The Passion of the Christ: A Powerful Spiritual Experience
Copyright 2004 by Gretchen Passantino.
Few would argue against the proposition that Billy Graham was the single
greatest tool of evangelism God used in the 20th century. I believe Mel Gibson's
movie The Passion of the Christ may well be the single greatest tool of evangelism
God uses in the 21st century. Exaggeration? I don't think so. In a worldwide culture
of visual communication and subjective experience, this movie version of the death,
burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has the potential to impact more people in
more cultures than any other single individual, book, or evangelism method.
The apostle Paul defines the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 as the death,
burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on our behalf according to the scriptures, and
that is what director, writer, and producer Mel Gibson has delivered. Careful to
point out that this movie is not itself the gospel, but is his artistic representation of
the gospel as found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Gibson has nevertheless
proved more faithful to the words of scripture than has any other Hollywood bible
story production ever.
I had the opportunity and privilege to see the movie in the midst of the editing
process and to speak briefly with Mr. Gibson. Seeing this movie was one of the
most significant spiritual events of my life. I am convinced that Mr. Gibson is a
Christian of remarkable humility, faith, and commitment to following God's will in
his life, no matter what the cost. His work on this project is a living example of
Paul's words in Romans 1:16: "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the
power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes."
In the Jesus of The Passion of the Christ, gone is the effeminate Aryan
proverb-spouting Jesus of the 1950s. Gone is the virile anti-hero Jesus of the 1960s.
Gone is the mentally ill and emotionally conflicted superstar Jesus of the 1970s.
Gone is the sexually motivated revolutionary Jesus of the last part of the century. In
the Jesus of The Passion of the Christ we encounter the Jesus of scripture: God
manifest in the flesh, fully human and fully God, totally committed to his redemptive
work on behalf of a humanity that scorned him, empowered by the Holy Spirit to
endure unspeakable torture and pain willingly as our substitute on the cross. In this
Jesus we see the power in suffering, the grace in enduring, the mercy in sacrifice,
the strength in submission.
Jim Caviezel, who portrays Jesus, brings us a Jesus who is complex - with
the physical stature and bodily grace of someone who has made his living building
things and the emotional depth of someone whose empathy transcends mere emotion
and emerges as burden-bearing self-sacrifice. If eyes are "the windows of the soul,"
then the soul revealed in Caviezel's eyes is that of the eternal Son of God who loved
us so much that he sacrificed himself for us while we were his enemies. When we
hear him cry, "Father, forgive them!" we believe him, even though we have seen
him endure seemingly endless beating and mockery at the hands of the very ones for
whom he prays. When we see him suffering - almost to death - in the Garden, we
catch our breath as we see him on the brink of expiring right there, and then we
rejoice when, strengthened by God's own power, he rises and crushes the serpent
beneath his heel.
The script, by Mel Gibson and co-writer Benedict Fitzgerald, focuses on the
arrest, beating, trial, and execution of Jesus Christ. Woven into that fabric (mostly
through the perspectives of Jesus's mother, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Peter, and
Judas) are some of the most significant acts of Jesus's life and ministry, including
the Sermon on the Mount, the woman caught in adultery, the Last Supper, and the
Garden of Gethsemane. Through the eyes of Mary, played by Maia Morgenstern,
we experience the bittersweet love of the Savior's mother: she would give her life
for her Son, but she realizes he must give his life for others. Through the other Mary
(Monica Bellucci) we see the overflowing of love that springs from one who has
been forgiven much. Even in the unbelieving Jewish leaders and Roman officials we
see how much this one man's life impacted each of them as the challenge of his love
provoked their anger and fear. In the sublime unfolding of events, it is clear that the
cowardice of Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov) is as much to blame for the death of
Christ as the rage of the high priest, Caiphas (Mattia Sbragia) or the self-seeking
zeal of Judas (Luca Lionello); that in fact Christ willingly and powerfully laid down
his own life on behalf of all sinners - even you, even me, even Mel Gibson. Those
who think the film is anti-Semitic have missed this clear message. Gibson
understood it: that's why, in the close up scenes of the Roman soldier's hands
gripping the spike and wielding the mallet, it is Mel Gibson's hands that are filmed
nailing his Savior to the cross.
Evil is depicted in The Passion of the Christ
in both human and non-human
forms. There are the expressions of sadistic pleasure on the faces of
who whip Jesus's back into bloody strips. There is the bold picture of
Pilate's washing his hands of Jesus's sentence. And when the movie
depicts non-human evil, it is a fascinating artistic rendering of the
Father of lies (John 8:44).
Subtly entwined in the backgrounds of some scenes is a curious robed
seems at once alluring and sinister, beautiful and grotesque. This
specter lurks in the shadows, neither male nor female, human nor
Bible does not describe Satan in physical terms, except by inference
conversation with Jesus in the wilderness) or when someone is demon
but propositionally Paul describes him " masquerading as an angel of
Corinthians 11:14) - both deceitful and appealing. It is clear that it
was not mere
human agency that prompted the crucifixion, but the designs of the
devil as well.
