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Reformed, Evangelical, Presbyterian Congregation. We gratefully receive the Westminster Confession and  Larger and Shorter Catechisms and believe them to be an accurate summary of the doctrine taught in scripture.

Five Reasons Not to Go See
The Passion of the Christ

By Andrew J. Webb

On February 25, 2004 Icon films, will be releasing Mel Gibson's much anticipated film The Passion of the Christ. The date of the release was deliberately chosen to coincide with the Roman Catholic holy day of Ash Wednesday, and is indicative of the fact that for Gibson, his film was more of a work of devotion than a money making enterprise. In an interview on the Roman Catholic Television Network EWTN, Gibson candidly stated why this movie is so different from all his others, "It reflects my beliefs-I've never done that before."1 He is also quite open about his desire to see his movie used for worldwide evangelism. Many noted Evangelicals including James Dobson and Billy Graham have also come forward to endorse The Passion of the Christ and recommend its use as a teaching tool. Currently, The Passion of the Christ is riding a groundswell of nationwide support from both Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, with many well-known Evangelical congregations, such as best selling author and Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church which purchased 18,000 tickets at seven theatres, doing everything they can to ensure that The Passion of the Christ will be a smash hit amongst Christians and "seekers". Expressing a widely held view amongst the film's supporters, Lisa Wheeler, associate editor of Catholic Exchange, a Web portal dedicated to Catholic evangelism, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "It's the best evangelization opportunity we've had since the actual death of Jesus."2

But should Evangelicals be supporting The Passion of the Christ and endorsing its use as an Evangelism tool? Is this really the best evangelization opportunity we've had since the actual death of Jesus?3 After careful consideration my conclusion is an unequivocal "No." Here then are five reasons why I believe Evangelicals should not see or recommend the Passion of the Christ.

1) Its Origins: Even though Evangelicals are promoting The Passion of the Christ, it is not an Evangelical movie. As Mel Gibson, a devout Roman Catholic put it so well; "It reflects my beliefs." The Passion of the Christ is a Roman Catholic movie, made by a Roman Catholic director, with Roman Catholic theological advisers, which gained the endorsement of Pope John Paul II who said after viewing it, "It is as it was."4 This is in marked contrast to the Jesus film, which is unabashedly Protestant and Evangelical in its production and message and which has been widely used in evangelizing Roman Catholics. It is largely for this reason that the Jesus film has not been utilized or endorsed by Roman Catholics. By contrast, The Passion of the Christ has already proven its effectiveness as an evangelism tool in producing Catholic conversions and encouraging Catholic devotion:

"In his first nationally broadcast interview about his starring role in Mel Gibson's much-anticipated film "The Passion of the Christ," James Caviezel - Gibson's Jesus - detailed on Friday the ordeal of filming the Crucifixion scenes, noting that the overall experience prompted many in the crew to convert to Catholicism."

...

"Noting "the amount of conversions on the movie," he said the experience of filming Christ's story "really changed people's lives."

"Caviezel recalled telling Gibson, "I think it's very important that we have mass every day - at least I need that to play this guy."

"I felt if I was going to play him I needed [the sacrament] in me. So [Gibson] provided that."5

2) Its Script: Although it is widely thought that the script for the movie is based entirely on the gospel according to John, this is not the case. The script for The Passion of the Christ contains much extrabiblical material, and is based in part on a mystical Roman Catholic devotional work by an 18th century German Nun (Sister Anne Emmerich) entitled The Dolorous Passion of the Christ. Gibson stated on EWTN that reading Emmerich's book was his primary inspiration for making the movie. By introducing extrabiblical elements, not only does The Passion of the Christ change some of the theological emphases of the Biblical account of Christ's crucifixion, but it will also create a false impression amongst the very "seekers" that Evangelicals are trying to reach, that things were said and done at the crucifixion that did not actually happen. For Evangelicals, who would feel very uncomfortable with a version of the Bible that put words into the mouth of Christ that He never spoke, to endorse a movie that does the very same thing seems hopelessly inconsistent. Protestants traditionally rejected the Apocrypha precisely because these books were fabricated and contained inauthentic material, despite the fact that these books might have been useful for evangelism. For modern evangelicals to embrace a vehicle that is inauthentic in order to achieve evangelistic ends indicates a serious decline in faithfulness.

