Review of The Passion of the Christ

[1] After seeing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ I will never sing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” or “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” the same way again. Normally my mind flicks quickly over the gory language and bloody images in those hymns. I tend to imagine a cross without a crucifixion, atonement without blood. But never again. The haunting images of The Passion will stick with me for a long time.

[2] I must admit that the encounter with The Passion provided the most intense moments I have ever experienced in a theater. Only Dead Man Walking and Schindler’s List even come close. I did not look forward to watching it and I do not want to watch it again, not because it isn’t a great movie but because it is too overwhelming.


[3] The movie carries one through the intense last hours of Christ’s life, beginning with his prayer in Gethsemane. There is no doubt in Jesus’ mind about his identity and his mission. Yet he desperately wants to be spared from suffering what he knows he must. He is sorely tempted by a satanic figure who questions whether he is the One and whether anyone can bear the burden. From there on the plot unfolds as Christians have heard it read from the Gospels-especially that of John-for millennia. In the film nothing is left to the imagination; everything-brutal and beautiful alike-is displayed before the viewer on a huge screen backed up by words in Aramaic and Latin and haunting music.

[4] While Gibson uses artistic license to add touches and subplots here and there, nothing in it is inconsistent with the standard narrative that Christians rehearse during Lent. What’s more, the movie is true to the cosmic meanings that are conveyed in the biblical texts. Something infinitely more significant is going on in the story than the torture and crucifixion of an itinerant Jewish teacher. Satan constantly appears in the form of a luminously evil androgynous figure who detects the cosmic meaning of Christ’s Passion. The snake he/she lets loose to threaten the agonized Christ in Gethsemane is stomped on by Jesus as a reversal of the Genesis account of the serpent bruising Adam’s heal. This is the story of the Second Adam.

[5] Luther claimed that when holiness is most present the Devil is likewise most powerfully present to fend off the action of God. All the way through the narrative the satanic figure obstructs, frustrates, and tempts the Christ from his work. When Satan fails he/she finally returns with horrendous screams of protest to the subterranean hell from which he/she came.

[6] Other cosmic signals abound: the satanic agitation of Judas that drives him to suicide; a crow pecking at the eyes of one of the thieves crucified with Christ; a dark storm at the time of Christ’s death, an earthquake that shatters the Temple and rends its curtain; the grinding of the stones of the tomb and a glimpse of the resurrected Jesus. (I believe it was wise that Gibson chose not to do more with the resurrected Christ. He then would have had to deal with the nature of the resurrected Body, a difficult task to pull off without sentimentality.)


[7] This is so emphatically a Christian movie that it is easy to understand the discomfort of non-Christians who view it. Indeed, without knowledge of the whole narrative, the Passion portrayed in the film would be baffling. The Christian viewer has to supply quite a bit of the untold narrative. The flashbacks, while powerful and instructive, finally do not fill in enough.

[8] The detailed and painful attention to the suffering of Christ fits a classic Christian understanding of the atonement, associated with Catholicism, but certainly not unknown to strands of Protestantism, especially Lutheran. (In Finland the center of Holy Week is not Easter but Good Friday with its focus on the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus.)

[9] This version of Christ’s atoning work focuses on the suffering and death of Christ, the Lamb of God, who through his obedient sacrifice takes away the sins of the world. It views Jesus as the Passover Lamb whose blood is shed for the redemption of all. In that suffering and death, God in Christ takes into himself the wrath deserved by a fallen and sinful creation. “Jesus died for your sins” is the simple formula that reflects a much more complex notion.

[10] Catholics meditate on Jesus’ suffering as he moves through the Twelve Stations of the Cross. In one sense, the Passion is a dramatic account of those Stations of the Cross.

[11] However, Protestants also dwell on that suffering death. “Alas, And Did My Savior Bleed,” “Deep Were His Wounds,” and “Jesus in Thy Dying Woes” are just three of the titles of the many Lenten hymns in the Lutheran Book of Worship that emphasize the suffering and death of Jesus. The texts of those hymns, as well as many others, well describe what happens to Jesus in The Passion.

[12] There is another version of the atonement at work in the movie-that of Christus Victor, Christ the Victor. In that account Jesus takes on all that our enemies-sin, death, and the Devil-can throw at him. And that is considerable, as the movie points out. After taking all that, Jesus as the Christ is resurrected on the third day. He springs alive from the cross, and wins the victory for all that believe in him.

[13] Gibson does not spare the violence and bloodshed. Indeed, he overdoes it, as many have complained. The scourging of Jesus itself would have either killed him or sent him into deep shock. And there is no possible way he could have borne the heavy cross after such a thrashing and after continued pounding. Even accounting for a superhuman determination on his part, Jesus could not have done what Gibson has him do, given what he went through.


