The minute I heard that Mel Gibson was making a movie about the crucifixion (sometime back in 2002), I knew I wasn’t going to watch it. It was a Jesus film. I didn’t do Jesus films. Especially not gorgeous James Caviezel Jesus films. I was still scarred from witnessing the gently pensive, ringleted “Christ” in Ben Hur and I wasn’t about to abuse my brain with images of another sexy savior.
When the first shots of a grotesquely disfigured Caviezel hit the internet, I also knew the film would be stupid bloody. As if someone had challenged Mel: “I’ll see your Braveheart and raise you one first-century Roman crucifixion.” That made two bullet-proof reasons to avoid the film.
But five years later, as the winter of 2008 grew wetter and grayer in its final pout before spring, I decided to rent The Passion of the Christ. What had changed?
Well, I had watched The Nativity Story—another movie I never thought I’d see. It was Christmas time, I was home from school, and my family and I reasoned something along the lines of “How bad can it be?” Turns out not very. Yes, the movie glowed and over dramatized, but somehow the little flick did something useful. It brought an old, familiar story to life—a story I was in danger of knowing so well, I didn’t really know at all. I could explain the whole nativity set in my sleep since I was a toddler. The Nativity Story woke me up. It made me grateful for the miracle, the blood, the love, and the sacrifice again, right down to my bones.
I started thinking, if I was moved by a sparkly, under-budget flick about Jesus’ birth, how much more would I be by a massive, hideously violent movie about His death? I thought about the danger of forever picturing Edmond Dantes every time I heard the name of Christ, and decided to risk it. I thought of all the nauseated reviews I’d read from Christians who could stomach Saving Private Ryan but couldn’t stomach this, and I decided that that could very well be the point.
I wanted to be bruised. I wanted to be shocked. Bottom line, I wanted to finish the story.
So a few weeks before Easter, I watched The Passion of the Christ. I did not look away. And I want you to watch it with me now.
From the first drops of sweated blood splattering the leaves of Gethsemane, to the phlegm and saliva stringing from Christ’s mouth into the dust of Golgotha, the violence of The Passion wrecks our romantic image of a clean Savior—the sort of image we could frame on our dining room wall without ruining the appetite of the most delicate Victorian fusser. If all your life you’ve pictured a serenely agonized Jesus with an unscarred, freshly bathed body poised calmly on a cross, you’ll never picture that nonsense again. This Christ is whipped and bleeding and hanging—the weight and glory of the world—from three nails.
We shrink, appalled. Is the truth to be tortured from the Gospels and thrust in our faces? To echo New Testament scholar Bruce Fisk, is The Passion brutally honest, or just brutal?
Well, what is the story? And who are we, the audience, our hands pressed against our mouths? We are Christians blessed with knowing 2000-year-old truths—and cursed with accepting them without a thought. No sooner do we know God’s love, says Lewis, than we believe He does it not because He is love, but because we are ourselves lovable (The Four Loves). “God gave His only begotten Son,” we read, and add, “But of course.” Truth no longer cuts. Sacrifice has lost its appalling grace. The flood of mercy that should drown us has become the shallow end for dog paddling.
But before we left our first love, we lost our first horror. For us, the blood on the cross has long since dried. We nod amen absently to Christ’s torture and death, now mere doctrine: words on a page, memorized, spoken at appropriate times like please and thank you. But the truth is that when “Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him,” hell went down at the flogging post. When “they crucified Him,” He died what Cicero calls servitutis extremum summumque supplicium…crudelissimum taeterrimumque supplicium: the extreme and ultimate suffering of slaves…the most savage, bloodthirsty, hideous torture (Against Verres 2.5.169, 2.5. 165).
This story was never meant to be accepted. It was given to be devoured: whole and horrible, morbid and enthralling. This, not our weak stomachs and sensitive eyes, is what judges The Passion. Does it compel us to realize what Christ endured as He had His flesh torn away in strips, as nail-pierced nerves sent pain shooting through each limb? Does it put us on our knees, thrusting on us horror that for our sake the Father turned His back the day His Son died?
Far from it, answers Philip Lawler. He worries (without seeing the movie for himself) that the film takes “pride in a graphic portrayal of our Lord’s physical suffering.” We know what he’s thinking of—moments such as when the camera refuses to look away while the Son of God screams without kicking as the arches of both feet split. We know; but we cannot agree. Even as our minds blister, we realize that a less gruesome film could not extol the divine sacrifice so much. It is by the violence of The Passion that orthodoxy lives again, bringing us face to face with the terror and grace of the worst torture a man has ever endured at the hands of both men and God.
More a skinning-alive than a beating, the Roman scourging is done with 12-stranded leather whips studded with nails, glass, and jagged bone that at each swing, embed themselves in Christ’s back and are wrenched free, ripping the skin open, spewing mangled flesh. Jesus is torn inside out. Shackled to the bench and writhing, He suffers while the Roman soldiers laugh breathlessly, blinking as His blood splashes into their eyes.
