The Passion of the Christ
- a Film by Mel Gibson*


Exodus 20:4-6 -- Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth below, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.


Mel Gibson’s Film: THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST

March 26, 2004 (David Cloud, Fundamental Baptist Information Service, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061, fbns@wayoflife.org). [Revised from 2/06, 2/20, 2/27, 3/2, 3/3, March 7-8, and 3/12 reports.)] (Specifically, see Clouds 3/02/04 FBIS titled, More About Mel Gibson’s Movie,” for a detailed, comprehensive response to those who would recommend seeing the film. See also Cloud's 3/8/04 FBIS titled, Errors in Mel Gibson’s Movie: Do We Have Artistic License?,” for a listing of the things in Gibson’s movie that are added to, are contrary to, and are heretical to the Bible account.)

Hollywood actor-director Mel Gibson’s controversial film on the death of Christ proved popular among Christians even before its February 25th release date. The graphic, $30 million film (plus an additional $15 million in marketing costs), The Passion of the Christ, depicts Christ’s life from the Garden of Gethsemane to the resurrection. On the one-month anniversary of its release, the film has grossed more than $300 million in the U.S. and Canada alone (plus another $11 million overseas). It has become the highest-grossing R-rated film ever (surpassing Matrix Reloaded), and has already broken into the top ten films of all time. Experts now estimate total gross (before video, DVD sales, and licensing of merchandise such as books, mugs, t-shirts, and “Jesus nails”) will likely exceed $500 million. One would also assume that income will be explosive from the heavily Catholicized parts of the world such as South America, Italy, Slovakia, Ireland, and the Philippines, and from Greek Orthodox strongholds such as Russia. The movie’s soundtrack is also selling like hotcakes―50,000 CDs sold in the first week, which is huge for soundtracks. Only the John Williams’ soundtracks for Star Wars I & II sold more in the first week. [The following numbers are revised for 3/2005 availability: (1) the theater showing of the movie grossed $609 million worldwide; and (2) release of the DVD/VHS on 8/31/04 sold 4.5 million copies its first day, and an estimated 20 million copies to date (approximately $560 million in sales!). (Churches purchased the DVD in bulk, some customized with the church’s name and a personal message.) Gibson’s personal profits from the theater showing and DVD/VHS sales combined are estimated at over $400 million.]

After a private showing, Billy Graham praised it. Mission America Coalition plans to use the movie for evangelism. Campus Crusade is promoting it. Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in southern California purchased 18,000 tickets. The Evangelical Free Church of Naperville, Illinois, purchased more than 1,000. Two members of Wheaton Bible Church in Wheaton, Illinois, have offered to buy out two screenings of the movie at a local theater. After Gibson showed part of the movie to a convention of the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship, he received a standing ovation. Afterward, the daughter of the organization’s president laid hands on Gibson and asked Jesus to “bind Satan, bind the press, we ask you, Lord” (Peter Boyer, “The Jesus War,” The New Yorker, 9/15/03). Worship Leader magazine for 2/04 offers a free guide to Gibson’s movie and says, “There has never been a film like it! Powerful, life changing, an unprecedented opportunity for evangelism & discipleship.” Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral was given a private showing and afterward proclaimed, “It’s not your dream, this is God’s dream. He gave it to you, because He knew you wouldn’t throw it away. Trust Him.” The movie has been recommended by psychologist James Dobson and by Don Hodel, the current president of Focus on the Family. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, called Gibson “the Michelangelo of this generation.”  The American Tract Society proclaims on its web site that the movie is “one of the greatest opportunities for evangelism in 2,000 years.” Teen Mania says at least 3,000 youth leaders have bought kits that instruct young people in how to use the film to bring their friends to accept Christ. The Catholic League purchased 1,200 tickets at $9.75 apiece and will make them available to members for $5. The film was shown to members of the Vatican Secretariat of State, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and all of them expressed unanimous appreciation and approval. A positive review of the movie is making the rounds via e-mail under the name “Paul Harvey’s Comments on The Passion,” but it was actually written by Roman Catholic apologist Keith Fournier.

Gibson belongs to a Traditionalist Catholic group that performs the mass in Latin, abstains from meat on Fridays, eschews ecumenism, and other such things that were changed at the Vatican II Council in the 1960s. Gibson built his own Catholic chapel, called Holy Family, near his California home. During the filming, Gibson attended a Catholic mass every morning with the misguided desire “to be squeaky clean.” The script was translated into Aramaic and Latin by Jesuit priest William Fulco. Originally, Gibson did not plan to include even subtitles in English, but he was convinced of the necessity of this by “evangelicals” who reviewed the film.

What gospel is Mel Gibson trying to preach through this movie? It is the Catholic gospel of sacramentalism. When asked by a Protestant interviewer if someone can be saved apart from the Roman Catholic Church, Gibson replied, “There is no salvation for those outside the Church” (The New Yorker, 9/15/03). This was the official teaching of Rome prior to Vatican II. Also in accordance with Catholic theology, Gibson identifies the Mass with Christ’s sacrifice. He told Eternal Word Television Network that the “sacrifice of the cross” and “the sacrifice of the altar” are “the same thing” (EWTNews Feature, 1/13/04).

According to Romanism, Jesus Christ died on the cross and purchased redemption and then delivered this redemption to the Catholic Church to be distributed to men piecemeal via the seven sacraments. Man cannot receive eternal salvation directly from Christ through faith; he must approach Christ through the Catholic Church, via baptism, confirmation, mass, confession to a Catholic priest, etc. The Catholic Church teaches that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was not once for all and sufficient, but must be perpetuated in the mass, which is called a non-bloody sacrifice. Consider this statement from the Vatican II Council: “Hence the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, is at the same time and inseparably: a sacrifice in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated … For in it Christ perpetuates in an unbloody manner the sacrifice offered on the cross, offering himself to the Father for the world’s salvation through the ministry of priests” (Vatican II Documents, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery, Introduction, C 1,2, p. 108). The New Catholic Catechism of 1992 said, “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice ... In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and offered in an unbloody manner.” The creed of Pope Pius IV, which authoritatively summarized the teaching of the Council of Trent, stated: “I profess likewise, that in the Mass is offered to God a true, proper, and propitiatory sacrifice for the living and the dead; and that, in the most holy sacrifice of the Eucharist, there is truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The movie is not based solely on the Bible, but also on the visions of Roman Catholic nun-mystics St. Anne Catherine Emmerich and Mary of Agreda: [The following endorsement of Emmerich is more than just problematic; Gibson’s endorsement has caused many to rush out and buy her book. In February of 2004 alone -- 17,000 copies sold -- versus 3,000 copies for the entire 2003 calendar year.]

(1) Of the visions of Emmerich, Gibson said, “She supplied me with stuff I never would have thought of” (The New Yorker, 9/15/03). Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) was a German nun who allegedly had the stigmata or wounds of Christ in her body. Emmerich supposedly “had the use of reason from her birth and could understand liturgical Latin from her first time at Mass.” During the last 12 years of her life, she allegedly ate no food except the wafer of the Catholic mass. Her visions on the life of Christ were published in 1824 under the title The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. They are still in print and were consulted by Gibson. An advertisement for Emmerich’s Life of the Virgin Mary says, “This book is filled with unusual, saintly descriptions that are not recorded in the Gospel story—descriptions that supplement and illustrate the Biblical narrative in a way that makes the actual Scripture passages truly come alive.” Thus, these alleged visions go beyond the Bible. According to Emmerich’s visions, Protestants also go to purgatory, but they suffer more than Catholics because no one prays for them or offers masses for them. She taught that it is more holy to pray for souls in purgatory than for sinners who are still alive. Her deceptive visions on the suffering of Christ describe His scourging and crucifixion in great detail, giving many “facts” which do not appear in Scripture. For example, she claimed that Christ “quivered and writhed like a poor worm” and that He “cried in a suppressed voice, and a clear, sweet-sounding wailing” as He was being beaten. She even claimed that Christ “glanced at His torturers, and sued for mercy.” She also claimed that Jesus suffered from a wound on his shoulder more than any other.

