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This day in history: Ash Wednesday 2004

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Local News: Mission Mississippi's next Prayer Breakfast will take place tomorrow, from 6:45 a.m. to 7:45 a.m. at Morrison Heights Baptist Church (3000 Hampstead Blvd) in Clinton, MS, where Greg Belser serves as pastor. For more information, contact Tracy Thomas at (601) 925-6458. To learn more about Mission Mississippi, go to www.missionmississippi.org.

Ten years ago on Ash Wednesday, Mel Gibson’s controversial film, The Passion of the Christ debuted in theatres. From the day it was first shown on February 25, 2004, it was controversial for several reasons. Some accused it of being anti-Semitic. Some in conservative Reformed circles accused it of being a violation of the Biblical prohibition against artistically portraying God. Some accused it, the only R-rated depiction of Christ’s death and resurrection, of being overly and senselessly violent. Though it was a huge commercial success, it was snubbed by the Oscars—in the minds of many people solely because of anti-Christian bias among Hollywood’s elite.

1. Answering objections to the film

The Passion of the Christ is largely a faithful dramatization of the gospel narratives. To that extent, the only way to accuse the film of being anti-Jewish is to accuse the gospels themselves of being anti-Jewish. Considering three of the four gospels were written by Jewish men, it’s difficult to make that charge.

Didn’t the film portray the Jewish religious leaders, such as Caiaphas the High Priest, in a very negative light though? Wasn’t Judas Iscariot portrayed very negatively? Certain individuals were portrayed as villains, but this is far from villainizing the Jewish people as a whole. The hero of the story, Jesus of Nazareth, was Jewish.

Christians shouldn’t downplay the understandable suspicion that some Jewish people feel towards Passion movies. Given the history of the two people groups, Jewish suspicion is understandable. It is true that historically “passion plays” have sometimes been used as anti-Jewish propaganda, an effort to reinforce the slander that the Jews are “Christ-killers”. It is true that the history of the Christian church is tragically littered with examples of anti-Semitism. It may be true that Mel Gibson himself is anti-Semitic. These historical truths don’t, by themselves, prove that The Passion as an isolated work of art is itself anti-Semitic. The work should be judged on its own merits, and if at all possible not dismissed in a “guilt by association” sort of way.

As far as the Reformed objection is concerned, if God did truly become incarnate as a flesh and blood human being, it’s hard to imagine how it could be wrong to artistically portray him as a flesh and blood incarnate human being. Yes, historic Reformed theology has categorically condemned any effort to artistically portray Christ, believing that the 2nd of the Ten Commandments requires such a stance. However, this is to misunderstand the 2nd commandment. God’s Law prohibits worshipping images, and if images of Christ are worshipped, then this obviously crosses a line. But Jim Caviezel, portraying Jesus Christ, was not worshipped.

As far as the gratuitous violence objection goes, the fact is that few modern Americans have any real appreciation for how bloody and brutal Roman crucifixions were. It is true that the gospels don’t give a lot of gory details about flogging or crucifixion. But the gospels were originally written for people who lived in the first century, people who had seen crucifixions with their own eyes, people who didn’t need any visual aid. To show Christ’s death as anything other than a disgustingly savage event is to downplay the extent of Christ’s suffering.

2. Why did Christ have to die?

The Passion portrays Christ’s brutal death, but it doesn’t attempt to offer a theological explanation for why Christ had to suffer the way that he did. He died to save us from our sins, but lest this merely come across as a cliché, explanation is needed.

Sin is one of the most misunderstood things in the church today. A much disputed point is whether or not the biggest threat to the church is lawlessness (downplaying God’s law or believing that it ultimately doesn’t matter if we violate it) or legalism (adding requirements to God’s law over and above what God’s Word says or believing that one’s acceptance with God hinges on one’s performance). In reality, what one often sees present in the church and the culture is a curious blend of the two.

People often believe that their acceptance with God does hinge on their performance, or that their going to heaven depends on their good outweighing their bad. This is legalism. At the same, people often believe that when they perform poorly, God will wink at their sin or grade them on a curve. This is lawlessness. The only way people can A. believe heaven depends on their efforts and B. believe they will most likely make it to heaven is they seriously misunderstand God’s standards of perfection. If God only requires moderate or partial conformity to his law, the human race never would’ve needed a Savior in the first place. There’d have been no point in sending Jesus.

Both lawlessness and legalism are serious barriers to the gospel. The gospel tells us that God’s moral requirements are important, that not one jot can be ignored without great peril. The gospel tells us of a Messiah who told his followers, “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” The gospel doesn’t present a patronizing God who ignores our sin. The gospel presents a God who can get furious, a God whose anger against sin is infinite. All of this flies in the face of lawlessness.

At the same time, the gospel tells us that all have sinned, not one person is perfect enough to stand before God. The gospel tells us that God doesn’t overlook our sins, but rather that to be reconciled with God our sins have to be atoned for. We can’t atone for our own sins. This is why Christ had to die the brutal death dramatized by The Passion. This flies in the face of legalism, which tries to deceive us into thinking that our works can do what only Christ’s blood can do.

3. Conclusion

On a personal note, seeing The Passion ten years was a very meaningful event. It was more a religious experience than mere entertainment. Though it was snubbed by the Oscars, God has used it to draw people to his Son. If even one soul has come to believe the gospel thanks to the movie, the millions of dollars Mel Gibson committed to the project, and all the media backlash he experienced, was well worth it.
May God enable us to believe the gospel—an offensive gospel that tells us that blood sacrifice is our only hope of being in right standing with God. May God enable us to believe the gospel—an offensive gospel that tells us the wages of sin is death, which means all of us, if God were being strictly fair, would have to die for our sins. May God enable us to believe the gospel—an offensive gospel that reminds us that though we can’t save ourselves, we have a Savior. He is a Savior that doesn’t merely save us from the penalty of our sins, but he is also our Lord, expecting complete allegiance.

The message often preached in the evangelical church is that God loves us no matter what we do and that our sins won’t ultimately estrange us from God. This is of course true, but it is only true, though, for those who’ve attached themselves to Christ and had their sins forgiven. The Bible doesn’t present a “nice” God who takes the disobedience of his subjects in stride. God’s wrath has to be satisfied.

This is the good news, dramatized by The Passion—that Christ has paid for our sins and that we have been reconciled to God. Lawlessness tries to tame God down, portraying him as someone who can just cancel sin and let things slide. This is not the Biblical picture though. Aslan, though full of abundant love, mercy, and grace, is not a tame lion.

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