[14] So this is powerful stuff, even discounting the heavy violence. That is why the reaction to the movie has been so strong. Its account of Jesus’ crucifixion is, as St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:23, “a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” Let’s take the latter first.

[15] The most hateful vituperation heaped upon Gibson and the film have come from secularists who believe that the narrative-and the attendant claims put forth by Christians-is foolishness. It is irrational, superstitious…incredible. Only fools believe it. But when it is put forth with such intense emotional power, it is dangerous. It is capable of whipping up a revolting religion which will threaten our hard-fought secular tolerance. It may intensify dangerous religious passions and produce too many people sympathetic to John Ashcroft! This group stops at nothing to smear Gibson. They try to conflate the younger Gibson’s convictions with those of his wacky father, and paint them both with the same brush.

[16] Down a notch from the vituperative “cultured despisers of religion” are those, generally liberal Protestants, who exhibit a strong distaste for any portrayal of serious violence connected with the Passion, as well as for those-conservative Protestants and Catholics-who seem to embrace that violence as a necessary component of the story of redemption. Behind such distaste is the belief that God really should have saved us in nicer ways than the suffering and crucifixion of his Son. This attitude underestimates the cost to God of overcoming the wrath and sin of a fallen world. It prompts one to remember the biting remark of H. Richard Niebuhr that in liberal Protestantism “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment by the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

[17] If the movie is foolishness to the Greeks, it is a “stumbling block to the Jews” because it unfolds from the conviction that Jesus is the Messiah, the awaited one of God. Jesus’ claims are blasphemous to Jews who believe that the One God cannot and will not incarnate himself in a human being. So it was then and so it is now. It is a hard movie for Jews to watch on that account alone. The movie points up the great divide we have on the question of the Messiah, even though we share the Hebrew Scriptures.

[18] But what of the charges of anti-Semitism? Certainly the Jewish leaders-the chief priests and scribes-are viewed in the movie and in the Gospels as bringing serious charges against Jesus. They demand his death. Pilate is viewed in the movie and in the Gospels as a gutless leader who caves in to the leaders’ demands though he believes Jesus has done nothing to deserve death. The Roman soldiers scourge (endlessly!) and then execute Jesus by crucifixion. All those who followed Jesus a week earlier turn against him. Even his disciples abandon him. All this is as it is in the Gospels. Christians cannot change that without changing their religion. (Certain liberal Protestant scholars claim that Jesus was really executed as a revolutionary threat to Rome, but this takes quite a bit of explaining away the clear narratives of the Gospels.)

[19] Except for the Romans, everyone else in the drama is a Jew. Jesus was a Jew, as were his disciples. Christianity arose out of a major argument among Jews. Some of them did believe that Jesus was the Messiah and were vindicated in their belief by the appearance of the risen Jesus in their midst. They went on to found the Church. But what of the rest-then and now-that didn’t accept him? Were they guilty of his death, the death of the Son of God, the charge that has resulted in so many attacks on Jews throughout the centuries?

[20] Certainly most Christians in this country are taught, as I was taught, that we would have been right along with the Jewish rejecters of Jesus had we lived at that time. Our sin would have closed our eyes to the appearance of the Son of God and we would have turned on him. As the great Lutheran hymn has it: “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus hath undone thee. ‘Twas I Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.”

[21] The particular way the Messiah came was a jolt to everyone. No one put together the traditions of the Suffering Servant of God and the Son of Man. When this combination was put to Peter by Jesus, he reacts with horrified disbelief. God surprised everyone with the kind of Messiah he sent. No one could claim that they knew what God was doing. When I think of whom I would have been in that time and place, I have little doubt I would have been a Pharisee. I like my religion clear and orderly. I would have been shocked and repelled by the itinerant preacher who was upsetting everything we believed. Indeed, “I crucified thee.”

[22] Any right thinking Christian does not hold the Jewish people accountable in any special sense for the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. The brightest and best of the time simply couldn’t have foreseen what was happening. But what about more unreflective and “primitive” Christians, say, the Christian villagers of Russia, or perhaps even extremist Muslims who want another excuse to hate the Jews? While I do not think that Gibson should be held responsible for the misuse of his film, I think it would be wise not to distribute the film in regions of the world where anti-Semitism is strong.

[23] Finally, it must be said that this is cinematic art. It is not the Gospel. It is an interpretation that is flawed by excessive violence. Jews, Christians, and other persons of good will disagree about the evaluation of the film. We should not let those disagreements rise to an angry level. We have enough problems without letting Mel Gibson’s interpretation of the Passion of Christ increase them.

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate in the Religion and Philosophy Department, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia and Professor of Christian Ethics, The Institute of Lutheran Theology.