"THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST"
ASSESSMENT BY CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIANS
Mel Gibson's movie: "The Passion of the Christ" has
received mixed reviews from conservative Christian individuals and groups:
Many Evangelical Christian leaders, including James Dobson
and Billy Graham have endorsed the movie both for the education of fellow
Evangelicals, and for use as a teaching and evangelism tool to "save"
those who have not yet been "born again."
Other Evangelicals have criticized the film because they
disapprove with what they feel are its Roman Catholic themes, which either leave
out or contradict conservative Protestant beliefs. Mel Gibson is a
Catholic Traditionalist, and follows the
beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church before
the reforms of the Vatican II Council.
Evangelicals generally appear to have a high regard for the
movie. The largest Evangelical Christian magazine in the U.S., Christianity
Today, conducted a poll of visitors to its web site. On 2004-APR-22, six
weeks after the movie was first released in North America, their visitors
6% had seen the movie more than twice
17% had seen it twice
40% had seen it once
9% have not seen it, but plan to
28% have not seen it and don't plan to.
|Andrew J. Webb, the pastor of the Providence PCA Mission Church
in Fayettefille, NC, 1
recommends that "Evangelicals should not see or recommend" the movie.
2 "PCA" refers to
the Presbyterian Church in America, a denomination in the
conservative wing of Presbyterianism. |
He has five concerns:
|Origins: Webb suggests that the Passion of the Christ is a
Roman Catholic movie, not an Evangelical movie. Mel Gibson is a
Traditionalist Catholic. In an interview with the EWTN Network, Mel Gibson said that the movie: "...reflects my
beliefs -- I’ve never done that before....I don’t know if I will ever work again.
I’ve said that this is a career killer and it could well be, but that doesn’t
matter because I don’t care." 3
The film's theological advisors are Roman Catholic.
Many in the film crew converted to Catholicism because of their
experiences on the set. Mass was held daily before shooting. |
|Extra-biblical sources: Webb believes that the
screenplay "...is based in part on a mystical Roman Catholic
devotional work by an 18th century German Nun (Sister Anne Emmerich)
entitled 'The Dolorous Passion of Christ.' Gibson stated on EWTN that
reading Emmerich's book was his primary inspiration for making the
movie." Webb quotes Gibson as linking the crucifixion directly
with the Roman Catholic Mass. He writes: "The goal of the movie is to
shake modern audiences by brashly juxtaposing the 'sacrifice of the
cross with the sacrifice of the altar - which is the same thing,' said
Gibson....Protestant Evangelicals have historically rejected the
idea that Christ can be sacrificed again and declared it 'abominable'."
|Webb states that Roman Catholicism emphasizes the physical
suffering and physical sacrifice of Jesus. "This
emphasis on Christ's physical agony is repeated in Roman Catholic
devotional material, prayers, and of course 'the Passion of [the]
Christ'." However, Evangelical Christians stress that the "grand
importance of Christ's crucifixion lay...in his once for all
propitiation of God's wrath." The major component of Jesus'
suffering came from "having all the sins of all the elect imputed
to Him and making full satisfaction for them."|
|He suggests that a key Protestant belief is does not appear in
the movie. This is Jesus' passive obedience in dying on the cross
and his "active obedience in keeping the law" which are
imputed to all born-again believers.|
|The medium: Webb criticizes the use of all movies or other
dramatic presentations to propagate the Gospel message: "...the
ability to evoke an emotional response via imagery or drama is not the
same as successfully transmitting the Gospel. The means that God has
ordained for the transmission of the Gospel, was neither drama, imagery,
nor even 'lectures' - it is preaching....God does not command us to
produce dramatic presentations of Gospel themes, He commands us to
|Portrayal of Jesus: Webb suggests that when movie goers think
of Jesus in the future, they will recall the image of James Caviezel,
who played Jesus in "The Passion." He suggests that this
changes "the glory of the incorruptible God into an
image made like corruptible man...."
