This article is about the movie, “Killing Jesus,” not the book by Bill O’Reilly on which it was based.
Like millions of other Americans, I watched the movie “Killing Jesus,” which was broadcast on the Fox News Channel on Easter evening. Having seen “Killing Kennedy,” which I thoroughly enjoyed, I anticipated another high quality production. I was both pleased and very disappointed. The TV movie had some cinematic highlights, but in the end, the message it conveys takes the title to a new level: “Killing Jesus” kills Christianity.
Positive Aspects of “Killing Jesus”
There was much to appreciate in the movie. The cinematography seemed to be very high quality, and the acting was excellent. I also appreciated recognizing some of the actors from other films I’ve enjoyed, such as Kelsey Grammar, John Rhys-Davies, and Rufus Sewell (it took me a bit to figure out he was in “A Knight’s Tale”).
Additionally, except for a few minor issues, the set design and location choices were well done. The only real complaint I had was that Jesus’ crucifixion location was too far outside of Jerusalem to either serve as a message to others or fit with the traditional locales. Otherwise, things looked like one might have expected during the life of Christ.
One of the key highlights was the physical portrayal of Jesus. Often, film production companies depict Jesus as a Caucasian male with blue or brown eyes, shoulder-length dark blonde or brown hair, and a well-trimmed beard. For examples, see Jim Caviezel in “The Passion of the Christ,” Jeffrey Hunter in “King of Kings,” pictured), or Robert Powell in “Jesus of Nazareth.”
Producers of “Killing Jesus” realized that it is very unlikely that Jesus would have been a blue-eyed, dark blonde Caucasian man. Rather than choosing a European or American actor, they chose Lebanese actor Haaz Sleiman to portray Jesus (pictured). In the end, “Killing Jesus” gave us a darker, olive-skinned Jesus with a scruffy beard and moderately long hair. They gave us a Jesus that looked like Scripture describes him: an average-looking Palestinian Jew, not a glamorous eye-candy savior (Isa 53:2).
It is here, however, that the positives end and the problems begin.
Criticisms of “Killing Jesus”
Before I outline the issues I had with the film, I must first recognize the nature of the film. “Killing Jesus” is not a theological film; it is a historical picture. Neither O’Reilly’s book nor the film were intended to provide a theological examination or depiction of Jesus Christ. Rather, they look at the historical nature of Jesus. Nevertheless, there are areas where the film unnecessarily avoided theology and, in the end, not only altered history, but contradicted theology (something the book intentionally sought not to do).
The divine role was turned into human intuition or chance.
Multiple times, the divine actor (i.e., God) is rejected in favor of mere human reasoning or sheer luck. This was not necessary. For example, Joseph simply had “a feeling” that something bad was coming following Jesus’ birth, and he wanted to get out of the area to “anyplace he’s [Herod] not.” Ten years later, Joseph just happens to cross paths with a traveler from Israel who reports on the new conditions in Israel. Upon learning the news form this chance encounter, Joseph speculates, “I guess it’s time to go back.”
The film could have maintained its historical focus without removing God either by having Joseph tell Mary that he received a message from God, or by having him simply state that he got word that they had to go (and later return), leaving the source unnamed. However, by making the choices based on human intuition and luck, the producers contradicted Scripture.
Jesus was depicted as a mere or mostly human.
Although the film did show Jesus with a sense of humor (e.g., playfully throwing food at his brother), they depicted a Jesus who was mostly, if not totally, human. For example, when the dead zealots were carried by his home on a cart, Jesus seemed puzzled by their identity and the situation. While it is true that Jesus grew in “wisdom and stature” (Luke 2:52), nowhere in Scripture do we see a Jesus oblivious to or unfamiliar with the socio-political conditions and parties involved.
Producers went even further, however, in showing Jesus as merely human. Numerous times throughout the film Jesus is uncertain about who he is and his purpose. After watching his cousin, John the Baptist, baptize some people, Jesus and John have a conversation along the banks of the Jordan River. Jesus asks John how he knows Jesus’ identity. John indicated that God told him. Perplexed, Jesus questioned why God would talk about him; who was Jesus that God would mention him? The dialog and tone indicated doubt in Jesus’ mind about being Messiah.
We see another instance of uncertainty in Jesus during the first scene with him and Peter in the fishing boat. After making a business deal with Peter, the two go out on the Sea of Galilee to catch some fish. However, they caught none, until Jesus asked Peter, “Did you pray?” Apprehensively, Peter prayed, after which the net teemed with fish. As Jesus gazed into the water, he looked surprised at the result, almost as if thinking, “Wow, it worked!” According to Scripture, Jesus was not surprised in the slightest at the massive catch because he provided it (Luke 5:1-11). By showing him to be surprised, “Killing Jesus” portrayed a merely human Jesus.
