How Christians Can Discern Jesus Adaptations in ‘The Chosen’ and Other Stories
Several moments in The Chosen season 3 have generated a lot of online buzz ever since the biblical fiction drama began releasing new episodes in late 2022.
In season 3, episode 2, Jesus (played by Jonathan Roumie) explains why he’s chosen not to heal the disciple James (called “Little James,” played by Jordan Walker Ross). In the story, Jesus explains how the disciple’s physical disability gives him unique ways to testify about God’s goodness in the midst of suffering.
Many viewers found themselves tearing up by the speech’s end. It’s a touching scene. Yet it’s also 100 percent made-up. Jesus never said or did anything like this in the four gospels. That’s given pause to some Chosen viewers.
Is it right to make up whole speeches like this and depict Christ choosing not to heal a disabled man? Or have the filmmakers taken too much creative license?
Let’s explore defenses and cautions for discerning fictional Jesus adaptations.1
Remember, many Christians already adapt Jesus for fiction
The Chosen is far from the first story to make fictional Jesus dialogue. We can learn a lot from returning to one grandfather of modern Christian fantasy, C. S. Lewis.
Lewis may not have attempted biblical fiction. But he does portray the fictional Christlike lion Aslan, Narnia’s ruler who gives plenty of moving speeches. In Prince Caspian he encourages Lucy not to lose herself in “what if” thinking. In The Horse and His Boy, Aslan tells Shasta he’s always directed his life, even when Shasta didn’t realize Aslan was there. And, of course, near The Last Battle’s end, Aslan proclaims that “the dream is ended: this is the morning!”
One might try to differentiate Narnia from The Chosen with a defense that Aslan is just an allegory for Jesus, not the actual Jesus. On the contrary, Lewis was quite insistent in his letters that Aslan was no allegory. In Narnia, Aslan is Jesus. Lewis is not telling an allegory but a “supposal” of how the Son of God might act if there was another world in need of saving like ours.2 Since both The Chosen and Narnia are fundamentally “what if”s about Jesus, we ought to judge both by the same principles. If made-up speeches are fine for Narnia, they’re fine in The Chosen.
But why accept either approach? I’d argue it’s because we already accept nonfiction about Jesus’ teachings. Nonfiction authors regularly use the epistles to explain what Jesus would want us to believe (even if the gospels never record him saying this). And if we can dig into implications and reasonable extrapolations in nonfiction, we can do so in fiction. Both of these serve the same purpose: they argue, according to their medium, what kind of person Jesus was.
Instead of asking if we can have fictional Jesus speeches, we should ask if those speeches are biblically faithful.
Still, readers should beware some fictional dialogue risks
Stories that depict God do have a higher standard to uphold. Unlike normal human characters, God is inerrant. And just like nonfiction writers are careful in how they describe God, fiction writers face the same obligation. As readers, we ought not read stories depicting Christ without wearing our discernment goggles.
Instead, let’s ask two main questions to evaluate fictional Jesus dialogue:
- Does the Jesus character show morals and doctrines taught or clearly implied elsewhere in Scripture? If not, this is a clear red flag. But if so, the “black letters” of Scripture are no less inspired than the “red letters.” If Scripture elsewhere teaches a truth, it’s reasonable for a Jesus character to teach the same.
- Is the Jesus character consistent with how Scripture describes him? Even if he did not explicitly teach an idea, the character’s moral character should imitate—as much as humanly possible—the Christ whom Scripture describes. This includes depicting him as fully God and fully man, along with his perfect virtue.
These questions help us avoid being carried away by the emotions of fictional dialogue, and remember to discern the truth of any claims a fictional Jesus makes.
Fiction touches our emotions in unique ways. That’s why we must be even more careful when reading fiction about Christ than reading nonfiction about him. With fiction, it’s much easier for us to be drawn away by false narratives. But that doesn’t mean we must avoid fiction about Jesus if the depiction is biblically faithful.
Let’s apply these guidelines to The Chosen
By the standards I’ve drawn here, I would defend Jesus’ conversation with Little James as a faithful scene. Yes, it’s made-up. But this scene (1) does show truths the Scripture implies, specifically 2 Corinthians 12:7–10, and (2) is broadly consistent with Christ’s character.
(The gospels don’t show Christ choosing not to heal anyone, but today we see many times God chooses not to heal someone who asks him.)
You might not agree with my assessment for this scene. In that case, Christians can discuss and debate whether the show portraying Jesus reflects the true Jesus. That’s just how we might debate whether any of us acted like Jesus at a particular time.
