Christ at the Movies

I enjoy a good movie, especially those that are uplifting and imaginative. But not everyone does. Some Christians shun virtually all forms of entertainment. Others openly watch just about anything. In between these two extremes is the position held by many Christians: that some forms of entertainment are acceptable while others are unethical. But where should we draw the line? What can we conclude on the basis of Scripture?

It is very significant that nine of the Ten Commandments, when fleshed out in their fullness are of the form “You shall not…” That is, they forbid certain behaviors. This may seem restrictive at first. But a moment’s reflection shows that it is actually very liberating. The implication is that what is not forbidden is permitted. So, of the infinite number of things we might consider doing, only nine are forbidden. (Most other commandments in Scripture give applications and illustrations of the Ten Commandments.)

The Lord has given us tremendous freedom to enjoy the world that He created. We can come and go as we please, eat what we like, do pretty much what we want, as long as we do not break one of the few commandments the Lord has given us. Even these restrictions are not to limit our joy, but to enhance it. Those things that God forbids are things that would bring us misery, pain, and death. Sin destroys. It diminishes the enjoyment of our fellowship with God. But, aside from those actions that are sin, we have freedom. Therefore, we are free to enjoy those things that the Bible does not forbid either by explicit commandment or by principle.

So, is there any biblical commandment that would forbid watching a movie? Do movies violate any biblical principles? If not, then we must conclude that movies are permitted. Movies are a modern form of story-telling. So we need to ask the question, “does the Bible forbid telling a story?” As a general principle, the answer is no; there is no commandment against story-telling.

In fact, the Bible itself tells a story – the true history of the universe. So if the Bible were to forbid story-telling, it would be self-refuting. Clearly, the Bible does not forbid what it itself does. Moreover, God encourages us to read His Word and to share it with others (Deuteronomy 6:6-9). We have a command from God to tell His story – the Gospel (Mark 16:15).

Given that story-telling is biblical does not necessarily imply that all stories are biblically permitted. As one example, the Bible prohibits presenting a fictional story as if it were true. This is forbidden in the ninth commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 21:16). It would therefore be morally wrong to make a movie that intentionally presents a lie as if it were true.

But is all fiction forbidden? In His earthly ministry, Jesus often used parables to explain kingdom principles (e.g. Matthew 13:3). Parables elucidate a spiritual truth using a physical example from a fictional story. Clearly, fiction is permitted and can even be God-honoring if done in the right way.

Is it appropriate to use dramatic imagery to tell a story? Clearly it is, because the book of Revelation does just that. It uses symbolic imagery to tell a very dramatic story. Revelation uses words to paint mental pictures. A movie uses images to paint actual pictures. But the principle is the same. So, clearly there is nothing wrong in general with making or watching a movie.

Unethical Forms of Cinema

As with almost everything good that God allows us to enjoy, humanity has found ways to pervert cinema. Though movies in general are permissible and potentially honoring to God, there are specific examples of movies that violate God’s law. Consider those movies that are designed to incite lust by including sexually explicit imagery. Lust is a form of coveting and adultery, both of which God forbids (Exodus 20:14,17; Matthew 5:28). It is therefore unethical to make or watch a movie that attempts to incite lust using nudity or immodest apparel.

This particular form of immorality is becoming an increasing problem in our culture. Consequently, many Christians have become desensitized to it. Most movies have an MPAA rating in their advertisement, which informs viewers of potentially inappropriate scenes such as those containing nudity. Yet, many Christians will go see a movie knowing that it will contain nudity; this is not honoring to God. Conversely, consider righteous Job who made a covenant with his eyes “not to look lustfully at a girl” (Job 31:1 NIV). Should we deliberately violate biblical principles for the sake of entertainment?

Portraying Sin or Committing Sin

Other issues in cinema are more nuanced and require us to consider the difference between portraying sin and committing sin. Suppose a movie depicts a wicked man shooting an innocent person. The actor is playing a role; he is pretending to murder in order to advance the story. But, in reality, the “victim” is also an actor who gets up and walks off the set as soon as the director yells, “cut!” So, the character sins in the story, but the actor has not sinned in reality.

In general, there is no commandment against portraying sin, such as murder, as part of a story. In fact, the Bible itself tells stories about murderers (e.g. Genesis 4:8, Matthew 21:33-42). So again, we see that the Bible would be self-refuting if it prohibited a story in which sin is portrayed. An actor can pretend to murder, steal, bear false witness, betray, cheat, or gossip to advance a story without actually committing any of those sins.

Some of the most satisfying movies involve the “good guys” beating the “bad guys.” The more wicked and arrogant the villains are, the more satisfaction we feel when justice finally prevails. This is biblical. A central theme in Scripture is that good eventually triumphs over evil. It seems to me therefore that the actor playing the villain should pretend to be the most wicked he can be – without committing any actual sins – so that the story is as good as it can be.

