Estimating the Passion of the Christ

by Robert M. Zins

ISA 53:4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted.

With these words Isaiah, the Prophet of Israel, predicts the sufferings of the Messiah of Israel. With these words Isaiah predicts the Atonement of Jesus Christ the Son of God and Son of Man. With these words Isaiah predicts the death of death in the death of Jesus Christ the glorious savior of mankind and bearer of the penalty due to the sins of His people.

The facts recorded in Scripture are there for all to read. The first fact is that the suffering and death of Jesus Christ was foreordained by His heavenly Father. God ordained that Jesus Christ should suffer and die for the sins of His people.

ACT 4:27 “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, ACT 4:28 to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur.

The second fact is that Jesus underwent a baptism of fire. This baptism was His alone to endure. It included an ignominious death on a Roman cross between two thieves before a mocking throng.

LUK 23:35 And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.” LUK 23:36 And the soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, LUK 23:37 and saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!”

The third fact is that Jesus died and was raised from the dead by God on the third day. The final picture of Jesus’ physical presence on earth is recorded in the Bible is His ascension into Heaven after His resurrection.

ACT 1:6 And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” ACT 1:7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; ACT 1:8 but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth. ” ACT 1:9 And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. ACT 1:10 And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was departing, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them; ACT 1:11 and they also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”

There are two ways to focus on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The first way, which is the Roman Catholic way, is to emphasize over and over the suffering of Jesus with a view to emulate and perpetuate it. The second way, which is the Christian way, is to emphasize over and over again the death and resurrection of Jesus with a view to finding eternal security in it.

It is the thesis of the Roman Catholic religion that the sufferings of Jesus Christ are to be re-visited vicariously in their bloodless Mass as well as in self atonement for their sins. The gospel preached by Rome is self-denial and personal satisfaction for sin. Hence, Roman Catholics view the death of Christ as a personal example. The death of Jesus Christ serves to inspire them to be the best they can be. For their efforts, Roman Catholics expect that heaven awaits their meritorious and victorious life. The less victorious and meritorious the better chance that a Roman Catholic will land in Roman Catholic Purgatory.

Mel Gibson, as a Roman Catholic, could only have directed a movie about Jesus Christ that centered upon the sufferings of Jesus. The Roman Catholic premise is that the sufferings of Jesus can melt the heart of the most hardened sinners and somehow make them desire to share in the suffering of Jesus for their own sins. This is the portrait of Roman Catholic theology. This is the image of Roman Catholic art. Everything in the Roman Catholic religion is designed to depict the suffering of Christ. The expectation is the emulation of Jesus’ suffering by His followers for the salvation of their souls.

The message of the Passion of the Christ is the Roman Catholic message. The image of Jesus undergoing such excruciating pain begs the question, “If this perfect and innocent man can endure so much at the hands of wicked men then what should I be doing?” Furthermore, “should I not be able to endure far less affliction for the sake of this very same man who has now gone to heaven and left me His example?” The idea is that self-sacrificing begets self-sacrificing. Hence, with every whip lash and with every stinging rod comes the quiet voice of guilt that demands like suffering in return. How can I resist self-sacrificing after seeing what true suffering entails?

If Mr. Gibson were a Christian he would have made a movie illustrating the suffering of Jesus as a backdrop to a more fundamentally important revelation. Rather than suffering that is designed to produce a suffering audience, the pain of Jesus would have been designed to induce a hopeless despair in the audience and joy in the heart of Christians. A Christian would let the agony of Jesus serve notice that no man can pay the awful price for his own sins! The Christian gospel moves through and beyond the anguish, pain, torment and affliction of Jesus to the purpose, person and design of the misery. The death of Jesus was horrific. But the God inspired New Testament authors are more concerned with the fact of the death of Jesus and the purpose of the death of Jesus than the details of the physical ordeal. This is due in part because Christian theology is adamantly opposed to using the anguish of Jesus as an impetus to “go and do likewise for your salvation.”

The Protestant reformers knew from reading the Scriptures that God did not put to death His Son as an example so that mere men would be encouraged to “pay a price” themselves to satisfy God’s wrath against sin. They came to understand that God put to death His Son because nothing else could satisfy the wrath of God. The guarantee that God was satisfied with the death of His Son for the sins of His people is found in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is ironic that Roman Catholic art and images are designed to induce self flagellation without the deep inner remorse that demands the lost to cry out “no hope, no hope!” Whereas the Christian gospel sees within the terrible cross of Jesus Christ “no hope for the lost because they cannot suffer enough for their sins” and because it produces within the Christian a deep and profound cry of “hope only in the sufferings of Jesus.”

