The Passion of the Christ: A Review
by Nollie F. Malabuyo
According to the endorsements by various evangelical leaders and pastors such as Billy Graham, James Dobson, Lee Strobel, and Rick Warren, The Passion of the Christ is "perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years!" 1 Roman Catholics, however, see this movie as their evangelistic tool—to convert others into the Roman religion: "It's the best evangelization opportunity we've had since the actual death of Jesus." 2 3
Is The Passion really an evangelistic tool? And the more vital question to ask is this: Is the evangel (good news)—salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, with the only infallible words on earth being those of Scripture alone—proclaimed in this movie? If the movie is not faithful to the gospel, should evangelicals endorse it, use it, and watch it, thereby justifying the means by the end?
Perhaps I will be accused of nitpicking on the details and doctrinal content of the movie and trying to suggest that the movie should be perfect, instead of seeing its evangelistic importance. Many Christians mistakenly believe that the church exists for evangelism, but the mission of the church is not just evangelism. Jesus defines the Great Commission as our making disciples, not merely converts, and "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19,20).4
However, credit should be given when deserved; and I agree with all those who have showered praises on the movie as "a masterpiece of film-making and an artistic triumph," and for being "a deeply human, beautiful story," 5 although I believe it contains too much brutality and gore, perhaps pushing viewers to the edge of being desensitized by its violence.
The Passion of the Christ and Roman Catholicism
Mel Gibson, a devout Roman Catholic, states his purpose for making the move: "It reflects my beliefs." Some of these beliefs are: "There is no salvation for those outside the [Roman Catholic] Church, I believe it"6 and "It is possible for people who are not even Christian to get into the kingdom of heaven. It’s just easier [for Catholics]."7 As we shall see in the rest of this article, The Passion is a Roman Catholic movie made by a Roman Catholic producer, teaching Roman Catholic doctrines.8 The movie is also replete with Roman Catholic mysticism and imagery, hidden from the uninitiated.9
Bible-based or Vision-based?
Many evangelicals undoubtedly will come out of the movie thinking that the conversations are entirely Bible-based. As I was watching the movie, however, I noticed that many of the subtitles are not Scriptural. This is because the movie is based in part on a mystical Roman Catholic book written by an 18th century German nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, entitled The Dolorous Passion of Christ. Gibson disclosed on the Roman Catholic TV station EWTN that Emmerich's book, in which she wrote about her visions, was his main inspiration for producing the movie. One Catholic Internet Web site says, "The visions were incredibly, highly detailed and descriptive, revealing to us more information about the Life of Jesus Christ besides what we read of Him in the Bible." 10
In contrast to the Protestant doctrine of the primacy of Scriptures for faith, worship, and life, Roman Catholics have always maintained the primacy of church tradition over Scriptures. It is not surprising then that Mel Gibson is not concerned about being faithful to the Word of God in making The Passion.
The movie adds things that are not written in the Bible. Some examples are: Mary comforting Jesus as a small boy after he hurts himself; Jesus as a young man playfully teasing Mary; and Satan personified (Isn't he a spiritual being? Was he in Gethsemane?) tempting and mocking Jesus all throughout his ordeal (what was that demon-baby on Satan's arms all about?).
Not only that, The Passion leaves out significant things that are in the Bible. For example, when he was being arrested, Jesus said to the arresting party, "I am he." John said that when Jesus said this, the people "drew back and fell to the ground," demonstrating the very important fact that sinful man cannot stand the presence of a holy God (Isa. 6:5; Ezek. 1:28; Dan. 10:17; Rev. 1:7). Another example: after Jesus died on the cross, there was darkness and an earthquake, and at this point, the centurion and his soldiers exclaimed in fear and awe, "Truly this was the Son of God!" (Matt. 27:54), pointing to the cosmic character of Christ's sacrifice.
It would be beneficial for evangelicals to read the following chapters about the death of Christ in the Gospels—Matthew 26-27, Mark 14-15, Luke 22-23, and John 18-19—to verify for themselves whether the movie's scenes and script are faithful to the Word of God, as the Bereans "examin(ed) the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so" (Acts 17:11).
