The Passion of the Christ is a work of art. This means that
it utilizes a medium to convey a vision of some serious aspect of
the human condition. The medium in the case of a film has several levels: the
roll of celluloid that can be produced, maintained or destroyed like any other
physical object; the visual and auditory images that appear to the viewer; and
the events represented by means of those images. It is a mistake, often
repeated, to take the events presented as what the film is about. That might be
true of a strict documentary, if there is such a thing. But even a "home
video" is not just about the events recorded, but about the life, the
"happy family," and so on, which is seen through the events.
The events depicted in The Passion are those of the
agonies, torture, and death of Jesus Christ. Those events are depicted in a
certain way by the one who created the film, Mel Gibson, in an effort to project
his vision of the human condition. This is just the sort of thing an
artist does. The events selected, and how they are presented, determine which
vision of the human condition is, or can be, shared by the artist and the
viewer. Although the interchange between the artist and the viewer is very
intricate, subject to many influences and liable to misfire, in the ideal case
the viewer would "pick up" the vision which the artist had in
creating, and which he has successfully embodied in the work of art. Then the
viewer would, in a manner, experience the experience of the artist, and thereby
have a new and more profound grasp of what the artist "sees."
The Vision of Human Redemption
In the case of The Passion, the vision is one of human redemption
according to one traditional Christian understanding. This involves two parts:
the condition of human lostness and evil, and the act or process by which
deliverance from that condition is made possible. The first part in turn has two
elements: the appalling evil actually present in human life, and the effort of
Satan to keep humanity from escaping its disastrous condition. The second part,
the act or process of redemption, goes precisely contrary to anything that might
be imagined from the human point of view, with its regard for power and its
acceptance of the evil that is always "required" to make human power
work. It is an act that allows corrupt humanity, ruled by Satan through its most
exalted institutions, to have its way to the utmost extent, to do its
"damnedest," without moving a finger to resist it.
The felt absence of God from the scene of the crucifixion in the
movie—"Why hast Thou forsaken me"—is the ultimate point of
"non-resistance." And the prayer for the forgiveness of the immediate
perpetrators of such an evil and injustice—because they "know not what
they do"—indicates the complete hopelessness of those in the grip of
evil. Together, by contrast, the acts and words of Christ affirm the presence of
another world—the world of truth and not power, of the kingdom of God—from
which redemption and deliverance from overwhelming evil into goodness is
Too Much Violence and Brutality? Critics of The Passion have complained about the extent of the
violence inflicted upon Christ, as presented in the film. The unrelenting
bruising and beating and suffering shown has been rejected as unnecessary, and
as undesirable for the viewer. I suspect that these critics come close to
missing the entire point of the film, which is the nature of human redemption.
Nowadays human redemption is not thought to amount to much, and what little
there is to it can be dealt with by education and counseling, and perhaps a law
here and there, or some improvement in living conditions. Gibson certainly is
much closer to the core of traditional Christian teaching in his vision of the
human heart and its world as a reservoir of unlimited capacity to hurt and to
Those currently regarded as "in the know" about human life, with their remedies, have to turn a blind eye to the actual course of
human events. Up to today, multitudes of human beings are tortured, slaughtered, and starved on a daily basis by those who have the power to do so, and lying, cheating, stealing, and sanctimonious hardness of heart are routine in societies which, nevertheless, take themselves to be "better" than
others. Through the medium of the events of Christ’s Passion, portrayed as an unceasing stream of wonton violence upon Jesus, tearing his body to shreds, the
film communicates a vision of human evil that is off the scale of human capacity
to deal with it.
Indeed, as the word ‘evil’ has tried to edge its way back
into public discourse in recent years, the academic mind in particular finds
itself threatened, precisely because the word suggests something that is beyond
any human remedy. It is an affront to human pride to think that there is
something about our condition that we could not fix—given the desire to fix
it, and enough time to tinker with it. The Passion, by contrast, presents
a humanity that takes delight in hurting people, that does not even want to
"fix it," and a humanity that chooses to implement its will through
permitting or perpetrating deeds of the most heinous quality. The unremitting
violence depicted in the film is highly effective in forcefully presenting a
vision of this aspect of the human condition.
