It’s been out since 2016. But one of my favorite movies is Risen, a unique take on the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus as told from the viewpoint of a fictional Roman soldier named Clavius, played by Joseph Fiennes (the younger brother of Ralph Fiennes, the actor who played Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies).
Clavius is a staunchly polytheistic Roman soldier at the beginning of the film. He believes in the Roman pantheon of Gods, and is seemingly stoic about his job: keeping Jewish rebels under control, and putting down insurrections by killing their leaders. He’s doing what he sees as a soldier’s duty. At the beginning of the film, he’s present at the Crucifixion of Jesus. By the time we see the scene, Jesus has already died, and the earthquake has already shattered part of the Temple and torn the veil from top to bottom. After ordering the bodies to be taken down from the crosses, Clavius goes home for the day, and joins Pilate in a bath house to unwind.
But his relaxation is short lived…as both the Pilate and the Chief Pharisee Caiaphas soon become aware of the claim that Jesus supposedly rose from the dead! Both men don’t believe the miraculous claim. But they are nonetheless terrified, as they fear what this could mean for each of them. For Pilate, it could mean losing his job as Roman Prefect for failing to keep order for the Emperor. And for Caiaphas, it could mean not only losing his job, but also the deaths of countless more Jews at the hands of the Romans in order to quell rebellion. So Clavius is tasked by Pilate with a new mission: Interrogate the followers of Jesus for clues to the supposedly miraculous disappearance, and produce His body.
Over the course of what seems like 3-4 days, Clavius fails to find Jesus’ body and identify Him beyond the shadow of a doubt. Plus something begins to happen to his heart. He starts to entertain that there might actually be something to this supposed miraculous claim, thanks to the behavior of all those he interrogates: Mary Magdalene and Bartholomew, along with a disgraced Roman soldier who failed to guard the Tomb and who swears up and down that he saw Jesus rise from the dead. Lastly an old blind woman swears she heard Jesus speak to her. At first, Clavius thinks these people are genuinely insane. But as he begins to hear the same Resurrection claim from each person he interrogates, he seems to soften up a little bit at a time.
Nevertheless, Clavius still doesn’t believe, and he looks for any reason for the Resurrection claim to be false. Although he does do one interesting thing before he continues his interrogations: Instead of praying to the Roman god of war Mars like he always does before battle, he prays to Yahweh (God). But this is not because he believes. He wants all of the Apostles he’s looking for to be delivered to him as a sign that the “God of the Hebrews” exists. Then he’ll believe. And it is shortly after that, as he is pursuing Mary Magdalene, that God answers Clavius’ prayer. Though not in the way he’s expecting. Clavius chases Mary Magdalene to a rooftop house, where all the Apostles are gathered. And there, at the head of the table, sits Jesus. He simply smiles and says, “Welcome Clavius. Join us, brother. There are no enemies here.”
From that point on, Clavius is changed to the point that he tags along with the Apostles. He watches Jesus perform various post-Resurrection miracles, such as providing Peter with another huge catch of fish, and healing a leper. But Clavius still doubts Jesus. Even after seeing everything, and being in the company of Jesus and the Apostles.
But one night Clavius sits next to Jesus, and tells Him his fears and hopes for his life. I won’t say what Jesus says to Clavius just yet. That will come later. There’s a deeper meaning to this movie.
But Jesus moves Clavius by His knowledge and compassion toward him. So much so, that this normally brutal, tough as nails Roman soldier has tears in his eyes and a huge smile on his face!
The next morning, Jesus ascends into Heaven, and the Apostles all prepare to go back to Jerusalem to receive the Holy Spirit. Peter has become good friends with Clavius, and invites him to join them. But Clavius politely declines and goes home. But he goes home knowing he is forever changed. He has become a genuine believer in Jesus.
Deeper Themes in Risen
I have seen Risen quite a few times. I’ve even posted about it on Facebook. But I have never written down the deeper meanings to this movie before. Nor have I explained what this movie means to me in depth. But I feel that this movie is so comforting, relatable and so well done, that I have to share what it means to me. I want to go beyond seeing it simply as a story of a nonbeliever coming to know Jesus, and show that it could apply to us all. Enjoy the deep dive, folks. My mind was going a million miles an hour when I first truly discovered this!
Who is Clavius?
Risen is a unique movie, in that it is written from the point of view of someone who isn’t a believer. Clavius is an everyman who is just seeing things unfold. He originally doesn’t expect to be impacted by Jesus in any way. As far as Clavius knows, Jesus is just another failed Jewish messiah, and he’s merely doing a job by keeping order at the Crucifixion.
But as I’ve watched this movie more and more, it’s become clear to me that Clavius is representative of not only people who aren’t believers, but he also represents those who believe, but struggle in their faith.
I don’t know how many people are this way, but in order for me to believe in something, I often need proof. I am a Doubting Thomas. But say I asked Jesus for a sign that He was there, and He appeared to me in a vivid dream, telling me all sorts of things only He would know. Unless I allow myself to have faith, and be open to Him, my natural reaction would be refusing to believe it.
