(February 2004 – Volume 10, Issue 2)
Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ is being welcomed in conservative Christian circles with almost universal acclaim. Some Christian leaders have even said that the film will be the greatest opportunity for evangelism since the crucifixion itself. Perhaps they are correct. From almost all accounts The Passion of the Christ is relatively faithful to the biblical record. But such is not the case. The movie goes far beyond the biblical account, adding not only dramatic license, but much that is found in Roman Catholic tradition and mysticism. This may, or may not, diminish from the overall message of the film, but at the very least it will lead to confusion, especially for those not biblically knowledgeable, as to which events actually took place and which events came from the imagination of the writers and others. A few other scenes are taken from the Gospels, but shown out of sequence. Still, Gibson’s goal is to give his viewers a complete understanding of the sufferings that Christ endured in order to secure our redemption. Without question some unbelievers will be powerfully moved by the film and will seek to know Christ as their Savior. Christians will also be impacted as they witness the tortures of the scourging and the crucifixion. It would seem if there ever was a movie that the evangelical community could support, this would be the one. But is there nothing about the film and its objectives that should give us pause? Is there anything at all that should be examined more closely? Being the “sanctified skeptic” that I am (and unapologetically so since I believe everything in this world is tainted with sin and that Satan is allowed at present to possess incredible power and influence over this world system), I see several red flags waving in the breeze as I think about this movie. Whether or not these flags indicate that The Passion of the Christ should not be viewed and used toward godly ends, they do indicate that we might want to proceed with caution. All is not as it seems.
A Man and His Movie
Mel Gibson is an ultraconservative Roman Catholic, a traditionalist who does not acknowledge many of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). He favors the Latin mass, does not eat meat on Fridays, believes Mary is co-redemptrix, etc. The actor said that he had drifted from his Catholic roots and found himself in a desperate situation. In order to help himself he started meditating on the stations of the cross, which Catholics use to mark the hours of Christ’s passion (“passion” is from the Latin passus which means “having suffered”). Gibson in various interviews has said, “I realized that His wounds could heal my wounds…. I got to a very desperate place. Very desperate. Kind of jump-out-of-the-window kind of desperate…. And I didn’t want to hang around here, but I didn’t want to check out. The other side was kind of scary. And I don’t like heights, anyway. But when you get to that point where you don’t want to live and you don’t want to die, it’s a desperate horrible place to be. And I just hit my knees. And I had to use ‘The Passion of the Christ’ to heal my wounds.”
Gibson’s enthusiasm for Christ’s passion appears to be contagious for he claimed that some were saved on the set and a number joined him in daily mass because they felt they needed to be “squeaky clean” to make such a film. The movie is about the last twelve hours of the life of Christ and includes about “twelve seconds,” Gibson says, on the resurrection. Gibson believes God called him to make this movie. And while making it he said, “The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, I was just directing traffic.”
The first red flag has to do with Gibson himself. Gibson is a great actor, a likeable character and devoutly religious (at least of late) but there is no indication that he is a true Christian (more on this in just a moment). Given the reality that God can do and use anything to accomplish His purposes, we should nevertheless be somewhat skeptical that He would choose to use an unregenerate man such as Gibson to proclaim the gospel story. It is true that in Scripture God used unbelievers for His purposes, even calling them at times His servants. We can think of Cyrus and Nebuchadnezzar and many others. But I can recall no time when the Lord commissioned an unbeliever to proclaim His infallible truth and call people to salvation. One noteworthy incident germane to our subject is that of the demon-possessed girl in Acts 16:16-18, who followed Paul and his helpers crying out, These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation. Paul finally became annoyed with her and commanded the demon to come out. Why was Paul irritated—what the girl had to say was true? John MacArthur in his commentary on this passage explains: “This was a subtle and dangerous attack, a bold attempt to infiltrate a deadly tare among the wheat, because what the demon-possessed girl was saying was true. The demon even used biblical terminology…. The father of lies speaks the truth when it suits his purposes…. Some of his most effective and diabolical work is done in the name of Jesus Christ. He often uses a little truth to ensnare people in a false system of religion. Since the demon-possessed girl was agreeing with the Christian preachers, the natural assumption would be that she was part of their group. She would have then been in a position to do unspeakable harm to the cause of Christ.”
