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Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: A Theological Critique

By April 16, 2004 No Comments

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has stirred up more than its share of controversy. All the culture wars and disputes about the role of religion in public life have come to the surface in the debate surrounding this film. Among Christians, evangelicals have embraced the movie even as moderates and liberals have been more critical. But within the Christian community I am aware of strikingly little theological discussion concerning this film. This essay will offer some observations intended to contribute toward just such a theologically focused conversation. My primary concerns are these: what does the film teach about the nature and character of Jesus’ death and its saving significance, and how will this film shape the piety and theological assumptions of its sympathetic viewers?

These are important questions in light of the film’s realism. Even the Pope’s reported comment, “It is as it was,” suggests both historical verisimilitude and theological accuracy. Yet it is precisely these two claims–often assumed by viewers–that need to be subjected to careful scrutiny. Before proceeding further, however, I want to disclose my own perspective, which is somewhat ambivalent. I was deeply moved by the film and found much in it to appreciate. Yet I was also significantly disturbed by other aspects, particularly some of its historical and theological assumptions. My hunch is that it is precisely this film’s ambiguity that makes it such a vehicle for controversy. In essence, those who love this film and those who hate it all have grist for their various and respective mills. If we are to learn and deepen our faith in response to the film, we need to do so thoughtfully and intelligently.

Making Things Up

First, a few complaints. One has to do with the controversy over the portrayal of Pilate. While the presentation of Pilate does generally fit with traditional understandings of his role, there are good reasons to raise questions about some of the specifics of this characterization. Unfortunately, some of this arises from Gibson’s choice to insert speculative material not found in the New Testament or in the extra-biblical historical record. In the film, Pilate expresses the fear that Caiaphas will start a rebellion against Rome. Historically, this is highly unlikely. The priests were among the most politically conservative of all Jews, especially in their view of Rome. No rebellion against Rome ever started with priests, and there is no evidence that Caiaphas was threatening rebellion. Why would someone plotting revolution say “We have no king but Caesar”? Similarly, I am not aware of any historical evidence supporting Pilate’s claim (made to his wife) that Caesar threatened to kill Pilate if there was another rebellion in Judea. Certainly the biblical accounts make no mention of this; nor do they portray Pilate so sympathetically.

These two “additions” to the historical record suggest that Pilate was painted into a corner against his will. There are elements of the biblical accounts that seem to indicate this as well, particularly Pilate’s repeated claims that he finds Jesus innocent (Matt. 27:23; Mark 15:14; Luke 23:4, 13, 22; John 18:38, 19:4). But David Rensberger’s work on Jesus’ trial in John suggests that not all the biblical writers see Pilate so benevolently disposed toward Jesus. Rensberger’s thesis is that Pilate is “undeniably hostile to ‘the Jews,’ but that does not make him friendly to Jesus, for whose innocence he is not really concerned. Rather, his aim is to humiliate ‘the Jews’ and to ridicule their national hopes by means of Jesus” (Johannine Faith and Liberating Community, 1988). In fact, there is considerable debate among scholars on the motivations of Pilate, particularly in the Gospel of John. Scholars such as Rensberger suggest that the fourth gospel portrays Pilate in more negative terms. Quite apart from this scholarly debate, Gibson’s portrayal of Pilate was significantly more sympathetic than the biblical accounts require and is part of what has led some to charge of anti-Semitism. I do believe that such charges have been overblown in the media, but at the very least one must recognize that Gibson’s is not the only way to interpret the biblical account of Pilate’s actions.

A second complaint focuses on the rather striking scenes that are not found in the biblical witness that distract from or distort the underlying theological themes of the passion. The notion, for example, that Judas was harassed by demonic figures masquerading as children was bizarre–and is utterly absent from the New Testament. Even worse, the scene in which a raven pecks out the eye of the thief who harassed Jesus conveys a sense of divine vengeance totally at odds with the biblical witness. These are unfortunate additions, and Christians would do well to make clear that these depart from the biblical witness and distort the Bible’s focus in its accounts.

A third complaint is more serious because it involves more deeply rooted theological underpinnings of The Passion. One scene, in my opinion, was dead wrong historically and theologically and reveals much of what is unsettling and controversial about this movie. After Jesus is beaten with rods, the captain calls a halt to the beating, apparently thinking that Jesus has been beaten enough. Jesus, however, struggles back to his feet, clearly defying his tormentors and virtually daring them to beat him further. They, of course, comply with even more horrific scourges.

At one level, this depicts an underlying machismo on Jesus’ part that is totally alien to the New Testament accounts. It’s more akin to Braveheart’s refusal of anesthetic before his being drawn and quartered than anything in the biblical witness. Nothing in the Bible suggests Jesus goaded his tormentors to increase his suffering. The inference Gibson seems to be making is that Jesus needed to maximize his own suffering so that it would be sufficient somehow to atone for the sins of the whole world. This crosses an important line: the Bible is clear that Jesus suffered and died willingly, but it never claims that he sought out physical pain. Nor does the Bible make a direct connection between physical pain and atonement for sins. It is never Jesus’ pain that is spoken of as having atoning significance; it is always his death. Jesus didn’t undergo pain for our sins; he died for our sins. Moreover, this emphasis on death aligns with the Jewish understanding of sacrifice: it is not the pain of the victim that atones, but the death of the victim. The movie’s perspective looks back more to medieval notions of the purgative value of painful penance than it does to the New Testament.

In this regard, it’s also worth noting that the New Testament has a word for torture: basani/zo. But that word is never used to describe Jesus’ passion; the Bible never speaks of Jesus being tortured or tormented. This is not what is soteriologically significant in the minds of the New Testament writers. It is not the pain he endured but the willing sacrifice of his life to God which the biblical writers view as having saving power. What links Jesus’ suffering and his death is the relinquishment of power and self-determination. Suffering and death entail the imposition of circumstances that we would never “naturally” choose for ourselves. Suffering is the proximate experience of a reality that comes to its fullest expression in death–the loss of control and self-determination. The fact that Jesus suffered before he died underscores his willing acceptance of the loss of all power and self-determination.

