Movies don't do everything. For starters, film is a "show" not a "tell" medium, and that is why movies are best used to provoke thought rather than to instruct in truth. But that does not let Son of God off the hook for leaving out so much that is in the story. In fact, Son of God relies on the ancient Greek concept of enthymeme - a persuasive device in which audience members fill in the missing parts of an argument - in order to work. Unfortunately, what this tactic reveals is that the movie will be effective only with those who least need to see it - those already following Jesus - and will be unintelligible to those who don't already know His story. They lack the shared cultural context to fill in those gaps.
Son of God is a "feature film" only in the loosest sense of the term. In actuality, it is stitched together from scenes drawn from the hit television series The Bible interspersed with footage that was cut from the original series. Unlike The Passion of the Christ - which had a tight focus on the final hours of the life of Jesus and a strong cinematic narrative thread depicting a battle between God and Satan for the souls of humankind - Son of God feels flat. The narrative just moves from episode to episode, like walking past a church's Easter diorama of "Scenes from the Life of Jesus."
For the faithful, this approach presents few problems. Knowing the story of Jesus well, believers simply fills in the gaps with their knowledge, and experiences each scene within a biblical context. Problems arise, however, when people unfamiliar with the Gospel story and Christian doctrine sit through a film like Son of God unaccompanied by more knowledgeable friends who can explain the story more fully.
The Barna Group, in 2013, conducted a study on Bible reading and literacy among Americans. Barna found that nearly 50% of adults have never, or very rarely, read the Bible and that 40% falsely identified John the Baptist as one of the twelve disciples of Christ (another 12% were "unsure"). In separate Barna research, David Kinnaman surveyed over 1,000 adults in 2010 about their understanding of Easter. He concluded, "most Americans continue to view the Easter holiday as a religious celebration, but many of them are not clear as to the underlying reason for the occasion." When biblically-illiterate viewers watch biblically-incomplete films, the result can be narrative confusion at best, or spiritual disaster at worst.
The Bible is God's love story about the creation, fall, and redemption of sinful humanity. But Son of God treads lightly on the "sin issue." Sin is brought up twice in the movie. First during a scene where friends lower a lame man through the roof of a house where Jesus is teaching (they couldn't come in through the door as the house was packed with people eager to hear Jesus speak). Jesus declares the man's sins forgiven - drawing the ire of Pharisees in attendance - and then proves His power to forgive sins by miraculously healing the lame man. Sin is again the subject in a scene depicting a woman caught in adultery. Men surround the woman, who has been thrown to the ground at Jesus' feet. They are preparing to stone her to death for her offense. Jesus offers His stone to the man who has no sin (it skips the part from the Gospel of John where Jesus writes in the dirt with His finger, a detail that has drawn speculation that He was writing the names of the men in the crowd who had been with the adulterous woman). In the film, what His followers glean from these scenes is not that Jesus has come to die for the sins of all humankind, but that Jesus gives second chances to sinners and we, as His followers, should do the same. Not a bad life lesson in some respects, but far from the claim that it took the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, the shedding of His blood, to pay our sin debt.
Though Jesus is shown traveling with His disciples, viewers never hear Him explain how He has come "to give His life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). That Son of God is shy about discussing the need for the sacrifice of Jesus as substitutionary payment for our sins is highlighted in the scene depicting the Last Supper. Jesus offers the bread, identified as His body, and the cup of wine, identified as His blood. And then... nothing. There is no explanation as to what it means. The Jesus in Son of God does not say what Jesus, speaking in the Gospel of Matthew, says "Drink from it all of you, for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins" (Matt. 26:27-28). That covenant, that binding agreement between God and all of humanity, was that Jesus reconciled sinful humans to a holy God through His sacrifice on the cross, so that "whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
No one without a preexisting knowledge about the biblical basis for human salvation from the penalty of sin could possibly figure it out from viewing Son of God. While some Christians are so hungry for cinematic depictions of their story that even this meager offering suffices, it is imperative for believers to try to view the film the way an unbelieving friend might see it. Son of God is, at best, a very partial telling of the story of Jesus. It is disjointed facts and little revelation. Christians who accompany non-Christians to this movie need to take the time necessary to explore the film's omissions, explaining why they are crucial to a right understanding of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
And don't stop there.
The story of Jesus is not some ancient tale of a good man done wrong by a desperate Roman official and some fearful religious authorities. Jesus, raised from the dead, lives today, cleansing from sin and empowering all who trust in Him to obey God and to pass on the wondrous things He has done for them. The good news of Jesus Christ is not intended to be a story solely for Christians; it is the Good News for everyone who needs to be freed from the penalty of sin and renewed to a right relationship with their Creator. Christians cannot wait for a movie to do it for us. Spreading the gospel was not entrusted to Hollywood. Jesus commissioned His followers with that task. We need to get to it.
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president of MovieBibleStudy.com and MovieMinistry.com, organizations that provides sermon illustrations and Bible studies drawn from popular film to help the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.