It always intrigues me that the best Christmas stories are filled with traces of the gospel. That’s true of A Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life, the story of Nicholas, and even How the Grinch Stole Christmas. One of my favorite stories is Ben Hur, written in 1880 by George Wallace, and made into an epic film in 1959.
This movie received 12 Oscar nominations and won 11 academy awards! That’s only been equaled two other times in cinema history—in 1997 with Titanic and 2003 with The Lord of the Rings. The film had some 25,000 roles, 300 sets, and constructed the largest set ever built for a motion picture—used for one of the greatest action scenes in film history (the chariot race).
Some people don’t consider Ben Hur a Christmas film. I contend it is—for three reasons. First, it opens with a scene of the nativity. That alone should put it in the category of Christmas films. Second, a central character appearing throughout the film is a man named Balthasar–one of the magi. In this story, he returns to Palestine and helps narrate the cohesiveness of Jesus’ life. He’s there after his birth, observes Jesus’ public ministry, and even appears at the crucifixion.
Third, it is Balthasar whom the author uses to creatively connect the dots in the life of Christ. Observing Jesus’ death, Balthasar says, “He has taken the world of our sins onto Himself. To this end He said he was born in that stable, where I first saw him. For this cause He came into the world.”
Of course, this is poetic license, but it is effective and helps the viewer catch the wider point—Jesus’ birth and death are tied together by a divine purpose!
The book and film tell the story of a man named Judah Ben Hur (played in the film by Charlton Heston). He is a Judean nobleman who is betrayed by his boyhood friend—Messala, who grows up to become the Roman Tribune of Judah. When Ben Hur refuses to submit to Roman rule, Messala condemns his old friend to a Roman slave galley. Along the way, Ben Hur tells God that if he is allowed to live, he wants to take vengeance on the man who wronged him. The story then is about Ben Hur’s descent into hatred because of the injustices committed against him and his people by Messala and the Romans. Ben Hur’s wife Esther complains “You seem to be now the very thing you set out to destroy, giving evil for evil! Hatred is turning you to stone. It is as though you had become Messala!”
In his story, Ben Hur has three encounters with Jesus. As a Roman captive, he encounters Jesus while being dragged on the highway that passes near Nazareth. As Ben Hur cries to God for help, Jesus, who is observing the procession of slaves, offers him water to drink. Ben Hur has no idea who Jesus is, but realizes he has just met someone special.
This leads to Ben Hur’s brutal service as a slave rowing on a Roman ship. When the Roman ship is destroyed in battle, Ben Hur saves the life of a general and gains the favor of Rome. Eventually Ben Hur is able to return to Judah to search for his mother and sister, who were also condemned to slavery.
In Judah he encounters Jesus a second time, but from a distance. He observes Jesus’ ministry with skepticism. Only when he encounters Jesus for a third time, on the way to the cross, do things start to change. At the crucifixion, we come to the height of irony in the story. There stands Ben Hur who has been falsely accused of a crime of which he was innocent. But he has devoted his life to revenge. But now he sees another man who has been falsely accused, but instead of pursuing revenge, this man pleads for the forgiveness of those who have accused him.
Ben Hur says, “Almost at the moment He died, I heard him say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”and I felt his voice take the sword out of my hand.”
This is not just a story of personal redemption. The gospel integrity of the story comes because his moment of personal redemption coincides with the wider redemptive death of Jesus. Both are affirmed in the story. Jesus has taken the world of our sins onto himself. Ben Hur learns that it is only through the power of being forgiven that we can forgo hatred and revenge and offer forgiveness to others.
In other words, Ben Hur’s transformation is rooted in the cross of Christ.
Look, lots of Christmas movies have transformation stories. Think of Scrooge, George Baily, and even the Grinch! But the transformation of Judah Ben Hur takes place because of Jesus himself. That gives this remarkable Christmas film an entirely different holiday gravitas.