6 Also, he feels that it violate the Second
Commandment's prohibition of the use of images. The movie is liable to "...create
an image of Jesus that says more about the Jesus we want than the Jesus
whom God sent." Webb feels that God took special precautions to make
certain that accurate knowledge of Jesus' physical appearance has been
|Ralph Ovadal, director of Wisconsin Christians United,
a pro-life, fundamentalist Christian agency which
is opposed to equal rights for gays and lesbians.
7 Members of
his church displayed banners directly across the street from the exit
of a movie theatre which was showing "The Passion." One banner
was worded: "How shall ye escape the damnation of hell?" The other
read, "Repent ye, and believe the gospel." Other members
distributed gospel tracts in front of the doors. Ovadal refers to the
movie as a piece of religious propaganda; a "Romanist counterfeit
filled with false doctrine meant to subtly turn their hearts toward Roman
Catholicism." He predicts that Christians will take one of three
positions on the movie:|
|"It is an unbiblical assault upon God's Word on behalf of the
Roman Catholic Church."|
|"It has some "bad doctrine" or "unbiblical things" in it, but God
will use it anyway."|
|"It is a fantastic evangelistic tool, a real blessing from
His own beliefs parallel #1. He writes: "The Lord will not bless a
movie that so assaults His Word. May God help us in this hour of apostasy."
|Jack Chick heads Chick Publications Inc. of Ontario, California.
His group mass produces small gospel tracts, movies, and books written from
a Fundamentalist Christian perspective. Many attack non-Christian religions
and liberal Christian beliefs. In his news release "New from JTC - Apes,
Lies and Ms. Henn," he writes: "The Passion's" message of a sad,
brutalized Christ. We serve a RISEN Christ who sits in power at the right
hand of the Father in heaven. Not a weak Christ who runs to His mother for
comfort, but the Creator and Lord of the universe. We can KNOW Him and have
eternal life! That's missing from Gibson's film."
|The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) issued a statement
on 2003-JUL-22 in support of The Passion, which they describe as an "authentic
retelling of the New Testament accounts" of Jesus' last hours on Earth.
Ted Haggard, President of the NAE, described the film as "A beautiful,
wonderful account of the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus Christ. It
is consistent with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John." Haggard also stated: "The
movie portrays historical accounts realistically, but the Body of Christ
worldwide does not blame Jewish people for the crucifixion. Evangelicals
believe that our sins are responsible for creating the situation that
required the crucifixion of Christ. Christ did not die because of the
political and religious powers of the day, but for a far greater purpose. We
are all responsible. This is why evangelicals view The Passion
as a love story. It demonstrates the profound love Christ has for all people."
A NAE news release states that: "At a special showing in Colorado
Springs, Colorado, Haggard, along with 30 other prominent evangelical
leaders, reviewed the film and encouraged Gibson to release it with minor
stylistic adjustments. All acknowledged the biblical accuracy of Gibson's
creative dramatization of the historical account." Their news release
concludes: "The NAE believes Gibson's film is an accurate depiction of
the final hours of the life of Jesus Christ and true to the teaching of the
New Testament. The NAE affirms the accurate representation of the historical
and Biblical account of the life of Christ and applauds the efforts of Mel
Gibson and others to produce this work."
|The North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention
has collected a number of positive comments on the movie. They were all based on
the showing of an early version of the movie:|
|Darrell Bock, Research Professor of New Testament, Dallas
Theological Seminary: "Three words summarize for me: Sobering,
Stunning, Haunting. The film speaks for itself. I hope you keep the graphic
nature of it complete in the film, because it will cause everyone to reflect
on what His death was. The world tends to wash over this directness. The
details are very accurate -- this is the kind of death our Lord died for
|Pat Boone, Singer/Actor: " It's a monumental accomplishment.
