Now that the film has been released, I have had some ask me for my views on it. After many conversations, these are some of the issues that I see as important. I will comment on them under the following four headings: 1) Scripture, 2) mediums of communication, 3) meaning, intention and interpretation, and 4) the Gospel.
1. The Sufficiency of Scripture
I begin by affirming that this movie does, for the most part, remain true to the telling of the Passion of Christ as it is written in the four Gospels. I do not deny the fact that there are many Biblical citations and allusions all throughout the film, and for this I am truly grateful. However, it should also be noted that there are things in this film which do not have their foundation in the pages of Holy Scriptures. The two main sources where these things have come from are Anne Catherine Emmerich’s book and Gibson’s own experience and imagination. Many have said that these extra-biblical scenes have enhanced the film and made it more powerful to watch. Scenes which give us more insight into the Spiritual realm of what is happening, the thoughts and memories of Christ as he reflects on his life and ministry, and more details about certain characters. All of the things in the film which are added to the Biblical account of Christ’s passion could have possibly taken place, but they are just that, possibilities. What is the warrant or reason for introducing these mere possibilities into the Biblical account? There are many things which I could think of that could have possibly happened during those twelve hours, but establishing possibilities is not the issue, the issue is establishing the necessity of introducing these extra-biblical details, no matter how beneficial they may seem to be. Why is it necessary, not just possible, to supplement the Biblical account?
While I know that it is not the intention of those who say these things to downplay the authority, sufficiency and clarity of Scripture, it is not the comments that I would expect from those who would claim a strong commitment to God’s Word. As Protestants, we are people who believe firmly in the power of God’s word. So much so that there were some in our heritage who gave their lives that the Scriptures might be available to every person. It is makes me sad, then, that some would say that God’s Word does not “move” them in the way that a movie like the Passion does. Our emotions are more stirred by a man’s vivid depiction of Christ than we are by God’s own revelation to humanity in the Bible. We are no longer grateful or amazed that God has made himself known in history and ordained means whereby that revelation was recorded in written form for future generations. Instead we look to the things around us for a fuller understanding of that revelation and perhaps even a better way of communicating it than writing, reading, teaching and preaching.
2. Mediums of Communication
This brings me to my second major issue which I see as foundational to other concerns about the movie. The question that has been raised in my mind is this: Is the visual an adequate medium for communicating Christian truths? It should be clear to all that we live in an age where the visual is seen as the highest form of communication. We have TV’s in every room of our houses, there are billboards and advertising posters everywhere, we use PowerPoint slides to enhance our oral communications, etc. Studies have been done which claim to teach us that people learn best when they can see something rather than just read or hear it. With all of that in mind, it can seem somewhat shocking when one comes to Scripture and finds command after command to read, teach and preach the Word. Is it simply our cultural distance which makes these forms of communication seem “outdated”? I guess my main question is, when the Bible speaks of preaching the Word, does it have in mind the use of images or movies? Has God promised to work through the viewing of a movie in the same way he has through the preaching of his Word? Many would say that these are the same thing; that a movie can communicate truth equally as well as preaching and in most cases, better. Gibson has told stories about why he attends the Latin mass. Because there in an element of mystery involved and it is not about understanding what is going on but simply seeing it. Undoubtedly this was probably an influence in wanting to film the movie in Latin and Aramaic. My concern then is, what does that say about our belief in the personal aspect of communicating Gospel truth – if it can be communicated more powerfully by seeing an impersonal movie than in the personal faith of believers acted out in love for their neighbor? What does that say about our belief in the spoken and preached Word of God – if pictures (even in another language) can communicate to our understanding the truths of the Christian faith better than words? Please do not misunderstand me, I am not saying that God cannot work through movies. What I am saying is that he has not promised to do so in the same way he has when his word is faithfully preached.
3. Interpretation, Meaning and Intention
If indeed the visual is an adequate medium for communicating Christian truth, how then is it to be interpreted? Wherein does the meaning lie? As already stated there are scenes in this movie which are not found in the Gospel accounts. They do not just happen to be in the movie; they were put there with a purpose. The place of Mary in this film is directly related to Gibson and Emmerich’s Catholic beliefs about her. That is not a secret. Likewise, the flashbacks on the cross to the scenes of the Last Supper are in the film because, as Gibson has said, see understands the sacrifice of the Cross and the sacrifice of the Mass to be the same thing. Gibson is not trying to hide these things and subversely communicate them to his audience. He has been forthright in sharing his reasons for certain cinematic decisions. With all of that said, this is a movie, and films can be viewed by many and interpreted in many different ways. As a result, can we legitimately dismiss the director’s stated intentions for certain things in this movie with which we do not agree? Can we simply dismiss his motives for including a scene and interpret it another way? I’m not sure.
