The Truth about the Passion Movie

March 3, 2004

To me the most satisfying part of the movie has nothing to do with violence. It comes when Jesus, already badly beaten, stands before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. As the curious, uncertain Pilate begins to question Jesus, two agendas immediately collide. To Pilate, Jesus is a problem that must be solved, an issue to be handled, a controversy to defuse before things blow up in his face. Like any Roman, he isn’t concerned whether Jesus is the Messiah or not. Pilate comes across as a politician in a bad place, forced to decide an issue that he would do anything to avoid. But Jesus makes the matter personal. In the scene that comes straight out of the Gospel of John, Pilate asks if Jesus is the king of the Jews, expecting a simple yes or no answer. What he gets in return is another question: Are you asking this for yourself or did others talk to you about me? Mel Gibson perfectly catches Pilate’s confusion. He simply isn’t ready to meet someone like Jesus, a man who fits no convenient categories. A few seconds later comes Pilate’s famous question, “What is truth?” But the question only makes sense if you consider what Jesus has just said, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Again, that comes straight from John 18.

Then comes the brutal scourging scene, part of the violence that fills this movie. Viewers will be divided over the violence because we all bring our own preconceptions about how much is too much. A pastor friend who saw a pre-release screening said he turned his face away at one point. In talking with young people, they don’t seem bothered by the sight of Jesus being beaten beyond the point any human would seem to endure. Perhaps they’ve seen it all before.

After the scourging Pilate still has to make his decision. Only the Romans could order a crucifixion. Thoughtful viewers will realize that even though some of the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus dead because they saw him as a threat, only Pilate could pull the trigger, so to speak. He had the power of life and death. Before his final decision, he confers privately with his wife Claudia. Although this scene is not biblical, it is entirely believable. What Jesus said about listening to the truth haunts him. “Do you listen to the truth, Claudia?” he asks. But since he is speaking in Latin (all the actors speak in Aramaic or Latin, which somehow makes the story more credible than the usual Roman rulers who speak English with British accents), he uses the word “veritas” for truth. Veritas, he says, do you recognize veritas when you hear it? Claudia says that she does. And with a display of wifely pity, she tells Pilate that since he can’t hear it, he will never know veritas. Not even when the Truth stands in front of him.

That, for me, was the single most powerful moment of the film. Why has this movie stirred up so much controversy? On the day it was released, I turned on the TV and found that Mel Gibson and Jesus were being discussed on CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox News at the same time. Later that day, after watching the movie, I came home, turned on CNBC (which normally carries financial news) and listened to a discussion—not about Martha Stewart!—but about why Jesus died on the cross. In my lifetime such a thing has not happened in America. Mel Gibson has done what Billy Graham could no do. He brought Jesus to the center of American public life, if only for a few fleeting days.

It occurred to me that this movie is a kind of cultural benchmark. Most movies, nearly all of them in fact, come and go without much notice. A movie appears at the local cinema, you read a review, you see an ad, and you decide to go see it. You either like the movie or you don’t. You recommend it or you don’t. Most movies don’t change us or force us to think deeply about anything. But now and then, maybe once a decade, a film comes along that forces us to deal with ultimate issues. The Passion of the Christ is such a film. What you get out of it depends on what you bring to it. Some of my friends said they “loved” the movie. That’s not a word I would use. Having seen it three times, I found it powerful, overwhelming, disturbing in parts, emotionally draining, but riveting and impossible not to watch. I said to myself, “This is what it was like. If I had been there, this is what I would have seen.” The film is rightly R-Rated because crucifixion was an R-rated event. Make no mistake. The movie is brutal and violent, and it assumes a basic knowledge of the life of Jesus. But it succeeds in showing the evil in the world that sent Christ to the cross, bearing the sins of humanity. And in the end, Jesus triumphs because it is not Pilate or the Jewish leaders who put him to death. No one took his life. He gave it up freely.

Here’s a fact most people don’t know. Although Mel Gibson financed, produced and directed the movie, he appears in only one scene. As Jesus is being nailed to the cross, a man’s hand appears, his left hand making a fist, holding the nail above Jesus’ outstretched palm, showing the soldiers how to do their grisly work. The hand holding the nail belongs to Mel Gibson. It’s the only place he appears, and his fist is all you see. He wanted it that way so the world would know that it was his sin that nailed Jesus to the cross. As he said when asked by Diane Sawyer who killed Jesus, “We all did.”

Should you go see the movie? Yes, but be forewarned. It’s not easy to watch, and not just because of the violence. It’s not easy to watch a man die, even when you know he will rise from the dead. The Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” You will suffer when you view the film. If you are entertained somehow, it means you have missed the point entirely. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, people will differ in the ways they respond to “The Passion of the Christ.” I found the movie compelling because it forces the viewer to think about veritas, truth, as it relates to Jesus Christ. Go see it, but remember that what you get out of it depends on what you bring to it. And afterwards, read the Book and find out what the story really means.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?