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The Passion of the Christ: A Powerful Spiritual Experience

Copyright 2004 by Gretchen Passantino.

Few would argue against the proposition that Billy Graham was the single greatest tool of evangelism God used in the 20th century. I believe Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ may well be the single greatest tool of evangelism God uses in the 21st century. Exaggeration? I don’t think so. In a worldwide culture of visual communication and subjective experience, this movie version of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has the potential to impact more people in more cultures than any other single individual, book, or evangelism method.

The apostle Paul defines the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 as the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on our behalf according to the scriptures, and that is what director, writer, and producer Mel Gibson has delivered. Careful to point out that this movie is not itself the gospel, but is his artistic representation of the gospel as found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Gibson has nevertheless proved more faithful to the words of scripture than has any other Hollywood bible story production ever.

I had the opportunity and privilege to see the movie in the midst of the editing process and to speak briefly with Mr. Gibson. Seeing this movie was one of the most significant spiritual events of my life. I am convinced that Mr. Gibson is a Christian of remarkable humility, faith, and commitment to following God’s will in his life, no matter what the cost. His work on this project is a living example of Paul’s words in Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.”

In the Jesus of The Passion of the Christ, gone is the effeminate Aryan proverb-spouting Jesus of the 1950s. Gone is the virile anti-hero Jesus of the 1960s. Gone is the mentally ill and emotionally conflicted superstar Jesus of the 1970s. Gone is the sexually motivated revolutionary Jesus of the last part of the century. In the Jesus of The Passion of the Christ we encounter the Jesus of scripture: God manifest in the flesh, fully human and fully God, totally committed to his redemptive work on behalf of a humanity that scorned him, empowered by the Holy Spirit to endure unspeakable torture and pain willingly as our substitute on the cross. In this Jesus we see the power in suffering, the grace in enduring, the mercy in sacrifice, the strength in submission.

Jim Caviezel, who portrays Jesus, brings us a Jesus who is complex – with the physical stature and bodily grace of someone who has made his living building things and the emotional depth of someone whose empathy transcends mere emotion and emerges as burden-bearing self-sacrifice. If eyes are “the windows of the soul,” then the soul revealed in Caviezel’s eyes is that of the eternal Son of God who loved us so much that he sacrificed himself for us while we were his enemies. When we hear him cry, “Father, forgive them!” we believe him, even though we have seen him endure seemingly endless beating and mockery at the hands of the very ones for whom he prays. When we see him suffering – almost to death – in the Garden, we catch our breath as we see him on the brink of expiring right there, and then we rejoice when, strengthened by God’s own power, he rises and crushes the serpent beneath his heel.

The script, by Mel Gibson and co-writer Benedict Fitzgerald, focuses on the arrest, beating, trial, and execution of Jesus Christ. Woven into that fabric (mostly through the perspectives of Jesus’s mother, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Peter, and Judas) are some of the most significant acts of Jesus’s life and ministry, including the Sermon on the Mount, the woman caught in adultery, the Last Supper, and the Garden of Gethsemane. Through the eyes of Mary, played by Maia Morgenstern, we experience the bittersweet love of the Savior’s mother: she would give her life for her Son, but she realizes he must give his life for others. Through the other Mary (Monica Bellucci) we see the overflowing of love that springs from one who has been forgiven much. Even in the unbelieving Jewish leaders and Roman officials we see how much this one man’s life impacted each of them as the challenge of his love provoked their anger and fear. In the sublime unfolding of events, it is clear that the cowardice of Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) is as much to blame for the death of Christ as the rage of the high priest, Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia) or the self-seeking zeal of Judas (Luca Lionello); that in fact Christ willingly and powerfully laid down his own life on behalf of all sinners – even you, even me, even Mel Gibson. Those who think the film is anti-Semitic have missed this clear message. Gibson understood it: that’s why, in the close up scenes of the Roman soldier’s hands gripping the spike and wielding the mallet, it is Mel Gibson’s hands that are filmed nailing his Savior to the cross.

Evil is depicted in The Passion of the Christ in both human and non-human forms. There are the expressions of sadistic pleasure on the faces of the soldiers who whip Jesus’s back into bloody strips. There is the bold picture of cowardice in Pilate’s washing his hands of Jesus’s sentence. And when the movie depicts non-human evil, it is a fascinating artistic rendering of the Father of lies (John 8:44). Subtly entwined in the backgrounds of some scenes is a curious robed figure that seems at once alluring and sinister, beautiful and grotesque. This androgynous specter lurks in the shadows, neither male nor female, human nor demonic. The Bible does not describe Satan in physical terms, except by inference (in conversation with Jesus in the wilderness) or when someone is demon possessed, but propositionally Paul describes him ” masquerading as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14) – both deceitful and appealing. It is clear that it was not mere human agency that prompted the crucifixion, but the designs of the devil as well. (And yet, by it, God provided atonement for the whole world – what others meant for evil, God used for good.) The depiction of the devil in The Passion of the Christ is the best non-verbal depiction I’ve ever seen.

