On the one hand, this series will doubtless serve as a means to a good end for some viewers:
- Some people think that the Bible is a boring old book filled with irrelevant or misguided rules. This series may spark an interest in the Bible that will compel them to actually read it. That’s good.
- Some people think that the Bible is a collection of unconnected or loosely connected short stories. This series may help people view the Bible as one big story with turning points: from creation to the fall to Noah to Abraham to the exodus to Israel and then climaxing with Jesus. That’s good.
- Some people are relatively unaware of what the world of the Bible was like culturally. This series may help people better understand what the political scenes were like or how people typically dressed or what various places may have looked like. That’s good.
On the other hand, the series could be far better. While watching it with my wife, we became increasingly disappointed with it. I was planning to watch it with my children but not anymore. I don’t enthusiastically recommend it for at least three reasons:
1. It does not consistently present God as great and good.
The OT stories in particular depict God as capricious, bloodthirsty, and vengeful. It doesn’t root God’s righteous wrath in his glorious holiness. It doesn’t explain, for example, why God pours out his wrath in Noah’s flood or why Jesus came to earth and then died on the cross. Instead, the series focuses on telling part of the Bible’s story in a hip, entertaining way.
Most serious of all, the series doesn’t emphasize the Bible’s ultimate doxological purpose. It doesn’t compel viewers to think, “Wow. God is amazing! God is glorious! God is great, and God is good.”
After my wife read a draft of this essay, she replied,
I am not sure point 1 is strong enough. This is a way bigger deal than getting Cyrus and Darius confused. It rather “turned off” my faith. I was left thinking, “Wow, these stories are really strange. I can’t believe people actually believe this.” It feels like Greek mythology or other weird religious stories. It does not ring true or make me worship God.
For the millions of viewers who are biblically illiterate or have a very sketchy understanding of the Bible, I’m not sure that this series helps them understand God much better. At best it may contribute to stirring up their interest about God so that they actually read the Bible.
2. It gratuitously displays graphic violence.
The Bible is a violent book, but it doesn’t glory in the gore like these films do. The graphic violence is relentless and gratuitous. It’s Peter Jackson-esque.
For example, my wife and I couldn’t believe it when a Samurai-angel who was delivering Lot and his family from Sodom dramatically pulls two swords strapped to his back and starts slaying people in Sodom with flashy Samurai-moves. And we lost count of the number of times the film graphically shows executions by throat-slitting or sword-piercing or decapitation, complete with blood-squirting and intense sound effects.
We got to the point where I would fast-forward through gory scenes on 2x or 4x speed while my wife looked away. This is definitely not for children.
What is the warrant for displaying graphic violence like this? Is it to keep the interest of people who have become desensitized to graphic violence and no longer recoil at it? Whatever the reasons, I can’t think of a good one.
3. It repeatedly changes important details.
Obviously, a short video-overview of the Bible (like a children’s story-Bible book) can’t include all the details, but the details it chooses to include should be accurate. This series repeatedly changes important details in at least three ways:
- It portrays stories inaccurately. Nine examples:
- God’s people walk through the Red Sea on muddy ground in the midst of a rain storm (rather than on dry ground).
In the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, no soldiers die, but instead the king intentionally burns his hand during the attempted execution to see if the fire is real (rather than the furnace burning so hot that the flames kill the soldiers who cast the three men into the fiery furnace).
- Satan temps Jesus on a desert cliff (rather than the Temple Mount).
- Herod Antipas orders John the Baptist’s execution when John tells him about Jesus the Messiah (rather than reluctantly decapitating him after Antipas rashly promises to grant the wish of a dancing girl at his birthday party).
- Jesus walks into Lazarus’s tomb and gives a mini-discourse in the presence of the sisters before raising Lazarus from the dead (rather than shouting from outside the tomb, “Lazarus, come out!”).
- Caiaphas tricks Judas to betray Jesus, and Judas basically sins against his will. The film portrays Judas as a sympathetic figure.
- When Peter tells Jesus that he is willing to die for Jesus, Jesus responds with gratitude and emotionally embraces Peter, but in the middle of the hug, he apparently receives a revelation that Peter will deny him and then sadly breaks that news to Peter. Then Peter denies Jesus the following day after Jesus is arrested (rather than that very night).
- After Peter heals the lame beggar in Acts 3, he says, “It is through Jesus. He did not die.” Similarly, Stephen later says, “They tried to kill him, but they failed.” That is a really poor choice of words. (I realize that they are trying to communicate that Jesus didn’t stay dead and that he is alive.)
- Stephen got stoned to death without a trial, and Saul instigated and led the stoning.
- It conflates important details. Five examples:
- David confronts King Saul with Saul’s torn robe in the cave immediately after he cuts the robe, and Saul responds with defiance rather than an apology.
- The king who throws Daniel into the lion’s den is Cyrus (not Darius), and when Daniel comes out of the lion’s den, the king promptly decrees to Daniel that the Jews can go back to Jerusalem.
- Lazarus’s sisters inform Jesus that Lazarus has died when Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany, and the concerned Jesus asks to see the tomb immediately.
- The meeting between Nicodemus and Jesus (John 3) occurs on Wednesday of the Passion week.
- Thomas is present when Jesus appears to his disciples for the first time and expresses doubt that what they are seeing is actually Jesus.
It adds subplots that are not in the Bible. One rationale that projects like this make for changing details is that they have such little time to present such a massive story. But if you have such limited time to present what is actually in the Bible, why spend so much time on subplots that are not in the Bible? Here are three examples:
- Moses and Ramses have a childhood rivalry.
- Daniel tries to persuade his three friends to bow down to the statue of Nebuchadnezzar.
During the life, arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus, prominent characters include Pilate, Caiaphas, Nicodemus, Malchus, and Barabbas with all sorts of added twists—mostly political ones, such as Pilate’s looming threat to cancel Passover and close the temple if there is further Jewish unrest.
(Wikipedia lists other discrepancies as well.)
The examples above don’t include less egregious changes. Four examples:
David starts speaking Psalm 23 to himself while he walks to face Goliath.
- Jesus tells the story of the praying pharisee and tax collector when he calls Matthew to follow him.
- Paul quotes parts of 1 Corinthians 13 while defending himself to a group of Christians who are skeptical that he no longer persecutes Christians.
- Peter tells John, “Good luck,” when John leaves Jerusalem for Ephesus.
These sorts of changes may have only minor effects on people who watch this series and know little about the Bible. Many will think, “Oh! So that’s where that comes from! David spoke Psalm 23 right before he killed Goliath!’” Ideally, this will compel people to read the Bible for themselves. But I suspect that it will mislead and confuse people regarding details.
That’s why I don’t enthusiastically recommend the series. I wish I could. I wanted to.
- Read the Bible.
- Watch The Gospel of John.
Related: Why John Piper Doesn’t Own a TV