitive answer outside of Colton’s own proclamations of what happened to him. Colton is the recipient of God’s message in Heaven Is for Real and the burden of contextualizing that message falls on Todd.

Of course, Colton’s actual visions are not ambiguous. While in heaven he sees his grandfather as he looked as a young man and meets a little girl who is the childhood version of the baby that died in his mother’s womb. Colton understands that the winged creatures made of light are angels and that the man in the robe telling him not to worry is Jesus. Even though Todd struggles with deciphering God’s plan, Heaven Is for Real still offers an unambiguous receptacle for God’s messages: Colton. Colton’s visions are shot in much the same way the rest of the film is. The angels he sees aren’t obscured. Jesus’s face is never seen, but he appears in a form very similar to American artwork depicting him, all white robe and immaculate brown hair. The visions Colton witnesses are not vague. The movie ends with Todd taking Colton’s word without reservation. Heaven Is for Real puts forward that God speaks through certain individuals and that it is the duty of other believers to silence their own doubts and put faith in the validity of other individuals’ words.

Noah is not so clear as this when it comes to God’s speaking to the individual. Noah is a man privy to God’s visions, but when God does speak to him, the message comes in obscure visions and horrifying dreams. Noah has to interpret the dreams to decipher the message. He is the one man in the entire world whom God is speaking to directly, and even he does not get a clear, unambiguous message from God. He has to go to his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) to unravel the meaning behind the visions he has witnessed. Noah shows that God speaks to the individual in difficult, often indecipherable ways. Noah trusts that God will save his family. He puts his faith in the divine. But he never expects easy answers, despite how much he prays for them.

In fact, when Noah starts making assumptions about God’s intent is when he goes astray. His visions indicated that he needed to make an ark to survive the coming flood. His faith saved his family and the animals from destruction. But God’s visions ceased after the ark was completed. While onboard the ark, waiting for the waters of the Earth to recede, Noah becomes convinced that God intends his family to die off after they have safely delivered the animals to dry land. He starts interpreting God’s visions with a confidence he previously lacked, and it leads him to misanthropy and attempted homicide. The film ends with his adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) telling Noah that God intended Noah to have mercy on humanity by letting his family survive. God allowed Noah to make the decision regarding humanity’s fate, and he let his own depression cloud his decision and take him down a dark path. Luckily, when Ila’s daughters are born, he feels love for them and chooses the path of mercy for his family.

All three of these films depict God having a connection with the individual, but they differ in how they clarify or obscure that connection. God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real display God speaking to humanity clearly in such a way that even a four-year-old child can determine God’s meaning. On the other hand, Noah depicts one of the great biblical prophets struggling with understanding what God’s wants for him, even as he receives visions straight from God.

It’s a sad irony that Noah, the film with no intent to evangelize and one greeted with much hostility (but admittedly some applause) from evangelical America, is the film that tackles religion the most meaningfully out of the three. It speaks to the difficulty in deciphering God’s vision and humanity’s profound corruption of the world. God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real are more familiar to the world we inhabit, having characters we can recognize from our own lives and messages that are all too present in the current culture wars. But they get caught up in their own political desires to placate audiences and preach to the choir. They don’t challenge the audience. They water down the religious struggle to easy-won conclusions.

God’s Not Dead is an offensive film that mistakes hatred for non-believers for defense of the faith. Heaven Is for Real is a bland film that removes theology from American Christianity in favour of therapeutics and mollifications of the universal fear of death. Noah is a flawed, mythological epic that confronts Old Testament theology in a shocking, difficult way.

It’s an obvious conclusion, but like with most movies, we need to rely on real artists to explore religious themes in cinema. People like Xavier Beauvois, Terrence Malick, and now Darren Aronofsky make the religious themes of their films personal. They try to ignore the political and commercial motivations of films like God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real and, in so doing, capture the religious struggle of the individual in the process. They may not be making explicitly “Christian” films, funded by Christian-owned studios for Christian audiences. But they are undoubtedly making the most deeply religious films in cinema nowadays.

God's Not Dead (2014, USA)

Directed by Harold Cronk; written by Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon based off a story by Hunter Dennis, Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon; starring Shane Harper, Kevin Sorbo, David. A.R. White, Trisha LaFache, Corey Oliver, Hadeel Sittu, Cassidy Gifford, Paul Kwo, and Dean Cain, with special appearances by Newsboys, and Willie and Korie Robertson.

Heaven Is for Real (2014, USA)

Directed by Randall Wallace; written by Chris Parker and Randall Wallace based off the book by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent; starring Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Thomas Haden Church, Connor Corum, Lane Styles, and Margo Martindale.

Noah (2014, USA)

Directed by Darren Aronofsky; written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel; starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, and Anthony Hopkins.