This Friday sees the wide release of God’s Not Dead 2, the hotly anticipated sequel to the unlikely $63 million smash God’s Not Dead. That film and its princely box-office returns singlehandedly spawned a cottage industry of similar movies espousing Christian dogma and reaping the profits that come with faithful attendance by God-fearing audiences. Unfortunately, this Biblical new wave of films have more than an abiding devotion to the Lord in common; the religious piety often arrives courtesy of thinly sketched mouthpieces in place of characters, weighted down by leaden dialogue, and that’s nothing compared to the harebrained plotlines common in these pictures.
Regardless of where you stand on the Scripture, hackneyed storytelling is still a mortal sin, and God’s Not Dead and its disciples have been marked for damnation. These newer Christian films often lean hard on convenient coincidence or other contrivances of plot to send the intended messages, allowing basic functionality as a work of entertainment to take a back seat to hollow proselytizing. Below, consider the 10 most implausible narrative twists of the biblical new wave and reflect on how sometimes, God works in ways that are less “mysterious” and more “absurdly unlikely.”
(Naturally, plot spoilers lay ahead. Just to warn you now: God is, indeed, not dead.)
10. Heaven Is for Real: Miracle pregnancy
The setup: Apple-cheeked tot Colton “Brumbpo Tungus” Burpo undergoes emergency surgery at age 3, and awakens from his post-op stupor with a fantabulous account of his visit to heaven. His father Todd, who wrote the book outlining the experience and made millions in the process, was convinced that the boy wasn’t telling tall tales when young Colton claimed to have met his miscarried sister and long-deceased grandfather, neither of which anyone had told him about. Colton’s other claims include having met Jesus Christ atop a horse all colors of the rainbow, and getting serenaded by a choir of angels.
The twist: That a 3-year-old child would emerge from a brief coma prepared to precisely recount his visions (and, apparently, with a full understanding of death and mortality) is one thing, but a game viewer tries to accept the basic premise and move forward from there. The rotten cherry on top of the sundae, however, comes almost incidentally in the final act. Mama Burpo’s womb had been deemed inhospitable by medical professionals following the miscarriage of the fetus preceding Colton, rendering him something of a miracle baby — a rare phenomenon, but certainly not unheard of. As everything prepares to end happily ever after, Colton’s mother appears with even more great news. She’s had a second conception, and though it wasn’t exactly immaculate, it sure was against all odds! This takes the 10th-place spot because while the twist itself might not be too hard to accept, its placement in the movie is simply too clean.
9. Persecuted: Sermon at gunpoint
The setup: James Remar portrays a popular televangelist actually named John Luther who is pressured by politicians to throw his support behind the Faith and Fairness Act, a bill that would require religious leaders to allow for the possibility of truth in all religions and deny them the right to declare their God the one and only. (“I have a dream, too: A dream of a tradition of faith as diverse as our skins, walking hand in hand toward the light” is a quote from the character who we are supposed to regard as the bad guy.) John Luther rebuffs them, of course, and the War on Christianity kicks into high gear as the federal government executes a plan to defame him that includes the Secret Service framing him for the murder of a call girl they personally kill.
The twist: Not unlike Heaven Is for Real, a lot of the more ridiculous beats have played out by the time the film lurches into its conclusion, but it finishes on a strong note of inorganic scripting. Before he’s called one last time to defend his faith in front of the world and God, John Luther barges into what appears to be a highly important meeting of his enemies and holds the gathered parties at gunpoint while he makes a final plea for understanding (that Christianity is the only valid religion). In the parlance of TV, this scene doesn’t just jump the shark, it does a 180 flip over the shark as red-white-and-blue fireworks shoot off around it.
8. Fireproof: Surprise! Your father was kind of an ass
The setup: Alex Kendrick, one of the most major figures in biblical new wave cinema, claimed the sacred bond between a man and his wife as the guiding theme for Fireproof, a film that mixes the red-hot thrills of firefighting with the room-temperature thrills of sustained prayer. Caleb (Kirk Cameron, Kendrick’s consistent muse) has been growing apart from his wife, mostly because he is a bad person and wants to blow a third of their money on a boat. His father instructs him to follow the teachings of the “Love Dare,” a 40-day program that pretty much challenges the reader to treat their spouse like a human being. Caleb has held on to a long-simmering resentment for his mother due primarily to years-old friction between the parents that culminated in Caleb’s mother taking the Love Dare and salvaging their marriage.
