The Passion of the Christ
Reviewed by: Brett Willis
but contains graphic violence
Mature Teens and Adults
2 hr. 6 mins.
Year of Release:
February 25, 2004
If Jesus is God, how could he die? If Jesus died on the cross, then how can he be alive today? Answer
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Producer’s synopsis: “This film tells the story of the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus (Caviezel), on the day of his crucifixion in Jerusalem. This film’s script is based upon several sources, including the diaries of St. Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) as collected in the book, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, The Mystical City of God by St. Mary of Agreda, and the New Testament books of John, Luke, Mark and Matthew.”
For many months, and even more strongly for the past few weeks, we’ve all been subjected to a propaganda campaign in the media and on the Internet, attacking “The Passion” with a variety of “concerns” ranging from the possibly-valid to the irrelevant and outrageous. Now that the release date has finally arrived, each of us can decide for ourselves whether to see the film. And if we do see it, decide also whether the objections were justified.
Many of the negative reviews of this film are written by people who don’t believe that the Bible is given by the inspiration of God, a problem that severely colors their approach. Sometime late in a review, the writer will subtly peck away at the reader’s faith, implying (for example) that Pilate carried more blame for Jesus’ death than the film shows. But doesn’t the film follow the Biblical record on Pilate’s role? Yes, but they imply that the Biblical record ITSELF is tainted, because when the Gospels were written it was important for Christians not to antagonize the Romans, so they blamed the Jews for Jesus’ death INSTEAD, etc. etc.
I believe that any reviewer of this film should state his view of the Scriptures up front, so the reader knows the worldview from which the review is written. For my part, I believe that all of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, and they teach absolute truth. I further believe that not only were the original manuscripts inerrant, but God has also PRESERVED the Scriptures by superintending the process of canonization AND by seeing to it that a false reading of a passage (whether a transcription error or a deliberate alteration) in some copy of the Scriptures can be detected and refuted, not by a philosophical or “critical” process, but by the “majority text principle” of letting the countless copies which are undamaged in any given verse out-vote the damaged copies. The bottom line is that the Scriptures were reliable when first given, and they’re still reliable today.
Relevant Questions-and-Answers: How do we know the Bible is true? Answer / When we say that the Bible is the Word of God, does that imply that it is completely accurate, or does it contain insignificant inaccuracies in details of history and science? Answer / How can the Bible be infallible if it is written by fallible humans? Answer
My view of Passion films in general: When I was a kid in the 1950s, growing up in a formal church, we had Wednesday night midweek services during Lent only. One year, a Passion film was shown during those services, a 15 minute slice each week. [“Passion,” in this context, means “Suffering.”] When the Crucifixion was shown, I distinctly remember an awesome sense of personal responsibility that gripped me as the nails were being driven into Jesus’ hands (off-camera of course, but with sound-effects). More than any sermon I ever heard in that church, that film sequence convicted me of sin, and of the fact that by my sin I had shared in causing those nails to be driven.
However, classic-style Passion films probably wouldn’t have the same effect on today’s audiences that they did on those of 50 years ago, because techniques of extreme graphic violence have been used in films of all types, from war movies with a message of self-sacrifice to ridiculous horror and horror-comedy flicks. Moviegoing audiences are desensitized, are bored by the old-style “less is more” approach, and demand “realism.”
So, an actor/director from Hollywood’s “A-list,” who happens to believe that the message of Jesus is true, has chosen to spend somewhere between 25 and 35 million dollars of his own money to make an R-rated Passion film befitting the trend of the times. Mel Gibson’s primary target audience is not extreme conservative Christians who’ve never seen any of his other films. He’s reaching to the same people who’ve followed his previous work, but he’s telling him something more important than he’s ever told them before. It’s as simple as that.
After a quote from Isaiah 53, “The Passion” opens with Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane while Peter, James and John have drifted off to sleep. After waking His disciples (who have never seen Him in such torment) and speaking with them, He returns to His place of prayer, and it appears that His face is peppered with sweat like drops of blood (Luke 22:44). The interchange between Jesus and the Disciples is a mixture of Biblically accurate dialogue and creative license. [The film’s dialogue is Aramaic or Latin, with subtitles.]
