The making, content and release of the new movie The Passion of the Christ has been surrounded by controversy. Regrettably, this takes away from a central question-which is, where do we personally fit in the story?
For months now, dating back long before its release, The Passion of the Christ (the word passion meaning suffering ) has been attacked from several sides.
Some Bible scholars have attacked it for what they feel are inaccuracies, director Mel Gibson's Catholic slant evident in some aspects of the film, and his taking a certain amount of creative license in telling the story (all of which I thought detracted from the story in the preview screening I saw).
Many Jews have condemned the movie for supposed anti-Semitism, fearful that it could ignite another wave of persecution. Their fears are understandable, considering the history of Christendom and rising hatred toward the Jewish people around the world, but anyone who walks away from this movie harboring feelings of anti-Semitism has missed its point entirely.
Other attacks have been more subtle and far-reaching. Mel Gibson has been targeted with personal criticism; major movie distributors, in spite of the fact that his films are generally solid moneymakers, declined to have anything to do with this venture.
It's ironic that the Hollywood movie machine can crank out the worst kinds of degeneracy-murder, mayhem and misogyny coming soon to a theater near you!-with hardly a peep of protest, but a reverential treatment of Jesus Christ's sacrifice for our sins is criticized from virtually every quarter. The hypocrisy is even more evident considering the fact that the truly perverse 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ was heartily hailed by Hollywood for its supposed "artistic vision" (which included a blasphemous sex scene between Jesus and Mary Magdalene).
A Christianity that doesn't know Christ
In some ways these different criticisms of the current movie reflect the different minds people have toward Jesus. Some reject Him because they think they know better. Others reject Christ out of fear of the unknown, or fear that they would have to make unwanted changes in their lives if they dug a little deeper into the story. And others, like the Hollywood antireligion establishment, simply abhor the idea of anyone who would have a say concerning what they're allowed to think and do.
It would be nice to say that those who accept the reality of Jesus have a much healthier view-but, sadly, that's not always the case.
A 2003 poll of American adults found that while 91 percent "absolutely believe" or "mostly believe" Jesus Christ was a real historical person, they are much fuzzier on the implications of that belief. Of those surveyed, far smaller percentages actually believe He was born to a virgin, was resurrected from the dead, was the Son of God or was divine (Scripps Howard News Service report, Dec. 26, 2003 ).
When it comes to actual Bible knowledge and understanding, the numbers drop even further. A 1990 Gallup Poll found that only half of American adults interviewed could name a single one of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and only 37 percent could name all four! And while 70 percent could name the town in which Jesus was born ( Bethlehem ), barely one person in four could name even half of the Ten Commandments or identify Jesus as the person who gave the Sermon on the Mount (George Gallup, Jr., The Role of the Bible in American Society, 1990, p. 17).
Sadly, these numbers are no doubt considerably worse in other Western countries where people don't even make much of a pretense of going to church.
What such shocking trends lead to is the result discovered in a 2003 survey by the Barna Research Group. It found that among professing Christians, half considered cohabitation and "enjoying sexual thoughts and fantasies about someone" to be morally acceptable; roughly a third considered adultery, pornography, drunkenness and having an abortion to be morally acceptable; and one in five thought the same of homosexual behavior (Barna Research Online, Nov. 3, 2003, report).
Keep in mind that these percentages aren't for the population as a whole, but for people who claim to be Christian! What we have, then, is a Christianity in which millions accept Christ, but know little about Him, what He did and what He taught. Or, worse yet, perhaps they do know what He taught-but choose to ignore or reject it!
What is your reaction?
Watching The Passion of the Christ, I was struck by the realization that in Mel Gibson's depiction of the final 12 hours of Christ's life on earth, he inadvertently portrays-in ways quite faithful to the biblical accounts -virtually every human reaction to Jesus.
The important question is, which of these applies to you?
• First we see the disciples-Peter, James and John-fast asleep while Jesus prays for strength for the ordeal He knows is coming. How many of us are like them, confident that everything is fine in our relationship with Christ, but asleep at the moment, blissfully unaware that an unexpected storm will break and we could abandon Him in a flurry of terror and panic?
• Next we see the high priest's servant, dazed from almost having his head split open by Peter's sword, grimacing in pain as the Man they'd come to arrest reaches out to him, picks up his severed ear and makes the bloodied man whole again. Bewildered, he doesn't know what to make of this sudden turn of events. Could we be like him, knowing there must be something to this Jesus-the-Son-of-God story, but unsure what to do?
• Soon we come to Peter-bold, brash Peter, proud to proclaim his allegiance to Jesus, even to the point of dying for Him. Yet when his beliefs are challenged, when things don't turn out as expected, when the threat of persecution comes, he runs like a frightened rabbit. How many of us have such a faith, strong in fair weather but gone with the wind when put to the test?
