The review of Mel Gibson’s movie on The Passion is posted in two parts.
Part One s the actual review entitled “Mel Gibson’s Slaughter of Christ” and Part Two is a response to criticism entitled “Passionate About The Passion”.
“MEL GIBSON’S SLAUGHTER OF CHRIST”
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D.,
Retired Professor of Theology and Church History
Several readers of my last newsletter (No. 111) felt that my comments on Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ lacked credibility because I had not seen the movie. The criticism has some validity, though reading penetrating reviews of a book, or of any artistic production, often provide valuable insights overlooked by the casual reader or viewer. In fact, if we were to ask 100 viewers of the movie: What biblical errors and Catholic heresies did you detect in the film, chances are that 95% would reply “None.” The reason is that the average person lacks both the biblical and historical knowledge needed to evaluate its accuracy.
A proof is the comments of those who saw the movie, including Catholic and Protestant church leaders. The vast majority acclaim the movie as the most accurate reenactment of Christ’s Passion. The truth is that the movie is a gross misrepresentation of Christ’s Passion because it contains many glaring errors and the traditional Catholic view of the atonement. Gibson himself admits that his movie is largely based, not on the Gospels, but on the visions of two Roman Catholic nun-mystics, St. Anne Catherine Emmerich and Mary of Agreda. My point is that viewing a religious movie, without knowing the biblical and historical facts, can lead uninformed people to accept as fact what in reality is fiction.
To silence the criticism and to do justice to the review you are about to read, I decided to make time in my busy schedule to view the movie. Thus, on Catholic Ash Wednesday, February 25, I went to see the film at the Celebration Theater in Benton Harbor, Michigan. This was the first time in my life (66 years old) that I stepped in a movie theater. I would have preferred to rent the movie and view it in my home. This would have made it possible for me to stop the movie whenever I needed to jot down some observations. Unfortunately, at this time the movie is not available at video stores.
The best word that I can think of to describe the impact of the movie on myself is: “Shocking.” What I saw is a hundred times worse than the most negative reviews I read. From a biblical perspective, the movie contains numerous glaring errors designed to promote the Catholic view of the Passion and of the redemptive role of Mary, as co-redeemer with Christ. What shocked me most is the relentless torture of Christ’s body. The brutality of flogging first with switches and then with cat-o-nine-tails, blows out of proportion the physical suffering of Christ in order to promote the Catholic imitation of His suffering as a way of salvation.
The movie is truly a blood bath, where Jesus body is constantly beaten, whipped, kicked, spit on, and slapped. Christ’s flesh is literally flayed with metal-tipped whips by sadistic Roman soldiers who compete among themselves for inflicting the most devastating blows. In fact, after the first flogging, Mary attempts to clean the flesh and blood lying on the pavement of Pilate’s courtyard. By the time Christ reaches Golgotha, his body is so mangled, bruised, and disfigured that it looks like a sausage coming out of a meat grinder. A medical report I read suggests that Christ lost between four to five pints of blood during the torture. This means that he hardly had any blood left by the time he was crucified.
While the Romans and Jews killed Jesus once, Gibson in his movie succeeds in killing Jesus a hundred times over. In view of its sadistic content, the movie can rightly be titled: “Mel Gibson’s Slaughter of Christ.” No SUPER MAN could have endured the blows inflicted to Christ in the movie, including being thrown off a bridge while bound to a huge 3-inch-thick chain, strong enough to pull a train. It surprises me that Gibson never went to see the Church of St. Peter in Chains in Rome, where the alleged chains of Peter’s imprisonment are displayed. Those chains are four times smaller than the ones used in the movie.
Outstanding Artistic Qualities
From a cinematographic perspective, the movie has outstanding artistic qualities. The characters look real. The Jews, the Roman soldiers, Pilate, his wife Claudia, the disciples, are all dressed in the costumes of the times. Mary is an exception as she looks more like a medieval nun than a first century Jewish woman. The slow motion whipping of Jesus accompanied by soft Gregorian chant stirs up deep emotional responses. Again, the slow nailing of Jesus body on the Cross, enable the viewer almost to feel the excruciating pain inflicting by each blow. The darkness and the earthquake that accompanied Christ’s death are very real. The same is true of the splitting of the Temple and its partial collapse. The visual effects reveal unsurpassed artistry. There is no question in my mind that Mel Gibson deserves an oscar, especially for the brilliant relentless brutality of the movie which is vividly portrayed. I doubt that anyone could have done a better job.
Some Questions Raised by The Passion
The movie raises important questions that I will attempt to address in this review. What led Gibson to produce such a bloody and gruesome Passion of Christ that blatantly misrepresents the Evangelists account of His trial and execution? Since the blood factor is minimal in the Gospel, where did Gibson get his information and inspiration? Can such a bloody, gruesome, and gory misrepresentation of Christ’s suffering and death be biblically justified and shown to young people? Is it not idolatrous to portray the Divine Son of God in a way that will distort the worship experience of millions of Christians for generations to come?
Billy Graham himself acknowledges that “Every time I preach or speak about the Cross, the things I saw on the screen will be on my heart and mind” (“What Others Are Saying,” www.passionchrist.org). If a preacher like Billy Graham will be permanently influenced by Gibson’s distorted portrayal of Christ’s Passion, will not millions of average Christians unfamiliar with the Gospels’ narrative “exchange the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man” (Rom 1:23)?
The fact that some Protestant church leaders accept Gibson’s Catholic view of Christ’s Passion causes one to wonder: What impact will the film have on the future relationship between Catholics and Protestants? Will Protestants gradually adopt the Catholic devotion and imitation of the Passion as a way of salvation? Will Protestants unconsciously come to view Mary in the role portrayed in the film as a partner in Christ’s redemption? Moreover, how will the movie affect the Christian attitude toward the Jews, in view of the fact all the Jewish people shown in the film, including the children who tried to stone Judah, are portrayed as angry, mean, and demonic? These are some of the questions that I will attempt to address in the following order:
THE SOURCES OF THE PASSION
SOME GLARING ERRORS OF THE PASSION
THE PROMINENT ROLE OF MARY IN THE PASSION
THE RELENTLESS BRUTALITY OF THE PASSION
THE THEOLOGY OF THE PASSION
DOES THE PASSION OFFER A UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY FOR SPREADING THE GOSPEL?
THE POTENTIAL OF THE PASSION FOR CATHOLIC EVANGELISM
PERMISSION TO DISTRIBUTE THIS REVIEW
Several editors, newscasters, and church leaders contacted me to ask permission to use the preliminary review of The Passion that I posted in the previous newsletter. To avoid unnecessary calls or email messages, I wish to grant full permission to anyone wanting to use this review in any form needed. Be sure to inform your friends that they can receive this newsletter free of charge, simply by emailing me a message at email@example.com, saying: SUBSCRIBE ME.
THE SOURCES OF THE PASSION
The Passion of the Christ is heralded as the most authentic reenactment of the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life. To add historical credibility to the movie, Gibson has the characters speak Aramaic and Latin. The Pope himself is reported to have said: “It is as it was,” that is, the movie is a factual representation of the events leading to the Crucifixion. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls confirmed the Pope’s view, describing the movie as “a cinematographic transposition of the historical events of the Passion of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel.” In fact, the film was shown to members of the Vatican Secretariat of State, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. All of them expressed unanimous approval, praising it as the most accurate reenactment of Christ’s Passion ever produced. Archbishop John Foley, President of Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said: “I don't think there would be well-founded criticisms because all the material in the film comes directly from the Gospel accounts. There's nothing in the film that doesn't come from the Gospel accounts. So, if they're critical of the film, they would be critical of the Gospel.”
The same view is shared by many Protestant leaders who are enthusiastically promoting the film, to use the words of Ted Haggard, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, as “the Michelangelo of this generation.” Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in southern California purchased 18,000 tickets, because he believes that the movie is : “Brilliant, biblical—a masterpiece . . . It is not just a dramatization. It’s a historic description.” Is the movie truly biblically and historically accurate? We shall soon find out.
A host of Protestant churches, including several Adventist Churches, have sponsored the film in rented theaters. At the Loma Linda University Church, Pastor Roberts and staff have rented a theater in Redlands for a showing of The Passion on Thursday evening before Easter. An announcement I received indicates that a special showing has been arranged for the General Conference workers.
Bill Hybels of Willow Creek, Robert Schuller of Crystal Cathedral, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, and Paul Harvey, just to name a few, are all eagerly promoting the film as an unprecedented truthful reenactment of Christ’s Passion which is supposed to bring about massive conversions to Christianity.
Two Catholic Nun-mystics Inspired the Script of The Passion
In view of the extraordinary ecumenical endorsement and promotion of the movie as an authentic portrayal of Christ’s Passion, we need to ask at the outset: Does the movie truly reflect the Biblical account of the last 12 hours of Jesus life or is it based on Catholic mystical literature? The answer is readily available, because Gibson himself openly admits that the movie is based not only on the Gospels, but also on the visions of two Catholic nun-mystics, St. Anne Catherine Emmerich and Mary of Agreda.
Referring to the visions of Emmerich, Gibson said, “She supplied me with stuff I never would have thought of” (The New Yorker, 9/15/03). This is evident, because, as we shall see, many of the details of the movie are foreign to the Gospels. In his review, Darrel Bock provide a handy scene-by-scene reference guide to what is taken from the Gospels and what is derived from the mystic nuns Anne Emmerich and Mary of Agreda (www.beliefnet.com/story/140/story_14097_1.html)
Emmerich (1774-1824) was a German nun who allegedly had the stigmata or wounds of Christ in her hands. The stigmata (bleeding hands) are the ultimate proof of sainthood for Catholics, because the focus of their devotion is on imitating the suffering of Jesus. Any Catholic with the wounds of Christ in the hands becomes as it were a little christ. During the last 12 years of her life, Emmerich allegedly ate only the body and blood of Jesus as contained in the wafer of the Catholic mass. It is evident that she had serious mental problems which border on folly or dementia, yet, for Catholics they are evidence of sainthood.
Emmerich’s visions on the life of Christ were published in 1824 under the title The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The book is advertised in a website as “filled with unusual, saintly descriptions that are not recorded in the Gospel story.” Her deceptive visions describe Christ’s scourging and crucifixion in the gruesome details shown in the movie—details that are absent in the Gospels. The same is true of the key role Emmerich attributes to Mary as co-Redemptor with Christ. The partnership of Mary in Christ’s redemptive mission is evident in the movie, but absent in the Gospels. In her visions, she saw that Protestants suffer more than Catholics in Purgatory because no one offers masses for them or prays for them.
Gibson was also influenced by Mary of Agreda (1602-1665), a Catholic nun and visionary mystic. Her entire family entered monasteries and convents in 1618. She was often taken in trances which carried her away to teach people in foreign lands. In her book The Mystical City of God, Agreda offers many details about Mary and Christ’s Passion, which are not in the Bible.
In spite of the groundswell Evangelical support for The Passion of the Christ, the movie is not Evangelical or biblical for that matter. It is a Roman Catholic movie, made by a traditional Roman Catholic director who rejects the efforts of Vatican II to update the church. He was advised by respected Roman Catholic theologians who sought approval from the Pope himself. As Gibson well puts it, “It reflects my beliefs.” His beliefs are rooted in the traditional Catholic beliefs and practices that preceded Vatican II (1962-1965).
While Vatican II offered the possibility for non-Catholics to be saved by following the lesser light God has given them, Gibson is on record in affirming that he believes that “there is no salvation for those outside the Catholic Church” (The New Yorker, September 15, 2003). Indeed, this has been the historical Catholic position until Vatican II: “No salus extra ecclesia—no salvation outside the church.” In an interview with the Eternal Word Television Network, Gibson said: “I don’t go to any other [Catholic] services. I go to the Old Tridentine [Latin] Rite.” To be able to practice his traditional Catholic faith, he built his own Catholic chapel, called Holy Family, near his home in California. During the filming, he attended Catholic Mass every morning with the misguided hope “to be squeaky clean.”
A major problem with the movie is Gibson’s ulterior motive to portray the Passion according to the understanding of the Old Roman Catholic Church. As Robert Tippie points out in his insightful review, “No longer is he [Gibson] attempting to take facts from the scriptures and ‘enhance’ them to get across the scriptural feelings and meanings, but he switches to old Catholic dogma that is attempting to ‘teach’ us something, rather than make us feel something from the scene. It is the latter form of poetic license that I disagree with in The Passion. The movie became so dogmatically heavy with Romanism that it was ridiculous. If Mel would have stuck to the striking embellishments as seen in the first scene in the Garden, the movie would have been much more impacting on me” (“The Passion: A Review After Seeing the Movie”).
The fact that The Passion is produced by a staunch, traditional Catholic who is eager to win people to his Catholic faith through his movie should be of concern to Evangelicals who wish to protect their members from Catholic heresies. It is hopelessly inconsistent for Evangelicals to endorse a movie that says and shows things that are unbiblical, while committed to uphold the integrity and authority of the Bible.
SOME GLARING ERRORS OF THE PASSION
Few viewers will note the glaring errors which are strategically located throughout the film. Most people come out of the movie thinking that they have seen an accurate portrayal of the last 12 hours of Christ’s life. The truth is far from it. The truth and errors are so intricately interwoven that the average viewer who remembers little about the Gospels’ account of the Passion may not notice the Catholic interpolations designed to promote their historical teachings on the prominent redemptive role of Mary and the brutality of Christ’s suffering to satisfy divine justice and to promote the imitation of Christ’s sufferings as a way of salvation. Let me mention some of the errors and inaccuracies that have caught my attention.
The movie opens with Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Both the garden and Jesus look awful. The garden looks like an abandoned field in southern Italy, with dry high grass and without the millenarian olive trees that are so characteristic of the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem.
Jesus looks frightening, covered with mud or grease over his hair and face. He looks as if He just came out of a mud pit, rather than from agonizing prayer. . Why should Christ look so dirty and greasy when He had just finished eating the Passover meal with His disciples? The Gospels tell that three times Jesus fell on His face and prayed to His Father if it were possible to remove from Him the cup suffering, but such prayer could hardly have made His clothings look so dirty. It is evident that Gibson wants to make Christ look shocking from the beginning to the end of the movie. Such pictures promotes the Catholic devotion to the Passion as a way of salvation.
As soon as the soldiers and priests capture Christ in the Garden, they bound Him with a heavy duty chain suitable for anchoring sea vessels, and start beating on Him. But in the Gospels there is no reference to the beating of Jesus in the Garden. We are simply told: “And they laid hands on him and seized him. . . . And they led Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests and elders were assembled” (Mark 14:46, 53; cf. Matt 26:50, 57). “Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest house” (Luke 22:54; cf. John 18:12-13). What in the Gospels is presented as a simple arrest and escort of Jesus to the high priest’s house, in the movie becomes a plot to lynch Jesus even before he gets a chance to appear before the high priest.
While Jesus is tortured in Gethsemane, Mary awakens in her home and says: “What makes this night different from other nights?–a reference to the Jewish Passover liturgy. This detail is found in The Dolorous Passion, but not in the Bible.
Physical Appearance of Satan
Satan, with his black cloak and mime-white face, appears various times in the movie, inciting everyone against Christ. In the Garden a serpent crawls out Satan’s nose. Slowly the serpent creeps toward Christ and is almost ready to bite His head bowed low in prayer. But Christ stands and crushes the serpent head. There is no question that Satan was hard at work in the final hours of Christ’s life, hoping to defeat His redemptive mission. But there are no allusions in the Gospels regarding any physical appearances of Satan during the Passion to incite Jews and Romans against Christ. There are no satanic snakes attempting to bite Christ.
Several of the details of Satan in Gethsemane are drawn from Anne Emmerich's The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. For example, Emmerich speaks of “the serpent ...This odious reptile of gigantic size” in Gethsemane. Satan says to Jesus, “Takest thou even this sin upon thyself? Art thou willing to bear its penalty? Art thou prepared to satisfy for all these sins?” There words are strikingly similarity to the Script of the movie, where Satan tempts Jesus, saying: “Do you really believe one man can carry this burden? ...saving their souls is too costly.”
Riot Between Jews and Romans
A frenzied riot brakes out around Jesus as he drags the Cross to Calvary. Romans and Jews fight wildly, with Christ being brutalized by all. A reviewer perceptively comments: “Wild riots happened a lot in Mad Max movie [by Mel Gibson], but not in the Gospels. Christ is depicted as falling at three points, but otherwise the carrying of the cross is presented as a solemn event. Here is how the Gospel writer Luke, a deeply ardent believer, presents the scene: ‘As they led him away, a great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, ‘daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.’ This doesn’t sound like the depiction of a crazy riot, nor does Christ’s injunction sound like the sort of thing shouted over a melee.”
It is unfortunate that Gibson is more concerned to shock people by using shocking Hollywood audiovisual portrayal of violence and bloodshed, than to capture the solemnity and dignity of the Gospel story. The fact that the episode of the riot and the ensuing beating of Jesus is foreign to the Gospels, shows again that Gibson uses the Gospels as a pretext for his violent movie. The beating of Christ is relentless throughout the movie, even while He falls under the weight of the Cross. It is evident that Gibson is determined to blow out of proportion Christ’s sufferings in accordance with the Catholic devotion to the Passion.
Christ Thrown Off of a Bridge
While taking Christ to Pilate, the Pharisees throw Him off a bridge together with the huge chain and thick rope that bound him. One would expect that a hard fall from a bridge into a rocky ground below with the weight of a heavy chain, would result in broken bones and emergency assistance. But in the film, Christ is portrayed like a zombie Super Man who can withstand any fall or beating. They pull Him up with the chain bound around his waist like a sack of potatoes, and then they continue to beat Him all the way to Pilate’s judgment hall. Common sense precludes the possibility of a normal human being able to walk normally after a hard fall from a bridge. But the movie shows that common sense is not so common after all.