(2) Mary of Agreda (1602-1665) was also a Catholic nun and visionary mystic. Her entire family entered monasteries and convents in 1618, which means that her mother and father disobeyed 1 Corinthians 7 and separated for the sake of the Catholic church. She was given to trances and even claimed that she could leave her body and teach people in foreign lands. Her book The Mystical City of God is about Mary. Like the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich, those of Mary of Agreda go far beyond the Bible. For example, she claimed that though Joseph ate meat, Jesus and Mary seldom did.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Gibson’s film contains errors when judged by the Biblical account. It is, indeed, a Catholic movie. For example, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the devil is depicted with Christ, whereas the Bible says nothing about this. After Christ’s arrest and as He is being escorted to the high priest’s residence, He is beaten, knocked down, and thrown off a bridge. After Christ is whipped, Mary gets down on her knees and wipes up the blood. Mary is depicted as accompanying Christ all of the way to the cross and basically enduring the suffering with Him. On the way to the cross, Jesus tells Mary, “Behold I make all things new.” As Jesus falls on the way to the cross, there is a flashback to His childhood, when He supposedly fell and Mary ran to pick Him up. Mary is depicted as holding Jesus in her arms when He is taken down from the cross. The apostles address Mary as “Mother” throughout the movie. Mary is even depicted with supernatural powers. One man who saw the movie described the following scene: “Mary was walking across a stone courtyard and then stopped and went prostrate on the ground, placing her ear to the stones. The camera went down, as if through the earth, and showed Jesus hanging in chains from the stone ceiling of a jail cell. Jesus felt Mary’s presence, and looked up at her, as if to see her through the stones.” In another scene, “Mary is watching Jesus being flogged and Jesus in turn looks to Satan who is standing amongst the Roman soldiers holding what looks like (for lack of a better description) a pale oversized retarded or demonic baby that mocks and laughs at Jesus.” (See the 3/8/04 FBIS titled, Errors in Mel Gibson's Movie: Do We Have Artistic License?, for a complete listing of Gibson’s errors and heresies in this movie.)

Then there is the relentless torture itself, which goes far beyond what the Bible depicts. One movie reviewer rightly observed that if Jesus had actually been treated as described in Mel Gibson’s movie, He would have been dead long before He reached the cross! The film is rated “R” precisely because of its violence. The scourging and crucifixion are shown in great detail. In fact, it goes far, far beyond the Biblical account. In his review of the film, Roger Friedman observed:

“But the real problem with ‘The Passion’ is that it is graphic beyond belief, and unrelenting. How anyone will be able to sit through this thing is the real mystery. There is blood, blood, everywhere. The violence toward Jesus is sadistic and grotesque. Basically, the entire second half of the film is spent watching Jesus endure physical torture never before seen in a movie. By the time it’s done, actor James Caviezel’s body is a map of bloody rivers and lakes with craters of flesh excised from his torso. Is this disgusting? You bet. It’s also puzzling, because what Gibson hasn’t done in ‘The Passion’ is explain his love of Christ or his own passion or devotion. We have no idea why Christ is so reviled by the Jews, what he’s done to earn their anger, or what he’s done to earn Gibson’s respect. From the moment the film begins, Jesus is simply a target for unbridled, unrestrained bloodlust. Yes, we get to see the nails driven through him, blood spurting in every direction, skin being torn in the process. Is there anything that’s learned by witnessing this enactment? I wish I could say there was, but there isn’t. IT’S SIMPLE BRUTALITY, WITH A HARD ROCK MUSIC TRACK PLAYING IN THE BACKGROUND” (Fox News, 2/25/04).

Contrary to Gibson’s Catholic movie, the Bible does not focus on the violence of the crucifixion. Following is how the Bible describes the crucifixion:

“... and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band of soldiers. And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe. And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews! And they spit upon him, and took the reed, and smote him on the head. And after that they had mocked him, they took the robe off from him, and put his own raiment on him, and led him away to crucify him. And as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name: him they compelled to bear his cross. And when they were come unto a place called Golgotha, that is to say, a place of a skull, they gave him vinegar to drink mingled with gall: and when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink. And they crucified him ...” (Matt. 27:26-35).

Thus we see that the Bible does not linger on the details of Christ’s suffering. The Bible’s description is not R-rated. (See Note at the end of this report.) While it is true that “by his stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:5), this does not mean that salvation came through Christ’s beating. The focus of the Scriptures is not upon Christ’s suffering, but upon Him being made sin in the sinner’s place. It was not Christ’s suffering in itself that made the atonement; it was our sin being laid upon Christ during His suffering. That is why Christ cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” God laid the sins of the world upon Christ. That is what has made our salvation possible. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Further, it was not Christ’s suffering in general that made the atonement; it was precisely His blood and death. “Much more then, being now justified BY HIS BLOOD, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God BY THE DEATH of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:9, 10).

Jim Caviezel, who plays Jesus in the Gibson film, is also a staunch Roman Catholic. He prayed to St. Genesius of Arles and St. Anthony of Padua for help in his acting career. He has visited Medjugorje to witness the site where Mary allegedly appeared to six young people. One of the things that Mary allegedly told them is that the pope “should consider himself as the father of all people and not only the Christians.” Caviezel said, “This film is something that I believe was made by Mary for her Son” (Interview with Jim and Kerri Caviezel by Catholic priest Mario Knezovic, Radio “Mir” Medjugorje, December 2003). Caviezel also said that his goal with the movie is to “bring mankind back together.” Caviezel said that he was given “a piece of the true cross, which he kept with him all of the time during the filming of the movie. He also had relics of “Padre Pio, St. Anthony of Padoua, Ste Maria Goretti, and saint Denisius, the Patron saint of Actors.” 

On a recent visit to Rome, Caviezel said that it is important to fight evil “through the power of the rosary.” He said this following attendance at a mass at the Church of San Giovanni (“Under the make-up, a man of faith,” Asianews, March 20, 2004). This is the church that has the following words carved in Latin prominently on the front marble face: “Most Holy Lateran Church, Mother and Mistress of All Churches of the City and the World.” This is also the home of the tomb of Pope Innocent III, who was a great persecutor of those who refused to accept Roman doctrine and, in fact, was one of the fathers of the horrible, centuries-long inquisition. When asked how he acted the part of Jesus, Caviezel told the Catholic Zenit news service: “I began with the rosary, the rosary led me to confession, confession led me to the Mass, every day, and always when I have the Eucharist in my body, I feel more like being in Christ.”

Moreover, The Passion of the Christ is intimately associated with the moral vileness of those involved in its production. Monica Bellucci, the actress who plays Mary Magdalene in Gibson’s movie, is a famous pornography star in Italy (“The Passion of the Christ: An International Hoax”), and she has also played in R-rated movies in the States. She posed for the 2001 GQ Italia Totally Nude calendar, and she has appeared in the nude or nearly nude in many movies, including Irreversible, Melena, Brotherhood of the Wolf (a Dracula movie), and Under Suspicion. Describing the film Irreversible, a professional movie reviewer says it “makes pure pornography look pretty appealing in comparison.” The reviewer, Steve Rhodes, said it should be rated X, and based on his reviews of other films, it is obvious that he is no “prude.” The movie has a ten minute anal rape scene featuring Bellucci, which is “complete with penetration shots and depictions of sodomy.” The Society for the Promotion of Community Standards gave this warning about Bellucci’s Irreversible: “Premiered at last years Cannes Film Festival, Irreversible proved so shocking that 250 people walked out, some needing medical attention,” and described the movie as “hard-core pornography.” 

Two of the other actresses in Gibson’s Jesus movie have pornographic photos plastered all over the Internet: Rosita Celentano, who plays Satan; and Claudia Gerini, who plays Pilate’s wife. Maia Morgenstern, who plays Jesus’ mother Mary in the film, also starred in a vile, sexually provocative 1997 Hungarian movie entitled The Witman Boys.  Finally, John Debney  wrote the rock ‘n’ roll music score to the film, the same man who wrote the rock score for the blasphemous movie Bruce Almighty.