But some sins cannot be portrayed easily in cinema without committing them. Many sexual sins fall into this category. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with telling a story in which some of the characters commit sexual sin. Such (true) stories are contained in the Bible itself. But this is one case where reading about something is not the same as seeing it. The way in which Hollywood often portrays such sin requires the actors themselves to actually sin, to be immodest in front of a camera for the world to see. This is sin on the part of the movie-maker, actor, and any viewers who knowingly watch (Hebrews 13:4, Matthew 6:22-23).

To honor God, actors must not sin in reality as they advance the story through their performance. There are ethical ways to accomplish this in cinema, even with such a sensitive topic. But Hollywood rarely takes the high ground on this issue, and far too many Christians have become desensitized to it.

Profane or vulgar language may also fall into this category. In order to portray inappropriate language the actor must actually use inappropriate language. Is this sin? Unfortunately, this issue is particularly difficult because the Bible does not give us a list of words that God deems inappropriate. Often, the issue is how the words are used, rather than the words themselves. Namely, the word ‘God’ can be used in a God-honoring way, or in a blasphemous way.

Would an actor be ethically justified in using profanity to illustrate the wickedness of the villain he portrays? Regardless of how we answer this, we should consider the effect that hearing frequent profanity has on our mind. The Bible warns us to guard our heart (Proverbs 4:23) – to be careful of those things we take in by our eyes and ears. The Bible instructs us to dwell on positive things (Philippians 4:8), and to take all our thoughts captive into the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).

There is a place for emotive language. But Christians should not be characterized by a “potty mouth.” This sets a very poor example and can be a deterrent to others in coming to the Gospel. If we frequently listen to movies with foul language, we take that into our being. There will then be a very real tendency to think in such a way and to talk in such a way. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34). Consider passing on a movie that is advertised to contain course language.

Improper Goal

Another unethical form of cinema occurs when it is used to promote an unbiblical attitude. Movies often have a theme – they try to persuade the viewer of something. When a movie-maker uses his God-given talent to promote an unbiblical belief, he is in sin – he is not loving the Lord with all his heart, nor loving others as himself (Matthew 12:29-31).

Any movie that portrays evil as good, or good as evil is itself unethical (Isaiah 5:20; Romans 1:32). Consider movies that portray a foul-mouthed, sexually promiscuous person as the “hero.” The movie-maker tries to get the audience to side with this person, to root for him. When the “good guy” acts in unbiblical ways, watch out: you are being influenced to think in a way contrary to the Scriptures.

A very common agenda being pushed in American television and cinema today is the promotion of homosexual behavior as acceptable or even “good.” Yet the Bible refers to such sin as an abomination – a particularly detestable act of treason against God. To promote such evil as good is an act of unspeakable hatred. This is particularly the case toward those who struggle with that type of sin because it encourages their self-destruction (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

Some movies promote an unbiblical worldview in a far more subtle fashion. The “Life of Pi” (both the book and the movie) promotes the deeply unbiblical concept of religious pluralism: that all religions are equal. Through a narrative story, the author attempts to persuade the reader/viewer that truth is irrelevant, belief is all that matters, beliefs (such as religious beliefs) make your personal story more interesting but not more true. This stands in direct opposition to God’s Holy Word.

There can be no doubt that making or promoting anti-biblical movies is sin. But is watching such a movie a sin? First, is there anything in the movie that would be explicitly sinful to intentionally watch, such as illicit sexual activity? If you intentionally watch a movie that you know is likely to cause you to sin, then yes – that’s a problem (1 Thessalonians 5:22).

But suppose the movie has no inappropriate scenes, but nonetheless promotes an anti-biblical worldview. Would that type of movie be wrong to watch? It may depend on your motive. Are you going to watch an ungodly movie for entertainment/enjoyment? If you enjoy watching ungodly films, you may want to examine your heart. Those who seek to be conformed to God’s image do not enjoy stories that attack God’s Word. Christians should delight in those things that promote good in accordance with God’s Law (Psalm 1:2; 40:8; 119:16, 35, 47, 70).

A legitimate motive is to become informed on the movie so that we may refute its falsehoods. Christians should have an awareness of what critics say so that we understand their perspective, and have the opportunity to think through its weaknesses, and challenge false claims. This is appropriate, but it is not always necessary to see the movie in order to be able to refute its falsehoods. In our modern age, it is very easy to find internet reviews of new releases. Some are highly detailed. These give all of us the opportunity to consider the main points of a new film without actually seeing it.

Furthermore, if you are not planning on writing a critique or speaking or debating the issues brought up in an unbiblical movie, there are good reasons not to see it at all. First, such movies influence the viewer to think in a way that is contrary to God’s Word. This is unbiblical. We are to pattern our thoughts after God (2 Corinthians 10:5, Isaiah 55:7-8). Why needlessly program your mind with evil?

Second, when you spend money to see a movie, much of it goes to the people who made the movie. If they see that a movie makes money, they will make more of that type of movie. So, every time you pay money to see a movie, you are essentially voting for more of that kind of movie. As Christians, we have an obligation to influence society in a positive, God-honoring way (Matthew 28:19-20). If Christians stood together and never spent money on anti-biblical movies, do you think there would be so many? Most of the people in Hollywood do not respect morality, but they do respect money.

The Benefits of Cinema

Just as some movies influence the viewer toward evil, others influence the viewer toward good. Cinema is a very powerful form of story-telling. A good, well-acted, morally uplifting story, accompanied by a powerful music score can inspire a viewer to be a better person, to love family, to stand up for truth, to fight for freedom, to persevere under adversity, to be grateful for our many blessings, and so on. These are good Christian principles.

Creating or enjoying a good story is one aspect of our nature as God’s image-bearers. God tells the ultimate true story in His Word. And since we are made in God’s image, we enjoy telling and hearing stories. We are supposed to emulate God’s character – to be like Him as much as is possible on a creaturely level. The Lord has created much diversity in His people; so naturally people will have different preferences on the types of stories they enjoy, or the medium in which the story is communicated. Some people prefer books to movies. Usually, people prefer one or more genre to others. My point is simply that enjoying a good (morally uplifting) story is perfectly biblical.

Even unbelievers sometimes produce a God-honoring movie – one that promotes biblical morality in which good triumphs over evil. In doing so, unbelievers show that they too are made in God’s image and have His law written on their heart (Romans 2:14-16). The unbeliever does not necessarily have the right goal or motive in producing his film. But the film may be used by God as a blessing nonetheless (Genesis 50:20). God accomplishes His plan often using unbelievers despite themselves.

The Gospel in Cinema

Since our God-given ability to create and enjoy stories stems from our nature as God’s image bearers, the kinds of stories we enjoy often parallel the Gospel – God’s true story of redemption. We can summarize the basic elements of the history of redemption as follows.

We start with perfection. Human beings enjoy life in a perfect world made by God. Then a problem occurs; a man commits evil, and life becomes difficult as a result. The evil spreads and many people suffer. A hero is born – the Christ. He is innocent, yet because of His great love, He willingly suffers pain for the sake of others. He sacrifices Himself in order to save His bride – the church. When all seems lost, the hero overcomes death itself and victoriously conquers His enemies. Paradise is restored and the people rejoice.

Just think of the many movies that follow this basic formula. Not all do, but most borrow at least significant elements. Most start in a good situation (either directly, or implied by backstory), but the “bad guy” acts wickedly and the innocent suffer as a result. A hero is raised up from among the people and confronts the evil. The hero often suffers through no fault of His own. There is a low point in which all seems lost; the hero is essentially dead. But the hero recovers and defeats the bad guy. The people are saved and rejoice. These kinds of stories are immensely satisfying because they are true to reality. They capture the basic theme of the Bible, and this honors the Lord.

The next time you watch a movie, don’t let it be simply mindless entertainment. Look for Christian themes. See if you can identify the Christ-figure. It is truly amazing how many movies parallel biblical history. This is further confirmation that we all know in our heart-of-hearts the biblical God.

4 Responses to Christ at the Movies

  1. Paula Pollard says:

    Loved your article. So true! I’ve blocked almost all movies & tv from our lives it was hard at first, but it’s so liberating now.

  2. Daniel says:

    Thank God for companies like Clearplay and Vidangel which have filters that can be applied that skip over or mute all objectionable material depending on the level of censorship you choose. I recommend those to anyone that may want to watch movies of a particular genre that you like or has a story that seems fascinating but because of the objectionable material usually in them you could otherwise not enjoy them.

  3. Nina Ruth says:

    That’s so beautiful, Dr. Lisle, thank you! I’ve seen both extremes…some of my friends who desire, like me, to live above reproach, sort of cut out all fiction or story in virtually every medium. This was so difficult for me, because God wired me to respond so deeply to Him through story, and, like beloved authors such as Lewis and Tolkien, to use story to tell His story! This especially resonates with my unbelieving friends, as it opens the door to tell them the Gospel! I believe that the “Inklings” referred to this as “sneaking past watchful dragons.” 🙂

    Bruner and Ware have written several especially lovely books about this.

    However, to the other extreme, what deeply troubles me is when Christians have such dullness of conscience that they will go to a film, even knowing that it’s not honoring to our loving Saviour.

    This is a timely post, as I just recently had to say no to seeing a movie that most of my Christian friends are going to see. The story in and of itself is very sweet in its original form, but as Hollywood has decided to pervert it to promote a particular worldview, I cannot look the other way, or, “just ignore that part,” as I’ve been advised.

    Thanks for the post, Dr. Lisle!
    Nina Ruth 🙂

  4. Nina Ruth says:

    I wonder if an issue is not just the objectionable content of much of today’s entertainment, but also the amount of time spent on entertainment itself?

    I’m certainly not advocating the “Benedict Option,” for to the other extreme, I’ve seen and felt disastrous results from disengagement from culture; however, watching the late David Wilkerson’s well-known short video, “A Call to Anguish” does give food for thought regarding good stewardship of time.

    After all, to quote from one of my favourite books,

    “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

    Nina Ruth 🙂

    P.S. At any rate, this post inspired me to actually put some recent journaling into my first blog post in nearly 5 yrs, so thank you, Dr. Lisle.

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