The Passion of the Christ

Review by Bill McKeever

With all of the publicity surrounding Mel Gibson’s film depicting the last 12 hours of the life of Christ, it was absolutely necessary that I see for myself if all of the accusations (and accolades) were warranted.

Gibson said that he wanted to portray Christ’s “Passion” (or suffering) in a realistic manner. This he fully accomplished, and it definitely earned its R rating. I have to agree that his depiction was much closer to how it really was than many (all?) of the other films that focus on the life of Christ. Scourging and crucifixion is not a pretty sight, and the Romans made sure that it wasn’t. They had a job that involved keeping order, and it was through the threat of severe punishment that order was kept.

The punishment scenes are intense. On a couple of occasions I found myself having to close my eyes momentarily, though my reaction was more based in compassion rather than a flinch. The lethal effect of the cat-of-nine-tails is vividly exposed when the Roman soldier, prior to using it on Jesus’ back, strikes a wooden table. Several of the pieces of metal tied to the end of the lash sticks to the wood. One can only imagine what that would do to human flesh. However, with each stroke of the whip, I couldn’t help but think, “That was for me.”

Many professional movie critics objected to the violence, yet I found it highly inconsistent that many of those who condemned The Passion for its realism have praised other movies with a high content of violence and blood. Such hypocrisy shows that it isn’t the blood that offended them. Rather, it is Jesus Himself. He offends them.

Many in the Jewish community decried the film by insisting that it would raise anti-Jewish sentiment. Is their protest based on the premise that Jews were not at all involved, or that Jesus was judged unjustly? History proves conclusively that the principle characters involved in Christ’s death were Romans and Jews. Amid such concerns I couldn’t help but wonder what they expect any film producer to do who chooses to portray the final hours of Jesus’ life. Do they really expect a guy like Gibson to introduce another people group so that their objections could be assuaged? Are these detractors so intolerant that they feel Christian history must be revised lest it trample on their sensibilities? Have we gotten to the point that Christian history can no longer be displayed publicly without protest? If anything, I thought the film pinned most of the brutality on the Romans. As of this writing, I have not heard any outcry from the Italian community.

Technically, because Jesus Himself forgave all those who were involved in His actual execution (Luke 23:34) no individual or people group should be blamed. On the other hand, since His death was a part of God’s salvation plan, if culpability is to be put anywhere it should be on the shoulders of those He came to save. For this I personally am willing to take responsibility, a responsibility I am sure many of my fellow believers are more than willing to share.

Was the film accurate? I had my concerns. It is well known that Mel Gibson considers himself “an old-fashioned Catholic.” As a traditionalist, he firmly believes that salvation can only be found within Catholicism (although he seemed to waffle on this when interviewed by Diane Sawyer). He also believes that Mary is a co-redemptrix, and her character plays a prominent role in the film, often being referred to as “mother.” Gibson has been critical of the Catholic Church as an institution and prefers a type of Catholicism reminiscent of pre-Vatican II. Gibson favors a Tridentine liturgy, and each Sunday he celebrates mass in Latin at a private chapel in his home.

No doubt many of the Catholic nuances will go unnoticed or thought to be merely “artistic license.” However, there is an interesting scene that Gibson chose to include that needs to be mentioned. In this particular scene, the wife of Pilate comes to Jesus’ mother Mary and offers her some white linen. Following Jesus’ scourging, Mary and Mary Magdalene go back to the pillar where Jesus was scourged and proceed to wipe up the blood with the cloth. Where did that come from? Actually this scene comes from a Catholic mystic by the name of Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), an Augustinian nun who was known to have had visions of souls in purgatory as well as visions of Christ’s passion. She was also known to bear the stigmata, or wounds of Christ. Gibson took Emmerich’s vision of “Claudia” coming to Mary from her book titled Dolorous Passion of our Lord.

I thought using the Aramaic and Latin languages was a great decision and for me, reading the subtitles didn’t distract at all. The use of a character portraying Satan who is seen moving among the crowds, though not original (The Greatest Story Ever Told used this approach back in 1965) was also a great effect.

There were some things I thought could have been easily included such as when the guards came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. John 18:6 states that when Jesus told them who He was, they fell backwards to the ground. The Passion excludes this.

