As a Bible geek, I’m also a Bible movie geek. Movies have the power to bring written story to life in living color. In a visual culture this is an especially important medium for introducing people to the story and claims of the Bible.
So, I’m definitely hoping Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s latest work A.D. The Bible Continues — the sequel to their 2013 success The Bible — will be widely viewed and well received by the masses if not the critics. Now, after two episodes I’ve already read some typical Hollywood pop-culture entertainment reviews. They are focused on the casting, acting, screenwriting, storytelling, and other typical measures of good art.
As one random example, take an Entertainment Weekly review by Jeff Jensen:
Interesting in theory. But A.D. is one more piece of Christian pop that’s poor in creative spirit and poorly served by true-believer passion. The production is chintzy, the acting is too broad or too earnest. The writing dotes on emotions and lacks sophistication. Superficial characterizations abound. The risen Jesus (Juan Pablo Di Pace) is so soft, so beatifically delicate, he might blow apart with a sneeze. “It’s time we shut this story down!” thunders Pilate at one point. A.D. is more proof that it’s time for Christians to tell their stories with more artistry.
Regardless of one’s evaluation of “creative spirit” and production value, I hope viewers and reviewers will also enjoy pondering the historical events and claims that stand behind it. Here’s some reasons I think this series is unique and important to take seriously — for believing Christians and your average unbelieving or skeptical TV viewer.
1. There have been many films and documentaries capturing the life, death and resurrection of Christ. There are very few that have tackled the next chapter in the Christian story. Just as many have grown up with a general familiarity of the Exodus events via Charlton Heston but have no clue about Joshua’s conquests in the Promised Land, so many have seen countless portrayals of Jesus with his disciples teaching, healing, dying and rising again but have never read the New Testament sequel in The Acts of the Apostles.
Finally, millions of viewers will be seeing for 12-weeks on prime time network television the next chapter — in my opinion, the most exciting, action-packed chapter — in the development of the story of Christianity! Frankly, many have never stopped and asked the basic questions: What happened after Jesus rose from the dead? What did Jesus’ scared, dejected disciples do next? And, if the Roman powers were strangely united with the Jewish establishment in finding a way to silence Jesus and stomp out his growing movement, then how did they treat Jesus’ followers after he left the scene?
These are very fun, exciting questions and, please note, they are the questions of a serious historian, not Bible-banging evangelical church-goers. So, watch and learn — or at least ponder!
2. The second, and most important, reason A.D. is worth paying attention to is that it tells the story of the greatest argument proving the likelihood that Jesus actually rose from the dead and Christianity’s core claims are true. Again, you can watch all the films on the life of Jesus — Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, etc. — and be inspired by the character and deeds of Jesus the man. But these don’t prove he was anything more than an exceptional human being.There were other faith healers, inspiring teachers and popular movement leaders making messianic claims in Jesus day. Most of them also met terrible, violent deaths (on a cross) and their followers were quickly scattered and the movement squashed.
What therefore explains how a band of scared, dejected disciples hiding in an upper room in shame were suddenly transformed into bold proclaimers of a new message, leaving core Jewish beliefs behind, changing the day of worship from the 7th day to the first day of the week, and going on to suffer horrible, painful deaths for their firm beliefs in their resurrected leader? Many people will invent a cause or further a lie if they have something to gain by it. But who would give themselves to a cause they know to be untrue, fabricated, only to be tortured and killed for it?
A.D. The Bible Continues shows what sets Christianity apart from these other movements. For very important historical reasons, the Jesus movement took a different trajectory and changed all of history. Either these things happened, or Christianity is a fraud. The New Testament is not a dramatic screenplay to be artistically critiqued and adapted for the purpose of winning an Academy Award. The part of the New Testament — The Acts of the Apostles — that the A.D. series is based on is pure apologetic. Referring to the empty tomb and resurrection claims in particular, Hank Hannegraff says:
If liberal scholars, adherents of world religions, or devotees of the kingdom of the cults are correct, the biblical account of the Resurrection is either fiction, fantasy, or a gargantuan fraud. On the other hand, if Christianity is factually reliable, the Resurrection is the greatest feat in human history. As apologist Josh McDowell puts it, “After more than 700 hours of studying this subject, and thoroughly investigating its foundation, I have come to the conclusion that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the ‘most wicked, vicious, heartless hoaxes ever foisted upon the minds of men, or it is the most fantastic fact of history.’” The apostle Paul made it crystal clear that no middle ground exists. The Resurrection is either history or hoax, miracle or myth, fact or fantasy: If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:14–19) It is precisely because of the strategic importance of the Resurrection that each Christian must be prepared to defend its historicity.
The story of the Acts of the Apostles which A.D. The Bible Continues is based on will bring many important historical claims and considerations into people’s homes watching the series. Instead of just focusing on the acting, casting, storytelling, CGI effects and so on, let’s focus on the historical claims being made about the rapid spread of Christianity and what might explain this development.
Here are 12 historical realities that will likely be part of the series and demand some explanation:
- Jesus died by crucifixion.
- He was buried in the marked tomb of well known Joseph of Arimathea.
- His death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope.
- The tomb was then discovered empty.
- The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus.
- The disciples were transformed from scared, dejected doubters to bold proclaimers who would face violent deaths for their beliefs.
- The resurrection was the central message of the Jesus movement.
- They preached the message of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem under the nose of heavy opposition.
- The Church was born and grew rapidly.
- Orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship going against thousands of years of established observation based in God’s original commandment.
- James the brother of Jesus became a believer when he saw the resurrected Jesus. (What would it take to convince you that your brother was divine?!)
- Paul, an outsider, skeptic, and Jewish leader with much to lose was converted to the faith.
There are many great academic treatments of these historical realities and I hope you’ll explore them in more detail on your own. Here’s a good overview.
My main point here is to encourage people to view this new TV series as more than artistic storytelling or a cute incident of Hollywood tipping their hat to religion on prime time. This is one of the most pivotal historical events in Western civilization and I’m glad people need not just admire Jesus again this Easter season dying on the cross, but begin wrestling with the ways the world had to make sense of the movement that sprang up after his tomb was found empty three days later.
As my professor once said, if you see a cloud of smoke in the forest, there must be a fire to explain it. And if you see an enormous cloud that fills the entire sky nearly eclipsing the sun for days, then there must be a fire large enough to have produced it.
The Jesus movement that began as a small persecuted sect of uneducated fisherman that grew into a movement that ignited and overtook the entire Roman world in a generation, and has changed civilizations and countless individual lives ever since, must have as it source an event that can account for that impact. The resurrection of Jesus from the grave is the fire that best explains the explosive, world-altering movement.
Let’s enjoy watching it come alive on our television screens this spring/summer! This is “must see TV” for a generation largely ignorant of the historic underpinnings of one of Western civilization’s most fascinating movements.
Other resources I recommend are The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and for over achievers the 800+ page door stop treatment by N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. Or watch this one hour video by Lee Strobel as he makes The Case for the Resurrection.