(M) Directed by Kevin Reynolds
Starring Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth

by Mark Hadley

There are a great many books that you might send your Christian friends too if they have questions about the resurrection – John Dickson’s A Spectator’s Guide to Jesus or Frank Morrison’s Who Moved The Stone? to name a couple – but not that many films. Until now. Risen addresses many of the key arguments sceptics bring to bear on the most amazing event in human history.

Risen is being touted by its producers as Gladiator in tone but thriller in nature. It certainly follows the trajectory of a classic mystery.

Joseph Fiennes stars as the tribune Clavius, a veteran Roman officer tasked with avoiding a political crisis for Pontius Pilate. The battle-hardened soldier oversees Jesus’ removal from the cross and his burial in a rock-cut tomb. However, when rumours begin to emerge that the Nazarene has been seen walking about, the governor dispatches Clavius to produce Jesus’ body and put an end to the turmoil that threatens to undermine his authority:

Jewish priest: The Nazarene said he would rise again after three days. You’ll lose peace and order if it’s true.

Pilate: Will the people believe it?

Jewish priest: The weak will.

Clavius, though, is anything but weak. He’s a bloody-handed sceptic who is shown ruthlessly crushing the rebellions of religious fanatics, and he sets about systematically investigating the claims with the plan of proving the resurrection a fallacy. In so doing Risen provides a dramatic, first-hand account of what it must have been like to sift the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection in the 40 days following his death.

Risen is a Hollywood imagining that will certainly leave many Christians debating the details, but its attention to the Biblical accounts runs far closer than recent productions like Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings. The Gospels confirm the leaders of the Sanhedrin did go to Pilate asking him to ensure Jesus’ body was secure because they were aware of his claims and were afraid people might believe in his resurrection. History also suggests Pilate had good reason to fear religious zealots. Both Luke’s The Acts of the Apostles and Josephus’ The Jewish War mention insurrections centred around supposed messiahs. The Gospel of Mark also records the Roman officer in charge of Jesus’ execution coming to his own conclusions about the man being crucified:

“And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” 1

Of course Risen rearranges the timeline and embroiders heavily on these starting points. However it still provides excellent answers to alternate explanations for Jesus’ miraculous return:

  1. Jesus only swooned and recovered in the tomb – Clavius is clearly a centurion who knows his business. A spear-thrust ensures the Nazarene prophet is certainly dead when he’s taken from the cross. Even if there were any doubt, wounded men weakened by blood loss don’t move stones the likes of which the centurion and his helpers use to close the tomb.

  2. The disciples stole Jesus’ body – Clavius discovers Jesus’ followers were running scared from the Sanhedrin and lacked anything like the courage to overpower the tomb’s guards or hide the corpse.

  3. The believers went to the wrong grave – There’s no geographical mistake. Clavius has no problems finding the grave the priests placed their seals and guards around.

  4. Early Christians fabricated the story – If so, they made some unlikely choices. Clavius’ investigations take him to the door of Mary Magdalene, the woman first to see Jesus alive who also happens to be unable to testify in a Jewish court of law.

Risen races to a climax that departs from the Bible’s account but still keeps alive the spirit of the original centurion’s conclusion. In so doing it should help jaded audiences come to grips with the truth at the heart of its mystery: you don’t have to understand how a resurrection happens to acknowledge that Jesus returned from the dead. As Clavius writes:

“I have seen two things that cannot be reconciled. A man dead without question, and that same man alive again.”

If Jesus is dead at point A, and alive at point B, resurrection is the only reasonable conclusion.

Risen is being described as an unofficial sequel to The Passion of the Christ. It certainly shares the same potential to get viewers thinking. If indeed Jesus did return then any filmgoer, faced with the inevitability of death, would be foolish to ignore the consequences. Clavius is asked the messiah what frightens him the most about his investigation and he rightly answers, “Being wrong, and wagering eternity on it."

1 Mark 15:39, NIV