In the hands of skilled storytellers, Christlike characters like Aslan or The Chosen’s adaptation of Jesus can help us see legitimate truths about Christ through the dialogue and action of fictional characters. Yet we must admit that for a deceiver or misinformed Christian, such characters can also readily become blasphemous.
Let’s act like the Bereans and search the Scriptures for truth claims made about Christ. That way we can better discern how to celebrate Jesus characters who point us to the true Christ, and avoid characters who obscure his true image.
- Note: I assume readers already accept biblical fiction in general. For anyone with concerns, try this Discerning Biblical Fiction series from E. Stephen Burnett. ↩
- NarniaWeb features a fantastic in-depth article with tons of primary quotes from Lewis’ letters documenting this: “Why C. S. Lewis said Narnia is Not Allegory At All.” ↩
Hi, I’m a fairly recent Lorehaven subscriber. Although I haven’t yet finished Season 1 of The Chosen, I find this article a reasonable, well-articulated perspective on the issue of Biblical fiction in general. Thanks for posting!
You’re very welcome! Hope you enjoy the rest of the series!
Really grateful for this post, Josiah! Put into words what I couldn’t put together in my brain. I also can’t join the discussion because I’m not a watcher yet, but it’s still good to have this information.
You are in for quite a treat. In all the criticism, baseless and otherwise, many folks are missing the fact that “The Chosen” blends healthy apologetics with creative excellence. Throughout all three seasons, you see many truths illustrated:
(1) Jesus has not come to abolish the Law and Prophets but to fulfill them.
(2) Jesus will heal people who have faith, but in His timing and not theirs.
(3) Anyone can be chosen—regular people, poor, rich, Pharisees, anyone.
(4) Hidden in plain sight by the title: not all belong to Him, only the chosen.
(5) Jesus is fully God yet also fully Man, and so had non-sinful human vulnerabilities.
(6) All accounts of His earthly ministry come from witnesses and can be harmonized.
(7) Apostles who walked alongside Jesus were taking notes to become future gospels!
It’s not really my type of show, at all, but I’ve been convinced I must try it anyway, so it’s on my list. 🙂
Stephen, these are the details, IMO, that make “The Chosen” stand out as superior when compared to essentially every other show ever made about Christ. You might add a deeply thought-provoking #8. Jesus CHOSE Judas Iscariot, and at the moment of his choosing, He knew who would betray Him. Just as they portrayed Jesus giving a knowing glance at a crucifixion, they showed Him viewing Judas with that same foreknowledge. Throughout season 3, I’ve been paying special attention to Judas’ character. I know how it ends, but I’m deeply curious how they will show his path to betrayal.
Glad you enjoyed it, Kellyn. Thanks for reading!
The #1 complaint I’ve heard about “The Chosen” regards the response of so many people who use it as an aid to worship. Clearly, idolizing a character depicted by Jonathan Roumie is every bit as sinful as idolizing St. Peter, the Virgin Mary, or a painting of Jesus on the chapel ceiling. Idolatry is idolatry, and people are as prone to break the 2nd Commandment today as ever–just with pixels instead of gold.
For this reason, a lot of Christians have taken the hard line, with a few subpoints and addendums to the Law. “Thou shalt not depict Christ in any way, shape, or fashion. Thou shalt not put words into His mouth that have not already been written, nor shalt thou presume Him as saying anything not recorded for you in Scripture. Thou shalt not imagine.”
But I appreciate your salient point. Preachers imagine every Sunday when they infer and extrapolate Jesus’ actual words into modern application. Jesus literally said pluck out your eye if it causes you to sin. Nowhere does Scripture modify or explain that statement. So, we have a choice: either we refuse to add anything to Jesus’ words and go blind ourselves, or we use our brains. If a preacher can proclaim from the pulpit, with the authority of Holy Spirit, “What Jesus meant is…,” then it is entirely reasonable to portray Jesus having that same explanatory conversation over dinner with His disciples.
If someone watching “The Chosen” is a weak brother and supplants his daily Bible reading with binge watching, then that brother needs to throw his TV (and phone) in the garbage. He needs to pluck out his eye. This show is not a replacement for Scripture, as its director has stated multiple times. Viewing the show sinfully–that is, with an idolatrous heart–is sin. But Dallas Jenkins no more causes people to commit idolatry than Glock causes people to commit murder.
Good thoughts–I particularly appreciate your points about the stronger/weaker brother principle. It may be hard for some viewers to watch The Chosen without mixing up the real Jesus with the depiction in the show (or to idolize the depiction in the show), and there’s nothing wrong with choosing not to watch. (That’s commendable, in fact.) But for those who can watch the show without mixing up both, we do have freedom in Christ!