Passionate about The Passion
by Samuele Bacchiocchi
Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, has stirred up deep emotions and passionate controversies. For some, the movie has become the touchstone of orthodoxy that separates the “sheep” from the “goats.” A more realistic separation is between emotional and rational viewers, and most fall in the former category. The emotions generated prevent a rational evaluation of the movie, especially by viewers unfamiliar with the biblical and historical errors subtly embedded in the film.
From a cinematographic perspective, the movie is an outstanding artistic achievement. The characters look real. The Jews, the Roman soldiers, Pilate, his wife, and the disciples are all dressed in the costumes of the times. Mary is an exception, as she looks more like a medieval nun than a first-century Jewish woman. Jim Caviezel, who interprets Christ, drips with sweat and blood and staggers throughout most of the film with one eye permanently closed, after being brutally beaten by soldiers within seconds of his arrest. The slow-motion whipping of Jesus accompanied by soft Gregorian chant stirs up deep emotional responses.
In spite of its outstanding artistic qualities, The Passion poses serious biblical and theological problems. It is filled with non-biblical elements, such as: the frequent appearances of Satan as an androgynous, hooded figure; Mary Magdalene entreating Roman soldiers to help Jesus; Judas being driven to suicide by demon-possessed children; Pilate’s wife giving to Mary linens with which to bury Jesus; the juxtaposition of the bleeding body of Christ on the Cross with scenes of the Last Supper to underscore how the Eucharist is truly the body and blood of Christ; and the final earthquake that splits the Temple in two.
In addition to these and other scenes, a Bible-believing Christian strongly disagrees with several theological concepts that reflect Gibson’s religious convictions, but that are contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture. Three of these deserve our notice.
The prominent role of Mary
Gibson portrays Mary throughout the 14 stations of the Cross as a partner with Christ in human redemption. After his denial, Peter falls at the feet of Mary, calling her “Mother,” and asks for her forgiveness. At the Cross, Mary utters the words: “Let me die with you.”
In an interview, Jim Caviezel, who plays the role of Christ in the movie, said: “This film is something that I believe was made by Mary for her Son. Mary has always pointed me toward the truth.... She architected this whole thing” (National Catholic Register, January 30, 2004).
Gibson expresses his amazement at how evangelicals are accepting The Passion, “though the film is so Marian” (“Mel, Mary, and Mothers,” Christianity Today, March 2004). Personally I am amazed at how even some Adventists are reconsidering the role of Mary in our salvation.
Salvation through Christ’s suffering
The centerpiece of The Passion is the relentless beating, whipping, and ripping of Christ’s flesh until He is crucified. There is no question that the crucifixion was brutal. But Gibson is dishing out to Christ the kind of punishment that would kill any superman three times over before his execution. Why? The answer is to be found in Gibson’s belief in salvation through the intensity of Christ’s suffering.
According to this belief, taught by Catholic mystics like Anne Emmerich who is the major source of the movie, Christ had to suffer in His body and mind the equivalent punishment for all the sins of humankind, in order to satisfy the demands of divine justice. This sadistic view of God is foreign to Scripture, and turns Him into a Being to fear rather than to love.
The Mass as the re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice
Gibson’s movie projects Christ’s sacrifice as taking place in a small scale at every celebration of the Mass. The script of The Passion was specifically written to highlight the link between Christ’s suffering and death, and the celebration of the Mass. Gibson’s intent is to show that the sacrifice of the Cross and the Mass are the same thing.
“The goal of the movie,” as Gibson admits in an interview, “is to shake modern audiences by brashly juxtaposing the sacrifice of the cross with the sacrifice of the altar–which is the same thing” (www.providencepca.com/essays/passion.html).
The Roman Catholic belief that Christ can be sacrificed time and again, and benefits accrue each time from His fresh atonement, is in contradiction to what the Scripture teaches: “He did this once for all when he offered up himself” (Hebrews 7:27, RSV). Protestants have historically rejected as “abominable” the idea that the priest at the altar has the power to sacrifice Christ again and again. But the widespread acceptance of The Passion by evangelical Christians speaks volumes about how the gulf of separation between Catholicism and Protestantism is being bridged and how Protestants are being drawn into the Catholic fold.
Samuel Bacchiocchi (Ph.D., Pontifical Seminary, Rome) taught theology at Andrews University. For detailed reviews of this film, check his website: http://www.biblicalperspectives.com.