I was troubled by the fact that Jesus, instead of saying, “It is finished,” says, “It is accomplished.” Gibson chose to use the Jerusalem Bible as his source. To me that choice of words doesn’t reflect the same impact as the Greek rendering. While the film focused on huge cracks in the temple as a result of the earthquake at Christ’s death (Matthew 27:51 mentions rocks breaking, none of the Gospels mention any damage to the temple itself), we get only a quick glimpse of the temple veil that separated the Holy of Holies. The synoptic Gospels all mention that this partition was miraculously torn from top to bottom. No doubt this was a dramatic event considering its massive size. In the film the veil looks more like a big blanket that simply falls to the ground. I noticed also that “Abenader,” the name given to the centurion overseeing Jesus’ execution, fails to remark how Jesus was truly the Son of God (Matthew 27:54).

Panned by the Mormons?

Mormons as a whole didn’t show nearly the enthusiasm for the film as did others. An article on ABC affiliate KIFI’s web site quoted LDS Church spokesman Kert Howard who said church members are admonished to “avoid R rated movies for whatever reason.” (“LDS Church Members Weighs (sic) In on ‘Passion,'” 2/26/04). I too don’t make it a habit to see R rated movies, but I have certainly made some exceptions.

You’d think that under the circumstances the Mormon Church would set aside its legalism just this once but apparently that isn’t going to happen. Dr. Robert Millet, professor of ancient scripture at BYU, did view the film. When interviewed by the Salt Lake Tribune he stated, “I don’t generally go to R-rated movies, but this is another experience where the rating system has betrayed us” (Salt Lake Tribune, “Clergy Screen ‘Passion,’ 2/25/04). Is the rating system really to blame or is it his church’s blanket policy?

However, there is probably a much bigger reason for LDS apathy besides the film’s rating. LDS leaders don’t see the final hours of Christ through the same theological lens as most of us. For many LDS, the main event took place in the first 15 minutes of the film when Christ is seen praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is in the Garden that Mormon leaders have said the atonement took place. “It was in Gethsemane that Jesus took on Himself the sins of the world, in Gethsemane that His pain was equivalent to the cumulative burden of all men, in Gethsemane that He descended below all things so that all could repent and come to Him” (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, pg.15).

According to the April 2002 issue of Ensign magazine, “As terrible as Christ’s suffering on the cross was, perhaps it was not as great as His suffering in Gethsemane. When he sweat drops of blood as He bore the weight of all the sins of mankind, the great agony of the Atonement took place” (“Because of His Love,” Ensign, April 2002, p.19). This film would definitely challenge the above assumption.

Mormon novelist Orson Scott Card confirmed the above conclusions when, in his review of “The Passion,” he wrote:

“My own beliefs are even more removed from the violence. After all, tens of thousands of people suffered death by crucifixion; hundreds of thousands have been scourged and tortured cruelly. I don’t believe that the manner of Jesus’ death had anything to do with either the atonement or the resurrection. That’s why we Mormons don’t use the symbol of the cross on our churches — to us, crucifixion was merely the method that the Romans used to execute those of whom they wanted to make a public example. Had the death been by lethal injection, the effect on our salvation would have been the same. I believe that Christ’s real suffering was the anguish he felt as he bore the horror of complete spiritual separation from God — taking upon himself to an infinite degree the torment that is the natural spiritual consequence of sin. The remorse and despair we feel (or will feel) to varying degrees because of our disobedience to or rejection of God, he felt so utterly that we cannot imagine it. In this context, what was done to his body was almost a distraction. Many people have borne as much.” (>>).

Comments like the above are commonplace among Mormons. However, Christ’s suffering and death on the cross cannot be minimized based on unbiblical presuppositions. Contrary to Mr. Card’s assumption, the manner of Jesus’ death had everything to do with the atonement. This is made very clear when Paul wrote, “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross” (Colossians 2:14). The New Testament writers consistently stress the importance of the cross (not the garden) when it comes to the atonement. See Calvary or Gethsemane? The Atonement According to Mormonism.

Dr. Millet concedes, “The word ‘whitewash’ may be too strong, but that’s how we [Mormons] sometimes treat the reality of Christ’s suffering,” Millet said. “We don’t want to think about how horrendous it really was” (Salt Lake Tribune, “Clergy Screen ‘Passion,’ 2/25/04).

Despite some of the concerns I have about the film, the most important thing I took away from the theater was the fact that Jesus didn’t take this severe beating just to make my resurrection possible. Nor did He endure such suffering merely to enable me to earn my “exaltation” by following various decrees or rituals. His suffering paid a full penalty for all of my sins – every one of them. To say I need to add in any way to what Jesus did is to declare that His suffering was not enough. What more could my sin-stained works add to what Christ did for me? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. When He said it is finished, it was absolutely complete.