THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE FILM RISEN
When I first saw previews for the film Risen, I was beyond excited. It appeared to be beautifully filmed with excellent acting and the production value of a Hollywood blockbuster. It is rare to see a Christian film with this sort of technical quality, and so I was encouraged that this film would make way for many more like it in the future.
Having seen the film, I am even more encouraged that Risen will serve as a trailblazer for many more Christian films. According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, Risen’s U.S. opening weekend finished third amongst all films with over $11.8 million in ticket revenue and grossed close to $50 million worldwide, which makes the $20 million budgeted film a huge success. Combine the numbers with a well-written plot, excellent acting and directing, and top-notch production value, and one would anticipate Hollywood investing in many more films like this one.
But, surprisingly to many outsiders, the film got mixed reviews from its core audience – Christian viewers.
For about the first half of the film, I didn’t really understand why. Sure, they had to give Pontius Pilate some character that is not described in the Bible, but they certainly didn’t make him out to be an apologetic figure. Otherwise, I thought they did a nice job of bringing some color to what is written in the Gospel – from the tearing apart of the Temple upon Jesus’s death to the spear in his side and the leg-breaking of the criminals hanging to his right and left. Where the film does take liberties, they seem logical – from Pilate’s hunt for Jesus’s body to the questioning of witnesses and followers. None of these scenes are written in the Bible, but they all seem to fit within the context of the time and the spirit of what the Gospel says, and I found them to be a very entertaining extrapolation of what those few days after Jesus’s death and resurrection must have been like in Jerusalem.
Then, the controversy in the film smacked me right in the face, and I suddenly understood why so many Christians took issue.
On a hunt for Jesus’s body, our main character, a Roman Tribune named Clavius, walks right into John 20:26-29 and watches as Jesus shows Thomas the holes in his hands, feet, and side. Clavius then basically joins the eleven apostles for what amounts to the remainder of the Gospel, all the way through John 21, with some slight variances from what the Bible says and the obvious fiction of a Roman Tribune being on the journey to Galilee with the apostles.
I’d like to explain, from a writer’s perspective, why I believe the filmmakers made these choices, what I believe their motivations were, how I can see it being controversial, and then what I see as the solution.
To me, the motivation of this film is to show the miracle of Jesus’s death and resurrection from a completely outsider, unbelieving perspective; I suspect with the intent of winning over the hearts and minds of some unbelievers in the audience. This would clearly be a very noble and right goal. So, to accomplish this, the writer created a non-Christian main character for the viewer to relate to and had him experience firsthand what the Gospel says the Apostles experienced in those few days after receiving the greatest news of all time – that God had sacrificed his only son to atone for our sins and give us eternal life. (John 3:16) By taking this approach, the film can earn the trust of the skeptical viewer by starting out with the main character poking fun at Christ’s followers while thriving in a very realistic world that exists within a historical context. Then, once the skeptic is on board, everything flips around halfway through and the skeptic is gradually converted after witnessing the miracle of Jesus.
Honestly, I support this approach, although I’m not sure I would’ve done it this way (more on that later). More importantly than my support, Paul supports this approach in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23,
“For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”
In more plain English, you’re going to have a hard time winning over people outside the church by only preaching to the choir. So, I appreciate the ingenious approach of Risen and all the many wonderful, beautiful instances in which it brings the Gospel to life.
But, it does show a fictional version of the Gospel and does not make any sort of disclaimer about it. That, I do think is dangerous and could lead many future films and filmmakers down a very slippery slope.
The Bible is the word of God, and it should be treated with the utmost respect. That doesn’t mean no one should ever create a fictional story based off the Bible or off Biblical times, and Risen doesn’t stray from the spirit of the Gospel at all. In fact, the interaction of the apostles with Clavius displays an interesting dynamic of the disciples, early in their faith, trying to put Jesus’s teaching into action. But, they stray from the Bible just in the fact that Clavius was present for any of this in the film. There are other small details that are slightly off – Thomas joining the apostles in the room with Jesus instead of already being there (John 20:26) or even that Jesus doesn’t ask the disciples to bring the fish that He just provided for them to the beach (John 21:10) or that all seven disciples leave the boat to run to Jesus on shore instead of only Peter (John 21:2-8).
Those smaller details don’t bother me as much as having Clavius present, but they’re all worth mentioning because they set a precedent. How will the next filmmaker change the Gospel without telling anyone it has changed? Could this ultimately lead to people making films “based on” the Bible, changing what is written in it, and perhaps even using those stories as a weapon against God’s word?
To be clear, I’m not claiming that anyone involved with Risen did anything insidious. I do believe they have done a great service for God and in helping to spread his Word. I do also believe, though, that we need to talk about how these films will be handled in the future, because changing the Bible without letting the audience know it’s being changed should not happen, not for the sake of protecting the delicate sentiments of Christians who already know the film is fiction, but to avoid planting false seeds in those that do not yet believe.
To me, this all could have been avoided in this film had they maintained the story they had begun. It could have been a very powerful journey of mystery, discovery, and doubt had Clavius always been appearing just after the apostles, gaining testimony of what happened from the eyewitnesses left behind, and discovering clues. All the pertinent scenes they showed from the Gospel could have been revealed in visions Clavius has as he pieces together the story like a detective recreating a scene. Then, the best part is that Clavius is in the same boat as all of us – having overwhelming testimony of the truth behind Jesus’s death and resurrection, but dealing with the doubt of having never seen it for himself. This could have added depth and even more relatability to the main character while delivering the Gospel devoid of the liberties the present film takes. But, perhaps that would be a less original and less compelling story, and therefore wouldn’t reach as many people. There’s where the tough decisions of being a filmmaker come in.
Overall, I understand the controversy, but I also think we need to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Risen is a huge step forward for Christian film in that it is a major production with top-notch quality in all aspects of its creation that tells the story of the Gospel in a way approachable to non-Christian audiences. Every screenplay and book has better odds of being filmed or published thanks to Risen, and the more films and books on the market that tell the story of the Gospel, the more chances there are for the Holy Spirit to shepherd Christ’s lost sheep back to Him. I would just ask Christian writers and filmmakers in the future to be very careful with all the details of your stories, to never stray from the true message of the Gospel if you choose to create a story that depicts it, and if you decide to change things written in the Bible, let us know you did so no one mistakenly takes your work of fiction as the Bible itself.