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REVIEW: ‘RISEN’ is a Bible-based detective story worth watching

Some of the best discussions I’ve ever had in church small groups have revolved around what the Bible doesn’t tell us. For example:

Who did Cain marry? Why did God get so angry at Moses for stroking that rock? And who wrote the book of Hebrews?

Then there’s this one: How would Roman officials – and specifically Pilate — have reacted had they learned of the empty tomb? We know that the guards were paid to tell everyone that Jesus’ body was stolen as they supposedly slept (Matthews 28:13), and that the chief priests thought they could appease Pilate if he learned of the resurrection (Matthew 28:14). Scripture, though, has little else to say.

But let’s suppose Pilate did find out about the empty tomb. What would he have done?

That’s the theme of the new movie Risen (PG-13) which opens in theaters this weekend and posits that Pilate would have ordered his military to search for the body of Christ. What follows is a detective-type story that is inspiring and moving – even if we assume we know how it all will end.

“You will track down each and every one of these disciples,” Pilate tells a military tribune named Clavius (played by Joseph Fiennes), a brutal leader who had taken part in the killing of Jesus and who has little use for the story of His resurrection. Clavius, after all, prays to the Roman god Mars.

Clavius and his men find Mary Magdalene, demanding to know where they put Jesus.

“He’s right here,” she answers, tears in her eyes. “… Open your heart and see.”

He interrogates a joyful Bartholomew, asking him the same question.

“God is not at my beck and call,” Bartholomew responds.

Clavius finds one of the men who had guarded the tomb, demanding he explain what truly happened. At first, the guard tells him they were asleep, but when pressed, he acknowledges the truth: There was a bright flash and the huge stone flew open “like a leaf.” Then they saw the risen Christ.

“Never have I witnessed a moment [like that,]” the guard, still terrified, says.

Clavius seems frightened by the story, too, but nonetheless orders his men to continue combing the streets and buildings of Jerusalem in search of Jesus’ other disciples.

Finally, Clavius does find the disciples – and the living Christ, too. Now face-to-face with the most shocking event of his life and seeing his entire worldview turned upside down, Clavius must decide if Christ is truly the Messiah, the Son of God. It’s among the most powerful scenes I’ve witnessed in any film.

Yes, “Risen” is historical fiction, but it’s largely harmonious with the Gospel story, incredibly well-done, and not much different from those Sunday School discussions many of us take part in week to week.

And even though Clavius is a fictional character, he represents every single person on the planet. Each person at one point or another searches for the Truth, and each of us – once confronted with the claims of Scripture – must decide whether we believe or reject the Gospel.

Fiennes, not surprisingly, stands out in his performance, and acting in the movie is a strength.

“I would love to see an auditorium with a mixed spectrum of spectators that enjoy the Scripture and the creativity together, and feel moved,” he told me.

One final word: As with all films of historical fiction – and particularly one involving biblical characters — we must be careful to separate fact from fiction. No doubt, many Christians and unbelievers alike will walk out of Risen this weekend, assuming the story was taken directly from the pages of Scripture. It wasn’t – even if it is quite good.

But that doesn’t mean Risen can’t be used to share the Gospel with unbelievers, as well as to encourage, motivate and inspire Christians.

— Michael Foust

For information on how churches can use Risen, visit RisenMovieResources.com

Risen is rated PG-13 for biblical violence, including some disturbing images. 

Entertainment rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 4 out of 5. 

Post-movie discussion topics: biblical fiction – how can we use it to share the Gospel?; Matthew 28:11-15 – does Risen harmonize with this passage?; Clavius and the other characters – who do you most identify with? 

Michael Foust has covered the film industry for more than a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelFoust