I have seen Charlton Heston in the 1959 film Ben-Hur more times than I care to remember, and I loved viewing it. I have never been bothered by the faux pas of the twentieth century images in the background of the chariot race, but have been moved by this simple tale of the injustice of human beings and the grace of God.
2016 sees Jack Huston playing the part of Judah Ben-Hur in the latest re-make of this great novel. It is far removed from the 1907 or 1925 silent films with the same name.
So what is the story behind Ben-Hur — the tale of the Christ, which was published in 1880, as its author was beginning a four-year term as US ambassador to Turkey?
Lew Wallace, the author, was born in 1827, the son of an Indiana governor. When he was just seven, his mother died and, as a 15-year-old, he was ordered out of his home. In the war against Mexico he served as a soldier, but later in the American Civil War as a major general.
Having studied law, he set up a law practice — even being involved in the court martial that tried Abraham Lincoln’s assassins — and he served in the Indiana State Senate.
A train journey was to change Lew’s life. Travelling in the same carriage was an atheist who had served under him in the military. For two hours, Colonel Robert Ingersoll poured out ‘a medley of argument, eloquence, wit, irreverence … [against] God, Christ and heaven, the like of which I had never heard before’.
Wallace was spellbound, walking along dark streets from Indianapolis Central Station to his brother’s house and musing over what he had heard. Is Jesus the Saviour of the world or not? He knew that he had to find out. Heaven or hell would depend upon what he thought of Jesus.
Lew Wallace was not religious, though he was fascinated by the wise men in the Bible who visited the Christ-child. But he was ashamed that he could not answer the unbelief of Robert Ingersoll. Compelled to study the evidence, ‘It only remains to say that I did as resolved, with results: first, the book Ben Hur; and second, a conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the divinity of Christ’.
As he wrote and examined the historical evidence for Jesus, he became a believer in God and Jesus Christ the Son of God. The man who was indifferent to religion had come to recognise that Jesus must be taken for who he says he is.
Wallace said, ‘It is not an easy thing to shake off in a moment the expectations nurtured through years … Ben-Hur persisted, as men do today, in measuring the Christ by himself. How much better if instead we measured ourselves by the Christ?’
The same thoughts were reflected in Ben-Hur, who looked for a king to defeat Rome, but got a suffering Saviour. The book took seven years to write, butbecame the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century. It has been translated into 40 languages and never been out of print since it was first published. The 650 hand-written pages, in purple ink, are still preserved.
The 1959 film broke all records as a box office block buster, with 11 academy awards. 50,000 people acted in minor roles or extras in the film, with 365 actors having speaking parts.
Lew Wallace died in 1905 aged 77. On his grave are the words originally spoken in the film by one of wise men who came to Jesus in Bethlehem, saying that he would not exchange an hour of his life in heaven for a thousand years of life on earth.
Judah Ben-Hur witnessed the real life events of the death of Jesus on the cross, and then three days later his resurrection from the dead. In fact, it was through the cross that the story depicts forgiveness and healing.
He says of Jesus, ‘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’.
In Ben-Hur, Balthasar says of Jesus, ‘He has taken the world of our sins onto himself. To this end he was born, in that stable, where I first saw him. For this cause, he came into the world’.
Judah Ben-Hur may be fiction, but it is true that Jesus is the Saviour of the world. It is true that he died on a cross, carrying on himself the sin of the world; that he rose from the dead three days later and is alive today; and, if you will ask him, will ‘take the sword’ from your life, bringing you forgiveness and new life.
It is also true that we will all appear before God the judge, and, one day, God will be with all who have received him as Lord and Saviour, for they will be with him in heaven for ever.
Lew Wallace found that it is vital not to assume that all you have been taught about God is correct. He went back to the Bible and sorted out what was really important and what he really believed. Will you do that today? Will you too put your trust in Jesus?
This article is available in tract form from 10ofthose.com.
Roger Carswell is an itinerant evangelist and a member of the Association of Evangelists.