Since there is no mention in the Gospels of Christ being thrown off a bridge by the Pharisees on the way to Pilate, where did Gibson get the information from? Most likely from Catholic mystical literature that exaggerates the physical suffering of Christ in order to promote the devotion to the Passion as a way of salvation.
Wicked Children Throw Stones to Judas
I was shocked by the totally unexpected brief episode of children playing on the street and then being suddenly transformed into demons throwing stones to Judas while he was walking outside the city to hang himself, near a decaying donkey carcass. For few second I could not understand what was happening. This episode, which is foreign to the Gospels, is found in The Dolorous Passion, which devotes a whole chapter on Judas’ torment. The chapter describes Judas “rushing like a madman in the valley of Hinnon” and mentions carcases.
The attempt of the children to stone Judas, reflects Gibson’s intent to portray the Jews as a people, including their children, as wicked, demonic individuals responsible for the death of Jesus. Vatican II and the Pope himself have apologized for the historical Catholic position against the Jews as the murderers of Christ, but Mel Gibson does not accept the new Catholic admission. His movie show that all the Jews, including their children, are a sadistic, demonic people, guilty of Christ’s death. Gibson denies this charge, but the actions of his movie speak louder than his words.
Unfair Portrayal of Jews and Romans
Throughout his movie, Gibson portrays both the Jews and the Romans as mean and sadistic, with angry looks and bad teeth. The Jewish leaders always stand in the front row of the crowd with their evil look and sinister faces. They show no compassion toward the lacerated body of Jesus made worse at every passing moment by the relentless blows. The only time they express grief is when they see their Temple collapsing as a result of the earthquake that accompanied Christ’s death. This is another unbiblical and unhistorical episode, because there are no indications that the Temple collapsed at the death of Jesus.
Similarly the Roman soldiers are portrayed as sadistic and sarcastic. They joke among themselves on who can dig deeper into Christ’s flesh with their metal-tipped whips. They look like hardened executioners with no empathy toward their helpless victim.
There is no question that there were sadistic and bloodthirsty Jewish leaders and Roman soldiers who played a major role in the torture and crucifixion of Jesus. But the question is: Can such a characterization be applied to all the Jews and to all the Romans? Gibson makes little effort in his movie to acknowledge the presence of Jews and Romans who believed in Christ and supported Him. Yet a balanced reading of the Gospels shows that there were both Jewish leaders and Roman soldiers who accepted Christ and were gracious toward Him.
For example, the Gospels tell us of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, both of whom were members of the Sanhedrin and secret followers of Jesus. To be fair, Gibson briefly portrays their intervention during the deliberation of the Sanhedrin, but he fails to show how they arranged with Pilate for taking down Jesus’ body from the Cross, treating it with myrrh and aloes, and placing it in a brand new garden tomb (John 19:38-41; Luke 23:50-53; Mark 15:43-46; Matt 27:57-61). Later on Luke informs us that “the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:6). Note that not only the common Jewish people, but also “many of the priests were obedient to the faith.” In Acts 21:20, James tells Paul that “myriads of Jews have believed and they are all zealous for the law.”
On the basis of the figures provided by Acts, it is estimated that about half of the Jewish population living in Jerusalem accepted Jesus of Nazareth as their expected Messiah. Thus, it is inaccurate and misleading for Gibson to make the Jewish people as a whole guilty of Christ’s death. To bring this point home, I might mention the prevailing belief among Europeans that American are obsessed with guns, which they use freely to settle disputes. They like to speak of President Bush as a Texas cowboy who wanted to take on Saddam Hussein. This stereotyped image of Americans is hardly true.
During the 30 years I have lived in the USA, I have found that the vast majority of Americans do not have guns and do not use them to settle disputes. To stereotype all Americans as gangsters, is inaccurate and offensive. The same is true of Gibson’s portrayal of the Jews. To the extent that he portrays the Jews as a sadistic people, responsible for Christ’s death, he perpetrates the historical Catholic anti-Jewish teachings and policies that have done incalculable damage to the cause of Christianity.
The same is true of the Roman soldiers. The Gospels tell us of a centurion who beseeched Jesus to heal his servant. Jesus acknowledged his faith and performed the miracle (Matt 8:5-8; Luke 7:2-6). Even more telling is the reaction of the centurion who most likely was in charge of the soldiers at the crucifixion of Jesus. We read: “And when the centurion, who stood facing him [Christ], saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39; cf. Matt 27:54). In Acts, time and again Roman soldiers delivered and protected Paul from popular lynching (Acts 21:32; 23:10; 23:27). There is ample evidence that many soldiers were decent men who accepted the Gospel. In fact, the evangelism of countries such as Great Britain is attributed to Roman soldiers stationed in that country.
It is unfortunate that Gibson makes no attempt to portray a balanced picture of the good and bad people among the Jews and Romans. Instead, he chooses to portray the Jewish people and the Roman soldiers in a negative light. The reason is his aim to promote the historical Catholic bloody view of the Passion as well as traditional Catholic anti-Semitism. There is reason to fear that the movie, by portraying the Jewish leaders as angry, ugly, and demonic, may refuel historic anti-semitism, which many leaders have worked so hard to overcome in recent years.
The Final Earthquake
Another glaring error that caught my attention is the devastating impact of the earthquake that accompanied Christ’s death. In the movie, one tear from heaven drops, a storm and earthquake breaks out, and the whole Temple is split apart in two, withsections collapsing. The source is Emmerich who says the Temple’s “arch was broken. The ground was heaved up, and many other columns were thrown down in other parts of the Temple.”
Again this is pure fiction, not a biblical fact. The earthquake is mentioned only in Matthew 27:51. Luke speaks of the darkness that encompassed the land from noon to 3:00 p.m. There is no mention of the Temple sustaining any damage from the earthquake. The only thing that happened inside the Temple was the splitting of the curtain that divided the Holy Place from the Most Holy. “And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split” (Matt 27:51).
Had the Temple been split into two parts at Christ’s crucifixion, there would be historical accounts of its reconstruction as happened in A. D. 70 when the Romans destroyed the Temple. But there are no indications that the Temple was repaired or rebuilt because of the earthquake that occurred at the Crucifixion. Gibson ignores biblical and historical facts, because for him fiction offers more shocking images than facts.
The Carrying of the Cross
In the movie Jesus falls three times under the weight of the Cross, in accordance with the Catholic tradition of the 14 Stations of the Cross. The Gospels do not explicitly mention falls. Again, the Gospels do not say that Mary and company followed Jesus in the crowd, but the movie describes Mary following Jesus. In a flashback, Mary rescues a falling Jesus as a child. Alluding to Revelation 21:5, Jesus says to Mary: “See, I make all things new.” The source is Emmerich’s The Dolorous Passion and Mary of Agreda’s City of God, where Mary accompanies her son throughout His journey to Calvary. According to Emmerich, when Jesus fell, Mary sprang “from the doorway into the midst of the group who were insulting and abusing him . . . she threw herself on her knees by his side and embraced him.”
In the movie, but not in the Bible, a Jewish girl helps Jesus wipe his face. The source is The Dolorous Passion where Veronica held the cloth while Jesus wiped His face. Veronica “made her way through the mob, . . . reached Jesus, fell on her knees before Him, and presented the veil, saying at the same time, ’Permit me to wipe the face of my Lord.’ Jesus took the veil in His left hand, wiped His bleeding face, and returned it with thanks.’”
The episode of the carrying of the Cross contains a glaring error, because Gibson has both Simon of Cyrene and Jesus carrying the cross together. I could not believe what I saw this error because it openly contradicts the Gospels account which reads: “And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus” (Luke 23:26; cf. Mark 15:21; Matt 27:32).
In the Gospels, it is clear that Simon carries the Cross for Jesus by himself, while following Jesus who by now was totally exhausted. One wonders, Why does Gibson misrepresents the Gospel story by having both Jesus and Simon carry the Cross together? Most likely to suit his purpose to intensify the suffering of Jesus in order to promote more effectively the brutality of Christ’s suffering in order to satisfy the demands of divine justice. (Satisfaction view of the atonement). Had Christ been relieved altogether from carrying the Cross, then His sufferings would have been alleviated, but this would run contrary to the Catholic satisfaction view of the atonement and to Gibson’s strategy to shock people by making the agony of Christ stretch beyond the limits of human imagination.
It was shocking for me to see people beating on Christ, not only while carrying the Cross, but also while collapsed under its weight. It is hard to believe that people can be so sadistic by relentlessly beating on a bloody victim fallen under the weight of a heavy Cross. But for Gibson, religious and commercial considerations demand that the beating of Christ must go on non-stop, even when fallen under the weight of the Cross.
Religiously, the Catholic devotion to the Passion entails that Christ’s sufferings must surpass human limitations in order to meet the demands of divine justice. In other words, expiation for our sins is through the intensity of Christ’s suffering, rather than through His death as a sacrifice for our sins. Commercially, relentless brutality sells movies. Gibson knows it too well. His earlier best selling movies The Patriot and Braveheart are described by New York Times as “two of the most gory and violent artistic works of the modern era.”
THE PROMINENT ROLE OF MARY IN THE PASSION
The most glaring heresy of The Passion is the prominent role that Mary plays throughout the film as a partner with Christ in the redemption of mankind. She lends vital support to her Son throughout the whole ordeal. In accordance with Catholic belief, had she been absent, Christ would not have been able to offer Himself as the sacrifice for mankind. This heresy is taught especially by Ann Catherine Emmerich who presents Mary as co-redemptrix, that is, co-redeemer. At the time of the crucifixion, Mary actually utters the words: “Let me die with you.”
While in the Gospels’ narrative of the Passion, Mary appears only once in the Gospel of John, when Jesus on the Cross pointing to John says to His mother: “Woman, behold your son!” (John 19:26), in the movie Mary is present in all the major episodes. She is dressed like a Medieval nun, rather than a first-century Jewish woman. She is present in the Garden to comfort her Son. She meets Peter on the streets after his denial of Christ. Peter in distress looks Mary in the face and falls on his knees, calling Mary “Mother.” John also calls Mary “Mother,” in accordance to the Catholic devotion to Mary. Peter confesses his sin to Mary and asks for her forgiveness. Mary is ready to absolve Peter for his sin, but he jumps up and says, “No, I am not worthy.” The source is The Dolorous Passion where Peter after his denial, rushes out to Mary, exclaiming in a dejected tone: “O, Mother, speak not to me—thy Son is suffering more than words can express: speak not to me! They have condemned Him to death, and I have denied him three times.” The Catholic intercessory role of Mary is loud and clear.
Mary and Claudia
In the movie, but not in the Bible, during the scourging Mary says to Jesus: “My son, when, where, how will you choose to be delivered of this?” Then, Pilate's wife, Claudia, gives Mary and Mary Magdalene fine cloths which they later use to mop up Jesus' blood. The source is The Dolorous Passion which mentions that Claudia gave linen cloths to Mary: “I saw Claudia Procles, the wife of Pilate, send some large pieces of linen to the Mother of God. I know not whether she thought that Jesus would be set free, and that his Mother would then require linen to dress his wounds, or whether this compassionate lady was aware of the use which would be made of her present. ...I soon after saw Mary and Magdalen approach the pillar where Jesus had been scourged; ...they knelt down on the ground near the pillar, and wiped up the sacred blood with the linen which Claudia Procles had sent.” This scene is vividly portrayed in the movie, but is not found in the Bible. Incidentally, during the Middle Ages, the cloths stained with Jesus’ blood because holy relics for Catholics.
Mary appeals to Pilate’s wife, Claudia, urging her to pressure the Roman soldiers to protect her son against the angry Jewish crowd. Claudia aligns herself with Mary by influencing her husband on behalf of Christ. But Pilate’s efforts are too little and too late. Again, the interaction between Mary and Claudia is foreign to the Bible, deriving instead from The Dolorous Passion.
Another incident portrayed in the movie, but not found in the Bible, is Mary’s reaction to Jesus’ flogging. She kisses the stone floor above the place where Jesus was bound in chains. The source is not the Bible, but The Dolorous Passion which says: “The Blessed Virgin ...begged to be taken to some place as near as possible to her Divine Son. John, therefore, led her and the holy women to the front of the prison where Jesus was confined. Mary was with Jesus in spirit, and Jesus was with her; but this loving Mother wished to hear with her own ears the voice of her Divine Son. She listened and heard not only his moans, but also the abusive language of those around him.”
Christ’s journey along the Via Dolorosa on the way to Golgotha is inspired not by the Gospels, but by the medieval Catholic devotional ritual, known as the 14 “Stations of the Cross.” During this journey, Christ stops several times because he has no strength left to go on. At those points, Mary is always near Christ and acts as His comforter and coach. Through their eye contact, Mary infuses mystical power on her Son.
The notion of Mary participating with Christ in our redemption is a long-standing Catholic heresy that Protestants have strongly rejected. But, I dare to predict that the subtle and deceptive role of Mary in the movie will influence many uninformed Evangelicals to embrace her as their co-redeemer. This deception is fostered by the powerful role Mary plays in the movie, especially in the last scenes.
Mary and Jesus at the Cross
When Jesus hangs on the Cross with His lacerated body covered with blood, Mary embraces His bloody feet and her face is splattered with blood. What a powerful Catholic message in showing not only Jesus bleeding on the Cross, but also Mary standing besides Him, covered with His blood! The message is clear: both of them have paid the price of our redemption.
In the movie, but not in the Bible, Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, and John take Jesus’ body down from the Cross. Even more telling is the picture of Mary cradling the bloody body of Jesus in the same position as Michelangelo’s Pietą, when the Roman centurion took the body down from the Cross. That picture has a powerful message. It shows not only the importance of Christ’s death, but also the sacrifice of Mary in offering her Son for our salvation.
In an interview with Zenit, the Roman Catholic News Service, Thomas Rosica, the Catholic priest who oversaw World Youth Day 2002 and its Way of the Cross through the streets of Toronto, acknowledges how The Passion of the Christ highlights the role of Mary: “One scene, in particular, was very moving. As Jesus falls on the Way of the Cross, there is a flashback to his falling on a Jerusalem street as a child, and his mother running out of the house to pick him up. The interplay of Mary and Jesus in this film is moving, and reaches its apex in the scene of the Pietą. The Mother of the Lord is inviting each of us to share her grief and behold her Son.” (Father Thomas Rosica on Mel Gibson’s “The Passion,” National Director of World Youth Day 2002 Weighs in on Film, 2004-02-06).
Unbiblical Role of Mary
The exaggerated role of Mary in the movie is totally unbiblical. Contrary to Catholic fiction, what is conspicuous in the Gospels’ account of the Passion, is the absence of Mary. She appears only once at the Cross when Christ entrusts her to the care of John, saying: “Woman, behold your son!” (John 19:26). Such an impersonal address hardly supports the interaction between Jesus and Mary present throughout the movie.
The Gospels clearly and plainly tell us that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took down the body of Jesus from the Cross and “bound it in linen cloths with spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews” (John 19:40). There is no allusion to Mary or the other devout women handling the body of Jesus. The exalted role of Mary in the Passion is a pure fabrication of Catholic teachings designed to exalt the intercessory role of Mary at the expense of the centrality of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
The danger is that both believers and unbelievers are accepting Gibson’s fictitious and heretical reenactment of The Passion, as the authentic biblical teaching. It is a fact that Americans talk far more about what they have seen in the movies than in what they have read in their Bible. A religious movie like The Passion will soon become for many Americans their Bible. A lady wrote in an email that she was grateful for understanding now the “facts” of the Passion missed by the Gospels. She felt that the Gospels’ account were too shallow and was glad that Catholic visionaries were finally presenting the “whole truth” of the Passion.
The danger of exchanging Bible truths for movie fiction is highlighted by a reviewer, who says: “Because of Gibson’s Roman Catholic background, Mary has a major role in the film. Gibson puts Mary at nearly all of the events of his trial, torture and crucifixion, and even has Mary kissing Jesus feet when he is on the cross. There are many scenes like that one—not Biblical, but based upon mystic and apocryphal writings and Roman Catholic tradition. I took notes of the non-Biblical scenes, events and characters and had a full page of them. The danger is that this film will become the Oliver Stone’s JFK of the crucifixion—that is, the public will only ‘know’ the crucifixion story as it is depicted here with all the non-Biblical material assumed to be Biblical or historical. This is the only way, I’m told, that many now ‘know’ the details of the assassination of John F. Kennedy—through Oliver Stone’s fictional film.”
THE RELENTLESS BRUTALITY OF THE PASSION
What shocked me most is the relentless brutality of the torture inflicted on Christ’s body throughout the movie. The brutality is designed, not to inspire, but to leave people shocked and emotionally drained. Gibson achieves this objective with unsurpassed artistry and deserved my personal Oscar for brilliant brutality.
The frightening brutality of the whipping of Jesus, first with a stick and then with a cat-o’-nine-tails that has metal barbs, is inspired not by Gospels’ account of the flogging, but by Emmerich’s Dolorous Passion and Mary of Agreda’s City of God. These mystical books describe Jesus’ flogging in vivid and excruciating details. Emmerich saw Jesus’ body “entirely covered with black, blue, and red marks; the blood was trickling down on the ground ...they made use of a different kind of rod,—a species of thorny stick, covered with knots and splinters. These barbarians ... untied Jesus, and again fastened him up with his back turned towards the pillar. ... they recommenced scourging him with even greater fury than before ... The body of our Lord was perfectly torn to shreds.” Gibson’s script follows the details of this gruesome description by having Jesus flogged twice, in the front and back, first with a stick and then with a a cat-o’-nine-tails.
Apparently it was not difficult for Gibson to brutalize Jesus’ body, because he is skilled at depicting violence. Being unfamiliar with his films (my time is too valuable to be wasted watching fiction), I cannot speak firsthand. But critics point out this fact in their reviews. For example, Newsday says that “the film shows that the Braveheart star and director is skilled at depicting violence . . . with grisly, horrific details of Christ’s physical mutilation and torment.”
