This article is an edited and abridged adaptation of Albert Martin's sermon, "The Passion Movie: To See or Not To See."
Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ, is a two-hour graphic, brutal, shocking attempt to visually capture the last 12 hours of our Lord's experience culminating in His death upon the cross. Michael Medved, the nationally known film critic, columnist, and radio broadcaster, has stated regarding this film:
The movie has been made and will open in thousands of theaters worldwide this month. It will draw eager audiences and become a box office hit—due in part to prerelease controversy, the "must see" factor has reached an almost unprecedented level of intensity among both committed Christians and the cinematically curious. Mainstream Christian leaders of every denomination will embrace the film as the most artistically ambitious and accomplished treatment of the crucifixion ever committed to film. Some critics and scholars will criticize Mr. Gibson for his cinematic and theological choices in shaping the film. But any attempt to boycott or discredit the movie will, inevitably and unquestionably, fail. … Gibson financed the film on his own precisely due to his determination to realize his own traditionalist Catholic vision of the Gospel story without compromise to the sensitivities of profit-oriented accountants or other religious perspectives. Jewish leaders feel wounded that he never consulted them on the script or historic details, but he also left out Protestant and Eastern Orthodox traditions.1
We can be thankful that this film has forced serious disciples of Christ to wrestle with critical issues that are central to an uncompromising, comprehensive obedience to the Word of God. A true disciple of Christ is committed to an uncompromising, comprehensive obedience to the Word of God. He is determined that the Word of God will govern his steps in every area of his life. "Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my pathway" (Psalm 119:105)—not the fact that something has become a "must see" (which counts for nothing for the true child of God). The child of God is not pressured by the "must see" climate created in society and by clever marketing techniques, but by his Bible, to do what is pleasing to his Lord.
I am a minister of the Word of God, and you are professed disciples of Christ who claim to have a conscience bound not by emotional, psychological, or societal pressures, but by the Word of God. And my one desire is to set before you the will of your Master as revealed in the Scriptures, in laying before you the foundational, biblical issues which ought to be seriously considered in deciding whether or not to see this movie or to encourage others to see it. I trust that this three-fold prayer will be yours: "Where I am ignorant, Lord, teach me. Where I am wrong, Lord, correct me. Where I am right, Lord, confirm me."
1. This film's dominant preoccupation with the physical brutality of the sufferings of Jesus is inconsistent with the Bible's emphasis upon the reality and dominant nature of His spiritual sufferings
Mr. Gibson has said in a number of interviews that this film is intended to shock; it is intentionally, unabashedly brutal. The film not only depicts the biblical narratives in visual representations, but even additional acts of brutality that are not at all mentioned in the Scriptures.
Holy Scripture Maintains Modest Restraint with Christ's Physical Sufferings
What the Holy Spirit wants us to know about the sufferings of Christ He has embalmed in ink in the gospel records. When we open our Bibles, there is a modest restraint with respect to the details of His physical suffering. For example, when Christ has been judged and sentenced, Matthew records:
Matthew 27:26, 33-35 Then released he unto them Barabbas, but Jesus he scourged and delivered to be crucified. … And when they were come unto a place called Golgotha, that is to say, "The place of the skull," they gave Him wine to drink mingled with gall; and when He had tasted it, He would not drink. And when they had crucified Him, they parted His garments among them, casting lots; and they sat and watched Him there."
Pilate delivered Jesus to be scourged, then crucified—that's it! No gruesome details, no gory specifics, no beholding Him lash after lash, with the blood spurting out from His back.
Holy Scripture Emphasizes Christ's Spiritual Sufferings
When we turn to the biblical record with regard to the sufferings of His soul, beginning in Gethsemane, God gives us unusual details. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, He begins to be sore troubled, saying to His disciples, "Now is My soul exceeding sorrowful, even unto death" (Matthew 26:38). The first explicit mention of His blood has nothing to do with any physical sufferings! No one has laid a hand on Him! Rather, it's the suffering of His soul!
Luke 22:44 And being in an agony He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became as it were great drops of blood falling down upon the ground.
Likewise, with the ongoing account of the crucifixion, there is no record that our Lord cries out under any of the horrors of the physical abuse; but it is at the end of the three hours—when He is plunged into darkness and in His soul drinking in the dereliction, abandonment, and forsakenness of God, that He cries out, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:46). Transactions within the Triune Godhead constituted the soul of His sufferings—not that which was laid upon Him by men! It was God who "made Him who knew no sin to be sin" and "a curse" (2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13)!