The script for The Passion of the Christ not only adds things that didn't occur in the Bible, it cuts out other things that did. The most widely known example of this being the important declaration, "His blood be on us and on our children." (Matthew 27:25)

The script for The Passion of the Christ was translated into Aramaic and Latin by Father William Fulco, an old friend of Mel Gibson's. This was not done for reasons of making it more authentic.6 The language decisions in the Passion of the Christ were made for theological reasons:

"It is crucial to realize that the images and language at the heart of "The Passion of the Christ" flow directly out of Gibson's personal dedication to Catholicism in one of its most traditional and mysterious forms - the 16th-century Latin Mass.

"I don't go to any other services," the director told the Eternal Word Television Network. "I go to the old Tridentine Rite. That's the way that I first saw it when I was a kid. So I think that that informs one's understanding of how to transcend language. Now, initially, I didn't understand the Latin. ... But I understood the meaning and the message and what they were doing. I understood it very fully and it was very moving and emotional and efficacious, if I may say so."

The goal of the movie is to shake modern audiences by brashly juxtaposing the "sacrifice of the cross with the sacrifice of the altar - which is the same thing," said Gibson. This ancient union of symbols and sounds has never lost its hold on him. There is, he stressed, "a lot of power in these dead languages."

Thus, the seemingly bizarre choice of Latin and Aramaic was actually part of the message." 7

The script of The Passion of the Christ was specifically intended to link the crucifixion of Christ with what Roman Catholics believe is the re-sacrificing of Christ that occurs in the mass. Gibson's intent is to show us that the sacrifice of the cross and the sacrifice of the altar (the mass) are the same thing. Protestant Evangelicals have historically rejected the idea that Christ can be sacrificed again and declared it "abominable." Speaking of the concept that the Crucifixion and the mass is the same thing, the Protestant Westminster Confession declares:

"In this sacrament, Christ is not offered up to his Father; nor any real sacrifice made at all, for remission of sins of the quick or dead; but only a commemoration of that one offering up of himself, by himself, upon the cross, once for all: and a spiritual oblation of all possible praise unto God, for the same: so that the popish sacrifice of the mass (as they call it) is most abominably injurious to Christ's one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of his elect."8

3) Its Theology: Gibson's comment about the sacrifice of the altar and the sacrifice of the cross shows the indispensable link in this movie between the Catholic view of Christ's sacrifice and the portrayal of the Crucifixion in The Passion of the Christ. The fact that Evangelicals have uncritically endorsed it speaks volumes about how far the Evangelical Protestant understanding of Christ's death and the related subject of Justification have slipped since the Reformation. In Roman Catholic theology the intense physical suffering of Christ's Crucifixion is the focus along with the emphasis on physical sacrifice. This is one of the reasons why in Roman Catholic iconography we have so much imagery related to Christ's physical pain and that crucifixes show him still suffering on the cross (the sacrifice of the mass means that Christ's declaration that His once for all sacrifice is completed - "it is finished" (John 19:30) never actually comes, and that His suffering has to be constantly repeated). This emphasis on Christ's physical agony is repeated in Roman Catholic devotional material, prayers, and of course the Passion of the Christ. The theology of the bible however points out to us that the grand importance of Christ's crucifixion lay not in His physical suffering, but in His once for all propitiation of God's wrath (1 John 4:10). Lest we forget, the greatest torment that Christ experienced on the cross was not caused by the nails driven into His flesh, but in His being made "sin for us" and vicariously suffering the righteous punishment of the Father in our place. Even the worst physical torments inflicted by the Sanhedrin and the Romans upon Jesus were nothing by comparison to the anguish of having the sins of all the elect imputed to Him and making full satisfaction for them. Satisfying the justice of the Romans on a cross was comparatively easy, thousands of condemned men and women including Spartacus and several of the Apostles did that, but only Christ could satisfy the justice of God.

Also central to the Christian Gospel, but missing from The Passion of the Christ, is the concept of Christ's active obedience. Christ not only died for the sins of His sheep on the cross but He established their righteousness through His perfect obedience to God's Law. It is only if His passive obedience in dying on the cross and His active obedience in keeping the law are imputed to believers per 2 Cor. 5:21 that believers will be justified before almighty God. The Passion of the Christ does not even make any pretence of teaching the active obedience of Christ, the entire notion of which is alien to Roman Catholic theology. Therefore if Evangelicals intend to use this as a Gospel teaching tool, they must understand that at best they are teaching only half a gospel, and that the half they are teaching is defectively presented.

