Although I cry easily, I wanted to view Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion dispassionately. So I braced myself, purposed not to look at my wife beside me and watched without moving a muscle from the opening scene until the end. Despite the English subtitles (all the narrative is in Aramaic and Latin), this is surely the most powerful film ever produced — both emotionally and spiritually — portraying the suffering and death of our Savior. Almost everyone in our theater audience sat in silence through the final credits then rose and left with scarcely a sound to be heard.
Critics have said much of the vivid brutality in this film. The New Testament does not elaborate on those details — its first readers did not need elaboration to understand the horror. It is not accidental that our word “excruciating” comes from the Latin word for “cross.” Gibson’s movie marks a radical departure from the traditional, sanitized, Hollywood version of Christ’s death and it is biblical in that respect. Foretelling the Messiah’s suffering, Isaiah prophesied that “many were appalled at him — so marred was his appearance, unlike that of man, his form beyond human semblance” (Isaiah 52:14, Jewish Study Bible). With flogging and crucifixion, the Romans perfected efficient brutality. This movie grabs the viewer’s gut as well as heart in displaying that reality.
Film is an art-form and Gibson uses certain artistic license, shaped by his personal Roman Catholic piety which organizes the story by 14 “stations” or scenes of Jesus from his condemnation by Pilate until his entombment. This is not a criticism but merely a comment. In the movie, Jesus falls three times as he carries his cross; he bears an entire cross rather than the horizontal beam; he is nailed through the palms and not the wrists. The Gospels give none of these details but they are not contrary to anything the Gospels actually say, whether they are factual or not.
Charges of anti-Semitism are wholly misguided. Like many a prophet before him, Jesus was a Jew whose death a corrupt Jewish establishment plotted and helped to arrange. To say otherwise would be to rewrite history. As in the Gospels, Gibson’s film portrays the Romans as Jesus’ actual executioners. This movie shows certain Roman soldiers, not Jews, as the sadistic brutes who torture Jesus and enjoy doing so. If Jesus was the foretold Messiah of Jewish prophecy as he proclaimed (and as Gentile and Jewish believers alike confess), his people erred greatly by rejecting him. That, too, was foretold in prophecy (see Psalm 118:22). Yet Jesus asked God to forgive all who had a hand in his death, pleading that they did not know what they were doing. Every true follower of Jesus must imitate the Lord’s forgiving spirit and repudiate every expression of hatred and revenge for his death.
Most powerful in this film — as in the Bible — is the reality that every sinful one of us human beings bears some responsibility for the suffering and death of the gentle and sinless Savior. “He was wounded because of our sins, crushed because of our iniquities. He bore the chastisement that made us whole, and by his bruises we were healed. We all went astray like sheep, each going his own way; and the LORD visited upon him the guilt of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6, Jewish Study Bible). Gibson makes this point loud and clear, by the agony in Gethsemane and through flashbacks from Jesus’ teaching, especially at the Last Supper. This film drips with blood, but it is the blood of the new covenant, the blood shed for the forgiveness of sins, the blood that gives us eternal life.
Small wonder that reactions to The Passion are visceral and extreme. Gibson confronts us with the scandal of the Cross. Once we truly understand what is really happening here we have but two ultimate options. Either we bow our hearts in repentance before the crucified and risen Jesus Christ or we boil with rage at such a preposterous and incriminating tale.