Question: "Does portraying Jesus in movies violate the second commandment?"
Answer: Numerous movies and television programs have portrayed Jesus. These appearances on film are not always accurate. In fact, some are deliberately blasphemous. Others appear to be positive, well-meaning attempts to sincerely represent Christ and His earthly life. Are these depictions biblical? Are they allowed? Insulting, depraved versions of Jesus are obviously sinful. Some Christians claim any representation of Jesus on film breaks the second commandment, which says, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20:4). Yet the law in question prohibits actual idolatry and images intended for improper worship (Exodus 20:5). It did not condemn every form of visual representation.
The key term in the second commandment is the Hebrew root pecel. This has been famously translated as “graven image” (KJV). That English phrase suggests something carved or inscribed. However, pecel refers to an object specifically intended for worship: an idol (Exodus 20:4). Other carvings, such as those mentioned in 1 Kings 6, use different Hebrew terms. The second commandment continues by speaking about bowing down and worshiping these prohibited items (Exodus 20:5). When the term seen in the Ten Commandments appears elsewhere in the Bible, it is always connected to idolatry and improper worship (e.g., Psalm 97:7; Isaiah 42:17; Habakkuk 2:18). Other English translations of Exodus 20:4 use terms such as “carved image” or simply “idol.”
The full text of the commandment refers to images of anything—spiritual or physical—used for worship purposes. Were it to forbid all possible images of Jesus, it would prohibit representations of anything for any reason. When the object is not the focus of prayers, offerings, veneration, or other spiritual practices, it is not an idol. Of course, an object can become an idol, even if it wasn’t made with that intention (2 Kings 18:4). But the decorations of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:29, 32) and figures placed on the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:18) were not the kind of items being banned. This means the second commandment would not prohibit all artistic representations of Jesus.
However, portraying Jesus on film introduces concerns. Movies and television capture our attention and exert potent influence. Without care, details from such media become assumptions, which become traditions, which become dogmas. Many modern expectations about Jesus are driven by His depiction in works of art. Some are so ingrained that people may be offended when Jesus is not visualized in a stereotypical fashion. In modern contexts, one can be tempted to identify a particular actor in the mind’s eye as “the real Jesus.” That makes some believers uncomfortable, even if they themselves feel no such urge. If or when the on-screen Jesus acts contrary to how the real Christ would have, it offers an opening for false belief and misunderstanding.
That said, misconceptions are possible through means other than cinema. Jesus can also be misrepresented in print, in static art, and certainly in preaching and conversation (Galatians 1:6). The Bible does not forbid all artistic depictions of Jesus. Since the Bible only provides limited details on His full, fully human life (John 21:25), we are free to use “sanctified imagination” to speculate. Films of actors portraying Christ are not themselves sinful. A specific instance may be deeply, profanely wrong, but in such cases the sin is in the blasphemy, not in the image itself.