It continues to impact me in ways I couldn't have imagined."|
|Chuck Colson, Break Point: "The Passion tells the story
of the twelve hours surrounding the Crucifixion. While The Passion is only
the latest in a series of films about Jesus, it stands out for two reasons:
First, it is unsparing and unsentimental. In Gibson's opinion, previous
cinematic efforts had failed to capture the enormity of Jesus' suffering on
our behalf." |
|Roger Cross, President, Youth For Christ/USA: "From a
ministry perspective I tried to imagine what young people would think and
how they would respond. My hope is that they will also be captured by the
presentation. I believe they will because it is simply the telling of God's
story. I am most encouraged by the fact that they will see a true
representation of Jesus: fully God and fully man." |
|James Dobson, Chairman, Focus on the Family: "It is
deeply moving, powerful, and disturbing. A film that must be seen - although
the graphic scenes of the scourging of Jesus are emotionally wrenching."|
|Cory Engel, pastor of Harvest Springs Community Church in
Great Falls, MT: "This is a window of opportunity we have. Here's a guy
who's putting his money into a movie that has everything to do with what we
do...Churches used to communicate by having a little lecture time on Sunday
morning. People don't interact that way anymore. Here's a chance for us to
use a modern-day technique to communicate the truth of the Bible."
|Dr. Jerry Falwell, The Liberty Channel: "Mr. Gibson has
attempted to painstakingly recreate the crucifixion of Christ, not to assail
Jews, but to arouse in people a desire to understand the price paid for
their salvation. I am praying that Mel Gibson's movie will have a powerful
impact on our culture and that it will appeal to millions of movie lovers
who are starving for a glimmer of honesty regarding the miraculous and
life-changing story of the One who died for everyone, no matter their
religious heritage, station in life, sexual preference or skin color."|
|Archbishop John Foley, President, Pontifical Council for
Social Communications, The Vatican: "...if they're critical of the
film, they would be critical of the Gospel."|
|Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago: "I've read the
Passion narratives of the Lord and contemplated them and prayed over them
many, many times, and I've never thought of the crucifixion with the images
that I received while watching this. I'll never read the words the same way
|Billy Graham, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association: "Every
time I preach or speak about the Cross, the things I saw on the screen will
be on my heart and mind."|
|Jack Graham, President, Southern Baptist Convention: "The
thing that I'm most excited about is the opportunity it's going to give
those of us who preach the cross."|
|Tim LaHaye, Tim LaHaye Ministries: "Everyone should see
this movie. It could be Hollywood's finest achievement to date."|
|Dr. Robert Schuller, Crystal Cathedral / Hour of Power: "
'The Passion' is an awe-inspiring portrayal of the last hours of Jesus'
life. It is an accurate account of Jesus' real sufferings for the sins of
the whole world. This is not a film anyone should miss."|
|Lee Strobel, famous Evangelical Christian author: "The Passion
will stun audiences and create an incredible appetite for people to know
more about Jesus. I urge Christians to invite their spiritually seeking
friends to see this movie with them."|
|Del Tackett, Executive Vice President, Focus On The Family:
"It has been nearly three weeks since I saw the rough cut of The Passion.
It is still impacting my life. I can't stop thinking about it nor can I stop
talking about it. I have never seen a film that has so affected my life."|
|Jack Valenti, CEO, Motion Picture Association, in a letter
to Mel Gibson: "I thought Passion was a superior recounting of the
'greatest story ever told,' the last days of Jesus. There is in the film the
gravity and seriousness it deserves. There are moments so heart-rending, the
tears come easily. I cannot but believe that people of all religions will
find this truly an impressive (and respectful) piece of art and realism,
emerging from the New Testament. As a cinema artist, you have just reason to
be proud of what you have done."|
|Rick Warren, Pastor, Saddleback Church and author of "The
Purpose Driven Life:" "Brilliant, biblical - a masterpiece."|
|Ed Young Jr., Pastor, Dallas-Area Fellowship Church: "I
have no doubt that the movie will be one of the greatest evangelistic tools
in modern day history. I think people will go to it and then flood into the
churches seeking to know the deeper implications of this movie."|
This essay continues below.
