The Painful Years
Film Review of The Young Messiah (2016)
Let me just give you the opening scene of this movie, and see what you think.
At the age of seven, Our Lord Jesus Christ lives in Alexandria, Egypt, where His family fled to escape Herod. We see Him being bullied by an older boy, twice His size, for “playing with girls.” Also on hand is the devil, but only Jesus can see him.
The devil works a trick that causes the bully to hit his head on a rock and die. His parents blame Jesus. The neighborhood’s in an uproar.
Jesus’ cousin convinces Him to bring the dead boy back to life, as she once saw Him do with a bird. Jesus does it—raises this boy from the dead.
And although He’s only seven, He would very much like to know how He’s able to do such a thing. But Mary and Joseph, to protect Him from Herod and the Romans, are afraid to tell Him…
Another Bible Movie
Some of my favorite movies are “Bible movies”—The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, The Greatest Story Ever Told, etc. I have a lot of them in my home video collection.
There’s one thing all these movies have in common, even the best of them. They all include material that’s not in the Bible, but which has been invented by screenwriters. That is, they all include an element of fiction.
If The Young Messiah were a fantasy, set in an imaginary world, with all the characters given imaginary names, I would be praising it as a fantasy with a visibly Christian message. It is, after all, based on a novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by Anne Rice, best known for her best-selling vampire novels. I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Rice has since abandoned Christianity, but I don’t wish to be distracted by that issue. Suffice it to say that the film’s screenplay is based on a novel.
The problem here is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a fantasy, not fiction, but truth. It is the most important story ever told, and our belief in Jesus Christ is the precondition of our salvation: “No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). This truth is a profoundly serious one, and must always be viewed accordingly.
Is it a sin to speculate on what Christ’s childhood was like? Of course not. How can we help wanting to know much more about Him?
But the Bible, as ordained by God Himself, does not provide us with that information. We cannot know God’s reason for so doing. We do see Jesus in the Bible, at the age of twelve, in Luke 2:46–49, discussing theology with the elders at the Temple, amazing them with His questions and answers, and saying to Mary and Joseph, “I must be about my Father’s business.” But that’s five years down the road from the events depicted in The Young Messiah.
So in this film we are dealing with pure speculation, the product of a writer’s imagination. And some of that product made, for me at least, uneasy viewing.
What’s Good About It
Before we get into what made me so uneasy, let me tell you what I liked about this movie.
It’s a visually beautiful film. Reviewers are not generally in agreement with me, but I found it very pleasing to the eye. Some have panned its direction by Cyrus Nowrasteh, but again I differ. I also thought the cast, overall, performed well. And the boy who plays the little Jesus, Adam Greaves-Neal, creates a character both fascinating and quite lovable, without being sugary-sweet. Some reviewers have complained about the whole cast, and this boy in particular, being, apparently, not “ethnic” enough to suit them. But there are reviewers who are going to hate any movie that smacks of Christianity.
Watching this Jesus reminds us that we really do love Our Lord—and that’s a good thing.
It also reminds us that, although Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, He was also fully human: that He did, indeed, have a childhood just like the rest of us.
It’s daunting to think of how it would affect an ordinary child, once he discovered that he had the power to raise the dead, cure the terminally ill (in this case, His uncle, Cleopas), and restore sight to the blind (here, an old rabbi at the Temple). Fortunately for our peace of mind, Jesus is without sin. His abilities will not corrupt Him into a power-hungry maniac.
Finally Mary has to tell Him the truth about Himself. “God is your father,” not figuratively, but literally. “That is why you can make dead birds fly.” And a word of caution, “Keep your power inside you, until your Father decides it’s time for you to use it.” Those words would be wasted on an ordinary child, but not on Jesus.
Running a Risk
Anyone who makes a speculative Bible movie runs the risk of turning iffy theology loose on an audience, many of whom, although they call themselves Christians, have a bad habit of not reading the Bible and not knowing what is actually in it. And we all say we know better than to believe what we see in a movie, but too many of us believe it anyway.
The Bible says the beginning of Jesus’ miracles was at the marriage feast at Cana, where He turned the water into wine (John 2). But The Young Messiah tells us that Jesus had already performed many miracles before that.
In the Bible, Paul refers to James as “the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19). In the movie, James is a cousin adopted by Joseph and Mary. This is Roman Catholic teaching, that Mary was perpetually a virgin. But it’s not what the Bible says.
We also have a subplot in this movie. Herod Antipas, picking up where his father Herod the Great left off, has heard rumors that the King of Israel sought by the Magi might have escaped the massacre of male children at Bethlehem. Herod assigns a hard-bitten Roman centurion (Sean Bean) to find this child and kill him. But we already know in advance that this Roman’s mission will not be successful. It makes for some suspense in the movie, but again, it’s fiction.
Finally, we have Satan following the little Jesus wherever He goes and trying to scare or bribe or cajole Him into being something other than what He truly is. In the Bible, in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, Jesus is not tempted by Satan until after He is an adult and has been baptized by John. What we have here in the movie is invention, nothing more. And you do wonder why Satan would bother trying it again with an adult, after he failed with a seven-year-old.
For centuries both Christians and pagans have been speculating on the childhood of Jesus Christ and making up stories about it. None of those speculations ever made it into the canon of the Scriptures. The most likely reason for that is that the stories are not true.
Our Lord told Pilate that He was born to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). Truth is valuable in and of itself. What we must believe is that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah foretold by the Old Testament prophets, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and our own Savior—King of kings and Lord of lords. This is what is true. This is what we must believe in order to be saved.
We don’t need all the fiction; and there is always the danger that, if we believe some of the fiction, we may set ourselves up to believe much more of it—and so on, and so on, until our whole understanding of Christianity becomes a mass of para-Christian rubbish. We may even drift into outright heresy. If that sounds overly dramatic, please bear in mind that heresies hatch out from misinformation and false teaching.
Will watching The Young Messiah turn you into a heretic? No—not unless you’re already halfway there. If you know which parts of the movie are fiction, and have the self-discipline not to take them literally—not to believe them—you’ll probably enjoy this movie.
I remember a conversation I once had with a man who said, in all seriousness, “Jesus was a hybrid, half-human, half-extraterrestrial. That’s how he was able to do the things he did.” Poppycock like this doesn’t just spring up full-blown out of nowhere. It must be planted in the soil of ignorance and watered with false information.
Just a little something not to forget, when you watch any movie that mixes Biblical truth with speculative fiction.