Risen: fictional or historical?

Risen: fictional or historical? January 27, 2016

Risen, in the spirit of Mel Gibson’s Passion, is a forthcoming blockbuster film about the first few days after Christ’s resurrection. It tells the tale from the perspective of a roman soldier, who, tasked with disproving the resurrection, finds his assumptions challenged and his worldview shattered. I love historically responsible depictions of Biblical and classical events, and I can’t wait for this film to appear.


But is the film accurate? Does its story depict things the way they (probably) were, or is its tale-telling too fanciful? I haven’t seen the movie yet, but the fact – surprising perhaps – is that the historical evidence for Christ’s bodily resurrection is actually quite strong for such an ancient event. Consider the following three points.


First, there were numerous people in a number of different circumstances who encountered Jesus after his death. These stories appear in the Biblical gospels and they were attested to by other ancient writers as well. True, the writers of these accounts could have been making them up or they might in turn have been fed false stories. But the sheer volume of different people who encountered the post-death Christ makes this implausible.

Johann Heinrich Tischbein the Elder: Resurrection, 1778. United States Public Domain
Johann Heinrich Tischbein the Elder: Resurrection, 1778. United States Public Domain


Second, the people who knew Jesus best – his immediate disciples and other followers – believed that Jesus rose from the dead so fervently that they were willing to die for it. Many of them in fact suffered gruesome and tragic deaths, without recanting. To the moment of their deaths they believed that something miraculous had in fact happened after Jesus died on the cross.


Third, as Bill Craig has pointed out, the first persons to discover the empty tomb were women. The gospel writers are clear on this fact. But women were widely viewed in that ancient time as unreliable witnesses. So, Craig reasons, it must in fact have been the case that they were the first to discover the empty tomb. The reason is that if the writers of the gospel stories were trying to fabricate a fictional but believable story of a resurrected Jesus, they would not have placed at the center of that story a group of witnesses whose credibility was questionable. The fact that they were willing to make the women their central witnesses suggests that the women did indeed discover an empty tomb, as the stories say.


My own belief that Jesus rose from the dead is of course not just based on these three considerations, but rather on the whole body of New Testament evidence – along with the testimony of the saints, the experience of faith, and the witness of tradition. But these three considerations make it surprisingly difficult to assert that the empty tomb was a product of a conspiracy and a smash-and-grab of a corpse.


Risen, whichwill be tackling some of the central claims of the Christian faith, is my most anticipated film of 2016. With top-quality actors and an intriguing (and intricate) plot, I can’t wait to see it.


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