The Story Behind Ben-Hur

How a Civil War general learned the key to healing America
From the April 2016 Trumpet Print Edition

When Jesus Christ was being crucified, He said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). In the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the crucifixion was the great turning point for the protagonist, Judah Ben-Hur. After spending years seeking revenge against the Romans for unjustly imprisoning him and his family, Ben-Hur sees Christ’s example and his rage subsides. For author Lew Wallace, this change of heart was not merely an interesting plot twist.

Wallace was a Civil War general, ambassador, senator, governor, inventor and lawyer. Yet he will always be remembered as the author of Ben-Hur, one of the bestselling American novels of all time.

In 1876, Wallace encountered Col. Robert Ingersoll, America’s most famous atheist. For two hours, Ingersoll eloquently disputed the existence of God. Wallace was not religious and had not really considered the matter. The conversation caused him to study into the history, politics and life of Christ. Wallace wrote Ben-Hur while he was governor of New Mexico. After working late each night studying and writing for four years, he published the book in 1880. Wallace later said: “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.”

Ben-Hur tells the story of Christ’s life as He crosses paths with the protagonist. Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish businessman in Jerusalem, is falsely accused by a former friend, military leader Messala, of attempting to kill a Judean governor. Ben-Hur, his mother and sister are imprisoned unjustly. He vows revenge on Messala, nurturing his quest for retribution for years in the galleys. While on a long prisoner march north through Nazareth, he meets Jesus, who saves his life by giving him water. Through miracle after miracle, Ben-Hur survives a sea battle, becomes the consul’s adopted son, becomes a champion charioteer, and wins his freedom. Finally, he returns to Judea to kill Messala. Messala dies in a chariot race that Judah wins, and Judah realizes that revenge is a bitter victory.

Finding that his mother and sister have leprosy, Ben-Hur seeks after Christ for their healing. He ends up witnessing the crucifixion. Christ’s example of not desiring revenge but forgiving His murderers changes Ben-Hur’s heart, and he repents of his hate. He returns home to find that his mother and sister have been healed.

To Wallace, Ben-Hur’s choice between revenge and forgiveness represented America’s path to healing after the Civil War. Following the North’s victory, the nation was still deeply divided. North and South were two distinct societies. The slaves were free, but no one knew how to integrate them into society. The controversial and disastrous policy of Reconstruction was running its course, deepening the wounds of the war.

Wallace realized that Christian virtues were the path to a brighter future. Though never a member of a religious denomination, he did recognize the authority of the Bible. Ben-Hur contains many themes, but America’s situation in the 1870s is imprinted on the narrative. Americans could relate Ben-Hur’s path away from hate to their own lives. The book helped many Americans move past the divisions of war. America did not need Reconstruction; it needed repentance.

America’s fundamental problems today are spiritual. These real-world problems will not be solved by emotional sloganeering, political posturing, a new spending bill, or another election. They will be solved by applying the principles of the Bible.

Matthew 5 records Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. It contains many vital lessons for America today: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (verses 5-9). Humility, righteousness, mercy and peacemaking: These are not platitudes. They are attitudes and actions that bring peace and blessings.

Christ explained how to handle conflicts (verses 39-44): If you are offended, turn the other cheek. If a man sues you for your coat, give him your cloak. If a friend needs help walking a mile, go with him twice that distance. Instead of hating your enemies, love them, do good deeds toward them, and pray for those who persecute you.

Imagine a nation where division is solved by loving the enemy. By forgiving offenses. By real-world application of Christ’s teaching.

In 1876, America desperately needed healing. Lew Wallace saw the need for a nationwide change of heart, and he looked to the life of Christ. Will you?