The violence of the movie is nearly overwhelming. It is vivid, realistic, and unrelenting – just as it was when it actually happened to the Lamb of God. That he who knew no sin, who came to save the world, would be so cruelly abused has been lost in our culture of sanitized, self-absorbed pseudo-Christianity, a culture in which anything unpleasant, such as our own desperate sinfulness and its deadly consequences written in the blood of Jesus Christ, is often ignored and rarely depicted.

It disturbed me to see Jesus thrown to the ground, hit, kicked, and beaten about the head. The brief respite of a flashback hardly relieved me. It made me feel ill to see the Roman soldiers gleefully whipping that strong, tanned back until it was layered with welts, blood, and bruises. The tears in Mary’s eyes as she watched her son suffer and remembered his words at the Last Supper, “This is my body, broken for you,” gave me only slight comfort. I almost couldn’t watch anymore as he fell, bleeding, to the hard stones along the way to the hill of execution. I’ll never forget the look in Mary’s eyes as she remembered how she had cradled her young son in her arms when he fell as a child – and how she could not go to him now, in his hour of greatest suffering. And when I heard and saw the spike pierce his flesh, I flinched and pressed myself into the back of my seat. Even now tears fill my eyes as I remember the look in his eyes as he seemed to be looking right into my heart, “Father, forgive them.” And yet this is a violence that has a purpose: the redemption of the whole world by the Son of God, who came and took the punishment we – I – deserved. How can I not look? How can I turn from him when he did not turn from me?

There may be those who predicted that an R rating for this film would effectively eliminate all religious people from the audience. They don’t understand that this violence is the only violence that is not gratuitous. It is the only violence with purpose. It is the only violence by which the world is redeemed. Will it be difficult for most people to watch? It was for me. But I am a better person, a better Christian, because I experienced the truth and reality of Christ’s suffering with an emotional immediacy and spiritual depth I’ve never experienced before.

As Mr. Gibson has said, Jesus’s story is the only true “hero story to beat all hero stories.” The hero suffers and dies to save others, and the last enemy conquered is death itself! The literal, physical, bodily resurrection is the end of the story and the beginning of forever for all who trust in him. Do not be afraid, Christ proclaims to us, I have overcome the world!

Mel Gibson believes that the Bible is God’s Word – complete, total, without error – and that the gospel is the core of the entire book. By using Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the eyewitness accounts of the historical events of the gospel, Mr. Gibson has taken a bold stand before an unbelieving world. By using the languages that would have been used at the time, he has removed the gospel from any one people group or language group and placed it within the larger context of the whole world. By adding subtitles he has ensured that those who do not know the story will be able to follow the Shepherd as he lays down his life for the sheep. By keeping his focus on the facts of the events themselves Mr. Gibson has bridged the chasms separating Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians. By translating the timeless story of the gospel into the film medium of the 21st century he has brought the truth of everlasting life to those who are strangers to religion in general and Christianity in particular.

Mel Gibson did not make this movie to make money. He did not make it to become a more powerful Hollywood power broker. He did not make it to indulge his own fancies or cure his own problems. He did not make it to advance any sectarian cause. He has said clearly, plainly, and often that he made this movie to bring the gospel – the story of God’s forgiveness, love, grace, and redemption – to a world that is lost without it. I believe him. When you have seen this movie, you won’t be thinking about actors, Mel Gibson, or special effects. You will be thinking about how God loves you so much that he sent his one and only Son that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).

Why is it that Christianity today, in general, seems to gloss over Christ’s sacrifice for us? We seem eager to promote Jesus as our friend, our job counselor, our small group focus, our parental role model. But rarely do we think of Jesus who died for our sins. I think we have confused the ultimate by-product of redemption (love, success, peace, happiness) with redemption itself. We gloss over or pay lip service to the truth that we are lost, we are sinners, we are depraved, we are condemned, we are destined for hell, we are separated from God by our own rebelliousness – we need to be saved, and that salvation comes at the most expensive cost that could ever be: the death of God’s own Son, the righteous for the unrighteous; the perfect for the imperfect; the sinless for the sinners; the godly for the ungodly.

Please make it a priority to see The Passion of the Christ. And then take nonbelievers with you to see it again and again. I guarantee that you will have unimaginably constructive conversations with people who would otherwise be uninterested and unwilling to discuss God, faith, sin, and its remedy in Jesus Christ.

It may well be that The Passion of the Christ will be the single greatest tool for evangelism that God uses in the 21st century.

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