Thus, Christians look bravely to the resurrection as proof that there is hope for them for the sake of Jesus Christ and His death alone. Without this message Mr. Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is just one more idol for destruction and one more icon separating Roman Catholics from the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The following article serves to show the importance of a historical and artistic perspective that all Christians should take into account with regards to Mr. Gibson. We live in precarious times. The interpretation and application of God’s Word is dominated by humanistic philosophers. Lead by a parade of Pelagian, Semi-Pelagian, Arminian and Evangelical Humanists the gospel has been disemboweled of its content and God continues to be misrepresented throughout the land by religious charlatans.

Though regrettable, it is understandable why so many confessing evangelicals like this movie. It appears that the false gospel of Rome intersects with the false teachings of many evangelicals. False prophets may rejoice with responses to this film such as, “Look at that suffering, does it not make us ashamed of our own suffering for God?” Or, “Look at that suffering, how shall we ignore a God who loves us so much?” Or, “Look at that suffering, let us all hold hands across the divide of faith and reason and feel God’s love for us.” However, regret at not suffering more for one’s idea of God is not the response the Gospel elicits. Also, sorrow over a failure to love more and sacrifice more for our fellow man is not the response the Gospel of Jesus Christ elicits. The Gospel brings with it a command to bow the knee to Jesus Christ Who at the right time died for the ungodly. The Gospel strips bare our pretence of goodness and the death of Christ drives a stake into the heart of our righteousness. For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 

How unpopular is the real gospel that announces the wrath of God upon all those who are outside of Jesus Christ. How out of favor is the real gospel that convicts men so deeply that they realize a thousand priests chanting the Roman mass a million times could not touch their sin. How detested is the real gospel that exposes the hapless ecumenical evangelical humanist. The Word of God does not envision eternal life for those who are ‘moved’ toward greater introspection and resolve to live better and love more. On the contrary, eternal life is for those who view the substitutionary suffering of Jesus rightly.

“Ye who think of sin but lightly Nor suppose the evil great Here may view its nature rightly Here its guilt may estimate Mark the sacrifice appointed See who bears the awful load Tis the Word the Lord’s anointed Son of man and Son of God”

Christians well understand that the preaching of the cross of Jesus Christ is a stumbling block. It is so because rightly viewing the suffering and death of Jesus amounts to a stumbling block for those who wish to imitate it to gain heaven. The foolishness of the cross is none other than that the death of Jesus Christ and faith in His atonement alone is the only criteria for eternal life.

The word of the cross is that Jesus paid it all. Nothing can be added to the suffering of Jesus to ensure eternal salvation. The word of the cross is that there is no room for self-salvation. All the effort one can muster to improve one’s self is struck dead by the death of Jesus Christ. The word of the cross is foolishness to those perishing because they are not stricken, smitten and afflicted with a sense of despair at their own goodness.

In an ironical sort of way Mel Gibson gives the world what it wants. He gives them hope if they can borrow from the suffering of Jesus to some way improve themselves. This makes the self-salvation and self improvement religion of Rome even more appealing. But, this is not the word of the cross that Christians have come to love and live for.

“For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18.

So Much Irony In This Passion:[FINAL Edition]

Paul Richard. The Washington Post. Washington, D.C.: Feb 29, 2004. pg. B.01

Full Text (1931 words)

Copyright The Washington Post Company Feb 29, 2004

If Protestant Americans, diverse as they are, can be said to share a symbol, it has to be the clean-cut cross of Jesus they so liberally display. Hallmark puts it on cards, churches set it atop spires, celebrities hang it in their bling-bling. It’s out there in our image-world, standing crisp and white. Like other symbols, it is a weapon, and it has a history.

There are mysteries in its meanings, but not in its look. Its look is obvious: The whiteness stands for purity; the brightness for the Light. And that exact rectilinearity, 90 degrees, right on, points toward God, because it’s perfect. This cross is not the crucifix of the Roman Catholic church. No Jesus hangs on it. He’s already resurrected. No nail holes, no adze-marks, no gall-and- vinegar stains soil this immaculate abstraction. It’s no more of flesh than a diagram in a book of geometry. It’s been cleansed. It’s been washed of blood.