The twist: A classic switcheroo! It turns out Caleb’s father was the one who really needed the counsel of the Love Dare, and had mistreated Caleb’s mother for years, not the other way around. It’s not clear why Caleb’s parents would go on allowing him to believe the opposite of what actually happened, outside of the supposition that parents sometimes mislead their children because everyone needs a hobby. This doesn’t radically alter the prevailing moral of the story — that all marriages are worth saving, and must be worked at until both parties reconcile regardless of personal or emotional differences — but it does add that little dash of surprise that, needed or not, ends up in the final pages of every biblical new wave script.
7. War Room: Extremely lenient employer
The setup: Yet another strained marriage. Tony (T.C. Stallings) is a pharmacist getting high on his own supply, stepping out on his wife, and neglecting his beautiful daughter. The “war room” of the title refers to a space specifically designated for hardcore, no-holds-barred prayer in the most desperate of situations, where Tony’s wife wishes for the salvation of her wayward husband’s soul. Meanwhile, he’s out chasing skirt and occasionally guilt-vomiting.
The twist: Of course, Tony decides to turn over a new leaf and dedicate himself to a wholesome lifestyle of family, duty and religion. But he’s dug himself a pretty deep hole, and if he wants to completely get himself out of it, he’ll have accept the grave consequences of his misdeeds. Except no, he won’t, because Tony’s employer is so impressed with his worker’s moral fiber that he gives Tony a free pass after he cops to skimming pills off the top. The employer seems surprisingly chill for someone who’s just learned of not only gross employee misconduct, but also a federal crime. Isn’t Christianity all about forgiveness, though? Maybe it makes a sort of sense that he’d let an instantly fireable offense slide in the spirit of godly charity? Or maybe Tony tearfully reconciling with his wife through a thick glass pane in prison wouldn’t pack the romantic wallop the filmmakers hoped.
6. Courageous: Climactic shootout
The setup: A quartet of cops all wrestle with father-son issues in independent plotlines, reflecting on the sins they’ve inherited from their parents and the flaws they may unknowingly bequeath to their sons. Nathan Hayes (Ken Bevel) takes center stage as the new lawman in town, keeping his good Christian faith even as hoodlums steal his car and his teenage daughter shacks up with Derrick, a young man who Hayes doesn’t approve of. Hayes’ instincts turn out to be right-on, too — young Derrick is up to no good, having fallen in with a local gang and dabbling in some light drug dealing. And who is the leader of this gang? None other than TJ, the street tough that stole Hayes’ car back in the first scene!
The twist: TJ the gang leader becomes a sort of Clare Quilty-type figure for Hayes, quietly following him and tormenting him from the shadows wherever he goes. Not only does he jack Hayes’ ride and contribute to the moral dissolution of his chaste and pure daughter, but an incident late in the game intertwines their fortunes once more. While on patrol, Hayes decides to pull over a random car for a blown tail light, and it’s the crew of thugs, with Derrick in tow. The ensuing shootout doesn’t claim anyone’s life, but the staggering serendipity of TJ and Hayes’ constant run-ins more than cements the soap-opera vibe.
5. Do You Believe?: Joe un-dies
The setup: But a single moving part of the intricate narrative machinery in this religiously inflected riff on Crash (the racism one, not the car-sex one) centers on Joe, a church janitor prone to random acts of kindness. He won’t let a little debilitating cancer stop him from offering his apartment to perfect strangers as he sleeps on a bench outdoors, or inviting a local gangbanger to join him for a service and instantly converting him to the path of the righteous. Joe may spend the film with deteriorating health, but he’s got a superhuman heart.
The twist: In the final act of the film, Joe’s cancer gets the better of him and he succumbs to the sweet release of death. But wait! In his infinite mercy, God revives Joe and completely rids him of cancer, leaving him with a new lease on life and the collected witnesses to this miracle stunned. This example in particular gets at the fundamental bug of biblical new wave cinema, that sudden reversals of fortune tidily resolving all conflict (and specifically, sudden reversals incapable of being explained with reason) are endemic to the Christian religion. Miracles are central to proving the existence of God, one of the primary objectives of these films, but they’re also lazy screenwriting.
