Ben Hur: An Epic Movie of Christian Forgiveness in an Empire of Hate

Ben Hur

Adaptation of a famous fictional novel by Lew Wallace about a first century wealthy Jew, Judah Ben-Hur, and his pursuit of revenge against an adopted Roman brother who betrays his family.

Chances are, you have heard of the classic movie of Ben-Hur with Charlton Heston in the lead role. But if you’re young, you probably haven’t seen it. Look, for those of us who have seen the “original,” it’s pretty hard to live up to the grandness of it because Heston was so legendary. But the truth is, when I watched the old one again some years ago, the actual quality of filmmaking and acting, even the famous chariot race, was not as good as my memory of it. Modern filmmaking is simply more sophisticated on many levels.

Enter, the modern reboot

Judah and his family live in Jerusalem, but his adopted Roman brother, Masala, never feels welcome with his pagan ideas and desire to make his own name in life. So Masala goes to Rome and becomes a highly placed military leader, who ends up at Jerusalem aiding Pontius Pilate at the time of Christ.

Judah begins the story as a Jew who scorns the extremes of both the Zealots, who seek to rise up against Rome, and of the way of love that he sees a young carpenter preaching to his followers. Judah seeks to protect his family and stay out of trouble. Self-preservation. And isn’t that really the desire of most of us, if we are honest? (Zealots were kind of like ancient “Social Justice Warriors” or terrorists)

The problem is that the family gets falsely accused of a Zealot crime, and is punished accordingly. Rather than execute Judah, Rome prefers to enjoy him dying slowly by putting him as a slave on a Roman galley ship. I have to say, this part of the movie was the most excellent surprise of the experience. I remember that part of the Heston movie as being a bit boring: guys rowing in dirty sweaty grunge with the quartermaster pounding the drum and the slaves getting whipped and yelled at.

But in this version, the experience of the sea battle by the oarsman from their perspective was a powerful action sequence. It captured the experience of what it might feel like to be there, helpless in those cramped quarters being bashed and battered around and sinking during a battle. And only being able to see what is going on through cracks and oar windows as they row. It reminded me of the D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan, how it made you feel like the first time you ever really got a true sense of real battle in a movie from the individual’s perspective.

More Bread and Circuses!…

Continue reading

The Young Messiah: Blu-Ray & DVD Delivers Extra Jesus

YoungmessiahBluRayThe Blu-Ray and DVD release of The Young Messiah is today and I want to encourage all those viewers who want more quality Christian movies or faith friendly or family friendly or values friendly movies to support this release.

That means “buy it.” You will be glad you did.

The Young Messiah is the story of Jesus as a seven-year old boy coming into the realization of his own identity as the Son of God. Yes, it’s speculative, we know so little about that period in his life. Yes, it is dangerous theological territory to deal with such weighty matters. But Cyrus Nowrasteh and his co-writer wife, Betsy Nowrasteh have done a worthy job of exploring it with faithful respect. And you know, it’s the dangerous risks that can provide the richest and most profound stories anyway.

For a full review/analysis of the movie read my post, The Young Messiah: Must See Bible Movie about Jesus.

Also, check out my interview with the director who found Jesus while making the movie, an interesting revelation of how a person’s worldview really does affect the meaning of the movie. They adapted the movie from Anne Rice’s novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, but purged the sectarian and questionable elements of the novel to make a more orthodox Christian story.

But that’s not all. There’s extra Jesus here… Continue reading

Last Days in the Desert: Boring Arthouse Existentialist Satan Jesus

Ewan McGregor as Jesus

A eatureictional drama of Jesus during his 40-day fast in the desert. He meets a family with one male son and a sick dying wife, and makes a wager with the devil to try to help them through their family problems. Starring Ewan McGregor as Jesus and Ewan McGregor as Satan.

In my book Hollywood Worldviews I write about how the depictions of Jesus in movies throughout the decades often reflect the zeitgeist of the era. I wrote: “A survey of the portrayal of Jesus in the movies yields an interesting mixture of both historical and mythical, human and divine, sinner and saint. In fact, one might say that the history of Jesus in the movies is precisely a history of the theological struggle between Christ’s identity as God and his identity as man.”

A Jesus by any other name

In HW, I called the Jesuses of the movies by their social constructs as depicted in the films:

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965): Leonardo-DaVinci’s-humanistic-Renaissance Jesus.
King of Kings (1961): Youthful-blue-eyed-Aryan-WASP-moviestar Jesus.
Jesus of Nazareth (1977): Hypnotic-eyed-possibly-drug-addict-Jesus-who-never-blinks.
Jesus Christ Superstar (1972): 70s-nonviolent-peace-demonstrator scapegoat-for-the-military-industrial-complex Rock n Roll Messiah.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1982): Confused-epileptic-temper-tantrum-sinner Jesus.
The Gospel of Matthew (1995): Smiley-faced-California-surfer-dude Jesus.
Jesus: The Epic Miniseries (2000): Politically-correct-lovey-dovey-pacifist-television Jesus.
Judas (TV 2004): Dr.-Phil-Scooby-Doo-Shaggy-Malibu Jesus.

