I have not seen Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, so I won't be commenting on that movie's merit or lack thereof. Especially since two people of my acquaintance whose sound judgment, good taste, and theological knowledge I respect seem to have come back from the theatre with widely differing perceptions of the film, leaving me with no clear idea of what I'd be likely to make of it myself. Anyway, there are enough reviews and descriptions of tPotC floating around the web by now for people to make up their own minds, I'm sure.*
What I want to talk about, then, is not my opinion of Mel Gibson's filmmaking abilities as such, but rather a question raised by Gibson's approach to the crucifixion story. Given that the movie focuses almost exclusively on Jesus's betrayal, torture, and death, with only a few glimpses of His life before that twelve-hour ordeal and a brief nod to what came after, some of my non-Christian friends (along with a number of professional movie reviewers) have wondered what the point is of all that cinematic gore. Yes, Jesus suffered horribly before He died; but so have millions of other people over the course of history. Is Gibson asking us to believe that Jesus's physical sufferings were the worst that any human being has ever experienced? And even if that were true -- which seems unlikely -- what are we supposed to take from that?
It's true that the Bible does describe the physical agonies of Christ's crucifixion, and the floggings and beatings that preceded it, in graphic terms: as far as the degree and extent of those sufferings are concerned, I suspect that Gibson's dramatization has not strayed that far from the historical reality. In the prophetic words of the Tanakh (a.k.a. the Old Testament), we find such phrases as "Ploughmen have ploughed my back and made their furrows long"; and also that "his appearance was ... disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness". Psalm 22 in particular describes in potent imagery the humiliation and agony of the crucified one:
But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people.Nevertheless, the degree and extent of Christ's physical sufferings as such are never the main focus even in the Tanakh; much less so in the New Testament, where the gospel records are positively reticent about those kinds of details. There is no attempt at any kind of tough-guy one-upmanship as far as Jesus's ability to endure physical pain is concerned. And never are we encouraged to believe that His merely bodily agonies were greater than anyone else's, or to rest even the smallest weight of doctrine upon that belief.
All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads ...
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.
Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.
In truth, the significance of Christ's Passion does not lie in the amount of physical abuse He suffered at the hands of men, nor on the fact that He was nailed to a Roman cross when they had done with Him. Even the fact that He was unjustly condemned and executed does not make Him particularly special. If Yeshua of Nazareth had been just an ordinary Rabbi with some good teachings, the cross would stand as another sad example of "man's inhumanity to man", but nothing more. Even if -- and I know that Gibson was very anxious to try and show this -- Jesus went willingly and courageously to death for the sake of a great Cause, even that would not make Him unique.
The only reason that the death of Christ on the cross of Calvary has any significance or power whatsoever is because of who He was. And that is what His disciples also focused upon, even in the very earliest public sermons recorded in the book of Acts -- that the One who had been delivered up to death was in fact the true Messiah of Israel, "the Holy and Righteous One", indeed the very Son of God. And not just God's "son" in some nebulous metaphorical sense, nor even in a derivative one like the angels; but God Himself in human form, offering Himself as an atoning sacrifice on behalf of a sinful and undeserving humanity.
The good news is not that a nice, well-behaved man named Jesus suffered torture and death to make you aware of your sins and encourage you to turn to God. The good news is that the very One who was "the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful word" chose to hang upon the cross, and that
He was pierced for our transgressions,Furthermore, "the good news about Jesus" is only good because it does not end at the cross. Rather, as Peter preached to the crowds in Jerusalem, "God raised Him from the dead... because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on Him..." Jesus could not remain in the tomb, because death had no claim on Him or power to hold Him -- for death is the "wages of sin", and Jesus Himself was sinless.
He was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him,
and by His wounds we are healed.
It was my sin and your sin, the sin of rebellious and self-willed humanity, that sent Jesus to the cross and to the grave. But when He had finished His work as both our Great High Priest and our complete, unblemished Sacrifice, He ascended to heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. As such, any account of Christ's Passion that omits or minimizes the Resurrection -- however devout or emotionally moving that account may be -- is only half the story. And not even the most important half, because as the apostle Paul remarked, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins... if only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men."
Inasmuch as Gibson's movie succeeds in conveying what our sin did to Christ -- just how terrible sin really is, how profound the injustice it represents, how deeply it grieves the heart of God -- it may be worthwhile. Particularly, I suspect, for those who are already believers, and know who Jesus was and is: that way they are able to identify with and care about the sufferings of the One depicted in the film, than just having to regard Him as "some poor guy" (incidentally played by Jim Caviezel). But if you want to really understand the Passion, why it happened and what it meant... for that, you must read the word of God.
*I will, however, repeat my hearty recommendation of The Gospel of John to anyone who hasn't seen it already. Of course, if you walk into tGoJ expecting it to conform to the standard Hollywood movie pattern, as some critics evidently did, you'll no doubt find it rather draggy; but if you view it as an opportunity to see the book of John dramatized in its entirety, like a well-staged and acted Shakespearean play, it's superb.