Now I am not discounting the horror and brutality of His physical sufferings, but what I am saying is that this film gives undue emphasis upon the physical sufferings of Christ and is inconsistent with the Bible's emphasis upon the reality and dominant nature of His spiritual sufferings. Any Christian who is jealous for God's emphases with regard to the suffering of His Lord has to ask the question, "Do I want to subject my mind and memory to a film which has an emphasis utterly inconsistent with the emphasis of my Bible with respect to the nature of the sufferings of my Lord?"
2. This film's detailed depiction of the death of Jesus is an unwarranted reenactment and representation of His death
On the eve of His crucifixion, Jesus Himself gave us a visual, physical means of representing His death: "Take, eat; this is My body, which is broken for you" (Matthew 26:26; Luke 22:19). After supper He took the cup saying, "This is My blood of the New Covenant; this do in remembrance of Me" (1 Corinthians 11:25). He gave no directive to otherwise visually capture the details of His death. As the Synod of Constantinople in 753 decreed, "The only admissible figure of the humanity of Christ, however, is bread and wine in the holy Supper. This and no other form, this and no other type, has He chosen to represent His incarnation."2
It is not without significance that this detailed and gruesome depiction, reenactment, and representation of our Lord's death is, in the mind of its very devout Catholic director Mr. Gibson, a parallel to the reenactment of the death of Christ in the blasphemous action of the Mass. According to Tridentine theology (the Tridentine form of the Mass was established in the Council of Trent), when the priest holds up the host with his back to the laity, he is offering up Jesus Christ afresh! Hence so often the priest faces a crucifix above the altar, in which there is an organic connection between Christ upon the cross and Christ offered up in the consecration of the host. There's an intimate, conscious connection my dear friends! Gibson's detailed depiction of the death of Jesus leaves people open to be sympathetic to the blasphemy of the Roman Mass.
It is crucial to realize that the images and language at the heart of "The Passion of the 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.— Terry Mattingly, "The Passion of Mel Gibson"3
3. This film is a radical and arrogant substitute for God's ordained medium of presenting Christ crucified to a sinful world
The purpose of the film, clearly stated by Gibson himself, is to present a visual reenactment of Christ crucified as a medium of conveying the message of the gospel:
"This is a movie about love, hope, faith and forgiveness. Jesus died for all mankind, suffered for all of us. It's time to get back to that basic message. The world has gone nuts. We could all use a little more love, faith, hope and forgiveness."4
Gibson's medium of getting "that basic message" is his film. That's his passion and purpose. In his own testimony, as you pick up strands of it here and there in various interviews, as a boy he was fascinated with the mystery of the Mass. It wasn't anything conveyed by language to the understanding; it was the mystery and the subjective mystical experience of the Mass. And he acknowledges that he went away from that for years and went into a horrible lifestyle of various addictions. Do you know what brought him back and rescued him? Coming back to the Mass! Coming back to the experience of his childhood—of fascination and preoccupation with a crucified Christ.
And everywhere we hear and read that evangelicals are buying up tickets. One megachurch in California bought 18,000 seats in five local theaters, encouraging their people, "Go, and bring your seeker friends to it. It's a marvelous tool of evangelization!"
"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. 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."5
But what has God ordained, if anything, as the medium of conveying to a lost world the knowledge of Christ crucified as the way of salvation? How has God appointed Christ crucified to be presented to a sinful world? Are films like this the God-ordained means of conveying the truth of Christ crucified? The Scripture unequivocally answers, "No!"
1 Corinthians 1:18-24 For the word of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning will I bring to nought." Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God, it was God's good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe. Seeing that Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumbling block, and unto Gentiles foolishness; but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.
What is the power of God? The cross presented visually? No! The cross presented as a word—the Logos, the message—a word defined by God. It is the power of God. God will not capitulate to the demands for visual validations of those who may be "visually inclined"!
Galatians 3:1-2 O foolish Galatians, who did bewitch you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was openly set forth crucified? This only would I learn from you: received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?
Did Paul come to Galatia with a traveling "Passion play" troop? No! How did he do it? Christ was set forth crucified by the word of the cross—by a message and a proclamation! Dear people, you and I must have the spiritual fortitude to say we stand with God's method and to refuse to let men—however sincere they may be—to replace the wisdom of God!
