There’s an old saying you’re probably familiar with: “All that glitters is not gold.” It’s an idiomatic reminder that appearances are not everything and often do not reveal the true nature of a thing. To be honest, that’s often how I feel when Hollywood tries to put the Bible on the silver screen. It may glitter but it certainly isn’t gold! Recent adaptations—actually, it’s probably more accurate to say recent rewrites—like that of Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings, are a painful reminder of that. Not only have they been box office flops but they have failed entirely in biblical accuracy. Despite the repeated failures of Hollywood I will admit my interest was piqued with headlines of the recently released movie, Risen.
As an unofficial sequel to Mel Gibson’s blockbuster The Passion of the Christ, this recent release looks at the story of the resurrection from the perspective of a skeptic. Like a detective mystery set in ancient times, the movie centers around a Roman soldier named Clavius and his aide, a young and zealous soldier named Lucius, as they are tasked by Pontius Pilate to investigate the whereabouts of Jesus’ body. Critics are divided, but audiences seem to appreciate this unique faith-based biblical epic.
The resurrection is at the very heart of the message of the gospel. The Apostle Paul emphasized this when he said: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile” (1 Corinthians 15:17). So, as a Christian and one who loves movies, I cannot help but wonder if this movie is a friend or foe to that message. Now, for the sake of full disclosure I’ll admit I haven’t seen the movie. Nor do I plan to. While that probably means I cannot offer a scene-by-scene review—which is fine by me—it doesn’t mean I can’t think biblically about the approach, method, and value of a movie like this. And from that perspective I think there’s enough to warrant a note of caution to would-be moviegoers.
In the first place, I think viewers need to check their expectations. Maybe it’s just me, but every time a movie like this comes out I hear in Christian circles how it will revive a cultural respect for the tenets of the faith. But will it? I don’t think so. Perhaps you remember the parable Jesus told of the rich man and Lazarus both of whom died. While Lazarus went to Abraham’s side the rich man went to Hades. There in the torment of eternal fire the rich man begs that he be allowed to return to his father’s house and warn his brothers being fully convinced that if someone from the dead goes to them they would repent. His request is met with strong words: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31). Hollywood—even on its best day—can say no more and certainly nothing better than what the Bible already says. If the written Word is not enough to convince a skeptic, the movie theater will never do a better job.
In the second place, I think viewers need to respect revelation. We have an insatiable desire to try and fill in the blanks where God has been silent. Long ago Moses warned “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29). This movie, which is largely a piece of historical-fiction, attempts to fill in the blanks with speculation and “what ifs.” We know that the soldiers trembled and became like dead men, that some of the guards told the chief priests who bribed them to fabricate a story about the empty tomb, and that this falsified report spread among the Jews (Matthew 28:4-15). Beyond that we know nothing of Roman detectives, investigations, and manhunts—on that the Bible is silent and we need to respect its silence. Our faith isn’t based on speculation, vain curiosity, and what ifs, but on the revealed Word of God which gives us all things necessary for faith and life, and equips us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17).
In the third place viewers need to think about the appropriateness of images of Christ. I know this isn’t going to be popular among many and it will probably put me on the fringe–although I will note it’s a thoroughly Presbyterian principle. Perhaps it’s not something you have thought much about, but there are good and biblical reasons to think that pictures of Jesus are sinful. I know it’s said that because he had a human body and because he was visible to the physical senses a picture helps us understand the reality of the incarnation. But here’s my point. Every thought and impression we have of Jesus should be accompanied with the respect and even worshipful attitude that he deserves. That is to say, a Christian should never think, speak, or read about Jesus with anything less than honor and worship. That is, in part, the point of the third commandment–we aren’t to have any “vain” thoughts about God (Exodus 20:7). Anything less than worshipful thoughts about Jesus are vain thoughts. So pictures–like the ones in this movie that depict Jesus as crucified and resurrected–if they are to be used, must be viewed and used in a worshipful sense. But, we are forbidden by God in the second commandment to worship him through the use of images (Exodus 20:4-6).
Finally, viewers need to remember the drama of the resurrection isn’t a cinematic experience. Sure, it may glitter as only the silver screen can, but the real power of the resurrection is experienced every Lord’s Day as God’s people gather for worship. It is there that he is bringing together a community of people who are raised and seated with Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:5-6). It is there that Christ is presented before our eyes as crucified in the preaching of the Word (Galatians 3:1) and in the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). It is there that he gives faith to believe to the salvation of body and soul (Romans 10:17). It is there that he meets with us and we with him as he confirms again and again that the tomb is empty and we worship a living Savior. That may not be the thing that movies are made of, but it’s through these ordinary means that he manifests his resurrection power.