Much more could be said along these lines about other actors in The Passion of the Christ, but instead we need look no further than the producer himself. Mel Gibson has made millions, some of it used to finance this movie, through his roles in R-rated films that have contributed significantly to the moral debasement of society, such as Mad Max, Braveheart, Payback, and the extremely violent Lethal Weapon series. In the latter, Gibson played a rogue policeman who excels in violence. Most of his movies are filled with foul language and profanity, including those he has made during the past 12 years since, according to his own testimony, he has been dreaming about making The Passion of the Christ. The Payback movie, for example, contained, according to one reviewer, at least 94 instances of cursing (including the most vile words) and filthy language, and used the name of the Lord in vain. Gibson also starred in the sexually debauched 2000 film What Women Want. In this movie, Gibson played “a character named Nick, whose goal in life was to bed all the women his lustful heart desired.” One Christian reviewer summarized Gibson’s movies as follows: “The legacy of Mel Gibson has been sexual immorality, profanity, coarse jesting, extreme violence and vigilantism” (Joseph Herrin, “The Passion of Mel Gibson”).

Gibson says that a major message of his film is tolerance. In an interview with Rachel Abramowitz of the Los Angeles Times (“He’s Bruised, Defiant over Persecution,” 1/15/04), Gibson said, “Now the message he [Christ] brought was one of peace and love and tolerance—all the messages of tolerance that I put in there, particularly toward the end.” The message of peace, love, and tolerance is NOT exactly the message that Jesus Christ preached. He did exemplify the greatest love known to mankind, but He also proclaimed Himself as the only Lord and Saviour, that no man can come unto God except through Him (Jn. 10:7, 8; 14:6). He preached frequently on eternal hellfire, warning that all men will go there unless they are born again through faith in Him (Jn. 3; Mat. 25:46). He warned that men will be judged in every area of their lives, even every idle word (Mat. 12:36). He warned that He did not come to bring peace to the earth but division and a sword (Mat. 10:34; Lk. 12:51). — No message of tolerance here.   

Besides all the other problems with the movie, our main concern is the idolatry involved. We believe that it is idolatrous to depict the Lord Jesus Christ in pictures and films. (See the next review.) The law of God forbids man to make any likeness of God. The Jesus in Mel Gibson’s movie is depicted in the typical fashion with long hair, whereas the Bible is clear that Jesus would not have worn long hair (1 Cor. 11:14). Gibson got his inspiration for the long-haired Jesus from the Shroud of Turin. He attempted to re-create the face depicted on the Shroud. 

Man has no divine authority to do this type of thing. It is presumptuous in the extreme for a fallen man to attempt to portray the holy, sinless, eternal Son of God. As for Christ’s deity, that would be impossible to depict, and even His humanity is not depicted properly in this film. The only thing the Bible tells us about Christ’s earthly appearance is the following statement from Isaiah: “he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Further, we know that Jesus Christ was a Jewish man. Thus, whatever Jesus looked like, he certainly DID NOT look like the tall, blond, and handsome Caucasian Hollywood movie star that plays the part in Gibson’s film!

Note the following warning about depictions of Christ from former Catholic priest Richard Bennett: 

“Creating a visual representation of the Lord Jesus, by definition, is to portray ‘another Jesus.’ The Lord Jesus in His Person, character, and work is divine and perfect. No Savior other than the One proclaimed in Scripture is permissible. Those who claim they are only depicting the humanity of Jesus Christ fall into the grievous heresy of Nestorius, as they wrongly attempt to divide the humanity from the deity of Christ, ending up with idols produced by the imaginations of their own hearts. The Lord God gave believers a Wordbook, not a picture book. ... The visual works of a man’s devising, for all their emotional power, are too dull a tool to bring to the individual conviction of sin and the explicit Gospel of grace that the Written Word and the truth preached bring.”

“But this fact notwithstanding, a three-dimensional image of Christ is not only allowed by official Catholic teaching, but it is also to be venerated. The Vatican states, ‘Basing itself on the mystery of the incarnate Word, the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787) justified … the veneration of icons — of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints.’ The temptation to replace the biblical Lord with a visible Christ dominates Catholic nations across of the world. Men calling themselves Christian are now beginning to accept it. A figure one can touch, see, wear on jewelry, and is visible in statues and on a crucifix, is identified as an object through which one can approach God and learn of Him. Yet the Scripture clearly states that ‘there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.’ The Lord God is approachable only through the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. But as the bleeding Savior of Gibson’s passion is presented to the world, this fact seems thrown aside. We ask, then, what worse blasphemy could there be than depicting with an image the Lord God who condemns images? Evangelical leaders, by endorsing this Catholic film, further solidify the image of the counterfeit Christ upon the minds of many” (Richard Bennett and J. Virgil Dunbar, “The Passion of Christ: Mel Gibson’s Vivid Deception”).

Those supporting this movie are supporting a Roman Catholic producer who preaches a false gospel, and a movie that is based not only on the Bible, but also on the Mary-centered visions of deluded Catholic mystics. Faith does not come by seeing; faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Rom. 10:17).

We close with this warning from Buddy Smith, pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Malanda, Queensland: 

“What might be the results from this movie The Passion of the Christ? (1) There may be a handful of  people genuinely converted to Christ [but] God does turn the follies of men to His own ends. (2) There will be many who will be influenced toward Roman Catholicism, especially Mel Gibson’s form of traditional (Latin mass) brand. (3) The ecumenical movement will receive a great boost as undiscerning Christians miss the subtle Catholic innuendos of the film, and are motivated to participate in more and more ecumenical meetings. (4) We will see and hear more and more of the New Evangelical spokesmen (Focus on the Family, Campus Crusade, Billy Graham, and friends) encouraging interfaith dialogue with Rome. (5) And last, I believe that those who are ‘converted’ through the film will suffer the ‘birth defects’ of compromise with Rome and Hollywood through their exposure to both in the ‘film evangelism’ used by the churches to win them.”

_______________________________

[Note: In an interview with conservative radio talk-show host Sean Hannity, Mel Gibson said the Bible is R-rated and he is considering making a movie about the book of Maccabees. Gibson appeared with Hannity in Las Vegas on March 17, 2004, sponsored by KXNT radio. When asked about the violence of his movie The Passion of the Christ and its R-rating, Gibson replied, “Well, the Bible is R-rated. I mean it’s the most R-rated book I’ve ever read. There’s murder and adultery all through it.” While it is true that the Bible describes adultery and murder, it’s descriptions of evil are not graphic, sensual, or titillating; they are not R-rated in any sense. Gibson also said that the graphic violence of his movie has made the suffering of Christ “believable now.” It is obvious that he does not understand the divine authority and power of the Holy Scriptures, nor does he understand that the source of faith is solely the Word of God. When asked by Hannity what he might be inclined to do next, Gibson responded, “The story that’s always fired my imagination ... is the Book of Maccabees.” This is an apocryphal book accepted by the Roman Catholic Church as authoritative. We wonder if the Protestants and Baptists who have given uncritical support to Gibson and his Jesus movie will follow him on his next jaunt. They have much of the credit for the wealth that is pouring into his pockets, the funds that will enable him to continue supporting his traditionalist Catholic faith with donations and by new movies.]