Look, I realize how impossible it is to portray the God-man in any way that everyone will approve of. That ain’t gonna happen. (It would take a – a miracle! And then most people wouldn’t believe it anyway)

My definition of the Jesus of The Last Days in the Desert as being a “Boring-Arthouse-Existentialist Jesus” is certainly no disappointment with the very weighty performance of McGregor (The Satan part is addressed later). His acting was profound and very human. He really brought it with this portrayal of Jesus being tempted by the lust, the flesh, the eyes, and the pride of life without being a sinner. Fair enough. A Jesus who, like many holy men, fasts in order to draw close to the God he feels out of touch with. A Jesus who wrestles with existentialist issues of presence and purpose, most akin to the Gethsemane scene of the dual natures in conflict.

Or is it?

The director, Rodrigo Garcia, who claims to not be a Christian, said that he could only understand Jesus’ human side. He questioned how could one portray the divine side anyway? Again, fair enough. At least he didn’t try to subvert Jesus into his opposite like the most recent abominable Noah and Exodus movies do with God and their human heroes.

Or did he? Continue reading

Interview with Cyrus Nowrasteh: Saved While Making the Movie The Young Messiah

YoungMessiahPoster

Okay, it wasn’t like a Damascus Road Zap, more of a culmination of a long journey ending in this movie.

I got to interview Cyrus Nowrasteh about the upcoming movie, The Young Messiah, that opens March 11. You HAVE to see this movie. It’s a thoughtful and dramatic exploration of Jesus and his human coming of age as the Son of God.

You can read my review of the movie here.
It opens next Friday, March 11.

Here is the interview…

Brian: Tell me about the Genesis of this project and its journey to the screen.

Cyrus: I remember having dinner in 2005 with my agent at CAA. He talked about his client Anne Rice coming out with a book called Christ the Lord, that is going to blow everyone’s mind, because at the time, she became born again, or whatever you want to call it. I thought it was a fresh and original take on Jesus, focusing on him entirely as a seven-year old child.

If you told me then, about 10 years ago, that I’d be making a movie from that book, I’d have told you you were on crack. For a slew of reasons. But [my movie] Stoning of Soraya M. came out in 2009. Anne Rice wrote a rave review of it. So I called the same agent. She thought I’d be perfect for it. I read it and fell in love with it. I contacted Chris Columbus’ 1492 Pictures. I worked with them in the past. They optioned the book, and developed the script with me attached to direct.

B: So it took over 10 years to get made. And that’s just the beginning of the miraculous things that would happen. What were the reasons that made you hesitate from making the movie at first?

C: First of all, she’s very prominent. She’s been writing best-sellers for over 40 years. She’s had movies made from her books. And her books are very expensive to acquire and get made. That was one reason. The other was what it was about. I had been on my own journey towards Christ for a long time, probably longer than I even know. But I certainly didn’t think I was prepared to tackle a project about Jesus, much less a very risky and challenging one, taking on a portion of his life that is considered the silent years. I knew that would be controversial.

Cyrus_Nowrasteh

Writer-Director Cyrus Nowrasteh

B: What unique issues did you face in adapting this book to a film?

C: She did a very challenging thing in the book. It was pretty gutsy. The entire book is written in the first person voice of Jesus. That was challenge number one. The other challenges were theological. Anne grew up Catholic. I didn’t know it at the time, that she used a lot of other sources. Some of them are apocryphal, and some of them are legends that come down about the childhood of Jesus in the vicinity of Alexandria going back 2000 years. The Coptic Christians still tell these stories about Jesus. She used everything and anything that she could find. And we felt, Betsy (wife and co-writer) and myself, that if we were going to write it, that we were going to have to reexamine those issues. We are not theologians or scholars. It was through multiple drafts, having friends and associates, theologians, people who we trusted, who came back with feedback. It took time for us to figure out how we could navigate those issues and still tell the story in a dramatic and compelling fashion.

[BG DISCLOSURE: I was one of those who read the script early on. To be honest, I knew Christians would not like it at that point in its development, because of some of the material they included. But as you read on, you’ll see how he and his wife co-writer changed it because of their spiritual journey. Good news! this movie is now totally Biblically consistent, even though it obviously takes creative license. I loved it.]  Read on to see what happened… Continue reading

Risen: An Unpredictable Hollywood Detective Thriller – and a Christian Apologist’s Dream Come True

Logline

A detective thriller about a Roman Tribune charged with the task of finding the body of Jesus Christ in order to stop an uprising after he is declared risen from the dead.

Not Your Father’s “Christian Movie”

Most “Christian movies,” especially ones about Jesus or the New Testament are cheap looking, cheesy, and quite honestly, tired and redundant.

I don’t even care to see them, and I’m a Christian.

Risen is NOT one of them.

It is NOT a “Christian movie,” filled with mediocre or bad performances of poor preachy writing and directing.

The Hero of the story is an unbeliever. But this is NOT the fake, stilted Kendrick brother’s version of an unbeliever.