(And yet, by it, God provided atonement for the whole world - what
for evil, God used for good.) The depiction of the devil in The Passion of the Christ
is the best non-verbal depiction I've ever seen.
The violence of the movie is nearly overwhelming. It is vivid, realistic, and
unrelenting - just as it was when it actually happened to the Lamb of God. That he
who knew no sin, who came to save the world, would be so cruelly abused has been
lost in our culture of sanitized, self-absorbed pseudo-Christianity, a culture in which
anything unpleasant, such as our own desperate sinfulness and its deadly
consequences written in the blood of Jesus Christ, is often ignored and rarely
It disturbed me to see Jesus thrown to the ground, hit, kicked, and beaten
about the head. The brief respite of a flashback hardly relieved me. It made me feel
ill to see the Roman soldiers gleefully whipping that strong, tanned back until it was
layered with welts, blood, and bruises. The tears in Mary's eyes as she watched her
son suffer and remembered his words at the Last Supper, "This is my body, broken
for you," gave me only slight comfort. I almost couldn't watch anymore as he fell,
bleeding, to the hard stones along the way to the hill of execution. I'll never forget
the look in Mary's eyes as she remembered how she had cradled her young son in
her arms when he fell as a child - and how she could not go to him now, in his hour
of greatest suffering. And when I heard and saw the spike pierce his flesh, I flinched
and pressed myself into the back of my seat. Even now tears fill my eyes as I
remember the look in his eyes as he seemed to be looking right into my heart,
"Father, forgive them." And yet this is a violence that has a purpose: the redemption
of the whole world by the Son of God, who came and took the punishment we - I -
deserved. How can I not look? How can I turn from him when he did not turn from
There may be those who predicted that an R rating for this film would
effectively eliminate all religious people from the audience. They don't understand
that this violence is the only violence that is not gratuitous. It is the only violence
with purpose. It is the only violence by which the world is redeemed. Will it be
difficult for most people to watch? It was for me. But I am a better person, a better
Christian, because I experienced the truth and reality of Christ's suffering with an
emotional immediacy and spiritual depth I've never experienced before.
As Mr. Gibson has said, Jesus's story is the only true "hero story to beat all
hero stories." The hero suffers and dies to save others, and the last enemy
conquered is death itself! The literal, physical, bodily resurrection is the end of the
story and the beginning of forever for all who trust in him. Do not be afraid, Christ
proclaims to us, I have overcome the world!
Mel Gibson believes that the Bible is God's Word - complete, total, without
error - and that the gospel is the core of the entire book. By using Matthew, Mark,
Luke, and John as the eyewitness accounts of the historical events of the gospel,
Mr. Gibson has taken a bold stand before an unbelieving world. By using the
languages that would have been used at the time, he has removed the gospel from
any one people group or language group and placed it within the larger context of
the whole world. By adding subtitles he has ensured that those who do not know the
story will be able to follow the Shepherd as he lays down his life for the sheep. By
keeping his focus on the facts of the events themselves Mr. Gibson has bridged the
chasms separating Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians. By translating the
timeless story of the gospel into the film medium of the 21st century he has brought
the truth of everlasting life to those who are strangers to religion in general and
Christianity in particular.
Mel Gibson did not make this movie to make money. He did not make it to
become a more powerful Hollywood power broker. He did not make it to indulge
his own fancies or cure his own problems. He did not make it to advance any
sectarian cause. He has said clearly, plainly, and often that he made this movie to
bring the gospel - the story of God's forgiveness, love, grace, and redemption - to a
world that is lost without it. I believe him. When you have seen this movie, you
won't be thinking about actors, Mel Gibson, or special effects. You will be thinking
about how God loves you so much that he sent his one and only Son that whoever
believes in him would not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).
Why is it that Christianity today, in general, seems to gloss over Christ's
sacrifice for us? We seem eager to promote Jesus as our friend, our job counselor,
our small group focus, our parental role model. But rarely do we think of Jesus who
died for our sins. I think we have confused the ultimate by-product of redemption
(love, success, peace, happiness) with redemption itself. We gloss over or pay lip
service to the truth that we are lost, we are sinners, we are depraved, we are
condemned, we are destined for hell, we are separated from God by our own
rebelliousness - we need to be saved, and that salvation comes at the most
expensive cost that could ever be: the death of God's own Son, the righteous for the
unrighteous; the perfect for the imperfect; the sinless for the sinners; the godly for
Please make it a priority to see The Passion of the Christ. And then take
nonbelievers with you to see it again and again. I guarantee that you will have
unimaginably constructive conversations with people who would otherwise be
uninterested and unwilling to discuss God, faith, sin, and its remedy in Jesus Christ.
It may well be that The Passion of the Christ will be the single greatest tool
for evangelism that God uses in the 21st century.