The JESUS Film Project: Ecumenism & Apostasy?

A Review of I Just Saw JESUS (Paul Eshleman)*

The JESUS Film Project of Campus Crusade for Christ is a "movement ... committed to helping fulfill the Great Commission," as stated by Bill Bright in the forward to a book entitled I Just Saw JESUS by Paul Eshleman. The book was written by the director of the Project, who since 1971 has been a leader with Campus Crusade for Christ and is also chairman of the American Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism.

I Just Saw JESUS tells the story of a 1979 multi-million dollar Hollywood film which has been mass produced and is today being promoted and shown in all parts of the world by trained Campus Crusade for Christ personnel. The purpose, as outlined in the book, is to fulfill the Great Commission by the year 2000. However, the book reveals a bias toward ecumenism, "another gospel" of easy believism, charismatic theology including directly confronting demons, admission to tampering with the true story of Jesus' death in order to not offend Jewish people, and consultation with Coca-Cola to learn how to market the film as well as the soft drink. Complete with bad theology and joining with Roman Catholics, the Project has recently begun to market character education curriculum based on relativism and "natural law," and an international school curriculum. One must wonder how credible such curriculum could be when the Film Project itself doesn't have a correct theological foundation.

Presented as if the film goes beyond depiction of Biblical events to actually bringing the true Jesus to the screen, Eshleman describes one event surrounding the showing of the film as "something that would have happened in the Book of Acts" (p. 151). Apparently not having a good foundation of sound doctrine, an excited Eshleman is unable to explain countless bizarre experiences once thought to be reserved for the apostolic age -- as if they were somehow resurrected by the creation of the film. The accounts of mysterious events surrounding people seeing the "Jesus" of the film are described almost as a Roman Catholic might describe an apparition of Mary at Fatima or Lourdes.

This does not seem so unusual, however, since the author treats Roman Catholicism, whose blasphemous doctrines include works salvation, as a denomination within Christianity. He also states that his organization does not "plant" Campus Crusade for Christ churches, but churches of "different denominations." Would this include Catholic churches? There are certainly enough instances in the book where no distinction is made between the beliefs of Roman Catholics and Protestants. And the film is apparently presented in such an ecumenical light that "the communications office for the U.S. Catholic Charismatic Renewal shipped tickets to prayer group leaders all over the country ... Sister Rosemary in San Bernardino, California, sold more than eight thousand tickets herself" (p. 71). The true Gospel message should convict people of their participation in a false religious system, bringing them to saving faith, not make them more comfortable in their lost state.

Eshleman tells the story of one of the JESUS Film team groups in Thailand that had decided to spend the night in a village before returning home. The account of the experience says a great deal about the theological understanding of Campus Crusade's JESUS Film personnel. It reads almost like a Stephen King novel:

"They were told they could sleep in the Buddhist temple; they were not told that this temple was known for miles around for its inhabiting demons. Others who had tried to stay there either had been run out before morning or had been found dead the next day ... Shortly after drifting off to sleep they were awakened by a hideous beast. There in the corner of the room appeared the most frightful image they had ever seen. Fear struck them all like an icy fist ... 'Let's do what Jesus does in the film,' someone shouted. So together they prayed, and cast the demon out of the temple in the name of Jesus! Sensing that the demon had lost his power in the presence of the Son of God, the entire team fell into peaceful sleep" (p. 112).

Since when do missionaries in a foreign land refer to films for their theology and guidance rather than the written Word of God? Shouldn't they have been asking what the Lord instructs us to do in such situations rather than the "Jesus" of the film?

In another situation, Eshleman describes a Muslim merchant who had read some of the New Testament and "knew this was the truth he sought ... (but) was not sure how to draw it into his life." When the film's showing required a Christian sponsor he said, "I am a Christian." Subwi, the man just described, was the husband of a non-believer. The story is told:

"And Subwi's wife? She put up such an antagonistic resistance to his new faith in Christ that an evil spirit moved into their home. 'My wife knew it well,' Subwi told me. 'We could not see it but whichever room it was in had the odor of a dead body, and you could tell when it moved from room to room. Every time I knew the spirit was there I would command it to leave in the name of Jesus and it would leave" (p. 120).

No clarification of the story was made to correct Subwi's approach to demonic activity. And it was never suggested that he needed to call upon our Heavenly Father for protection. Nor was it explained that salvation is not just a matter of drawing Jesus into our lives. Simply to read the Bible and be interested in Jesus Christ does not constitute salvation. Certainly our merciful God understands the hearts of those who call upon Him, but for the sake of the reader, the writer might have clarified these points -- that is, if he even realized they were incorrect. Instead, he never describes what true salvation is; he only explains the unusual events from his own perspective:

"To those of us 'older,' more westernized believers, voodoo and demons, healings and angels are somewhat 'out of the ordinary' and a little hard to believe. Certainly we acknowledge that God can still work miracles -- after all, He is the same yesterday, today and forever. But it is still a bit baffling to some of us "conservative" folks to hear what is happening in other parts of the world" (p. 109).

Next, Eshleman tells a story involving a group of "thugs" who intended to rob the film team of their equipment. Again, this account fits with charismatic or Roman Catholic theology, not with the Word of God:

"But as they approached the entrance, they were startled by two brilliant white beings filling the doorway. Both were over eight feet tall and brandished flaming swords. Frightened the robbers ran into the darkness ... Hiding in the bushes, they convinced themselves that they had probably seen a ghost and decided to try again. They went around to the back door this time, but again the figures appeared, blocking the entrance, keeping them from what they had come to steal ... One of the robbers cried out, 'If this is the power of their God, we dare not steal from them!'" (pp. 112-113).