Five Reasons Not to Go See The Passion of the Christ

by Andrew J. Webb

On February 25, 2004, Icon films will be releasing Mel Gibson’s much anticipated film The Passion of the Christ. The date of the release was deliberately chosen to coincide with the Roman Catholic holy day of Ash Wednesday, and is indicative of the fact that for Gibson, his film was more of a work of devotion than a money making enterprise. In an interview on the Roman Catholic Television Network EWTN, Gibson candidly stated why this movie is so different from all his others, “It reflects my beliefs―I’ve never done that before.”1 He is also quite open about his desire to see his movie used for worldwide evangelism. Many noted Evangelicals, including James Dobson and Billy Graham, have also come forward to endorse The Passion of the Christ and recommend its use as a teaching tool. Currently, The Passion of the Christ is riding a groundswell of nationwide support from both Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, with many well-known Evangelical congregations, such as church growth guru Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, which purchased 18,000 tickets at seven theatres, doing everything they can to ensure that The Passion of the Christ will be a smash hit amongst Christians and “seekers.” Expressing a widely held view amongst the film’s supporters, Lisa Wheeler, associate editor of Catholic Exchange, a Web portal dedicated to Catholic evangelism, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “It’s the best evangelization opportunity we’ve had since the actual death of Jesus.”2

But should Evangelicals be supporting The Passion of the Christ and endorsing its use as an Evangelism tool? Is this really the best evangelization opportunity we’ve had since the actual death of Jesus?3 After careful consideration, my conclusion is an unequivocal “No.” Here then are five reasons why I believe Evangelicals should not see or recommend The Passion of the Christ.

1) Its Origins: Even though Evangelicals are promoting The Passion of the Christ, it is not an Evangelical movie. As Mel Gibson, a devout Roman Catholic put it so well, “It reflects my beliefs.” The Passion of the Christ is a Roman Catholic movie, made by a Roman Catholic director, with Roman Catholic theological advisers, which gained the endorsement of Pope John Paul II (who said after viewing it, “It is as it was.”4) The Passion of the Christ has already proven its effectiveness as an evangelism tool in producing Catholic conversions and encouraging Catholic devotion:

“In his first nationally broadcast interview about his starring role in Mel Gibson’s much-anticipated film The Passion of the Christ, James Caviezel―Gibson’s Jesus―detailed on Friday the ordeal of filming the Crucifixion scenes, noting that the overall experience prompted many in the crew to convert to Catholicism.”

Noting the amount of conversions due to the movie, he said the experience of filming Christ’s story “really changed people’s lives.” Caviezel recalled telling Gibson, “I think it’s very important that we have mass every day―at least I need that to play this guy. … I felt if I was going to play him I needed [the sacrament] in me. So [Gibson] provided that.”5

2) Its Script: Although it is widely thought that the script for the movie is based entirely on the gospel according to John, this is NOT the case. The script for The Passion of the Christ contains much extrabiblical material, and is based in part on a mystical Roman Catholic devotional work by an 18th century German Nun (Anne Emmerich) entitled The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Gibson stated on EWTN that reading Emmerich’s book was his primary inspiration for making the movie. By introducing extrabiblical elements, not only does The Passion of the Christ change some of the theological emphases of the Biblical account of Christ’s crucifixion, but it will also create a false impression amongst the very “seekers” that Evangelicals are trying to reach, i.e., that things were said and done at the crucifixion that did not actually happen. For Evangelicals, who would feel very uncomfortable with a version of the Bible that put words into the mouth of Christ, to endorse a movie that does the very same thing seems hopelessly inconsistent.

The script for The Passion of the Christ not only adds things that didn’t occur in the Bible, it cuts out other things that did. The most widely known example of this is the important declaration, “His blood be on us and on our children.” (Matthew 27:25) [This was removed from the film after considerable pressure from the Jewish Anti-Defamation League.]

The script for The Passion of the Christ was translated into Aramaic and Latin by “Father” William Fulco, an old friend of Mel Gibson’s. This was not done for reasons of making it more authentic.6 The language decisions in The Passion of the Christ were made for theological reasons:

“It is crucial to realize that the images and language at the heart of The Passion of Christ flow directly out of Gibson’s personal dedication to Catholicism in one of its most traditional and mysterious forms―the 16th-century Latin Mass.”

“I don’t go to any other services,” the director told the Eternal Word Television Network. “I go to the old Tridentine Rite. That’s the way that I first saw it when I was a kid. So I think that that informs one’s understanding of how to transcend language. Now, initially, I didn’t understand the Latin. ... But I understood the meaning and the message and what they were doing. I understood it very fully and it was very moving and emotional and efficacious, if I may say so.” The goal of the movie is to shake modern audiences by brashly juxtaposing the “sacrifice of the cross with the sacrifice of the altar―which is the same thing,” said Gibson. This ancient union of symbols and sounds has never lost its hold on him. There is, he stressed, “a lot of power in these dead languages.” Thus, the seemingly bizarre choice of Latin and Aramaic was actually part of the message.7

The script of The Passion of the Christ was specifically intended to link the crucifixion of Christ with what Roman Catholics believe is the re-sacrificing of Christ that occurs in the mass. Gibson’s intent is to show us that the sacrifice of the cross and the sacrifice of the altar (the mass) are the same thing. Protestant Evangelicals have historically rejected the idea that Christ can be sacrificed again and again, and declared it “abominable.”  Speaking of the concept that the Crucifixion and the mass is the same thing, the Protestant Westminster Confession declares:

“In this sacrament, Christ is not offered up to his Father; nor any real sacrifice made at all, for remission of sins of the quick or dead; but only a commemoration of that one offering up of himself, by himself, upon the cross, once for all: and a spiritual oblation of all possible praise unto God, for the same: so that the popish sacrifice of the mass (as they call it) is most abominably injurious to Christ’s one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of his elect.”8

3) Its Theology: Gibson’s comment about the sacrifice of the altar and the sacrifice of the cross shows the indispensable link in this movie between the Catholic view of Christ’s sacrifice and the portrayal of the Crucifixion in The Passion of the Christ. The fact that Evangelicals have uncritically endorsed it speaks volumes about how far the Evangelical Protestant understanding of Christ’s death and the related subject of Justification have slipped since the Reformation. In Roman Catholic theology, the intense physical suffering of Christ’s Crucifixion is the focus along with the emphasis on physical sacrifice. This is one of the reasons why in Roman Catholic iconography we have so much imagery related to Christ’s physical pain and that crucifixes show him still suffering on the cross. This emphasis on Christ’s physical agony is repeated in Roman Catholic devotional material, prayers, and, of course, in The Passion of the Christ. The theology of the Bible, however, points out to us that the grand importance of Christ’s crucifixion lay not in His physical suffering, but in His once for all propitiation of God’s wrath (1 John 4:10). Lest we forget, the greatest torment that Christ experienced on the cross was not caused by the nails driven into His flesh, but in His being made “sin for us” and vicariously suffering the righteous punishment of the Father in our place. Even the worst physical torments inflicted by the Sanhedrin and the Romans upon Jesus were nothing by comparison to the anguish of having the sins of the world laid upon Him and Him making full satisfaction for them. Satisfying the justice of the Romans on a cross was comparatively easy; thousands of condemned men and women, including Spartacus and several of the Apostles, did that, but only Christ could satisfy the justice of God.
 
The sacrifice of Christ was a glorious event in which, in accordance with God’s plan, full satisfaction for sin was procured by Christ on behalf of His people (Acts 2:43). The Passion of the Christ leaves us with a vision of the sacrifice of Christ that is only dolorous (Dolorous: Full of grief; sad; sorrowful; doleful; dismal) and which puts into sharp relief the Roman Catholic notion, not only of the importance of Christ’s agony, but that of Mary in “offering her Son.” In an interview with Zenit, the Roman Catholic News Service, Thomas Rosica, the Catholic priest who oversaw World Youth Day 2002 and its Way of the Cross through the streets of Toronto, illustrated how The Passion of the Christ, in keeping with Roman Catholic theology, uses extrabiblical content to massively exaggerate the role of Mary:

“One scene, in particular, was very moving. As Jesus falls on the Way of the Cross, there is a flashback to his falling on a Jerusalem street as a child, and his mother running out of the house to pick him up. The interplay of Mary and Jesus in this film is moving, and reaches its apex in the scene of the Pietà. The Mother of the Lord is inviting each of us to share her grief and behold her Son.”9

This use of extra-biblical material, emphasis on physical suffering, exaggeration of the role of Mary, and explicitly Roman Catholic theology should not surprise us, as these are all hallmarks of the primary inspiration for this movie: The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Two examples can illustrate this, particularly concerning the emphasis on the replacement of physical pain for the far greater agony of sin-bearing:

