Despite the reservations expressed by some critics, there can be little doubt that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a cinematic masterpiece. While stylized, even theatrical, in character, the acting is impressive, the cinematography breathtaking, the musical score powerful and haunting. Even the film’s message is skillfully conveyed, if not always with subtlety. And to have all the actors deliver their lines convincingly in two dead languages (Aramaic and Latin) is something of a tour-de-force.
But The Passion of the Christ is also profoundly disturbing, and on more than one level. Complaints about graphic violence are not exaggerated; indeed, what we are presented with is an orgy of brutality, a glorification in its own way of suffering and human cruelty. Gibson clearly set out to push buttons, and he has no doubt succeeded. But he has succeeded perhaps too well. For some people, those buttons should trigger a reaction which the director did not have in mind.
The Christian myth of salvation is a powerful one, and has captured literally the minds of millions over the centuries. But its foundations are rationally and morally unsound. There are several moments in the film that should serve to undermine the protective wall circumscribing the believing mind. The first is in the opening scene, set in a dark and brooding Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus, knowing what is to befall him, is wracked with fear and dread; the sweat pours from him in horrible anticipation. He asks his Father to let the cup pass, but if that is not possible, he bows to the Father’s “will.”The scene is set for an ordeal that is portrayed as it is in so much Christian writing as the will of God himself.
The second moment comes late in the crucifixion scene, as Jesus is expiring on the cross. The camera’s perspective rushes dizzyingly skyward, high above the hilltop where so much pain and cruelty have transpired, as though Jesus’ spirit or the wail of his death agony have soared to heaven, and out of that heaven falls a single great drop of water, plunging to earth and splashing onto the rocks near the cross. The tear, we are led to assume, of God himself. God has been moved to weep at the scene below him.
The third moment is the final fade-out of the Calvary event. Jesus has been taken down from the cross, a broken body of blood and filth and lacerated flesh, now lying dead in his mother’s arms. The face of Mary (she is consummately played by a little known Romanian actress) is the face of all good and grieving humanity when overwhelmed by the world’s evils and suffering. Then she raises her eyes to the camera as it draws slowly away. For several long moments those eyes rest upon the viewers’ own, quietly telling them that they themselves are guilty of bringing about this monstrous act, this death of man and God.
And yet, what has come to pass is the will of God, for so the New Testament constantly tells us, from Paul to the Gospels. If the object has been to absolve humanity of its sins, the absolution is at God’s discretion, and it is he who has decided what shall elicit such forgiveness from him. At least, so we would be compelled to conclude. Within the religious view, a system of forgiveness and salvation does not exist independently from God’s creation and direction. It is God who must be placated for the world’s sins, not some eternal force or principle that lies independent of him or of his will. What hovers over the entire film is the brooding cloud of God’s presence, dark and scowling, but one conveying a sense of divine satisfaction at the unfolding of his plan. Whence, then, the tear from heaven, for it surely cannot be occasioned by doubt or regret?
The Christian myth thus imputes to its God a preference for suffering and brutality. Less horrific alternatives have obviously been rejected by him. If all things are possible to God, other systems of salvation should have been available. If no standards of good and evil exist outside God’s mind (the position of those who declare that only the God-serving can be good), then he can choose the paths he wishes in order to carry out his designs. As well, if there is to be any continuity between God and his creatures, if we are to gain any insight into his requirements, we must assume that the general standards of good and evil we have acquired are the same as his; otherwise, we are lost in a chaotic uncertainty. If torture, injustice, suffering, murder are evil to our minds, we have to assume they are evil to God’s mind. And yet this is the procedure he has chosen to effect our salvation; moreover, it is one that must be performed by the very people who need to renounce and be forgiven for such sins. To make matters worse, it must be performed on the Deity himself, on the very being to whom we owe love and worship and from whom we are hoping to gain forgiveness. God has established a bizarre system through which our sins are forgiven by the forced commission of the greatest sin of all. This is a deicide to haunt the mind, if not to drive it insane.
That such a thing could arise from an eternal, all-loving, omnipotent God is beyond belief or else we truly live in a mad universe.
What are we to make of the juxtaposition of God’s requirement of this barbarous act with his directive that we should “love one another” Gibson actually intercuts the two elements within the film. Jesus, through the one eye left to him that has not been swollen shut from the beating he has received, sees things along the road to death that prompt him to recall earlier Gospel moments. One of these is the Johannine supper scene, where the love command is given to the disciples, another the Sermon on the Mount with the admonition to the multitude to love one’s enemies. This direct juxtaposition ought to create a jarring incongruity in the mind of the viewer. Is this the same Deity who urges peace and love, and yet has fashioned salvation out of atrocity and murder?
At that supper, Jesus speaks what is one of the most oft-quoted lines from any of the Gospels (John 15:13): “There is no greater love than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends.” This is a concept which seems to overwhelm most Christians. More than one person interviewed while exiting a theater after seeing The Passion of the Christ has said: “To think that he suffered all that for me.” Altruism is a commendable feature, even of a god; we humans consider the capacity for it to be one of our highest virtues. Yet there is a difference between a person rushing into a burning house to save someone at the risk of his own life, and a person who sets the fire himself in order to play the hero. The latter has perpetrated the evil, and has hardly set a good example to the community. If he has somehow managed to make the occupant feel responsible for the rescuer’s need to set the fire, the situation becomes unconscionable.
