Features, Highlights

The mystery of God dying

I WAS invited recently to watch the film The Passion of the Christ which has already created much discussion even before being released for public screening.

On the one hand, there has been much excitement about the positive impact of the film. Many Christians, including pastors and evangelical leaders, have praised the film – for its realistic portrayal of the sufferings of Christ, for its ability to help us see how it could have been, and for its evangelistic potential. The dialogue in the film is in Aramaic and Latin, languages that were spoken then, which makes the film all the more realistic.

On the other hand, critics have accused the film of being excessively violent, and of being anti-Semitic in its unflattering portrayal of the Jewish religious leaders. Some have also found fault with the film’s reliance on extra-biblical inspiration, such as the writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich, a Catholic nun who lived 200 years ago. It comes as no surprise that Mel Gibson, an avowed Roman Catholic who directed and produced the film, has incorporated ideas and scenes that are clearly Catholic in flavour, such as the portrayal of the Stations of the Cross, the scene suggesting the origin of the Turin Shroud, the prominent role of Mary in the film, and scenes reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Pieta.

These issues are discussed by numerous articles that have been written. It may be a good exercise to discuss these things in church Bible study groups.

We cannot expect a two-hour film that seeks to depict the last 12 hours of the life of Christ on earth to limit itself strictly to the biblical material alone. A script writer who uses only the biblical texts for dialogue and scenes would run out of material in less than an hour. It is therefore to be noted that the material for this film comes not only from biblical texts, but also tradition and artistic imagination. If we accept this as a given, then we need not ask the film to be anything more than it is or dismiss it too quickly.

It is clear that the film’s extra-biblical sources and some of its artistic licence create its weaknesses. Its failure to show more about who Jesus is, what He taught and did, and its all-too-brief portrayal of Christ’s resurrection may also be seen as weaknesses. But the film is resolute in focusing on the passion of Christ. No doubt, as a medium, films have their limits. We know that the Gospel of Christ must still be preached, and preached clearly (Rom. 10:14-15), for faith comes from hearing (Rom. 10:17).

The key question is whether this film helps us to encounter Christ or is a barrier to that encounter.

Do we really need to focus on the physical sufferings of Christ? Is it not enough to know that He died on the cross to save us from our sins? Will too much attention on the physical aspects of the passion of Christ distract us from the truth of Christ’s death for us?

That Jesus suffered physically for us is a truth recorded in Scripture. He was bound (Mk. 15:1), spat upon, blindfolded, punched (Mk. 14:65), beaten (Lk. 22:63), flogged (Mk 15:15), had a crown of thorns pressed on to His head and then beaten on the head with a staff (Mk. 15:17-19), and suffered an unimaginably painful and agonising crucifixion (Jn. 19:18). As if that was not enough, Jesus was mocked, insulted and publicly humiliated. What we find in these biblical passages is given flesh and blood in the film. The graphic images make it difficult to watch what Jesus must have gone through but they put to rest some familiar images of a crucified but serene Jesus, suggesting that the cross was no big deal for Him.

The biblical depiction of the sufferings of Christ is reflected in our ancient creeds. In the Apostles’ Creed, we recite that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate … ” Jesus indeed suffered greatly for us; we cannot treat His sufferings lightly or dismiss them as unimportant. Did not the prophet Isaiah declare that “with His stripes we are healed”? (Is. 53:5)

Few people have suffered the same way that Jesus suffered physically. But those sufferings are not unique; in Christ’s day, crucifixion was used by the Romans to punish criminals and insurgents. Today, people do go through physical torture that may not be far removed from what one might see in the film.

Therefore what relevance do the sufferings of Jesus have for us? Firstly, they show to what extent He is willing to go to save us. They bring us to the depths of His love. For those who might suffer physical torture and pain, as has been for Christians throughout the ages in various circumstances, the sufferings of Christ become a source of comfort that He personally knows what they are going through.

Jesus’ sufferings bring us to the depths of His love

If it is true that some people may have physically suffered like Christ did, then it is also true that no one has died like He did. His death is unique. His is the death of the only Sinless One who walked on earth. His is the death of the God-Man, the Son of God, the One whose death on the cross put to death all other deaths. Through His death, we are saved from our sins. He bore the burden of the world’s sins and suffered utter loneliness when the Father turned His face away. He fully suffered the penalty of sin on our behalf. There is no one who can die like Him.

Those who try to physically re-enact the crucifixion of Christ can only mimic the physical sufferings of Christ; they cannot mimic His death. In His death, Jesus is distinctly unique. His sufferings and death are unique because there is no one like Him; He is unique.

A film like The Passion, no matter what imperfections it has, helps somehow to do what Paul said, “Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.” (Gal 3:1). Our response is of utmost importance. I have heard some, both Christians and non-Christians, say how moved they were by the film. But for a man to be moved emotionally is one thing; to realise that Christ’s sufferings and death were for him is another thing.

In the film, the hand that drove a nail into the palm of the Christ figure was that of Gibson, a point to say that each of us is responsible for Christ’s sufferings. This truth may allay the fears of those who think the film is anti-Semitic. The film, in fact, points its finger in the direction of the one watching it. We must realise that Christ died for you and for me.

The film graphically shows how Jesus was tortured and humiliated for us. Is it violent? Yes, it shows how the Victim, the Lamb of God, was brutally beaten up, tortured, and cruelly crucified. Does it glorify violence through mindless brutality? No, the chief character in the film (hero in cinema parlance), is on the receiving end of heart-wrenching violence but he responds non-violently. He loves those who beat Him and dies for them. He glorifies love and sacrifice, not violence. No matter what they did to Him, only love was found in His heart.

It is a lesson that must be learned by all. Jesus is not only the Sacrificial Lamb on the cross; He is also the Model for us. To follow Him would not be easy. We may squirm in our seats as we watch the scenes in the film, not only because of what Jesus suffered, but also because we wonder whether if we were similarly tortured we would have the faith, courage and love to follow the footsteps of the One who invites us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him (Lk. 9:23).

This film, like all films, can be seen as entertainment, or a work of art. But because it depicts the passion of Christ, we Christians are especially interested. It is not Scripture and therefore has its many imperfections; it should not be made into a fifth Gospel. But it carries a true story that is larger than the film or its director. It is the story of Jesus of Nazareth, and the film is dominated by some central aspects of that story as it shows Christ crucified.

If it ceases to be mere entertainment, if it makes people ask who this Jesus is and want to find out more about Him, if the cinema screen fades to become a window to the greatest mystery on earth, that God would lay down His life for our sins, if it draws us closer to the Christ who loves us without limits, if it produces not applause but awe and worship of the Shepherd of our souls who offered Himself to be sacrificed for us, if it makes each one in the audience go away saying, “Lord, you went through all that for me; help me to follow you and your way,” if it produces not fans of a film or its artistes, but disciples of Christ, then this film is indeed a special blessing. Whenever we deal with the story of Christ, we deal with holy mystery. He is larger than art forms and films. He invites us to encounter Him and respond to Him – as He takes us to the cross, to the empty tomb, and to the right hand of the Father in heaven.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again! May the truths of Good Friday and Easter, as we celebrate these in church this season, help us to draw closer to the One who will return in glory.

— Bishop Dr Robert Solomon on the film The Passion of the Christ.