I just spent the last two hours watching an innocent man get brutally tortured and eventually murdered-in painstaking, striking detail. That is the thought that went through my mind as I walked out of the theater after viewing the much anticipated and highly acclaimed movie The Passion of the Christ. It is difficult to find words to describe the graphic nature of the film. Gruesome? Grotesque? Shocking? Sickening? None of these descriptions fully captures the movie's portrayal of the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Collectively, perhaps they all do. The movie is two hours of relentless, wanton brutality with almost nonstop bloodshed, anguish and torture. Only the most unfeeling individual could watch this film and not have an emotional response. On the faces and in the eyes of those in the theater with me I saw tears, somberness, fright and shock-just to name a few emotions.
If the mission of the movie was to evoke emotion, producer Mel Gibson deserves an A+. However, there are several disturbing elements of the film that deserve comment. Before addressing some of these, allow me to frame the context of my remarks.
First, it must be understood that the movie is a Hollywood production, not a religious phenomenon. To be sure, it has captured the Catholic and evangelical communities by storm. Churches and other Christian institutions are purchasing blocks of tickets by the hundreds of thousands nationwide. Pastors and religious leaders are hailing it as "the greatest evangelistic tool in two thousand years!" Christians are captivated by it on the level of The Prayer of Jabez and The Purpose Driven Life-two recent Christian books-turned-phenomenon. But the difference between these books and The Passion film is that the books are a creation of the Christian community; the movie is not. Christians need to be very cautious about boarding the bandwagon of a purely secular production. At the very least, the widespread ecumenical support that the movie has received should give us pause.
Second, let me hasten to add that the secular origin of the movie does not, in and of itself, prevent it from being a positive contribution to the Christian arena. The question that needs to be answered and the question that this review seeks to answer is: Notwithstanding the disturbing elements of the film that will be addressed below, what, if any, are the positive contributions of this film? We will return to this question at the conclusion of the review. The problematic aspects of the movie may be divided into two categories: (1) theological/biblical issues and (2) functional/impactive issues.
One particularly troubling theological aspect of the film is its failure to adequately address the atoning significance of the death of Christ. A viewer unfamiliar with the biblical teaching on the substitutionary atonement of Christ will have no way to connect the dots between his own personal sin and the death of Christ. In other words, the movie indicates only that Christ died. It does not declare why He died. Unbelievers in the audience no doubt will feel pity for Christ and likely be horrified by the experience of this man, but they will have no idea that it was their sin that put him on the cross!
The importance of this point should not be downplayed. To the extent that the fact of Jesus' death is already widely known (though not universally known), what additional information does this film really give audiences? How does the depiction of His death in an unrestrained, graphic manner enhance the message? And, more importantly, is it possible that such a portrayal actually detracts from the message? Even for believers, who presumably enter the movie with some preconceived understanding of the atonement, the brutality is so arresting that one scarcely is able to muster the energy to apply the message personally. For my part, I found myself so taken by the violence that I just wanted it to stop. I did not even have time to consider the fact that He suffered these cruelties for me.
The point is this: The Passion of the Christ seizes one aspect of the story of Christ from the Gospels-his suffering and death-and isolates it from the larger context. Not only is this theologically problematic, but it also begs the question: Without the larger theological context, what distinguishes this film from the overabundance of other violently bloody films that have come from Hollywood?
Furthermore, the narrow focus on the suffering and death, without any context of why Christ was so reviled by the Jews, leaves the viewer wondering, "What did this poor man do to induce the Jewish leaders to murder?" The movie begins with Jesus already perceived as the villain in the eyes of the Sanhedrin and this runs the risk of portraying the Jewish leaders as nothing more than a capricious, bloodthirsty mob. That is not to say that the culpability for Christ's death, historically speaking, does not rest with the Jews. It does. But absent the cultural, historical and biblical context surrounding Jesus' rejection by Israel, one is left to fill in the gaps on his own. This could feed, as some have already pointed out, an anti-Semitic mind-set.
Another theologically disturbing element of the movie is its elevation of Mary, the mother of Jesus, to a level of prominence that clearly goes beyond her portrayal in the Gospels. Mary is present in every major scene in the film. Throughout the movie, which uses English subtitles to translate the Aramaic conversations between characters, Mary is always referred to as Mother (note the capitalization) even when addressed by individuals unrelated to her. This is an appeal to Mary's stature within Roman Catholicism as the Holy Mother. While Catholics may applaud such veneration, evangelicals should deplore it. Mary is not divine. She is not the product of an immaculate conception. She is not someone who should be worshipped. This aspect of the film brings into question the doctrinal discernment of several leading evangelicals who have supported the movie. To worship Mary is nothing short of idolatry and evangelicals should never condone it, either explicitly or implicitly.
The movie is laden with embellishments, which while not necessarily in contradiction to the biblical account, nevertheless stretch the imagination a bit. For instance, the gory episode where a bird plucks out the eyes of the unrepentant thief who was crucified with Christ is a macabre scene that has no basis in the text. This of course does not mean that it did not happen. But it is clearly conjecture. Its inclusion is gratuitous and serves only to intensify the gore genre.