But when Gibson’s Jesus challenges those who are flogging him to dish out more punishment, it represents the exact inverse of a yielding up of one’s will and one’s control. Instead, Jesus remains entirely in control, directing even his own torture. Not only is there no hint of this posture in the biblical accounts of the passion, but at a spiritual level, such a posture is the oppo
site of the posture of submission and obedience that is the focus of the biblical writers. Moreover, it conveys the erroneous assumption that it is pain, in and of itself, that atones for sin rather than the humble offering of life to God. God is not a cosmic sadist whose righteousness can only be satisfied by the sufficient anguish of those who have crossed his will. God is the giver of life, who is honored when that life, freely given, is offered back to God in grateful obedience. This is the dynamic that stands at the heart of the passion of Jesus.

Last, I have substantial questions and reservations about The Passion’s symbolization of evil. Gibson’s choice to embody evil as a quasi-sexual, feminized yet androgynous malevolent presence is one of the most striking, yet problematic features of the movie. The first problem with this representation is its severe feminizing and sexualizing of the symbolization of evil. Evil becomes feminized most obviously in the inverse symbolization of Madonna and child, and it is sexualized when the snake phallicly emerges from under the robe of the figure in Gethsemane. Both of these feed into a traditionally sexualized understanding of evil that leads to an exceedingly narrow understanding of the nature and dynamics of sin. Evil is virtually equated with sexuality–and feminine sexuality in particular.

Secondly, Gibson’s portrayal of evil entirely divorced evil from the actions of Pilate and Caiaphas. Here the movie departs profoundly from the biblical witness. In the Bible, the “principalities and powers” are intimately interwoven with the rulers and authorities who stand in positions of power. Note the ambiguity of 1 Corinthians 2:8: “None of the rulers of this age [natural or supernatural?] understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” The movie can only imagine evil in individualistic and sexual terms and altogether misses the manifestations of structural and systemic evil that are so obvious and pronounced in the biblical witness. It would not have been difficult, cinematically, to symbolize evil in the scenes where Caiaphas and Pilate interact with Jesus, but the movie fails to make the vital connection affirmed in the New Testament.

What Makes It Good

Despite all these complaints, there was also much to appreciate and admire in this movie. The heart of this movie emerges in the acting of Jesus’ disciples, Mary, and Mary Magdalene. It is in their faces that we see all the dynamics of faith: love, fear, sorrow, horror, anger, amazement, wonder, pity, admiration, and devotion. As he denies Christ, Peter (Francesco Cabras) powerfully confronts his own shallowness and sinfulness. Jesus’ mother movingly captures the mingling of sorrow, love, and devotion that has always characterized the church’s response to the story of Jesus’ death. She does not turn away in repulsion from his suffering but follows out of love and devotion. It was her compassion that made the film heartbreaking at many points.

This underscores an important way in which this films is most emphatically not “just another slasher film.” In most cinematic violence, we see little of the reactions of bystanders, other than shock and terror, to sensationalized violence. Indeed, it is precisely the absence of normal human reactions to violence in the movies that makes cinematic violence so desensitizing and so very dangerous. But it is the response to the violence against Jesus by his followers that makes this cinematic violence very different. Without justifying the excess of violence in the movie, the responses of the followers of Jesus frame this violence differently, and more redemptively.

My second point of appreciation focuses on the movie’s accurate depiction of the horror of crucifixion. Even though the violence and gore is clearly “over the top” in this film, and leads to an almost fetishistic preoccupation with pain that is quite alien to the biblical witness, the film nonetheless accurately captures the brutality of crucifixion in the ancient world. Crucifixion was an exceedingly horrible and barbaric practice. It is unfortunate that by portraying Pilate too sympathetically, the film misses one of the clear subtexts of much of the New Testament: its critique of the “powers that be,” both Jewish leadership and Roman authority. These two powers teamed up to produce this barbarism, and the early church’s proclamation of the crucified Messiah was a persistent reminder that being a Christian implied having a highly critical view of worldly power and its use. By drawing such a distinction between the sadism of the Roman soldiers and the more civilized reticence of the Roman leadership, the movie passes on a chance to drive home some important New Testament lessons. But the basic building blocks of such a critique are present in the movie.

Finally, a more positive word about the portrayal of Jesus. Despite an unfortunate streak of machismo that underlies the characterization, particularly in the flogging scene, the movie makes it clear that Jesus willingly offers himself. He is not trapped, tricked, or railroaded into anything. Jesus does not seek out death; he does not desire to suffer for its own sake in masochistic ecstasy; yet his death is a willing self-offering. Jesus went to the cross willingly, not kicking and screaming. He refused to deviate from his course of obedience to God, even when it cost him his life. However we paint the nuances and particularities of Jesus’ motivation, the movie makes clear that Jesus died for us, and not simply as a tragic accident. That’s a basic and important aspect of the gospel that comes through clearly in Gibson’s treatment. Many evangelicals have rightly focused on this, and it informs much of the affirmation the movie has received. It is not an easy thing to portray the death of Jesus as an act of love, but this movie succeeds, and should be commended for it.

My hope is that the movie invites many further conversations–conversations about the historical record, about the meaning of pain and suffering, about the nature of evil, and about the theological underpinnings of our interpretations of the death of Jesus. Whatever we may think of Gibson’s movie, we can be grateful for the way in which it has sparked a renewed interest in questions of importance for all Christians to ponder and discuss.

James Brownson is academic dean and professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.