Sorry for all those, “NOTs.” It’s just that there is so much baggage with the genre of Christian movies and Bible movies like this, that you have to realize just how different this movie really is.

Oh, and one more NOT. It is NOT another abominable subversion of the Biblical narrative and God like Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Now for what Risen IS.

Risen is an honest and truthful portrayal of a skeptical mind approaching the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And it is a fantastic story. It is an authentic fresh take on the Gospel from the unique perspective of an unbeliever.

Great writing, unpredictable story, strong acting, truthful and honest portrayal. Riveting drama.

To be honest, Risen is a Christian apologist’s dream come true. It is a narrative that dramatically and existentially incarnates the historical issues surrounding the resurrection of Christ in a much better way for today’s world than the logocentric “Evidence That Demands a Verdict” ever could (That’s not a knock on McDowell. It was good in its day). Of course, using the word “apologetics” in relation to a movie is dangerous, because of all the prejudice in the public against such an agenda. But so what. Atheists and other close-minded Bible haters and Christian bashers will still hate it, no matter how good the movie actually is.

And it is very good. Here’s why: Continue reading

The Geography of Hades

In the last two posts (here and here), we looked at the ancient Greek picture of Hades, the abode of the dead, and what hell really was in Hebrew thinking. It wasn’t the immediate pit of flames upon death. We compared it with the Biblical picture which was both similar and very different. The Old Testament used the word Sheol for the abode of the dead, the New Testament used Hades, and Tartarus. Gehenna was a special valley in Jerusalem that was a metaphor for future judgement.

Hades in the Book of Enoch

Apart from Jesus’ parable of Abraham’s Bosom (Luke 16:19-31), there are no descriptions of the actual geography of the underworld in the New Testament. Rather than drawing from pagan Greek myths to depict Hades in Jesus Triumphant, I decided to draw from a respected Jewish source that did provide a “cosmic geography” or conceptual map of the universe that included the underworld. This geography of Hades can be found in the visions of  the ancient book of 1Enoch.[1]

Though 1Enoch is not Scripture, I have argued elsewhere for the high regard that the New Testament gives the ancient text as a source for some of its own theological concepts and language.[2] The book consists of several “books,” that recount an expanded version of the Genesis 6 story of the Watchers and Nephilim giants, as well as visions that the prophet Enoch allegedly experienced of angels taking him around the earth, up into the heights of heaven, and down into the depths of Hades (which are actually arrived at by going to the “ends of the earth” rather than descending down into the earth).

Unfortunately, these visions are obscure, overlapping, and at times contradictory, so scholars have disagreed over their interpretation as well as their actual cosmic geography. I have attempted to use my own reading of the text and integrate it with several of these scholarly viewpoints that can be found analyzed in the book, A Study of the Geography of 1 Enoch 17-19, by Kelley Coblentz Bautch.[3] Imagination is required!

Since Enoch’s “map” is cosmic, it includes Sheol/Hades as well as the heavens and the earth. But some scholars have argued that Enoch’s entire journey is to the realm of the dead.[4] So I decided to use the ancient Near Eastern (and Jewish) notion of  “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10) or “as above, so below,” to apply to the underworld as well.

In this way, the geography of Hades that Jesus follows on his underworld journey, is a reflection of the sacred geography of the earth above (“Sacred geography” means that it does not so much follow physical geography as it does theological meaning).

Since the underworld was believed by the Jews to be under the earth,[5] and accessed by the waters of the Abyss,[6] that was the source of the waters above,[7] I have those waters work as a kind of sky in the dome of the underworld (though not in all places).

The mountains below rise up from Hades to the earth above. So when Jesus is at Mount Zion in Hades, it rises up and penetrates the ceiling of Hades and becomes Mount Zion on earth above them. This fulfills the ancient Near Eastern notion of the cosmic mountains being an axis mundi, a connection between the heavens, the earth, and the underworld.[8]

The circle of Hades matches the circle of the earth above it and likewise has an ocean/river (the Great Sea or Abyss) at its outer reaches that extends beyond the “Four Winds” or “Four Corners” of the earth where the pillars of the earth support the heavens and the earth (1En. 17:5; Prov. 8:27, 29; 1Sam. 2:8; Mark 13:27).[9]

Ad300x250-BookofEnochIn this conceptual map, Jerusalem, or Mount Zion is at the center of the earth, and has “the accursed valley” (Gehenna) right next to it (Ezek. 5:5, 38:12; 1En. 26:1-2; 27:2).

North from that center resides Mount Hermon, the “rock” (mountain) that Jesus said God would build his new kingdom church upon.[10] This mountain is described as “reaching to the heavens” and as being the celestial storehouse of the luminaries and storms (1En. 17:3). Many rivers flow from it, including a river of fire and a river of “living waters” (17:4-8), and it is guarded by fiery beings who take human shape (17:1). This “source of the waters” is a reflection of the cosmic Mountain of Eden and it’s source of living waters (Ezek. 28:13-14).[11]

In the south are seven mountains of precious stones arranged in a perpendicular layout. The central mountain burns with fire day and night, and is called the “throne of God,” where God will come down at the final judgment.  These elements suggest it is Mount Sinai (1En. 24-25).