The film borders on the false teaching of adoptionism.
Adoptionism, put simply, is the idea that Jesus was a man who, after a life of obedience, was deemed worthy to be chosen, or “adopted,” as Messiah at his baptism. Basically, Jesus had to earn it. The film, by depicting Jesus as doubtful of his identity and surprised at the miraculous, leans toward affirming adoptionism. This is further supported by depicting a change in character in Jesus following his baptism by John the Baptist. Thus, based on the film, Jesus was a mere man, who after doing the right things and being faithful to God, became worthy to be Messiah when he was baptized.
Jesus seemed somewhat politically motivated.
I emphasize, “somewhat,” because I really only saw this in two scenes. First, after learning of his cousin’s death, Jesus laments that he’d been preaching peace, but maybe he should have been preaching, or should start preaching, war. This almost aligns Jesus with the zealots, a politically motivated radical group seeking to overthrow Roman rule using force.
Second, after his triumphal entry, Jesus begins turning over the money-changers tables and setting animals free. In the film, Jesus instructs his disciples to participate. What was his motive? Scripture teaches that Jesus was appalled at the proverbial highway robbery being committed by the priests in the name of God (Matt 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-19). However, as Jesus is creating chaos in the film, his motive is uncertain. The temple guards attempt to arrest Jesus. However, contrary to the Bible, Jesus orders the guards to stop. He then tells the head of the temple guard that “I’ve done what I came to do,” and storms away. The whole scene seems to portray a political motivation behind Jesus actions more than a spiritual one.
The Roman soldier lies to Mary at the crucifixion (I think).
I qualify this criticism because I might have misheard what Jesus said in the film. However, after listening to it multiple times, it sounds like the guard lied to Mary, Jesus’ mother. After smacking his lips from dehydration, it sounds to me like Jesus says, “I’m thirsty” (or “I thirst”). The guard, after hearing this, does not give Jesus the vinegar Scripture records, but instead, turns to Mary and says, “He said, ‘it is finished.’” Unless I heard it wrong, the guard lied to Mary.
According to Scripture, Jesus did say both “I thirst” and “it is finished” while on the cross (John 19:28, 30). However, “Killing Jesus” seems to change this for some unknown reason. Like I said, I may have misheard, but “I thirst” is what I heard more than once, and it fits the context of Jesus smacking his lips in dehydration, whereas “it is finished” makes no contextual sense as shown in the film.
There were no criminals around Jesus at his crucifixion.
Like other changes from Scripture, this one was completely unnecessary. Rather than having Jesus between two or more other crucified individuals, “Killing Jesus” showed him virtually alone, with the closest one being too far away to have a conversation (cf. Luke 23:32-43). Like the (possibly) lying soldier, this change adds nothing to the story, but serves only to remove divine aspects from the Passion.
Multiple people entered Jesus’ tomb, but not a disciple.
Unless one was hidden in crowd, no disciple entered Jesus’ empty tomb, though many others came in. From what I saw in the film, Mary (Jesus’ mother), Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and a few other women all entered Jesus’ tomb. Scripture, however, indicates that Peter and John were he only ones to enter (Luke 24:12; John 20:6, 8), and that only Peter, John, and four women came to the tomb (Matt 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-10; John 20:1-10). No Pharisee was there (which includes Nicodemus and Joseph).
Like other changes, what historical purpose did this serve? It added nothing to the film’s story or dramatic mood. Rather, it only seemed to serve the purpose of refuting Scripture, not depicting historical research.
Pilate refused to put guards at the tomb.
After Jesus’ death, Caiaphus is seen begging Pontius Pilate to post Roman guards at Jesus’ tomb. Scripture says that Pilate granted the High Priest’s wishes, though one would speculate that he did so apathetically (Matt 27:62-66). However, in “Killing Jesus,” Pilate tells his wife that Caiaphus wanted guards, but that would be a waste of Roman resources. This alteration allows for what I believe to be the most devastating problem with the film: its depiction of the Resurrection.
“Killing Jesus” rejects the physical resurrection of Jesus.
While some may argue that Jesus’ resurrection is a theological question rather than a historical one, the two cannot be separated in this instance. In the film, Mary and company enter the tomb and discover Jesus’ body is not there. What happened to it? Who knows? The film does not say.