As Jesus continues to pray, Satan (a hooded, pale-skinned, shaved-eyebrow, somewhat gender-neutral figure) appears at Jesus’ side and tells Him that He cannot take on the sins of the whole world, that saving mankind’s souls is too great a task. Lest we miss the point that it’s a supernatural character we’re seeing, a maggot dangles out of one of Satan’s nostrils, and a “pet” snake is at his feet. The snake slithers over and onto Jesus as He prays in agony. Jesus steels Himself against temptation, rises, and crushes the snake underfoot (a symbolic reference to Genesis 3:15, which actually means that Jesus would crush Satan himself by His death).
Most of the arrest scene is Biblically accurate. It seemed strange and redundant to me that Judas’ kiss of betrayal came AFTER Jesus had already identified Himself to the Guard; but since Jesus identifying Himself is found only in John and the kiss of betrayal is NOT recorded in John, it’s possible that the two events happened in that order rather than the other way around.
The scene includes the struggle between the Disciples and the guard; Peter cutting off the right ear of the Guardsman, Malchus; Jesus re-attaching and healing the ear, and telling Peter to put up his sword because all who take the sword shall perish by the sword; and the Disciples finally forsaking Jesus and fleeing.
The rest of the film follows the same pattern. About three-quarters of the content is faithful to the Biblical record. And most of the “extra” material is neutral and not misleading in any way.
Biblical details include, but are not limited to:
What we have here is a film taking the position that Jesus WAS exactly Who He said He was. Before considering any negatives, we need to step back a moment and appreciate how rare that is!
Okay, now for the possible negative
The violence is extreme. The special effects of Jesus being beaten with rods, scourged, and nailed to the Cross leave nothing to the imagination. Not only that, but both the Jewish Temple Guard and the Roman Soldiers take pleasure in pummeling Jesus CONSTANTLY. From the time of His arrest on, whenever they’re walking Him anywhere, they can’t take two steps without whacking Him one. This content is there from the beginning, broken only by flashback scenes to somewhat happier times. In the second hour of the film, beginning with the Scourging, it becomes overwhelming.
Ordinarily, even in a worthwhile film like “Saving Private Ryan,” where a constant drum of violence is somewhat inherent to the plot, the violence itself is a minus. But this isn’t ordinarily. One of the complaints of negative reviews is that not enough time is spent on Jesus’ teachings. But that’s not the film’s purpose nor focus. In John 3, Nicodemus (a ruler of the Jews) came to Jesus by night and admitted that they (he and the other rulers) knew Jesus was a Teacher come from God. In what seemed like a major change of subject, Jesus said that Nicodemus needed to be born again. The point is that Jesus’ ESSENTIAL role was not that of a Teacher, but of a Savior. OUR essential NEED is not to understand more and more doctrine, but to be born again. And without the blood sacrifice of Jesus, it would not be POSSIBLE for us to be born again.
Gibson is giving us a look at what that blood sacrifice actually was. In Romans 5:6-10 we’re taught that it’s a rare thing for one man to die for another, even if the other man is “righteous” and deserving of the sacrifice. But in the case of the Cross, Jesus died for us while we were His ENEMIES, in order to make a way for us to become His friends and to be converted from unrighteousness to righteousness. Of all the violent acts that have occurred in the history of the world, the Cross was by far the most important.
If any event deserves the full Hollywood treatment, this one does. Therefore, I do not consider the graphic nature of this presentation to be a negative. Of course, it’s not appropriate for young children.
Not surprisingly, certain scenes in the film (such as Mary cradling Jesus’ body as it’s taken down from the Cross) have a distinctly Roman Catholic flavor. But not so distinctive that they’re an impediment to anyone else’s faith. I commend Gibson for giving the film a broad general appeal among Bible believers of all stripes.
Some content is either based on the writings of those two Nuns that we’ve heard so much about, or is Gibson’s own creative license. To someone who’s familiar only with the Biblical record, those snippets of content come out of nowhere, without warning, and then go away again.
Certain details which we know could have been improved over other Passion dramas, such as putting the nails through the wrists rather than through the palms of the hands, or having Jesus carry only the crossbar instead of the entire Cross, were NOT fixed. Reportedly, this was to preserve familiarity with the story as most people visualize it. Other details, such as not emphasizing asphyxiation, or omitting a Greek version of the title “King of the Jews” fastened to the Cross, are incorrect, but tolerable. The essence of this story is Jesus’ sacrifice—the BLOOD that so many of our songs sing about.