4. This film produces a plethora of spurious spiritual experiences
The film's graphic and extended portrayal of the physical brutality involved in the sufferings of Jesus culminating in His crucifixion has and will continue to produce a plethora of spurious spiritual experiences. Certainly you are aware of the fact that we live in the day of the resurgence of ubiquitous spirituality. Everybody talks about spirituality and a so-called "spiritual" dimension. Oprah Winfrey oozes New Age spirituality. In such a climate, how much more are people vulnerable to spurious spiritual experiences?
Our spiritual forefathers were very conscious of the fact that in times of revival, when there was heightened contagion of emotion, people were vulnerable to spurious experiences, and they wrote essays and preached sermons on how to distinguish between true and spurious spiritual experience. Jonathan Edwards' classic work Religious Affections was his effort to sort this out, recognizing that the devil can come as an angel of light and a minister of righteousness (2 Corinthians 11:14-15). No more wide an avenue does Satan have when emotions are highly agitated. How much more vulnerable are people to have a spurious religious experience when those emotions are agitated in a religious context? And some have already had it. Doing the shooting of this film, the actor who plays our Lord, Jim Caviezel, recounts that several of his friends who were on the set were converted—to being devout, practicing old-time Tridentine Catholics. Mass was set on the set every day for the actor, who said, "I feel I will be much more competent to play this part if I have the sacrament in me."6
Human emotion can be contagious, and this is true both for laughter and weeping. When you are in a room with other people seeing all of this brutality, you cannot help but be moved to tears—unless you are dead—that a fellow human being would be so brutalized. This would even be true—and I do not mean to be irreverent—if the one being brutalized was a vicious, rotten criminal. But because the one being brutalized is this central religious figure, there will be multitudes who will experience a spurious religious experience. There will be no biblical conviction of sin, no biblical understanding of the gospel, no biblical repentance, no saving faith, no new creation in Christ! There will be no baptism leading to involvement in evangelical, Bible-believing churches. What will they do? They will go back to Rome by the droves, or they'll go back to the Super Bowl, or back to their salacious movies on Sunday afternoon. But since they've had a religious experience, then surely all must be well, in their estimation.
Luke 23:27-28 And there followed Him a great multitude of the people, and of women who bewailed and lamented Him. But Jesus turning unto them said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for Me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children."
Jesus said to those who were weeping as they beheld Him being brutalized, "Do not weep for Me, but for yourselves!" My blessed Lord does not need your sympathy or mine or anyone else's in a movie theater! He demands that we weep for ourselves—our sin, our alienation from God, our wretched pride and rebellion! And we fall at His feet not with human sympathy, but with adoration and worship because the Holy Spirit has shown us who He is in His person and in His work.
5. This film undermines the biblical doctrine of the absolute sufficiency of Scripture
2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.
God gave a complete Bible to make complete men. The last words of Revelation call the curse of God upon any who subtract from or add to the words of the book (Revelation 22:18-19). Mary has a place in this film that she does not have in the Word of God. Gibson, without any shame, calls her co-redemptrix.
"I've been actually amazed at the way I would say the evangelical audience has—hands down—responded to this film more than any other Christian group. For me the amazing thing is that the film is so Marian." — Mel Gibson7
Furthermore, there are incidents in the film depicting the devil that are totally unfounded in the Word of God. In fact, they have their roots in a visionary nun named Anne Catherine Emmerich, who claims to have had the stigmata—the so-called "marks of Christ" upon her.
Mel Gibson … recounted a series of divine coincidences that led him to read the works of Anne Catherine Emmerich, a late-18th, early-19th-century Westphalian nun who had visions of the events of the Passion. Many of the details needed to fill out the Gospel accounts he drew from her book, Dolorous Passion of Our Lord. Here is one such detail from Emmerich:
"[A]fter the flagellation, I saw Claudia Procles, the wife of Pilate, send some large pieces of linen to the Mother of God. I know not whether she thought that Jesus would be set free, and that his Mother would then require linen to dress his wounds, or whether this compassionate lady was aware of the use which would be made of her present. … I soon after saw Mary and Magdalen approach the pillar where Jesus had been scourged; … they knelt down on the ground near the pillar, and wiped up the sacred blood with the linen which Claudia Procles had sent."
… Another detail picked up from Dolorous Passion is just as dramatically powerful, but much more significant theologically. Emmerich writes that during Jesus' agony in the garden, Satan presented Jesus with a vision of all the sins of the human race:
"Satan brought forward innumerable temptations, as he had formerly done in the desert, even daring to adduce various accusations against him." Satan, writes Emmerich, addressed Jesus "in words such as these: 'Takest thou even this sin upon thyself? Art thou willing to bear its penalty? Art thou prepared to satisfy for all these sins?'"
