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Risen: ‘The Manhunt That Changed the Course of History’

Though the story is told from the perspective of unbelievers, the primary source material for the film is Scripture itself.
By Scott Williams

The Resurrection is the ultimate test for Christianity. If it's not true, then nothing else is. As the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:14, "And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain."

That's the tension behind the Hollywood film Risen, released earlier this year. It's like a CSI inquiry—following a Roman tribune (an elected official) as he investigates the disappearance of Jesus' body from the tomb. 

Risen looks at the historical event from the perspective of a skeptic. Roman tribune Clavius Aquilla Valerius Niger is charged with making sure that Yeshua the Nazarene (Jesus) is dead and securely entombed. Jewish high priest Joseph Caiaphas had put pressure on the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, telling him of a suspected plot by Yeshua's followers to kidnap his body and claim that Yeshua has risen from the dead. Such a scenario would throw Jerusalem into unrest and put Pilate in extreme jeopardy with his superiors in Rome.

As commanded, Clavius was at the Crucifixion, where he ordered the piercing of Yeshua's heart on the cross and pronounced Him dead afterward. He was also at the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where Yeshua's body was laid, compelling six soldiers to move a heavy stone in place over the entrance. And he personally sealed the tomb with rope and wax, affixed with the Roman seal, and guarded by two Roman sentries.

Now word comes back to Pilate that the body has disappeared. "Without a corpse, we have a potential Messiah," Pilate tells Clavius.

Clavius is ordered to investigate every possible tie to the disciples and Yeshua—find the missing guards, arrest and interrogate anyone with a tie to the Nazarene, and dig up every new grave in case the followers tried to rebury his body somewhere.

Through the film we follow Clavius as he uses the same surgical focus and machine-like precision of his 20 years of training as a Roman soldier to find what remains of the supposed Messiah.

Standing out from other films

Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth), who plays Clavius, said the script is what attracted him to accept the lead role in the film. "First thing, it read like a detective book, or a detective noir film for me. I was on page 30 or 40 and realized, This is the story of Christ… but I don't think it is the story of Christ. I was a man sucked into a murder mystery. But a mystery in the theological sense."

Fiennes also noted that other films about Christ end at the Crucifixion. "So many times I've been left at the cross, in all its pain and agony, and we're never given the final equation, which is the whole point. I've never seen that in film. Whether it's Scorsese or Gibson, we're always left at the cross."

For Clavius, his experience with Yeshua began at the cross, but the more he determines to find the body, the more he realizes that he's on the wrong path. Without spoiling too much of the movie, his search does bring him to the Messiah in a profound way.

Getting the script right for this movie was a 10-year process. Just after the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, producer Rich Peluso of Sony's Affirm Films wanted to make a movie that could be the sequel of sorts. But it wasn't until recently that a script by Paul Aiello wound up in the hands of Hollywood executive Mickey Liddell of LD Entertainment. When Liddell sent the script to Peluso, he noticed it was the same one he had read 10 years earlier that originally put the film idea in his heart. Sony Affirm was in.

When director Kevin Reynolds (Fandango, The Count of Monte Cristo, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) agreed to head the picture, he made significant changes: He chose to tell the story from a completely different perspective, and that's what makes this film stand out from other biblical epic films. 

Though the story is told from the perspective of unbelievers, the primary source material is Scripture itself, and the producers made sure that the film stays faithful to the biblical account. They knew they were making the movie primarily for the faith community.

One person attending the February 15 red carpet premiere for Risen was Darrell Bock, New Testament scholar and Director of Cultural Engagement from Dallas Theological Seminary. While he spotted some inaccuracies, he was very positive about the film's ability to resonate with Christians and skeptics alike—something he knows a bit about, both professionally and personally.

"I think the gradualness of Clavius' transformation is how it somehow happens to people. The gospel isn't always something that produces an instant change. I came to faith not having grown up in a Christian home—it was actually a five-year journey. You're watching Clavius slowly process and come to grips with what's going on. I think that's a very realistic take on how many people do begin to seriously consider what the Christian message is all about."

Appealing to believers and skeptics alike

Any time Hollywood makes a movie about the Bible, discerning Christians are rightfully skeptical. More often than not, storytelling takes priority over faithfulness to God's Word. However, Risen doesn't fall into that trap. Neither does it fall short where many Christian filmmakers do—accurately portraying scriptural narratives and principles, but doing so in an unimaginative or unrealistic way. The production qualities for Risen are of the highest caliber.

The film is set to open on 3,000 screens, making it the biggest debut weekend release for Sony Affirm, which was also behind Soul Surfer, War Room, Courageous, Fireproof, and other Christian films. And it will likely also surpass the opening weekend exposure of The Passion of the Christ, the industry standard for faith-centered films with top-notch production quality.

The combination of a solid Christian message, accessibility to Christian and skeptical moviegoers, and high production values, makes Risen a great film for all audiences and for sparking dialogue about the historical accuracy of the Resurrection and the nature of faith and skepticism. It doesn't shy away from clearly telling the story of the Resurrection and its power, but at the same time is respectful of the sensibilities of unbelievers.

Two thousand years after Christ lived and died, skeptics continue to doubt the Resurrection. One was Josh McDowell, who set out to disprove Christianity by attacking the Resurrection. But the more he dug into the historical evidence, the more he had to admit that the Resurrection is true, and that Christ is who He claimed to be—the Savior of all mankind. McDowell has gone on to become one of the leading Christian apologists of the past century.

"When I was going through the process of trying to disprove God—because I was hurt, I was bitter, I was angry—Jesus played no part in my future. And the more I was skeptical and examined the evidence to refute it, the more convictions I developed that it was true. And I'm so glad I set out to refute it or I wouldn't have the convictions that I have today.  And as a result, it brought me to a crisis—either to accept or reject. And I fought it, because I did not want to become a believer. But then I realized the evidence showed me that it was true and if I'm not intellectually honest with this, then it will destroy all my teaching about truth and everything in the future. So I put it to the test. Well, it changed my life."

In the film Risen, Clavius is asked what he fears. "Being wrong," he answers, "and waging eternity on it." 

Risen is the type of film that could challenge many skeptics to make the same statement.


Copyright © 2016 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

Risen is rated PG-13 for battle and crucifixion violence. Watch the movie trailer.

Meet the Author: Scott Williams

Scott Williams

Scott Williams is a senior writer for FamilyLife and received his journalism and Bible training from the University of Southern Mississippi and New Tribes Bible Institute, respectively. He and wife, Ellie, moved to Little Rock from Mississippi in 2004. Each of them received the legacy of lifelong marriage from their own parents—both couples were married over 60 years. Scott and Ellie have raised seven children and are now enjoying another generation in their grandchildren.



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