The Passion of Christ

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken February 29, 2004

For once people are talking about the one thing that matters more than anything else in the world: the cross of Christ. For some weeks now, everyone has been waiting for Mel Gibson's new film on the final hours leading up to the crucifixion. His film is called The Passion of the Christ, from the Latin word passus, which means, “having suffered.” And now that the film has been released, people are still talking—not just at church like usual, but on television, over the radio, in the newspapers, and around the water cooler. Regardless what we think of the movie, or if we even see it at all, this is an extraordinary evangelistic opportunity.

The big question people have been asking is this: Who killed Jesus? To some extent, this question distracts us from more important questions like “Why did Jesus die?” and “What does this have to do with me?” People will do almost anything to avoid confronting the claims of Christ. Nevertheless, the question as to who killed Jesus is important because some people allege that the film is anti-Semitic. We should be concerned about this because, sadly, Jewish complicity in the crucifixion has sometimes been used to justify violence against Jews. So who really did kill Jesus?

In a way, we could say that God did it, since it was the Father's will for the Son to die (Acts 2:23), which Jesus willingly obeyed by going to the cross (Matt. 26:36-46). We could also say that the Jews did it, since they were the ones who brought Jesus to the Romans. This is an undeniable fact of history, and even the line that Mr. Gibson was forced to cut from the film (“His blood be on us and on our children”), is taken directly from the gospels (see Matt. 27:25). But it is equally true that certain Romans performed the execution. So in a way, we all did it. Jews and Gentiles alike—we are all implicated. There is a profound witness to this in The Passion, when Mel Gibson appears in the film as a soldier holding a nail that is driven through Jesus and into the cross. Who killed Jesus? I did, if he died for my sins.

There is a second question that people are asking—not so much in the culture at large, but mainly in the church: Is it appropriate to portray God the Son in a movie? Christians who say that it is appropriate point to the incarnation. Now that the Son of God has become a man, they argue, it is appropriate to portray him in bodily form. What we are not allowed to do is worship him by way of these images, which is idolatry. Our own Westminster Larger Catechism reminds us of this in its exposition of the second commandment, where it warns against “making any representation of God” and “all worshipping of it, or God in it or by it” (A. 109).

Perhaps this is a matter where Christians may agree to disagree (see Rom. 14:5). I myself could not in good conscience produce a movie like The Passion, although I do not condemn Christians who go to see it. What I will say is that the image has a way of distorting the word. If we needed to see a video of the crucifixion, God would have provided us with one. But in fact the way that people come to know Christ is through the preaching of his word. At best, any visual portrayal of Christ is superfluous. At worst, it distorts as much as it communicates. While it may serve to clarify certain aspects of biblical truth, driving them home with fresh perception, it also gives us powerful and memorable images that are not revealed by God.

A third major concern about The Passion is its disturbing and unrelenting violence. Indeed, this is another reason why many Christians have decided not to attend the R-rated film. It is certainly unsuitable for children. Gibson drew many of the details of Christ's physical sufferings from a famous clinical investigation “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” which was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 1986. He also based some scenes on material outside the Bible, from Roman Catholic nuns who claimed to have seen visions of the suffering Christ.

All this violence has a legitimate purpose. It is intended to convey something of the horror of Christ's death on the cross, a bloody reality that we often forget. “I wanted it to be shocking,” Mel Gibson has said. “I wanted it to be extreme; I wanted to push the viewer over the edge” [televised interview with Diane Sawyer]. If this was Mr. Gibson's goal, there is little doubt that he has succeeded. Not many viewers will be able to endure the torture that Jesus suffers at the hands of Roman soldiers without looking away. And of course this was true in the event itself, only more so. According to Isaiah, “His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance” (Isa. 52:14) that “as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:3).

Unlike the film, the Bible does not dwell on the details of the physical sufferings of Christ. Although they are reported in a matter-of-fact way, they are not graphically described. The Bible seems to be more concerned with what these sufferings meant. In this respect, physical torture does not convey the full horror of what Jesus endured on the cross. The Passion of the Christ may well help some people understand how much Jesus suffered in the body. People who see the film will never again think of him merely in spiritual terms, but as a man of flesh and blood who suffered and bled and died on the cross.

What no film can convey is the dreadful weight of our iniquity or the crushing agony of the Father's curse against our sin. These are things we will never know. They cannot be shown on the screen; we can't even read them in the Bible. They are things that only Jesus knows, because he alone experienced them in the depths of his soul. This was the great cost of our salvation: the killing penalty that Jesus bore for our sin. In a way, the fact that we cannot grasp the full agony of the cross is exactly the point. We do not have to suffer the passion because Jesus has suffered it in our place.

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