In the west are “wintery winds” and the “great darkness,” where another mountain hosts “hollow places” for the souls of all the dead. The righteous are separated from the sinners, much like the chasm separates the righteous in Abraham’s Bosom from the sinners in the parable of Lazarus. (Luke 16:19-26; 1En. 17:6; 22:1-14).

In the east are “great beasts and birds” at the ends of the earth (1En. 33:1). Tartarus is further “beyond the edge of the earth,” where the earth meets to uphold the vault of heaven (1En. 18:10).[12] This is where the angels who sinned in Genesis 6 are kept imprisoned in gloomy darkness (2Pet. 2:4; 1Pet. 3:18-20). They are in deep pits or chasms that are like fiery pillars. (1En. 18:10-16).

There is much more detail that can be quite confusing to follow, so I have included an illustrated map with some of the major elements adapted from Bautch and my own reading of 1Enoch.

Can We Trust This Ancient Cosmology?

Continue reading

Where in Hell is Hell?

Last post, we looked at the ancient Greek picture of Hades, the abode of the dead. We compared it with the Biblical picture which was both similar and very different.

The Old Testament used the word Sheol for the abode of the dead, and it was a place where the dead “shades” went to wait for judgment. But it wasn’t a place of fire and torture like many people think of today.

Now, let’s look at what the New Testament adds to the picture.

Because the New Testament is in Greek, it does not use the word Sheol, but the Greek word, Hades. Jesus himself used the term Hades as the location of condemned spirits in contrast with heaven as the location of redeemed spirits (Matt. 11:23). Jesus referred to the “Gates of Hades” (Matt. 16:18), a well-known underworld concept in ancient Near Eastern and Western Greco-Roman mythology.

This was more than a metaphorical reference to the “power of death,” because the sacred grotto in Caesarea Philippi, where he spoke those words, was considered a gateway to Hades.[1] The location had a cave with a deep chasm believed to lead to the Abyss and Hades.[2] In the book of Revelation, Jesus claims to capture the “keys of Death and Hades,” which is a doublet separating the two words rather than identifying them (Rev. 1:18).

Hades was the location of departed spirits in Christ’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Hades (Luke 16:19-31). It was from this parable that the term “Abraham’s Bosom” came, that indicated the separated location of righteous souls in Hades from the eternally thirsty wicked by a large chasm. This parable has been convincingly proven by some scholars to be a subversive polemic against the common motif of Hellenistic pagan journeys to the underworld and communication from the dead, not a literal geography of Hades.[3] But if it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for Jesus Triumphant in its imaginative depiction of Hades.

In Greek mythology, Tartarus was another term for a location beneath the “roots of the earth” and beneath the waters where the warring giants called “Titans” were bound in chains because of their rebellion against the gods. Peter uses a derivative of that very Greek word Tartarus to describe a similar location and scenario of angels being bound during the time of Noah and the warring Titans called “Nephilim.”[4]

2Pet. 2:4-5
God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell [Tartarus] and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment.

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From Sheol to Gehenna

Despite this claim of a realm for the dead in both the Old and New Testaments, there is very little specificity of description of its attributes beyond “darkness” (Job 17:13; Lam. 3:6) and “silence” (Psa. 31:17–18; 94:17; 115:17). The one clear certainty about Sheol/Hades is that “he who goes down to Sheol does not come up” (Job 7:9; 10:21; 2Sam. 12:23). As Papaioannou describes:

“First, Sheol/Hades is where everyone goes at death. There is no distinction between the righteous and the wicked… Second, Sheol/Hades is not a place of eschatological punishment, but rather the destiny of all human beings… Third, there is no life or consciousness in Sheol/Hades. In contrast to some cultures that envisioned meaningful existence in the afterlife, the Hebrew Bible portrays Sheol as a place of silence and lifelessness where human existence has come to an end… There is no memory in Hades (Isa 26:14); neither is there any longer a communion with God (Isa 38:18). It is a place of silence, darkness, and oblivion (Job 17:13). Thus, a person who dies in effect ceases to exist (Eccl. 9:6)… With a belief in a bodily resurrection, Sheol/Hades is only a temporary abode—the dead remain there until they are raised.”[5]

Richard Bauckham explains the change in understanding that occurred between the Old Testament and New Testament Scriptures regarding the abode of the dead. He points out that the older view did not involve active punishment of souls in Sheol, but merely involved holding the wicked in detention until the last judgment. The newer view, driven by apocalyptic literature included descents to the underworld, where increasingly only the wicked were located:

“The older view allowed for visits to the place of detention in Sheol (1En. 22), visits to the hell which is already prepared for but not yet inhabited by the wicked (lEn. 26:3-27:4; 2En. 10; 40:12; 2Bar. 59:10),  and prophetic visions of the casting of the wicked into Gehenna at the last judgment (1En. 41:2; Bar 59: 11). But only the later view enabled a seer to see and to describe in detail the punishments actually being inflicted on the wicked in hell. The later view therefore spawned a long tradition of ‘tours of hell,’ in which a variety of different punishments appropriate to different categories of sinners is described.”[6]

By the time of the New Testament, some Second Temple Jewish literature began to increasingly evidence the notion of punishment for the wicked and reward for the righteous in Hades before the final judgment.