“‘He will not stretch himself out, but we will help him’; they accompanied these words with the most fearful oaths and imprecations, and having fastened a rope to his right leg, dragged it violently until it reached the wood, and then tied it down as tightly as possible. The agony which Jesus suffered from this violent tension was indescribable; the words ‘My God, my God,’ escaped his lips, and the executioners increased his pain by tying his chest and arms to the cross, lest the hands should be torn from the nails.”10

“The hour of our Lord was at last come; his death-struggle had commenced; a cold sweat overspread every limb. John stood at the foot of the Cross, and wiped the feet of Jesus with his scapular. Magdalen was crouched to the ground in a perfect frenzy of grief behind the Cross. The Blessed Virgin stood between Jesus and the good thief, supported by Salome and Mary of Cleophas, with her eyes riveted on the countenance of her dying Son. Jesus then said: ‘It is consummated’; and, raising his head, cried out in a loud voice, ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’ These words, which he uttered in a clear and thrilling tone, resounded through heaven and earth; and a moment after, he bowed down his head and gave up the ghost. I saw his soul, under the appearance of a bright meteor, penetrate the earth at the foot of the Cross. John and the holy women fell prostrate on the ground.”11 

Emmerich’s book is literally filled with extra-biblical scenes like the two above, and also includes many extra-biblical sayings of Jesus, which Emmerich says she personally heard in her visions.

4) Its Medium: Many Evangelical Pastors are hailing movies like The Passion of the Christ as part of a new and better way of spreading the Gospel:

“This is a window of opportunity we have. Here’s a guy who’s putting his money into a movie that has everything to do with what we do,” said pastor Cory Engel of Harvest Springs Community Church in Great Falls, Mont. “Churches used to communicate by having a little lecture time on Sunday morning. People don’t interact that way anymore. Here’s a chance for us to use a modern-day technique to communicate the truth of the Bible,” the Rev. Engel said.12

It is indeed true that we live in a highly visual and increasingly anti-literate society―one that places a premium on sound bites and easily assimilated visual imagery. But does this mean that we should abandon preaching in favor of using movies or dramatic presentations? We need to remember that the last time dramatic presentations replaced preaching as the main vehicle by which the truth of the Bible was communicated was during the Middle Ages when the church refused to allow the translation of the Bible into common languages, and when in place of the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, the common people were given visual presentations such as Passion Plays, statues, relics, and icons. These things were designed, like most visual imagery, to play upon the emotions and stimulate a response; but the ability to evoke an emotional response via imagery or drama is not the same as successfully transmitting the Gospel. The means that God has ordained for the transmission of the Gospel was neither drama, imagery, nor even “lectures”―it is preaching. Preaching involves the communication of the Gospel in a way that patiently convinces, rebukes, exhorts, and teaches (2 Timothy 4:2-4). The Bible teaches us the awesome importance of preaching and why it cannot be replaced by another medium:

“Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.” (2 Tim. 4:2-4)

We must preach God’s Word because it always accomplishes the purpose for which it was sent: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, And do not return there, But water the earth, And make it bring forth and bud, That it may give seed to the sower And bread to the eater, So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isa.55:9-11)

God does not command us to produce dramatic presentations of Gospel themes, He commands us to preach. Though this drama option was freely available to the Apostles as they brought the Gospel to cities with amphitheaters and a long tradition of using the dramatic arts to convey religious and moral themes to the populace, they did not do so. The wisdom of the Apostolic methodology has been borne out by the fact that it was when the Gospel was being transmitted primarily by plays and symbolism that true Christianity began to sink under the weight of superstition. We are in danger of returning to precisely that state of affairs by reviving the teaching methodology of the medieval church. Even though it was produced in the 21st century, The Passion of the Christ is identical in all critical aspects to the Passion Plays of the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

5) Its Main Character: Billy Graham, in his endorsement of The Passion of the Christ, said, “Every time I preach or speak about the Cross, the things I saw on the screen will be on my heart and mind.”13 This is unfortunately part of the problem with all visual representations of Jesus. Although we may intend for them only to have a role in teaching, they inevitably become part of our worship and adoration. As a result of seeing this film, James Caviezel, the “Jesus” of The Passion of the Christ, will become the figure countless thousands of people think of when they worship Jesus Christ. To do this is to fall into the trap of changing “the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man” (Romans 1:23) and to violate the Second Commandment.

Every visual representation of Jesus is inevitably a lie. There are two main reasons for this.

The first reason why all visual representations of Jesus are lies is because the only wise God went to great lengths not to leave us with any description of the physical appearance of His Son, lest we fall into the sin of image-making. Therefore, all of our representations of Jesus are inevitably speculations, usually based upon our own desires. We create an image of Jesus that says more about the Jesus we want than the Jesus whom God sent.

For instance, isn’t it remarkable that the Jesus of The Passion of the Christ, as in almost all physical representations of Christ, is tall, slim, and handsome? Why should not The Son of David (Luke 18:38) have been a relatively small man like His great ancestor? It never seems to have occurred to most image-makers that Jesus could be relatively short, or stout, or even have had a receding hairline. This is in spite of the fact that one of the few details the Bible does give us about Christ’s appearance is that “He has no form or comeliness; And when we see Him, There is no beauty that we should desire Him” (Isa. 53:2b). The fact that we have any concept of what Jesus looks like, and that Gibson’s Jesus looks like the traditional Jesus, is a testament to the abiding impact of past iconography. While the Gospels purposely leave out any description of Jesus that we might use to construct an idol, people have created an image of Jesus that has become almost an industry standard, and it is solely for that reason, rather than any basis in fact, that audiences would have been outraged had Gibson cast Danny DeVito and not James Caviezel in the leading role.

The Second reason why all visual representations of Jesus are lies is that they can never hope to represent the glory of Christ in His true nature. The best an image of Jesus can do is to represent Him as a man, and while Jesus was truly a man, He was not merely a man. Jesus was also God, and no artist or filmmaker who has ever lived could hope to create an image that captures the true Glory of Jesus as God. While this may not appear to be a problem to us, the separation of Christ’s manhood from His deity is actually a grave heresy called Nestorianism.

For the first four centuries of its existence, the church did not use pictures of Jesus as an aid to evangelism. This was despite the fact that they were bringing the gospel to highly visual cultures that had always used imagery to convey religious ideas. The initial movements toward making pictures of Christ were initially strongly opposed, and the practice was formally condemned by the church as late as 753 AD. Sadly, once they had taken hold of the public imagination, the practice of making visible representations of Christ proved difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate. Gradually, pictures and dramatic representations of Jesus became quite commonplace in the church. At the time of the Reformation, Protestants overwhelmingly rejected the practice of making images of Jesus as a clear violation of the Second Commandment. They also rejected the notion that such images had a necessary role as “textbooks for the laity,” and then proved that notion false by producing generations of other Protestants well versed in the Word and familiar with their Savior, though they had never once owned or seen a representation of Him.

Rather than visual imagery, they relied on the preaching of the Word to save souls, and the gospel made great advances. If we return to the use of imagery and begin endorsing movies like The Passion of the Christ, we will be returning to the very state of affairs the first Protestants struggled and died to reform. We must not think that merely endorsing one form of visible representation of Christ will not lead inevitably to others. For instance, it is impossible to make a coherent argument against the use of the crucifix in teaching the Gospel if we have already endorsed the use of a movie that portrays the crucifixion. Merely because one display is static and the other moving does not change their essential nature at all. The Passion of the Christ is, in essence, an animated Crucifix.

In closing, let me address a common objection, namely, that we must use tools like The Passion of the Christ in order to reach the lost, and that if we don’t, we are “missing a great opportunity.” Are we really missing an opportunity though? If we are convinced that using a Roman Catholic movie to present the Gospel is in essence a violation of God’s Word, how could we possibly use it? Should we sin that grace may abound?