The Demonic Dimension Satan is essential to this vision. Perhaps this is what the contemporary
academic mindset senses. His presence accounts for the seemingly unlimited
extent of human wrongdoing. He has humanity in his grasp through the ideas and
arrangements he has developed throughout history, and he wants to keep them
there. His tools are gratification of desire, impressive appearance, and
physical force. Recall how he tempts Jesus to use these in the three temptations
of Jesus in chapter 4 of the Gospel according to Matthew. Satan’s focus in the
film is upon Jesus, the one who, alone, can break his grip on the human world,
devoted as it is to power and deceit, and can deliver human beings from the mire
of sin and evil in which they flounder.
Satan knows Jesus to be the only truly radical person to enter
human history; for Jesus, if undiverted, will refuse to use evil to defeat evil,
and will set afoot a new order that does not employ the devices by which evil
persons try to secure themselves and get their way. Satan’s project was to
stop Jesus from getting to his redemptive act of crucifixion. From the beginning
of Jesus’ earthly life, he had tried to destroy him or to deflect him. Now, in
the final hours before the cross, Satan tries to break Jesus down by pressuring
him with the hopelessness, in human terms ("No man. No man."), of what
Jesus is attempting. After the crucifixion and death scenes, Satan’s final
appearance in the film shows his total exasperation and despair at having failed
to keep Christ from doing the one thing that would open the doors to deliverance
of human beings from the grasp of evil by demonstrating the power of good over
Gibson’s film is an amazing recovery of an understanding of
Satan’s role in human life, and in the "Passion," that has been
almost totally lost from view in recent centuries. The bland or banal presence
of evil among human beings is forcibly expressed in the face, words, and actions
of the person who plays Satan. It is particularly effective in the striking
figure of this person carrying a grotesque and contented human being in its arms
through the crowd around the scene of the seemingly endless beating of Jesus.
The look of self-satisfaction on the face of the dwarf in Satan’s arms
expresses the fact that Satan has humanity under his direction, and is using
them, in their deluded condition, to torture Jesus. His aim is to see Jesus die
in the beating—only the intervention of Pilate’s man avoids this in the film—or
to provoke Jesus into asserting his miraculous powers against those who are
harming him. In either case, the progression toward the cross, and the effectual
insertion of the radical act of redemption into world history, would be
prevented, and Satan would continue his rule. The wretched outcome of that rule
for humans is seen in the film from its effects on human character, on
human government (sacred and secular), in the plucking out of the eye of the
unrepentant thief, and in the horrific progression of Judas toward his own tree
and his suicide. But Jesus and God have a strategy to break down the rule of
Who Was Really in Charge? At one point in the film, on the Via Dolorosa, the way of sorrows,
Jesus actually embraces his cross, saying, "I am your servant,
Father." Simon of Cyrene, who has been forced to help him, is astonished
that he would do this. But embracing the cross is the central moment in the
wisdom of Christ concerning human redemption, and it finds its place in many
forms of early and later Christian practice. It symbolizes a radical strategy in
bringing humans back to God from their bondage to Satan and the
"world." Embracing the cross with Jesus is to be our salvation.
It is to release ourselves into the realm of God, into God’s care, and to stop
trying to work the human system of power and desire to get what we want.
This understanding of the human need freely to release ourselves
into the realm of God, and to abandon our efforts to rule ourselves, makes clear
the wisdom of Christ in embracing the cross. That need could only be
redemptively met in a way that makes its satisfaction available to human beings
world-wide, and without regard to their particular circumstances. Only by Jesus
Christ publicly suffering and dying in circumstances of the worst kind—imposed
by a range of different kinds of people, especially Romans and Jews—and then
living on beyond all that in the power and goodness of God, could he open the
possibility of a good and righteous life to everyone in the world.
