Risen is a breath of fresh air for moviegoers who have longed for a quality, biblical-themed movie that upholds the truth of Scripture rather than attacking it. Due to its unique approach, viewers get to experience the truth of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ through the eyes of an unbeliever.
The movie absolutely, positively affirms the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Having first read and reviewed the novel, I had the opportunity to watch the film twice before its release, in preparation for this review. It is difficult to write this evaluation without providing a spoiler, so allow me to get this obvious one out of the way at the beginning. The movie absolutely, positively affirms the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians do not need to worry about the film attacking the core of our faith.
Starring Joseph Fiennes (Martin Luther in the 2003 film Luther) and Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series), Risen is a work of historical fiction, meaning it places fictional characters in the midst of a historical setting. It follows a Roman tribune named Clavius (Fiennes) who is stationed in Jerusalem during Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection.
After a morning battle with a group of zealots led by Barabbas, Clavius is summoned by Pilate to make sure that the three people crucified that morning would be dead before sundown. Assisted by his beneficiarii Lucius (Felton), they head for Calvary when an earthquake shakes the city. Upon arriving, Clavius orders his soldiers to break the legs of the crucifixion victims. Since Jesus (called “Yeshua” in the film) appears to be dead already, and due to the wailing of some women in the crowd, Clavius orders a soldier to pierce His side with a spear instead of breaking His legs. Joseph of Arimathea arrives and shows Clavius a letter from Pilate granting Joseph the rights to the body of Jesus. They bury the body in Joseph’s tomb and roll the stone in place.
Pilate summons Clavius again the next morning. The Jewish authorities, including the high priest Caiaphas, are meeting with Pilate, requesting that a guard be posted outside the tomb. They want to make sure that none of the disciples of Jesus will attempt to steal the body and then proclaim that He rose from the dead, as He said He would (Matthew 27:62–66). Pilate orders the tomb to be sealed and guarded. Clavius personally sees to the sealing of the tomb, allowing a representative of the Jewish authorities to inspect the tomb first to see that the body of Jesus was still there. He then orders soldiers to stand watch for the night.
Early the next day, Pilate calls for Clavius again. He is furious that the tomb has been opened with the soldiers nowhere to be found, and that followers of Jesus are claiming that He is alive again. The chief priests arrive and tell Pilate that his soldiers came to them seeking their protection and claiming that the disciples came during the night and stole the body. Caiaphas asks Pilate to officially announce this claim, but Pilate wants proof. He commands Clavius to track down the body so that they can put an end to the talk of a risen Messiah.
Thus, the story is set up. Clavius must comb through Jerusalem in a search for the body of Jesus, investigating the evidence. He visits the empty tomb and examines the scene. They search Jewish cemeteries to see if any recently crucified men had been buried there. Through a series of interviews with those who have been heard speaking about the Resurrection, Clavius determines that the disciples are the key—find the disciples and he’ll find the body. Clavius eventually locates the disciples and gets much more than he ever bargained for as he comes face-to-face with the truth.
The film’s director, Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The Count of Monte Cristo), has put together an enjoyable and unique film. The acting, score, and sets were very well done, and the scenery (filmed in Spain and Malta) is beautiful. The movie’s PG-13 rating is due to the corpses shown during Clavius’ investigation and the violence in the opening battle scene, which is somewhat mild compared to most action movies. Parents with young children will want to consider these factors when thinking about taking the family to the movie.
Some Christians may wonder why the movie doesn’t show every detail about these events found in the Gospels. For example, Risen does not show the trials or beatings of Jesus, and it does not show all of the post-Resurrection appearances. While many of these things are discussed, they aren’t shown because the movie is shown through the perspective of Clavius. If he didn’t see these things, then they are not included. This does not mean that the filmmakers deny these events; it only means that they were not part of Clavius’ story.
A great strength of this film is that Clavius is forced to investigate the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus.
A great strength of this film is that Clavius is forced to investigate the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. He cannot simply ignore the evidence, pretending it doesn’t exist as so many skeptics do today. “Jesus Mythers” ignorantly proclaim that Jesus was not even a real person, and that the ideas about Him were copied from pagan deities—despite the fact that no fewer than 17 ancient non-Christian sources (Jewish, Roman, and Gnostic) discuss Jesus as a real person in Israel in the first century AD.1 When we add the Holy-Spirit-inspired writings of the New Testament authors, we have at least 25 ancient sources for the life of Jesus, including the infallible Word of God.
Because of Clavius’ investigation, viewers are presented with some basic apologetic arguments for the truth of the Resurrection, such as the changed lives of the disciples, the empty tomb, and the inability of critics to develop a reasonable alternative that accounts for the facts that even the majority of skeptical scholars accept. Skeptics should not assume that a complete defense of the Resurrection is provided in this film. Much more could be said to defend this precious truth (see Risen Without a Doubt, a brand new six-disc, in-depth study on the Crucifixion and Resurrection).
