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Introduction: WHY A BOOK ON THE PASSION OF CHRIST Chapter 1: THE HISTORY OF THE PASSION PLAYS Chapter 2: THE THEOLOGY OF THE PASSION PLAYS Chapter 3: THE SCOURGING AND CRUCIFIXION OF JESUS Chapter 4: THE CROSS OF CHRIST
Why a Book on The Passion of Christ
Somebody emailed me a message suggesting that I am wasting my time writing a book that exposes the unbiblical elements and teachings of Mel Gibson The Passion of the Christ. After all, most movies are not documentaries. They are largely based on fiction, not on facts. I would like to respond to this observation by mentioning two facts. First, the major reason for writing this book is not merely to critique Gibson’s movie, but to lead people to a fresh appreciation of the centrality, necessity, and achievements of the Cross. In The Passion of the Christ, Gibson makes no attempt to address the fundamental question: Why was it necessary for Christ to suffer and die for our salvation? His sole objective is to portray the relentless brutal torture of Christ from the time of His arrest until His death. But, many are asking, Did Christ need to be tortured unto death to satisfy the demands of a punitive God? Did Christ pay the penalty of our sins through the intensity of His sufferings or through His sacrificial death? These questions are especially relevant today when the presence of sin and the need of a Savior are largely dismissed as outmoded concepts. A vindictive and punitive portrayal of a God who allows His Son to be tortured unto death can only play into the hands of skeptics who find the notion of forgiveness through the vicarious cruel suffering and death of an innocent victim to be a perversion of justice.
These important questions are examined at length in the last chapter of my book, which is the longest and in many ways the most important part of the study. The chapter investigates the necessity, the achievement, and the benefits of Christ’s death for our life today. A second reason for devoting part of my book to an examination of Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, is the fact this movie is not an ordinary film which is soon forgotten. It is a major cultural event whose influence that will be felt for a long time. Millions of people have viewed the film, making it one of the biggest blockbusters in history. The movie will be replayed over and over, especially during the season of Lent and Easter. Over four million copies of the DVD versions of the movie were sold in the USA at the time of its release in August 2004. This film will promote fundamental Catholic beliefs such as the brutal sufferings of Christ to satisfy the demands of a punitive God, the co-redemptive role of Mary, suffering as a way to salvation, the reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice at the Mass, the demonic impersonations of Satan, and the collective responsibility of the Jews for the death of Christ. In view of the important impact the film will continue to have in promoting fundamental Catholic beliefs, it is imperative to examine carefully the claims made concerning its accuracy. The viewing public must be given the information needed to determine what is biblical and what is unbiblical in Gibson’s portrayal of Christ’s Passion. Gibson’s Claims of Biblical Accuracy Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ is heralded by numerous Catholic and Protestant church leaders as the most 4
authentic reenactment of the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life. To add biblical and historical authenticity to the movie, Gibson has the characters dressed to reflect the time, and speaking Aramaic and Latin. A major theme in the film’s publicity has been its faithfulness to Scripture. In an interview with Christianity Today, Gibson said: “Wow, the Scripture are the Scriptures—I mean they’re unchangeable, although many people try to change them. And I think that my first duty is to be as faithful as possible in telling the story so that it doesn’t contradict Scriptures. Now, so long as it didn’t do that, I felt that I had a pretty wide berth for artistic interpretation, and to fill in some of the spaces with logic, with imagination, with various other readings.” In an interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC News’ Primetime, Gibson was asked whether he considered his film to be “the definitive depiction of the Passion.” He replied: “This is my version of what happened according to the Gospels and what I wanted to show—the aspects of it I wanted to show.” The issue is not the sincerity of Gibson’s claims about the faithfulness of his movie to the Gospels, but whether his production, The Passion, validates his claim. Catholic Leaders Attest the Accuracy of The Passion Numerous Catholic and Protestant church leaders support Gibson’s claim of biblical accuracy. Vatican officials have openly endorsed The Passion, obviously because it effectively promotes fundamental Catholic beliefs. The film was shown to members of the Vatican Secretariat of State, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. All of them expressed unanimous approval,
