“In the beginning was the word …”
Those are the first words of the Gospel of John, and the first words spoken by the old, beloved disciple in Son of God. He’s recalling the wondrous days when he walked with the Christ—when he spoke with Him and ate with Him, when he watched Him die and saw Him rise again. He tells us that Jesus was surely the Son of God: With all that John saw, how could he think otherwise? And so, in his old age, he decides to tell us about it too, so that we might believe.
Reading this, you’re likely well familiar with the story: Jesus’ birth, His miracles, His teachings, His torture, His death, His resurrection. You know who He is and why He came. This is an important story, the greatest story ever told—so great, in fact, that it’s never grown old as its been told and retold countless times. Dozens of movies about Jesus have been made. From 1905’s Life and Passion of Jesus Christ to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ a century later, Jesus has been one of cinema’s most popular characters.
Son of God is the latest retelling, the film taken directly from Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s popular History Channel miniseries The Bible. Why tell the tale again? Because, they say, some may not have yet heard it.
“We’re aware that many people learn through visual storytelling,” Downey told ABC News. “And for so many people, people who don’t go to church, people who maybe have never read the Bible, this movie, Son of God, will be the first time that they hear and see the story of Jesus come to life.”
But for those who know the story already, what makes this one special? What makes this one worth watching? Read on.
As of late, movies about Jesus have often been controversial—both within and outside the Christian community. Gibson’s Passion was accused of anti-Semitism before it was released, lambasted for its violence afterward. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, released in 1988, triggered boycotts and pickets.
But from the beginning, Burnett and Downey—both Christians—wanted their own depiction of Jesus to be both reverent and accurate, both restrained and poignant, honoring the beliefs of a wide swath of Christian traditions. Son of God is not the work of a couple of envelope-pushing auteurs, but rather believers who want it to reflect biblical truth.
“It was a slow-moving process because we came up with our early draft and sent it out to a group of about 40 people we’d assembled,” Downey told Fast Company. “The script came back with notes and adjustments, because of course we were dealing with sacred scripture, so we wanted to make sure we were accurate. Or in the places where we needed to link stories together, we wanted to make sure we told those stories always in fairness to the text. So we made adjustments. Sent it back out. We got more adjustments, and so on.”
Full disclosure: Focus on the Family was consulted during this process that produced the original miniseries. And the result is a retelling faithful to both the themes and spirit of the Scriptures—a competent, well-made movie that knows enough to get out of the way of itself. There’s nothing inherently flashy about Son of God—nothing that draws your attention away from Jesus and to, say, the director or screenwriter. This is a movie that understands the intrinsic power of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and it sublimates itself for the sake of that story of stories. It allows believers to slip into this long-ago time and place and see things in a way we might not have seen them before.
As such, Jesus is kind, merciful, determined and brilliant—a man who indeed seems to be both fully human and fully divine. He is, as John says, “The light shining in the darkness,” the One who came to save us all. He works miracles, He preaches the Good News, He suffers and dies, and then—in the greatest twist ending in history—rises again. (You didn’t need a spoiler warning for that revelation, did you?)
Son of God is, from when the trailers end to when the lights go back up, as Christian a story as is possible. I don’t think we need to belabor that. But to tell the story, the filmmakers made some decisions that are worth noting.
First, there’s no devil character here. While Satan was very much present in the miniseries, controversy swelled around what some saw as a resemblance to President Obama. So Lucifer was let go. Says Downey in USA Today:
“I wanted all of the focus to be on Jesus. I want His name to be on the lips of everyone who sees this movie, so we cast Satan out. It gives me great pleasure to tell you that the devil is on the cutting room floor. This is now a movie about Jesus, the Son of God, and the devil gets no more screen time, no more distractions.”
The ramifications to the story are small but significant. With the devil being an unseen presence, audiences are compelled to focus on the other “villains” in a way they might otherwise not—and that may allow us to better see their humanity and not-so-outlandish reasons for rejecting Christ. As one says, “This is a dangerous man.”
The story of Jesus is so familiar to us now that we can forget how radical He was then. When the high priest Caiaphas decides Jesus is a menace, we see the pressure this man of the cloth is under—to keep the traditional faith of the Jewish people alive, to keep peace under Roman rule, to worship God in the way he best knows. And while Pilate is more of a one-dimensional baddie, we also see his struggle to please Rome and keep the Jewish “rabble” under control. Neither sees Jesus as the Messiah: They see Him as a spark that could blow their world apart (which, in truth, He sorta did). Their desperate posturing and positioning reminds us that Jesus inherently shakes the status quo. He’s supposed to be disturbing, even dangerous—and perhaps looks different than any of us might imagine.