Again, evangelicals should note well the warning from Rev. 22:18-19:I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
The Roman Mass
As a devout Roman Catholic, Mel Gibson juxtaposes the "sacrifice of the cross with the sacrifice of the altar—which is the same thing." Scattered throughout the movie were scenes of the Last Supper, and the emphasis on "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19). This is to link the crucifixion to the Roman Mass. But is this acceptable to Protestants?
Although Protestants link Christ's sacrifice to the Lord's Supper, they also believe that Christ's suffering is a "once for all" sacrifice, never to be repeated, and is sufficient for the full satisfaction of a wrathful God: "He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption" (Heb. 9:12).
The overarching emphasis of the movie on the brutal physical suffering of Christ is in line with the Roman Catholic doctrine of how Christ paid for the sins of the world. This is one of the reasons why crucifixes and other icons showing Christ's passion are very important to them. Have you ever wondered why Roman Catholics have so much of Christ's physical agony in their devotional material, prayers, and in the Mass, but very little on his perfectly obedient life and his resurrection? (The movie, by the way, devoted the last one or two minutes to the resurrection, perhaps as an afterthought.)
The Bible, however, focuses not in his physical suffering, but in his once for all satisfaction of God's wrath (1 John 4:10). The greatest torment that Christ endured was not his physical suffering, but in his being made "sin for us" and vicariously suffering the righteous punishment of the Father in our place (2 Cor. 5:21). The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) says that Christ "endured most grievous torments immediately in his soul, and most painful sufferings in his body." 11 The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) also says it clearly: "all the time that [Christ] lived on earth, but especially at the end of his life, sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind." 12
Thousands of Christians, including the apostles suffered the same (maybe worse) agonizing torment on the cross during the first three centuries of Christianity. The suffering that he suffered was equivalent to the suffering of all his people for eternity in hell. The anguish of having the sins of all the elect imputed to Him and making full satisfaction for them is so much more than just physical suffering. This is why he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46)
Absent from the movie is the gospel. Viewers will not learn that they are all sinners who have broken God's Law and deserve to be sent to hell by a wrathful God. They will not learn that to be saved from hell, they are commanded to repent, beg for forgiveness from God, and believe in Christ as Savior and Lord. They will not even learn what his suffering and death was all about. The whole movie was nothing more than a re-enactment of the brutality that was inflicted on Christ. Most probably, many evangelicals themselves will miss the connection between our justification by faith alone and Christ's substitutionary atonement on the cross.
If the movie wanted to present the gospel more clearly, it could have added, for example, a scene where the chief priests were plotting how to get rid of Jesus, and Caiaphas unknowingly prophesied, "It is better for you that one man should die for the people" (John 11:49-52).
The three main characters of the movie are Jesus, Mary, and Mary Magdalene. But the obvious focus next to Christ is on Mary as the mother of Jesus. A couple of scenes were very moving. As Jesus falls on the way to the cross, he remembers his mother comforting him after he fell on a street as a little boy. Again, the first time he saw Mary as he was carrying the cross renewed his strength to continue carrying his cross to Calvary.
Do Protestants know that for many Roman Catholics, Mary is Co-Redemptrix, that is, together with Jesus, she participated in the redemption of the world? The petition to the Pope to declare Mary as Co-Redemptrix, Co-Mediatrix, and Advocate (titles that should be solely placed upon Christ) says that "at the foot of the cross of our Savior, Mary's intense sufferings united with those of her Son."
Are Images of Christ Useful for Worship and Evangelism?
A typical comment from an evangelical pastor about The Passion as a great evangelistic opportunity would go like this: "Here's a chance for us to use a modern-day technique to communicate the truth of the Bible."
Protestants would argue that using movies and pictures of Jesus as a teaching tool is not unbiblical since they are not worshipping the images. This is exactly the Roman Catholic argument that the Protestant Reformation firmly opposed: that we can use pictures of Christ as "books for the people" to help those who could not read in their worship of God. Together with all the Reformers, John Calvin fought against the use of images, saying, "Any use of images leads to idolatry." 13 The Apostle Peter saw Christ in the flesh, yet he says that "we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention" (2 Pet. 1:17-19).
