By Cade Campbell
In 1950 actor Jimmy Stewart played Elwood P. Dowd in a movie titled Harvey. As the main character, Dowd is portrayed as a friendly, middle-aged man whose best friend is named Harvey. That sounds like the premise to a pretty basic buddy-film, but there’s something about Harvey that makes his and Elwood’s friendship different: Harvey is an over-six-foot-tall invisible rabbit. For obvious reasons Dowd’s friends and family members believe he is either drunk or just plain out-of-his-mind-insane. The movie tells the story of Elwood Dowd being vindicated as they come to grips with whether or not Harvey is really there. It’s a great movie.
Yesterday afternoon Amy and I went to see another movie, Risen. It’s the most recent biblically-based film released in theaters. It follows a few weeks in the life of a devoted Roman soldier, a tribune named Clavius based in Jerusalem, who is charged with investigating and disproving the spreading rumors of a dead-yet-risen Jewish messiah, after his sealed tomb has been discovered empty early on a Sunday morning. Clavius had witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion. He saw him die. He ordered the spear to be driven into his side. He had cleared Jesus’ body to be given to Joseph of Arimathea on orders from Pilate. So now he is ordered to find and identify that same body.
But he can’t. It’s gone.
I enjoyed the movie for the most part. Sure, there were some unnecessary discrepancies with the biblical text. There were a few things that annoyed me: There were far too many cacti in the scenes. “Galilee” didn’t resemble Galilee. I kept getting distracted by Draco Malfoy being a Roman soldier. The disciples (especially Bartholomew) acted like a comedy-troupe from Colorado. But, on the whole it was a pretty good movie, and as I reflected on the film later, there was one significant aspect to the movie that I appreciated above all others…
The film treated the resurrection of Christ as an historical fact, an historically verifiable reality, an event that could pass the scrutiny of a skeptic looking for evidence.
There was one scene in particular that drove the point home. Clavius is leading a manhunt (in his mind a “dead-man-hunt “). He is especially looking for the disciples whom he believes stole the body. At one point he has narrowed his search down to one second-floor room in an ordinary house, and he busts the door open. And the disciples look up. And so does Jesus, smiling.
Now, that depiction is pure fiction. It didn’t happen. Jesus came and went freely. He appeared and disappeared, and as far as we know Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances were limited primarily to his inner-circle of disciples and one occasion of five hundred people at once (1 Corinthians 15:6). No soldier orchestrated a Roman swat-team raid. But here’s the thing: If a soldier named Clavius had walked into the upper room at just the right time, Jesus would have really been there. Christ’s resurrected, incarnate body was really real. It was physical. It was material.
Docetism was the early heresy that denied the physical reality of Jesus’ humanity. It taught that Jesus only “seemed” to be physically present. Docetism proclaimed a hologram Jesus. But that’s not the good news of the empty tomb. Jesus’ risenness was real. Travelers on the Emmaus road really passed three men walking away from Jerusalem deep in conversation, not two men talking to an invisible third-person. Other fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee early one morning could have seen a small fire on the shoreline and next to it a lone figure preparing breakfast.
Jesus was not a figment of his followers’ imagination. He was not a product of a mass delusion by his disciples. His tomb was empty, not merely because the body disappeared, but because the corpse inside the grave suddenly stopped being a corpse, sat up, and walked out of the cemetery. The Jesus that was raised to life could be seen, touched, and heard. A passerby wouldn’t have seen a handful of men talking into the thin air, speaking with blank space. No, they were speaking with a real person who just so happened to have some really nasty scars.
At one point in the movie Clavius makes this point. As his hardened skepticism is being torn apart, he says: “I have seen two things I cannot reconcile – a man dead without question, and that same man alive again.”
No, thankfully Peter wasn’t Jimmy Stewart. And Jesus isn’t Harvey. After all, believing the resurrection might have anything to do with a giant, friendly rabbit is just crazy.
Cade Campbell (M.Div, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a Mississippi native and currently serves as Associate Pastor for Preaching and Discipleship at First Baptist Church Henryville, Indiana. You can follow him on Twitter at @DCadeCampbell.