Bauckham suggests this new notion of immediate recompense upon death in both Jewish and Christian writings may have been the result of Greek influence,”[7] but the fact remains that after the advent of Christ and his spiritual mission, the change took place with the growth of Christianity.

In this sense, Christ’s descent into Hades, and his victorious triumph over spiritual principalities and the powers of Death and Hades marked the inauguration of God’s kingdom that may have included the beginning of rewards and punishment in Sheol/Hades.

The Greek word for “hell” used in New Testament translation is Gehenna. Some have believed that this was the name of a garbage dump outside Jerusalem that burned with perpetual flames, and Jesus used it as a metaphor for the fires of judgment. But recent scholarship tends to disregard this thesis as lacking both exegetical weight and hard archeological evidence.[8]

In fact, Gehenna is Greek for “Valley of Hinnom,” the valley that bordered the south and western sides of Jerusalem.[9] This valley had a dark history in Israel’s past as the location of tophets, or burning places for sacrifice to Molech, the underworld god. Israelites would “pass their children through the fire” as human sacrifice. God became so angry with this abomination that the prophet Jeremiah pronounced a fiery curse on the area destroyed by King Josiah around 632 B.C. (Jer. 7:29–34; 19:1–15). It would become known as the “Valley of Slaughter,” and a synonym for future judgment/destruction of people and nations in this life as well as the next.

Both Second Temple literature and Jesus’ teachings used Gehenna as a reference to the future final judgment (Matt. 13:42, 30; 25:41).[10] So, yes it was a metaphor for fiery punishment, but a far richer meaning than a burning garbage dump. It provided incarnate location for the belief in the eschatological judgment of God upon evil.

For additional Biblical and historical research related to this novel, go to www.ChroniclesoftheNephilim.com under the menu listing, “Links” > Jesus Triumphant.


[1] Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm (Bellingham: WA, Lexham, 2005), 267-271; Jimmy R. Watson, The Religious History of Banias and Its Contribution to an Understanding of the Petrine Confession (Hardin-Simmons University, Master’s Thesis, 1989). 87; George W. E. Nicklesburg, “Enoch, Levi, and Peter: Recipients of Revelation in Upper Galilee,” Journal of Biblical Literature 100 (December 1981): 598.
[2] Wars of the Jews 1:405, Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987).
[3] Kim Papaioannou, The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus: Gehenna, Hades, the Abyss, the Outer Darkness Where There Is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013), 112. Richard Bauckham, The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses, (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1998), 101.
[4] 1.25 ταρταρόω [tartaroo] Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Based on Semantic Domains. electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. New York: United Bible societies, 1996. Bauckham, Richard J. Vol. 50, Word Biblical Commentary : 2 Peter, Jude. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002, p 248-249.
[5] Papaioannou, The Geography of Hell, 87-88.
[6] Bauckham, The Fate of the Dead, 34.
[7] Bauckham, The Fate of the Dead, 36.
[8] Papaioannou, The Geography of Hell, 80.
[9] Duane F. Watson, “Gehenna (Place),” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 926.
[10] See 1 En. 10:13; 48:8–10; 100:7–9; 108:4–7; Jdt 16:17; 2 Bar. 85:13.

What in Hell is Hades?

Last post on this topic, we looked at 1 Peter 3:18-22 only to discover it is all about Jesus Christ going down into Hades to proclaim his victory of triumph over the spirits of the Watchers imprisoned in Tartarus of Hades.

But isn’t Hades just a synonym for being dead? Oh, it’s Biblically so much more than that. Let’s take a few posts to explore this Abode of the Dead from a Scriptural perspective.

When reading the word, Hades or Underworld, most educated readers immediately conjure images of Greco-Roman myth taught in school: A misty and gloomy abode of the dead below the earth where all souls of mortals, both good and evil, went after death. It is ruled over by the god of the same name, Hades, and contains perilous landscapes and dangerous bizarre creatures. Though there is not perfect consistency of geography among the various Greek and Roman authors, some elements repeat.[1]

There are five rivers in the classical Hades. Styx is the most prominent one that circles the underworld. The second one, Acheron, is the one crossed by souls on a boat ferried by the ghostly boatman Charon to bring them to the gates of Hades. Each of the rivers represent what happens to the departed souls.

1) Styx: River of hatred.
2) Acheron: River of pain.
3) Lethe: River of forgetfulness.
4) Phlegethon: River of fire.
5) Cocytus: River of wailing.

The entrance to the underworld is guarded by the three-headed dog Cerberus and other chimeric creatures like centaurs. The rivers then divide the geography into multiple regions with different purposes.

1) Fields of Punishment: Where souls who committed sins against the gods are punished.
2) Fields of Asphodel: Where souls go who were insignificant, neither great nor wicked.
3) Vale of Mourning: Where souls go who were unloved.
4) Elysium: Where the spirits of heroes and the virtuous ended up.
5) Isles of the Blessed: For the most distinguished of souls for eternity.
6) Tartarus: The deepest pit of Hades where the rebel Titans were bound.

