“Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” follows the epic adventures of an embittered Jewish prince whose quest for revenge against the Romans comes to a surprising end when he finds forgiveness at a place call Golgotha where Jesus of Nazareth hangs dying on the cross.
General Lewis Wallace (1827-1905), byname Lew Wallace, distinguished himself as a Civil War officer leading his troops to several victories under Ulysses S. Grant. After retiring from the Army, he returned to his law practice in Crawfordsville, Indiana. By presidential appointment, he served as governor of New Mexico Territory (1878-81) and then as minister to Turkey. But Wallace’s love and calling lay in pursuing a literary career.
Encounter with an Atheist
September 19, 1876, on a train bound for Indianapolis, a man in a nightgown appeared in the doorway of Lew Wallace’s sleeper car. Wallace recognized him as Robert Ingersoll, then known as the nation’s most prominent atheist. Ingersoll had a reputation for challenging religious orthodoxy at every opportunity.
Ingersoll invited Wallace to his room where, according to Wallace’s recollection, the atheist went over the whole question of the Bible until early morning when the train arrived at its destination.
The argument had a powerful effect on Wallace, but not as Ingersoll might have hoped. Although Wallace had been indifferent to religion, the talk with Ingersoll motivated him to devote himself to a study of theology for the gratification of “having convictions of one kind or another.” From there, the life of Lew Wallace, in at least one respect, parallels that of his fictional hero, Ben-Hur.
Under the Beech Tree
In the mid-1870s, Lew Wallace drafted a story about three wise men guided by the Star to Bethlehem. As he began his investigation into the doctrines and traditions of Christianity, he expanded this story through exhaustive research to serve as an argument
Lew Wallace researched and wrote for four years. He did most of his work underneath a Beech tree near his home in Crawfordsville. Finally, in 1880, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ arrived at the offices of Harper & Brothers, which published the novel on November 12, 1880. The book became the best-selling novel of the 19th Century and has never been out of print.
How ironic that a conversation intended to convert Wallace to atheism instead provoked him to embrace Christianity.
Ben-Hur: The Story
Conflict and Revenge
Lew Wallace framed Ben-Hur through the eyes of a wealthy young Judean nobleman who lived during the time of Christ.
The conflict begins when Ben-Hur’s childhood friend, a Roman named Messala, betrays him for refusing to support the Roman occupation of Judea. The treachery costs Judah everything—his family, property, and freedom. Condemned to be a galley slave aboard a Roman war vessel, Ben-Hur survives against all the odds, driven by a thirst for revenge.
Providence at last brings Judah Ben-Hur back to Jerusalem where the opportunity to exact revenge presents itself. He enters a chariot race in which his old nemesis Messala suffers a crash leaving him crippled and penniless. But even that does not satisfy Judah’s appetite for vengeance against the Romans.
Encounter with the Christ
Judah Ben-Hur’s path intersected with that of Jesus several times in the past. Now he remembers the kindness Jesus showed him by offering a cooling drink as the long weary line of Roman slaves passed through Nazareth. Soon their paths cross again in a way Judah couldn’t have imagined.
A trusted officer of the resistance brings Ben-Hur word that the Roman governor sentenced Jesus
The Beginning of Faith
Crowds clamor through the streets of Jerusalem. Ben-Hur searches out the procession making its way to the place of execution. He hopes to rally his followers and rescue the Nazarene from the Romans.
But as he beholds the stooped and suffering man of sorrows, something changes in Judah Ben-Hur’s heart. “It may have been pity with which he was moved; whatever the cause, Ben-Hur was conscious of a change in his feelings.” He remembers the words once spoken by the man now bearing the cross, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
These words play over and over in Judah’s mind. And then “instantly he was sensible of a peace such as he had never known—the peace which is the end of doubt and mystery, and the beginning of faith and love and clear understanding.” This understanding sets the table for what follows.
Changed at the Cross
Judah follows the company to the hill called Golgotha, or Calvary, where they nail the hands and feet of Jesus to the cross and then drop it mercilessly into a prepared hole. The Man fastened to the cursed tree makes no cry of pain. Then, hanging by bleeding hands and feet, Jesus speaks his first words from the cross; words that penetrate Ben-Hur’s heart like a sword. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Now Judah understands the strange providence that brought him to this hour and to the end of his bitter quest for revenge. Forgive them.
The intentions of God are always strange to us; but not more so than the means by which they are wrought out, and at last made plain to our belief. (Ben-Hur, Book Eighth, Chapter Nine)
The Peace of Forgiveness
When supernatural darkness covers the earth at midday, Ben-Hur says to one of his companions, “O Simonides, truly as God lives, he who hangs yonder is the Son of God.” Through it all, “Ben-Hur was not once visited by the old spirit. The perfect peace abode with him.”
The new spirit cleanses Ben-Hur’s heart of bitterness, hatred, and the desperate desire for revenge. Judah Ben-Hur, like countless numbers since, hears the words of forgiveness uttered on the cross and finds the contentment that belongs to those who forgive.
Theologian and author Lewis Benedictus Smedes (1921-2002) wrote, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
Learning to Forgive
Does hatred, bitterness, or vindictiveness deprive your heart and mind of happiness and peace? Come to the cross of Jesus and see a man who suffered terribly and unjustly at the hands of antagonists who shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
See a man who forgives his tormentors even as he hangs dying on the cross they prepared for him. The man who taught us to forgive in like manner our enemies. “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
Forgiving may do nothing to change an adversary, but, as Judah Ben-Hur discovers at the cross, it brings perfect peace to the hearts of those who forgive.