praising it as the most accurate reenactment of Christ’s Passion ever produced. For example, Archbishop John Foley, President of Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said: “I don’t think there would be well-founded criticisms because all the material in the film comes directly from the Gospel accounts. There’s nothing in the film that doesn’t come from the Gospel accounts. So, if they’re critical of the film, they would be critical of the Gospel.”5 Similarly, Vatican spokesman Joaquin NavarroValls describes the movie as “a cinematographic transposition of the historical events of the Passion of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel.” Protestant Leaders Attest the Accuracy of The Passion Many Protestant church leaders have joined the Catholics in enthusiastically promoting The Passion as a biblical masterpiece. For example, Ted Haggard, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, said in an interview: “This film is probably the most accurate film historically than anything that has ever been made in the English world . . . So we have no hesitations. We were watching it for biblical accuracy and we thought it was as close as you can get.” Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church in Southern California purchased 18,000 tickets because he believes that the movie is “Brilliant, biblical—a masterpiece . . . It is not just a dramatization. It’s a historic description.” Similarly, Jack Graham, President of the Southern Baptist Convention, affirmed: “The movie is biblical, powerful and potentially lifechanging.”
Bill Hybels of Willow Creek, Robert Schuller of Crystal Cathedral, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, and radio commentator Paul Harvey, just to name a few, have all endorsed the film as an unprecedentally truthful reenactment of Christ’s Passion which is supposed to result in mass conversions to Christianity. Scholars Question the Biblical Accuracy of The Passion The enthusiastic endorsement of The Passion by numerous Catholic and Protestant church leaders stands in stark contrast with the reviews by biblical scholars who have taken time to compare the script of The Passion with the Gospels’ accounts of Christ’s suffering and death. These scholars express serious concerns over major biblical and historical errors present in the movie. In the forthcoming book book I cite several scholarly reports. For the sake of brevity I will only mention the symposium prepared by team of leading international scholars. They were invited to contribute chapters to a symposium which analyzes different aspects of The Passion. The title of the symposium is Jesus and Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST: The Film, the Gospels and the Claims of History. The aim of the symposium is to help readers appreciate The Passion more fully by understanding the differences between the Passion of the Gospels and the Passion of the movie. Some of the chapters praise the artistic qualities of The Passion and defend Gibson’s artistic interpretation of the Gospel narratives. Kathleen E. Corley and Robert L. Webb, editors of the symposium, summarize the findings of the investigation, first by acknowledging that The Passion is faithful to the Gospels’ basic outline of the “betrayal, arrest, examination, flogging, 7
crucifixion.” However, they continue, noting that the movie departs from the Gospels in several crucial areas. They write: “Much of the film does not represent accurately either the Gospels or history. At other times, the flashbacks are wholesale creations—all entirely legitimate in an artistic creation, but not given the claims of ‘accuracy.’ In crucial areas the story of The Passion takes considerable licence with the Gospels narratives. The film adds scenes that have no basis in the Gospels’ plot, and considerably alters the characterization of many of its key characters.” Why Bible Scholars Disagree with Popular Preachers? How can we account for the radical difference in the evaluation of The Passion between reputable Bible scholars and brand-name preachers? A plausible explanation is the fact that pastors are so busy with their pastoral obligations that they do not have time to engage in a time-consuming comparative analysis of the script of The Passion with the narratives of the Gospels. Thus, pastors tend to express their feelings, rather than their findings. By contrast, scholars usually do their homework before publishing their findings, because they wish to protect their credibility. A Latin proverb says: Verba volant, scriptum manet— “Words fly, the writing remains.” Most of the words uttered by preachers from a pulpit are soon forgotten, but what is published cannot be erased. It can haunt the author for long time. At the time of the release of Gibson’s movie, a few Adventist preachers delivered a series of sermons on THE PASSION OF CHRIST, extolling the faithfulness of Gibson’s movie to the Scripture. I heard some of the recorded sermons, and I was greatly distressed by some of the inaccurate statements. I
concluded that it would be unfair to evaluate a sermon as if it were the presentation of a scholarly paper. Pastors have an extremely busy schedule which hardly allows them blocks of time for indepth research. Often they end up expressing their feelings rather than their findings. Thus, let us be tolerant when we hear a preacher saying things that are inaccurate. After all, even the presidential candidates made inaccurate statements during the debates. After each debate it was interesting to listen to the critics who listed all the factual errors made by each candidate. But, in the case of sermons, the only critical response usually occurs around the Sabbath dinner table.