Soon, we see Peter back in his fishing boat, a reference to when he and Jesus fished earlier. Like before, Peter is catching no fish until he prays. Then, after netting a large catch, Peter looks up and talks to some inaudible voice from the sky or one in his own mind, whomever or whatever it is. He says, presumably to Jesus, “Yes, I’ll be your fisher of men!” He then turns to other disciples and cries out that Jesus is with them again; he makes no claim that Jesus is alive. However, Jesus is conspicuously not there. Instead, there is only some unheard voice, ghost, or other spirit (which is interesting considering the lengths to which the film went to strip all spiritual or divine aspects from Jesus’ life).
This leaves us with one of two possibilities, both of which are unbiblical and destroy the very foundation of Christianity. The first possibility based on the film “Killing Jesus” is that Jesus spiritually rose, but did not physically rise. If that’s the case then what happened to his body? The spiritual-only resurrection implication does not account for the missing body.
The second possibility based on the film is that somebody moved Jesus’ body (God, a disciple, the Romans, etc.) to perpetuate the idea that he physically rose from the dead. But then again, we are left with the problem of Jesus’ followers’ surprise when they discovered his missing body. The fact that Pilate posted no guards would lend credence to the moved-body theory.
All we are left with in the film is that the body is gone and that Jesus did not physically encounter his disciples. Thus, the implication of the film is that the physical resurrection of Jesus did not happen as recorded in Scripture. Herein lies the most dangerous aspect of the movie “Killing Jesus”: its portrayal turns Christianity into a foolish farce.
The “Killing Jesus” Movie is Dangerous to Christianity
The film’s treatment of Jesus’ resurrection leads to multiple questions that are beyond the scope of this review. However, I will touch on a couple of them.
Jesus’ physical resurrection is an established historical fact.
Those who reject the Bible as recording history will reject this claim. However, an honest investigation should, at the very least, give the Bible the same level of historical credence as any other ancient document.
According Scripture, Jesus physically appeared to Mary Magdelene (John 20:1-18), his own disciples (Matt 28:16-20; Mark 16:12-13; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-29; 21:1-14; Acts 1:6-11), two men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-31), and simultaneously to over five hundred (1 Cor 15:6). That’s a lot of witnesses! These may or may not have included the 120 in the upper room prior to Pentecost who witnessed the physically risen Jesus (Acts 1:15). Not only did Jesus appear physically, he also physically ate food in their presence (Luke 24:41-43).
Furthermore, the claims of Scripture were written at a time when there were many who were still alive who could corroborate or refute Scripture (1 Cor 15:6). If the claims were untrue, they very likely would have been proven false at the time, yet they were not.
Jesus’ physical resurrection is the foundation of Christianity.
Paul writes that the entire Christian faith is dependent on the physical resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus did not physically rise from the dead, then everything else is false. He writes,
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
1 Cor 15:14-19, ESV
Basically, if Jesus did not physically come back to life, then all our beliefs are in vain, our teachings are lies, we have no future hope (because this life is all there is), and Christians are the world’s biggest fools (some would say all this is true, I’m sure).
However, Paul responds to both Christians and resurrection critics:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
1 Cor 15:20-26, ESV
In this passage Paul re-emphasizes that Jesus’ physical resurrection is an established fact (cf. 1 Cor 15:3-8). He further states that Jesus’ resurrection overcomes the curse of Adam (cf. Rom 5:12-17); that all those who believe in Jesus will live; that Jesus will overcome and rule over all philosophies, political powers, and other authorities; and finally that death itself will be destroyed. Basically, Paul states that because Jesus physically rose, there is hope for the believers in Jesus. Those without Jesus do not have hope, but only pending doom.
Final Thoughts on the “Killing Jesus” Movie
The television movie, “Killing Jesus,” attempts to divorce theology from history in its portrayal of the life and death of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, the producers ultimately present a theological message in their historical epic. They advocate a merely human Jesus who is uncertain of himself and his purpose, who uses a populist message to forward his message for both political and spiritual purposes, and whose followers are vain, naïve fools.
While there are some positive aspects to the film, the theological and historical treatment overshadows each of them. Additionally, while the film could lead to spiritual discussions, there are far better, less theologically dangerous, films that can be used. Just because something could be used for spiritual good does not mean that it in and of itself is spiritually good. Thus, I recommend against perceiving the movie “Killing Jesus” as anything more than secular propaganda of Jesus that is contrary, and even harmful, to Scriptural truth.