Risen—A Review of the Movie’s Novelization

Cover image of the novel by Angela Hunt based on the Risen film. I can't wait for this movie.

Risen, a novel by Angela Hunt based on the movie.

As someone who grew up on the original Star Wars trilogy, it is difficult to have not felt nostalgic over the past two weeks as The Force Awakens (Episode 7) has been shattering nearly every box office record. Yes, I’m aware of the unbiblical philosophies promoted in Star Wars, but those discussions are for another time. As eager as I was to watch the new Star Wars film, I am far more excited about a movie slated to be released next month since it deals directly with the most important subjects in history: the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Starring Joseph Fiennes (Martin Luther in the 2003 film, Luther) and Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series), Risen follows a Roman tribune named Clavius who is given a unique charge by Pontius Pilate: locate the body of Jesus to prevent more unrest in Jerusalem.

Check out the second trailer from the film. (The earlier previews had January 22 as the release date, but that has since been pushed back to February 19.)

I have not had the opportunity to preview the film, so I’ve done the next best thing—read the novel based on the story and screenplay of the movie. My review here will be based on the book, but it will necessarily be limited to avoid giving away spoilers.

Written in the first person point of view and spanning just over 300 pages, the novel follows two individuals: the aforementioned tribune Clavius and a Jewish widow named Rachel. Obviously, the book is historical fiction, meaning that it wraps fictitious people and/or events in with real people and events. In this case, the book (and movie) is intended give a different perspective on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ by showing it through the eyes of an unbeliever, Clavius.

This also means that artistic license will be used. Author Angela Hunt does a great job of weaving the biblical events surrounding Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection into this retelling. Clavius (Fiennes) is an ambitious soldier, and early on he puts down a Zealot revolt led by Barabbas, the infamous thief and murderer Pilate released at the crowd’s request instead of Jesus. Later that day, Clavius is sent by Pilate to make sure the three people crucified that day were killed before sunset so as to not upset Jewish sensitivities. When he arrives, it is clear that the man in the middle, Jesus (called Yeshua in the novel), is already dead. Clavius orders a soldier to pierce Jesus to make sure.

Two days later, Clavius is summoned by Pilate and told that the Jewish leaders claim the man’s disciples had stolen the body of Jesus and are declaring that Jesus has risen from the dead. Clavius and his new assistant, a beneficiarii named Lucius (Felton), embark on an investigation that takes them in and around Jerusalem over the next several days interviewing witnesses and tracking down the disciples.

The character of Rachel was apparently cut from the movie but is a major character in the book. Hunt stated that she was a creation of Paul Aiello, co-screenwriter for the film. She adds much to the cultural and historical background of the story, particularly as it relates to the Jewish people and the Old Testament. She also provides some depth to the character of Clavius. Despite her strengths, I don’t think I will miss her in the film. She’s a sympathetic character that works well in a book, but is probably unnecessary due to the pacing of what I expect to see in the movie.

I really enjoyed many of the tie-ins Hunt made with historical figures. Readers will likely be fascinated by the connection she makes between Matthew 27:52–53 with a couple of individuals we are introduced to in Luke 2. The discovery of Christ’s betrayer also gives some helpful insights into what might have happened after Judas hanged himself.

My book on the Resurrection, In Defense of Easter, details the overwhelming evidence for the Resurrection and critiques the alternative theories concocted by skeptics and critics over the past 2000 years.

My book on the Resurrection, In Defense of Easter, details the overwhelming evidence for the Resurrection and critiques the alternative theories concocted by skeptics and critics over the past 2000 years.

As an apologist who has studied and written much on the Resurrection, including In Defense of Easter, I was very interested to see how the book handled the topic. I was not disappointed, even though I think the apologetics could have been a bit stronger. The same is true with the presentation of the gospel. However, one of the strong points of the story is that Clavius must investigate the evidence for the Resurrection. He knows Jesus was truly dead (he made sure), and he knows the tomb really was empty. He must come face-to-face with the only conclusion an honest investigation can yield. He cannot simply deny or ignore the issue as so many skeptics do today. They often dismiss the Resurrection as a legend or myth while many critical scholars claim that the Resurrection is based on the hallucination(s) of a grieving disciple. Yet these approaches do not come close to adequately accounting for the tremendous amount of evidence that even the vast majority of critical scholars accept.

I noticed a few points where the story does not get the biblical account exactly right, so I was thankful to see that Hunt acknowledged a couple of these in her “Author’s Note” section at the end of the book. To avoid spoilers, I’ll refrain from spelling these out until I have the opportunity to review the movie.

Some readers may be concerned with what looks like a nod to the Shroud of Turin in the preview. While I can’t say what the film will show other than the brief glimpse seen in the trailer, the book spoke of that particular cloth with the image as being a square cloth, presumably the one wrapped about the Lord’s face in burial mentioned in John 20:7. So the book isn’t making a case for the Shroud. For more information on the Shroud of Turin and why it should not necessarily be written off so quickly, see my post, The Ever-Intriguing Shroud of Turin.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. It certainly added to my interest in the movie. I would recommend it for believers and unbelievers alike, teenagers on up. Parents should know that Rachel and Clavius are involved in an affair for part of the book. The author handles the intimate moments carefully, but it still may be more than what some parents are comfortable allowing their kids to read.