Preaching, Not Passion Plays
It is true that we live in a highly visual culture, but does this mean that we should abandon preaching in favor of using movies or dramatic presentations? In the Middle Ages, the church used Passion plays, statues, relics, and icons instead of preaching and teaching as the tools for presenting the gospel. This is what was repulsive to the Reformers. God has ordained preaching as the means of sending out the gospel (Rom. 10:14-17). The apostle Paul instructed Timothy (and all pastors) to "Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching" (2 Tim. 4:2). Because preaching is ordained by God, it is effective: "So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it" (Isa. 55:11).
Even though the Greek and Roman world in the first four centuries of Christianity had a highly developed culture of arts and drama, the early church did not use any visual methods in their gospel presentation. This is the reason why there are no representations of any of the characters in the New Testament. They were conscious of God's second commandment.
But since Jesus is also human, aren't we allowed to make representations of his humanity? By no means! Christ is not just fully man, but also fully God, because "he is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:19), and "in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily" (Col. 2:9). How are we, finite creatures, able to represent Christ, the divine, infinite Creator, in man-made images? Perhaps this is why the movie Ben Hur was very restrained in imaging Christ—it never showed his face—only his hands, his back, and his shadow.
The Commandment Everyone Forgot
In the discussions about The Passion, the main focus is on its evangelistic use, but its relationship to God's second commandment is rarely considered. Perhaps this is because many Christians today believe that the Ten Commandments are not applicable to the New Testament Christian.
The Law of God is still relevant and applicable for the New Testament Church. Without the Law, we cannot see our sinfulness and our need for a Savior; thus, the Law drives us to Christ (Gal. 3:23-25). It is our guide for obedient life as Christians (Matt. 5:17-18). Thus, Christians are still prohibited from making any image of the deity—even in a movie or in art. Just as the Word and the visible signs of circumcision and Passover were sufficient in the Old Testament, so also are the Word and the visible signs of baptism and the Lord's Supper sufficient for the New Testament Church.
How often do visual representations distort what we think the Bible says! Movies have influenced our image of Jesus as a tall, handsome, white man with long hair. Wouldn't there be a howl of protest if, instead of James Caviezel, Gibson chose Danny DeVito to portray Jesus? In the 50s and 60s, liberal theologians portrayed Jesus as an angry man with long, unkempt hair, dirty, and carrying an M-16 rifle to entice young revolutionaries! How did people come about thinking that Adam and Eve ate an apple in the Garden of Eden? Where did people get the idea that the shepherds and the wise men were all together on the night of Jesus' birth?
Millions of people, willingly or unwillingly (myself included), will bring the image of James Caviezel's suffering every time they go to church. Even Billy Graham attests to the lasting effect of powerful images on our minds, "Every time I preach or speak about the Cross, the things I saw on the screen will be on my heart and mind." 14
What a true saying! But at the same time, what a dangerous thing to say! Because all visual representations of Jesus in pictures or movies are unavoidably false, the images from this powerful movie will invoke false images of Jesus in our minds. This is because the physical description of Jesus is totally absent from Scriptures, and the one description is not very complimentary: "He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.... and as one from whom men hide their faces" (Isa. 53:2, 3).
Only after the first four centuries of Christianity did the use of images in the church start. Emperor Leo III and his son, Constantine V, opposed this practice. The latter called the Synod of Constantinople in 753 A.D. which formally condemned the practice of using icons of Jesus, Mary, and various apostles and "saints." A portion of the synod's statement says:
Whoever, then, makes an image of Christ, either depicts the Godhead which cannot be depicted, and mingles it with the manhood (like the Monophysites), or he represents the body of Christ as not made divine and separate and as a person apart, like the Nestorians.... The only admissible figure of the humanity of Christ, however, is bread and wine in the Holy Supper. This and no other form, this and no other type, has he chosen to represent his incarnation.