Referring to the bloodiness of The Passion, Eugene Habecker, President of the American Bible Society, speaks approvingly of the film, saying: “It’s Mel Gibson. If you watch Braveheart, that’s Mel Gibson.” Jeff Strickler writes in Star Tribune: “As much as ‘The Passion of the Christ’ has been ballyhooed as a religious film, it is, above all, a Mel Gibson movie. Sure, the Oscar-winning director of Braveheart slips in a little dogma [much in my view], but what he really lays on your face is brutality. Blood splatters. Skin rips open. Eyes swell shut. Gibson’s thesis is that Jesus suffered for people’s sins, and his focus is on the suffering.
“The relentless brutality is likely to put off many viewers, but it also gives the film a haunting power. The images are difficult to get out of your mind. You will leave the theater feeling emotionally exhausted and probably will spend the next few hours processing what you’ve witnessed” (Star Tribune, February 25, 2004). Indeed, I spent the night wondering how any sane person could produce such a gory, gruesome, and bloody exaggeration of Christ’s Passion. I could not help but question Gibson’s mental sanity.
Relentless Brutality of the Movie
In his review published in the Tri-City Herald, Christy Lemire writes: “The film is frightening—not for its dogma [in my view the dogma is equally frightening], but for the relentlessness of its brutality. Gibson, as director, producer and co-writer, is fetishistic in his depiction of the pain Jesus suffered during the last 12 hours of his life. The beating and whipping and ripping of skin become so repetitive, they’ll leave the audience emotionally drained and stunned. . . . Roman soldiers, speaking Latin, strip him down to practically nothing, chain him to a rock and scourge him until he collapses in a bloody heap of shredded flesh” (Tri-City Herald, February 24, 2004).
Lemire continues noting that “the idea that children should see The Passion as a learning device—that churches are organizing screenings and theater trips for their parishioners and catechism classes—is truly shocking. Grown-ups—even true believers—will have difficulty sitting through the film. Just think of the trauma it will inflict on kids.” Shocking as it may sound, this is exactly what some preachers, parents, and teachers are doing, without considering the emotional and spiritual trauma the film will cause on young minds.
In the review published in the New Yorker, David Denby calls The Passion “a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood and agony . . . How will parents deal with the pain, terror and anger that children will doubtless feel as they watch a man flayed and pierced until dead?”
On a similar vein, Ty Burr writes in the Boston Globe: “A profoundly medieval movie, Yes. Brutal almost beyond powers of description, Yes. More obsessed with capturing every holy drop of martyr’s blood and sacred gobbet of flesh than with any message of Christian love, Yes. More than anything, The Passion of the Christ seems to be exactly the movie Mel Gibson wanted to make as an abiding profession of his traditionalist Catholic faith. On that score it is a success” (February 24-2004). I fully agree with Burr. Gibson has done a masterful job in producing a brutal and gory reenactment of Christ’s Passion in full accordance with his traditional Catholic faith.
Burr describes in a vivid way what is perhaps the most gruesome scene of The Passion: “In the film’s present-tense scenes, Christ has already had his face smashed in, but that’s just an entr’acte [interval, introduction]. Now he is tied to a post in a Roman courtyard, and the camera lovingly pans the tray of instruments: the scourge, the spikes. There follows a 10-minute sequence in which, first, the Savior is whipped with a stick until his back is raw. Then he is whipped with a cat-o’-nine-tails that has metal barbs at the end of each tether; in one shot we see the hooks dig deep and tear out his flesh. Then Christ is rolled over and he is flayed from the front. Later, after the long march to Golgotha, he is nailed to the cross in slo-mo close-ups in which each hammer stroke brings forth a fresh gout of blood. . . . To Gibson, each drop is holy, so the more of it the better. Each chunk of flesh dug out by the lash is Christ’s sacrifice in all its beauty, so bring it on. The cumulative effect, however, brings only numbness” (Globe, February 24, 2004).
In his editorial on ADVENTIST REVIEW, William Johnsson gives as his first reason for choosing not to view THE PASSION, its “jarring violence.” He writes: “I have not seen the movie. I don't criticize anyone who has, but I don't intend to see it. Here's why. From all accounts the movie is jarringly graphic. Mel Gibson has starred in violent movies: now he has made the ultimate violent movie. The Newsweek article calls the violence in the R-rated movie ‘at first shocking, then numbing.’ I abhor violence and cannot stand to watch scenes of violence. I don't need to see this movie.”
Should Young People See The Passion?
Johnsson’s reason for choosing not to view the movie, raises the question: Should parents or teachers take young people to see this shocking, frightening movie? The answer is obvious. It is irresponsible to expose Adventist young people to scenes of brutal violence. The same view was expressed to me privately by a Seminary professors who has been asked to critique the movie. In his review of the movie in the Boston Globe, Ty Burroffers an unequivocal answer: “Any parent—no matter how devout and well-intentioned—who takes a child to this movie is guilty of abuse. Period.” I fully concur with Burr’s verdict and I would add that even adults who are emotionally weak should not see the movie.
Several reports indicate that some viewers were hospitalized after viewing the film. For example, Peggy Law Scott, a 57-years old woman in Wichita, Kansas, collapsed during the film’s final, bloody crucifixion scene. While people were helping the woman, the lights were turned on and the people were ushered out. She later died at a hospital.
In view of its brutality and devastating effects on viewers, it came as a surprise to learn that some Adventist churches and schools are promoting the film, even among young people. A professional Adventist lady emailed me this message: “I was especially interested in your comments on the movie The Passion of the Christ. I will not see this movie, but I have a 16-year-old daughter who attends Loma Linda Academy. Her Bible teacher has offered extra credit to anyone in his class who sees the movie. He himself took a carload of students to see it this week. My daughter listened to him and has expressed an interest in seeing the movie with her class. I had her go back and read the accounts of Jesus’ death in the four gospels and now I am having her read your newsletter as well. I think she will see things in a different light. I am also forwarding your newsletter to both the Bible teacher and the principal of Loma Linda Academy.” Apparently this review has caused some rethinking, because a junior at Loma Linda Academy emailed me a message saying that the teachers decided to give credit point for reading the final chapters of The Desire of Ages, rather than for viewing the film.
General Conference Guidelines
Besides the shocking brutality, there is another important reason for Adventists to choose not to view THE PASSION, namely, the fact that the movie impersonates Christ, especially His suffering and atoning death for our redemption. Historically Adventist have recognized that any movie impersonating Christ should not be view by an Adventist. This recommendation is given by the Youth Department of the General Conference. Under the heading of “Recreation and Amusements,” the Youth Department offers guidelines for “acceptable” and “unacceptable” movies. The first guideline for “Unacceptable Presentations” is “Motion pictures impersonating Christ” (Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, p. 1187). No reasons are given for such guideline, most likely because Adventists have historically understood that playing the role of a divine Being is biblically and ethically wrong. This point will be discussed shortly.
How can some Adventist preachers and teachers promote a movie that impersonates Christ, contains glaring errors, is full of relentless brutality, and promotes Catholic heresies such as the prominent role of Mary in our redemption? I can think of two possible answers. First, some of them have not seen the movie and thus they base their promotion on the glowing reports they have heard or read. One pastor, who arranged for his congregation and community to view The Passion at a local theater, told me in a telephone conversation that he never thought the movie would be so bad. Had he seen the movie beforehand, he would not have organized the private screening.
Will the Shocking Brutality of The Passion Lead People to Christ?
Second, some pastors, teachers, and parents believe that shocking violence, vivid gore, and repulsive brutality can be legitimately used to help people see how much Christ suffered for them. Bob Lepine of Family Life makes this point saying: “The Passion may be Gibson’s most violent film to date, and it deserves its R rating. On more than one occasion as I watched this movie, I had to turn away from the screen. I remember thinking at one point, ‘Enough. This is over the top.’ And almost immediately I had a second thought. ‘That’s right,’ I thought. ‘This is over the top, because the death of Christ was, in reality, barbaric and violent.’ Maybe what we all need to see is not a cleaned up, sanitized Hollywood version of His death, but a more accurate and graphic look at how He suffered for us. (February, 2004 website article; emphasis added).
Does Gibson’s shocking brutality of Christ’s suffering and death provide “a more accurate” and effective portrayal of the Passion than the one we find in the Gospels? Is such a shocking portrayal needed to convert people today? Lepine and others like him, seem to forget that the Gospels were written at a time when dramatic plays with shocking brutality were the order of theday. We are told that when the Colosseum was inaugurated in Rome (about A. D. 80), 9000 beasts and 3000 gladiators lost their lives during the first 100 days to give a continuous bloody spectacle to the Romans.
Shocking brutality was the hallmark of the Broadway Shows of ancient Rome. Certainly God knows how powerful and effective it would have been to spread the Gospel through graphic descriptions and dramatization of the events leading to the Crucifixion. We would think that Passion Plays presented in the amphitheaters scattered throughout all the major cities of the Roman world could have led many Gentiles to accept Christ as their personal Savior.
Is the Gospel to be Proclaimed Through Drama?
But God chose to proclaim the Good News of salvation, not through drama, but through the foolishness of preaching (Cor 1:21). He chose to include in the Gospels, not graphic, gory details of Christ’s trial and crucifixion, but a sober account of how He nobly offered Himself up as a sacrifice for our salvation. The reason is that faith comes, not by seeing drama, but “by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17). Tom Holts perceptively observes that “Man can use shock and violence to evoke extreme empathy and emotion and bind viewers together in a ‘shared experience’ of grief, horror, and outrage, but this is not God’s pathway to saving faith revealed in the New Testament, nor is it a means to greater devotion and intimacy with God among God’s people” (Bible Discernment Ministries 2/2004).
Evangelical leaders supporting Gibson believe that his brutal reenactment of the Passion is true to the Gospels and will lead many people in our generation to accept Christ as their personal Savior. In an interview with the New Yorker magazine, Gibson said: “I wanted to be true to the Gospels. That has never been done before. I didn’t want to see Jesus looking really pretty. I wanted to mess-up one of his eyes, destroy it” (September, 2003).
Is this what being true to the Gospels means to Gibson? Does any of the Gospels portray Christ with a “destroyed eye” and with his body skinned alive as shown in The Passion? The biblical accounts of Jesus’ flogging and crucifixion are as minimal as they could be. The Synoptic Gospels tell us essentially the same thing: “Having scourged Jesus, [Pilate] delivered him to be crucified,” . . . “And when they came to a place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him” (see Matt 27:26, 33; Mark 15:20, 22; Luke 23:25, 33). A few verses later, Jesus is dead. This is the brief, sober, and cryptic account of Jesus’ sufferings and death.
The Gospel writers do not linger over the details of Christ’s suffering to stir emotions and promote the Catholic view of the atonement and the imitation of His Passion as a way of salvation. The Evangelists were not mentally unbalanced Catholic mystics obsessed with intensifying Christ’s suffering and imitating them as a way of salvation, but practically minded men who learned at Jesus’ feet how to imitate the beauty of His character in their daily life. They report Jesus’ suffering in the briefest terms, because they understood that what is important for our salvation is not the intensity of Christ’s SUFFERING, but the fact that JESUS offered Himself as an atoning sacrifice for our redemption. The notion that Christ had to be beaten up to a bloody pulp to satisfy the demands of God’s justice, is found in The Dolorous Passion, but not in the Bible. John Dominic Crossan confesses, that “If I accepted Gibson’s vision of this savage God, I hope I would have the courage to follow Mrs. Job’s advice: ‘Curse God, and die’ (Job 2:9; “Hymn to a Savage God”).
Meditation on the Humility and Nobility of Christ’s Character
Nowhere the New Testament suggests that we should meditate on the gory details of Christ’s flogging and the brutal treatment he received along the 14 stations leading to Calvary. The reason is that, contrary to Catholic teachings, we are saved, not by imitating in a small scale the suffering that Christ experienced on a larger scale, but by accepting His gracious provision for our salvation through His atoning sacrifice.
The New Testament invites us to focus on Christ’s life of obedience, His atoning death, His glorious Resurrection, His constant intercession, His victorious Return as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. In the classic text of Philippians 2:5-9, Paul exhorts the believers to focus, not on the gory details of Christ’s suffering, but on the totality of His redemptive mission: incarnation, humiliation, suffering, and glorification.
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, thou he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name” (Phil 2:5-9).
Paul knew what sufferings was all about because he was flogged five times, beaten with rods three times, stoned once, shipwrecked three times, etc. (2 Cor 11:24-29), yet he lifts up for the Christian meditation, not the gory details of Christ’s torture and execution, but the nobility of Christ’s character as revealed in His incarnation, humiliation, suffering, and subsequentexaltation. These are the themes that can fire our imagination, without having to refer to graphic and gory details of His suffering.
Along the same lines, Ellen White counsels us “to spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ. We should take it point by point, and let the imagination grasp each scene, especially the closing ones. As we thus dwell upon His great sacrifice for us, our confidence in Him will be more constant, our love will be quickened, and we shall be more deeply imbued with His Spirit. . . . Beholding the beauty of His character, we shall be ‘changed into the same image from glory to glory’ (2 Cor 3:18)” (Desires of Ages, p. 83). Note that Ellen White admonishes us to contemplate, not the gory details of Christ’s death, but the beauty of Christ’s character as revealed especially in His great sacrifice for us.
THE THEOLOGY OF THE PASSION
The average viewer of The Passion may not realize that the movie is not a mere reenactment of the last 12 hours of Christ’s death, but a powerful promotion of the focal point of Catholic worship: THE MASS. Catholics go to church, not to hear the proclamation of the Word of God, but to witness the reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice. The short homily that priests deliver after the Mass, has been largely influenced by Protestant preaching. The few Masses that I attended as a boy growing up in Rome, Italy, and later as a doctoral student at the Pontifical Gregorian University usually had no homilies. At the Mass, Catholic believers watch the priest reenact Christ’s sacrifice, just like moviegoers watch it in Gibson’s Passion.
Why is Christ’s sacrifice repeated at the Mass? Because the Catholic believes that every time Christ is offered at the altar, the benefits of His sacrifice are renewed to the believer. Such benefits can be applied not only to living believers but also to the souls of loved ones in Purgatory. I vividly recall the visit of priests or nuns to our home in Rome, to invite us to pay for perpetual Masses on behalf of our loved ones in Purgatory. Such Masses are supposed to reduce the time of suffering in Purgatory and hasten their transition to Paradise.
The Catholic view of the Mass as a reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice as a way of salvation, helps us understand why Gibson, a very devout Catholic, has invested 25 millions dollars to produce The Passion. His movie is designed to help modern audiences understand, as Gibson stated in an interview with the Eternal Word Television Network, “the juxtaposition between the sacrifice of the cross and the sacrifice of the altar [Mass]—which is the same thing.”
Gibson’s Passion and the Catholic Mass
Gibson’s movie is a large scale reenactment of the Passion that takes place in a small scale at every celebration of the Mass. At the Mass, Catholics look for Christ, not in heaven above, but in the ostensorium, that is, the box containing the host that is elevated during the Mass for the consecration of the host. In a similar fashion, at the movie theater, people will see Christ, not in heaven above, but in a bloody reenactment of His Passion.
The script of The Passion of the Christ was specifically written to highlight the link between Christ’s suffering and death on the Cross, and the reenactment of His sacrifice at the altar during the Mass celebration. Gibson’s intent is to show that the sacrifice of the Cross and the sacrifice at the altar (Mass) are the same thing.
The Catholic belief that Christ can be sacrificed time and again and each time benefits accrue from His fresh atonement, is openly contradicted by Scripture. Hebrews teaches that Christ, our High Priest, does not need to repeat His sacrifice, because “he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (Heb 7:27). Protestants have historically rejected as “abominable” the idea that the priest at the altar has the power to sacrifice Christ again and again. But the widespread acceptance of The Passion by Evangelical Christians is a clear indication that the gulf between Catholicism and Protestantism is being bridged, at the expense of the latter.
The Gulf is Being Bridged
In his review of The Passion, Andrews J. Webb perceptively observes that “Gibson’s comment about the sacrifice of the altar and the sacrifice of the cross shows the indispensable link in this movie between the Catholic view of Christ’s sacrifice and the portrayal of the Crucifixion in The Passion of the Christ. The fact that Evangelicals have uncritically endorsed it speaks volumes about how far the Evangelical Protestant understanding of Christ’s death and the related subject of Justification have slipped since the Reformation. In Roman Catholic theology, the intense physical suffering of Christ’s Crucifixion is the focus along with the emphasis on physical sacrifice. This is one of the reasons why in Roman Catholic iconography we have so much imagery related to Christ’s physical pain and that crucifixes show him still suffering on the cross. This emphasis on Christ’s physical agony is repeated in Roman Catholic devotional material, prayers, and, of course, in The Passion of the Christ. The theology of the Bible, however, points out to us that the grand importance of Christ’s crucifixion lay not in the unusual intensity His physical suffering, but in His once for all propitiation of God’s wrath for our sins (1 John 4:10).
By focusing exclusively on the brutality of Christ’s physical sufferings, Gibson ignores the far greater pain of the mental anguish experienced by Christ for having the sins of the world placed upon Him. Even the worst physical torments inflicted upon Christ by Jews and Romans did not compare with the anguish of feeling separated from God while dying to pay the full penalty of our sins. Satisfying Roman justice on a cross was comparatively easy, as thousands of men and women, including some of the Apostles, did that. But it was far more difficult to satisfy the justice of God by offering Himself as a perfect sacrifice for our salvation.
Christ the Survivor
The fundamental importance of Christ’s Resurrection for the Christian faith is largely ignored in The Passion. At the end of the movie, Christ is seen in profile for a few seconds when the stone of the tomb is rolled back. Gibson minimizes the Resurrection because the focus of the movie is on Christ’s capacity to survive the most brutal torture. He can take it all, and we can become survivors like Him.
