by Lorin Smith
In the midst of the furor that has accompanied the release of Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, there is an important theological issue at stake that is surprisingly being overlooked by most Christians and critics of the film. The issue is this. If Jesus Christ is truly God, as Christians claim Him to be, how can He be portrayed in a motion picture when, as God, He expressly forbids the making of images of His person in Exodus 20:4? “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (See Leviticus 19:4;Deuteronomy 5:8; 27:15; Isaiah 40:18-20; 42:8; 2 Corinthians 6:16) Furthermore, if Jesus Christ is at this very moment seated at the right hand of The Father in heaven (Psalm 110:1; Acts 2:34-36; Ephesians 1:3, 20; 2:6; Hebrews 1:3, 13; 8:1; 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22), then the making of an image of His person is again expressly forbidden. Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language defines an image as “a physical likeness or representation of a person, animal or thing, photographed, painted, sculptured, or otherwise made visible.” In addition, if Jesus is a member of the Godhead as 1 John 5:7 states “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one,” then any material representation of any member of the Godhead is forbidden.
In Deuteronomy 4:12-16, God warned Israel that since they had heard only a voice, but saw no form on the day He spoke to them from the mountain, they were not to corrupt themselves and make an image of Him in the likeness of a male or female. And in the New Testament, the apostle Paul defines idolatry in Romans 1:23 as changing “the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man” In other words, changing the image of the eternal God into the image of sinful man, who is subject to decay.
During His earthly ministry, Jesus told the religious leaders of His day in John 8:24 “I said therefore unto you, that you shall die in your sins: for if you believe not that I AM he, you shall die in your sins.” (See also Isaiah 43:10, 13, 25; 46:4; 48:12) Therefore, by using the expression “I AM”, Jesus was identifying himself as Yahweh God of the Old Testament, The I AM THAT I AM, The Self-Existing, Eternal God who spoke to Moses in Exodus 3:14 and gave the Ten Commandments to the children of Israel from Mt. Sinai prohibiting any reproduction of the Divine in Exodus 20:4. Later in John 8:59, these same religious leaders attempted to stone Jesus because they clearly understood the theological implications of His claim to be the “I AM.” In their reasoning, He had blasphemed the name of the LORD (Yahweh) and was, therefore, worthy of death by stoning. (Leviticus 24:16)
Additionally, nowhere in the Scriptures is there a written record of Jesus’ physical appearance while he walked the earth. And although the apostles, who wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, (2 Peter 1:20-21) claimed to have heard, seen, looked upon and handled that which was from the beginning, THE WORD OF LIFE, (Jesus Christ) they have given us no indication whatsoever of what Jesus looked like. (1 John 1:1-2) Yet, the Scriptures declare that Jesus Christ is the image of God. He is both the revelation and manifestation of the true and living God (Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3; 2 Corinthians 3:18) and in Him dwells the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form. (Colossians 2:9) How then can a lifeless picture or image, devised by the fanciful imaginations of men, capture or convey the incomparable glory and majesty of Christ? (John 1:14; 2 Peter 1:16) The apostle John writes in 1 John 5:20-21 “And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son, Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” Since Jesus Christ is both the revelation and manifestation of the true and living God, John warned believers in the first century to refrain from making material representations of His person. Wouldn’t then an image claiming to represent Jesus therefore be, by definition, “another Jesus?” (2 Corinthians 11:4)
Those who have truly come to know Jesus Christ through the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit as He is revealed in the Scriptures need no pictures or images to convey to them the true knowledge of God. They know that Jesus Christ is the express image of the invisible God. When Philip asked Jesus, “Lord show us the Father and it will satisfy us?” Jesus answered, “Have I been so long with you and you have not known me, Philip? He that has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:8-9a) Jesus said to the doubtful apostle Thomas, in John 20:29 “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
By creating pictures and images of Christ in artwork, books, videotapes, films, and on the stained glass windows of churches, men have corrupted the true knowledge of God and added to the biblical revelation of Christ. Yet, God warns against adding to His Word in Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Proverbs 30:6 and Revelation 22:18.