Unfortunately, only 34 years later, the Council of Nicea in 787 A.D. reversed this decision, saying, "For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them." Don't these words sound familiar in the current discussion?
Like the Synod of Constantinople, the Reformers affirmed with St. Augustine that the Lord's Supper is the "visible Word," "a visible form of an invisible grace." The Roman Catholic doctrine insists on the real physical presence of Christ in the Holy Communion. The Reformers, on the other hand, affirmed what the Bible says: that Christ is present in the Lord's Supper, not physically, but by his Holy Spirit. John Calvin says that in the Holy Communion, we not only remember Christ, but we actually partake in the body and blood of Christ by faith, to nourish our souls (1 Cor. 10:16-17). Instead of relying on visual icons, the Reformers emphasized the singing, reading, teaching, and preaching of the Scriptures.
Therefore, when we endorse movies like The Passion, aren't we returning to the medieval and Roman Catholic practice of using visual means to worship God, instead of using the means of grace—preaching, sacraments (the visible Word), and prayer?
The Passion is unabashedly Roman Catholic, emphasizing the Roman doctrines of the Mass as a repeated sacrifice; substitutionary atonement through the physical suffering of Christ; and its veneration of Mary. Contrary to evangelical Protestants' desires, this movie is devoid of the gospel, and is a violation of God's second commandment. Thus, the hope of evangelicals to use The Passion as an evangelistic tool is mistaken. Perhaps the only way that the movie can be used is by explaining its significance in God's eternal redemptive plan to our unbelieving loved ones who have seen it, to "be provoked by the film to seek out the true context of these brutal events." 15
Five months ago, a "captivating, commendable" movie produced by Lutherans called Luther: The Movie generated some excitement in the Protestant world, 16 but nothing compared with The Passion. It was a movie made by Protestants, with the Protestant message of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. But no church bought hundreds of tickets; no big-name evangelicals endorsed it; no one involved in the movie made the TV interview rounds; no huge box-office dollars were earned. The Passion grossed $76 million in its first three days compared with Luther's $0.9 million (i.e., The Passion grossed more than twice as much in its first showing than Luther earned in its first three days). Of course, no Roman Catholic luminary endorsed it; I wonder if even a handful of them saw it.
It is a sad commentary on today's culture that the movies that attract the most viewers are the most violent ones (wars, science fiction, murders, etc.). If they really thought about this, evangelicals should find themselves in a disturbing dilemma: that of endorsing an extremely gory and violent movie, when formerly, they were always at the forefront of the fight against violence on TV and movie screens.
My fear is that, contrary to evangelicals' hopes, more evangelicals, non-evangelicals, and pagans will convert to the Roman religion rather than Roman Catholics converting to the evangelical religion as a result of this movie. According to the Catholic Passion Outreach Website (http://passion.catholicexchange.com/), "The Passion offers an unprecedented cultural opportunity for you to spread, strengthen, and share the Catholic faith with your family and friends." And it is not entirely remote that many opportunities will come to them because of the doctrinal ignorance and pluralism that pervades the current evangelical community.17
With all the excitement this movie has generated, our churches might see an increase in attendance. Many will declare that they are closer to God, and are more interested in spiritual things after seeing the movie. I couldn't help but see the parallels to the aftermath of 9/11/2001: many similar declarations were made, but the question is, "Did all that spiritual talk have any lasting effect on people's lives?" The answer is obviously no.
The Apostle Paul says that the image of Christ that the world needs to see is the holy life of a true believer: "Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.... But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Col.3:5-10). Putting off the old self and putting on the new will be the only means by which we may be "blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world" (Phil. 2:15). 18
In addition to the additions from the visions of Emmerich, the following Roman Catholic imagery are found in The Passion:
The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary: The movie also includes all the scenes from the rosary's five "Sorrowful Mysteries," subjects on which Catholics meditate while praying with beads: the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging at the Pillar, the Crowning with Thorns, the Carrying of the Cross, and the Crucifixion.
