In recognition of holy week, I’m going to resurrect a piece I wrote five years ago at Easter, after I saw the film The Passion of the Christ. Released in 2006, the film itself is clearly not news; however, as recently as this month I’ve heard fellow Christians speaking positively—almost reverently—of the film and its portrayal of Jesus’ suffering. Notwithstanding the excellent work on Jesus’ resurrection by N.T. Wright (Surprised by Hope – 2008), that subset of the church that I’ve seen still seems to be firmly in the grips of an affliction we might term hyperchristemia—an excess of Christ’s blood (or, more accurately, an obsessive focus on his blood).
Passion aroused no small amount of controversy when it was released. No shock there; the figure of Jesus Christ seems rarely to inspire indifference. I remain troubled, however, by precisely which subjects became the lightening rods of the controversy—and perhaps even more disturbed by those that did not. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose. Public controversies rarely center around key issues, and this one was no different. A consideration of the person and history of Jesus should definitely arouse passions, but not—I submit—primarily because of his so-called "Passion."
I object to the content of the Passion movie, but not for the usual reasons. Not because of the graphic brutality, though the sadistic orgy of Jesus’ flogging is certainly disturbing. Nor do I consider the arguments over Mel’s perceived anti-Semitism, or the degree of historicity of his portrayal, to be issues of more than peripheral concern. I object, rather, to the very notion that Jesus' suffering and death comprise the central story at all. I object to the line on some of the Passion posters: "He lived to die." The message of the Christian gospel is nothing of the sort. It is Jesus' resurrection, not his death, which claims that central focus.
Though the film was neither unique nor original in this regard, Passion’s central message is that Jesus’ intense physical suffering and barbaric death comprise the ultimate climax of His life and redemptive work. The film opens with a quote from Isaiah 53: “He was wounded for our transgressions. . .by His stripes we are healed.” The remaining two-plus hours appear to me primarily to demonstrate just how many brutal stripes were required to effect that healing. Even the symbolic portrayal of Satan recognizing defeat comes at the very moment of Jesus’ death. This doctrine, while common in both Catholic and Protestant Christianity, is fundamentally at odds with the Scriptural portrayal of our redemption.
It's not Mel's fault—not entirely, anyhow. I do think that if he had embarked on this project of converting a book to a film script with anything like the care Peter Jackson lavished on "The Lord of the Rings," we would have seen a vitally different movie. Mel's portrayal is very likely a faithful representation of the dogmas he's been taught all his life, in churches where bloody crucifixes occupy a central point in the sanctuary, and where the ritual "sacrifice" of the Mass is observed daily. In fact, I saw in the film far more influence from extra-Biblical church traditions than from the actual gospel accounts. Several scenes portray events that led to the purported creation of certain famous relics (such as the cloth that purports to bear an imprint of Jesus’ bloody face) or the involvement of saints not mentioned at all in the New Testament account. Even the graphic—dare I say gratuitous?—portrayal of Jesus’ flogging, which figures prominently in the film, merits only the barest of mentions and almost no detail at all in the four gospels.
Lest I be tarred with an anti-Catholic brush at this point, let me hasten to add that Mel would have learned no better in an Evangelical or Protestant church. The standard definition of faith in nearly every church service I've ever attended involved acknowledging that "Jesus died for my sins." The core message of evangelistic crusades throughout the last century revolved entirely around the sinfulness of man and the atoning death of Jesus. When my children come home from Sunday School and tell me what they have learned, it is the death of Jesus on the cross that claims center stage. Even the traditional church calendar allots forty days to observe Lent—that period leading up to Jesus’ death—and only one Sunday to celebrate Easter.
Missing from all these traditions, nearly missing in the film, and—most tragically—missing from the meditations and dialogs of far too many Christians, is the most central element of the entire gospel—the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Oh, we believe it. . .Catholics and Protestants, Evangelicals, liberals (well, many liberals) and conservatives: nearly all give assent that Jesus' resurrection took place. We all sing celebratory songs at Easter, and we all recite the traditional "He is risen indeed!" But it's not the part of the story on which we dwell. It is almost as though the resurrection were the happy ending God appended to the "important" drama of Jesus' suffering and death.
By contrast, the Christian scripture shows the resurrection to be central to the gospel—so much so that the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Jesus was not raised from the dead, our faith is useless and we are "still in (our) sins" (v. 14 & 17). In Romans 5:10 Paul states that it is Jesus' resurrected life which saves us: "For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by his life."
The New Testament writers portray Jesus' resurrection as the cause of our justification (Rom. 4:25), evidence of God's power (Eph. 1:19), and a surety pledge against our own future resurrection (Acts 17:31). In Revelation 1:18, Jesus himself uses His death and resurrection as credentials certifying His identity.
The centrality of the resurrection is nowhere clearer than in the Scriptural definition of faith itself, Romans 9:14: "If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Nothing about our sinfulness, nothing about Jesus' atoning sacrifice. . .the defining elements of faith are Jesus' lordship and his resurrection.
I am not for one moment attempting to devalue Jesus' incredible sacrifice. The mystery of "when God, the mighty Maker died for man, the creature's sin" is a paradox of unfathomable proportions. Scripture is full of references to the power of Jesus' death, as well, for that matter, as of his sinless life. Nor may we overlook the fact that, during his brief earthly life, Jesus taught a great deal in his own words. We must attend to all of these things, for without any one of them our faith is the less.
I am saying, however, that our language and our emphasis are desperately out of balance. Far too many Christian teachers throughout history have allowed the death of Jesus to attain a centrality of focus that has all but eclipsed either his life and teachings or his resurrection. This is why it has been so easy for Christians to embrace as gospel, a movie that portrays virtually nothing of Jesus' teachings, and only nods to his resurrection a scant few seconds before the credits begin to roll.
Christians of all stripes need to go on the offensive proclaiming the living Christ. Jesus' defeat of humanity's greatest enemy—death—is "good news" if anything ever can be. Through Jesus' death and resurrection we are provided the means to live here and now, without fear of death; and consequently without fear of those for whom death is their greatest weapon. In every worship service, in every evangelistic message—for that matter, in every interaction between two believers—we should proclaim from the housetops that our Lord died and lives again!
The forty days of Lent on the church calendar should be balanced, not with one Sunday to celebrate Easter, but with the entire remainder of the year exulting over the stunning victory of the empty tomb. We should have been those irritating people in the theater who spoil the plot because we can’t contain our excitement: we’ve “read the end of the book” and we know who wins! Only then will our passion truly honor the Lord Jesus.
He is risen indeed!