What about the objections of anti-Semitism? Groundless. If anything, Gibson shows even-handedness and restraint in that matter. It’s clear that the Sanhedrin was not unanimous in condemning Jesus. And while the Temple Guard engages in some gratuitous violence, all the really bloody torture of Jesus is done by the Romans.
The liberals say Pilate must actually have been the primary mover in killing Jesus. They say this, because they want it to be so. Was Pilate sometimes a bloodthirsty murderer? It sure sounds like it, from Luke 13:1. But the factual historical record (found in the Scriptures) is that Jesus was really no threat to Rome, the Jewish leaders were the ones who conspired to put Jesus to death, and they forced Pilate into carrying out their wishes. See John 11:46-53. In this amazing passage, Caiaphas says that one man (Jesus) should die for the people, so that the whole nation doesn’t perish.
Caiaphas was a murderer who THOUGHT he simply meant that he was going to have Jesus bumped off for political reasons, to avoid trouble with Rome. But because he was the High Priest, God was at the same time speaking through him and giving a second sphere of meaning to his words. Jesus’ death was to be a Substitutionary Atonement for sin, so that other people wouldn’t have to die in their own sins.
Some Scripture passages, such as I Thessalonians 2:14-16, name “the Jews” as the killers of Jesus. But other passages spread the blame more generally. In Acts 4:24-28, the Apostles quote Psalm 2, and interpret it to mean that pretty much EVERYONE — Herod (an Idumean, remember), Pilate, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel—were gathered TOGETHER against Jesus, TO DO WHAT GOD’S COUNSEL HAD FOREORDAINED TO BE DONE.
The most important point, as Gibson has said, is that WE’RE ALL GUILTY. And that no one took Jesus’ life from Him, but He laid it down of Himself. Anyone who tries to use the Biblical record, or a dramatization of the Biblical record, as a justification to persecute someone, just doesn’t get it. God will be the judge of all unbelief. Until Jesus returns, our message centers on God’s offer of mercy and forgiveness.
If the essential message of this film is true, and if everyone needs to believe on Jesus, then regardless of the objections that are voiced, the number one ACTUAL objection against this film by any unbeliever is that it’s showing a truth that he does not acknowledge. The person may not KNOW that that’s his primary objection—it may be lodged in his spirit rather than in his brain—but yet it is.
So many of the voiced objections betray a double standard. This film is being judged by a different set of rules than any other. And the people who always proclaim that movies are just entertainment and don’t really change behavior or beliefs—where are those people now? I don’t hear them. The silence is deafening.
I’m sure that I’ll acquire a copy of this film for my own video or DVD library. And at some point, when she’s a teenager, I’d like my daughter to see it. Of course, some people couldn’t handle this content. The Gospel has done just fine for 2000 years, without the Holy Ghost needing help from this film or from any other dramatization. “The Passion” is NOT an indispensible addition to anyone’s witnessing tool kit. But there ARE ways in which it could be used effectively.
I HIGHLY recommend this film for anyone of appropriate age, maturity and stamina.
Violence: Extreme | Profanity: None | Sex/Nudity: None
Nowadays, most Christians are rejoicing that amidst the filth of Hollywood, suddenly another movie has been produced that flies in the face of everything for which Hollywood stands. That movie is “The Passion of the Christ.” But some are deeply concerned that it was also directed and produced by a Roman Catholic. It also contains artistic license. It has scenes that are from Catholic mysticism rather than from Scripture (the appearance of a raven at the cross, Judas being tormented by children, etc.).
Another concern that some people have is that an onscreen depiction of Jesus is a form of “graven image,” and therefore a transgression of the Second Commandment. Those who think that making an image of Jesus on film is breaking the Commandment should read it in full. We are not to make graven images of “any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” That means that we shouldn’t make film images (movie or still photos) of any person, animal, fish, flower, bird, mountain, etc. That doesn’t make any sense… until we read the whole Commandment: “You shall not bow down yourself to them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5). The Commandment forbids the creation of any image for the purpose of worship.