In his review published in the Boston Globe, James Carroll notes: “There is no resurrection in this film. A stone is rolled back, a zombie-Jesus is seen in profile for a second or two, and that’s it. But there is a reason for this. In Gibson’s theology, the resurrection has been rendered unnecessary by the infinite capacity of Jesus to withstand pain. Not the Risen Jesus, but the Survivor Jesus. Gibson’s violence fantasies, as ingenious as perverse, are, at bottom, a fantasy of infinite male toughness” (Globe, February 24, 2004).
The biblical Christ is not an invincible Super Man, but the Divine Son of God, who took upon Himself our human limitations and was “made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17).
IS IT BIBLICALLY CORRECT TO IMPERSONATE CHRIST?
Is it biblically correct for a movie artist to impersonate and dramatize the last twelve hours of Christ’s suffering, by portraying His body splattered with blood on the way to Calvary? Can such dramatization be biblically justified? Or does it represent a sacrilegious act condemned by the Second Commandment and by the biblical respect for the Holiness of God?
The question of the biblical and ethical legitimacy of dramatizing in a movie the final hours of Christ’s agony and death, is never addressed in the reviews that I have read. The comments of movie critics and church leaders who have previewed the film, focus primarily on the artistic qualities and historical accuracy of the film. The problem is that a film about Christ’s agony and death, may be artistically brilliant, but biblically flawed, because any attempt to impersonate the Divine Son of God, reducing Him to a mere mortal human being, cannot be biblically justified.
There are no Passion Plays in the Bible that could offer us some guidance. The only drama resembling a Passion Play was the sacrificial system designed to typify in a dramatic way Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Note that the animals offered as types of Christ’s sacrifice were not brutalized while they were led to be slaughter.
It is important to note that in the Old Testament God manifested His glory, not His face. On Mount Sinai God’s face was hidden by a cloud. In the sanctuary His presence was manifested as the shekinah glory between the cherubins, but there was no visual portrayal of God. Respect for the holiness of God precluded any attempt to represent the divine Beings of the Godhead. Even sacred object like that the ark of the covenant located in the Most Holy Place (symbold of God’s throne), could not be touched or looked inside by ordinary people.
We read in ! Samuel 6:19 that God slew 70 men of Beth-shemesh because they dared to look into the ark of the Lord: “And he slew some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked into the ark of the Lord; he slew seventy men of them. . . . Then the men of Beth-shemesh said: ‘Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?’” (1 Sam 6:19-20). Later on when the ark was carried on a new cart to Jerusalem “Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there because he put forth his hand to the ark; and he died there besides the ark of God” (2 Sam 6:6-7).
These tragic episodes teach us an important lesson. No human being can afford to treat lightly what is associated with God. The ark was the place where God manifested His presence (Shekinah). Thus, to play with it or to treat it casually, was sacrilegious. God’s people understood this important truth. This explains why there were no pictures of the Godhead in the Temple, Synagogue, or Early Christian Churches.
In the catacombs Christ is represented not by pictures, but by symbols like the fish, the anchor, or the Good Shepherd. The reason is that early Christians understood that no human being can bring God down to the human level without violating His transcendent majesty and purity. This is a simple biblical truth, which many today find difficult to accept in our visualsociety. PLAYING GOD OR WITH GOD IS SACRILEGIOUS. God is not a consumer product for our society to use and to profit from. It is estimated that The Passion make make more money than any previous film. In the first two weeks it raked in over 250 million dollars. It is hard to comprehend how a brutal reenactment of Christ’s suffering can be exploited to make millions of dollars.
Any attempt by an actor to act out Christ’s suffering and death, may ultimately lead many simple minded believers to a veneration of the movie-Christ they have seen, rather than of the biblical Christ they have not seen. The temptation to worship a visible and objective Christ can be seen in dominant Catholic countries, where the only Christ devout Catholics know and worship is the One they touch, see, and often wear as jewelry. Statues, crucifixes and pictures of the bleeding Savior, abound in devout Catholic homes. Instead of worshipping the invisible Lord in Spirit and Truth, they worship an idol that they can see, touch and feel.
God’s Precaution to Prevent Objectification of Christ
We can hardly blame God for the attempts to objectify the three members of the Godhead through movies, statues, painting, statuettes, and religious jewelry. The Lord took utmost precaution to prevent human beings from materializing and objectifying His spiritual nature. This is evidenced, for example, by the fact that when the second Person of the Godhead became a Human Being for about thirty-three years, He refrained from leaving a single material mark that can be authenticated as His own. Christ did not build or own a house; He did not write books or own a library; He did not leave the exact date of His birth or of His death; He did not leave descendants. He left an empty tomb, but even this place is still disputed. He left no “thing” of Himself, but only the assurance of His spiritual presence: “Lo, I am with you ‘always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28 :20).
Why did Christ pass through this world in this mysterious fashion, leaving no physical footprints or material traces of Himself? Why did the Godhead miss the golden opportunity provided by the incarnation to leave a permanent material evidence and reminder of the Savior’s look, life, suffering, and death on this planet? Why do the Gospel writers minimize the suffering of Christ’s final hours? Why is the “blood” factor, which is so prominent in Gibson’s “Passion,” is largely missing in the narrative of the Passion? Is this not clear evidence of God’s concern to protect mankind from the constant temptation of reducing a spiritual relationship into a “thing-worship”?
It was because of this same concern that God chose the Sabbath—a day rather than an object— as the symbol of a divine-human belonging relationship. Being time, a mystery that defies human attempts to define it, the Sabbath provides a constant protection against the worship of objects and a fitting reminder of the spiritual nature of the covenant relationship between God and His people. If Gibson was to accept the message of the Sabbath regarding the spiritual nature of God, he might consider withdrawing the film before its release. Such a courageous decision would prevent the adoption by million of Christians of a distorted view of Christ’s suffering and death–a view that, as we shall shortly show, is conditioned by the Catholic teachings regarding the imitation of Christ’s Passion, rather than by the biblical account of Golgotha.
No Drama, Passion Plays, or Pictures in the Early Church
During the first four centuries, Christians did not use pictures of Jesus or Passion Plays for their evangelistic outreach, despite the fact that they lived in highly visual cultures. Pagan temples were littered with statues of gods. Mystery religions like Mithraism, Cybele, and Isis had their own Passion Play. A popular one was known as the taurobolium (blood-bath)—that is, the imitation of the death and resurrection of the god Attis by killing a bull and covering a new believer with his blood.
God’s people did not adopt pagan religious visual practices for communicating the Gospel. In accordance with the Second Commandment, no pictorial representation of God was ever allowed in the Temple, Synagogues, or Early Christian Churches.
The situation gradually changed as Gentile Christians brought into the church their pagan beliefs and practices. Soon pictures, statues, and Passion Plays became common place. During the Middle Ages, Passion Plays were staged first in churches, then in church yards, and finally in special outdoor amphitheaters. Passion Plays have become important tourist attractions in different countries. The Oberammergau Passion Play in upper Bavaria, Germany, draws tourists every ten year from many parts of the world. In America also there are popular Passion Plays in such places as Eureka Springs, Arkansas, Black Hills, South Dakota, and Lake Wales, Florida.
The Temptation to Worship a Visible Christ
At the time of the Reformation, Protestants overwhelmingly rejected the use of images, statues, relics, Passion Plays, as a violation of the Second Commandment. Rather than visual imagery, they relied on the preaching of the Word to save souls and the Gospel made significant advances.
I am not proposing the elimination of all pictures of Christ. Plain pictures of Christ can be a source of inspiration without becoming an object of adoration. The problem arises when pictures are designed and used to portray and foster unbiblical teachings such as the devotion to Christ’s Passion or to the Sacred Heart of Mary. In these instances pictures encourage an idolatrous form of worship.
The temptation to worship a visible and tangible Christ can be seen in dominant Catholic countries, where the only Christ devout Catholics know and worship is the One they touch, see, and often wear as jewelry. Statues, crucifixes, and pictures of the bleeding Savior abound in devout Catholic homes. Instead of worshipping the invisible Lord in Spirit and Truth, they worship an idol that they can see, touch, and feel.
The sad reality is that many Christians have become so conditioned by the entertainment industry, that playing God or with God through drama, pictures, movies, and rock music has become an accepted form of worship. By accepting these things and endorsing movies like The Passion of the Christ, we run the risk today of returning to the Medieval false worship which the Protestants struggled and died to reform.
DOES THE PASSION OFFER A UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY FOR SPREADING THE GOSPEL?
Does The Passion of the Christ provide a unique opportunity for spreading the Gospel? This is the feeling of many evangelical leaders. “This is a window of opportunity we have. Here’s a guy who’s putting his money into a movie that has everything to do with what we do,’ said pastor Cory Engel of Harvest Springs Community Church in Great Falls, Montana. ‘Churches used to communicate by having a little lecture time on Sunday morning. People don’t interact that way anymore. Here’s a chance for us to use a modern-day technique to communicate the truth of the Bible,’ the Rev. Engel said” (“Churches Make ‘Stunning’ Show of Support for Gibson’s ‘Passion,’” Newsmax, Thursday, Feb. 5, 2004).
It is true that we live in a highly visual and anti-literate society where people would rather watch a movie than read a book. But does this mean that we should replace preaching with movies or dramatic plays? We need to remember that during the Middle Ages, religious teachings were communicated by visual presentations such as Passion Plays, statues, icons, and relics. They took the place of the Bible, which the Catholic Church refused to have translated into the common languages of the people. These things were designed to stimulate an emotional response. The result was the gradual decadence of the church that sank into deep superstition.
The ability of images, statues, relics, and drama to evoke an emotional response does not guarantee an accurate transmission of the Gospel. They often lead to idolatry. In fact, religious souvenirs of The Passion are already for sale on websites. People can already buy reproduction of the nails or of the cross of The Passion and wear them as earrings, pendants, or necklaces. Devout Catholics wear what they worship and worship what they wear. This is why God ordained the communication of the Gospel through preaching, rather than through visual presentations like drama, Passions Plays, and imageries. The latter can lead to idolatry.
Drama options were readily available to the Apostles as they brought the Gospel to cities equipped with amphitheaters and actors trained to portray religious and moral themes to the people. But the Lord instructed the Apostles to proclaim the Good News of salvation through the medium of preaching: “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Tim. 4:2-4).
Does The Passion Provide a Unique Witnessing Opportunity?
Does The Passion provide a unique witnessing opportunity to those who view the movie? My answer is “YES.” The fact that the movie shocks people with a brutal Catholic portrayal of Christ’s Passion, offers a unique opportunity to help people appreciate the true and balanced biblical version of Christ’s atoning sacrifice for our redemption.
We can help people understand that the relentless brutality of the beating and whipping and ripping of Christ’s skin as shown in the movie, is foreign to the Gospels. It is inspired by Catholic mystical literature designed to promote the satisfaction of divine justice by the enormity of Christ’s suffering and the the imitation of His suffering as a way of salvation.
We can explain to people that there are no gory details in the biblical accounts of Jesus’ flogging and crucifixion. The Synoptic Gospels simply tell us: “Having scourged Jesus, [Pilate] delivered him to be crucified,” . . . “And when they came to a place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him” (see Matt 27:26, 33; Mark 15:20, 22; Luke 23:25, 33). The reason for such brevity is because we are saved by Christ’s perfect life and atoning death for our sins, and not by the intensity of His suffering.
More important still, we can point out that the prominent role of Mary in the movie is totally unbiblical. It is inspired by the Catholic belief that Mary is a partner with Christ in our salvation. In the Gospels’ account of the Passion, Mary appears only once at the Cross when Christ entrusts her to the care of John, saying: “Woman, behold your son!” (John 19:26). Such an impersonal address hardly supports the Catholic view of Mary as co-redeemer of mankind.
Finally, we can share the Good News that we do not need to repeat Christ’s sacrifice again and again as the Catholic priests do at the altar, in order to ensure our salvation, because “He did this once for all when he offered up himself” for our eternal salvation (Heb 7:27). We can experience every day the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice because our Savior is working hard in the heavenly sanctuary to bring to consummation His redemptive mission on the glorious Day of His Return.
THE POTENTIAL OF THE PASSION FOR CATHOLIC EVANGELISM
The Catholic Church badly needed a boost to polish her image, which had been tarnished by sexual scandals. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ provides the much needed boost. The movie will prove to be a powerful evangelistic tool for the Catholic Church. Many Evangelical leaders support Mel Gibson, but they do not control him. He is under the grip of the Roman Catholic Church that he is serving as a true apostle. He may well prove to be the most influential Catholic evangelist of our times.
The Daily Catholic openly acknowledges the evangelistic role of Gibson, saying: “Many see Gibson as a Hollywood movie star, but True Catholics see him as an evangelist in the purist sense. A true Apostle for the Truths and Traditions of the Church Christ founded. Mel has set on film what has always been set in stone: the everlasting reminder of why Christ died for each and every one of us. We have that reminder daily in the Latin Mass in the Alter Christus—the priest offers Him up daily as a propitiatory sacrifice in an unbloody manner to the Father for us. Prayerfully this movie will move the hearts and souls of millions to return to the Truths and Traditions of Christ’s True Church (Daily Catholic, January 17, 2004; emphasis added).
It is not surprising that the international magazine Inside the Vatican has chosen Mel Gibson as its “Man of the Year” for 2003. Why Not? The millions of non-Catholics that are viewing The Passion in many countries will be introduced in a compelling way to the Catholic faith of its producer, Mel Gibson. In an interview with Christianity Today, Gibson himself acknowledges his surprise at how evangelicals are endorsing the film, in spite of its exaltation of Mary. He says: “I've been actually amazed at the way I would say the evangelical audience has responded to this film more than any other Christian group. For me the amazing thing is that the film is so Marian [focused on Mary]. But I think the way the film displays her has been kind of an eye opener for evangelicals who don't usually look at that aspect. They understand the reality of a mother and a son.” (Christianity Today, 2/23/04).
Gibson himself is amazed at how evangelicals are buying into Catholic Mariolatry. We have predicted this development of the bridging of the gulf and clasping of the hand for a century, and now that is happening we do not seem to recognize it.
Evangelical leaders who are enthusiastically promoting The Passion may not realize that the ultimate beneficiary is the Catholic Church. Those who like the film may be attracted to Gibson’s Catholic faith, reflected throughout the film. A century ago, Ellen White warned that “The Protestant of the United States will be foremost in stretching the hands across the gulf to grasp the hand of spiritualism; they will reach over the abyss to clasp hands with the Roman power” (Great Controversy, p. 588). The clasping of hands between Catholicism and Protestantism is taking place in many ways today. The mutual endorsement and promotion of The Passion—a powerful portrayal of the Catholic view of Christ’s sacrifice—serves as a compelling reminder that the gulf is being bridged and hands are being clasped, and the Protestants are being drawn into the Catholic web.
OUR CONCERN FOR MEL GIBSON
In closing , I wish to share the concern for Mel Gibson expressed by Prof. Paul Pichot, President of the newly establish French-Speaking Adventist University in Africa. He closes his lengthy message, saying: “My concern--is for Mel Gibson, a poor, lost, deluded soul. Who among us will reach out to him and pull him out of this foul spiritual spider web in which he is entangled ? He does not know any better. He happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. He needs to see, to hear, to touch, the truth, but who will reach out to him ? Who will be concerned enough to point him to the real Jesus, the Messiah, the Lover and Saviour of the world ? Will it be an Adventist colporter ? Who will place into his trembling hand the beautiful book, The Desire of Ages, so that he may know God, and Jesus Whom He has sent ? Instead of condemning him, we need to find ways to reach out to him, and pull him out of the spiritual quagmire in which he is sinking right now. May that be our main concern.”
Indeed, may this be the concern of each one of us, to reach out to Gibson and to million of sincere people like him who are blinded by Catholic supestitious beliefs. May God give us the wisdom and grace to share with them the Good News of the Divine Son of God took upon Himself our human nature, lived a perfect life, died as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, is ministering in the heavenly sanctuary on our behalf, and will soon Return to bring to consummation His redemptive mission.
PASSIONATE ABOUT THE PASSION:
A RESPONSE TO CRITICISM
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D.,
Retired Professor of Theology and Church History
During the past month I have spent considerable time reading scholarly reviews of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. I have in front of me over 700 pages of reviews of the movie as well as studies on the meaning of Christ’s suffering and death. There is no question that Gibson has thrust at the center of Christian consciousness the powerful question “Why did Jesus have to die?” During the next few months I plan to write a book investigation the meaning of Christ’s suffering and death. This study is designed to help people appreciated the message of the Cross, which is grossly distorted in Gibson’s movie.
Is The Passion the Touchstone of Orthodoxy?
It is hard to believe that Mel Gibson’s movie about THE PASSION is stirring up such conflicting and deep passions. Truly it can be said that many Americans have become passionate about THE PASSION. It almost seems that the movie has become the touchstone of orthodoxy. Some evangelical reviewers firmly believe that this movie separates the “sheep” from the “goats,” that is, believers from unbelievers, conservative from liberals, and converted from unconverted people. My impression is that the movie separates the emotional from the rational responses.
Critics of the brutality of Gibson’s movie are accused of being unwilling to face the facts that the crucifixion was bloody and violent. But the issue is not the brutality of the crucifixion. This is a well-known fact. Rather, the real issue is mystics’ sadistic view of God who demands full satisfaction for all the sins of mankind through the brutal and inhuman torture of His Son.
To defend the mystic “satisfaction” view of Christ’s suffering, Gibson portrays the violence of the crucifixion in slow-motion with close up repetitions of the violence. In real life it did not happen in slow-motion. Archeologists tells us that the scourging was done with a reed or a rod, not with cat-o’-nine-tail whips that flayed the flesh out of the victim (See, “Two Archaeologists Comment on The Passion of the Christ,” www.archaeological.org/webinfo.php?page=10243). Moreover, the permissible number of lashes were 39, not 150-plus as in the movie. The inflation is Hollywood way to stimulate the emotions of the viewers. Unfortunately, those gory images will stay in people’s minds for a long time, conditioning their devotional life and leading many to worship Christ according to Gibson’s distorted images, rather than in Spirit and truth.