What hasn’t been washed of blood, what bathes in it, is “The Passion of the Christ,” which may be the bloodiest movie ever. Blood gets so much screen time in Mel Gibson’s film — for its oozings and its spurtings and its smearing of the wall — that it becomes the picture’s star. “The Passion” is a torture flick, intentionally Baroque. Its look comes less from Scripture than it does from Counter-Reformation painting.

These two visions have competed through the centuries. The Protestant Reformation stripped the cross clean. Counter- Reformation art answered by pulling out all the visual stops to defend the Catholic Church while confounding the Protestants’ aesthetics. The paintings Gibson imitates shared a propagandistic purpose. They were weapons in the wars between Protestants and Catholics that swept through Northern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. And these weren’t merely culture wars. They were sword- and-cannon battles in which countless people died.

And yet American evangelicals and fundamentalists — the Reformation’s children — are flocking to see “The Passion of the Christ.” The Rev. Billy Graham has called Gibson’s film “a lifetime of sermons in one movie,” though the difference, a big one, is that sermons come in words while movies do their work through the viewer’s eye. Protestants around the country are buying blocks of tickets. Out in Santa Rosa, Calif., a pastor named Andy Vom Steeg has sent out 10,000 postcards asking people in the region to see the Gibson movie and discuss it at his church.

All of which seems a little curious, and not just art- historically. There’s been an aesthetic flip: Hard-core, clean- cross Protestants would once have been appalled, en masse, by the Counter-Reformation style and its message. Now many lap it up.

Gibson’s action may be set in 1st-century Jerusalem, but his style comes from 17th-century Rome.

Special-effect skies, gleams from brass and leather, swirling darks and lights, heart-rending emoting — Rome’s militantly Catholic painters, and their peers in Spain and Flanders, went straight for the gut, and did so through the viewer’s responding eye. Gibson does the same. His Mary and Magdalene, shown in tear- streaked close-ups gazing dolorously upward, look just like Guido Reni’s. And when Gibson calls his film “a moving Caravaggio” it is because its swirlings, its gritty realism, its dark palette, and its scenes side-lit by torches come straight from Caravaggio’s paintings. In the 1950s, Hollywood’s Jesuses sported spotless white cashmere robes and shampooed hair, but Caravaggio dressed his figures in rags of sober hue. So does Gibson. Gibson needs these references because his movie is so gory. There is only so much you can do to hurt human flesh, but when the film has done enough, it does a whole lot more. The artiness is there to soften our disgust. Over his movie’s bloodiness Gibson has poured the sort of golden glow that rises through the yellowed varnish of Old Master paintings. And beneath his gore he shows us the many ripe conventions of Counter-Reformation art.

Martin Luther’s Reformation was a theological rebellion. At its core was a refusal. No longer would the rebels accept the pope in Rome, or the hierarchy he led, or the Latin of the Mass and of the Vulgate Bible, which most of them could neither read nor understand. If they themselves could read the Bible (which Luther soon began to translate into German), they could find their way to God with the aid of faith alone. They didn’t need the pope, they didn’t need his saints, they didn’t need his priests, and — as some began insisting — they didn’t need his art.

The more the reformers valorized the Word, the more they turned away from images. The most extreme among them — the “image- breakers,” the iconclasts — saw it as their duty to smash the sensual power — the scary, popish power — they sensed in Catholic art.

For the Pilgrims of East Anglia, the Huguenots of France, and the Calvinists of the Netherlands, Counter-Reformation art smacked of popishness, idolatry, unrestrained excess. They knew what the Counter-Reformation was counter to — it was counter to them. Its art, they understood, was devised to dent their scruples and to undo their aesthetic. They did not take it lying down.

On Aug. 10, 1566, at Steenvoorde in Flanders, a Calvinist preacher named Sebastian Matte told his listeners to go and smash the art in Catholic churches. Ten days afterward, the cathedral at Antwerp was methodically trashed (though later, under Catholic rule, Rubens was commissioned to re-do its splendor). Such spasms of enthusiastic image-breaking erupted in the British Isles for most of the next century. “Lord, what work was here!” lamented the Bishop of Norwich in 1647. “What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls!”

Think of all art destroyed, the statues with their heads knocked off, the broken stained-glass windows. Think of all the churches, especially in the Netherlands, with their murals whitewashed out.

Hatred was involved, of course, in destructions such as these. Class issues, and politics, and imperial disputes were also much in play, but so, too, was a scruple as old as monotheism — a fear of basely materializing the ungraspable Divine.