Besides the accounts of demons being spoken to and cast out (which is reserved for God to do) and miraculous healings, in one particular story a witch doctor (bhaghat) in India "realized that Jesus was a powerful God." This incredible story speaks for itself:

"In a flyer about the film he found a photograph of this Jesus, and, taking it home, he carefully placed it with the pictures he already had of other gods and sacred beings that he worshiped ... Starting at the beginning he looked carefully at each face. Some were beautiful, some grotesque, but finally he was looking again into the eyes of the man Jesus. They could not all be the same, he reasoned. There had to be one God who was more powerful than all the rest, and He would be the one true God. Yet how would he know which one it was? A test. That was the answer, a test that only the most powerful God of all would be able to pass ... The searching bhaghat laid a tiny ball of dried cow dung, a common fuel burned in India, directly in front of each picture. He believed that only the one true God would have power enough to ignite the ball of fuel that sat before his picture. He put the last of it out and stepped back to wait ... Almost immediately the bit of fuel in front of the picture of Jesus burst into flame and burned until it was gone. It was the only one and it was enough to convince him that Jesus was the one true God he longed to know. Without a second thought, he rid his home of the false gods he had worshiped, and now he spends much of his time sharing with the other bhaghats of his city how it is he is so sure that Jesus is the one true God" (pp. 114-115).

Based on a witch doctor's challenge, would the one true God ignite a piece of cow dung in front of an actor's photo to prove that Jesus is the true God? Hasn't God already proven Himself to us through His Word -- that He is greater than the gods of this world -- without having to pass a test? If God responded to our challenges, couldn't this test even run the risk of the man worshiping the photo rather than the true Christ? Did the man truly become saved by this unscriptural method?

The story never even indicates whether or not the witch doctor became a true Christian. In fact, none of the described conversion experiences ever truly spell out salvation, and nowhere in the book is there a reference to our Heavenly Father. Yet Jesus Christ told us to pray to the Father. Instead, everything is related to meeting "Jesus." Sometimes people viewing the film were described as "sitting at the feet of Jesus."

Eshleman goes on to explain how the JESUS Film Project decided to down play the Jewish role in Jesus Christ's death:

"Mark Tannenbaum, head of the American Conference of Christians and Jews, bestowed his blessing and backing. 'My primary concern,' he said, 'is that we don't add to existing anti-Semitism by portraying the Jews as Christ-killers again.' ... That thought had never crossed my mind before; the Jews had not killed Christ. It was my sin that kept Him on the cross ... But we decided that to help prevent the Jews from being blamed for Christ's death we would introduce Pilate with the following words: 'He was handed over to Pontius Pilate, the most vicious of all Roman procurators, alone responsible for the crucifixion of thousands.' ... [Roman Catholic] Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen personally gave his warm approval" (p. 47).

Were they afraid that the true Biblical account of Jesus Christ's crucifixion would offend people? And why seek the approval of a Roman Catholic leader?

There are other problems with the JESUS Film Project too numerous to name in this short report. True Christians should seriously reconsider their support for a film and its sponsoring organization whose planning involved changing the true story of Christ so as to not offend certain people. Isn't the Word of God still sufficient for presenting the true Gospel? Without careful study of the film script, how will we know if other ecumenical compromises might be contained in the film? By admission, we know of one. And beyond that, Campus Crusade's personnel claim to have spoken directly to Satan's demons to "cast them out" at numerous showings (per Eshleman in his book).

The Word of God is sufficient for outlining the true means of salvation. And it is sufficient for exposing false teaching. We are to avoid the appearance of evil, and must enter by the narrow gate. If we lead others through the broad gate, great is the loss, and great is our accountability. Association with, and promotion of, the JESUS Film Project places one in a very compromising position. Did Paul not instruct us to refuse any other gospel? A false gospel gives people a false sense of eternal security.

Charismatic or weak theology can lead to ecumenism and even apostasy by being vulnerable to uniting with New Age/Occult theology. This puts a hole in our armor, and is not only dangerous to ourselves, but to those who are lead through the "wide gate." If the missionaries of the New Age and other religions such as Roman Catholicism find it so easy to work in union toward the same goals with projects such as this, does it not bring up a question about how much truth is presented in the film? Shouldn't it either offend or convert, not just give the viewers a warm fuzzy feeling inside?

The charismatic movement's influence has spiritualized the film of Jesus' life, just as its teachers often spiritualize Scripture. The film also appears to be elevated to the level of Scripture. Eshleman says: "Far beyond entertainment, the film evangelizes, edifies, teaches and makes disciples" (p. 177).

Whether it is the ecumenism, easy believism, charismatic theology, tampering with the true story of our Lord Jesus Christ, or just the Coca-Cola-like marketing methods used, the JESUS Film Project goes far beyond depicting an accurate Biblical account of Christ's life. We must seriously consider the impact we might have in supporting such an agenda by promoting in any way the film or the organization behind it.

* This report has been adapted from an October 1996 report by K.E. Barr, which also appeared as Appendix B of the booklet Unholy Alliances 2000. The booklet is available for $5.00 from The Bookery, P.O. Box 1316, Laurie, Missouri 65038.

Biblical Discernment Ministries - 12/97