Since the release of The Passion, faith-based films have been coming out from Hollywood at an increased rate. On the one hand, faith-based films are often cheesy and unrealistic. On the other hand, many lose the spirit of the original story and are utterly inaccurate (Noah, anyone?).
With a bit of hesitancy, my wife and I went to see Risen last night. All things considered, we were both pleasantly surprised! While some of the actors were more compelling than others, we both felt Joseph Fiennes (Roman soldier Clavius) and Maria Botto (Mary Magdalene) gave performances that were outstanding and memorable. And personally, I liked the depiction of Jesus (Cliff Curtis). He had a good balance of gentleness and strength, but also real compassion and a natural sense of humor.
While there are many commendable aspects of the film, I want to briefly highlight three key takeaways. First, Risen is creative. Let’s face it—sometimes faith-based movies can have two-dimensional characters and shallow plots. The challenge in making this film was how to tell the “greatest story of all time” in a fresh and captivating way. How can you take a familiar story and make it interesting? Their answer was to look at the fateful events (from the death of Jesus to his ascension) through the eyes of a Roman soldier who was assigned by Pilate to track down the body of Jesus after it mysteriously disappeared.
In the film, we see many familiar scenes—such as Jesus appearing to “doubting” Thomas amongst the apostles, the healing of a leper, and Jesus appearing to the apostles at Galilee—but from the perspective of how a Roman soldier may have experienced them. Even though I have read, heard, or seen these stories hundreds of times, Risen made me experience them in a fresh way.
Second, I love how the movie raised apologetics-related issues. A considerable amount of time was spent on the search for the body of Jesus: Did the apostles steal it? If so, how did they get by the Roman guards? Could the religious leaders or Romans simply have presented another body to silence the first Christians? Is the shroud real?
No movie of this sort could be made of any other major religion, because other religions are not historically based like Christianity. As the film portrays, the entire message of Christianity rests on whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. “If Christ has not been raised,” says the apostle Paul, “then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). As Risen nicely depicts, an empty tomb and a risen Jesus quite literally change everything.
Third, the writers and producers aimed to be historically accurate. They certainly took some liberties (such as implying that the Roman guards at the tomb were drunk), and there are some historical inaccuracies, but the goal was to fill in the gap of the narrative in a way that is faithful to the overall thrust. Unlike some films that intentionally twist the biblical story, the writers of Risen aimed to add dialogue and scenes that are broadly faithful to the biblical account. In fact, after seeing the movie, my mind has been running wild with speculation about all sorts of other characters for which we have minimal detail: What happened to Malchus, the high priest’s servant who Jesus healed after Peter cut off his right ear? What happened to the Roman guard who proclaimed that Jesus is the Son of God at the cross? How would they have interpreted the events that soon unfolded in Jerusalem and beyond? Did they become believers? If not, why not?
Much more could be said about the film. And I do have some smaller criticisms. But those are best reserved for another time. For now, I want to give credit to the writers, producers, and actors for making a quality and thought-provoking faith-based film. I hope this is just the beginning of many more to come.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog at seanmcdowell.org.