Most of the Protestant image-breakers, busily whitewashing and smashing, were confident that they had Scripture on their side. In Exodus 20, after all, God is pretty specific: “Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” And Jesus was cited, too: “Blessed are they,” he tells us in John 20:29, “that have not seen and yet have believed.”

If American Protestantism can be said to have a visual style, this preference for the cleansed, the stripped-down, the ascetic, must be one of its chief strands. That plainness is still seen in the clean, white clapboard churches scattered through New England, in the Quaker meeting houses of Pennsylvania, all the way to the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, Calif. No Catholic paintings taint these sanctuaries. Billy Sunday’s revival tent wasn’t hung with gilded frames. The Little Brown Church in the Vale, famous through song, is a structure without paintings. In Protestant America they’ve been absent from the start.

“Everything was stripped bare,” Harriet Beecher Stowe recounted of the Pilgrims, “all poetic forms, all the draperies and accessories of religious ritual had been rigidly and unsparingly retrenched.”

Here caveats are called for. Protestants are a various lot. Many Lutherans are highly tolerant of pictures, as are Episcopalians. There is lots of art in churches — but, in general, the spare white space that’s filled with music, light and language, but not with fleshy pictures, still declares itself as Protestant all across the land.

That reticence is a presence throughout American painting. Those 19th-century artists who wished to show themselves as Christian, but not as Roman Catholic, sought out God in nature — and painted all those seaside scenes, and soaring mountain landscapes, and flowers on the table, with which our walls are filled.

And now along comes Gibson, returning to center stage the vivid Catholic imagery — sensual, argumentative, Marian and Latinate — of Counter-Reformation art.

He is, no doubt, sincere. But then the Aztec priests who ripped out human hearts were pretty sincere, too. So are the flagellants who still bloody themselves for God in so many Shiite and Spanish- speaking countries. The act of seeking the divine through blood and gruesome suffering didn’t start with Gibson. It must be immensely old.

Protestants have long been quick to take up new technologies — Gutenberg’s printing press, the radio, the TV. Christian iconoclasm nowadays isn’t what it was. Not long after the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century, the printed Bible tracts that so many preachers handed out began to come with printed pictures. And by the end of World War II — when Bob Jones Jr. of Bob Jones University began to build his big collection of vividly realistic Counter-Reformation paintings — that old distrust of Catholic paintings had pretty well faded, though in some circles it lingered on a while.

Andrew Mellon, for instance, the founder of the National Gallery and a Protestant son of Ulster, would not countenance the presence of Roman Catholic martyrdoms in his personal collection, and his museum did not start seeking them in quantity until long after he had died. This is one reason that the Rev. Jones, that farsighted collector of Baroque pictures, could buy so many so cheaply.

Among the rich Americans who built most of our museums (though there were, of course, exceptions, such as the Ringlings, or Walter Chrysler), a general disgust with Baroque devotional painting used to be widespread. “This dislike,” wrote scholar Edgar Peters Bowron in a Bob Jones University catalogue 20 years ago, “is a matter of general spiritual attitude rather than of mere artistic tastes.” He’s right, of course. After seeing Gibson’s movie I understood completely Mellon’s sort of shuddering, nose-holding dismay.

But many contemporary Protestants will approve of Gibson’s movie, and I bet they won’t be thinking of 17th-century Italian art, or popish propaganda, Calvinist image-breaking, or anything like that. That reviled mainstream Hollywood is taking Scripture seriously will fill their hearts with hope. That Gibson is a Roman Catholic, and a pre-Vatican II traditionalist, will not be held against him. He’s a conservative and a star.

As late as the 1960s, students at Wheaton College, a Christian school in Illinois, weren’t even allowed to go to the movies. But that’s long over, too. Also much diminished, at least in post- Vatican II America, is the Catholic-Protestant dispute. Now it is between those who worship Jesus, and those who don’t, that the battle lines are likely to be drawn.

Osama bin Laden is still an iconoclast, an image-smasher, on theological principle, but in Protestant America there aren’t many left. How could there be? In 2004, with the Internet and cable and PowerPoint presentations, it is just about impossible to go about one’s business without permitting pictures, pictures of all sorts, moving ones and still ones, deep into one’s life.

But pictures bring the past with them. And so do visual styles. There is a lot of “anti” in Gibson’s film, and not only anti- Semitism. The film is anti the secular, and anti the sqeamish. And the many clean-cross Protestants who see it ought to be reminded that the style of its images once was aimed at Christians pretty much like them.

Author’s e-mail:

Paul Richard has written about art for The Post since 1967.

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.