THE HISTORY OF THE PASSION PLAYS
The central message of the Christian faith is the incarnation, life, suffering, death, Resurrection, ascension, and Return of Jesus Christ. Of these, the death and Resurrection of Jesus form the pivotal part of the Gospel’s message because they reveal God’s provision and power for the salvation of believers. In his movie The Passion of the Christ (henceforth The Passion), Mel Gibson focuses almost exclusively on the suffering and death of Jesus, with only a moment’s reference to the Resurrection. For him, the most important part of the Gospel story is the relentless, brutal torture of Christ unto death. Since the Gospels’ account of Christ’s trial and crucifixion is very brief and cryptic, Gibson ultimately writes his own Passion story. In his detailed analysis of The Passion, John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at DePaul University, notes that only “about 5 percent comes from the Gospels—that is, the general outline and the sequence of events; about 80 percent comes from Emmerich [nineteenth-century German mystic who authored The Dolorous Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ]—that is, the details and characters that carry the best and the worst of the non-Gospel additions and expansions; and about 15 per cent from Gibson—that is, everything that escalates the violence above that already prevalent in Emmerich.”1
Questions Raised by The Passion. Since Gibson’s vision of Christ’s suffering and death derives mostly from non-biblical sources, some important questions need to be addressed. Why does Gibson portray Christ so bloodily when there is only one brief reference to blood in one of the Gospels? We read: “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34). Why does Gibson give us Christ’s blood, not in a communion cup, but by the gallon? Why does blood flow freely from the flayed flesh of Christ’s body from the moment of His flogging until His crucifixion? Why does Mary play such a prominent role in The Passion, sustaining her Son and sharing in His suffering throughout the ordeal? How can we explain the prominent co-redemptive role of Mary throughout Gibson’s movie? In the Passion narratives, Mary is mentioned only once, when Jesus entrusts her to the care of John, saying: “Woman, behold your son,” and to John, “Behold your mother” (John 19:26-27). By contrast, the movie showa the blood sluicing from the Cross covering Mary when she embraces her Son’s feet and later cradles His bloody body in the same position as that of Michelangelo’s Pietà. Why does the scourging of Jesus—described in a total of three lines in the four Gospels—take up thirty minutes of the film? Why does Gibson portray Caiaphas and the Jews as bloodthirsty villains, collectively determined to see Christ crucified at any cost, when the Gospels tell us that the Sanhedrin was divided in their deliberations over the fate of Christ (John 11:47-48; 10:1921), and that a great multitude of Jews “bewailed and lamented him” (Luke 23:27) on the way to Golgotha? In other words, why does Gibson choose to disregard those aspects of the Passion narratives that depict the positive response of many Jews to Christ?