4. Left Behind: Expert plane landing
The setup: Alternately known as “the religious movie that has Nicolas Cage in it,” the main merit of Left Behind is that it has Nicolas Cage in it. He lends his singular talents to the role of Rayford Steele, a philandering pilot shocked to find that all of the good Christians have been magicked up to Heaven by the long-awaited Rapture. The world’s instantaneous consumption by hellfire is the least of Rayford’s worries, however. He’s mid-flight when the mass exodus from this mortal plane takes place, leaving him without an air traffic controller, a copilot, or any way to avoid a now-unmanned aircraft that damages his fuel line and puts him and the remaining passengers in grave danger.
The twist: Rayford’s daughter Chloe, who has evidently not been a good enough Christian to earn entry to the kingdom, receives his distress signal and goes about clearing a makeshift runway for him to make a daring emergency landing. In a spectacular feat that makes Sully’s Hudson River landing look like the trailer for Planes 2, Rayford manages to safely land the plane on a bridge without any casualties. But then, yeah, the world’s still engulfed in sulfurous flames. It’s like the old saying goes — out of the frying pan, into the ceaselessly raging infernos of Hell.
3. Little Boy: Child prays Hiroshima off the map
The setup: All the colorfully-named Pepper Flynt Busbee wants is for his darling daddy to come home from World War II. He’s out on the Japanese front, leaving his son with little to remember him by apart from a strong spirit of racist prejudice toward the Japanese. Pepper consults the local priest, who imparts unto him a mixed metaphor about mustard seeds and mountains that the child interprets literally, and begins carrying around a mustard seed for good measure. Now determined that the power of faith will be enough to bring his M.I.A. father home, he starts praying.
The twist: And he prays. And he prays some more. And he prays, prays, prays, he prays so freakin’ hard that God answers his prayers by dropping the atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, ending WWII and bringing daddy home. Horrified by the devastating consequences of his innocent prayers, Pepper later has a nightmare in which he walks, weeping, past the wreckage and charred corpses of children frozen in place as they play. Like the “be careful what you wish for” parable inflated to nuclear proportions, the scene is haunting and doubly so for appearing in such an otherwise squeaky-clean film.
2. God’s Not Dead: Breast cancer as divine punishment
The setup: One of multiple plot strands that God’s Not Dead inelegantly knots at its conclusion concerns a left-wing blogger named Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache, ostensibly not commenting on the similarly named actress, though who even knows anymore) on a mission to defame, discredit, and otherwise take down the men of Duck Dynasty by any means necessary. (Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty appears as himself, fulfilling the obligatory celebrity-but-only-in-a-highly-specific-circle cameo that all biblical new wave films must have.) She’s staunchly resistant to her devout boyfriend’s attempts to herd her into the flock, and often ambushes conservative, publicly Christian celebrities outside of venues to get some incriminating soundbites.
The twist: God, displeased with both her lack of faith and gotcha-journalism tactics, afflicts Amy with a nasty case of breast cancer. A tumor develops in her breast as an indirect consequence of disparaging blog posts the woman wrote about Duck Dynasty. Her boyfriend, already uneasy about their religious differences, takes this as a sign that the time has come for them to separate, and so he dumps her in the most misguided Angels in America allusion of film history. Amy, with a ticking time-bomb strapped to her chest and no one to fall back on, hits rock bottom and seeks salvation from the members of a gospel-pop boy band called The Newsboys. Cancer may seem like a disproportionately hardcore recourse for something as innocuous as a blog post, but that’s not even the half of this God’s malicious side…
1. God’s Not Dead: God straight-up murders Kevin Sorbo
The setup: The not-dead God of God’s Not Dead is an old-school God, the kind guided by pride and tempestuous rage instead of this newfangled namby-pamby warmth and light. The old God was an ill-tempered S.O.B. liable to violently smite anyone who might displease him, and nobody’s cruising for a heaven-sent bruising quite like the college professor that demands an oath of atheism from his students at the outset of the semester. Kevin Sorbo plays Christianity’s public enemy number one with expected hubris and arrogance, as he thumbs his nose right in the face of a vengeful God.
The twist: Forget your kind and forgiving God. God’s Not Dead‘s God is pissed, and he’s out for Kevin Sorbo’s blood. The film concludes with Sorbo getting what’s coming to him, in the form of a car that fatally strikes the nonbeliever, leaving him only with enough life to accept a priest’s offer of conversion right at the final buzzer. Lesson: You step to God, you’re gonna end up hurting. Movie God is ruthless.