Clavius is the same way. His human heart is so hard with unbelief, that it takes several extraordinary things happening, right up to a personal talk with Jesus Himself, before he comes to faith. Imagine yourself in the shoes of Clavius, and watch this scene:
The first time I truly understood this scene, I had tears in my eyes. As if Jesus was not speaking to Clavius, but to me personally. I felt like Clavius did: Ashamed of myself for doubting Jesus far too often, and doing the wrong thing. But He didn’t shame Clavius or condemn him. Jesus embraced Clavius. He redeemed him. Jesus embraced a man who aided in His death. If Jesus offered His love and salvation to those who murdered Him, He does the same for all of us. If we only have the faith to ask Him to be with us.
Clavius also has a lot of the same fears that most believers seem to have. Anyone who truly has any sort of faith has at one point or another doubted Jesus being who He says He is. I certainly have. Clavius is a really relatable character because of his flaws.
Peter, Mary Magdalene and Bartholomew
On the opposite side of the spectrum from Clavius, Peter, Mary Magdalene and Bartholomew are relatable for their faith, rather than their lack of it. To me, Peter is how I want to be when it comes to my faith. I want to doubt less, and trust more. After Jesus ascends into Heaven, Clavius asks Peter several questions about what is supposed to happen next. Peter tells him plainly that he doesn’t really know. But Peter also tells Clavius that he still plans on going back to Jerusalem simply because Jesus told Him to do so. If only I had that kind of faith. I want to be more like Peter, able to keep my eyes fixed on Jesus, even though I don’t often know what He is doing or where He is taking me.
Mary Magdalene and Bartholomew seem a little less relatable to my situation than Clavius and Peter. But I know some people who have had such a profound experience with Jesus, that they are literally jumping for joy, especially in the face of any danger or negative life situation. I admire these people greatly, and hope I one day have their courage and faith!
Early in the film, Clavius threatens Mary Magdalene and Bartholomew with death unless they reveal where the other Apostles are. I don’t know about you, but if someone threatened to kill me unless I did something they wanted, I’d probably be incredibly scared and comply with them unless it meant the deaths of loved ones. If that were the case, I’d pray for a quick death, and that I’d have the courage to give myself for them.
The point is this: Fear of death is a natural human emotion. But when Clavius threatens Mary Magdalene and Bartholomew with death, that fear is nowhere to be found. Mary Magdalene cries tears of joy for her faith in Jesus, and Bartholomew willingly submits to crucifixion, though neither of them are killed. But what else can give that kind of courage other than true faith in Jesus? Absolutely nothing. And I believe it is this courage that begins to slowly but surely soften Clavius’ heart.
Making the Choice
We all have to decide whether or not we believe in who Jesus is. Whether we do it as a young child, or on our deathbed struggling to hold on, we all have a choice to make in whether or not we choose to put our faith in Jesus. The end of Risen symbolized that to me. But before I get into just how I came to that, allow me to share another of my favorite scenes from near the end of the movie. I always mist up or flat out cry when I watch this part!
I have watched that scene who knows how many times, and I ALWAYS get emotional! Period. It again feels like Jesus is speaking to me. I know He knows my doubts and my sinful nature. But even through all my faults and failures, He never fails to love me and encourage me. This scene might be one of the ways in which He does that.
After the Ascension, Peter asks Clavius to join them as another Apostle, but he politely declines, hugs Peter and goes home. While at home, Clavius encounters a stranger, and tells him of his experiences with Jesus and the Apostles. He shares his faith. I took this to mean that if we have been exposed to Jesus’ message, we can choose to share our faith with others or not in our own way. Clavius may have went home while Peter and the others went on to Jerusalem to receive the Holy Spirit and preach. But Clavius still asserted his belief in Jesus when the stranger visited his home.
This scene symbolized that we all should share our faith in the ways that are best suited to our strengths. But as long as we share it, we are still witnessing for Jesus. Sure, I wish I was a fantastic, fiery preacher who could convert hundreds in one fell swoop. But I have never been that way. It’s not my style. I feel like I can reach and help more people with my writing. I remember Luke 15:7 when I think of how I share my faith:
“I tell you that in the same way, there will be more rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
I certainly hope my writing helps people in their own faith struggles. But I do not need to convert the masses. I’ll leave that to people who are better suited for preaching. If I can help one person come to faith, or several, fantastic! But I will do it in the way I am most comfortable with, which is here.
Even though I gave a deep review of Risen, I still encourage all of you to watch it if you get the chance! It’s one of the most powerful movies I’ve ever seen! Maybe you’ll pick up different themes and comparisons than I did. But above all, I hope the movie and my writing can encourage you all on your journey of faith. Whether you do not believe at all, or are the most ardent follower of Jesus, know this: He is real. He is who He claims to be. He’s the Son of God and the Messiah for humanity. And He loves you more than you can ever possibly imagine! All you have to do is take the first step and have the faith to talk to Him!