This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 27, number 01 (2004). For more information about the Christian Research Journal, click here.
The Passion of the Christ is the most moving and memorable portrayal of Jesus Christ that I have ever witnessed. This masterpiece, produced by Mel Gibson, cowritten with Benedict Fitzgerald, and starring Jim Caviezel, clearly has been providentially ordained by God for such a time as this. It is not, however, without controversy. There are several concerns that media-savvy Protestants may have with The Passion. Among them are: (1) its graphic depiction of violence, (2) its shortage of doctrinal teaching, (3) the Roman Catholic viewpoints of its filmmakers, and (4) the claims of anti-Semitism against it. A careful viewing of the film, however, along with a consideration of its context, should allay these concerns.
The film begins in the Garden of Gethsemane with Christs betrayal at the lips of Judas, follows the last 12 hours of His life prior to His crucifixion, and ends with a brief scene of His resurrection. This is not, however, merely another retelling of the greatest story ever told; rather, it is an experiential exploration of the meaning of sacrificial substitutionary atonement like no other Jesus movie has ever depicted. Most movies about Christ have covered the unjust trials, beatings, and crucifixion of our Lord and Savior — some of them better than others — but never like this.
Gibson based the gruesome details of his film on a famous clinical investigation of Roman crucifixion and punishment titled, On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ, which was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 1986. The film translates this historical research onto the screen with a brutal vengeance: scourging whips of leather and bone ripping off flesh, pools of blood, an unidentifiable Christ with His face badly beaten. All of it is true to the Scriptures: But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed (Isa. 53:5 NASB); So His appearance was marred more than any man, And His form more than the sons of men (Isa. 52:14 NASB).
The messianic prophecy in Isaiah 53 is shown at the beginning of the movie to provide a biblical context for understanding all the violence that follows — and there is a lot of violence. The film is rated R because of the graphic depiction of Christs sufferings at the hands of His accusers. This historical detail, however, rather than adding to the Scriptures, merely translates for contemporary culture what first-century Jewish believers, to whom the Gospels were originally written, knew all too intimately, having themselves lost loved ones to the barbarism of Rome.
It is important to understand that the effectiveness of the portrayal of redemption in any story is equal to the accuracy of the portrayal of the depravity of the person(s) being redeemed. In other words, the brutal realism of Christs suffering is a graphic depiction of the depth of our sin and points to the costliness of the atonement that was achieved for us through His once-for-all sacrifice. To show anything less is to diminish the Gospel. This movie, with its grisly realism, provides a much-needed corrective to the bloodless Jesus of the modern pseudo-gospels, who exists to fill ones heart and life with peace, happiness, and fulfillment, rather than to die in place of sinners in order to save them from Gods wrath.
Jesus movies tend to reflect the prevailing attitudes and thoughts of their era, and The Passion is no exception. Past portrayals tended to be modernist, focusing on Christs didactic teaching. In The Passion, Gibson has given us more of a postmodern visual experience of Christs mission. He dramatizes a portion of the Gospel narrative where Christ says comparatively little (He did not open His mouth, Isa. 53:7 NASB) but does very much. The doctrinal perspective that is set forth in the film, however, spare though it may be, is consistent with the New Testament Gospels, and all of it serves to put the graphic suffering in context, giving it meaning and purpose.
Passion plays originated in the Middle Ages to dramatize the Gospel for the illiterate masses who did not have access to Scripture. In a similar way, many people today are largely nonliterate and image oriented, with entertainment and media functionally operating as their scripture. We live in a world in the grip of postmodernism with its negation of reason, language, and discourse. People are bored with sermonizing and preachiness, especially in the arts. They don’t want to listen to reason. They want to experience the message being communicated, not mentally process it with the questionable faculties of word-oriented rationality. Make no mistake, this postmodern prejudice is imbalanced, fallacious, and spiritually destructive; but just as Pauls message on Mars Hill identified to a certain extent with the pagan philosophers (Acts 17), so The Passion reaches the postmodern viewer with a spiritually moving experience of Christ. It will no doubt create similar reactions from the masses — some will sneer and others will want to know more (Acts 17:32). The story is presented through strong images and minimal dialogue that will transcend both culture and denomination. That’s the positive power of image. It may be the only movie about Jesus that most postmodern young people will ever consider watching.