• Judas, tormented by guilt, refuses to seek the forgiveness and healing Christ can offer. Haunted by what he has done, he descends into madness and the ultimate act of running away-taking his own life. Are we tormented by our own demons and guilt, incapable of accepting the forgiveness Christ made available as our ultimate Healer, unable to forgive ourselves?
• We see many an onlooker in the crowds, curiosity piqued by the thought-provoking words and strange events, but in the end choosing to be uninvolved. How well this fits so much of humanity! As Winston Churchill once said, "Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened." The claim that a Man performed great miracles, had details of His life foretold hundreds of years in advance, was murdered out of jealousy and rose from the dead should surely demand our attention! Will we seriously investigate the facts or pass on as if nothing happened?
• In the film Mary, Jesus' mother, though in indescribable grief and turmoil at this shocking turn of events, for the most part stays relatively calm, trusting in the perfect will of the God who had touched her life many years earlier and never left her alone. Does this describe our relationship with God, fully trusting in Him even though not understanding or comprehending the trials that overwhelm us, but knowing He will never leave or forsake us?
• The Roman soldiers-cruel, hard and brutal-enjoy their sadistic entertainment, caring nothing for God or human beings made in His image. How many today are absorbed in a heartless, soulless pursuit of pleasure regardless of its terrible toll? How many mock their Creator in their minds and by their actions?
• John, perhaps the youngest of the disciples, is stunned and uncomprehending as these events unfold and his world crumbles. Yet, in spite of his youth, he is the lone disciple recorded in the Gospels as remaining in his Master's presence at the end. Perhaps we are young and inexperienced too, but will we let that stand in the way of a trusting and faithful relationship with Christ?
• Simon of Cyrene , forced out of a crowd and, in the film, torn from his son to help carry Jesus' cross, protests that he can't leave his son and makes it clear that he is innocent and wants nothing to do with this condemned man. Will we let our attachments, even to something as priceless as family, keep us from Christ? Or could we think we're good enough as we are and have no need to be associated with Him?
• Then we come to the two criminals crucified with Jesus. One lashes out at Christ in his anger and pain. Life has not been kind to him; he rages against the perceived injustice of it all. Rather than accept the penalty for his actions now come due, he mocks the innocent Man dying alongside him. Could this be us, blaming everyone and everything around us, raging against God to our dying breath?
• Finally we come to the last of the condemned men. He recognizes his guilt, but he also recognizes the enormous injustice inflicted on a Man who had done no wrong. He admits that death is what he deserves, and he has no one to blame but himself for his hopeless, doomed situation. In his own pain and misery, he also cries out-yet not in anger like the other, but in a plea for mercy to the One he recognizes as Lord and Master. Is this our reaction to Jesus Christ, recognizing that our own choices have brought us to a dead end from which we can see no way out other than total surrender to Him?
Where do you fit?
Again, which of these reactions applies to you?
Mel Gibson has openly stated that the movie is the result of a dark period in his own life when he, like the last of the condemned men, reached a point where he saw no way out. He turned to the story from the Gospels that he remembered from years before. In spite of its flaws, The Passion of the Christ is a powerful and compelling retelling of a story of great significance to him.
While he is one of the world's most respected actors and a popular box-office draw, Mel Gibson chose not to take an acting part in his film. However, he left no doubt as to where he saw himself in this story. As a close-up shot shows Jesus' hand being nailed to the beam, the hand that is holding the nail as it is pounded in is none other than Mr. Gibson's own.
When asked about it, he explained that this was his way of acknowledging that his own personal sins played a part in putting Jesus Christ to death. And pondering the part we all played in this long-ago drama, it occurred to me where all of us were at one point. Our sins put all of us in the crowd crying out, "Crucify Him!"
This is the starting point for realizing where we all fit in God's great plan for us.
Peter, addressing a crowd in Jerusalem several weeks after these tragic events took place, stressed our collective guilt for the death of the Son of God. "When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, 'Brothers, what shall we do?'" (Acts 2:37 , New International Version, emphasis added throughout).
That is the crucial question: What shall we do?
Peter answered: "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (verse 38).
To repent means to change our heart, thinking and conduct-to totally surrender our lives to God. Baptism is a symbol of that surrender, representing the death of the person we have been and a resurrection to a new life patterned after Jesus Christ (Romans 6:3-13). The Holy Spirit is God's gift to us to empower us to live a truly transformed life.
The rest of the story is amazing, almost beyond comprehension. Hebrews 2:10 (NIV) gives us a glimpse of the purpose of the passion: "In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering."
Jesus suffered and died to bring "many sons to glory." Are you willing to act on His awesome purpose for you? GN