Most modern western pictures of the afterlife, or realm of the dead, come from the medieval punishments of Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Levels of torture for sinners meted out by angels or demons, with Lucifer reigning over hell as a more interesting character than God. Sadly, these unbiblical notions have influenced Christian theology in some ways more than the Scriptural text itself. They make for colorful stories, but are not true to Biblical theology.

What does the Bible itself say about the underworld? The Old Testament Hebrew equivalent to the Greek Hades was Sheol.[2] Sheol could be a metaphorical personification of death (Hos 13:14; Isa. 28:15; 38:18, Ps. 49:15) or the grave (Psa. 88:11; Isa. 14:9-11), but it could also refer to an actual conceived location beneath the earth that was the abode of the dead (Isa 14:9-15). The spirit of Samuel was called up from Sheol (1Sam. 28:13), and the sons of Korah went down alive into this underworld (Num. 16:33). People would not “fall alive” into death or the grave and then perish if Sheol was not a location to the ancient Hebrew mind.

When the prophet writes about Sheol in Isaiah 14, he combines the notion of the physical location of the dead body in the earth (v.11) with the location beneath the earth of the spirits of the dead (v.9). It’s really a both/and synthesis. The term includes several concepts of imagination.

Here are some verses that speak of Sheol geographically as a spiritual underworld below the earth in contrast with heaven as a spiritual overworld above the earth:

Amos 9:2
“If they dig into Sheol, from there shall my hand take them; if they climb up to heaven, from there I will bring them down.
 
Job 11:8
It is higher than heaven—what can you do? Deeper than Sheol—what can you know?
 
Psa. 139:8
If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there![3]
 
These are not mere references to the body in the grave, but to locations of the soul as well. Sheol is a multi-layered term that describes both the grave for the body and the underworld location of the departed souls of the dead.[4]

In Old Testament times, Sheol did not include any kind of punishment beyond its power to hold souls captive to death (Psa. 18:4-5), separated in some sense from God’s presence (Psa. 115:17; 6:5), and one’s misery of lost power and glory (Psa. 7:5; Isa. 14:9-16). But fire and bodily torture are absent from this Old Testament worldview.

Shades

One biblical term used for departed souls in Sheol is rephaim. It is sometimes translated as “shades,” in English. As the ISBE puts it, “In Job 26:5 “the shades below” are the dead (cf. Ps. 88:10; Isa. 26:14). They dwell in “the depths of Sheol” (Prov. 9:18), where they live together in “the assembly of the dead” (Prov. 21:16).”[5]

Ad300x250-Gen2RevThat assembly is described in 1Enoch as “four hollows” or pits under the mountain of the dead, where they await their judgment in the last days. Though 1Enoch is not Scripture, it is a book highly regarded in the New Testament (read this article for the details), so it gives one picture of how the ancient Jews saw Sheol/Hades. One hollow is for the righteous; another hollow is for Abel and those unjustly murdered; a third is for the wicked unpunished in life; and a fourth for the wicked who were punished in life. The souls of the unrighteous dead thirst and are frightful of their future judgment (1En. 22:9), but they are not tortured by angels or demons. Righteous souls receive refreshment from a fountain of waters “with light upon them” (1En. 22:9; Luke 16:24).

Another Jewish text of the first century, 4Ezra, describes the departed soul’s entrance into Sheol as consisting of seven days to see the future results of their ways before being led to their habitation to wait for judgment. During this time period, the unrighteous…

4Ezra 7:80, 87, 101
…shall immediately wander about in torments, ever grieving and sad…they shall utterly waste away in confusion and be consumed with shame, and shall wither with fear at seeing the glory of the Most High before whom they sinned while they were alive, and before whom they are to be judged in the last times… and afterward they shall be gathered in their habitations.

Another ancient Christian text, The Apocalypse of Zephaniah, describes the angels who draw the shades to their destiny as beings whose “faces were like a leopard, their tusks being outside their mouth like the wild boars. Their eyes were mixed with blood. Their hair was loose like the hair of women, and fiery scourges were in their hands.”[6]

This ancient legendary depiction is behind the confused, wandering zombie-like shades in Jesus Triumphant who are animated by maggots and worms (Isa. 14:11; 66:24) while wailing and gnashing their teeth (Matt. 25:30), before being brought to the Mountain of the Dead by the long-haired gatherers. It’s all there in Jesus Triumphant.

In Isaiah 14, a prophetic rant against the arrogant king of Babylon, the “shades” take on an additional meaning…

Isaiah 14:9-11
Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come;
it rouses the shades (rephaim) to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations. All of them will answer and say to you: ‘You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us!’ Your pomp is brought down to Sheol.
 
The Hebrew word for “shades” here is rephaim, a word with ties to the Canaanite giants of Joshua’s and David’s time (Josh. 13:12; 2Sam. 22:15-22), and mighty warrior kings of Canaanite literature also called rephaim.[7] Isaiah’s intent is to mock the pomp and vainglory of man, who will end up as humiliated as every other mighty being imprisoned in Sheol.[8] Thus, the appearance of the Rephaim guardians in Jesus Triumphant.