Also noteworthy: Jesus is not shown as perfectly omniscient here. He sees glimpses of His future—often dire visions of his torture and death. But while He knows that His fate is for the glory of His Father, He doesn’t seem to know precisely how the story will unfold. And so when Jesus sees that Peter will deny Him three times, we see that pain of denial ever more keenly.
Pilate’s wife falls out of bed with a bad dream, showing her bare shoulders. Jesus saves a woman from stoning: The film does not say so, but those familiar with the source material know that she’s accused of sexual sin.
Son of God is not nearly so graphic as The Passion of the Christ. But neither is the horror of crucifixion whitewashed. We see visceral, often painful depictions of Jesus’ suffering and death. He is brutally and bloodily whipped at Pilate’s request. His bare torso reveals the deep, red and furious lash marks. Soldiers press the cruel crown of thorns onto his head. His walk to Golgotha is a painful one, falling three times and speaking with a mouth full of blood. His hands and feet are nailed to the cross, and we hear Him scream as the camera flinches away from the hammer’s impact. Blood runs from his wounds and covers much of his body.
Still, colleague and Plugged In director Bob Waliszewski says of this violence’s context, “There’s a huge difference between a film that shows brutality and wants the viewers to think it’s cool, and a film that wants us to weep, and maybe even fall to our knees.”
Elsewhere, Romans overturn a cart, crushing a young boy. (We see his body.) People are chased and beaten and dragged by soldiers, and in one scene we see a man (in shadowy silhouette) stabbed in the gut. When the sword is withdrawn, spatters of blood fly out of the body. Later we see the bodies of dozens of dead Jews, killed in a melee.
Pilate fights with a sword-wielding sparring partner, slicing his chest. (We see the superficial-but-bloody wound.) Judas hangs himself. (His feet jerk as the noose tightens.) Others are crucified: One man appears to have some horrific damage done to his eye. The murderer Barabbas bears grotesque scars on his face. An earthquake shakes people and dislodges debris. A violent storm worries the disciples, and one sinks into the briny deep for a moment. We hear that most of them are eventually killed for their faith.
A lamb’s throat is cut.
Jesus and His disciples drink wine during the Last Supper and the first communion.
Son of God is more than a movie: It is a movement.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, more than a half-million tickets were sold before the film even began its theatrical run. Relief ministry Compassion International bought 225,000. Liberty University, the Lynchburg, Va., college founded by Jerry Falwell, bought out an entire Cineplex near its campus. Churches are buying up blocks and encouraging members to go. Individuals are grabbing tickets to give to unbelieving friends or strangers. And they’re even buying them just to show Hollywood that there’s an audience for quality movies of faith.
So what is it, exactly, that happens when all those people represented by all those tickets actually see this film? (And then perhaps see it again on video at home?) Well, each time we crack open the Bible and re-read a verse or chapter, we chance discovering something we’ve never noticed before. Some passages have been the source of a million different pastoral messages, and each lesson teases out something new, something special. Truly, the story of Jesus is the richest, most challenging, most awe-inspiring story of them all. And when we sit at the foot of the cross in an unfamiliar setting—a movie theater, a family room with a wide-screen television—the revelations we revel in can be powerful.
As I personally watched, yes, reviewing the movie for Plugged In, but also sinking into it for myself, I was struck in a way I’ve never been before by the suffering—of Christ, but also of those around Him. I saw them see their hope, their future and the man they’ve learned to love more than anything be literally tortured to death.
I’m impacted by the imperfect humanity of the disciples, and how when they’re at their most imperfect they resemble me. I’ve been Thomas, doubting. Peter, denying. Judas, betraying through sin and selfishness. And I am John—beloved of God in spite of it all.
It’s hard to watch the story of Jesus and not be moved in some way. I heard many moviegoers sniffle during the hard-to-watch crucifixion sequence, and a few gasps when our Lord rises again—despite the fact that it surely came as no great surprise.
The story has been told so many times, as I’ve said. But even if we’ve heard it a thousand times before, it doesn’t get old. It resurrects itself in each retelling.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.