The sacrifice of Christ was a glorious event in which, in accordance with God's plan, full satisfaction for sin was procured by Christ on behalf of His people (Acts 2:43). The Passion of the Christ leaves us with a vision of the sacrifice of Christ that is only dolorous (Dolorous: Full of grief; sad; sorrowful; doleful; dismal) and which puts into sharp relief the Roman Catholic notion not only of the importance of Christ's agony, but that of Mary in "offering her Son." In an interview with Zenit, the Roman Catholic News Service, Father Thomas Rosica, the priest who oversaw World Youth Day 2002 and its Way of the Cross through the streets of Toronto, illustrated how The Passion of the Christ, in keeping with Roman Catholic theology, uses extrabiblical content to massively exaggerate the role of Mary:

"One scene, in particular, was very moving. As Jesus falls on the Way of the Cross, there is a flashback to his falling on a Jerusalem street as a child, and his mother running out of the house to pick him up. The interplay of Mary and Jesus in this film is moving, and reaches its apex in the scene of the Pietà.

The Mother of the Lord is inviting each of us to share her grief and behold her Son."
9

This use of extra-biblical material, emphasis on physical suffering, exaggeration of the role of Mary, and explicitly Roman Catholic theology should not surprise us, however, as these are all hallmarks of the primary inspiration for this movie: The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Let me give two examples of what I mean especially as concerns the replacement of physical pain for the far greater agony of sin bearing:

"He will not stretch himself out, but we will help him;’ they accompanied these words with the most fearful oaths and imprecations, and having fastened a rope to his right leg, dragged it violently until it reached the wood, and then tied it down as tightly as possible. The agony which Jesus suffered from this violent tension was indescribable; the words ‘My God, my God,’ escaped his lips, and the executioners increased his pain by tying his chest and arms to the cross, lest the hands should be torn from the nails." 10

...

"The hour of our Lord was at last come; his death-struggle had commenced; a cold sweat overspread every limb. John stood at the foot of the Cross, and wiped the feet of Jesus with his scapular. Magdalen was crouched to the ground in a perfect frenzy of grief behind the Cross. The Blessed Virgin stood between Jesus and the good thief, supported by Salome and Mary of Cleophas, with her eyes riveted on the countenance of her dying Son. Jesus then said: 'It is consummated;’ and, raising his head, cried out in a loud voice, ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’ These words, which he uttered in a clear and thrilling tone, resounded through heaven and earth; and a moment after, he bowed down his head and gave up the ghost. I saw his soul, under the appearance of a bright meteor, penetrate the earth at the foot of the Cross. John and the holy women fell prostrate on the ground."11

Emmerich's book is literally filled with scenes like those above, and includes many extra-biblical sayings of Jesus which Sister Anne says she personally heard in her visions.

4) Its Medium: Many Evangelical Pastors are hailing movies like The Passion of the Christ as part of a new and better way of spreading the Gospel:

"This is a window of opportunity we have. Here's a guy who's putting his money into a movie that has everything to do with what we do," said pastor Cory Engel of Harvest Springs Community Church in Great Falls, Mont.

"Churches used to communicate by having a little lecture time on Sunday morning. People don't interact that way anymore. Here's a chance for us to use a modern-day technique to communicate the truth of the Bible," the Rev. Engel said."12

It is indeed true that we live in a highly visual and increasingly anti-literate society that places a premium on sound bites and easily assimilated visual imagery, but does this mean that we should abandon preaching in favor of using movies or dramatic presentations? We need to remember that the last time dramatic presentations replaced preaching as the main vehicle by which the truth of the Bible was communicated was during the middle-ages when the church refused to allow the translation of the Bible into common languages and when in place of the preaching and teaching of God's word, the common people were given visual presentations such as Passion Plays, statues, relics, and icons. These things were designed, like most visual imagery, to play upon the emotions and stimulate a response; but the ability to evoke an emotional response via imagery or drama is not the same as successfully transmitting the Gospel. The means that God has ordained for the transmission of the Gospel, was neither drama, imagery, nor even "lectures" - it is preaching. Preaching involves the communication of the Gospel in a way that patiently convinces, rebukes, exhorts, and teaches (2 Timothy 4:2-4). The bible teaches us the awesome importance of preaching and why it cannot be replaced by another medium:

