“The Passion of the Christ”: Learning from the Movie

dove cross colourThe 2004 Mel Gibson movie “The Passion of the Christ” has proved to be one of the more remarkable and controversial films ever made.  Even before its release vigorous support and denunciation came from all sides.  The film has raised many questions – this is our effort to address them.  Several of us have seen the movie and are also very familiar with the original story materials from the four Gospels in the New Testament, part of the Christian Bible.

This article will address questions we have already been asked, questions others have asked, and some questions that we think you might want to ask, but not know exactly where to start.  If your concerns are not addressed in this article, you’re welcome to make a comment.  We will be pleased to reply.

1. Why is this movie called “The Passion of the Christ”?

“Passion” in this title is an old-fashioned word for “suffering.” The title — and the style of the movie’s story-line — is like a traditional “Passion Play” religious drama about the cross of Jesus Christ, performed in many countries during the “Easter” season. “Passion” in this sense is also part of the title of religious writing attributed to Anna Katharina von Emmerich, an 18-century nun – along with the New Testament, this document provided some of the background tradition to the movie’s re-telling of the Biblical story.


2.         The movie was very graphic and violent.  Characters were shown at their very worst.  Jesus was shown to endure incredible suffering.  Is this portrayal true to the Bible?  Was it really like this?

In all honesty, some of the actual events were probably much worse than the movie.  All 4 Gospels (the New Testament stories about the life of Jesus Christ) tell the story in a manner very similar to the movie.  But the movie condenses into 2 hours a complex ordeal that lasted at least 12 hours in real life – so it’s virtually impossible to “accurately” portray Jesus’ suffering and humiliation.  Because Jesus’ suffering is the director’s main point, it receives the most attention, in a way that cannot be reflected with the strictest historical “accuracy.”

Scourging and crucifixion were common punishments in the first-century Roman Empire – especially in Israel, which was occupied by the Romans.  From the Roman point of view ancient Israel was a political powder keg requiring constant policing because of frequent terrorist uprisings.  The Roman governor Pontius Pilate was known to use these brutal punishments frequently.  The ancient people were accustomed to seeing these things occur in real life, and they were likewise horrified in ways we cannot fully appreciate, despite how shocking it all seems to us in the film presentation.  These punishments represented ultimate pain and humiliation.

Many of the character portrayals are “exaggerated for effect,” beyond the scope of the Bible text:  the venality of Herod, the sympathy of Pilate, the brutal stupidity of Barabbas, etc.  Some of this comes from the “artistry” of storytelling, trying to communicate in a short time details which contribute to the overall point – but which in real life are more complex.  Some of the movie’s portrayal (e.g. satan in the Garden, in the opening scene) is not known to be part of the actual history, but is intended to help highlight aspects of the Biblical story which are important to the director’s presentation of it.

The New Testament writings do not emphasize the details of the actual physical suffering of Jesus Christ nearly as much as the movie does. Part of the reason for this is that people of first-century Judaea were far more familiar with crucifixion and scourging than we are today. They didn’t need the elaborate display of brutality in order to understand what was happening to Him. They did need a clear understanding of what it all means – much as we do, too. The NT emphasis leans into the meaning of it all – see #6 below for more about how the movie intentionally works as an “icon.”


3.         The movie portrays the Jewish leaders in a very bad light, making them appear to be responsible for Jesus’ death.  Is this true to the Bible account?  Is this “anti-Semitism,” i.e. does it promote hatred for Jewish people?

No, this is not anti-Semitism. Abraham Foxman, president of the American Jewish Anti-Defamation League, went on record to say that the movie is not anti-Semitic. Maia Morgenstern, the actress who plays the part of Mary, Jesus’ mother, is a Romanian Jewish woman whose parents are Holocaust survivors: she likewise affirms that the movie is not anti-Semitic, i.e. does not promote hatred of Jews. Numerous other prominent Jewish leaders agree.

The original Gospel accounts and the movie agree in portraying many of the most prominent Jewish leaders, whatever their other virtues might be, as cynical hypocrites who would say or do anything to make sure Jesus was crucified – to the point of publicly declaring loyalty to Caesar, which was the worst of treason to their own people.  The crowds are portrayed as easily manipulated dupes.  However, in both the movie and in the actual history not all the Jewish people at the time agreed with what their key leaders were doing.  One should note that the movie and the history also agree in portraying the local Roman authorities and soldiers in a most appallingly brutal manner.  They are, if anything, the more disgusting.