Whether this description fits Gibson or not, I find it quite problematic to think that God has called an unbeliever to produce this film. If the Lord wanted to spread the gospel in this format, why did He not use one of His own people? Should we not proceed with extreme caution when the unsaved are attempting to give leadership in spiritual matters?
Gibson hopes this film “leads everyone who sees it to a saving faith in Christ.” He believes that moviegoers will be forced to make a decision about Christ after they leave the theater. This all sounds good and would seem to indicate that if Gibson has this kind of concern for the souls of people, then surely he too is a Christian. But remember Gibson is a Roman Catholic traditionalist in the pre-Vatican II vein. This means that he believes in sacramental or works salvation. To be sure Roman Catholicism teaches that Christ’s death was for the purpose of saving people and Catholicism teaches the necessity of faith in the saving process; however Catholicism does not teach salvation by grace through faith alone in Christ alone. In simplest terms, it teaches that Christ did His part on the Cross, and now we must do our part through the sacraments and various works. Even then, our salvation is never secured this side of death, for we all will come up short of the needed grace to go to heaven. We must then make up for that deficiency in purgatory.
In an interview with the Herald Sun in Australia, Gibson was true to his roots: “There is no salvation for those outside the Church, I believe it…. Put it this way. My wife is a saint. She’s a much better person than I am, believes in God, she knows Jesus, she believes in that stuff. And it’s not fair if she doesn’t make it, she’s better than I am. But that is a pronouncement from the chair. I go with it.” So for Gibson salvation is not found through faith in Christ who died for us on the cross. Salvation is found in the Roman Catholic Church as we join faith with works and become part of the Catholic community.
It is a bit of an irony that the evangelicals who are proclaiming Gibson a Christian, and are working so hard to promote his film, are the very ones whom Gibson says are going to hell along with his Episcopalian wife.
But more recently Gibson seems to have changed his views. During his February 16th Diane Sawyer interview on Primetime he claimed that ultimately everyone is going to “make it,” including Muslims and Hindus and all the rest, but the Catholic Church is the direct route. First, he said, “We are all the children of God.” Then when pressed Gibson responded, “It is possible for people who are not even Christian to get into the kingdom of heaven. It’s just easier [for Catholics] …. I’m saying it’s an easier ride.” He now seems to have moved from a narrow exclusivism (salvation is found only in the Church) to inclusivism (there are many roads to God and salvation) and perhaps to universalism (all will eventually be saved anyway).
This leads us to the second red flag – is there not a real danger of Gibson’s film clouding the gospel waters? After viewing the film will not many of those who are impressed seek salvation in Gibson’s Church – a system devoid of the true gospel? If they instead turn to the many evangelical leaders who have embraced Gibson as a brother in Christ, will they not be confused when they are told that salvation is not found in works but in receiving Christ’s grace through faith alone? If this is true, they might then ask, “Why do you believe Gibson to be a Christian? Are you now telling me that there are many ways to come to God?” Inclusivism is becoming all the rage in evangelicalism; I fear that this will be just one more step in that direction.
The recommendations for this film are glowing and widespread:
“I have no doubt that the movie will be one of the greatest evangelistic tools in modern day history. I think people will go to it and then flood into the churches seeking to know the deeper implications of this movie.” Ed Young Jr., Pastor-Area Fellowship Church
“I believe ‘The Passion of The Christ’ may well be one of the most powerful evangelistic tools of the last 100 years, because you have never seen the story of Jesus portrayed this vividly before.” Greg Laurie, Harvest Crusades
“’The Passion’ will stun audiences and create an incredible appetite for people to know more about Jesus. I urge Christians to invite their spiritually seeking friends to see this movie with them.” Lee Strobel, former atheist and author.