Moreover, since the gospel is concerning Jesus Christ, (Romans 1:1-4), then what Jesus is being presented to people through these false images that are featured prominently in books, videotapes and films? Wouldn’t these pictures be by definition counterfeits, since the Scriptures provide us with no written record whatsoever of Jesus’ physical appearance? Moreover, how can a God who condemns images of His person, be represented by an image?
Tragically, centuries of religious tradition have so corrupted the minds of many within Christendom to the extent that when they speak, and think, of Jesus, they think of Him in terms of these false images and pictures that have been deeply engraved on their subconscious minds from their youth. That is why Mel Gibson’s film can be so widely embraced by so many evangelicals without even the slightest objection. When children grow up having these false images of Christ reinforced upon their impressionable minds as a result of the images and pictures they see portrayed in books, video tapes and on the stained glass windows of their churches, they subconsciously begin to accept these images as authentic representations of the Divine. And sadly, it is all based upon a lie that many have come to embrace as the truth.
The earliest Christians, however, in obedience to God’s commandments, had no use for pictures or images of Christ. Philip Schaff in his eight volume work The History of The Christian Church, under the title Images of Christ, points this out when he writes, “The primitive church…had no images of Christ, since most Christians at that time still adhered to the commandment of Moses (Ex.xx.4); In addition, the church was obliged for her own honor, to abstain from images, particularly from any representation of the Lord, lest she should be regarded by unbelievers as merely a new kind and special sort of heathenism and creature-worship…. The first representations of Christ are of heretical and pagan origin.”1
Frederic W. Farrar, in his monumental work The Life of Christ As Represented In Art, supports Schaff’s conclusions.“It may be fearlessly asserted that for more than four centuries after the Ascension, orthodox and well-instructed Christians of every condition, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, regarded it as an act of irreverence, if not actual profanity, to paint Christ in His purely human aspect.”2 He goes on to point out that it was the Gnostics who first created pictures of Christ. “In point of fact, the use of pictures or other representations of Christ invaded the Church from a very tainted source. Simon Magus is charged with having been the first to introduce images. Irenaeus tells us that images of Christ were unheard of, till the Gnostics – especially the corrupt Carpocracians – pretended that such an one had been made by Pilate.”3
In his thought-provoking book, The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World, Arthur Hunt further explains how the images of pagan gods came to be incorporated into the worship of the church. “Pagan idols were also rechristened…images have always been a staple of paganism…Jesus and John the Baptist were the first to appear over the church altar, then Mary (Queen of Heaven and Earth), the saints and the angels. The pictures and statuettes were all too familiar with the older system. Jesus looked like Horus, the Egyptian sky god; and Mary bore an uncanny resemblance to Isis, the goddess of royalty…The unlearned received their ideas about religion from the mosaics, paintings, sculptures and stained-glass windows adoring the churches. It was here that paganism and Christianity were visually reconciled.”4
If God expressly forbids the making of images to represent Him, and Christians in the early church had no use for pictures of Jesus Christ, who was responsible for legitimizing the use of such images in the practice of the church? History records that it was the Roman Catholic Church, who at the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 787 AD, legitimized the use of images of Christ. The Council decreed, “We decree with full precision and care that…the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways. These are the images of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ.. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. . Indeed, the honor paid to an image traverses it, reaching the model and he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.”5
The Council further pronounced anathemas upon those who were opposed to the use of deity images. “If anyone does not confess that Christ our God can be represented in his humanity, let him be anathema. If anyone does not salute such representations as standing for the Lord…let him be anathema.”6
Therefore, every church, Christian ministry, book-publishing house and film production company that uses these false pictures and images of Christ derives their authority to do so, not from God’s Word, but from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