Also, are we really certain that this will be as effective as we think in saving souls? J. Marcellus Kik in his tract titled “Pictures of Christ” addressed that very question and gave us some wise advice, which all Christians would do well to heed:

“But can it not help in the saving of souls, it is asked. But how? Looking at a picture of Christ hanging upon the cross tells me nothing. It does not tell me that He hung there for sin. It does not tell me that He hung there for my sin. It does not tell me that He is the Son of God. Only the Word of God does that. And it is the Word of God that has been given us to tell the story of salvation through the blood of Christ. It is not through the foolishness of pictures that sinners are converted, but through the foolishness of preaching.”

It is amazing how slowly unscriptural practices enter the professing Christian church. We must at all times go back to the Scriptures. The Bible is our infallible guide. And if our practices and doctrines do not conform with the teachings of the Scriptures, then we must eliminate them. The Bible instructs us not to make any likeness of Christ. The present day pictures of Christ are false and no one would make a serious claim that they resemble Christ upon earth. They separate His humanity from His deity. They do not at all give us a glimpse of His present glory. They were not condoned by the inspired Apostles.

God has ordained the foolishness of preaching to evangelize the world. He has promised to attend the preaching of the Word with the power of the Holy Spirit. The so-called pictures of Christ are a hindrance to the Gospel and a temptation to idolatry. Let us cleanse the Temple of God from them.”14

Endnotes

1   13-January-2004 ― EWTNews Feature.
2   “Churches Make ‘Stunning’ Show of Support for Gibson’s ‘Passion’” Newsmax (Thursday, Feb. 5, 2004).
3   Interestingly enough, the actual death of Jesus on the cross produced hardly any conversions. It is the preaching of Christ crucified that has historically been “the best opportunity for evangelism.”
4   Papal Praise for “The Passion” “It Is as It Was,” John Paul II Says
ZENIT (2003-12-18).
5   “Mel Gibson’s ‘Christ’ Reveals Crucifixion” Newsmax (Sunday, Jan. 25, 2004).
6   This is especially true when one considers that all the Gospels were written in Koine Greek, the common language of the area, and not Aramaic or Latin.
7   “The passion of Mel Gibson,” by Terry Mattingly, Scripps Howard News Service, January 21, 2004.
8   The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 29.2.
9  
Father Thomas Rosica on Mel Gibson’s “The Passion,” National Director of World Youth Day 2002 Weighs in on Film (2004-02-06) 
10  The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, by Anne Catherine Emmerich.
11  Ibid.
12  “Churches Make ‘Stunning’ Show of Support for Gibson’s ‘Passion,’” Newsmax (Thursday, Feb. 5, 2004).
13  “What Others Are Saying”
http://www.passionchrist.org/.
14  “Pictures of Christ,” a tract by J. Marcellus Kik.


Thoughts on The Passion of the Christ

By Tom Holtz

First, let’s start with the obvious. By all accounts the movie is extremely gory and violent—even for Hollywood. It is said to be at least as violent as Mel Gibson’s earlier movie The Patriot, or Pulp Fiction, which the New York Times described as two of the most gory and violent artistic works of the modern era. This was a red flag for us. Philippians 4:8 says, “whatsoever things are true, …honest, …just, …pure, …lovely, …of good report…think on these things.”  I don’t believe this movie satisfies that standard, even if it purportedly describes the suffering of our Lord on the cross. 

Some say shocking violence, vivid gore, and explicit images of repulsive brutality are excusable because they’ll help people see what Christ did for them, such as Bob Lepine of Family Life, who writes, 

The Passion may be [Gibson’s] most violent film to date, and it deserves its R rating. On more than one occasion as I watched this movie, I had to turn away from the screen. I remember thinking at one point, “Enough. This is over the top.” And almost immediately I had a second thought. “That’s right,” I thought. “This is over the top, because the death of Christ was, in reality, barbaric and violent.” Maybe what we all need to see is not a cleaned up, sanitized Hollywood version of His death, but a more accurate and graphic look at how He suffered for us. (February, 2004 website article; emphasis added.) 

Why does Lepine (and so many others) suddenly link “accurate” and “graphic” in the same sentence these days as though they were perfect synonyms?  The Bible doesn’t include graphic details in any crucifixion narrative. Certainly God knows how “powerful” and “moving” it would have been to include such descriptions, but strong preaching applied to man’s conscience is what God ordained to spread the gospel with power through the movement of the Holy Spirit. The Bible says “…faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”  And, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation…”  And, “you were born again, not with corruptible seed, but by incorruptible, through the living and abiding word of God.”  And, “for the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” Man can use shock and violence to evoke extreme empathy and emotion and bind viewers together in a “shared experience” of grief, horror, and outrage, but this is not God’s pathway to saving faith revealed in the New Testament, nor is it a means to greater devotion and intimacy with God among God’s people. 

Yet, Mel Gibson (and evangelical leaders lining-up behind him) tells us that a graphic depiction of Christ’s death will make it more “real” and powerful. In September, 2003, Gibson told New Yorker magazine: “I wanted to be true to the gospels. That has never been done before. I didn’t want to see Jesus looking really pretty. I wanted to mess-up one of his eyes, destroy it.” True to the gospels, Mel? Which of the Gospels depict Jesus with “a destroyed eye” or anything like it? The Biblical accounts of Jesus’ beating and crucifixion are as minimal as they could be. Matthew, Mark and Luke essentially state: “Having scourged Jesus, Pilate delivered him to be crucified,” and “when they came to the place which is called the skull, there they crucified him.” A dozen or so verses later, Jesus is dead. The Gospel writers did not linger over His suffering to stir emotions and empathy. As one commentator put it: 

It would be as odd as welcoming home a wounded soldier and, instead of focusing on the victory he won, dwelling on the exact moment the bayonet pierced his stomach—how he felt and what it looked like. A human soldier might well feel annoyed with such attention to his weakness rather than his strength. He would feel that it better preserved his dignity for visitors to avert their eyes from such details and recount that part of the story as scantly as possible to focus instead on the final achievement. This is the sense we pick up in the Gospels. Jesus’ suffering is rendered in the briefest terms, as if drawing about it a veil of modesty. What’s important is not that Jesus suffered for us, but that Jesus suffered for us. It is the contrast with His eternal glory that awed the earliest Christians—and should us today. 

As reasonable as this explanation appears to be, we don’t really know why the gospel writers don’t give explicit details. The only fact we know for sure is that they don’t. 

Likewise, nowhere outside the gospels does the Bible suggest we meditate on the gory details of Christ’s suffering—rather, that we focus on His life, the fact of his death, His resurrection, intercession for us, and His future return. For example, in the classic text of Philippians 2:5-11, Paul exhorts believers to focus on Christ: 

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name, …

Surely, Paul knew what suffering was all about, yet he lifts up for meditation the fact of Christ’s humility and suffering in light of His deity and subsequent exaltation, not the gore and torture of His execution. Likewise, in Hebrews 12:2-4, the writer exhorts us to consider the death of Christ in another historically beloved text: 

Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.

Clearly, the fact of Christ’s bloodshed is in view, but where’s the graphic depiction of the teeth-grinding anguish and repulsive brutality of Roman soldiers torturing our Lord mercilessly? Again, in Psalm 22, a classic lament of David with clear messianic overtones, we observe modest and poetic language describing His physical sufferings: 

They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death. For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet. I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me. They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture. 

God’s people have much for their imaginations here, yet nothing graphic or torturous is spelled out. One might easily conclude from Scripture that our appreciation of what Christ did at the cross is not enhanced by experiencing a graphic, artistic rendition of the crucifixion event.[1][1] 

In Matthew 7:15-20, Christ tells us to beware of false teachers who will come in looking like the flock. We are told to examine their fruits because a tree is known by its fruits. A good tree will produce good fruit and vice versa. When evaluating some new doctrine or method or any new thing, Christ tells us to examine the fruits of the person offering it, in addition to its apparent conformity to Scripture. The Passion of the Christ was written, produced, financed and directed by Mel Gibson, a Hollywood actor who describes himself as not a born again Christian, but a devout Roman Catholic “Traditionalist,” which holds tightly to the view that Mary is co-Redemptress with Christ, and that the grace of Christ is mediated to man through Mary. He rejects salvation by grace alone through faith alone—his church everywhere teaches that those who believe that pernicious doctrine are anathema (damned to Hell). He believes there is no salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church, but is mediated only through taking her communion in the traditional, Latin-rite Mass of the Eucharist. Gibson believes Pope John Paul II is a liberal because he accepts Vatican II (1965), which allowed the mass in languages other than Latin, and expunged the Jews of blood guilt for killing Christ (formerly Catholic dogma for 8 centuries).  