Furthermore, why does Gibson emphasize the sufferings and death of Jesus at the expense of His life, teachings, Resurrection, and heavenly ministry? Why is the flashback to the Last Supper placed in conjunction with the Crucifixion, rather than before Christ’s arrest in Gethsemane when it occurred? Is Gibson portraying in a veiled way his Catholic belief in the juxtaposition between Christ’s sacrifice at the Cross and its reenactment at the Mass? Plays Gibson Adheres to the Traditional Passion. The answers to these and similar questions are to be found in studying the history and theology of the Passion Plays, which have developed in Western Europe since the thirteenth century. Such a study will show that Gibson did not invent the script of The Passion. As a committed traditional Catholic, he adheres strickly to the traditional pre-Vatican II Passion Plays, which have been influenced more by mystical visions than by biblical, archeological, and historical sources. For example, Vatican II acknowledged that Passion Plays have often inflamed angry mobs, leading them to pillage, burn, and murder thousands of Jews in Europe. Thus the Council issued a document, Nostra Aetate-—Our Age, which officially repudiates the traditional deicide charge (God-killers) against the Jews and urges great caution in any future dramatic presentations of the Passion of Christ. The directives of Vatican II were expanded in 1988 by the United States Catholic Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. The committee issued a pamphlet, Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion, which stresses that Passion Plays must be accurate and objective in their use of biblical and historical sources to portray the final events of Christ’s life. Unfortunately, as Catholic reviewers point out, Gibson largely ignores these recent Catholic directives, choosing 12
instead to follow his own pre-Vatican II traditional mystical beliefs.2 The Objective of This Chapter. This chapter looks at Passion Plays in general and Gibson’s movie in particular from a historical perspective. The aim is to help Christians understand some of the factors that have contributed to the development of the narrative and theology of the Passion Plays. This historical survey sheds light on such pertinent questions as these: Why do the Passion Plays promote the notion that Christ had to suffer exceedingly more than any human being in order to meet the demands of divine justice? Why have Passion Plays encouraged the physical abuse of one’s body (flagellation) as a way of salvation? Why do Passion Plays exalt Mary as a partner with Christ in our salvation? Why have Passion Plays fostered a deep contempt for the Jews, inspiring countless Christian viewers to pursue the Jews, mass murdering them in numerous European cities? Regarding the role of the Passion Plays in fueling hatred for the Jews, Hitler himself, after attending the renowned Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany, in 1930 and 1934, acknowledged that the production was “a convincing portrayal of the menace of the Jewry” and a “precious tool” for his plan to liquidate the “muck and mire of Jewry.” 3 Most likely, the Nazi’s plan to exterminate the Jews would have been carried out irrespective of the influence of the Passion Plays. But it would be hard to deny their influence in predisposing Christians to accept the “final solution.” The widespread Christian support for Hitler’s efforts to liquidate the Jews can be understood in the light of the contempt for the Jews promoted by the Passion Plays. The lesson of history is hard to miss. By portraying the Jewish people as murderers of Christ, Passion Plays set the stage for Christians to become murderers of the Jews. The crime initially committed by some Jews against 13
Christ was later repeated countless times by Christians against the Jews. The Value of a Historical Survey of the Passion Plays. This historical survey is designed to help especially the people of the United States, who have a relatively short social history, to look at The Passion from a historical and theological perspective. Most Americans view Gibson’s movie ahistorically—that is, without a historical perspective. They assume that the film is an accurate portrayal of Christ’s Passion produced by a gifted filmmaker. Thus, they wonder what the fuss is all about. But The Passion was not produced in a vacuum. There are seven centuries of history behind the Passion Plays. During these centuries, distinctive Catholic belief became embedded in the plays. Also, thousands of Jews were attacked, beaten, and murdered by inflamed Christians who left the annual Passion Plays raging against the “Christkillers.” European nations like France, Austria, Italy, and Germany have a longer history and a fresher memory of how the entire Jewish population of certain cities was murdered by angry mobs inflamed by Passion Plays. In fact, the anti-Semitism promoted by Passion Plays like Gibson’s movie is still very much alive today, as Jewish synagogues have been burned down recently in several European cities. This explains why French, Austrian, and German political and religious leaders have strongly opposed the release of The Passion in their respective countries. This chapter traces briefly the history of the Passion Plays, focusing especially on the best-known European Passion Play of Oberammergau in Germany. We seek to understand those factors that contributed to the origin and development of the Passion Plays and their impact on popular piety and anti-Semitism. The next chapter builds upon the findings of this chapter by 14
