Are pictures of Jesus blasphemous? No, and if handled carefully they can be a blessing.
Additionally, what you think about pictures of Jesus is an insight into how you explain his humanity and divinity. Compare Mel Gibson’s bloody, suffering-focused The Passion of Christ (2004) to the discreet Jesus-subplot of Ben Hur (1959). During The Passion of Christ, the emphasis is so much on Jesus’ human suffering that we forget that the Son himself took on human nature and experienced death, and it was this fact, not the severity of his suffering that saves us. By contrast in Ben Hur the focus is on the work of Jesus and his relationship with the film’s protagonist, a theme which is actually at the heart of Christianity. A theme which declares, ‘who God is and how he saves.’ But back to the question of blasphemy, are for example the pictures of Jesus in the popular Jesus Story Book Bible blasphemous? Or Would it be wrong for a Christian actor or artist to depict Jesus in a painting, or portray Jesus on the stage?
Depicting Jesus is not only a question of Christology but also a question of worship. There was a resurgence of iconoclasm, the rejection of religious icons, during the Reformation. For example, during the Beeldenstorm “statue storm” in Holland in the mid to late 1500’s, the faces of statues in churches were hewn off and church naves stripped of all their religious symbols. This violent over-reaction came out of the correct idea that Christ alone is our mediator, that our worship, both public and private, should be directed to him and does not need mediating through a priest, icon or religious ceremony. The Reformation was not all about iconoclasm though. Dutch painters during the Reformation often painted the gospel stories populated with ordinary Dutch peasants, reminding us both of the majesty of the Incarnation and the brokenness of humanity.
So why are pictures of Jesus considered blasphemous? Three reasons are often cited: the commandment against creating graven images, the difficulty in accurately depicting Jesus and the danger of dishonouring Him. When God commanded the ancient Israelites not to create graven images (Exodus 20:4-6), he was prohibiting people from replacing God with a substitute. Belshazzar worshiped the false gods of gold, iron wood and stone, instead of the living God (Daniel 5:23). The second commandment is a prohibition against substitutions, not a commandment against artistic expression or imagining what Jesus might have looked like. The second reason often given is that there is a difficulty in accurately depicting Jesus because Scripture tells us that God is invisible (1 Timothy 1:17). However (pardon the pun) that’s not the complete picture of God. God does not remain invisible and unreachable, he has made himself known. The mystery at the heart of the universe is that ‘God in Jesus’ (Colossians 1:27) is reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19) and that we have access to God himself (Hebrews 4:14-16). Scripture gives us a reliable description of the incarnation, the Logos in human flesh. The last reason given is potentially a serious caution, that we might dishonour Jesus by mis-representing him somehow. Yes, God is holy (Isaiah 6:3), but the Son has a human body, a scarred-fish-eating-body, recognisable to the Apostles even after the Resurrection (John 20-21). The Son took a human nature (John 1:14) and if we loose sight of that fact we extinguish any chance of glimpsing who God is and the way he saves us.
Thinking, imagining and creating pictures of Jesus can actually be a blessing. J.R.R Tolkien was used by God to lead C.S Lewis to Christ and the argument that pushed Lewis over the edge was Tolkien’s observation that our creativity and imagination are an echo of God’s creativity (Genesis 1:1). The secondary world of a novelist is an echo of God’s creative act. The Jewish temple was made beautiful (Exodus 35:35) not to make it a fancy theocratic palace but because beauty itself is an echo of God’s eternal glory. The Apostle Paul wants us to worship God with every fiber of our being (Romans 12:1) including our imaginations and creativity. There is a spiritual benefit in letting Jesus grow larger in our minds than the many other competing fantasies, ideas and passions that lurk there or are inserted by the media we consume. Additionally, imagining Jesus keeps us from becoming Modernists, by valuing the dry facts of Jesus’ ministry over and above our subjective and imaginative reconstructions of his life, death and resurrection. If you’re feeling spiritually dry or bored with reading the Bible then there’s nothing better than pondering Rembrandt’s depiction of Christ or watching the The Miracle Maker (a movie about Jesus our family watches every Easter) or reading The Visit, Adrian Plass’ short story about Jesus visiting a little British congregation. Be cautious and be critical (as you should about most things) but don’t let the concerns I’ve analysed above stop you from delighting more in our Saviour with your imagination.