In the next post we’ll address the New Testament notion of the underworld along with Gehenna and Hell.

You can buy Jesus Triumphant in Kindle, Paperback or audiobook here at Amazon.

For additional Biblical and historical research related to this novel, go to www.ChroniclesoftheNephilim.com under the menu listing, “Links” > Jesus Triumphant.


[1] For a brief introduction to Hades, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_underworld
[2] “Sheol,” DDD, p 768.
[3] See also Isa. 7:11; Matt. 11:23; Phil 2:10; Rev. 5:3, 13; 1Pet 2:4-5.
[4] “The ideas of the grave and of Sheol cannot be separated…The dead are at the same time in the grave and in Sheol…Where there is grave, there is Sheol, and where there is Sheol, there is grave.” Theodore J. Lewis, “Dead, Abode of the,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 103.
[5] P. K. McCarter Jr., “Shades,” ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 440.
[6] James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1 (New York;  London: Yale University Press, 1983), 511.
[7] Mark S. Smith, “Rephaim,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 674-75.
[8] Philip S. Johnston, Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament, (Downers Grove: IL, InterVarsity, 2002), 128-130.

The Young Messiah: Must See Bible Movie About Jesus. No Hollywood Bizarro World This Time.

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OPENS THIS FRIDAY.

Biopic of Jesus as a child becoming aware of his identity as the Son of God.

I saw an early screening of The Young Messiah that is set to release THIS FRIDAY.
Written by Betsy and Cyrus Nowrasteh, and directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh.

I’m the guy who wrote the critique of the Noah script by Aronofsky that went viral and exposed its anti-Biblical agenda. I’m not a fundamentalist, but I represent and understand a significant huge proportion of the contemporary Christian viewing public who are totally okay with creative license when it comes to Bible movies, AS LONG AS YOU DON’T SUBVERT THE ORIGINAL MESSAGE. That’s what Noah did, and that’s what Exodus did. They subverted the Biblical narrative with their own paganism and atheism. And that is why they failed in terms of audience potential (along with just being plainly bad movies). Biblical fidelity is not about petty details, but about the meaning.

Biblically Faithful

I am here to say that the new film coming out in March, The Young Messiah, is NOT one of those films. The Young Messiah is a great movie, well told, and very faithful to the spirit of the Gospel of what it may have been like for the young seven-year old Jesus to come of age as the Son of God. I highly recommend it for all Christians. It’s warm, touching and a beautiful portrayal of the chosen family struggling through extraordinary times and extraordinary difficulties with an extraordinary child. There is humor with a lovable yet rascally uncle Cleopas, and brilliant villainy with a skanky Herod Antipas, as well as a blond beautiful Robert Downey Jr.-like Satan.

It’s always tough to depict Satan. Gibson’s androgynous female with mutant baby was brilliant, but this one is great for a different reason. The New Testament describes Satan as a deceptive angel of light, so making him beautiful creates an eerie irony as he seeks to figure out what the plan of the young Messiah is, since the New Testament says the principalities and powers didn’t really know what the plan was, otherwise they wouldn’t have crucified him (1Corinthians 2:8).

And the story adds a dramatic stakes of life and death with a Roman centurion played by Sean Bean hunting down the elusive child on orders from Herod Antipas to kill him (because of the failure of his father to do so at the Slaughter of Innocents in Bethlehem years earlier). This was a brilliant addition to the story that was not in the novel, but makes the story more exciting as a movie. (Of course, it’s hard to make the danger seem real cause we know that he won’t ultimately kill Jesus, but the drama and suspense are still entertaining, as is the centurion’s own spiritual journey, since he had participated in the original Slaughter of Innocents)

Not Sectarian

It is adapted from Anne Rice’s Catholic novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, but it does not take a Catholic or Protestant view. It seeks to depict that story within its original ancient Near Eastern Jewish context rather than from a sectarian perspective. Even the title change represents that focus with its more Jewish title of “Messiah” over the Greek “Christ.” Both Catholics and Protestants will love the beautiful and strong, yet devout and submissive Mary in this movie as “blessed among women,” who “rejoices in God, her Savior.” And while there are obviously some fictional miracle scenes, they are entirely within the parameters of possibility and don’t contradict Scripture. This is doctrinally safe imagination.

Son of God, Son of Man

Admittedly, it is a controversial and difficult story to tell because of the delicate theological issue of balancing Christ’s divinity with his humanity. After all, the Gospels do reveal that Jesus was NOT omniscient. That he had to grow in knowledge and wisdom (Luke 2:52), and that means he had to learn. Heck, it even says he also “increased in favor with God.”