One of the most compelling secondary roles in this film, and a fine piece of acting, is that of Simon of Cyrene, who is pressed by the Roman soldiers into helping Jesus carry the cross. While adamantly reluctant at first, Simon is soon so moved by the wretched man struggling alongside him that he strives to take on the full weight of the cross himself and even to become Jesus’ protector from the vicious soldiers. This is true altruism, and once they arrive at their destination, he is forcibly sent on his way. Gibson portrays him as a stranger, and his beliefs are unknown. He is not a follower of Jesus and may not even be a Jew. I like to see him as the film’s token atheist, though I am sure that Gibson did not intend him that way.
Mary’s sorrowful, penetrating gaze with her dead son in her arms reminds one of every priest, minister and televangelist who would convince us that it is perfectly normal for their God to act like the stern parent who, when the child spills his supper, goes ballistic and destroys the house, leaving the family cold and miserable, and then accuses the child of being responsible. In The Passion of the Christ, God is the unseen director of the action, the scriptwriter, the casting director, the special effects producer. This picture of a God who has masterminded the ghastly events so vividly presented in this film is not a pretty sight, and Gibson’s sometimes over-the-top presentation only brings this home with shocking clarity.
Of course, this is not the only example of God’s tendency to overreaction. Lurking in the background through Gibson’s film is the figure of Satan, portrayed by a woman, though she comes across androgynously. God may be the mastermind, but Satan is the vulture, the agent in God’s scheme of things who reaps the rewards from humanity’s weakness and guilt. Behind Satan lies his abode (mercifully not shown in the film), the terrible place of unending punishment repentant humans have been saved from by the torture and murder of Jesus. Again the anomaly is striking. It is murderers and other evildoers who are fated for such a place, yet it is the murderers and evildoers who have been called upon to perform God’s act of salvation.
It is supremely ironic that the faith movement which has most hailed itself as the religion of love contains the two most brutal and inhuman concepts ever to emerge from mankind’s religious compulsions: the crucifixion of Jesus and the punishment of Hell. Christian history is replete with the extermination of heretics, crusades against the infidel, religious wars between its own sects, bloody inquisitions and witch-burnings. One has only to view Gibson’s film to get a sense of where the ultimate inspiration has come from.
Two other lines in The Passion of the Christ have an unintended impact. As Jesus struggles along the hard-cobbled street, falling several times under the weight of the cross (before Simon is pressed into service), his mother Mary and her companion, Mary Magdalene played by another compelling actress who speaks hardly a single line follow at a distance, reacting to the unfolding horror. With each stumble, Mary is torn by grief and pity, by the heart-wrenching concern of a mother for her son.
This may be the most emotionally affecting element of the entire film, and should genuinely move the viewer to tears. At one fall, we are given a flashback to Jesus’ childhood when Mary rushes to comfort the boy as he tumbles in the field. In the present moment, it is too much for her, and throwing caution to the wind, she rushes to his side as the great wooden beams crush him once more to the paving stones. “I am here, my son,” she says. This is the one moment where Gibson truly stumbles, for he cannot make the next line work. Amid the agony of mother and son, Jesus gasps: “Mother, see, I have made all things new.” Gibson has adapted this verse from Revelation (21:5), where it is spoken by God. Those who are not struck by its sheer incongruity within this film are probably beyond redemption. To think that this orgy of cruelty and suffering we are in the process of witnessing, from the grisly bloodletting of the scourging which seems to go on for hours to the graphic driving of the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet, was the means which served to change the world, that this was God’s way of making “all things new,” only speaks to the human mind’s ability to hold the most irrational and outrageous ideas and build a faith around them.
The other line comes in the supper discourse. To his disciples Jesus declares, as Christianity has declared to the world for two millennia: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The line is disconcerting coming from the Jesus of this film, as played by Jim Caviezel. His is a relatively unpretentious portrayal, a gentle good man with an appealing charisma. For him to voice the sentiment that has long served to divide families, peoples, nations, turn non-believers into infidels, consign vast portions of humanity that never knew or had a chance to know this singular savior to the ranks of the damned, seems out of place even in this film.
But that has always been the effect of religious belief: division, factionalism, alienation. No one faith has ever gained, nor will ever gain, a universal following. And so there will always be outsiders, pagans, enemies, candidates for damnation. Sectarian allegiance instills a sense of superiority, privilege, sanctity, while those not part of the spiritual elite are relegated to outer darkness. Gibson’s film drives this home, with its setting of murderous conflict between differing religious convictions, a conflict that continues to wreak havoc even unto our own day. The bloody ordeal of one man becomes symbolic of the effects of infection by the idea of the supernatural within the human brain.
The saving death of Jesus represents a primitive concept, the principle of blood sacrifice both of animals and of humans which was regarded by ancient and prehistoric man as the fundamental way to placate and intercede with the gods. It was part of the natural order; in fact it was so taken for granted that no one anywhere in the bible, Old or New Testaments, offers a justification for it, or an explanation of how it works. Christians today are just as much in the dark about why the death of Jesus should have atoning power with God. Ironically, those same modern Christians would universally regard the ritual killing of humans or animals as outdated and repugnant in any other area of society’s life. And yet they continue to endorse it by their adherence to the idea of Jesus as a blood sacrifice on their behalf.
As modern science and culture progresses, the suffocating weight of ancient superstition is hopefully becoming more evident and more unacceptable. The extreme expression of anything always provokes a backlash. The further the pendulum swings in one direction, the more energy is imparted to it for the backward swing. Perhaps we ought to be thankful to Mel Gibson for laying out the stark reality of Christianity’s world-view.
Books by Earl Doherty:
“The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ?”
“Challenging the Verdict: A Cross-Examination of Lee Strobel’s ‘The Case for Christ’ “
The Jesus Puzzle: Was There No Historical Jesus?
By Earl Doherty