Gibson shows Jesus being tempted by a pale, hooded female figure, who whispers to him just such words, suggesting that bearing the sins of the world is too much for Jesus, that he should turn back. And from under the tempter's robe there slithers a snake. In a moment of metaphorical violence drawn straight from Genesis 3:15, Jesus crushes the serpent's head beneath his sandaled heel.
— David Neff8
Where does the Bible say that the devil was tempting our Lord in the garden of Gethsemane? Not a word! I find it incomprehensible for Christians who claim to believe in the absolute sufficiency of Scripture to sit passively and allow words to be put into the mouth of our blessed Lord and actions to be portrayed by an actor representing our Lord and not rise up in holy anger! Our forefathers spilled blood for the absolute sufficiency of this blessed book, and the reason we can come here this morning with an open Bible is because of their blood shed in martyrdom against those who would add to Scripture visions, phantasms, and the decrees and councils of men. This film denies the absolute sufficiency of the Word of God.
One author goes on to say in another article:
"But Gibson's creativity is not limited to graphic depictions of evil; he also makes brilliant use of flashbacks to draw us into the mind of Christ. Most movies about Jesus have protected his divinity by treating him objectively…. Where those films failed, partly because they demystified Jesus so thoroughly that he seemed to lose his divine authority, Gibson succeeds, by shooting much of the film from Jesus' own point of view and by using flashbacks to create the impression that we are being drawn into the flow of Jesus' own memories. When Jesus sees a man with carpentry tools, he thinks of his days as a carpenter; when he sees the street filled with people shouting at him, he thinks of his Triumphal Entry a few days before; when he sees Golgotha, he thinks of the sermon he gave on another mountain in which he told his followers to love their enemies. By giving us the feeling of experiencing Jesus' thoughts, and by making us privy to the prayers Jesus offers up as he submits to the will of his Father, The Passion draws us toward Christ's full humanity like no film before."9
Who is Mel Gibson to get into the head of my blessed Lord and tell me what He thought? Has he become God?! Do you feel this, dear people? This man professes to get into the mind of my sovereign, omniscient, divine Savior and represent that as fact to multitudes who will never read their Bibles! As far as they're concerned, the Jesus on the celluloid is the Jesus that is! But that's not the Jesus of Holy Scripture.
6. This film promotes an undiscerning ecumenical climate
We live in the age of pluralism, which claims that there are many ways to God and that each one is as good as the other. James Dobson, Billy Graham, and many other evangelical leaders are praising this film up one side and down the other. Mr. Graham says he'll never preach on the cross of Christ again without thinking of the scenes that he saw in this film coming to his mind!10
The question of whether Mr. Gibson is a true Christian through all of his Catholicism—whether he has come to cast his soul in naked faith upon the Son of God revealed in Scripture—I am in no position to answer. That question, however, is totally irrelevant with regard to evaluating the film. I have my own subjective inclinations about where he may be spiritually, but that's irrelevant. We're talking about whether you, as a child of God, should go and subject yourself to his production. That has nothing to do with whether or not he is a true Christian, so don't let that issue in any way blur the matter.
But as a devout Catholic, he is seeking to promote a film through which subtle and not so subtle nuances of Rome percolate. Yet because we live in an age of pragmatism, people will say, "Oh, it did so much good; I know that this person was converted as a result." What are we doing? We are saying that the issues that were brought into focus in the Reformation are merely a tempest in a teapot, that the issues for which men and women died at the stake are really irrelevant. The real issue for many is merely, "Does it work?" The apostle Paul did not have that disposition: "Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach unto you any gospel other than that which we preached unto you, let him be anathema" (Galatians 1:8-9)—let him be accursed of God. The decrees and pronouncements of the Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, place a curse upon you and me for believing that we are justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ; there has been no retraction of the Council of Trent, which condemned the Protestant faith. With this wholesale jumping into bed with Romanism, this film has and will continue to promote an undiscerning ecumenical climate which will increasingly marginalize those of us who do believe that the issues of Reformation theology are still vital.
7. This film sanctions the blasphemy of portraying the sinless God-man by a sinful actor
This film gives unquestioned approval to the arrogant and blasphemous activity of a sinful man attempting to portray the sinless God-man. Blasphemy means to speak irreverently or profanely of or to God. The Jesus of the gospel records was true man, but He was equally true God. He was the Word made flesh (John 1:14). Deity is mirrored and reflected in and through His sacred and holy humanity! Jesus said, "He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father" (John 14:9). The look of compassion in His eyes was not mere human compassion, but divine compassion; and anger reflected in His eyes was divine anger. For any human being to attempt to portray Him is arrogant and blasphemous.