The Jewish leaders were visibly responsible for Jesus’ betrayal and death, in their conspiracy, “show trial,” and handing Him over to the Roman authorities for execution.  Pilate, the Roman governor, is also responsible for handing over for torturous execution a man he knew was innocent – in gross violation of the principles of Roman law.  Pilate was more concerned about his own political future than he was with justice.  The Roman soldiers, guards, and execution squad were also responsible, in vivid, sadistic detail.  There are no “good guys” in this part of the story.

On the other hand, Jesus Himself, his mother, his disciples, and many others are portrayed as faithful Jews who carefully observe the detailed Jewish customs of religion, dress, etc.  Nothing about their Jewishness is derided or denigrated.  The only Jews obviously criticized are the most prominent leaders of the time, who manipulated the crowds – and the problem wasn’t their Jewishness, but their appalling hypocrisy and hatred.  Ancient Jewish historians and other writers of the time agree with that assessment!

The point is not to defend the movie, nearly as much as to affirm that it is “safe” in terms of being an appropriate source of information about these important events.  Watching this movie will not likely cause an intelligent person to hate Jewish people.

The Biblical point of view is that Jews and Gentiles were both involved:  therefore, representatively speaking, all humanity crucified the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  In fact, even God Himself could be held responsible, since He sent Jesus to die for us.  As you saw in the opening scenes, from God’s viewpoint humanity had become so “lost” that this was the only way left to rescue us.  Other than its stark presentation of the story, the movie does not explain why this is so.  That’s left for the viewer to search out.


4.         The movie shows us the last 12-18 hours of Jesus’ life, death, and a glimpse of His resurrection from death.  But it tells us little else about Him.  Why?

The movie intends to provoke questions, rather than simply answering them.  Who is Jesus Christ, anyway?  Why do so many people want to destroy Him?  Why did He allow them to do it, instead of fighting back or running away?  What was it about Him that provoked such rage and anger? Why did His enemies have to be so relentlessly brutal about it?

Few people in our time know the story of Jesus very well – most settle for the highly-packaged “lite” version served up in churches during the holidays. The story is deep and worth getting to know.   We have already prepared Bible study material here at our website at  “Bible Study Resources” that deals with this specific topic, in detail.  Go to the site and look up “The Good News About Jesus Christ”  for an in-depth overview of His ministry, and the meaning of His death and resurrection for us in our time.  You can go to www.biblica.com  for free online access to the entire Bible in the “New International Version” – this will also be very helpful.

See  #10  below for further suggestions about what to do with your experience of seeing the story in this movie.


5.         I was very deeply disturbed by what I saw in the movie.  What does it all mean?  Is it possible that Jesus Christ was really God in the flesh, and that humans so completely abused and rejected God Himself?

Yes.  This is the claim of the Gospel story.  This is also what makes the story so offensive to many people in our time, who would rather believe that there is no God, or that people are much less vulnerable to evil than we really are.  Ultimately we are judged not by isolated bad things we’ve done as individuals, but because together we have rejected God, even when He came here as a human, showing Himself completely, doing nothing but the things that God does.  Our own personal sins merely express that rejection and embed it in our lives.  Evil is greater than we are, without God.  We are dominated by spiritual darkness, even though we fight it.  We need a wise Teacher to show us how to live – but just as much, we need a powerful Hero to rescue from forces beyond our control.  If Jesus had come at any other time or to any other place, eventually the same thing would have happened to Him.  This is how humans, in our present condition, ultimately respond to God “in person.”

The very Good News is that Jesus returned from the dead to continue expressing God’s love for all kinds of people, Jews and Gentiles – His love for us is greater than our rejection of Him.  That includes people in our time, as well.  The entire world is shadowed by evil, and it affects us all.  But God has provided a way out, back to Himself!  Absolutely nothing can prevent God from loving and rescuing people from evil – if people want Him enough to trust Him because of what He’s done in Jesus Christ.