Thus one might suspect that the very language, "the
Passion," is misleading as to the nature of the events involved in Jesus’
crucifixion. The phrase is often understood to simply mean "the
suffering" of Christ. It conveys the idea of passivity, of something
being done to someone who is totally at the mercy of surrounding people or
events. Jesus is thus often presented in the Garden of Gethsemane as cowering in
the face of upcoming death, as begging God to allow him to live, and as unable
to do anything about what was being done to him, a helpless rag tossed about by
the dogs of hell. He was, in short, a pathetic victim.
But in the light of who, on the Christian reading, he really was
and is, we would err badly if we were to describe his torture and death simply
as "the Passion." Suffer he certainly did. But it is Jesus himself who
was in charge of events and people involved in the story. He "played"
them—not exactly like a piano, for the people involved still had their choices
to make—to achieve his end of blowing open a carefully prepared but tiny
cultural enclave of redemption and stepping upon the stage of world history,
where he has remained up to the present. As he said at a crucial turning point
in his career: "I, when I am lifted up from the earth [in crucifixion],
will draw all people to myself." (John 12:32) We need to see clearly the
profound wisdom of his chosen path toward his goal.
Could There Have Been Other Ways? As we look through the Gospels we see that Jesus very purposively turned
away from "opportunities" to be a political or military leader or a
king, or to leave Palestine and be a teacher in the larger world of the Roman
empire. (See the passage just cited.) With his incredible power and
attractiveness, there were many ways he could have avoided the cross had he
wished to do so. He could have founded the ultimate welfare state, producing
wine and food by a mere word. But, as he clearly told his followers at the time:
"I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me,
but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have
power to take it up again." (John 10:17-18) This was what "the
Father" wanted him to do, and the Father loves and honors him for doing it.
Exercises in imagining another path for Jesus besides a bloody
crucifixion are not entirely lacking. We have The Last Temptation of Christ,
the book and the movie, and now The Da Vinci Code, the book and movie
soon to be. Now try to imagine yourself loving, worshipping, giving up your life
for such a person as the Jesus of those books. Imagine a great civilization
formed around him. Imagine, if you can, the saints and martyrs that have
formed the core of Christian believers throughout the ages living and dying as
they did for that "Jesus." Imagine the multitudes now
dying for Christ in many places throughout our world doing that. For that
matter, try to imagine the authors, Nikos Kazantzakis or Dan Brown, laying down
their lives in devotion or in death for the Jesus they present in their
writings. But of course multitudes of remarkable and unremarkable human beings
have given and will give everything to and for the Christ of Mel Gibson’s The
Passion. One has to think that Jesus really knew what he was doing.
The Kingdom of God No one can understand the events of the "passion" unless they see
them in the light of the kingdom of God, "the kingdom of the
heavens," and thereby in the light of what God intends to bring out of
human life and human history. Most any New Testament scholar will tell you that
Jesus’ life and message was all about "the kingdom." What they
usually miss, however, is exactly what Jesus did and said about the
kingdom. Simply, by his acts and words he invited anyone at all, no matter who
or what they were, to live in the kingdom of God now, by trusting—relying
on, putting their confidence in—him. The events of his "passion" and
afterward, as traditionally understood, demonstrated to his followers and other
observers that what Jesus said about the kingdom and its availability is true.
To live through and beyond torture and the cross in resurrection life
shows the presence of a world of God among men.
In the simplest possible terms, the kingdom of God is God in
action. It is the range of God’s effective will, where what God wants done
is done. Jesus is a reformulation and embodiment of the message about God and
his kingdom that runs through the history of the Jewish people recorded in the
Bible. Jesus said: "Seek above all to live within the kingdom rule of God,
and to have the kind of goodness he has, and all else you need will be provided
with it." (Matthew 6:33 paraphrase) The Psalmist said simply and
concretely, "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want." (Psalm 23) In
one of the historical books of the Old Testament a prophet is quoted as saying:
"The eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may
strongly support those whose heart is completely His." (2nd
Chronicles 16:9) This is what Jesus knew as he went through his sufferings and
death. In that knowledge he simultaneously wrote across the pages of human
history the depth of human meanness and brutality and the unlimited reach of God’s
love and power.
