NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)—“The Passion of the Christ” is a powerful and riveting depiction of the final hours of Jesus’ life. The film is neither a documentary nor mere entertainment. Perhaps one may best describe it as theological art.
The movie drives home the message that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah, the Son of God, who died to provide forgiveness to sinners, to defeat Satan and the powers of evil, and to transform his followers through the miracle of new creation. The stirring theological message portrayed on screen provides followers of Christ with an excellent opportunity to assist others in understanding the crucial doctrines of our faith.
The film emphasizes that Jesus’ death on the cross secures forgiveness for sinners. This emphasis is clear from the moment that Isaiah 53:4-5 appears on the screen at the beginning of the 2 hour show.
In the Gethsemane scene, Satan tempts Jesus to evade the cross by questioning whether one man can truly bear the “full burden of sin.” The flashbacks, focusing on Jesus’ words in John 15:13 and 10:11, strengthen the portrayal of Jesus’ death as a substitutionary, sacrificial death. Finally, as Jesus suffers on the cross, he prays not once or twice but three times, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” at which the thief on the cross asks Caiaphas, “Don’t you hear him? He is praying for your forgiveness!”
The message that Jesus’ death defeated Satan is very prominent in the movie, more prominent than in the Gospel accounts. The Gethsemane episode portrays Jesus as the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15, the seed of the woman who will crush the head of the Serpent, Satan. Satan’s scream at the moment of Jesus’ death seems to be a shriek of agony and terror, not a cry of celebration. The message is clear: Jesus’ death assures Satan’s demise.
Gibson’s attempt to communicate this concept required significant artistic license and most of the scenes supporting this theme have no parallel in the Gospel accounts. However, the point is thoroughly biblical as Colossians 2:14-15 demonstrates.
The film also displays the power of Jesus’ death to transform sinners.
During Jesus’ arrest, the film flashes to Mary, mother of Jesus, who asks the question that Jews ask each year during their traditional observance of Passover, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Mary Magdalene replies that the night commemorates the liberation of God’s people from their bondage in Egypt. At that very moment, a messenger burst through the door with news of Jesus’ arrest.
The scene is intended to highlight the theological connection between the Passover and the death of Christ. It presents the passion of Jesus as a New Exodus, an act that accomplishes the liberation of God’s people from slavery to sin.
This theme surfaces again during a flashback to the Last Supper in which Jesus refers to his blood of the new covenant that is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
The words allude to the new covenant promise in Jeremiah 31:31-34. God promised not only to forgive the sins of his people and forget their transgression but also to put his law within them and write it on their hearts. The new covenant promised that God’s people would be changed from the inside out so that they naturally and spontaneously fulfill the Law’s righteous demands.
These allusions are so subtle that viewers knowing little of Jewish Passover traditions or the new covenant promises will miss them.
Gibson expresses the theme more explicitly through Jesus’ statement, “See, mother, I make all things new.” This statement, drawn from 2 Corinthians 5:17, shows that Jesus’ ultimate purpose was to create a new humanity. Flashbacks in the film show that this new humanity is characterized by: love for enemies, prayers for persecutors, and acts of mercy and kindness to those who are suffering.
The theme of Jesus’ identity also permeates the film. Jesus identifies himself as the promised Messiah, the Son of Man (Daniel 7), the Son of God, the I AM who spoke to Moses from the burning bush (Exodus 3).
Gibson shows how Satan attempted to cast doubt on Jesus’ claim. The taunts from those who stand at the foot of the cross, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross,” assume that God would never allow his Son to suffer in this fashion. While Jesus is being scourged, Satan looks on, cuddling and caressing a small demon in his arms as if to say, “I would never abandon my son to such suffering.”
However, at the very moment that Jesus dies in the film, a single drop of water, which apparently represents a tear, falls from heaven to the ground. The weight of the tear is so great that it causes the earth to tremble and quake and splits the veil in the temple. This tear seems meant to validate Jesus’ claims and to confirm his identity as God’s Son.
I wish that the resurrection had a more prominent place in the film since it is the resurrection that ultimately vindicates Jesus and confirms His Deity and His identity as the Messiah.
Although the film is valuable as a tool for doctrinal instruction, one must not assume that the film is an entirely accurate historical depiction of the passion.
When the film overlaps with the New Testament, it is clear that the film’s creator made a very serious attempt to be faithful to the Gospels. However, several of the scenes, particularly the portrayals of demonic activity have no parallels in the New Testament and are a product of artistic license. Likewise the flashbacks to Jesus’ childhood and young adulthood were expressions of creative freedom by the filmmaker.
Some of the film’s artistic touches and nuances require careful reflection and may be missed in the first viewing. Many viewers will want to view the film again and again until they grasp the message fully.
Despite the extra-biblical content, the movie is true to the biblical message that Jesus suffered and died for you and me.
Viewers of The Passion will be touched in an unforgettable way.
Some will experience a deepening or a renewal of their gratitude for Jesus’ sacrifice. Others will dust off their Bibles in order to see “is that really in there?”
In an age of widespread biblical illiteracy and doctrinal shallowness, if the film does nothing more than this, Baptists should sing its praises.
Chuck Quarles is Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and specializes in the study of Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels. He previewed the Passion and participated in an inter-faith dialogue concerning the film at the invitation of the Times Picayune of New Orleans, LA.