We must preach God's Word regardless of how unpopular it is because we are commanded to do so: "Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables." (2 Timothy 4:2-4)

We must preach God's Word because it always accomplishes the purpose for which it was sent: "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, And do not return there, But water the earth, And make it bring forth and bud, That it may give seed to the sower And bread to the eater, So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it." (Isa.55:9-11)

God does not command us to produce dramatic presentations of Gospel themes, He commands us to preach. Though this option was freely available to the Apostles as they brought the Gospel to cities with amphitheaters and a long tradition of using the dramatic arts to convey religious and moral themes to the populace they did not do so. The wisdom of the Apostolic methodology has been borne out by the fact that it was when the Gospel was being transmitted primarily by plays and symbolism that true Christianity began to sink under the weight of superstition. We are in danger of returning to precisely that state of affairs by reviving the teaching methodology of the medieval church. Even though it was produced in the 21st century, The Passion of the Christ is identical in all critical aspects to the Passion Plays of the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

5) Its Main Character: Billy Graham in his endorsement of The Passion of the Christ said, "Every time I preach or speak about the Cross, the things I saw on the screen will be on my heart and mind."13 This is unfortunately part of the problem with all visual representations of Jesus. Although we may intend for them only to have a role in teaching, they inevitably become part of our worship and adoration. As a result of seeing this film James Caviezel, the "Jesus" of The Passion of the Christ, will become the figure countless thousands if not millions of people think of when they worship Jesus Christ. To do this is to fall into the trap of changing "the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man" (Romans 1:23) and to violate the Second Commandment.

Every visual representation of Jesus is inevitably a lie. There are two main reasons for this.

The first reason why all visual representations of Jesus are lies is because the only wise God went to great lengths not to leave us with any description of the physical appearance of His Son lest we fall into the sin of image making. Therefore all of our representations of Jesus are inevitably speculations usually based upon our own desires. We create an image of Jesus that says more about the Jesus we want than the Jesus whom God sent.

For instance, isn't it remarkable that the Jesus of The Passion of the Christ, as in almost all physical representations of Christ, is tall, slim, and handsome? Why should not The Son of David (Luke 18:38) have been a relatively small man like His great ancestor? It never seems to have occurred to most image-makers that Jesus could be relatively short, or stout, or even have had a receding hairline. This is in spite of the fact that one of the few details the Bible does give us about Christ's appearance is that "He has no form or comeliness; And when we see Him, There is no beauty that we should desire Him." (Is. 53:2b) The fact that we have any concept of what Jesus looks like and that Gibson's Jesus looks like the traditional Jesus, is a testament to the abiding impact of past iconography. While the Gospels, purposely leave out any description of Jesus that we might use to construct an idol, people have created an image of Jesus that has become almost an industry standard, and it is solely for that reason rather than any basis in fact that audiences would have been outraged had Gibson cast Danny DeVito and not James Caviezel in the leading role.

The Second reason why all visual representations of Jesus are lies is that they can never hope to represent the glory of Christ in His true nature. The best an image of Jesus can do is to represent him as a man, and while Jesus was truly a man, He was not merely a man. Jesus was also God, and no artist or filmmaker who has ever lived could hope to create an image that captures the true Glory of Jesus as God. While this may not appear to be a problem to us, the separation of Christ's manhood from His deity is actually a grave heresy called Nestorianism. We must not therefore attempt to separate what God has forever joined together.

For the first four centuries of its existence the church did not use pictures of Jesus as an aid to evangelism. This was despite the fact that they were bringing the gospel to highly visual cultures that had always used imagery to convey religious ideas. The initial movements towards making pictures of Christ were initially strongly opposed, and the practice was formally condemned by the church as late as 753 AD. Unfortunately, once they had taken hold of the public imagination, the practice of making visible representations of Christ proved difficult if not impossible to eradicate and gradually, pictures and dramatic representations of Jesus became quite commonplace in the church. At the time of the Reformation, Protestants overwhelmingly rejected the practice of making images of Jesus as a clear violation of the Second Commandment. They also rejected the notion that such images had a necessary role as "textbooks for the laity" and then proved that notion false by producing generations of other Protestants well versed in the word and familiar with their Savior although they had never once owned or seen a representation of him.