My concern is that there will be those who go and see this movie who, having never read their Bibles, will think that this is an accurate portrayal of Evangelical beliefs when on some accounts it is not. Again, let me state that this movie does, for the most part, remain true to the testimony of Scripture, but it is at the other parts, especially when they are juxtaposed with Scriptural accounts, where we need to offer a Biblical corrective, not reinterpret them and simply dismiss their stated objectives.
4. The Gospel
Finally and most importantly, even after having spoken with people who have seen it, this film does not adequately convey the truth of the Gospel. Yet this that is exactly what it has tried to do. That this is the intention behind the movie is clear. On the homepage of Passionoutreach.com they have a quote from Gibson, “My hope is that this movie will affect people on a very profound level and reach them with a message of faith, hope, love and forgiveness.” Gibson’s movie is the way he has chosen to communicate that message. By seeing this film, Gibson hopes that people will be affected on a very profound level and recognize the message of faith, hope, love and forgiveness. Does this film adequately present the entire truth of the Gospel message?
While I have heard many praise this movie because it so clearly communicates the message that Christ died for us and bore on his body the penalty for our sins, I have not heard anyone talk about how in this movie the righteousness of God is revealed. Not the righteousness of God whereby he justly punished the sins of the Church on Christ, but the righteousness of God in Christ which is imputed to us only by faith. True that this movie probably brings out the point that Christ was innocent and according to the world’s standards being unjustly punished, but it does not stress the righteous life which he lived that satisfied God’s holy demands. When we place our trust in Christ we are trusting not only in his sacrifice on our behalf but for his righteousness which permits us to stand before God as just. Salvation, specifically justification (being in right standing before God), requires two things. The first is that the penalty for the sins of the guilty be paid. This is being communicated when people point to passages like Isaiah 53 for support of this movie and in saying things like “Jesus died for us”. While it is interesting to me that we have non-Calvinists proclaiming the specifically Calvinistic doctrine of subsituntionary atonement, this is only half of the message. The forgiveness of sins is necessary, but it does not put us in right standing before God, it only makes us neutral before Him. It is not only that we must be forgiven of our sins but that we must also obtain righteousness, righteousness which is in accord with God’s eternal and holy demands. It should be abundantly clear to all that we, as sinners, can never hope to attain this righteousness of our own striving, running or willing; we need a righteousness that is outside of ourselves. The glory of the Gospel is that God, in Christ, has perfectly lived the righteous life. He has met his own eternal standard of holiness. It is this righteousness which is then counted as ours only when we have faith in Christ. We trust in him, not only for the forgiveness of our sins, but for his active and positive righteousness on our behalf.
This message is integral to the distinctly Evangelical doctrine of justification by faith alone – the article, according to Luther, on which the church either stands or falls. This is the thing which separates the Biblical Gospel of historic Evangelicalism from that of Rome. Without it, the Reformers argued, there is no Biblical Gospel. Have we come to a day and age where that is no longer the case? Why is it that we do not see this as important as our fore-fathers in the faith did? Perhaps, we as Evangelicals need to reaffirm what it is we believe about the Gospel instead of assuming that everyone knows it.
With that in mind, how can one say that “the message will come through in this movie”? To what message are they referring? Are they referring to the entire Gospel as it is found in the pages of the New Testament and affirmed throughout Church history by faithful Evangelicals? The two main questions that I think people who see this movie should wrestle with are: Who was Jesus? and Why did he die? If we do not adequately, fully and Biblically answer these two questions people will leave the theaters having had a profound “spiritual” experience but there will be no repentance of sins, saving faith, or desire for baptism and involvement in local Churches. They will go back to watching their TV’s, buying clothes and worrying about all of the concerns of the world, all the while never realizing that their very soul is in jeopardy.
In sum, does this movie have the potential to spark conversations about the message of the cross? Absolutely. But should that be our only standard of judging it? Is it enough to view it from a pragmatic perspective and not think about other issues that may be wound up in it? I offer these comments not with the hope of stifling conversation about these things but that we might better know and love God as he has revealed himself to us most perfectly in the person of Christ through His word and faithfully proclaim him and the entire Gospel to a lost world.
Please feel free to post your comments on these things as we continue dialoging about this important film.