Never before in my life I have been assailed by fellow believers who question my commitment to Christ, because I have dared to expose the inaccuracies and the Catholic beliefs deceptively embedded in the movie. It is evident that THE PASSION is inflaming passions, causing some people to react emotionally, rather than rationally.
A Positive Outcome
A positive outcome of the controversy over THE PASSION, is the stimulus the movie provides to reexamine what the Bible really teaches regarding Christ’s suffering and death. Mel Gibson’s movie has thrust at the center of Christian consciousness the powerful question “Why did Jesus have to die?” The question is addressed afresh not only by theologians, but even by religion editors. An indication is the cover story of TIME (April 12, 2004) which carries the caption: “Why Did Jesus Have to Die?” The article provides a helpful historical survey of the debate over the reasons for Christ’s suffering and death.
On my part, during the past few weeks I have spent considerable time rereading several times the Gospels’ accounts of Christ’s trial and death, the relevant chapters of The Desires of Ages, and significant studies on the atoning sacrifice of Christ. This reading has made me forcefully aware of the need to reexamine the fundamental question that has divided theologians and clergy for centuries, namely, Why did Christ die? I intend to investigate this question during the next three months and publish this research in a 150-200 pages book.
In his movie Gibson promotes the so-called “satisfaction” view of Christ’s death, first developed by Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his book Why God Became Man (published in 1098). Anselm maintains that Christ had to suffer exceedingly severe torture in order to satisfy the rigorous demands of God’s justice for all of mankind’s sins. This belief that only Christ’s endless suffering could satisfy the demands of the Father’s justice, was largely influenced by the feudal view of God as a despotic Lord furious at his disobedient subjects.
The traditional “satisfaction” view, later modified by Catholic and Protestant theologians, has been retained by Catholic mystic like Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824). Her book, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is the major source used by Gibson to portray the relentless brutality of the torture inflicted on Christ’s body in order to satisfy the rigorous demands of divine justice. This teaching, as we shall see, is foreign to the Scripture. We are saved not by the enormity of Christ’s sufferings, but by His perfect life and sacrifice for our sins.
Adventist Confusion on Atonement
Adventists are not exempted from the controversy over the reason for Christ’s death. As mentioned in the April 2004 issue of REFLECTIONS—the monthly newsletter published by the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference for church leaders and scholars— “ the idea of a substitutionary sacrifice of Christ is rejected by some Adventists and replaced by the so-called moral influence theory.” An example of the latter is the book Can God Be Trusted? by Graham Maxwell.
The confusion over the meaning of Christ’s suffering and death—confusion which has been heightened by Gibson’s movie—has convinced me of the urgent need to prepare a fresh study on this timely subject. My plan is to research and write during the next three months a 150-200 pages book, tentatively entitled: THE PASSION: A Biblical Analysis of Mel Gibson’s Movie and of the Meaning of Christ’s Suffering and Death. The purpose of the book is not only to expose the inaccuracies and subtle Catholic deceptions of Gibson’s movie, but also to set forth a biblical view of the atonement.
Since posting my last newsletter No. 112 on “Mel Gibson’s Slaughter of Christ,” I have collected over 700 pages of reviews of THE PASSION, some written by competent Catholic and Protestant scholars. This has been a learning experience for me which has helped me understand the problems that the movie poses for both Catholic and Protestant teachings. In fact, some of the most perceptive analysis of THE PASSION come from respected Catholic scholars like Prof. Philip A. Cunningham and Prof. Lawrence E. Frizzell. These scholars expose the flaws of the movie in a frank and compelling way.
Even the Office for Film and Broadcasting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has prepared a full review of THE PASSION, deploring among other things, the savagery of Christ’s torture, which ultimately, may prove to be “self-defeating in trying to capture the imagination of the everyday moviegoer” (www.usccb.org/movies/p/thepassionofthechrist.htm).
Proposed Corrections Rejected
It came as a surprise to learn that a group of seven scholars–four Catholics, two Jews, and one Protestant–were asked by Icon, the producer of THE PASSION, to review the script and suggest whatever corrections were deemed necessary. The committee worked under the supervision of Bishop Eugene Fisher, Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. They submitted an 18 pages critique, pinpointing the historical errors and the deviations from magisterial Catholic teachings.
Gibson and Jesuit William Fulco, S. J., the translator of the script into Latin and Aramaic, were not prepared to make the corrections proposed, because they called for radical corrections. Instead, they tried to silence the constructive criticism provided by these competent scholars by means of legal threats. Such an unfortunate incident discredits Gibson’s claim to have striven for historical and biblical accuracy. In the forthcoming book I will mention the unbiblical scenes and historical errors openly discussed by Catholic scholars. I do mention specifically Catholic scholars to disprove the allegation that I am anti-Catholic in my writings. The fact is that I am deeply indebted to Catholic scholarship.
Porn Stars Perform in THE PASSION
It came as a surprise for me to learn that three of the actresses who play key roles in THE PASSION, are not only internationally renowned actresses, but also hardcore porno stars. Monica Bellucci, who plays Mary Magdalene in Gibson’s movie, is no ordinary porn star. She performed in the film Irreversible, where her rape lasts a horrifying 10 minutes. At the Cannes Film Festival, the film proved to be so shocking that 250 walked out, some needing medical attention.
The same is true of Rosalinda Celentano, who plays the androgynous character of Satan, and Claudia Gerini, who play the role of Pilate’s wife. Both of them are porn stars. You can see them featured in numerous pornographic websites. These disturbing facts raise important questions: Why did born-again Mel Gibson cast hardcore porno stars in a movie about Christ? Why “Christian” reviewers of THE PASSION do not disclose these appalling facts? Is it because they do not want to scandalize Christians who turn out in record numbers to support a movie starring Italian porn stars? Issues such as these will be addressed in the forthcoming book.
In this newsletter I will limit myself to respond to four major allegations from reviews of my previous newsletter on “Mel Gibson’s Slaughter of Christ.” This newsletter generated over 2000 responses, including about 1000 new subscriptions. Over 95 per cent of the responses were very positive. But I did receive a dozen critical reviews that need attention, because they are written by professional and respected Adventists who raise pertinent questions. For the sake of brevity I will respond to only four major allegations, after reporting briefly on my recent lecture tour in England.
Permission to Distribute this Review
Several editors, newscasters, and church leaders contacted me to ask permission to use my reviews of THE PASSION. To avoid unnecessary calls or email messages, I wish to grant full permission to anyone wanting to use this review in any form needed. Be sure to inform your friends that they also can receive this newsletter free of charge, simply by emailing me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org, saying: SUBSCRIBE ME.
MY RESPONSE TO FOUR ALLEGATIONS
The last newsletter on “Mel Gibson’s Slaughter of Christ,” generated over 2000 messages. To my recollection none of my previous newsletters generated such a large number of responses. With a few exceptions, the responses expressed appreciation for the review. The comments received, whether positive or negative, mean a lot to me. They inspire and challenge me to attempt greater things for the Lord. It is a sign of Christian maturity to learn to disagree without becoming disagreeable to one another.
In planning this newsletter, I intended to respond to seven major allegations presented by critics of my review of Gibson’s movie. But after writing over 35 pages in response to the first four allegations, I decided to address the rest in the forthcoming book. Some may feel that my responses are too long. That may be true, but my Jesuits professors taught me that it is wiser to overkill than to leave half-dead. Short answers seldom satisfy. They only generate new questions. Thus, in this newsletter, I will respond more fully to only four allegations:
1. A LONELY VOICE: My criticism of THE PASSION is discredited by the large number of Adventist pastors and church leaders who are promoting the movie.
2. ANTI-CATHOLIC BIAS: My criticism of THE PASSION is motivated by my anti-Catholic bias.
3. E. G. WHITE’S WRITINGS SUPPORT THE BRUTALITY OF THE PASSION: My criticism of the brutality of THE PASSION is discredited by statements of Ellen White which support Gibson’s movie.
4. EVANGELISTIC OPPORTUNITY: My critical review of THE PASSION ignores the unprecedented evangelistic opportunity the movie provides to reach the unchurched people.
A LONELY VOICE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS
A few readers question the credibility of my critique of THE PASSION, on the ground that the majority of Adventist church pastors and leaders are promoting the movie by urging our members to go to see it. A brother argues that if the General Conference purchased 250 tickets for the employees to see the movie, then it is obvious that our leaders see nothing wrong with the movie. Another Adventist made the same point by mailing me an insert from the Loma Linda University SDA Church bulletin. The insert lists the three shows of The Passion of the Christ, sponsored by the church at the Krikorian Premier Theaters in Redlands.
Some critics wrote that the pastors of some of our largest Adventist churches are promoting Gibson’s movie in their sermons, because they find its script to be strikingly similar to the details found in The Desire of Ages. Shortly I will comment on a sermon recently preached at Pioneer Memorial Church on the campus of Andrews University. The reasoning is that if the flagship churches of our denomination sponsors the film, it must be theologically sound.
My response to this criticism is twofold: First, truth is not decided by majority vote, but by its biblical accuracy. Second, a significant number of Adventist church leaders and scholars have expressed the same concerns about the movie that I have. Let me expand on these two points.
Riding the Cultural Wave
The criterion to evaluate a teaching promoted by a book or a movie, is not the popular opinion, but its biblical accuracy. The history of the Christian church, which happens to be my specialty, teaches us that church leaders have often adopted unbiblical beliefs and practices which have led the people into apostasy. This was true in ancient Israel and it has been true in the history of Christianity.
Church leaders in the past have often followed Rick Warren’s strategy to “ride the cultural wave” in order to bring the masses into the church. The result has been that pagans brought into the church their pagan idols and superstitions, thus paganizing Christianity. This trend ushered in what is known as the “Dark Ages” of the church, when popular piety was inspired, not by the reading of the Bible—which was unknown to the laity—, but by visual aid like icons, statues, bleeding crucifixes, and passion plays.
The Reformers attempted to clean the church of its idolatrous practices, by removing the visual representations of Christ, Mary, and the saints, replacing them with the proclamation of the Word of God. Gradually, however, evangelical churches have lost sight of their roots and are now embracing Catholic forms of worship. In a perceptive article entitled “Will Mel Evangelize Evangelicals?” Catholic editor Steven D. Greydanus explains how Evangelical Christians are embracing fundamental aspects of the Catholic worship promoted by THE PASSION. We shall return at the end to Greydanus’ comments.
Our Adventist church is not immune from the pressure to follow the cultural wave promoted by the church growth movement. The problem with this strategy is that it makes the METHODS more important than the MESSAGE. The result is that new converts often fail to find in the Adventist message the reason for living, loving, and serving the Lord. Our challenge is not only to improve our methods of evangelism but also to think of new ways to make our endtime MESSAGE more relevant and captivating to our generation.
Adventism is at a crossroad today. The controversy over THE PASSION is a symptom of greater issues that are dividing our church today. Traditionalists want to preserve the status quo. They vehemently oppose any attempt to bring into the church Pentecostal forms of worship with beat music, shouting, drama, dancing, passion plays, and emotional outbursts. Liberals, on the other hand, are prepared to try any method that brings people into the church. The result is bitter feelings, divisions, and a loss of identity, which often results in less giving. Hundreds of pastors have been laid off in the USA during 2003. This crisis calls for spiritual minded and enlightened leaders, dedicated to heal the wounds by helping our people to capture the larger vision of our calling to proclaim the endtime message to our generation.
Reviews of THE PASSION by Adventist Leaders.
Some critics allege that I am not a lonely voice crying in the wilderness by exposing the problems of THE PASSION, because there is near unanimous endorsement in the Adventist church for Gibson’s movie. This allegation is untrue, because several Adventist leaders have expressed similar concerns about the movie. Let me mention a few of them.
In the Spotlight ADVENTIST REVIEW
William G. Johnsson, Editor
William Johnsson, the editor of ADVENTIST REVIEW, offers two thoughtful reasons for his decision not to see the movie: “I have not seen the movie. I don't criticize anyone who has, but I don't intend to see it. Here is why. From all accounts the movie is jarringly graphic. Mel Gibson has starred in violent movies: now he has made the ultimate violent movie. The Newsweek article calls the violence in the R-rated movie ‘at first shocking, then numbing.’ I abhor violence and cannot stand to watch scenes of violence. I don't need to see this movie.
“Second, the movie offers Mel Gibson's interpretation of the Passion. The Newsweek cover story pointed out several places where the movie deviates from the Gospel accounts. For example, Gibson has Mary Magdalene trying to get help from Roman soldiers when Jesus is taken away to be tried by the priests. You will not find this in the Bible. Beyond such discrepancies, the question of the meaning of the event inevitably rests with Gibson.
“I prefer to let Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John interpret Jesus' sufferings and death for me. Their accounts are starkly specific, listing the grim details and leaving it to the Holy Spirit to speak to the reader's imagination, filling in the blanks.
“But I also want to express my hope and prayer for this movie—that it may lead many to a new, or renewed, appreciation for the sufferings of Jesus. Jesus died a violent death. He was executed! His sufferings were excruciating, more excruciating than any movie-maker could portray, because He bore not only extreme physical abuse but a terrible weight of spiritual desolation.”
Johnsson’s reference to the mental anguish and “spiritual desolation” deserves consideration. No movie can portray the mental anguish Christ experienced as He sensed the separation from the Father in order to bear the sins of fallen humanity. Most likely Christ died of a broken heart rather than of physical wounds.
Review of “The Passion of the Christ”
James Standish, Associate Director
General Conference Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department
James Standish is a GC observer of significant developments affecting our Advent church today. He publishes regularly a newsletter that you can access at http://ola.adventist.org You will find his newsletters very informative. His last newsletter includes this brief review of THE PASSION.
The Passion of the Christ Controversy
The New York Times last Sunday asked the provocative question “Why are evangelical Protestants embracing Mel Gibson's ultra-Catholic version of the Savior?” Why has a film that The Wall Street Journal a week ago noted is steeped in “Mariology” become a rallying cry to Protestants?” One puzzle of the reception of the film thus far is “why born-again Christians have given such a big thumbs up to what is so unapologetically a Catholic movie,” noted the New York Times. These are good questions to ponder, and this is a good time to do the pondering.
I saw the film last week. I was not impressed for two reasons. First, the film is by far the most violent film I have ever seen. It is one thing to show that tremendous evil was perpetrated against Jesus, it is quite another to wallow in two hours of gratuitous, desensitizing violence of the worst Hollywood order. Mel Gibson has added extra-Biblical tortures apparently to heighten the emotive effect, and incorporated techniques taken directly from the horror film genre (e.g., an extra-Biblical scene where a bloodied, gasping Christ is thrown over a bridge only to land inches from the face of a terrified Judas is reminiscent of slasher films in which distorted bodies suddenly appear to shock the audience; the extra-Biblical grotesque scenes of the devil with, among other things, a maggot crawling into his nose, all call to mind the horror movie genre).
The second objections is that in addition to the start to finish graphic violence, the film adds in a number of extra-Biblical scenes to promote Mariology. This includes Peter falling in a worship style at Mary's feet and calling her “Mother.” This shouldn't be surprising, as this is Mel Gibson's beliefs and the film is based not only on the Bible but on the visions of two Catholic Nuns.
Obviously good can come out of almost anything, and maybe this film will bring about an authentic religious awakening within some people, bringing them to a knowledge of our Savior. That said, we have been warned by prophecy against a false revival based on ecumenism. The New York Times thinks it is a “puzzle” that Protestants are championing this Roman Catholic version of the life of Christ. Maybe as Seventh-day Adventist Christians we are a little less puzzled than most.
Adventists Reconsider the Role of Mary
Standish may be surprised to learn that not all Adventists understand how the movie is contributing to the bridging of the gulf between Catholics and Protestants. After viewing the movie some Adventists feel that the time has come for our Adventist church to reconsider the prominent role of Mary in our salvation. A brother wrote that for too long our Adventist church has treated Mary just as an ordinary women. He feel that the time has come to give Mary due credit for her contribution to our salvation. A sister wrote that it is unfortunate that the Gospels ignore the contribution of Mary in sustaining Jesus during the agonizing hours of His suffering and death. She was glad that the movie filled the gaps and set the record straight.
Comments such as these have made me forcefully aware of the deceptive impact of the movie in the mind of fellow believers who judge the Bible by the movie, rather than viceversa. There is no question that Mary was an extraordinary mother who did a great job in bringing up Jesus in a dysfunctional family. But the fact remains that she was the mother of the human Christ, and not the “Mother of God,” as stated in the daily Catholic prayer: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners” (I am translating the prayer from Italian). In the forthcoming book I will discuss in considerable details how the movie promotes in a subtle way the redemptive role of Mary.
Review of “The Passion of the Christ”
by Three Seminary Professors
Three professors from the Andrews University Theological Seminary, were officially asked to go to see the movie in order to share their impressions with Debra Haight, a correspondent of the local paper Herald Palladium.
The three professors are: Roy Gane, Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Eastern Languages and Associate Editor of the Andrews University Seminary Studies journal. Robert Johnston, Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins. Jon Paulien, Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Chairman of the New Testament Department.
All three professors were impressed by the use of Aramaic in the movie. “For the actors to be able to learn their lines in an ancient language was an amazing thing. They tried to reproduce the accents of the first century as much as they were able. The Italianate Latin was not as accurate.” In fact, they rightly point out that Greek, not Latin, was the language spoken by Pilate, the Roman soldiers, and the Jewish priest during the trial. Numerous scholars have made the same observation. The medieval Latin and dress of Mary and other women, only serves to promote Catholic traditional liturgy.