Risen is a good introduction to a fair number of apologetic arguments on the Resurrection. As a novel, it could not be the most comprehensive study on the subject without getting bogged down in details and exposition. Unbelievers should not assume that Christianity’s full defense of the Resurrection is on display here. Of course, for a deeper treatment, I would recommend my own book, In Defense of Easter, or a number of books by Dr. Gary Habermas. For an extensive study of the historical case for the Resurrection, I would recommend The Resurrection of Jesus by Michael Licona.

About Tim Chaffey

I am the founder of Midwest Apologetics and work as the Content Manager with the Attractions Division of Answers in Genesis. I have written (or co-authored) several books, including In Defense of Easter, God and Cancer, The Sons of God and the Nephilim, and The Truth Chronicles Series (see the publications page for more details). Please note: the opinions expressed on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Answers in Genesis.


Risen—A Review of the Movie’s Novelization — 9 Comments

  1. “He knows Jesus was truly dead (he made sure), and he knows the tomb really was empty. He must come face-to-face with the only conclusion an honest investigation can yield. He cannot simply deny or ignore the issue as so many skeptics do today.”

    Actually it is not the only conclusion possible. In fact, the simplest conclusion that an honest investigation can yield is that the body was taken from the tomb. Positing a reanimated corpse without evidence other than a missing body is an extraordinary and needless speculation. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof. You’re talking faith here (and I can appreciate that) but there is no proof.

    • An honest investigation requires that one account for all of the evidence instead of throwing out details they don’t like. In this case, you have assumed that no one saw Jesus alive again, even though there were many who gave their lives for that belief. Soon after these events, the disciples who had run in fear at Christ’s arrest became bold preachers of their new faith. If they were in on some scheme or even if someone else moved the body, it would never account for their actions in the coming months and years. The same is true for James, the half-brother of Jesus. Why did he suddenly believe His brother was the promised Messiah? Why did Paul, the great persecutor of the church, convert to Christianity? The extraordinary claim (“and the third day He will rise again”) had extraordinary evidence: He walked, talked, ate, and drank with people after He rose. Your claim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence is flawed as well. Whether Jesus rose from the dead requires no more proof than any other historical event, but thankfully, there is far more evidence for the Resurrection than nearly any other event of antiquity.
      The disciples had neither the means nor the desire to move the body. So positing that they moved it is not a strong conclusion, unless you want to dismiss the idea that there were guards at the tomb, even though that was the Jewish argument into the second and third centuries. The truly extraordinary claim in this exchange is that someone was able to move the body without alerting the guards.
      To claim that “there is no proof” is absurd, but you have already set up a false dilemma. No one is positing a reanimated corpse without any evidence “other than a missing body.” The body may have been missing from the tomb, but wasn’t missing because people saw Him alive again.
      Your argument reminds me of the claims of “Richard Dawkins” in this satirical video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0d4FHHf00pY

  2. My husband and I are planning a date night to watch this. I was hoping to find a review on your blog because we appreciate your teachings on the resurrection so much. Now I’m even more excited about this movie! And we can’t wait for the “Risen without a Doubt” series that you did with Eric Hovind to be released! The last time I heard you speak on the Resurrection it blew my mind to consider how truly awesome our God is!!!

  3. Thanks a lot. I wondered. Your comments helped.

    I read somewhere that a Catholic who saw an advance showing was disappointed by a scene with an apostle taking consecrated bread from the Lord’s Supper they were about to share together an throw it over his shoulder at a Roman soldier who entered into the same room.

    Can’t imagine what that was about, “crumbs being thrown to dogs?” Anyway, mention of that scene made me wonder, what else am I in for again, you know?

    Thanks again for the reply,

    • Hi Bill,

      I don’t think it was about crumbs being thrown to dogs. I can understand why a Catholic might take offense at that scene, although I liked what they were doing in that and other scenes. The film shows the disciples trying to figure things out after the Resurrection. Sure, Jesus instructed them on some points, but they had to wait for the Holy Spirit to come at Pentecost. What was it like for them in the meantime? I don’t think the scene with the bread was about consecrated bread being thrown. The disciples were having a meal around a campfire and were still wary of Clavius being around. One of them decided to share bread with him, but instead of walking over to him and offering it, he flipped it over his shoulder to soldier.

    • Thank you sir. The movie is excellent. I had an opportunity to see it early so that I could write a review. I watched it twice and loved it. I’ll definitely go to it when it hits theaters later this month.

      • Tim, I’m a pastor looking forward to this movie. After Hollywood dropped the ball (big-time) with Noah and the Exodus movie, I’m a little gun shy about promoting anything Hollywood does in the congregation. Having seen Risen, can I safely promote this one?


        • Hi Bill,
          I strongly recommend this film with the following caveat: there are a handful of peripheral details that they do not get exactly right. I don’t really like to say “peripheral” when speaking of the Bible since there are no insignificant details, but the filmmakers clearly did not intend to undermine and twist the message of Scripture in this film, as they obviously did with Noah and Exodus. I couldn’t stand those films, but I loved this one.
          Don’t expect to see every detail from the Gospels since the film follows the tribune Clavius, so we only see the events that this fictional character witnessed. We don’t see the trials of Christ, but we see the Crucifixion, burial, and let’s just say the film does not deny the Resurrection. I don’t want to give spoilers.
          So yes, I believe you can safely promote this film, although you may need to offer a similar caveat about peripheral details.

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