Making Sense of the Unexpected
One of the most moving scenes in the film occurs when Clavius confronts one of the soldiers he had stationed at the tomb. To allow them to promote their claim that the disciples stole the body while they allegedly slept at the tomb, the soldiers are pardoned by Pilate. Clavius tracks one of them to a local tavern and notices the man has suddenly come into some money, confirming Clavius’ suspicions that the soldiers were paid off by the Jewish authorities. Here, the visibly shaken soldier pleads with Clavius to help him make sense of what he witnessed at the tomb the morning of the Resurrection. The stone rolled away and the brightest light he could imagine filled the tomb, causing the soldiers to run in fear.
This scene underscores how people usually interpret evidence in a way consistent with their worldview. The description troubled Clavius because it brought further confirmation for what once seemed impossible but now was becoming evident—the disciples were telling the truth about Jesus rising from the dead. The deeply troubled soldier from the tomb struggled to make sense within his own worldview of what he knew he saw that morning.
Figuring It Out
The behavior of the disciples will probably seem a little strange to some viewers, but I appreciated the way they were portrayed. At this point in their lives, they were not mature leaders writing epistles to established churches. They had just been devastated by the Lord’s Crucifixion and then overcome with joy at His Resurrection. The Holy Spirit had not been sent at Pentecost yet. What did all of the recent events mean? What were they expected to do?
Risen shows the disciples sincerely intent on following Jesus but unsure of what to do next. Bartholomew can barely contain his excitement even though he has been brought in for questioning. We see one of them attempting to share the good news on the Galilean seashore, and we see them interacting awkwardly with a Gentile. Peter has to admit his inability to answer certain theological questions about Jesus. While part of the artistic license in the film, these are all believable scenarios, and I often found their portrayal refreshing.
As a work of historical fiction, Risen necessarily utilizes artistic license.
As a work of historical fiction, Risen necessarily utilizes artistic license, and it is in this area that some Christians may have a problem with the film. Obviously, Clavius is not mentioned by name in Scripture, although there was surely a soldier in charge of affairs at the Crucifixion. Similarly, the entire concept of a manhunt to find the Lord’s body is not mentioned in Scripture. But just because the Bible doesn’t mention one, does not mean that it did not happen—Pilate and the Jewish leaders would have had plenty of reasons for wanting to find the body. So the storyline is plausible at many points.
A handful of inaccuracies appear in the film, but they do not undermine key biblical doctrines. Instead, the imprecisions are found on secondary matters (if such a thing can be said about Scripture). For example, in the film, the Lord’s appearance to the disciples with Thomas present (John 20:26) occurs approximately four days after the Resurrection rather than eight days later as mentioned by the Bible. This was likely done to keep the suspense and pacing of the film, but it isn’t accurate. A few more timing and location issues could be cited, but that would require giving away spoilers.
The depiction of Mary Magdalene was a little disappointing, since the filmmakers followed the traditional idea that she was a former prostitute. The Bible does reveal that she was a woman from whom Jesus had cast seven demons (Luke 8:2). While it is possible that she had been “a woman of the street” (the term used in the film), the Bible does not clearly tell us this, and she had certainly become a faithful follower of Christ by the time of His Crucifixion and Resurrection. I thought the film played up this aspect a little too much.
Conservative Christians have grown wary of Hollywood portrayals of biblical people and events, and rightly so. Some recent Hollywood movies centered on biblical events have been woefully inaccurate with directors seemingly intent on attacking Scripture and defaming God’s character (see Noah and, to a lesser extent, Exodus: Gods and Kings). It would be entirely unfair to compare the inaccuracies on minor issues in Risen to the outright assault on Scripture and God’s character seen in these other films. For example, in the scene where Jesus appears to the disciples with Thomas present, Risen shows this as a real miraculous event. One gets the impression that these other films, had they dealt with the same subject matter, would have severely twisted the event or denied it altogether. Kevin Reynolds has made an excellent film while treating the overall biblical message and the beliefs of Christians with respect.
I highly recommend Risen for Christians and non-Christians alike.
In my first viewing of the movie, I watched with the primary intent of trying to find mistakes and red flags. Other than the issues cited above, it was excellent. A few days later, I watched it again with the goal of simply watching it as a movie, and I absolutely loved it.
I highly recommend Risen for Christians and non-Christians alike. Since the Resurrection is often neglected or thrown in as an afterthought to discussions about the Cross, I am thrilled that it is the central focus of an excellent movie. The film provides a wonderful opportunity to discuss the most important events in human history with unbelievers, which naturally leads to a presentation of the gospel itself.
Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:1–4)
May we use every opportunity afforded by this movie to share the life-changing gospel message of the risen Savior with those around us.
That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)