Although many consider The Passion of the Christ a powerful movie, the three professors feel people loose something when they get information from a movie rather than from reading a text for itself. The point is expanded by Jon Paulien, who said: “The tragedy is that most people now get information from the visual and not reading the text. The question is whether this movie will interfere with how they see and understand the text. Once you have seen this movie, it will have an influence on how you read the text.”
All three professors agree that there is too much flogging in the movie. Gane and Paulien said that “when scourging is mentioned in the Bible, the most stripes inflicted were 39 because people normally would pass out or die after that number. The ‘150 or so’ stripes the movie shows being inflicted on Jesus was not realistic.”
It should be added that the stripes were inflicted first with a reed in the first round and then with a cat-o’-nine-tail whip in the successive rounds. The intent was to draw as much flesh and blood from Jesus body to ensure that His suffering satisfied the rigorous demands of divine justice. Most scholars recognize that such a brutal torture would have killed Christ long before he was asked to carry the Cross.
An important observation made by Paulien is that “the word ‘blood’ only occurs twice in the Gospel narratives, once in Luke in the Garden of Gethsemane and once in John when Jesus is speared in the side after his death. This word is never used in relationship at all to suffering. The emphasis on the blood is a theological construction [sacrificial death]. Blood is not such a major part in the passion narrative as it is portrayed in the movie. The Gospels speak of Jesus’ emotional anguish, but that's harder to portray than the physical.”
In the forthcoming book I will expand on the difference between the biblical view and Gibson’s view of blood. In the Bible the blood is the symbol of life sacrificed for the remission of our sins. In Gibson’s mystical theology, the gallons of shed blood and pounds of flayed flesh are needed to represent the exceeding suffering experienced by Christ to satisfy the demands of divine justice for mankind’s sins. From a biblical perspective Christ could have been killed by a lethal injection and still be our perfect sacrifice for our sins.
In closing Paulien said: “I don't want to sound critical of the movie. It is a magnificent statement of faith. If I were to do it, I would have reduced the violence to more believable levels and have more flashbacks of Christ’s life and ministry. As portrayed in the movie, Jesus’ character was not developed as much.”
I will add that by focusing exclusively on the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life, the whole meaning of Christ’s suffering and death is muted. This is a point made in numerous Catholic and Protestant reviews of the movie.
At this point I could share other perceptive reviews received from Adventist psychologists and physicians who evaluate the movie from the perspective of their profession. For the sake of brevity I will include only one more review send to me by Elder Donald McFarlane, who serves as the President of the South England Conference, in Great Britain. The review was prepared for the conference newsletter that goes out to about 18,000 members.
Review of “The Passion of the Christ”
Elder Donald McFarlane
President of the South England Conference
Several of my colleagues and I were among a group of approximately 800 church leaders who were invited on March 9, 2004, to view Mel Gibson’s much talked about movie, “The Passion of the Christ.” The dimming of the lights signalled that the show was about to commence and a deafening silence replaced the chatter of eager clergymen and clergy women as they waited momentarily for the first scene.
I was not totally prepared for what followed during the next two hours. At the end I was somewhat dazed as I sought to come to grips with my emotions after viewing two hours of relentless violence. The reviews I had read prior to watching the film referred to its violent nature but I had not anticipated the level of gratuitous violence that I saw.
The film opened with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. The grime and dirt that covered the face of Jesus as He prayed in the Garden bore no resemblance to the gospel account but I was willing nonetheless to accommodate that as poetic licence. What I was not willing to accept was the intensity of the violence that followed. As soon as Jesus was arrested the violence began and was unrelenting until he declared, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” Of course, the gospel writers all wrote of the violence that Jesus experienced at the hand of his enemies but their account pales into insignificance when compared to the sado-masochistic version in the film. No human being can endure the brutal torture inflicted on Christ on the movie without dying several times.
It is clear from the level of violence in the movie that Gibson sees Christ’s suffering as more important than His death. For him our salvation has been secured not merely by Christ’s death but primarily through His suffering. Anyone with even a limited knowledge of Catholic theology could easily detect its influence on the film. The medieval chants and related music which form the aural backdrop to the brutal scenes are another clear influence of the Catholic Church. There was also a short scene which the observant viewer would recognize as the origin of the Turin Shroud.
Was there anything positive about the film? The answer is yes. The crucifixion scene was realistic and conveyed in powerful imagery Jesus’ agony on the cross. Though bone-chilling to see, the effect of the massive spikes being driven into His hands and feet was not lost on me. That scene was fairly true to the biblical account. The flashbacks to Jesus’ life and teachings were also very effective, especially for one who has studied the Gospels. This was in my opinion was one of the redeeming features of the film. Another redeeming feature was the use of the language of Jesus’ time. The Aramaic was enunciated eloquently and though subtitled the linguistic beauty of the film can only elicit admiration.
My biggest disappointment with the film, apart from the brutality and violence, was the down playing of the resurrection. The sense of triumph and hope that the resurrection engenders was sadly missing. In fact, I will go further to say that unless one is familiar with the biblical account of the Passion of Jesus, the viewer could easily miss the resurrection in the film.
“Would you encourage your members to watch the film,” was a question asked me after I’d viewed it. I replied by saying that I would not want my wife and children to see it and would not encourage church members to watch it, though I realize that many would want to see it. . . .
I concur with Paul’s words in Philippians 1:15 –19: “Some indeed preach Christ even out of envy and strife; and some also of goodwill: The one preach Christ of contention, not sincerely, but the other of love, knowing that I am set for the defence of the gospel. What then? Notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and I will rejoice.”
The Passion Fuels Arabs’ hate for the Jews
My reaction to the movie is somewhat different. On the one hand, I rejoice with Elder MacFarlane for the unprecedented way THE PASSION has thrust at the center of Christian consciousness the importance of Christ’s suffering and death. Undoubtedly the movie will challenge many to appreciate, perhaps for the first time, the price that Christ has paid for our redemption..
But, on the other hand, I am saddened by the divisions, controversies, and fears the movie is generating among Christians, Jews, Moslems, and people of other ideologies. It is reported that Yasser Arafat liked the movie and viewed it with great satisfaction. The obvious reason is that the movie presents Jewish leaders as bloodthirsty criminals who did to Jesus what today the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians. For them the message is clear: The Jews have not changed. They are still the same bloodthirsty criminals. This explains why several Moslem countries have already approved the distribution of the movie, though it violates the Koran’s explicit prohibition of any pictorial representation of prophets like Christ.
The Koran views Christ as a prophet, but it denies His crucifixion. No pictures of Allah or of any prophet have ever been allowed in Mosques or in private Moslem homes. Such pictures are considered as sacrilegious idols which Moslem have ruthlessly destroyed during the centuries of conquest of many Christian nations. It is a known fact that Mohammed derived such teaching from the OT prohibition of pictorial representations of God.
Surprisingly several Moslem countries are willing to violate the teachings of the Koran by approving the showing of THE PASSION. This is a calculated risk based on the assumption that the movie will fuel far more hate for the Jews, than love for Jesus Christ. After all the focus of the movie is on the sadistic and bloodthirsty nature of the Jews who were determined to have Christ tortured unto death. The powerful images of the wicked Jews can only strengthen the Moslem resolve to fight against the Jews and the nations supporting them.
“Passion Fund” Appeal
To reduce the tensions and heal the wounds caused by the movie, two church leaders in Washington, D. C., Rev. Jim Dickerson and Rabbi Jerry Levine have appealed to Gibson to create a “Passion Fund” to be financed by the film's $300-million profits. The funds will be used to heal the wounds causes by the movie and “to support efforts to combat religious intolerance and hatred and to promote interfaith community building, peace, justice, non-violence, reconciliation, social action, and community service. . . . Making money from the death of Jesus is another kind of crucifixion that distorts the true meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death.”
In a three pages appeal sent to major news organizations, Dickerson and Levine appeal to Gibson “to invest these funds [from the movie] strategically on programs that embody what Jesus stood for, what he worked for, what he died for, and what he commanded others to do. We are asking that he undertake an immediate and intensive program of active giving in these interfaith and social action areas. The good that these funds could do is immense and is sorely needed—now more than ever.”
If Gibson heeds the appeal to use the “Passion Profits” to sponsor initiatives designed to quench the flames of hatred, bigotry, and terror that have engulfed the world from the USA to Spain, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, and Palestine, then the world will see that in spite of all its problems, Gibson’s PASSION is used by God in a providential way to heal some of the wounds inflicted by the movie and by the religious intolerance of our times. Let us hope and pray that Gibson will heed the appeal.
Some critics of my review of THE PASSION strongly feel that my negative comments are conditioned by my anti-Catholic bias that is supposed to be pervasive in all my publications. Arnold Gamboa, a professional Adventist from the Philippines, has posted in his home page (arnoldgamboa.com) a three pages critique of my essay. His first allegation is that my review reflects “a biased mind” because I published a preliminary negative review of the movie “without watching it first.”
Does reviewing a movie without first watching it reveal “a biased mind”? If that were true, then Dr. William Johnsson, the editor of the Adventist Review, has a biased mind because he reviewed the film without first watching it. The fact is that Johnsson, like myself, read detailed reviews, like the one that appeared in the cover story of Newsweek. Reviews by competent critics offer more insight into a movie than viewing the film itself. This is proven by the fact that the average viewer sees no biblical or historical problems with the movie, while competent Catholic and Protestant scholars highlight a host of biblical and historical errors. This means that reading good reviews may be more enlightening than seeing the movie itself. Moreover, do we need to experiment with drugs, alcohol, or homosexuality before writing a credible analysis of their harmful effects!
Gamboa continues saying: “Here is a word to describe his review: anti-Catholic. But that is predictable. He is known for being anti-Catholic in his books and symposiums. He discredits the movie by Mel Gibson’s being a Catholic, its Catholic sources, the prominent role of Mary in the film and some scenes that are not in the Bible but are part of Catholic tradition.”
On a similar vein, Bruce N. Cameron, J. D., a lawyer, wrote a 9 pages critique which has circulated far and wide. I received dozens of copies of this critique from different sources. Like Gamboa, Cameron attempts to discredit the credibility of my review, by arguing that I have an anti-Catholic bias. He wrote: “Can Any Good Thing Come Out of Nazareth? Sam repeatedly attacks The Passion based on the fact that Gibson is Catholic and the Catholic Church supports the film. Almost every criticism that Sam has of this film he manages to turn it into an attack on Catholic theology. Is it fair to say that Mel Gibson is a Catholic and therefore he cannot create an accurate depiction of the last few hours of Jesus life on earth?”
My reply is that the issue is not Gibson’s religious affiliation, but his determination to make the movie a personal statement of his traditional Catholic faith, hoping to win many people, especially evangelicals, back into the Roman Catholic Apostolic church. The results are very encouraging for Gibson personally and for the Catholic Church in general. In an interview with Christianity Today, Gibson expresses his delight at how evangelical are embracing some of his Catholic beliefs: “I have been actually amazed at the way I would say the evangelical audience has responded to this film more than any other Christian group. For me the amazing thing is that the film is so Marian. But I think the way the film displays her has been kind of an eye opener for evangelicals” (Christianity Today February 23, 2004, emphasis supplied).
Indeed, in a subtle way the movie is opening the eyes of many Christians, including some Adventists, by leading them to accept the Catholic understanding of the prominent role of Mary in our salvation. In an email message an Adventist sister laments the fact that the Gospels do not give adequate recognition to Mary’s contribution to our salvation. She expresses her gratitude to God for the way Gibson’s movie sets the record straight. It is evident that for some the movie is the new touchstone of orthodoxy to test even the biblical record. This is a serious error.
The allegation that my review is conditioned by my anti-Catholic bias, is discredited by two major facts:
1) My admiration for certain Catholic beliefs and practices.
2) The reviews by Catholic scholars who point out the same biblical, historical, and theological errors mentioned in my review. Let me expand on both of these facts.
My Admiration for Certain Catholic Beliefs and Practices
Several years ago Elder George Vandeman produced a TV series entitled: What I like About..., which was published in a book by the same title. He interviewed leaders of different churches to show the Adventist appreciation for the contributions of various denominations to Christian life and thought. When he came to the TV transmission about the Catholic Church, he interviewed me, because he felt that in my research I speak favorably about certain Catholic beliefs and practices. Evidently Vandeman did not think that I am biased against the Catholic Church.
The fact is that in my writings I have always shown respect for Catholic beliefs and piety, even when I do not agree with them. If I were biased against the Catholics, then Pope Paul VI could hardly have awarded me a gold medal for my research on the change of the Sabbath! Over the years dozens of Catholic church leaders, including the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago, wrote favorable reviews of my books. It is evident that Catholic scholars do not feel that I am biased against their church.
Respected biblical scholars are not denominational apologists, because they are committed to objective investigation, even if it means questioning some of their denominational positions. An example is the book The Biblical Meaning of Man by Dom Wulstan Mork. He is a Dominican scholars who rejects the traditional Catholic dualistic view of human nature, with the mortal body and immortal soul. Instead, he accepts the biblical (Adventist) wholistic view of human nature, where the soul is the animating principle of the body. Surprisingly his book was published with the official Catholic approval (imprimatur).
Among the many things that I like about the Catholics, three of them stand out in my mind. First, there is the outstanding scholarship of many Catholic scholars. It was refreshing for me to seat in classes taught by outstanding scholars during the five years I spent at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Their scholarship is evident even in some of the reviews of THE PASSION that I will briefly mention shortly and more fully in my forthcoming book. They do not hesitate to point out the historical, biblical, and theological errors of the movie, because they are genuine scholars, not apologists.
Second, I like the spirituality of devout Catholics. It was inspiring for me to watch my Jesuit professors doing their early morning devotions. When I managed to arrive early to the Gregorian University in order to find a parking place, I saw some of my professors meditating while walking up and down the terrace of the contiguous building. They were reading their breviary, and then would stop from time to time to meditate, and pray.
Catholic spirituality is reflected in the respect they show for the place of worship. No talking is allowed in the church and proper attire is required for admission. Adventists are shocked when they are refused admission to Catholic churches like St. Peter because they wear shorts or sleeveless dresses. There is a lot we can learn from the Catholics about reverence in the place of worship.
Sanctity of Life and Sacredness of Marriage
Third, I approve the Catholic view of the sanctity of life and sacredness of marriage. It may come as a surprise to some readers to learn that no abortions are performed in Catholic hospitals, unless the life of the mother is in danger. Our Adventist hospitals are more permissive in this area.
Marriage also is held in high esteem by the Catholic church. It is viewed as a sacrament, that is, a sacred union that no one can dissolve. To prevent divorces, a six months premarital counseling is generally required for couples intending to get married. In my book THE MARRIAGE COVENANT you will find a survey indicating that the rate of divorce in the Catholic church is three times lower than in our Adventist church.
There is much more that I could say about what I like about the Catholics. The above observations should suffice to discredit the allegation that I am biased against the Catholics. The truth is that I greatly appreciate the positive aspects of Catholic beliefs and piety, but this does not prevent me from exposing those Catholic teachings that are negated by Scripture. Some of these teachings like the veneration of Mary, redemption through the intensity of Christ’s suffering, the reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice at the Mass, and the imitation of His suffering as a way of earning salvation, are subtly embedded in THE PASSION. It would be irresponsible on my part not to warm our fellow believers against the unbiblical teachings of the movie which are not easily recognized by the average viewer.
Reviews by Catholic Scholars
The most compelling refutation of my alleged anti-Catholic bias is provided by the reviews of the movie done by competent Catholic scholars. Some of them mention the same inaccuracies listed in my review, adding additional ones that escaped my analysis. For example, in his review “Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: A Challenge to Catholic Teaching,” Catholic Professor Phillip Cunningham submits a partial list of 17 unbiblical scenes contained in the movie, in addition to historical and theological errors (www.bc.edu/research/cjl/meta-elements/texts/reviews/gibson_cunningham.htm).
Cunningham introduces the list of “unbiblical scenes” saying: “The film is filled with non-biblical elements. In principle there is nothing wrong for a screenwriter to augment the rather meager Gospel narratives. Indeed, choices such as staging, lighting, costuming, etc. make the supplementing of the biblical texts inevitable. These unbiblical features are so interwoven with scenes from one Gospel or another that the unwary viewer, already experiencing sensory overload because of the film’s vivid brutality, is unlikely to detect them or ponder their significance.”
Regarding Gibson’s brutal torture of Christ in order to satisfy the demands of divine justice, Cunninghan expresses the same concern that I have presented in my review. He writes: “The film’s graphic, persistent, and intimate violence raises theological questions from a Catholic perspective. It closely resonates with an understanding of salvation that holds that God had to be satisfied or appeased for the countless sins of humanity by subjecting His son to unspeakable torments. This sadistic picture of God is hardly compatible with the God proclaimed by Jesus as the one who seeks for the lost sheep, who welcomes back the prodigal son before he can even express remorse, or who causes the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike. One wonders why it is necessary to communicate God’s love by scenes of unremitting torture. None of the Gospel writers felt obliged to go into the gory details and yet they have communicated God’s love for two millennia.”
What a perceptive observation! The Gospel writers have communicated God’s love for two millennia without focusing on the gory details of Christ’s torture. If only Gibson had asked himself these questions: Why do the Gospels tell us so little about the flogging and crucifixion of Jesus? Do I have the right to have Jesus flogged four times, inflicting on Him over 150 stripes with metal tipped whips which were never used at that time, when 39 stripes was the maximum permissible? If Gibson had asked himself these question, he would have produced a more balanced film, portraying a loving God, not a sadistic Being.
