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The Resurrection According to Hollywood

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live’” (John 11:25)

Easter is coming. It is perhaps fitting that the celebration of a miraculous event that took the entire world by surprise often itself arrives unexpectedly. Still, it is perplexing that the pivotal event in human history is often reduced to a blip on the calendar, arriving with little fanfare, and departing just as quick.  

Consider the difference between the way that the birth and resurrection of Jesus are celebrated. Christmas is not merely a day; it’s a season. In the Gospel story—the “true myth” as C. S. Lewis put it—Christmas is a glorious moment, but the Resurrection of Jesus is the shocking plot twist, the climax, and the defining moment. Why, then, is it so often overshadowed or downplayed? Part of the answer can be found in the stories we tell, the stories we don’t tell, and perhaps the stories we cannot tell.

The Stories We Tell

A biographical movie about Charles Dickens is titled, The Man Who Invented Christmas. Of course, Dickens did not invent the historical importance of Christmas, but he defined what might be called the “Christmas Spirit.” A Christmas Carol was revolutionary, arriving at a time when Christmas celebrations were falling out of favor. The reason that the cherished yuletide story reflects so much of our contemporary understanding of Christmas is because it largely established the template. The stories about Christmas came to define the way people understood and celebrated Christmas. 

Stories about Easter, on the other hand, are rare. We have “Christmas” movies, “Halloween” movies, and “Summer” movies, but quickly try to name three “Easter” movies. Despite this, the Easter story has influenced Hollywood, both directly and indirectly.  

Resurrection Stories

Resurrection is a widespread motif in all mediums of storytelling. Mythologist Joseph Campbell introduced an influential theory called the “Monomyth” or “Hero’s Journey,” which argues that all stories are merely a re-telling—in part or in full— of the same universal story. One of the key stages in that archetypal story is the “resurrection” of the hero. We don’t need to look far to find examples.

From Harry Potter, to Gandalf, to Aslan, to Neo, to Obi-Wan Kenobi, countless self-sacrificial heroes have died and been resurrected. The resurrection theme is evident in more subtle ways as well, as heroes are not resurrected from literal death, but are metaphorically reborn. Peter Parker in Spider Man (2002) is symbolically crucified with outstretched arms to stop a crashing train, before rising again. Similarly, Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) has his body broken and is imprisoned in a hellish pit, before rising and returning as the savior of Gotham. An ad for AMC theaters that currently plays before every movie has Nicole Kidman describing the movie-going experience, saying “we’re not just entertained, but somehow reborn.”

At times, the theme is intentionally symbolic of Christ’s crucifixion, but I think it is more than merely copying-and-pasting a familiar trope. Rather, there is something within humanity that is wired to make sense of the world through narratives of resurrection and rebirth. The Resurrection is the defining moment of our human story, so it is unsurprising that it is often the pinnacle moment in the stories we tell.   

The Passion of the Christ

On occasion, the literal Resurrection of Jesus becomes the focus of a movie. The most famous example is Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2014). The film is a prime example of the difficulty in cinematically depicting the event. As with many crucifixion movies, it focuses primarily on the physical violence. So much so, that it resulted in the oddity of being the highest grossing R-rated movie in history, causing many Christians to break their long-standing “no R-rated movies” rule!

The emphasis on violence both reflects and reinforces a common mindset. Every Easter, the crucifixion is described in almost hyperbolic terms. We are often told by preachers that the crucifixion was the worst and most painful death imaginable, and that Jesus suffered more than anyone ever has on our behalf. At times, the presentation amounts almost to a spiritual guilt trip, as Christians are show bruised and bloody images of Jesus and reminded that they are ultimately responsible.  

Christians should be reminded of the seriousness of their sin and what it cost to redeem them from it. But, in a way, the emphasis on the physical suffering of Jesus actually diminishes what He accomplished on the cross and the empty tomb, by bringing Jesus onto a wholly natural level. What Jesus suffered physically was excruciating, but he was crucified beside two criminals who suffered the same agonizing fate. According to legend, Peter was crucified upside-down, going one step further than his Lord. Christian martyrs have been burned and skinned alive, fed to lions, and impaled on polls. In fact, many Christians throughout history have arguably suffered more physically painful deaths than Jesus.  

The true power of Jesus’ victory on the cross and the empty tomb is the spiritual impact, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). That unfathomable reality defies cinematic visualization. How can a movie show Christ’s anguish of taking the sin of the world onto His shoulders? It cannot, which is why directors like Mel Gibson have settled for an overwhelmingly earthly and physical crucifixion story, and also why crucifixion movies are far more common than resurrection movies.

The Greatest Eucatastrophe

Movies and stories can reflect the Gospel’s resurrection story, but like Moses hiding His face from the revealed glory of God, they offer only offer a small flicker of the awesome, overwhelming power of that monumental event. The fingerprints of the Easter story are all over Hollywood—directly or indirectly—but something is inevitably missing. Movies can be helpful reminder of Christ’s sacrifice and victory, but the Resurrection of Jesus is far more glorious than any movie can attempt to show.

J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, coined the delightful term, “Eucatastrophe.” The word means the sudden, unexpected reversal of fate. A “happy ending,” but in the most profound sense possible. Tolkien believed that this was the most important task of all fairy stories, but that Easter is the perfect example. As we prepare our hearts to celebrate Easter, I am reminded of one of my favorite descriptions of the Resurrection:  

“And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story – and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.”

—Tolkien
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