It was knowledge of the presence and unfailing availability of
God to those who trust him that led Jesus to say all the beautiful things
(largely already recorded in the Psalms) which we wistfully acknowledge,
but hardly believe to be true: all of those things about birds and flowers being
in the care of God, of course, and about how we need never be anxious or afraid,
no matter what comes, even crucifixion. The basic idea is that this world—with
all its evil, pushed to the limit in what Jesus went through going toward and on
the cross—is a perfectly good and safe place for anyone to be, no matter the
circumstances, if they have only placed their lives in the hands of Jesus and
his Father. We never have to do what we know to be wrong, and we never need be
afraid. And Jesus practiced what he preached, even as he was tortured and
killed. And so have multitudes of his followers.
The Hidden God But the kingdom of God is not overwhelmingly obvious, to say the
least. It is something one must seek, and therefore something we must want.
Isaiah, the prophet, exclaims that "Truly, you are a God who hides
himself." (45:15) He was the one who gave us the concept of deus
absconditus, the hidden God, now deeply interwoven into Christian tradition.
And why would God hide himself? Because God loves us, he wants to be known to
us. That is the way of love. But because we, in our rebellion against him, are
hardened in our insistence on having our own "kingdom," he must hide
from us to allow us to hide from him and to pretend we, individually and
corporately, are in charge of our life. He is such a great and magnificent being
that, if he did not hide from us, we could not hide from him. He allows us the
pretense of being our own god because that is what we want, what we choose.
Pushed to the limit, this choice results in the terrible evils of which we have
Only the hiddenness of God, then, allows people to define
themselves. The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) had a
point, though not the one he thought. He said that since there is no God, man
has no nature. Man must therefore make of himself whatever he is to be. This
view is logically incoherent, strictly speaking. Something with no nature cannot
do anything. (Yes! Yes! I know. Something more can be said for Sartre
here.) The Renaissance humanist Pico Della Mirandola (1463-1494) perhaps came
closer to the truth. His view was that in man God had produced a creature that
had the responsibility of becoming what he is to become by the choices he makes.
God allows, indeed requires, that we choose to act on the basis of our
desires, and that we freely decide what we will live for. What we choose in
selecting among our desires for fulfillment determines what kinds of persons we
become. What we decide to seek in life is the key to our character, and further
determines what our character will be. God, like persons in general, wants to be
wanted, and tries not to be manifestly present where he is not wanted. He is
unwilling to impose himself on anyone if and as long as that can be avoided.
Would "More Evidence" Really Help? Many individuals have protested that they would believe in God if
they had more evidence. It needs to be pointed out, however, that just believing
that God exists is not the only issue. What kind of God are we talking about?
And is it indeed true that they would then believe? How much more
evidence would it take? And would they then be glad there is a God? Would they
then believe because they wanted God, wanted it to be his world, wanted not to
be God—the ultimate point of reference in their lives—themselves? Would they
be prepared to love God? More than evidence is required to bring a person
to that point. And is it completely clear that the "more evidence"
called for is not already available to those who are willing to seek it? Does
the evidence have to be presented in a way that the unbeliever cannot avoid it,
cannot not be aware of it?
It would be a small victory for God, if he exists, to wring
belief out of a human being, but is that an outcome worth pursuing for him? In
the The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis has the senior devil, Screwtape,
say to his protégé, Wormwood:
You must have wondered why the Enemy does not make more use
of his power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses
and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the
Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids
Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but
the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him
useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat
the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet
themselves. (Lewis 1962, pp. 46-48)
So we might say that God let’s himself be known, for
example, in the story and person of Jesus. He is available to those who really want
him. "When you search for me," the old prophet said, "you will
find me; if you seek me with all your heart." (Jeremiah 29:13) But he will
not force himself upon you, not jump down your throat. And if you in your heart
really want to be God yourself, you probably will not find him. You will find
Jesus’ Low Profile Approach The craftiness of Christ in taking the cross is of a piece with the
hiddenness of God. The means he employed to secure the end he had in view left
God hidden to all. His end was to bring out of human history a world-wide,
non-ethnic community of human beings who have the character of God, expressed in
Jesus himself and in agape love: a character spelled out in a many-sided
way by the contents of the New Testament and the lives of the best of
Christ-followers throughout the ages. Jesus accomplishes this objective by
showing us how to return good for evil in a power beyond ourselves. That has to
be something we freely want, however, and something we choose to develop the
character for. The wisdom of the cross makes this possible.