How did the actor prepare for the role of Jesus? "'I walked on my pool twice a day—it's hard to do,' he says, smiling."11 For this man to be placed on the screen and for any Christian to go and sit and watch it without rearing up on his hind legs and crying out in the theater, I cannot imagine, for it gives unquestioned approval to the arrogant and blasphemous activity of this sinful man attempting to portray the sinless God-man!
8. The film constitutes a blatant violation of the Second Commandment
Here we come to the capstone; some would rest the case wholly on this. I have tried to build up to it rather than work down from it. When the Lord God spoke from heaven and wrote with His own finger upon tablets of stone, He made it clear that He would have no visual representations made of Himself—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit:
Exodus 20:4-5 Thou shalt not make unto you a graven image, nor any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, nor in the earth beneath, nor that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down yourself unto them nor serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God.
I urge every believer to carefully read an excellent article by Professor John Murray entitled, Pictures of Christ. He sets out the thesis that if anyone presents a picture of Christ, it certainly must be to increase our understanding of who Christ was and to increase our love and devotion to Him. To present it for any other reason would be blasphemous, would it not? It would indeed be blasphemous to present a picture of Christ so as to make people ignorant of Him or think less of Him than they should. Mr. Gibson himself would agree and insist that the purpose of his film is to accurately portray the Lord, that people may appreciate and love Him more. Professor Murray lays out the case against the use of pictures to this end, using three powerful arguments, which I think are absolutely unanswerable. And then he summarizes what is at stake in this question is the unique place which Jesus Christ as the God-man occupies in our faith and worship, and the unique place which the Scripture occupies as the only revelation and medium of communication respecting Him whom we worship as Lord and Savior. The incarnate Word and the written Word are correlative. We dare not use other media, impressions, or sentiments except those of His institution and prescription. Every thought and impression of Him should evoke worship. We worship Him with the Father and the Spirit—one God—and to use a likeness of Christ as an aid to worship is forbidden by the Second Commandment as much as in the case of the Father and of the Spirit.
Dear people, I'm going to be honest. My heart will be broken and grieved if you view Gibson's film. And I will be grieved because of what will happen. If you see that film, the next time we come to the Lord's Table, that actor's face will be indelibly stamped upon the walls of your mind, and heart image worship will go on in this very building as much as if we projected his face on the back wall and said, "Look, there is Christ!" Idolatry begins in the image of the heart.
Warner Sallman's "Head of Christ" was prominently displayed in a place of worship when I was a child. I have struggled for years to get it out of my mind! When I became a Christian and thought of my Lord at the right hand of the Father, and directing my prayers to Jesus who has physical form in heaven, Sallman's image repeatedly crept into my mind—it took years to scrub it out! And with a little flip of a switch it can be there again. I am not to worship Jesus according to the half-effeminate artistic sensibilities of Mr. Sallman; I'm to worship Him as He is revealed in the Word of God, in the full glory of His Godhood and His manhood!
- ^Michael Medved, "Gibson's right to his 'Passion,'" The Christian Science Monitor, https://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0202/p09s01-cogn.html, 02/02/2004.
- ^John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982), 55.
- ^Terry Mattingly, "The Passion of Mel Gibson," Scripps Howard News Service, 01/21/2004.
- ^Mel Gibson, The Passion: Photography from the Movie "The Passion of the Christ."
- ^"Churches Make 'Stunning' Show of Support for Gibson's 'Passion,'" Newsmax, Thursday, 02/05/2004.
- ^"Mel Gibson's 'Christ' Reveals Crucifixion," Newsmax, Sunday, 01/25/2004.
- ^Christianity Today interview with David Neff, son's 'Christ' Reveals Crucifixion," https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/februaryweb-only/melgibson.html, 02/23/2004.
- ^David Neff, "The Passion of Mel Gibson: Why Evangelicals are Cheering a Movie with Profoundly Catholic Sensibilities," Christianity Today, 02/20/2004.
- ^Peter T. Chattaway, "Lethal Suffering: The Passion," Christianity Today, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/februaryweb-only/passionofthechrist.html, 02/25/2004.
- ^"What Others Are Saying", http://www.passionchrist.org
- ^Lorenza Muñoz, "In the Eye of the Storm," Los Angeles Times, 02/15/2004.