On March 6, 2003, a friend of Gibson’s, Gary Giuffré, told the New York Times that Gibson’s movie “will graphically portray the intense suffering of Christ, perhaps as no film has done before,” and that it will “lay the blame for the death of Christ where it belongs.”[2][2]  OK, so he’s not exactly a Christian. But I’ve heard many say he has a good reputation. Gibson’s reputation might be good by Hollywood standards, but what about Biblical ones? Gibson is known exclusively for his movies, which, without exception, contain countless expletives and are extremely violent and gory (Kill Bill, Lethal Weapon, Mad Max, Braveheart, Patriot, etc). As a New Republic reporter put it, “Gibson loves gore.”[3][3] Would you say we have a “good tree” here, from a Biblical point of view?  Does Mel Gibson meet the standard of Matthew 7? Does anyone associated with this movie meet that standard? 

Some say, it’s just a movie and it’ll get people talking about Christ and we can use it for pre-evangelism and ignore the bothersome elements of Gibson’s personal faith and not-so-Christian reputation. If The Passion of the Christ is a tool of evangelism, who’s the evangelist? Is Mel Gibson one of the sheep?  Should we expect to receive something from Mel Gibson that true, born-again, New Testament Christians would find perfectly suited to taking to a lost world? Answer this question not on the basis of how you think the church could use his movie, but from what Christ says about false teachers coming in among the sheep.      

Let’s look more closely at the movie. The script is based on the four gospels and The Mystical City of God by St. Mary of Agreda, and a book of visions entitled, Dolorous Passion of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, by St. Ann Catherine Emmerich. The latter two are Roman Catholic saints and “passion mystics” of the nineteenth century. The passion mystic school has always been a very popular Catholic subcurrent. It emphasizes strange devotional rituals (e.g., Stations of the Cross) to induce trance-like meditations on the sufferings of Christ as a source of inner power and transcendence. Many Catholics quickly and correctly recognized The Passion of the Christ as a passion meditation in the classical mystic tradition. Passion mysticism is far from Biblical—in fact, it’s occultic. Emmerich is a legend among passion mystics and Gibson is a serious follower who carries a relic of hers with him. There’s an introduction to her life at <http://www.spiritdaily.net/dolorous.htm>. The whole article is astonishing, but here’s an excerpt:

The famous work of hers is a book of visions called The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s the one tied to the movie. All I can say is that I knew she was a major mystic. I knew she had incredibly detailed visions. I knew she suffered the stigmata.[4][4] But I had no idea of the extent of what this remarkable German woman reportedly experienced. [She grew up] in Flamske, Germany, and the older she got, the more one sensed what Msgr. Schmogen describes as a “mysterious power that emanated from her.”  Her visions began early in life. By the tender age of four she often prolonged her prayer for two to three hours. She claimed to see her guardian angel on a nearly constant basis. She also levitated. When she entered a cloister, she was frequently seen inexplicably above the ground. She was said to “bilocate.” In vision (or bilocation) she saw the execution of King Louis XVI, and “visited” Marie Antoinette, queen of France, in prison. As a child, she was taken to see the suffering souls in purgatory. Historic pictures flashed before her eyes—like those that would spawn The Dolorous Passion, and serve to fill in details (like those in The Passion of the Christ) that are not recorded in Scripture. She also saw “the creation of Heaven, the fall of the angels, the creation of the earth, and paradise,” notes Schmoger. “In successive visions, she followed, through ages and generations, the development of the holy mysteries of the Incarnation and the Redemption.” As Schmoger says, reading her revelations leaves one feeling that he has undergone an “unusual influence” similar to what is now reported with those who see the movie. It’s no surprise that there is a special “something” around a movie that taps into them. It’s no surprise that the movie’s director, Mel Gibson, is said to carry one of her relics. The visions may not be perfect. No mysticism is, but they are extremely potent. Her entire life was potent. And highly mysterious.

Gibson admits his movie is based upon Emmerich’s book, which was also the inspiration for it in the first place. 

For the mystics, the purpose of their transcendent meditations is to become so emotionally and psycho-spiritually connected with the actual, physical sufferings of Christ, that they are “changed within” and gain greater spiritual growth and awareness from the experience. Sound familiar? This is what many evangelicals suggest will be gained by “experiencing” the movie. The construction of The Passion of the Christ as a passion meditation in the mystic tradition was no minor artistic afterthought. The film was shot in southern Italy and in Rome in part so Gibson could be near the Vatican for consultation. According to Italy’s national Catholic newspaper, Avenire, Gibson consulted high-level Catholic theologians within the church almost daily throughout the shooting. On December 11, 2003, Pope John Paul II screened The Passion on DVD with his close friend and secretary, Monsignor Staislaw Dziwisz, in his private residence, and gave it his approval (the Pope recently changed his public position for political reasons to neutral and reported comments were officially retracted). No one denies that “Roman Catholic teachings” are readily apparent in many places in the film. It is important to understand that the movie itself is a passion meditation. Claims about technically accuracy are irrelevant to this point. If you watch the movie, you are participating in a passion meditation (i.e., a mystical rite). This is why Christ instructed us not to rely solely on our own assumed ability to spot false teaching in the things offered to us for consumption, but to look also at who is offering them.  

Some will say, “So, what can a little mystical dogma hurt, so long as Christ is presented?”  Remember, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, New Agers, etc., all present Christ. First-century Gnostics presented Christ. Catholics, for their part, present Christ—as well as a “Come Home to Rome” campaign among nominal Christians and evangelicals—with some success. They see “evangelical” (toward Rome) potential in this movie. For example, The Daily Catholic reports: 

Many see Gibson as a Hollywood movie star, but True Catholics see him as an evangelist in the purist sense. A true Apostle for the Truths and Traditions of the Church Christ founded. Mel has set on film what has always been set in stone: the everlasting reminder of why Christ died for each and every one of us. We have that reminder daily in the Latin Mass in the Alter Christusthe priest offers Him up daily as a propitiatory sacrifice in an unbloody manner to the Father for us. Prayerfully this movie will move the hearts and souls of millions to return to the Truths and Traditions of Christ’s True Church. (Daily Catholic, January 17, 2004; emphasis added). 

Indeed, the international magazine Inside the Vatican has chosen Mel Gibson as its “Man of the Year” for 2003. And why not?  When unbelievers are led to this movie (and its creator) as a good introduction to Christ, and they like what they see, why wouldn’t they consider Gibson’s faith as a whole? Again, who is the evangelist, here? It is Mel Gibson, not all the evangelical leaders lining up behind him. Evangelical leaders do not control Mel Gibson, the Roman Catholic organization, or the steps either one of them will take after this movie has been consumed by the public. They decide what comes next. This is why the Roman church is so excited about this movie. Check their websites. 

Thirdly, is the movie really accurate? Linda Chavez, a Roman Catholic and President of the Center for Equal Opportunity, syndicated columnist, and former head of the Civil Rights Commission for the Reagan Administration, writes: 

Gibson’s film is an intensely Catholic account of the death of Christ. Indeed most of the scenes depicting Christ’s journey along the Via Dolorosa on the way to Golgotha seem inspired by the medieval Catholic devotional ritual referred to as the “Stations of the Cross,” which dates back to the 14th century. A scene in the film depicting Jesus’ encounter with Veronica, who wipes his face and is left with Christ’s image on her veil, is part of Catholic tradition, for example, and may be totally unfamiliar to non-Catholic viewers. (Emphasis added.) 