Rather than visual imagery, they relied on the preaching of the Word to save souls, and the gospel made great advances. If we return to the use of imagery and begin endorsing movies like The Passion of the Christ, we will be returning to the very state of affairs the first Protestants struggled and died to reform. We must not think that merely endorsing one form of visible representation of Christ will not lead inevitably to others. For instance, it is impossible to make a coherent argument against the use of the crucifix in teaching the Gospel if we have already endorsed the use of a movie that portrays the crucifixion. Merely because one display is static and the other moving does not change their essential nature at all. The Passion of the Christ is in essence, an animated Crucifix.

In closing, let me address a common objection, namely that we must use tools like The Passion of the Christ in order to reach the lost and that if we don't we are "missing a great opportunity."

Are we really missing an opportunity though? If we are convinced that using a Roman Catholic movie to present the Gospel is in essence a violation of God's law, how could we possibly use it? Should we sin that grace may abound?

Also, are we really certain that this will be as effective as we think in saving souls? J. Marcellus Kik in his Pictures of Christ addressed that very question and gave us some wise advice, which I think all Christians would do well to heed:

"But can it not help in the saving of souls, it is asked. But how? Looking at a picture of Christ hanging upon the cross tells me nothing. It does not tell me that He hung there for sin. It does not tell me that He hung there for my sin. It does not tell me that He is the Son of God. Only the Word of God does that. And it is the Word of God that has been given us to tell the story of salvation through the blood of Christ. It is not through the foolishness of pictures that sinners are converted but through the foolishness of preaching.

It is amazing how slowly unscriptural practices enter the Christian Church. We must at all times go back to the Scriptures. The Bible is our infallible guide. And if our practices and doctrines do not conform with the teachings of the Scriptures then we must eliminate them. The Bible instructs the Church not to make any likeness of Christ. The present day pictures of Christ are false and no one would make a serious claim that they resemble Christ upon earth. They separate His humanity from His deity. They do not at all give us a glimpse of His present glory. They are not condoned by the inspired apostles.

God has ordained the foolishness of preaching to evangelize the world. He has promised to attend the preaching of the Word with the power of the Holy Spirit. The so-called pictures of Christ are a hindrance and a temptation to idolatry. Let us cleanse the Temple of God from them." 14

Perhaps The Passion of the Christ will provide Evangelicals with a great opportunity after all. They are being given a rare opportunity to reject the world's methods and to recommit themselves to fulfilling God's commission to preach the Gospel and to trust that that preaching will always accomplish what He pleases. Let us hope that they will seize it.

Read more on the Relationship between the Second Commandment and Images of Jesus

 

Endnotes:

1. 13-January-2004 -- EWTNews Feature http://www.ewtn.com/vnews/getstory.asp?number=42801

2. "Churches Make 'Stunning' Show of Support for Gibson's 'Passion'" Newsmax (Thursday, Feb. 5, 2004)

3. Interestingly enough, the actual death of Jesus on the cross produced hardly any conversions. It is the preaching of Christ Crucified that has historically been "the best opportunity for evangelism"

4. Papal Praise for "The Passion" "It Is as It Was," John Paul II Says ZENIT (2003-12-18) ttp://www.zenit.org/english/visualizza.phtml?sid=46445

5. "Mel Gibson's 'Christ' Reveals Crucifixion" Newsmax (Sunday, Jan. 25, 2004 )

6. This is especially true when one considers that all the Gospels were written in Koine Greek the common language of the area and not Aramaic or Latin.

7. "The passion of Mel Gibson" By TERRY MATTINGLY, Scripps Howard News Service, January 21, 2004

8. The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 29.2

9. Father Thomas Rosica on Mel Gibson's "The Passion", National Director of World Youth Day 2002 Weighs in on Film (2004-02-06) http://www.zenit.org/english/visualizza.phtml?sid=48636

10. The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich

11. Ibid.

12. "Churches Make 'Stunning' Show of Support for Gibson's 'Passion'", Newsmax (Thursday, Feb. 5, 2004)

13. "What Others Are Saying" http://www.passionchrist.org/

14. "Pictures of Christ," by J. Marcellus Kik


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