6.         Some Biblical scholars believe that the movie misrepresents what really happened.  Why do they say that?  Are they right?

Not necessarily. As with most academic disciplines, Biblical scholarship has a wide range of opinion on almost every topic.  Some Biblical scholars have publicly disagreed with the movie’s presentation for the simple reason that they don’t believe the New Testament’s presentation of the story is accurate at all.  The majority of respected Biblical scholars do respect the reliability of the New Testament’s presentation of the story.  If one were to try hard enough, one could find a Biblical scholar who would advocate almost any conceivable idea about the story of Jesus – so in itself, having some scholars disagree with the movie’s presentation should be neither a surprise nor a worry.  Other Hollywood “Jesus movies” which are far less concerned about accuracy with the history have attracted much less public criticism from these recently vocal sources.

The movie reflects a particular traditional point of view regarding details of the story of Jesus – it is especially influenced by the writings of Anna Katharina von Emmerich, an 18th-century Roman Catholic nun.  As such it contains some artistic representation of history, some comparatively misplaced sense of emphasis, and in places it works on debatable assumptions – however, the movie generally follows the Gospels story line very well, in great detail.  As noted above, some exaggeration of details for effect, as well as symbolic moments and features, are presented to help “fill in the gaps” for the viewer who may not know the original story.  As with any such endeavour, emphasis is placed on the aspects of the story which seem important to the storyteller – the actual historical events may differ slightly because of that.  The movie is self-consciously an “icon”:  it points to something original.  We suggest that in order to really understand what happened, you should allow the movie to direct you to getting acquainted with the original story, in the first 4 books of the New Testament.  See #9 below for more on this.

The more important question is this: are the New Testament Gospels, on which the movie is ultimately based, honest representations of the actual events?  Impressive evidence can demonstrate the very high likelihood that the Gospels are far more trustworthy than any other historical records we have for that time period.  The events of Jesus’ death and resurrection were so powerful in their time, involving so many people, that sheer fabrication is most unlikely.  Ultimately, though, as with everything we see, hear and read every day, it’s a matter of faith:  will you choose to believe that this story is truthfully represented in the Gospels?


7.         Many people who believe the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection have done terrible things in human history, e.g. the Crusades, various wars and scandals, abuses, etc.  Does believing in Jesus Christ (as the movie portrays Him) mean that I have to accept all these other things, too?

No.  The fact that Jesus’ death was so horrible is no excuse for people who claim to be His followers to treat other humans with brutality and contempt.   It provides no excuse for retaliation of any kind.  When Jesus’ earliest followers faced the same kind of treatment, they received it as He did, rather than fighting back or running away.  Jesus Christ didn’t abuse and kill people:  He rescued them and died for them.  People who understand Him and follow Him, follow in the same spirit: they stand against evil even at the cost of their own suffering, instead of trying to twist the example of Jesus and power of evil together for their own purposes.

The atrocities one hears about in history and in the news of our time are deplorable.  But they do not fairly represent Jesus Himself, and they do not fairly represent the untold millions of people who for centuries have followed Him with quiet integrity.  Most people today, when they take time to think about it, understand this.


8.         Should I show this movie to my children?  How old should they be?

This is a very difficult movie to watch. We suggest that you see it yourself first, and then decide whether it’s appropriate for your children.  Mel Gibson (the director) and Jim Caviezel (the actor playing the part of Jesus) suggested that no one under age 12 should see it, because of the violence and emotional intensity.  Motion picture rating agencies tend to rate it Restricted or 18-A.  You might want to consider the importance of making sure your children are not traumatized in their early experiences of understanding the story of Jesus, and also that they understand this is not “violence for entertainment.”


9.         The movie has been criticized for its sheer sustained brutality, described by some as “assaulting, not uplifting.”  I do not support our society’s use of gross violence as entertainment.  Is there a reason why I should make an exception and see this film?

Possibly.  Some criticism of the movie’s violence may certainly be legitimate.  Curiously, however, some of “The Passion’s” most strident public critics have had little or no comment about many other popular, senselessly violent and otherwise degrading films – including films about Jesus which display obvious historical and moral inaccuracies.  One must ask whether much of their criticism here is “selective.”  For these people, the real occasion for criticism probably isn’t the movie itself, but the actual story portrayed in “The Passion,” since the original events were likely more appalling than the movie version.