Here’s what another reviewer observed who saw the entire movie: 

Much has been added to the gospel story to fill in the gaps. In an interview after the film, Gibson stated that it was “the Gospels plus my imagination” and that he brought the story from the Gospels and added information from “history, visions, and medicine.” Perhaps because of Gibson’s Roman Catholic background, Mary has a major role in the film. Gibson puts Mary at nearly all of the events of his trial, torture and crucifixion, and even has Mary kissing Jesus feet when he is on the cross. There are many scenes like that one—not Biblical, but based upon mystic and apocryphal writings and Roman Catholic tradition. I took notes of the non-Biblical scenes, events and characters and had a full page of them. The danger is that this film will become the Oliver Stone’s JFK of the crucifixion—that is, the public will only “know” the crucifixion story as it is depicted here with all the non-Biblical material assumed to be Biblical or historical. This is the only way, I’m told, that many now “know” the details of the assassination of John F. Kennedy—through Oliver Stone’s fictional film. 

Another reviewer had a similar experience and similar concerns. Here’s an excerpt of his review: 

Consider, for example, that the movie is said to depict a frenzied riot around Jesus as he drags the cross to Calvary—Romans, Jews and others wildly fighting, with Christ being brutalized by all. Wild riots happened a lot in Mad Max movies, but not in the Gospels. Christ is depicted as falling at three points, but otherwise the carrying of the cross is presented as a solemn event. Here … is how the Gospel writer Luke, a deeply ardent believer, presents the scene: “As they led him away … A great number of the People followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, “daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” This doesn’t sound like the depiction of a crazed riot, nor does Christ’s injunction sound like the sort of thing shouted over a melee. 

Despite Gibson’s definitively Catholic interpretation, he asserts his work is “the truth”—historically accurate in the factual sense. What Mel Gibson means by “truth” is whatever he and his Catholic advisors think happened. 

Interestingly, Gibson tells of many “miracles” that led to the creation of the movie, and on the set where shooting took place. For example, a blind 2-year-old child had her sight miraculously restored. Both Reuters and Associated Press carried the story that Assistant Director Jan Michelini was struck by lightning twice during filming, and the actor playing Jesus, James Caviezel, was struck once. Both were miraculously spared from harm with no signs of injury—“only smoke coming from Caviezel’s ears,” according to witnesses. Caviezel is also a staunch Roman Catholic who, during breaks in shooting, “always had a priest with him.” Gibson tells of many others. I’m not sure what all this means, but these are self-reported by people (mostly Gibson himself) who think these are signs of God’s blessing. He says so openly. 

Some acknowledge objectionable elements in the movie, but ask, “won’t people be moved by Christ’s sufferings on their behalf and be more likely to investigate further?  Can’t we use it for pre-evangelism? First of all, the pre-evangelism we see in Scripture is that of serving people in selfless acts of Christian love. This was the basis of Christ’s healing ministry and other miracles (feeding the 5,000, etc.). Christ met people’s physical needs because he loved them. That supernatural demonstration of love won Him a hearing with people and softened their hearts. That principle is still at work today all over the world as missionaries heal, treat, feed, and care for the poor, teach people English, and perform other acts of service. This is pre-evangelism. The gory details of Christ’s crucifixion will evoke extreme emotions—empathy, outrage, shock, sorrow, despair—but experiencing the movie is not a supernatural demonstration of Christian love for which the only explanation is God. Christ’s work depicted in the movie might be, but to the movie-goer it is just another movie about someone being tortured and, quite frankly, they’ve seen many, many of those. Keep in mind all movies, in one way or another, depict a hero doing something selfless and grand for the benefit of others, even giving their own life. These characters may inspire us temporarily and make us feel good, but they do not work a lasting change within us. 

Furthermore, God can and will use whatever means He chooses to achieve His sovereign purposes, even false teachers and our own bad choices. But we should guard against the creeping pragmatism of “whatever appears to work,” and follow a Biblical path in faith and trust God for the results. No doubt, pragmatism will seem too abstract and theoretical for some. Any method other than preaching the word, the prayers of God’s people, testimonies, worship, self-sacrificial service in the name of Christ, and living-out our faith before the watching world, should be suspect, especially when it fails Philippians 4:8 and Matthew 7. A pure walk and a joyful abstinence from all appearance of evil and false teaching is the best pre-evangelism. 

___________________

QUESTIONS THAT MIGHT BE USED TO EVALUATE THIS OR A FUTURE FILM

1.                   Does this film satisfy the letter and spirit of Philippians 4:8? Is it pure, wholesome, lovely, and of good report in every respect?

2.                   Does Mel Gibson’s religious beliefs and reputation with other movies constitute “good fruit” in the meaning of Matthew 7? Is    he one of the sheep? Is Gibson a “good tree” from which we should expect to see good fruit through which Christ will bring glory to Himself?

 3.                   Does close and personal identification with this actor, this movie, or the Hollywood movie industry compromise a healthy degree of separation from all appearance of evil and false teaching? Will endorsement of this movie help a false teacher (or teachers) gain a foothold among the flock or among unbelievers? (Separation is a touchy subject these days, but remember—much error arises from running too far from other men’s errors.)

 4.                   Does this movie reflect the spirit of this age in any respect? If so, how? What are the implications of this if such a movie were unqualifiedly embraced by the church in a major mass evangelism effort?

 5.                   Suppose everyone sees the movie as suggested and the movie is a blockbuster. What will Hollywood do next? How will we react to Gibson’s next movie entitled, A Day in Hell (i.e., Dante’s Inferno), or The Stigmata (life of Ann Catherine Emmerich), or some other cultish project? Will unbelievers, new believers, or persons “impacted” by The Passion of the Christ be likely to view these movies? To what consequence?



* The preceding three reports were excerpted and/or adapted from the originals. For other reviews see (1) “Mel Gibson's Passion,” by Berit Kjos; (2) “The Jesus War: Mel Gibson & ‘The Passion,” 9/15/03, New Yorker, by Peter J. Boyer; (3) “Why I Will Not See The Passion of the Christ,” by John LeGare; and (4) “The Passion of Christ: Mel Gibson’s Vivid Deception,” by Richard Bennett and Virgil Dunbar, 2/04, The Beacon. Also, an article written over 40 years ago has great relevance for today: “The Menace of the Religious Movie,” by A.W. Tozer.


Biblical Discernment Ministries - Revised 3/2005

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[1][1] On the other hand, explicit depictions of Jesus’ broken body and sufferings through paintings, statues, and literature is a well-known Roman Catholic distinctive (we now add “film” to that list of genre). How would you react to seeing a large crucifix installed in our church lobby? How would you argue against it?  Keep in mind, Catholics deny that they “keep Jesus on the cross” by such things. Catholics affirm Christ’s resurrection. They claim these images help us meditate on Christ’s sufferings. The removal of such distracting icons was a key feature of the Protestant reformation and the theology behind it. 

[2][2] The Catholic tradition of “passion plays” has a checkered history in medieval Europe and Russia, where their performance around Easter often produced violent pogroms against Jews. This is the historical context for the Anti-Defamation League’s criticism of the movie. Many clips were removed (after pressure from the ADL) before a rough cut of the film was screened for evangelical leaders, and edits have been made since those screenings. Some say Gibson changed his original commitment to portray Jews as he originally planned. 

[3][3] Bob Lepine of Family Life wrote, “Those who have seen other Gibson movies (Braveheart, The Patriot, We Were Soldiers) know that he does not shy away from violence and gore as a filmmaker.”  Gibson does not shy away from violence and gore?  Are we to congratulate Gibson for these courageous films?  Another reviewer points out, “[Gibson’s] Mad Max movies are an embarrassing paean [tribute] to teen fantasies of violence and slaughter as fun. His Lethal Weapon movies depict criminals killing more often, and police killing far more often, than occurs in real life. There’s little wonder that The Passion of the Christ depicts an over-the-top, Hollywood-style splatter movie.” 

[4][4] The high point of the passion mystics’ belief and practice was to receive the stigmata, which is the miraculous appearance of the actual physical wounds of Christ in their bodies. Emmerich’s wounds (including thorn wounds to her head) are said to have bled on and off during her lifetime, and she wore bandages frequently.