Remarkably, even after his resurrection Jesus continued his
low-profiled ways. The human mode would have been to pay a post-resurrection
visit to Pilate, perhaps, and to say something like, "Now could we have
that discussion about power and truth once again?" Or perhaps to swing by
the High Priest’s house, or causally to drop in on the Sanhedrin in session.
But no. That of course would have only been to give in to the temptations
earlier posed to him by Satan. It would have been the "wisdom" of man,
not the wisdom of God. Instead, "God raised him [Jesus] up on the third day
and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by
God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the
dead." (Acts 10:42) And then, of all things, he simply sent his bedraggled
little friends out to the whole world to enlist students to him, promising his
unseen presence with them. With nothing, to begin with, but his example, words
and personal presence, they, to a striking extent, overcame a world of brutality
routinely equal to that displayed in The Passion; often dying in the
process, but also convincing multitudes of the vision and the ethical
idealization incarnate in Jesus and his cross. All of this is simply a fact, as
it is a fact that for the last two centuries or so historical force has been
against this vision and idealization.
The Solution to an Unsolved Philosophical Problem However, the philosophical problem of how to develop human beings into a
character that will keep human life from being "poor, brutish, nasty and
short," to use the words of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), has not been solved.
It was not solved in antiquity. The route of education and law, which Plato
(427-347 BC) and Aristotle (384-322 BC) tried to lay down, proved to be
ineffectual for human nature as it is. The Greeks finally had to invite the
Romans in to stop their fratricides. The route of careful soul-management, which
Stoic and Epicurean philosophers later retreated into, more or less conceded the
world to evil, and concentrated on telling individuals how to make life in a
hellish world bearable. It was into this scene of intellectual despair that the
community of Christ came, after his death, with its message of hope for the
terrible "City of Man." This religious message was based on the
presence of the "City of God" on earth now, taking all comers, and
projecting them into a present and an everlasting future bright with hope. It
was one of the cross combined with agape love: love first from God, seen
in the cross, and then love filling human beings in all the dimensions of
ordinary life. The message was an invitation to a love that "never
fails" (1 Corinthians 13:8) and from which nothing can ever separate us.
The philosophical problem of how to develop moral character in
human beings, so that they actually lead a moral life, has not been solved
today. Indeed, though that problem was arguably the most important matter for
moral thought in antiquity, it is now a problem that those known as the leading
contemporary moral philosophers will hardly touch or try to relate to their
theories. The main difficulty in solving it has always been that individuals and
groups must start from a history of evil, and the way to overcome that history
has, arguably, never been found outside of the pattern set by Christ and his
people. Forgiveness has to be a massive reality in the heart of human affairs.
This is available in Christ’s way of crucifixion. If there are other promising
ways, of course, they should be fairly and thoroughly considered, and the
generosity of Christ is such that, if we can find a better way than his, he
would certainly be to first to tell us to take it.
Questions for Further Reflection
Do you think that the religious answer provided by Christ
solves the philosophical problem of how to develop moral character in
What do you think of the idea that Jesus was actually
"in charge" of the events associated with his "passion"?
Now suppose that you are in the position of Jesus,
and you have his objectives. What would you do differently?
Let’s suppose that Jesus responded to the taunts to come
down from the cross by doing just that. How would the story go from that
point up to the present?
Must God hide? How obvious would you like him to be?
Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the
Twentieth Century. London: Jonathan Cape, 1999.
N. R. Hanson, What I Do Not Believe and Other Essays, ed. by
Stephen Toulmin and Harry Woolf. Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1972.
C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters., New York, NY: The
Macmillan Company, 1962.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of
Man, trans. by A. Robert Caponigri. Chicago: University of Chicago
Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism. New York, NY:
Philosophical Library, 1947.
Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy. San Francisco,
CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.