Jesus on Screen: Our Review of Four Films

I have a confession. Until recently, I had never watched the JESUS film. Also known as the “J Film,” the JESUS film is the hallmark vehicle of broad seed-sowing through media. Translated into over 1,600 languages, the JESUS film has been shown in megacities and village huts, in public events and behind closed doors. God has opened many hearts through this film.

Yet even after almost ten years on the mission field, I hadn’t seen it. The truth is, while the JESUS film may have been the sole option when it was produced in the seventies, there are now many film adaptations from Jesus’s life.

For this article, I watched four films: the JESUS film (1979), The Gospel of John (2003), Son of God (2014), and The Savior (2017). Each film offers unique perspectives. The experience caused me to ponder the purpose, benefits, and dangers of viewing Jesus in film. Here are the things I learned.

Embrace the Imagination of Faithful Art

Even the most faithful rendition of a New Testament gospel narrative brings its own imagination. The gospel writers don’t often say what body language or tone of voice Jesus used. Yet as humans, our faces express much of our stories. Through the simple expression of an actor, the depiction of Jesus varies from film to film. These movies bring life and movement to text, sometimes offering off-script scenes that could have happened based on biblical and historical facts. Take it in and let your imagination explore what could have been within the bounds of Scripture.

The Savior, for instance, filmed with Arabic-speaking, Middle Eastern actors, opens a new window into what the life of Jesus might have looked like. For example, it shows Joseph stepping away while a midwife helps Mary give birth. It was the only film of the four to show Jesus’s circumcision and his parents bringing him into the covenant. In one scene, Mary brings a cup of water to an adult Jesus working at a carpentry table. It shows Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer by having the disciples repeat line-by-line after him. It portrays Jesus as a deeply kind man, hugging his disciples and others.

Consider Which Film Fits Your Unique Ministry

Each film brings unique aspects that may help or distract from the purpose for which you would use it. The JESUS film uniquely presents a full explanation of the gospel, starting with a brief rundown of creation and the fall, moving through Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and the prophets’ foretelling the Messiah, before finally coming to the birth of Jesus as told by Luke. It ties the story together with a final summary of who Jesus is and a call to respond. I found myself wishing I had seen the JESUS film sooner.

The Gospel of John is a lot to take in. Even though the book is beloved, I initially struggled to stay focused through the long passages of teaching. I opened my online Bible to the Good News translation and followed along through the entire film. With time, I adjusted to the peculiarities of a “visual Bible” and even found the experience to be profound in bringing the book to life word by word.

Never Compromise on the Person and Work of Christ

The story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection is so familiar that for most films, I quickly identified each new scene within seconds. Not so with Son of God. I regularly had no idea where a scene was going. Of all four films, it went off-script the most and developed side stories of characters like Nicodemus, Pilate, and Barabbas.

I’m open to accepting fanciful side-story ideations, but this film regularly got the clear facts wrong, and in significant ways. For example, in direct contradiction of Scripture, Jesus enters Lazarus’s grave and kisses the head of the deceased man.

“Any film—no matter the artistry, special effects, or acting—that compromises the revealed truth about Jesus should be rejected.”

Several times in the movie, Jesus is portrayed as unaware of certain aspects of the future and his upcoming passion until he receives flashes of enlightenment piece by piece. When Peter tells Jesus he won’t betray him, Jesus is clearly relieved and leans over to embrace Peter. At that moment, Jesus receives a sort of jolt—a premonition about Peter’s upcoming betrayal.

These scenes upset me the most because they weaken the nature of Christ’s deity. We must carefully measure these movies against the inerrant Word of God. Any film—no matter the artistry, special effects, or acting—that compromises the revealed truth about Jesus should be rejected. Just like counterfeit money can only be identified by studying the real thing, identifying dangerous factual inconsistencies in film can only happen as we know and study the Scriptures.

Match a Film to a Specific Audience

As you review films for ministry purposes, ask yourself, (1) who is the audience? (2) what aspect of the film might pique their interest? and (3) which film will best suit their current spiritual needs?

Out of the four films I reviewed for this article, I don’t recommend Son of God for evangelistic purposes due to its broad wanderings from the biblical text.

Because the JESUS film is comprehensive, evangelistic, and calls for a response, I recommend it as a great resource for broad distribution.

The Gospel of John’s word-for-word adaptation of the Gospel account brings its own freshness to the account. Being tied strictly to the text brings out details, like the Greeks who came to see Jesus. Because the details can sometimes feel tedious, I recommend Gospel of John to a new Christian or someone who has already read the four Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Of the four films, I hope to watch The Savior again. Its beauty drew me in and reminded me of the kindness of my Savior. I recommend this for all audiences, especially those of a Middle Eastern or Central Asian descent.

As you explore these films and use them in ministry, pray that God will use them to open blind eyes and bring many more into his kingdom. And don’t forget to follow up when possible to share further words of the life-giving message of the gospel.

Madeline Arthington is a writer who serves with IMB in Central Asia.