While we could argue about these issues, I would rather ask you an important question. If someone says, “I’m not a Christian, but I did see the film. Wow! What was all that brutality about?” are you going to reply, “I didn’t go to the movie because it was directed and produced by a Roman Catholic. It’s idolatrous and it contains things that cannot be corroborated by Scripture, and I therefore think it was evil”? I hope not. I should hope that you instead use the movie as a springboard to explain the way of salvation.
Think of Paul’s attitude in Philippians chapter one. Some folks weren’t just adding their own mystical thoughts to the message of the cross. They were downright vicious. They were hypocrites who preached Christ out of pretence, envy, strife and “contention.” They were devious people who were so full of venom that they wanted to see Paul further suffer—hoping to “add affliction the [his] bonds.” Yet what was Paul’s attitude to such wickedness? He rejoiced that they preached Christ, despite the horrible baggage that came with the message. He said, “What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yes, and will rejoice” (verse 18).
Do you remember what happened in Mark 9:39-40, when the disciples told Jesus that they had found a man who was casting out demons in His name. This man had a “ministry,” but he wasn’t with their group, so they took it upon themselves to rebuke him. But Jesus told them to leave him alone. This is because God doesn’t need bouncers to help Him carry out His purposes.
If I had had a hand in the making of “The Passion of the Christ,” I would have dropped all mysticism, and based it purely on Scripture. Also, (as in the epic movie “Ben Hur”—a wonderful movie) I wouldn’t have shown the face of the Savior. But I didn’t write, produce or direct it. So I tell myself that this isn’t a movie about Jesus being a homosexual. It isn’t about him having sexual relations with Mary Magdalene. It doesn’t depict Him as merely a man—as did “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Instead “The Passion of the Christ” is based on Scripture, with some artistic license. It begins with a powerful Scripture. The whole movie is full of Scripture… and it even ends with the resurrection. Christ is preached, and we should therefore rejoice and be thankful that millions have been graphically reminded of the cross of Calvary in a way they will never forget. That means we can either take advantage of an unprecedented opportunity to use it to speak further with them about their salvation, or we can whine. I choose the former, and I hope you do also.
Comments from Mark Looy, Answers in Genesis (a Bible-upholding, evangelical ministry), a Team Member of ChristianAnswers.Net:
…we have to define what sin is (Genesis 3 is a great place to begin) as well as share how the Cross is related to our sin. The Apostle Paul used this approach when he preached to the Greeks in Athens almost 2,000 years ago. Unlike Peter, who preached the gospel to Jews who already had the background from Genesis and responded in large numbers, Paul was preaching to Greeks who didn’t have a basic understanding of Genesis and the origin of sin. Paul had to start with the “big picture,” based on the Book of Beginnings, to present an effective gospel message to a secular society.
—Mark Looy, Answers in Genesis, a Team Member of ChristianAnswers.Net
…Peter in the Garden is another conception that will expand Christians’ imagination. The Gospels are necessarily terse else, as John says, “even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25 NIV). Until now, we have not had a full imagining of Peter’s actions, but Gibson’s Peter is a powerful fisherman, a whirlwind driven by the incompatible presence of rage and love dwelling simultaneously in his heart.
One of the tests of any film is whether the characters convince us of their trials. Without mincing words, James Caviezel gives us the most nuanced portrait of Christ ever seen on film. Caviezel does this by depicting Jesus with amazing credibility in scenes varying from levity with his mother to unspeakable agony on the cross. There were surreal instances when I felt I was there and thought: “This is Jesus.” Everything Caviezel does, he does with authority and conviction.
The second great portrayal in the film is that of Mary. Maia Morgenstern, a Rumanian Jew and daughter of a Holocaust survivor, will make even men cry with the unbearable combination of pain and love that she endures and expresses. For us Protestants who seldom dwell on Mary and her own passion, this will be a revelatory portrait but one that is incomplete without an understanding of her role in the stations of the Cross.
The third great portrayal is that of Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) as a hunched over, androgynous entity in a black cloak. Slithering in the background, through the crowds, looking sideways, he is a malevolent, brooding presence who insinuates evil wherever he appears. Never again will we think of Satan in the childish terms of a red demon with horn, spiked tail, and cloven hooves. As Othello said of that other devil, Iago, “I look down towards his feet; but that’s a fable.” This Satan is the real thing: he is a troubling, original conception because he looks like one of us.