Some of these same critics believe that “whatever content it might have, religion should make one feel good about life, the world, and oneself.” Because this movie causes one to “suffer along with the characters,” these critics deem it unfit as religious depiction.  The message behind the movie, however, deals with the real issues of the human condition:  our vulnerability to evil, our powerlessness to stop it, and our inability to understand our own lives.  The movie’s message is not about a politically correct philosophy of life, but of the seriousness of our condition under evil’s dominance, and what God has done to rescue us from it.  This is necessarily a different kind of story, not likely to conform to typical “Establishment” views of religion.   Besides, why should someone else’s opinion of “what religion should be” – incidentally, often touted by “non-religious people” – determine whether you should see the film?

Other criticism of the movie comes from people who actually believe the story it represents.  These critics believe that through exaggeration of some details, a lack of context for the story, and a heavy emphasis on the horror of the situation the viewer may get a misshapen understanding of the events.  We’ve tried in this article to reflect a more nuanced approach to the question that will encourage you to get to know the original story.  This movie is self-consciously an “icon,” deliberately pointing to a greater original.  This is its chief value.

We suggest that if you choose to see the film, see “The Passion” as something other than entertainment.   Do it because you want to better understand the story behind the movie.  Other quasi-documentary movies about important but horrific subjects (e.g. “Schindler’s List,” “The Killing Fields,” etc.) are usually deemed ultimately helpful, despite the painful experience of viewing them.  “The Passion of the Christ” should be seen as part of that genre.  If the events of Christ’s last 18 hours are important to you, then this movie may increase your ability to appreciate their significance.  Despite its limitations as cinema, it is probably the most realistic film depiction of the last 18 hours of Christ’s life ever produced.  Its chief value for the viewer is as a gateway into the ancient experience of seeing and hearing the story.   It is not the perfect depiction of its subject – but for many people who are unfamiliar with the original events, it may be a helpful start.


10.         I’m new to the idea of getting to know God.  What should I do about what I’ve seen in this movie?  Is there a “next step” for me to consider?

Yes.  The movie is very powerful – the original story is even more so.  You may be on the verge of “faith,” and there are several things you can do to move forward.  The following are suggestions for your consideration.

1.)  write out what you think and how you feel about what you’ve seen in the movie. Write things like “what stood out to you,” “what disturbed you,” “what made you wonder” about the story.  Don’t worry about evaluating it – just get it out on paper.  We suggest doing it soon after seeing the movie, before distraction sets in and you forget what moved you.

2.)  find some followers of Jesus whom you respect, and dialogue  with them about it. It’s important to find people who will respect the process you’re in, who will listen to you rather than trying to push you into making commitments before you understand.   We have individual and group settings available for you to continue processing what you’ve experienced – just leave a comment with us.

3.)  read one or more of the Gospel stories in a modern language translation of the Bible, and fill in the information about Jesus that you don’t already know about. If you don’t have a Bible, contact us and we will give you one at no cost to you.  You can get free access to the New International Version Bible online to www.biblica.com.   If you’re using a mobile device, we recommend the “YouVersion Bible” app, which will give you the entire Bible in several languages and reading levels. Our Bible study “Good News: What We Need to Know” can also be helpful in getting what you’ve seen in the movie into a context that makes sense.

4.)  If you already believe there is a God, ask Him for help to understand the story. Even if you’re not sure that you believe there is a God, you can still do this with integrity, if you’re willing to consider the possibility.   You can say something simple, like, “God, if you’re there, this story has moved me.  I want to know more about you.  Help me to see.  Show me what to do next.”

As much as we believe the story is true, and that through Jesus Christ God rescues people from darkness, evil, and permanent destruction, we don’t want to see you manipulated into making commitments you don’t yet understand.  God Himself won’t do that. He cares for you and your integrity.

The movie powerfully portrays the horror of what humans have done to God who made us and loves us.  This is understandably disturbing.

The fact that God would come back to continue to love us, to rescue us from evil and welcome us into the new world even after what we did to Him, is the very Good News.  If you want to know more, contact us.  We’ll be glad to get you started on the rest of the story.  We think you’ll be glad when you hear it.

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