Whether to take children to see the movie:
ChristianityToday.com, the most popular magazine for fundamentalist
and other evangelical Christians in the U.S. asked visitors to their web site
whether they planned to take their children to see The Passion. Results
of the poll were:
|20%: I don't have kids.|
|19%: No, it's too violent for children.|
|16%: Yes, this is an important movie to see.|
|14%: I'll decide after watching it without them.|
|7%: Yes, the message outweighs the violence.|
|4%: Yes, the violence is important to the story.|
|4%: Yes, the violence is historically accurate.|
|4%: No, my children won't see an R-rated movie|
|3%: No, because of its portrayal of Jews.|
|3%: No, violence distorts the spiritual meaning.|
|2%: I don't know.|
A criticism of negative movie reviews by a Roman Catholic:
Martin Rhonheimer wrote an article for Logos: A Journal of Catholic
Thought and Culture in which he criticizes the many negative reviews that
this movie has received. When he finally had the opportunity to view the movie
in the unidentified foreign country where he lives, he was confronted by a
warning sign placed there by the government's film commission. It said that the
film was sadistic and brutal, historically unreliable, and contained religious
propaganda that could encourage anti-semitism.
He criticizes the critics for describing the movie as a 126-minute martyrdon
-- nothing but violence and brutality. He writes: "This is quite simply
false. The film is almost half over before we see the first violence, the
scourging of Christ." One wonders how Rhonheimer could have overlooked the
frequent scenes of violence in locales ranging from Gethsemane to the temple
when Jesus -- in the movie -- was repeatedly attacked. He criticizes critics for
concentrating on the brutality of scourging and crucifixion and ignoring "the
transformation of these horrible sufferings into an offering of love to Jesus'
heavenly Father....Evil is shown for what it truly is, and we see clearly the
only power that can overcome evil: the love and mercy of God, who has become man
in Jesus Christ."
He accuses the critics as being "motivated, it seems, by prejudice..."
They '...claim that the film has no transcendental dimension, it ignores the
biblical message of the passion as one of hope and love, it shows instead only
suffering and hatred, it contains no theological interpretation of the passion
and no spirituality. Instead (so critics charge) we are shown simply a man being
tortured to death. This whole indictment is quite simply false. He suggests
that the critics have completely missed the central tenet of Christianity: the
atonement. They also have not realized that the
Gospels describe Jesus as both human and God.
Rhonheimer rejects the critics' charge "...that Gibson’s interpretation of
the passion is theologically shallow, naive, outdated, and that he gives
priority to faith over theology." Rhonheimer suggest that it is modern
theology -- particularly in its Protestant form -- which has taken leave of
Scripture. He writes: "Modern theology dismisses the gospel accounts as
'historically unreliable.' It discards the Pauline theology of the cross and
treats the suffering servant passages in Isaiah as irrelevant."
Rhonheimer does admit that Gibson incorporated some of the visions of Anna
Katharina Emmerick into the movie. But he indicates that "they are few."
In reality, those visions permeate the movie to the point where it seems a great
injustice that Emmerick was not acknowledged as the major author of the screen
He dismisses comments of the movie's anti-semitism by writing: "Crying
'anti-Semitism' becomes a way of avoiding confrontation with one’s own guilt.
Not everyone is able to recognize that we are all guilty and that we cannot be
freed from guilt by our own merit but only by the love of another who has taken
our guilt on himself." 12
- "Providence PCA Mission Church's" home page is at:
- Andrew Webb, "Five Reasons Not to Go See The Passion of Christ,"
- "EWTN to air 2nd exclusive interview with Mel Gibson on 'The Passion
of Christ'," EWTN. com, 2004-JAN-13, at:
- "The Passion of the Christ: What others are saying," North
American Mission board, Southern Baptist Convention, at:
- "Churches Make 'Stunning' Show of Support for Gibson's 'Passion',"
- Romans 1:23, King James Version of the Bible.
- Wisconsin Christians United's web site is at:
- Ralph Ovadal, "Witness at The Passion," The Covenant News,
- "New from JTC - Apes, Lies and Ms. Henn," Chick Publications
Inc., news release, 2004-MAR-31.
- The movie section of Christianity Today's web site is at:
- "NAE Defends Gibson's New Film, The Passion," National
Association of Evangelicals, 2003-JUL-22, at:
- Martin Rhonheimer, "Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ': A plea for
fairness," Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Volume 8:1,
Winter 2005. Temporarily online at
Copyright © 2004 & 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2004-FEB-24
Latest update: 2005-MAR-13
Author: B.A. Robinson