It is indeed ironic that Mel Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic, has produced this film with a false image of Christ that is based on the apparitions of the Catholic mystic, Anne Catherine Emmerich, who claimed to have seen visions of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ which were recorded in her book The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In a brief summation of her book, it is stated that Anne Catherine Emmerich’s visions “are highly detailed and highly descriptive, revealing to us more information about the Life of Jesus Christ besides what we read of Him in the Bible.”7
Interestingly, a new Catholic website Catholic Passion Outreach has this to say about the film. “Mel Gibson’s forthcoming epic film, The Passion of the Christ, will soon hit movie theatres around the country. Evangelical Christian churches are viewing this movie as ‘the greatest opportunity for evangelization in centuries.’ Until now, the Catholic Church has been slow to respond. The question that needs to be asked is, ‘Will a very Catholic movie created by a Catholic director result in Catholics leaving the Church due to proselytizing by other churches?’”8
It is obvious that Roman Catholics see this film as an excellent vehicle to “spread, strengthen and share their (Catholic) faith.” In an interview with Peter Boyer, published in September 15, 2003 edition of The New Yorker, Gibson stated “there is no salvation for those outside of the (Catholic) Church.. I believe it…that is a pronouncement from the chair. I go with it.”9
Yet, it is shocking to see so many evangelicals enthusiastically embracing this film, even though Gibson believes that these same evangelicals are strangers to eternal salvation as long as they remain outside of the Roman Catholic Church. More importantly, however, The Passion will further engrave the image of a counterfeit Christ upon the minds of millions of moviegoers, further obliterating the distinction between the Creator and the creature, the human and the Divine.
If evangelicals truly believed that Jesus Christ is Yahweh God of the Old Testament, who spoke from Mt. Sinai in Exodus 20:4, prohibiting the making of material representations of His person, then they would not be widely endorsing a film that promotes idolatry. Regrettably, their widespread endorsement of The Passion illustrates that they REALLY do not know who the biblical Jesus truly is.
It was Jesus Christ Himself who said in John 8:24 “for if you do not believe that I AM he, you will die in your sins.” Jesus is stating emphatically to the Jewish leaders of his day that if they did not believe that he was Yahweh God of the Old Testament (who prohibited the reproduction of the Divine in Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 4:12-16) they would die in their sins. What fate awaits those today who, while claiming to believe that Jesus Christ is the Eternal God effectively, deny His deity by picturing Him in books, videotapes, films and on the stained glass windows of their churches? Tragically, many have placed their faith in a counterfeit Jesus; a god who can be pictured, but who cannot save. If the God of Christianity can be pictured, then this is not the faith that was once for all delivered unto the saints. (Jude 3) Could this be one of the reasons for Jesus’ sobering words that are recorded in Matthew 7:21-23?
In Acts 17:29-31, the apostle Paul, speaking to the Athenians of his day, called upon those who were guilty of worshipping God by means of images to repent. “Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, silver, or stone, graven by art or man’s device. At the time of this ignorance God winked at, but NOW is calling on all men everywhere to repent (of idolatry) because He has appointed a day when He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has ordained; whereof He has given assurance unto all men, in that He has raised him from the death.”
- Lorin Smith
- Christian Research Projects
1. Philip Schaff, The History of The Christian Church, in The Master Christian Library, Version 6, Ages Digital Library, Volume 3, Chapter 8, Images of Christ, p.432
2. Frederic W. Farrar, The Life of Christ As Represented In Art, (New York, N.Y: Macmillan and Co., 1894), p. 5.
3. Ibid., pps. 59-60
4. Arthur W. Hunt III, The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), p. 61
5. Historical Discovery Presents Councils of the Church, http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Valley/8920/churchcouncils/Ecum07.html.
7. The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, http://www.emmerich1.com/DOLOROUS_PASSION_OF_OUR_LORD_JESUS_CHRIST.htm
8. Catholic Passion Outreach, http://passion.catholicexchange.com/press_editor.html
9. Peter J. Boyer, “The Jesus War: Mel Gibson & ‘The Passion’ The New Yorker, September 15, 2003.