Risen and the Apologetics of Love
By John McAteer
A Movie Review of Risen, Directed by Kevin Reynolds, (Sony Pictures, 2016)
Risen tells the story of Clavius, a Roman tribune in Jerusalem whom Pontius Pilate tasks with finding the missing body of the crucified Jesus (called “Yeshua the Nazarene” in the film, using his Hebrew name). Most reviewers have described the movie as a kind of CSI-style detective story. That description certainly captures the tone of the first half of the film, which focuses on Clavius’s investigation. Clavius, along with his right-hand man Lucius, interviews witnesses, gathers evidence, and tracks down Jesus’ disciples. Rumor has it that Jesus has risen from the dead, though Claudius is as skeptical as a modern-day police detective. Yet for a detective story, there isn’t a lot of mystery, since we the audience already know that Jesus is indeed risen. (It is in the title of the movie, after all!) The suspense is more about what it will take to convince Clavius to accept the Resurrection.
This set-up seems to promise a cinematic apologetics textbook: evidence that demands a verdict. But Clavius doesn’t infer the truth of the Resurrection from the evidence he gathers. Rather, he tracks the disciples to the upper room where he sees the risen Jesus with his own eyes. At that point—only halfway into the movie!—Clavius accepts the fact of the Resurrection, and the detective plot ends. The rest of the movie involves Clavius wrestling with the meaning of the resurrection.
Unique among movies about Jesus, Risen begins on Good Friday but then focuses primarily on the forty days after the Resurrection that Jesus spent with His disciples prior to the Ascension (Acts 1:3). Clavius is a fictional character, but the story largely follows the biblical narrative, complete with at least seven miracles: the darkened sky and earthquake described in Matthew 27:45 and 51, the image of Jesus’ body miraculously imprinted on His burial shroud (i.e., the Shroud of Turin, which is not a miracle recorded in the Bible), the Resurrection, Jesus disappearing from the upper room, the miraculous catch of fish described in John 21:4–6, the healing of a leper, and Jesus’s Ascension into heaven.
These events are portrayed rather realistically and seem somewhat more believable than the miracles in many Jesus movies that are often sensationalistic and, for lack of a better word, “cheesy.” In fact, many of the miracles, especially early in the film, are as genuinely uncanny and unsettling as they must have been in real life—a tribute to director Kevin Reynolds’s skill as a filmmaker. Indeed, the film has a basic level of filmmaking competence (camera work, editing, writing, acting) that is typically lacking in faith-based films.
A Movie for Seekers. Refreshingly, Risen doesn’t set up a contrast between faith and doubt. Only someone with enough faith to care about the truth is capable of doubt. Pilate is the villain of the film because he is simply not concerned about the evidence of the Resurrection or the truth of Christianity. All he cares about is power. Confronted with evidence of the resurrection, Lucius suggests, “Maybe it’s true,” to which Pilate nonchalantly replies, “Then I’ll kill him again.”
Clavius, on the other hand, is the hero of the film, because he is a seeker…
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