They drag Him away, plaster a robe on His open wounds, and press the crown of thorns into His scalp the way you press thumbtacks into the wall, leaving His hair dripping blood. They beat him: fists, palms, heavy wooden scepter. The thorns from the ground cursed for Adam’s sake are battered into His skull.
By far the worst torture comes on the cross.
You flinch and hope please, no as He lays out His hands, palms up. Of an ordinary nail there is no such thing. You see an iron spike long enough to go through the beam of the cross and out the other side to be knocked over flat, hold a dead man’s weight.
The mallet comes down. Blow by blow, the iron spike disappears through His hand into the cross: flesh, splinters, wood, now hard and fixed and Jesus’ palm a cupful of blood.
Then comes the other hand. And the feet.
He is joined at either end to the cross but His body still bent and free as the cross is raised, stood on end, and dropped into the hole in the ground with a thud that jolts your teeth. You hear the creaking of the wood as Christ’s weight swings forward, sagging, pulling on His nailed hands. You count the bones torn from their joints.
Breathing is possible only by pushing Himself down on His mangled feet enough to relieve the pressure on His lungs that are filled with fluid, slowly drowning. He pushes down now, sucking air to raise His voice in a cry you feel on your skin.
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?
Your mind is beaten, your emotions torn and salted. Your first reaction, even before gratefulness, is the terrified wish that He hadn’t done it at all. Better to be damned than to watch God die. Although such a wish is unwise to have for long, it is the necessary front of a powerful coin, the flip side of which is extreme gratitude. You bleed, beginning with the death of all hubris as He was crucified, died and was buried lifts from the pages of the creed, shocking. This is love that scourges, love that crucifies—not us, but the Word through which you were made.
When you cry out for no more, the movie has brought you to the right place. The Son cried out long before you did.
Should we object, like Philip Lawler, that “we are not prepared to bear it”? That is very true. Yet Lawler assumes that Scripture’s “decorous treatment” of the Passion is something to be born, and he could not be more wrong. Never were we meant to bear this story. Neither can we agree with Lawler that the violence interferes with Christ’s larger suffering: burned by righteous wrath, cursed by Yahweh, abandoned by His Father. The movie can hardly even begin to capture this. Stretch your mind and try to imagine it yourself. But the movie drives the point home all the same by looking straight at it and telling everything as hideously as it can right up to it—and then cutting off, leaving us with one stark question ripped from the bowels of heaven, thrown into barren silence.
We stare, speechless. Even now, after we have come to a small understanding of the physical agony, there is more. The burning torch passes between the Son of God cut in two and one Man is left on a cross, cursed and alone. Does the violence distract from this suffering? No. The little we can grasp honors that which we cannot: the torment behind the cry of the forsaken Son as His Father brings Him to the dust of death.
What about my own objection, that I don’t do Jesus films? Well, I still don’t. I avoid them, first, because any grain of truth they might manage to tell isn’t worth the schlock they slop. Is there schlock in The Passion? You bet. It’s Mel Gibson, after all. The incessant slow motion is especially obnoxious, artistically speaking, and could lead some viewers to reject the truth of the movie because they don’t like the way truth is presented. That happens. May I suggest, get over it. Don’t watch The Passion to learn from its technical craftsmanship, watch it to be blessed.
The second reason I shun Jesus movies is that I am, quite frankly, terrified of strengthening any mental image of a starry-eyed Jesus lost in some holy reverie. I want to claw it out of my mind. (I recall hating illustrated Bibles even when I was young.) But Gibson, despite the fact that he cast his Christ with all the comeliness of which Isaiah 53 specifically states He had none, ends up fighting against it by quite accurately making him unrecognizable for 90% of the film.
By God’s grace, when I read the Gospels now, I do not picture Jim Caviezel. Not at all. But I do see the blood. I do see the sacrifice. I see the people who murdered him—people who hated God so much that when they couldn’t kill Him, they killed His holy ones for thousands of years, and when He finally entered a body that could die, they butchered Him.
I see myself.
I have never been more sickened by any movie than I was then, watching The Passion of the Christ by myself that winter night five years ago. But the film’s mission isn’t to take the body of a slaughtered Savior and hang it around our necks, for that body has been raised. The joy we are given at last, the truth that drops into our hands like a precious stone, is the final shot of the movie: life after death, the firstfruits standing on His feet, holes in the hands of the Son of God going forth to war. Sinners are set free. We, with Christ, have died and left death far behind.
Are you the sensitive type? Do you generally dislike covering your head with your hands and wishing you could erase what you just saw? Are you totally okay with the fact that your Savior was shredded alive, skewered to a tree, and cursed by God for you? Then you need to watch this movie.
To see The Passion is to dig up your own heart: you knew it was there and you knew it was yours, but you had no idea that it pumped so much blood. And now, paradoxically, you do not die, but, heart in hand, walk more strongly because you have seen the thing that gives you life.
This is the story the Gospels tell. We remember; we confess our faith. Truth has terror. Grace has violence. Our God is love and savage.