As a Christian who was raised Greek Orthodox, married a Catholic, and later was attracted to a fundamentalist evangelical church for its revelatory focus on the written Word, it is nonetheless clear to me that no Christian faith tradition besides the Catholic could have produced such a luminous act of worship. The Orthodox Church has a rich ecclesiastical art history, but one that doesn’t transcend its own tradition enough to compel other Christians to it. The Protestants have a great literary tradition, best represented by Milton’s wonderful 17th century epic poem, “Paradise Lost”, but our visual worship has been stunted by a post-Reformation anxiety that has stripped Protestant churches bare of every visual representation of Christ except for the occasional stark image of an empty cross. There is not a single visual artist in the Protestant tradition that I can think of whose body of work inspires me to worship as does this one movie. That is a melancholy fact.
However, even the Catholic church cannot take credit for this great representation of Jesus because the film has its origins in the post-Vatican II controversy that drove Gibson’s family away from mainstream Catholicism to a conservative offshoot in the early 1960’s. No, the credit for this film is entirely Gibson’s. He invested twenty-five million dollars of his own money, spent thousands of hours consulting theologians, pastors and priests; he co-wrote the script, organized the shoot, edited and produced the film and, most importantly, witnessed his faith in the face of a withering persecution unlike any we have seen in recent times. He has been ridiculed, slandered, demonized, and investigated by all the major media outlets, to say nothing of the fringe groups who hate the very idea of a biblical Christianity that distinguishes between good and evil, between saved and unsaved.
Who would have thought that Mel Gibson, the studly Mel of “Mad Max,” the conflicted Mel of “Hamlet,” the foolish Mel of “Lethal Weapon,” would become the artist of “Braveheart” and “The Passion of the Christ”? Like other martyrs before him, Gibson saw the opportunity to witness and he had the vision, the courage, and the faith to become a fool for Christ instead of for money. He is now, officially, a martyr and a prophet for our troubled time.
[Better than Average/5]
—Michael Karounos, age 49
As for the negative press, it seems completely unfounded, as the film plays extremely evenhandedly to all of its character groups… the key is to view this film for what it is intended to be: a work of art, an expression of Mel Gibson and those who worked on the film as a gift to the viewer. Rather than a tool to manipulate, Mel stated that his greatest dream for what to happen in the theaters was that “It would be free, and afterwards everyone would have ice cream.” Yet he acknowledged the power of art: “Art has the power to transcend many things, and that’s why during the Renaissance and all the religious art work over the centuries is amazing stuff and has inspired people, and I think that this can do the same thing, it can inspire, and can just make people aware of who they are in relationship to the world and what has gone on before them, I mean civilization has been changed forever by Christ, …nothing was the same ever after that, whether you’re a believer or not it’s effected your world and there’s no getting around that.”
And while the film almost demands that the audience come with some foreknowledge of the event, the central themes of Christ’s struggle during the last hours of his life are painfully clear.
In regard to the film’s violence and receiving an R rated, Mel responded “it is hard to watch, and I did intend to push for it.” “Why?” asked Bill Hybels, the pastor of Willow Creek. “the enormity of the blood sacrifice, I mean blood was required, it was in the old covenant, blood was always required, blood was really required for this, and every drop of it …he chose to go all the way.”
When questioned about the potential costs beyond merely financial costs on the line with this film, Mel responded with a statement that summarized his priorities and view of the Hollywood culture: “Well, I’ve had a career, I’m bored with it.”
Overall, I would highly suggest that you experience “The Passion…” Not only because this could be one of the biggest crossroads of Christ and Culture in a long time, but because of how it will affect you as a person… The film is very virtuous and biblical in its worldview and message. Violence: Heavy | Profanity: None | Sex/Nudity: None
—Joel Veenstra, age 26
Neutral comments received
Neutral (medical authenticity lacking) - … the movie will enhance the heart of every believer and may bring non-believers to a greater understanding of the price God paid for our sins… My neutrality comes from 20 years as a critical care nurse. I have seen with my own eyes multiple times the result of equal amounts of bodily trauma. Just after it has happened, and the hours and days that follow. All I [in “The Passion…”] saw was blood, blood and whip marks filled with blood. There was virtually no signs of bruising that I saw in the movie that I’m sure would have been in abundance given the time span of His first traumatic encounter to the end when He died on the cross.
—Kieran Dickinson, age 31