Now the problem is that Christians have so emphasized Christ’s divinity, that we have sometimes neglected to balance that truth with his equally fully human identity. We therefore start to think of Jesus as some kind of Greek god waiting to grow up so he can reveal what he’s known all along. But that simply isn’t the truth. The only story of young Jesus in the Gospels is the one where he is left behind at the Temple at age twelve and when his parents go back to get him, he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). So, he understood his relationship to God the Father with some degree at age twelve. But beyond that, we simply don’t know. And if he wasn’t omniscient, as the Scriptures say he wasn’t, then there had to be a kind of realization that took place in his life in earlier years.

So what would it have looked like for Jesus’ identity to dawn upon him? What would life with the Son of God as a child look like? Again, an admittedly controversial topic to take up, but I think the movie does a great job of maintaining Christ’s divine identity while exploring the dilemma of his humanity in relation to that hypostatic union.

Here is a great article by N.T. Wright about Jesus’ Self Identity as Messiah that gives orthodox scholarly weight to that consideration. (Follow up article)

This is not the sinful humanity of The Last Temptation of Christ, or the gnostic otherworldliness of Jesus of Nazareth. This is a young child becoming aware that his miraculous power comes from his identity as the god-man. One of my favorite moments is a beautiful monologue of the boy Jesus explaining his new understanding of himself as Messiah in the flesh. He needs to experience all the joys, the pains, the happiness and sadness, of being human from birth to death. Why? So that we would have a redeemer who would know what it was like to be one of us. The Incarnation (Hebrews 4:15).

The Young Messiah navigates this delicate theological issue with a faithful and reverent dexterity.

No Hollywood Insanity

I think partly the reason for this Biblical fidelity is because it is independently produced outside the studio system. A major distributor, Focus Features, was wise enough to pick it up for distribution, but studio producer Chris Columbus had to get independent funding to make it. The reality is that Cyrus and Betsy are independent filmmakers who also made the brilliant and courageous, Stoning of Soroya M. (about the evils of sharia law). It takes the ability of free thinking independents to bravely portray faithful Judeo-Christianity.

I happen to know the Nowrastehs, but I told Cyrus I would not be a shill for them in my blog post, especially when it comes to my Lord Jesus Christ. I will speak honestly and freely. And so I have. Unlike certain other Christians paid in silver by the studios to trick the Body of Christ to support the abominations of Noah and Exodus. And also, unlike Noah, the original script for The Young Messiah changed quite a bit from script to screen…

The Power of the Gospel Story

Here is the most amazing part of the story to me. The director explained in a Q and A that though his wife and co-writer was already a Christian believer when they began the project, he was not. And making the movie The Young Messiah, was the culmination of a long spiritual journey that resulted in him becoming a Christian and being baptized. Even more fascinating, he had been raised in a Muslim household, but spent most of his adult life with a more secular worldview. That shows how exploring the story of the genuine Biblical Jesus transforms a person’s life.

Go see this movie on its opening weekend and let it transform yours. Remember, you must go on the opening weekend to help the movie stay in the theaters and have real impact. And of course, social media rules, so share, share, share!

CHRISTIANS, IF YOU WANT HOLLYWOOD MOVIES TO REFLECT MORE OF YOUR VALUES AND BELIEFS, YOU MUST GO TO THE THEATER TO SUPPORT MOVIES LIKE THE YOUNG MESSIAH ON OPENING WEEKEND OR YOU WILL NOT GET ANY MORE OF THEM.

One side note of amusement. Because the writer/director is Persian, Hollywood Christophobes and Left Wing Identity Police are going to have a difficult time accusing him of racism for not casting every single actor from the Middle East like they accused Ridley Scott on Exodus. Gotcha, haters!

UPDATE: After reading concerns by well-meaning Christians questioning the fictional aspect of The Young Messiah, I wrote this:

Question: Why should Christians support a movie that tells us a fictional story about Jesus, when Scripture is silent on the matter?

BG: First off, The Young Messiah is not a perfect movie. But it’s not Scripture, so we shouldn’t place that impossible demand upon it. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be appreciated.

Secondly, all retelling of Bible stories fills in gaps with fiction. Heck, when you are reading the Bible, and you are picturing the scenes in your own mind as you read, YOU are creating fiction in your head that is not in the text. You are imagining what they look like, what they wear, what the location looks like — all things that are fiction because you don’t know what everything looked like or where everything happened. So be careful of that double standard. I caution people not to accuse others of what they do themselves when reading the Bible.

That said, I have retold my share of Bible stories, and the main moral question to ask when creating those fictional elements is: Does this fit the spirit of the text, if not the letter? Does it maintain the meaning and the message? God did not give us a word formula to recite as the only means of salvation. He gave us our imaginations to retell that Good News in many different ways.

Q: How can biblical fiction movies such as The Young Messiah benefit Christians and the church?

BG: The power of theater and drama is the power of making the abstract concrete, of incarnation. I don’t mean the doctrine of Incarnation, but the power of embodiment through story. By seeing Bible stories dramatically acted out, we come into contact with truth in an existential and emotional way. It makes those doctrinal affirmations more rooted in our soul than mere mental assent. By seeing the young Jesus dramatically wrestling with his own incarnation in a movie, we can understand the depth of that doctrinal truth in a way that mere abstract rational contemplation cannot achieve.
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