The Scapular: A brown cloth, supposedly worn by Our Lady of Carmel, with a promise saying, "Whosoever dies clothed in this habit shall not suffer the fires of hell." In the movie, the repentant thief has something like it.
The Stations of the Cross: This is the Roman Catholic practice during Lent to dwell on the sufferings of Christ and meditate on them through the 14 "Stations of the Cross," supposedly to recall the most prominent events that took place during Christ's journey to the cross.
Chalice: Roman Catholics refer to the cup of the Lord's Supper as a "chalice," instead of the Biblical "cup."
The Holy Face of Saint Veronica: The veil with which a pious woman wiped the face of Jesus on his way to Calvary, and on which remained the imprint of his suffering face.
The Mass: "The sacrifice of the Mass is identical with the Sacrifice of the Cross.... the difference lies in the manner of offering which was bloody upon the Cross and is bloodless on the altar." 19
Mary: Co-Redemptrix, Co-Mediatrix, Advocate (not the Holy Spirit). In the movie, Mary says at the cross, "Flesh of my flesh, heart of my heart, my Son, let me die with you."
The Pieta: In the movie, after Christ has been removed from the cross, Mary embraced him. This is not in the Bible, but is often portrayed in medieval paintings and sculptures.
- 1 Outreach, Inc., http://www.outreachmarketing.com/print/html_promo_pages/PROMO_PassionProducts04/newpassionproducts04.asp?shopper_id=.
- 2 "Churches Make 'Stunning' Show of Support for Gibson's 'Passion'," Newsmax, February 5, 2004, http://www.newsmax.com/archives/ic/2004/2/5/172341.shtml. Steven D. Greydanus, a movie critic for the National Catholic Register, observes, "Protestants have attracted much attention in recent weeks by trumpeting their hopes that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ will prove a great evangelistic tool. What relatively few have noticed is the extent to which these groups are themselves being evangelized."
- 3 Unless otherwise noted, all emphasis in quotations is by the author.
- 4 All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).
- 5 Keith A Fournier, "Review of Private Viewing of 'THE PASSION' Movie, "http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/passion.html.
- 6 Peter J. Boyer, "The Jesus War: Mel Gibson & 'The Passion'", September 15, 2003, The New Yorker, http://www.wcnet.org/~bgcc/gibson.htm.
- 7 Mel Gibson in Primetime interview with Diane Sawyer, ABC News, February 16, 2004, http://abcnews.go.com/sections/Primetime/Entertainment/mel_gibson_passion_040216-1.html.
- 8 Andrew J. Webb's review, "Five Reasons Not to Go See The Passion," Banner of Truth Trust, http://www.banneroftruth.org/pages/articles/article_detail.php?567, was a very helpful resource.
- 9 For a listing of other Roman Catholic imagery in the movie, see Appendix.
- 10 Catholic Spiritual Direction, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, http://www.emmerich1.com/DOLOROUS_PASSION_OF_OUR_LORD_JESUS_CHRIST.htm.
- 11 Westminster Confession of Faith, VIII:4.
- 12 Heidelberg Catechism, Question 37.
- 13 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.11.9.
- 14 "What Others Are Saying," The North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, http://www.passionchrist.org/.
- 15 Andrew Coffin, "No Mere Martyr," World Magazine 19:8 (February 28, 2004), http://worldmag.com/world/issue/02-28-04/cover_2.asp.
- 16 Andrew Coffin, "Luther Stands," World Magazine 18:37 (September 27, 2003), http://worldmag.com/world/issue/09-27-03/cultural_2.asp.
- 17 See "How Much Do We Know," Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, http://www.christianity.com/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTID307086|CHID559376|CIID1413 038,00.html.
- 18 W. Robert Godfrey, "Images of Christ," a sermon at Escondido United Reformed Church, Escondido, CA, on February 29, 2004, http://www.escondidourc.org/sermons.html.
- 19 Catholic Almanac, 1990, p. 212.
* Nollie F. Malabuyo is an M. Div. student at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California, and is also a missionary under Wycliffe Bible Translators.