“I can’t tell you how I admire, respect and applaud you. May God give you the blessing you need where you need it most. ‘The Passion’ is an awe-inspiring portrayal of the last hours of Jesus’ life. It is an accurate account of Jesus’ real sufferings for the sins of the whole world. This is not a film anyone should miss.” Dr. Robert Schuller, Crystal Cathedral/Hour of Power
“Everyone should see this movie. It could be Hollywood’s finest achievement to date.” Tim LaHaye, Tim LaHaye Ministries
“…if they’re critical of the film, they would be critical of the gospel.” Archbishop John Foley, President, Pontifical Council for Social Communications, The Vatican.
What kind of “Christian” event draws praise from conservative to liberals, from charismatics to the Vatican? Should this all but unanimous unity be a cause for praise or caution? Unity within the church is a wonderful and God-honoring thing. But unity must be in purity. We must never compromise the essentials of the faith to hold hands with those who deny cardinal truth. When Paul heard of some who had twisted the gospel message of grace and faith to a works-based perversion, he did not embrace them, but rather he condemned them (Galatians 1:6-10).
Red flag number three is finding this hodgepodge of those who reside under the wide umbrella of Christianity showing enthusiasm and locking arms over the same movie. Robert Schuller’s gospel is not God’s, nor is the Vatican’s. What is being compromised on the part of conservatives to enter into this union? I am sure that some will say that they can use the film as an evangelistic tool without compromise. I trust that is so, but at the very least we need to carefully consider any tool that can be touted by such a variety of religious leaders.
A mistake that we often make is to begin with some philosophy or event and then turn to the Scriptures to get God’s perspective. When we do this we tend to bring our presuppositions back to the biblical text. A far wiser move is to begin with the Bible and then evaluate all things in light of what the Bible teaches. When we turn to the Word, how do we find it describing the crucifixion?
The passages pertinent to our study would be Matthew 27:26-35; Mark 15:15-24; Luke 23:33; John 19:18 and Isaiah 52:14; 53:4-6. What strikes us in these accounts is the brevity. “He was scourged,” “They crucified Him”, etc. Little space is taken up with the details of the torture of our Lord. A composite of the five passages would look like this:
1. Very little detail is given about the sufferings of Christ
2. Scourging is just mentioned
3. The crucifixion is just mentioned
4. No attempt is made to stir up emotions or graphically describe the death of Christ.
5. The details of the crucifixion are all concerning other issues.
If we follow the biblical storyline, God made no attempt to picture the gruesomeness of the cross. He did not try to draw us to Christ through an understanding of the horrors of scourging or crucifixion. Rather, He focused on the purpose and accomplishments of the cross. Now it is true that the citizens of the first century had a better knowledge of crucifixions and all that went with them than we do today. But God knew that His Word would ultimately reach other generations, such as ours, which lacked first hand experience of such things. And while the Lord does not minimize the horrors of Calvary, He draws our attention within these passages, as well as in the epistles, to the meaning of the cross. Christ died as our substitute; He paid the price of our sin; He accomplished our redemption; He was our propitiation, etc.
So the fourth red flag would be that Scripture does not spend an exorbitant amount of time on the horrors of the cross. Is it appropriate, therefore, for us to concentrate on this? Is the dramatization of Christ’s sufferings the proper biblical emphasis? Or is it rather the emphasis of medieval Catholicism?
This leads us directly to a final, and most concerning red flag. This is a decidedly Roman Catholic film. It has been described by some as an animated crucifix. It is Catholic in theology, emphasis, motivation and purpose. I fear it will further desensitize conservative Christians about the dangers of Rome, and perhaps even lead the ever popular parade back to Rome. So concerning is this to me that I will devote the next Think on These Things paper to this subject.