It is refreshing to read Catholic scholars who reject the sadistic picture of God portrayed in THE PASSION. In his review “The Passion of the Christ: A Catholic Response,” Father Lawrence E. Frizzell from Seton Hall University, expresses the same criticism “The theology of the suffering of Jesus seems to be very inadequate. Is God being propitiated by brutality? Rather, the fidelity of Jesus to the Father's will, his resolution to persevere and his patience under duress might have been stressed by additional flashbacks to his teachings. While suffering vicariously, he is providing the example of those virtues, especially agape (charity), which are to become the pattern for his disciples in their lives of service” (www.bc.edu/research/cjl/meta-elements/texts/reviews/gibson_frizzell.htm).
The two Catholic scholars just cited recognize that Gibson’s mystical understanding of Christ’s brutal suffering to satisfy the demands of divine justice, ultimately turns God into a sadistic, cruel Being, to be feared rather than to be loved. Such comments coming from Catholic scholars, who express my criticism in a more eloquent way, clearly show that there is nothing anti-Catholic in what I wrote.
Catholic Scholars Acknowledge Problems Posed by THE PASSION
Some Adventists ignore that there are brilliant Catholic scholars who are willing and able to acknowledge the problems posed by THE PASSION, much more readily than some Evangelical leaders. A major reason is that the formers examine the movie rationally, while the latter respond to the movie emotionally. Catholic Professor Cunningham closes his review with this perceptive statement: “The Passion of the Christ is a powerful cinematic experience that will no doubt emotionally move many viewers. Whether this emotion is the result of the trauma of seeing someone graphically tortured to death or a genuine spiritual encounter or some combination of the two is difficult to assess. Grief and shock are not automatic promoters of Christian faith” (www.bc.edu/research/cjl/meta-elements/texts/reviews/gibson_frizzell.htm).
The last comment is especially true when the victim, Christ, is tortured unto death without an adequate explanation. It is hard to understand how unbelievers unfamiliar with the teaching of the NT regarding Christ’s incarnation, perfect life, atoning death, resurrection, and heavenly ministry, can see in the brutal sufferings of Christ a revelation of God’s love. After all, the only reason shown in the movie for Christ’s brutal torture and death, is the hate of the Jewish leaders, who were determined to see Him dead at any cost for claiming to be the Son of God. Is this a revelation of God’s love, especially when the Lord send a crow to pluck out an eye of the impenitent thief on the Cross?
Cunningham continues saying: “The movie’s problematic aspects outweigh some positive features. For example, many Catholics will appreciate the prominence given to the mother of Jesus, even though in the New Testament she appears only briefly at the foot of the cross in just one Gospel. Likewise, the visual Eucharistic allusions are praiseworthy, although they depict the Mass only in sacrificial terms and minimize its fellowship meal dimensions.”
Note that Cunningham acknowledges that the prominent role of Mary and the allusions to the Eucharist (Mass), are problematic aspects of the movie, because of their inadequate biblical support. Surprisingly, some Adventists wrote to me saying that they do not feel that the movie promotes the prominent role of Mary or the importance of the Mass. The failure of some people to recognize these important Catholic teachings, does not change the fact that such teaching are there. I am reminded of the failure of some students to understand important points I explained several times in my lectures.
The above sampling of statements from respected Catholic scholars who acknowledge some of the problem of THE PASSION that I highlighted in my review, should suffice to put to rest the allegation that my criticism was inspired by anti-Catholic bias. The fact is that Catholic scholars themselves acknowledge the same problems that I point out. The issue is not bias, but an adequate biblical and historical knowledge that enables a person to understand the subtle deceptions promoted by the movie.
In the forthcoming book I will quote other Catholic authors, including the “Full Review” of THE PASSION, prepared by the Office for Film and Broadcasting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop. Surprisingly, some Catholic scholars recognize the problems of THE PASSION more readily than some Evangelical leaders. A reason is that some Evangelical leaders seem to be more interested to capitalize on the popularity of the movie for their church growth program, than to consider the long term effects of the Catholic beliefs promoted by the movie, on the spiritual life of their congregations.
E. G. WHITE’S WRITINGS SUPPORT THE BRUTALITY OF GIBSON’S PASSION
Some influential Adventist pastors and a few critics of my review, are appealing to some statements of Ellen White to support the details of Gibson’s movie, especially its graphic brutality. On Saturday April 17, Pastor Dwight Nelson preached a most inspiring sermon entitled “Hast Thou No Scar?” at the Pioneer Memorial Church of Andrews University. I was not privileged to hear the sermon in the church, since I was speaking at a rally in Honolulu, Hawaii. I heard the recording of the sermon which can be easily purchased on line (www.pmchurch.org) or at the Berrien Springs, ABC. What I like about the sermon is the reflections on the meaning of carrying the cross. Nelson presents perceptive thoughts from John Stott’s classic book on The Cross of Christ. He explains that bearing the Cross is not simply a matter of accepting unfavorable circumstances, but of being willing to make wilful choices to follow Christ’s teachings—choices that can be costly.
What distresses me about the sermon, is Pastor Nelson’s attempt to promote Mel Gibson’s movie as one of the three trustworthy sources of the details of Christ’s suffering and death. He mentions the three major sources in the following order: “We have the three synoptics, plus Mel Gibson, plus Desire of Ages.”
Is Gibson’s Movie Equal to the Bible?
Surprisingly Gibson’s movie is mentioned after the Bible and before the Desire of Ages, as a major source of information about the details of Christ’s Passion. Few sentences later, he reverses the order, mentioning The Desires of Ages before Gibson’s movie. It is hard to believe that even some Adventist preachers have already elevated THE PASSION to a canonical status comparable to the Bible. I predicted this development in my previous newsletter, because movies impact the thinking and living of most Americans much more than the Bible.
Pastor Nelson finds it ironic that those who are “so vehement in their opposition to Mel Gibson’s portrayal [of the Passion] and so vocal in their advocacy of The Desire of Ages portrayal,” ignore “how close the two tracks parallel each other, exposing [sic] to us details that you cannot find in any of the Gospels. You just find them in Desire of Ages and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.” To support his contention Nelson refers to a compilation prepared by R. Wresch, M.D., an Adventist physician serving in Guam—a compilation which lists “all the unique details found in Mel Gibson and The Desire of Ages, but not in the Gospel records.”
Wresch’s compilation is similar to the longer one prepared by Bruce N. Cameron, J. D., a lawyer. The intended purpose of these two compilations is to discredit my review by showing that numerous details of THE PASSION which are not found in the Gospels, are fully supported by statements found in The Desire of Ages. The problem with this methodology is the superficial nature of the comparison, largely based on brief statements of Ellen White. No serious attempt is made to compare the full text of Gibson’s script and The Desire of Ages. Such a comparison reveals, as we shall soon see, radical and irreconcilable differences between the two sources.
To compare Gibson’s script and the Desire of Ages is relatively easy because his script is largely derived from Anne Emmerich’s book on The Dolorous Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ. This book, as John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at DePaul University, in Chicago, points out is “the hidden script” that inspired Gibson to “create a film that is two hours of unrelenting brutality.”
A reading of The Dolorous Passion helps us understand why Gibson has produced such a brutal representation of THE PASSION which is radically different from The Desire of Ages. As Crossman explains The Dolorous Passion describes ‘the satisfaction which [Jesus] would have to offer to Divine Justice, and how it would consist of a degree of suffering in his soul and body which would comprehend all the sufferings due to the concupiscence of all mankind, since the debt of the whole human race had to be paid by that humanity which alone was sinless—the humanity of the Son of God.” (“Hymn to a Savage God,” www.beliefnet.com/story/140/story_14099_1.html).
We noted earlier that Gibson’s view of God being propitiated for all of mankind’s sins by the exceeding brutality of Christ’s suffering, ultimately turns God into a sadistic, cruel Being, to be feared rather than to be loved. This frightening view of God portrayed in Gibson’s movie, is foreign to the Bible and to Ellen White. It source, as we shall see is Anne Emmerich’s meditation on The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Problems with the Use of Ellen White’s Writings
Before comparing The Desire of Ages to The Dolorous Passion, we need to note two problems posed by the use Ellen White’s statements to support Gibson’s movie. First, her statements are like a two edge sword that can be used for or against her. Some critics of Ellen White emailed me a similar compilation of her statements to argue that she is a false prophet because she invents things that are not in the Bible. I reject this allegation, because in my view the additional information Ellen White provides, does not contradict but supports the biblical narrative.
Second, we need to be aware of the fact that there are statements in The Desire of Ages that are difficult to reconcile the Bible. For example, in commenting on Matthew 27:25, where the Jewish people told Pilate: “Let his blood be upon us and our children,” Ellen White wrote: “That awful cry ascended to the throne of God. The sentence, pronounced upon themselves, was written in heaven. That prayer was heard. The blood of the Son of God was upon their children and their children’s children, a perpetual curse.
“Terribly was it realized in the destruction of Jerusalem. Terribly has it been manifested in the condition of the Jewish nation for eighteen hundred years—a branch severed from the vine, a dead, fruitless branch, to be gathered up and burned. From land to land throughout the world, from century to century, dead, dead in trespasses in sins! Terribly will that prayer be fulfilled in the great judgment day” (Desire of Ages 739, emphasis supplied).
This is a troubling statement because it suggests that Ellen White believed the same traditional Catholic teaching (prior to Vatican II) that the Jewish people are under “a perpetual curse” for their responsibility in Christ’s death. On account of this curse, the Jews have been oppressed during the past centuries “from land to land throughout the world,” because they are “a dead, fruitless branch, to be gathered up and burned” in the great judgment day. It is difficult to reconcile what Ellen White wrote a century ago, with the 1945 establishment of the State of Israel and the success the Jews are enjoying today in the scientific and financial world. Today the Jews are a driving force of the American economy. The stock marker hangs on the words of a Jew, Alan Greenspan.
Personally I have difficulty to believe that Ellen White viewed the Jews as a cursed people, condemned to suffer throughout human history until judgment day. I asked Prof. Jacques Douhkan, Seminary Professor and Director of the Jewish Outreach, to help me interpret this passage in the light of what Ellen White wrote elsewhere about the Jews. He graciously shared with me a paper he wrote on this question. His conclusion is that for Ellen White the perpetual curse on the Jews, “concerns the Jewish leaders, the priests and the rulers,” and not the Jewish people as a whole. This explanation makes sense, but it is difficult to apply it to the statement under consideration, because Ellen White speaks of the oppressed condition of the Jews during the past centuries “from land to land throughout the world.” It is evident that this includes, not only the Jewish leaders, but the Jewish people in general. The best solution would be to edit this statement in harmony with what she wrote elsewhere.
As it stands Ellen White’s statement is contradicted by Paul’s prediction regarding the salvation of the Jews: “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins” (Rom 11:25-27). I mentioned this problematic statement simply to make the point that it is wiser for Adventists to give priority to Scripture in evaluating any teachings, including THE PASSION. Other problematic statements will be mentioned shortly.
The Mocking of Jesus Before Caiaphas
The argument that The Desire of Ages supports many of the details of THE PASSION, is contradicted by the primary source of Gibson’s script, namely, Anne Emmerich’s book The Dolorous Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Gibson openly admits: “She supplied me with the stuff I never would have thought of” (The New Yorker, September 13, 2003). This is evident, as we shall see, in the many details of the movie which are foreign to the Gospels and to The Desire of Ages, but present in The Dolorous Passion.
Since the major issue is the exaggerated brutality of Gibson’s movie, we will briefly compare what The Desire of Ages and The Dolorous Passion have to say regarding two episodes:
1. The mocking of Jesus before the High Priest
2. The scourging of Jesus before Pilate
These two episodes are a most brutal and shocking part of the movie that never seems to end. We shall see that their treatment in The Desires of Ages is radically different from that of The Dolorous Passion. The same radical difference can be seen many other episodes, such as the role of Mary, the Stations of the Cross, the appearances of Satan, the story of Veronica wiping the face of Jesus, the carrying of the Cross by both Jesus and Simon of Cyrene, the smashing of Jesus’ body under the weight of the Cross, the final earthquake and the splitting of the Temple. These glaring difference will be examined in the forthcoming book. The results of the comparison will be self evident. Contrary to the claim that “the two tracks parallel each other,” the truth is that two sources have very little in common.
Ellen White on the Mocking of Jesus before the High Priest
Ellen White’s account of the mocking of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and His flogging before Pilate, differs substantially from the brutality portrayed in the movie–a brutality which is inspired by The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. A comparison between the two accounts should puts to rest the allegation of my critics that Ellen White supports Gibson’s movie.
Regarding the mocking of Christ before the Sanhedrin Ellen White wrote: “Then came the third scene of abuse and mockery, worse even than that received from the ignorant rabble. In the very presence of the priests and rulers, and with their sanction, this took place. Every feeling of sympathy or humanity had gone out of their hearts. When the condemnation of Jesus was pronounced by the judges [Sanhedrin], a satanic fury took possession of the people. The roar of voices was like that of wild beasts. The crowd made a rush toward Jesus, crying, He is guilty, put Him to death! Had it not been for the Roman soldiers, Jesus would not have lived to be nailed to the cross of Calvary. He would have been torn in pieces before His judges, had not Roman authority interfered, and by force of arms restrained the violence of the mob” (Desire of Ages 714-715). Note that Ellen White speaks of the verbal abuse and fury of the crowd which was restrained by Roman soldiers. But there is no mention physical violence being carried out by the crowd against Christ.
The Gospels’ account of the abusive treatment Christ received before the Sanhedrin is very brief: “They all condemned him as worthy of death. Then some began to spit at him; they blindfolded him, and struck him with their fists, and said, ‘Prophesy!’ And the guard took him and beat him” (Mark 14:64-65; cf. Matt 26:67). There is a discrepancy between The Desire of Ages and the Gospels. While Ellen White says that the Roman soldiers protected Christ, Mark affirms that “the guards took him and beat him” (Mark 14:65).
The same discrepancy appears again in the account of the scourging of Jesus in the judgment hall of Pilate (Praetorium). The Gospels tells us that the Roman soldiers were responsible for mocking and abusing Jesus (Mark 15:16-20; Matt 27:27-31) but Ellen White says that “the Roman soldiers that surrounded Christ were not all hardened; some were looking into His face for one evidence that He was not a criminal or dangerous character. . . . They looked at the divine sufferer with feelings of deep pity” (Desire of Ages 735).
Our concern at this point is not to reconcile the apparent discrepancies between the Gospels and Ellen White on the Roman soldiers’ attitude toward Christ. Instead, we simply wish to point out that Ellen White’s picture of humane Roman soldiers who looked with pity on Jesus, is totally missing in THE PASSION where the soldiers act like drunken sadists, competing with one another on who could inflict the greatest damage to Jesus body with their whips and cat-o’-nine-tails with metal barbs. This is one of the many indications showing that Ellen White does not support Gibson’s inflated brutality which is inspired Dolorous Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. The two tracks of the narratives are noticeably different, not similar.
Anne Emmerich on the Mocking of Jesus before the High Priest
Emmerich devotes a whole chapter to the physical abuse that Jesus received in the Court of Caiaphas. She mentions a host of gruesome methods used to torture Christ—methods shown in the movie, but absent in the Gospels and in The Desire of Ages. “No sooner did Caiaphas, with the other members of the Council, leave the tribunal than a crowd of miscreants— the very scum of the people—surrounded Jesus like a swarm of infuriated wasps, and began to heap every imaginable insult upon him. Even during the trial, whilst the witnesses were speaking, the archers [soldiers] and some others could not restrain their cruel inclinations, but pulled out handfuls of his hair and beard, spat upon him, struck him with their fists, wounded him with sharp-pointed sticks, and even ran needles into his body; but when Caiaphas left the hall they set no bounds to their barbarity. They first placed a crown, made of straw and the bark of trees, upon his head, and then took it off, saluting him at the same time with insulting expressions, like the following: ‘Behold the Son of David wearing the crown of his father.’
“Next they put a crown of reeds upon his head, took off his robe and scapular, and then threw an old torn mantle, which scarcely reached his knees, over his shoulders; around his neck they hung a long iron chain, with an iron ring at each end, studded with sharp points, which bruised and tore his knees as be walked. They again pinioned his arms, put a reed into his hand, and covered his Divine countenance with spittle. They had already thrown all sorts of filth over his hair, as well as over his chest, and upon the old mantle. They bound his eyes with a dirty rag, and struck him, crying out at the same time in loud tones, ‘Prophesy unto us, O Christ, who is he that struck thee?' He answered not one word, but sighed, and prayed inwardly for them.
“After many insults, they seized the chain which was hanging on his neck, dragged him towards the room into which the Council had withdrawn, and with their sticks forced him in, vociferating at the same time, ‘March forward, thou King of Straw! Show thyself to the Council with the insignia of the regal honor; we have rendered unto thee.’ . . . . They fetched a basin of dirty water, which they poured over his face and shoulders, whilst they bent their knees before him, and exclaimed, ‘Behold thy precious unction, behold the spikenard worth three hundred pence; thou hast been baptized in the pool of Bethsaida.’”
This description of the shameful and relentless physical abuse that Christ suffered before the Sanhedrin, can be seen in THE PASSION, but is absent in the Gospels and The Desire of Ages. Nowhere does Ellen White or the Gospels speak of the crowd pulling Christ’s hair and beard, wounding him with sharp pointed sticks, piercing Him with needles, dragging Him around with a chain hanging around his neck, bruising and tearing His knees with a studded chain with sharp points, and pouring dirty water over His head to mock His regal unction. The exaggeration of Christ’s physical abuse before the Sanhedrin, serves to support the mystical view of redemption through the excessive suffering of Jesus, but it obscures the real meaning of Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation as presented in the Gospels and The Desire of Ages.