The incorporation of certain mystical components into the passion story is also troubling. Children with distorted faces are portrayed as demons chasing Judas to his demise. Evil is personified in the form of a shadowy, wicked, nightmarish woman who appears at pivotal moments throughout the film. During Christ's prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, this devilish woman appears in tandem with a snake that slithers across Jesus' feet as he prays. During Christ's scourging she appears carrying a bizarre baby. Whom or what does this hideous-looking baby represent? Presumably it represents Christ, but the audience is left wondering about the connection. What is the source of these mystical, demonic apparitions? They certainly do not come from the biblical account. These are just a few of the theological issues associated with the film.
Further problems of the film relate to its functional/evangelistic implications. Given that the evangelical community at large has embraced, promoted and championed the film as "the greatest evangelistic tool in two thousand years," one must ask how can a movie that promotes only the death of Christ without any explicit statement of the meaning of that death (i.e. the substitutionary atonement) be used as an effective evangelistic tool? And given its theological shortcomings, what, if any, negative effects may result from doing so? These and other concerns are addressed below.
In an effort to stir up grassroots interest in the film, Gibson employed a unique marketing strategy in which he won over several key evangelical leaders who in turn hailed his movie as a masterpiece. The result of this promotion has been that local evangelical churches, colleges and even seminaries all across the country have rented out theaters in their communities and are inviting the unchurched to join them for this presentation of the story of Jesus Christ. Since the film does not in fact present the gospel but only the death of Christ, churches and pastors are left to themselves to provide a clear presentation of the plan of salvation. Thus, the potential for the evangelistic success of the film rests not with the film itself but depends solely upon the ability of others to present a clear gospel.
Herein lies the problem. If clear gospel presentations are given following showings of the film, the movie could be a good catalyst for evangelistic success. But it is no secret that the contemporary gospel message is already fraught with problems viz. its postmodern, emotion-driven, needs-based approach. Given that The Passion of the Christ inevitably will produce an emotional response from the viewing audience, the very real danger exists that the cinema aisles will be flooded with people responding to sincere but misplaced altar calls under the pretense that they are obtaining eternal life by their emotional response instead of by placing their faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. In other words, many people may be moved by the movie but not saved as a result of watching the movie! Worse yet, many people may think that their emotional response to the movie does save them, when in fact, it does not.
In order for the movie to be an effective evangelistic tool, it must be followed by a clear gospel presentation that explains the following:
1. Every human being is a sinner and the penalty for that sin is eternity in a literal place called hell.
2. It is this very depravity of man that required Jesus to die on the cross.
3. In His death, burial and resurrection, Jesus paid the penalty for our sin.
4. Jesus offers the gift of eternal life freely to all who will simply trust Him and Him alone as their personal Savior.
Without a clear gospel presentation this movie serves only to perpetuate the erroneous view that one's eternal salvation is secured by making a personal, emotional commitment to Jesus. Surely most if not all viewers of this film-believers and unbelievers alike-will feel compelled to make an emotional commitment of some kind to Jesus. This is good. But an unbeliever does not secure salvation via a commitment to Christ (i.e. a pledge of obedience to follow Christ born out of sympathy for Him or feelings of guilt over what happened to Him). Rather, an unbeliever is saved by trusting Jesus to give him the gift of forgiveness and eternal life which He purchased at Calvary.
There is another potential negative impact of the film. Reading is already a dying art in this postmodern era. Many people today prefer the big screen version over the print version of popular novels. When reading is done, it is often the page-a-day calendar variety. Far from directing people back to the Bible, The Passion of the Christ may become a substitute for it. (E.g. "Why should I read the Bible? I have already seen the movie.") Notwithstanding the claims of leading evangelicals today, the greatest evangelical tool in the last two thousand years is not this movie, it is the Bible. To the degree that Gibson's movie eclipses the special revelation of God's Word, it will have a negative impact.
Still another unhealthy problem spawned by this film is the rise in ecumenicalism. While liberal religious groups may see this as a positive effect of the movie, the blurring of distinctions between religious faiths is not only unhealthy; it is symptomatic of this age of inclusivism and pluralism. Today, Islam, Judaism and Christianity are all amassed as equal religions...equal pathways to heaven. Mel Gibson himself indicated in his interview with Diane Sawyer that Muslims, Jews and Christians will all go to heaven. Even within Christianity, this film has brought Catholics and evangelicals together even though each espouses a different method of personal salvation. Many evangelicals view this film as a great healing balm that will help tear down walls and create one unified, religious, Jesus-loving family. The exclusivity of the gospel is fading fast.
Are there any positive benefits from The Passion of the Christ? Only time will tell what impact the release of this monumental film will have within evangelicalism. Will it lead to an advancement of the true Christian gospel? Will it be a detrimental setback? Will its impact be indifferent? Ultimately, history will be the judge. In the meantime, Christians who can stomach the gruesome nature of the movie should see this film. The brutality it depicts is likely an accurate representation of what our Savior actually endured and thus it provides a sobering reminder of the depths of our sin and the height of God's love. But Christians should watch it with a discerning eye, realizing that much of its content comes from outside the Bible. As for its evangelistic impact, Christians should make sure that the movie is contextualized within the scope of the gospel message. The concept of salvation is linked inseparably to the concept of sin. If man's sinfulness is not brought clearly into the discussion, The Passion of the Christ becomes just another bloody thriller. But properly placed within the context of Hebrews 9:22-without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins-the movie can have a profound impact to the glory of God.