Traditional Protestant thinking has often emphasized a word-oriented theology, and this sometimes to the total exclusion of image, thus suffering under an imbalance opposite that of postmodernism. The truth is, the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (John 1:14 NASB), a perfect unity of word and image. Christians, therefore, rather than nitpicking the emphasis made in The Passion, should use the movie as a positive springboard to elaborate on the Gospel to their unbelieving friends and family.
A third concern of some Protestants is the Roman Catholic theology of Mel Gibson, the producer. On viewing the movie, however, I find that if there is any Roman Catholic influence on the film, it is negligible to the point of irrelevance. In the film, Christs actual teachings are minimal and told in flashback, so truth is delivered more through context than proposition. The Lords Supper, for instance, is remembered at one point in Christs bloody punishment; yet, this symbolic connection is entirely in accord with Johns Gospel narrative, where eating His flesh and drinking His blood is identified with His death and suffering (John 6:51-58). There is no apparent notion in the film of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Eucharistic transubstantiation (i.e., the bread and wine substantially become Christs physical body and blood), such as in The Last Temptation of Christ, where Christ literally rips out his flesh and asks his disciples to eat it.
Even the sensitive and loving portrait of Mary in the movie does not seem to elevate her to the position of mediatrix (i.e., comediator with Christ). If anything, Mary’s part in the story is a welcome corrective to the Protestant tendency to overreact to that Roman Catholic doctrine by downplaying her role. In The Passion she is shown as a loving mother with a young adult Jesus who teases her affectionately. No Queen of Heaven there, just a good mom. She is shown racked with spiritual anguish pierced in her own soul (Luke 2:35) at every beating of Jesus. What mother would not vicariously experience the punishment of her son? She tells her son on the cross, Flesh of my flesh. Let me die with you, the legitimate heart cry of any mother. All these deep soulful connections shown between Jesus and Mary need not, however, compel us to specific didactic conclusions.
Lastly, the claims of anti-Semitism surrounding the film are entirely spurious. A few media commentators and activists have campaigned against the film for depicting the Jews as responsible for the death of Jesus, thereby supposedly fueling latent anti-Semitism in the hearts of some viewers that could lead to persecution and crusades.
There are several things that need to be addressed regarding these accusations. First, the movie is true to the New Testament depiction of Christ and His trial. Its bloodthirsty mobs, corrupt Sanhedrin (ancient Jewish leaders), and other betrayers of Christ are simply an accurate rendering of the Gospel narratives. If people have a problem with the portrayal of the first-century Jewish people in this movie, it is not the movie they ultimately have a problem with, it is the Gospel records. Gibson has even proven his spirit of inclusiveness by removing a controversial, though biblical, line in the movie where Caiaphas the high priest accepts collective guilt with the words, His blood be upon us and our children.
Second, Italians get a far worse rap in this film than Jews. The Romans are depicted as barbaric, pagan, and brutal in their treatment of Christ, but no one seems to be protesting about that. The truth is, according to the New Testament, we are all guilty of crucifying Christ, which is why He came to die in the first place, to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
Third, the most obvious difficulty with claims of anti-Semitism against the film is that Jesus and His disciples were Jews themselves. Their declarations in the New Testament Gospels and epistles of national Jewish guilt for rejecting the Messiah (the Christ) cannot possibly come from racial hatred, but from love for their own people and a desire to see them repent (Acts 2:22-40; Rom. 11). They could no more be considered anti-Semitic than could any of the Old Testament Jewish prophets who made proclamations against the sins of the nation of Israel.
Finally, the New Covenant promised by the Jewish prophets (Jer. 31:31-34) was not intended to bring about racial separation but racial integration, the unification of Jew and Gentile into one family (Hos. 1:10). Through Messiahs sacrificial atonement, God removed the barrier between the two so that they could become one international entity of believers (Eph. 2:11-16). In this sense, Christianity is not an exclusive faith but an inclusive one (Gal. 3:28). In being true to this theme of Scripture, therefore, The Passion cannot possibly be anti-Semitic, because it projects both collective guilt and collective redemption on the whole world.
We Christians are well known not only for our negative criticism of Hollywood, but also for our less-than-adequate positive involvement in that industry with an eye toward reform. Here is a chance for the Christian community to do some good in Hollywood. Right or wrong, studios will make more movies like The Passion if they see that there is money in them; so let’s support the movie in every way we can. We should not just wait for it to come out on video, we should see this movie in droves at the theater. We should not just go alone, but in groups (and especially take unbelievers). We should not just see it once, but twice. And we should all buy the DVD or video. Let’s not just critique culture, lets actually transform it by being redemptively involved in it. — reviewed by Brian Godawa