Ellen White on the Scouring of Jesus in Pilate Judgment Hall
The contrast between Gibson’s movie and The Desire of Ages is most evident in the account of the scourging of Jesus in Pilate’s judgment hall. Ellen White follows closely the Gospel of Mark, adding only very few words. “Jesus was taken, faint with weariness and covered with wounds, and scourged in the sight of the multitude. ‘And the soldiers led him away into the hall, called Praetorium; and they called together the whole band. And they clothed Him with purple, and platted a crown of thorns, and put it about his head, and began to salute Him, Hail, King of the Jews! And they . . . did spit upon Him, and bowing their knees worshipped Him’ [Mark 15:16-19]. Occasionally some wicked hand snatched the reed that had been placed in His hand, and struck the crown upon His brow, forcing the thorns in His temples, and sending the blood trickling down His face and beard” (Desire of Ages 734).
The account of the scourging of Jesus is brief and sober. Contrary to THE PASSION, Ellen White does not explain how the scourging was done and how long it lasted. Instead, she mentions the mocking of Jesus and the occasionally striking with a reed upon the crown of thorns which sent “the blood trickling down His face and beard.” Ellen White speaks of the trickling of the blood down Christ’s face and beard, while Gibson portrays blood flowing by the gallons as the hooks dug deep and tore out the flesh of Jesus’ body reduced into a pulp. Throughout the ordeal Mary is identified with her Son, gathering His flesh and blood after the scourging and taking Him down from the Cross with the help of John. Shortly we shall read these details of the script and we shall see that there is no resemblance between Gibson’s movie and The Desires of Ages.
The difference between the two scripts is evident also in the description of the Roman soldiers. Gibson portrays them all as sadistic and sarcastic, bribed by the Jews to dig deeper into Christ’s flesh with their metal-tipped whips. By contrast, Ellen White says that “The Roman soldiers that surrounded Christ were not all hardened; some were looking into His face for one evidence that He was a criminal or dangerous character. . . . They looked at the divine sufferer with feelings of deep pity. The silent submission of Christ stamped upon their minds the scene, never to be effaced . . .” (Desire of Ages 735-736). There are no picture in Gibson’s movie of Roman soldiers looking at Jesus with feelings of pity and compassion. Such pictures would have obscured Gibson’s focus on the relentless, brutal torture of Jesus to satisfy the demands of divine justice.
Anne Emmerich on the Scouring of Jesus in Pilate Judgment Hall
Contrary to the brief and sober account of the scourging of Jesus we have just read in The Desire of Ages and the Gospel of Mark, both Gibson’s movie and its source, The Dolorous Passion, portray the Roman soldiers as drunk, sadistic brutes who take turns in scourging Jesus with their arsenal of instruments until He collapses in a bloody heap of shredded flesh.
The Dolorous Passion devotes a whole chapter to the scourging of Jesus, describing in minute details the four scourging of Jesus carried out on an alternating basis by six Roman soldiers, who escalated the torture with their arsenal of instruments. It is hard to believe that Gibson did not realize that the 150-plus stripes with metal tips, would have killed three times over any SUPER MAN. For the sake of brevity we quote only few paragraphs which Gibson portrays with unsurpassed oscar-winning brutality.
“Pilate was determined to adhere to his resolution of not condemning our Lord to death, and ordered him to be scourged according to the manner of the Romans. The guards were therefore ordered to conduct him through the midst of the furious multitude to the forum, which they did with the utmost brutality, at the same time loading him with abuse, and striking him with their staffs. The pillar where criminals were scourged stood to the north of Pilate’s palace, near the guard-house, and the executioners soon arrived, carrying whips, rods, and ropes, which they tossed down at its base. They were six in number, dark, swarthy men, somewhat shorter than Jesus; their chests were covered with a piece of leather, or with some dirty stuff; their loins were girded, and their hairy, sinewy arms bare. . . .
“These cruel men had many times scourged poor criminals to death at this pillar. They resembled wild beasts or demons, and appeared to be half drunk. They struck our Lord with their fists, and dragged him by the cords with which he was pinioned, although he followed them without offering the least resistance, and, finally, they barbarously knocked him down against the pillar. . . .
“Jesus trembled and shuddered as he stood before the pillar, and took off his garments as quickly as he could, but his hands were bloody and swollen. The only return he made when his brutal executioners struck and abused him was to pray for them in the most touching manner: he turned his face once towards his Mother, who was standing overcome with grief; this look quite unnerved her: she fainted, and would have fallen, had not the holy women who were there supported her.. . .
“The Holy of holies [was] violently stretched, without a particle of clothing, on a pillar used for the punishment of the greatest criminals; and then did two furious ruffians who were thirsting for his blood begin in the most barbarous manner to scourge his sacred body from head to foot. The whips or scourges which they first made use of appeared to me to be made of a species of flexible white wood, but perhaps they were composed of the sinews of the ox, or of strips of leather. . . .
“Our loving Lord, the Son of God, true God and true Man, writhed as a worm under the blows of these barbarians; his mild but deep groans might be heard from afar; they resounded through the air, fording a kind of touching accompaniment to the hissing of the instruments of torture. These groans resembled rather a touching cry of prayer and supplication, than moans of anguish.. . .
“Several of the servants of the High Priests went up to the brutal executioners and gave them money; as also a large jug filled with a strong bright red liquid, which quite inebriated them, and increased their cruelty tenfold towards their innocent Victim. The two ruffians continued to strike our Lord with unremitting violence for a quarter of an hour, and were then succeeded by two others. His body was entirely covered with black, blue, and red marks; the blood was trickling down on the ground, and yet the furious cries which issued from among the assembled Jews showed that their cruelty was far from being satiated. . . .
“Then two fresh executioners commenced scourging Jesus with the greatest possible fury; they made use of a different kind of rod,—a species of thorny stick, covered with knots and splinters. The blows from these sticks tore his flesh to pieces; his blood spouted out so as to stain their arms, and he groaned, prayed, and shuddered.
“[Then] two fresh executioners took the places of the last mentioned, who were beginning to flag; their scourges were composed of small chains, or straps covered with iron hooks, which penetrated to the bone, and tore off large pieces of flesh at every blow. What word, alas! could describe this terrible—this heartrending scene!
“The cruelty of these barbarians was nevertheless not yet satiated; they untied Jesus, and again fastened him up with his back turned towards the pillar. As he was totally unable to support himself in an upright position, they passed cords round his waist, under his arms, and above his knees, and having bound his hands tightly into the rings which were placed at the upper part of the pillar, they recommenced scourging him with even greater fury than before; and one among them struck him constantly on the face with a new rod. The body of our Lord was perfectly torn to shreds,—it was but one wound. He looked at his torturers with his eyes filled with blood, as if entreating mercy; but their brutality appeared to increase, and his moans each moment became more feeble.”
The preceding lengthy quotes from The Dolorous Passion, clearly show that the bloody and gory description of Christ’s scourging, which is the centerpiece of Gibson’s movie, is absent in The Desire of Ages and the Gospels. Contrary to Gibson, Ellen White is not obsesses with capturing every holy drop of Christ’s blood and every sacred gobbet of His flesh flayed during the flogging. Her account of the scourging is brief and sober, with no explanation of how it was done and how long it lasted
The inflicting of suffering on Christ is the central action of Gibson’s movie, but it is secondary to The Desire of Ages. The reason is that Ellen White teaches salvation through Christ’s perfect sacrifice, not through the intensity of His suffering.
In THE PASSION the beating, whipping, and ripping of Christ’s flesh is relentless until He is skinned alive and taken apart. When the viewer thinks that the flaying of Jesus’ flesh can get no crueler, it does. In those endless moments when the soldiers escalate their torture with new instruments, Gibson proves his oscar-winning abilities in portraying violence. Somebody said that the violence of Braveheart becomes Bloodheart in THE PASSION. Gibson seems determined to show only one color from the full Christian spectrum: blood red.
Why is Gibson dishing out to Christ the kind of punishment that would kill any SUPER MAN three times over? We noted earlier that the answer is found in The Dolorous Passion. The book explains that to satisfy divine justice and pay the debt of all of mankind’s sins, Christ had to suffer in his body and mind the equivalent of the punishment for all the sins of mankind.
Gibson’s unrelenting and brutal vision of THE PASSION, reminds us of the great revivalist Jonathan Edwards who during the first great awakening tried to trigger mass conversion by preaching hellfire. His favorite sermon was: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In THE PASSION, Gibson attempts to convert million to his Catholic understanding of redemption by portraying “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners.” Behind both visions, stands a bloodthirsty Father, more eager to damn and punish than to save. Such visions may convert some people through fear, but may also cause many to hate God for His sadistic and angry character.
Dr. Charles Krauthammer. a Washington Post columnist, finds “Gibson's personal interpretation [of the scouring of Jesus] spectacularly vicious. Three of the Gospels have but a one-line reference to Jesus’s scourging. The fourth has no reference at all. In Gibson's movie this becomes 10 minutes of the most unremitting sadism in the history of film. Why 10? Why not five? Why not two? Why not zero, as in Luke? Gibson chose 10 (The Washington Post, March 5, 2004, Page A23).
A reason for Gibson’s choice is to be found in his sadistic view of God who demands full satisfaction for all the sins of mankind through the brutal and inhuman torture of His Son. Such sadistic view of God is foreign to the Gospels and to The Desires of Ages. Thus, the claim that “the two tracks parallel each other, exposing [sic] to us details that you cannot find in any of the Gospels,” is discredited by the preceding comparative analysis of the two narratives. We have seen that the two sources differ radically both in the details of the scourging and in the meaning of Christ’s suffering. The same radical differences are evident in many other episodes that will be examined in the forthcoming book.
UNPRECEDENTED EVANGELISTIC OPPORTUNITY
Some critics argue that my critical comments about Gibson’s movie ignore the unprecedented opportunity THE PASSION provides to complete the Gospel commission. We live in a highly visual and anti-literate society where many people would rather watch a movie than listen to a sermon or read a book. THE PASSION provides a powerful modern-day technique to confront people with the message of the Cross—the message of the divine Son of God who was willing to enter into the limitation, suffering, and death of human flesh to pay the price of our redemption and reconciliation with God.
There is no question in my mind that the Lord is using Gibson’s movie to lead many to a new or renewed appreciation of Christ’s sufferings for our redemption. The reason is that God is able to use to a good end even a movie that is so Catholic in its teachings and so sadistic in its portrayal of God’s character. An indication of the latter is the crow sent by an unforgiving God to pluck one eye of the thief on the cross.
A Personal Experience
I am reminded of an experience that I have never shared before. It happened in Rome, Italy, when I was 9 years. Bruno Cornacchiola, a local elder of our Seventh-day Adventist church, on Saturday, April 12, 1947, took his three children (Isola, Carlo, and Gianfranco) for a picnic to Tre Fontane (Three Fountains)—an area outside of Rome, close to the basilica of St. Paul, where according to tradition Paul was beheaded.
When he went into a cave with one of his children to retrieve their lost ball, the Virgin Mary appeared to him and his children, saying: “I am she who is related to the Divine Trinity. I am the Virgin of Revelation. You have persecuted me, now is the time to stop! Come and be part of the Holy Fold which is the Celestial Court on earth” (www.theotokos.org.uk/pages/approved/appariti/trefonta.html). Cornacchiola responded by returning with his family into the Catholic Church. He claimed that the apparition of Mary led him and his family to a true conversion experience.
Few months later on October 5, 1947, a special statue representing the Mary appeared to Cornacchiola, was blessed by Pope Pius XII and taken in procession among large crowds from St. Peter to the grotto of Tre Fontane. The statue was eventually placed in the grotto which has become a popular pilgrimage shrine. I vividly recall when the statue reached the place where I was standing with the families of our condominium. The people started jeering at me for belonging to a Protestant heretical church condemned by the Virgin Mary herself. They urged me to return to the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church or I would burn in hell for ever. I shall never forget the verbal abuse I experienced on that day.
Does God Use Bad Things to a Good End?
Could it be that God used a deceptive apparition of Mary to lead Bruno Cornacchiola and his family to a conversion experience? Could it be that God is using Jim Caviezel, who plays Christ in THE PASSION, to lead many to understand and accept the sufferings and sacrifice of Christ for our redemption, though he gives credit to the Croatian Madonna of Medjugorje for sustaining him throughout the filming? Caviezel said: “This film is something that I believe was made by Mary for her Son. Mary has always pointed me toward the truth. I really believe that she was setting me up, getting me ready to play her Son. She architected this whole thing” (National Catholic Register January 30-2004).
Could it be that God is using THE PASSION to help people appreciate the Cross, though the film is a Catholic movie with a distinct Catholic message, exalting the redemptive role of Mary, the satisfaction view of the atonement, and the sacrificial nature of the Mass? The answer is “Yes,” because God is able to use even bad things to a good end. “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Rom 8:28).
Is Mel Gibson Evangelizing Evangelicals?
To acknowledge that THE PASSION is used by God to lead some people to a new or renewed understanding of the suffering and death of Jesus for our salvation, does not mean that we must ignore the unbiblical Catholic teachings promoted by the movie. Could it be that Mel Gibson is evangelizing the Evangelicals in a very subtle and deceptive way?
The very fact that many Evangelicals are uncritically endorsing a movie that promotes such Catholic beliefs as Mary’s role in our salvation, the sacrificial view of the Mass, the satisfaction view of the atonement, and salvation through the imitation of Christ’s suffering, speaks volumes about how far Evangelicals have slipped away from the teaching of their Founding Fathers.
In a perceptive article entitled “Will Mel Evangelize Evangelicals?, Steven Greydanus, Catholic Editor and Chief critic of Decentfilms.com,notes how THE PASSION is making Evangelicals receptive, not only to the popular traditional Catholic devotion of the 14 Stations of the Cross and the five sorrowful mysteries of the rosary, but also to the fundamental Catholic teachings of the Mass and of the unique role of Mary.
Regarding Mary, Greydanus writes: “For many non-Catholics, Mary is such a contentious subject that the very mention of her name elicits knee-jerk defensiveness: ‘Mary was just an ordinary sinful woman like anyone else; God used her in a special way, but she's no different from you or me.’
“The Passion of the Christ reaches beyond this defensiveness, inviting the viewer to a positive, sympathetic contemplation of Mary’s unique relationship with Jesus and with his disciples. When a scene of Mary’s anguish at her son staggering under the cross gives way to a flashback of Jesus falling as a toddler and Mary rushing to his side, many will grasp on an emotional level something they might resist putting into words: While Jesus alone made atonement for our sins, of all his followers Mary was in a unique way united with him in his sufferings, as her mother's heart was pierced by a sword.”
Greydanus continues explaining that “Gibson’s film also plays with the Marian interpretation of the verse: ‘And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed’ [Gen 3:15]. In traditional Catholic exegesis, ‘the woman’ is ultimately Mary, and her ‘seed’ is Christ himself. The ‘enmity’ between Satan and ‘the woman’ signifies nothing less than a total opposition of wills untainted by the slightest fault or sin on Mary’s part, and thus points to her Immaculate Conception. . . . Add to this the way Peter early on refers to Mary as ‘Mother,’ and it is clear The Passion of the Christ holds up Mary as a mother figure to all of Jesus' disciples.”
Greydanus concludes suggesting that “perhaps Catholics should make it a point of going [to see the movie] with their Protestant friends—and then pointing out what their friends are not hearing about the film in their own churches” (www.ncregister.com/current/0229lead3.htm). Do Evangelical leaders really need the help of Catholics to understand the unique Catholic teachings promoted by THE PASSION? Perhaps some do, because of their limited biblical and historical preparation. However, most leaders are educated enough to recognize the distinctive Catholic beliefs and piety promoted by the movie.
Seeking for Shortcuts to Complete the Gospel Commission
Why then are so many Evangelical leaders promoting THE PASSION as THE BEST OUTREACH OPPORTUNITY IN 2000 YEARS? A plausible answer is suggested by Pastor Brian McLaren in his article entitled “Why The Passion ‘Outreach’ was all Hype, and I Did not Fall for It,” published in Christianity Today. McLaren explains that the reason for all the hype about THE PASSION is because we are “seeking single source shortcuts to complete our mission, which we hope to finish as soon as possible, I guess so we can all get to heaven so the world and its trouble are left behind” (Christianity Today, March 9, 2004).
McLaren notes that “optimistic American Evangelicals bounce and bound like golden retrievers from one silver-bullet ‘outreach opportunity’ to the next.” Several one silver-bullet ‘outreach opportunities’ have been promoted in recent years: Radio/TV/Satellite evangelism (Net 98, 99, 2000, etc), contemporary praise music, mass rallies, Christian Rock Music, seeker services, new models of doing church, internet evangelism, PowerPoint preaching, or a new film, THE PASSION.
There is no question that our visual oriented society responds more readily to dramatic, multi-sensory, special effects presentations. But, ultimately, the greatest outreach opportunity today is not a movie, but people moved to live, love, and serve as Christ did. What made the early Christians an irresistible force that eventually turned to Roman world upside down, was not dramatic Gospel shows in the Roman amphitheaters scattered throughout the empire, but the manifestation of Christian love, able to pray for and forgive even enemies. Tertullian tells us that the Romans were jealous of the Christians, because they loved their enemies, more than the Romans loved their blood relatives.
Instead of seeking a one silver-bullet shortcut to proclaim the Three Angels Message to our generation, we need to utilize the countless outreach opportunities given to every Christian. My heart resonates with the following appeal by Pastor McLaren: “There are uncountable great outreach opportunities. For example, there are millions of people, precious to God, dying of AIDs. And their orphans too. Do you want the emerging culture to sit up and take notice? Don't show them another movie, however great it is. Show them Christians around the world (starting with those who have been given the most: us) who care and give and love and move to serve.
“There are millions of poor Muslims who see the West as decadent, strident, arrogant, selfish, careless, and pugilistic, and of course, they are right. Can you see how offering them a fine movie could just make things worse? Instead, why don't we show them some Christians who are honest, upright, peacemakers, compassionate, humble, and generous?
“Our world is torn by ethnic, class, and religious hatred. Don't show the emerging culture a movie about Jesus: show them a movement of people living like Jesus—people who like him love the different, even the enemy, whose doors are open and tables are set with welcome (Christianity Today, March 9, 2004).