I realize that many have praised this movie and I don’t want to throw a wet blanket on somebody’s parade. So please know that what I’m about to say is formulating my own thoughts about a wildly popular movie among Christians. These are just my thoughts and observations. You may disagree and that’s ok. In fact, I’d be open to rethinking my perspective, which has been bubbling for some years. However, I suspect there are others who agree with me and so I wanted to pen out my thoughts.
Back in February 2004, The Passion of the Christ hit movie theaters and Christians turned out in droves to view it. At the time of its release, the church I was involved in at the time set up a mass viewing. I was reluctant but I didn’t know why. I blamed in on the difficulty of my home situation with my husband’s illness but really, that was no excuse. He passed away later that year and surely I had ample opportunity to rent the DVD once it was released. So what was my problem? Every year, I agonized over watching it since it seemed the “Christian” thing to do. It would not be until years later that I realized why I did not want to see this movie.
The more the reports and reviews spread about the incredible nature of the movie, the more conflicted I felt because of my reluctance. These reports emphasized the gruesome nature of Christ’s torture and crucifixion. Without seeing the movie, it became pretty obvious pretty fast that the director had intentionally taken liberties with the details of Jesus’ brutal last hours, expanding on the horrific violence that Jesus endured. By all accounts and reviews, there were bloody, tortuous scenes that would make the toughest of macho men flinch. The more I read and heard, it seemed to me that this violence was a central theme of the movie.
And it has occurred to me, that was the problem…
No doubt, Jesus endured a brutal trial and execution. That really was the Roman way. But when I look at Scripture, I have to wonder if that was the focus of the NT writers, especially the Gospel writers, in the narrative of Christ’s last hours.
A book that tremendously helped me understand how to approach the Bible was Living by the Book by the late Howard Hendricks, professor at Dallas Seminary. A rule of thumb that really stood out for me was considering what things were repeated, related, and emphasized in relation to the author’s theme but also how that correlated to the overall redemptive narrative. I discovered that each writer wanted to emphasize certain aspects of Jesus’ life and death according to the audience to whom they were writing. That’s why it’s kind of laughable when people raise the issue of discrepancies in the Gospels because each one wanted to highlight certain aspects of Jesus’ earthly ministry. As a whole, we get a robust picture of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and what that meant.
The Romans specialized in torture and sought to inflict the worst kind of punishment in execution. But if I consider the emphasis of the narrative in all four Gospel accounts, the authors intentionally minimized the details of violence compared to what actually took place but more importantly, why they took place. All of the them. The NT letters, even more so.
It occurs to me that the exemplification of the brutality was not the point. The fact that the eternal Son of God condescended to become like us, live the life of perfect obedience that we cannot, then offer himself as a living sacrifice was the point. But this was in fulfillment of Scripture, which is why the writers emphasized certain aspects of the pain that he endured. In other words, whatever details were recorded was not so much about gratuitous violence, but rather demonstrating that the Son of God fulfilled that which was to be accomplished as a propitiation for our sins.
I fear that focusing on the details of the brutality and taking liberties to expound on them can undermine this vital point. It almost seems that such violence is portrayed to shame Christians into loving Christ more. I could be wrong and hope I am. But is the violence what really enforces our belief and devotion? That the punishment Jesus endured on our behalf was in fulfillment of Scripture, who secured eternal redemption for his elect. From a holistic rendering of Scripture, the focus is really about fulfillment of Scripture and the willingness to lay down his life. For me, believing this is what enforces devotion.
In the 11 years since Passion of the Christ was released, this point has become clearer to me and alleviates my guilt regarding my reluctance to see the movie. In fact, I can honestly say at this point I have no desire. But on the other hand, am filled with praise and awe at the sacrifice of our Lord who has relieved me from guilt, not so much about seeing the movie, put paying the penalty for my sins.
There is therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life and death has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 8:1-4)
I watched the movie back then, and I think you are correct in your intuitions. It’s as if the point of the film was to convey the thought,”Marvel at how much violence and suffering Christ suffered physically at the cross; does this not prove He earned the right to become Savior and obtain your devotion?” Assuredly, our Lord sacrificed Himself all the way for believers, even to the point of a violent, excruciatingly painful death at the cross. But the bloody violence of the Cross is not its true significance. Rather, its power is found in God’s willingness to substitute HImself for sinners like us, taking upon HImself the wrath we deserve, so as to restore our relationship to Himself and break the stranglehold of sin over us. The movie emphasized the details of the physical pain endured, as if this aspect of the crucifixion was its primary glory. But the physical aspect was only a tiny portion of the glory at best, an d becomes a distraction at worst. The glory of the Cross is what God accomplished spiritually through His action, in the saving of souls, for all who receive it by faith.
Yes. One of the great understatements in all literature, “they crucified him.”
Thanks for this, Lisa – i always enjoy your thoughtful writing. I can’t speak for the producers of the movie as to their intent in showing the brutality of the cross. But as Isaiah 53 foreshadows the death of the Suffering Servant, it and tells us He wouldn’t simply die, and that He wouldn’t simply be killed … he was *crushed,* and that it was the Father’s will to do so (and that He was willing to be treated so) for our behalf. That’s some strong language…
I work with various populations of believers who undergo physical torture as they suffer for their faith. Many report that Christ’s physical suffering ex crucis is both contact point and comfort for them. Solzhenytsin, Wurmbrand, Bunyan, Dostoyevsky … the list goes on of those who “entered into the fellowship of Christ’s suffering” from the physical angle and lived to write about it. They teach us that there’s nothing the believer can endure in his or her humanity that Christ, in His humanity, doesn’t understand – not even a torturous death at the hands of those hostile toward those who bear His name. So for me, as a believer in God’s sovereign intentionality in all things (and it seems for others as well), Christ’s extreme physical suffering holds temporal meaning just as powerful as securing eternity for His elect. Even the smallest details of His earthly life and death have far more redemptive significance than we often give them credit for.
Thanks for encouraging us to consider anew the full significance of the cross.
No, thank you for that poignant comment. I really appreciated this line,
“Even the smallest details of His earthly life and death have far more redemptive significance than we often give them credit for.”
Indeed. That gives me much to think about with respect to what I wrote here.
Bravo Lisa. I refused to see it and still haven’t for the EXACT reasons you give. I must respectfully disagree with Karen. The movie was a gore fest and God help me if I need Hollywood to induce devotion to Christ in me. Owen did not visual aids to write “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ” for instance.
Thanks for your kind response, Tiribulus. I would encourage you to re-read my comment – as was stated at the outset, my point was not the movie’s intent or affect, but rather the redemptive value of the depth of Christ’s suffering. My response addressed Lisa’s general conclusions about the cross in paragraphs 7 and 8, not the gore factor of the movie itself. Blessings, KAE