taking a closer look at the theology of the Passion Plays. Consideration will be given to the influence of the Passion Plays in promoting the Catholic view of the Mass as a reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice; the Catholic view of Christ’s brutal suffering and death to satisfy the demands of a harsh, punitive God; the mystical view of “suffering unto glory”; the use of images, statues, and crucifixes as aids to worship; the prominent role of Mary as a partner with Christ in His suffering and intercession; and the portrayal of the Jews as murderers of Christ. The intent of this historical and theological survey of the Passion Plays is to provide a much-needed background for people to evaluate Gibson’s movie from a historical and theological perspective. An understanding of why the Passion Plays came into existence—and of how they have promoted unbiblical theological beliefs, popular piety, and a deep hatred for the Jews—will help sincere Christians to recognize Catholic heresies subtly embedded in The Passion. The act of pointing out the problems of The Passion must not be interpreted as an indictment against Gibson’s sincerity, or a denial of the providential way the movie may lead some people to appreciate, perhaps for the first time, the price Christ paid for our salvation. Gibson is sincerely committed to promoting his traditional, pre-Vatican II Catholic faith. We can only wish that more Protestants would display the same commitment to their faith. God can use bad things to good ends (Rom 8:28). Thousands of people every day claim to have found Christ on a pilgrimage to a holy shrine or at a Pentecostal crusade where charismatic preachers like Benny Hinn effectively manipulate people’s emotions, deluding them into deceptive healings and salvation. The fact that in His providence God can communicate even
through the mouth of an ass (Num 22:28) does not make what is intrinsically bad a good thing. ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE DEVOTION TO CHRIST’S PASSION During the first ten centuries of our era, the devotion to Christ’s wounds and sufferings on the Cross were practically unknown. Paul speaks of dying with Christ and rising with Him through baptism (Rom 6:3-6). This is an existential experience of victorious living, not a devotional imitation of Christ’s sufferings. In other places, the New Testament encourages believers to be “partakers of Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 4:13; 5:1; Phil 3:10), not through self-flagellation, but by accepting the “reproach for the name of Christ” (1 Peter 4:14). By the late first century and early second century, Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch were calling upon Christians to follow the example of Christ in His Passion by being willing to suffer and die for their witness to Jesus. The notion of suffering with Christ through self-inflicted wounds is absent in the Christian literature of the first millennium. In the early Christian inscriptions, the symbol of the cross are relatively rare. Only about twenty crosses have been found in the Roman catacombs, mostly in the form of + or a T in tombstones accompanying the name of the deceased. Contorted figures of Christ on the Cross were unknown in the earliest centuries. In obedience to the Second Commandment, there was no pictorial portrayal of Christ’s appearance, life, and suffering during the first three centuries. Important iconographic changes began in the fourth century with the entrance of pagan masses into the Christian church. Statues, pictures, relics, and crucifixes were introduced into the churches 16
and popular piety. The alleged discovery of the “true Cross” by Constantine mother, Helena, in 326, contributed in a significant way to the devotion to the Cross. Pieces of the “true Cross” were distributed throughout the world. Pilgrimages to Jerusalem to visit the sites of the Passion became increasingly popular. Pilgrims normally went in procession to the traditional sites of the scourging, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus. Monks promoted the view that the true disciple of the crucified Christ must follow Him in suffering in order to join Him in glory. The notion of “suffering unto glory” by inflicting pain upon one’s body became part of the medieval monastic discipline and popular piety. The devotion to the crucifix became widespread, encouraging Christians to imitate Christ’s physical sufferings. The Devotion to Christ’s Humanity. Significant shifts in devotional practices occurred in the 12th and 13th centuries. Among them was a new devotion to the humanity of Christ, both among the monks and the laity, known as the “New Piety.” This devotion led to an identification with Christ’s suffering and a desire to suffer with Him in His Passion as a way of salvation. The Passion Plays were the natural outgrowth of this new devotion to and imitation of Christ’s human suffering. The participation in Christ’s Passion derives from the belief in the reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice at the altar when the Mass is celebrated. This doctrine, known as “transubstantiation,” was defined at the Lateran Council of 1215. This dogma teaches that the bread and wine are converted into the whole substance of the Body and Blood of Christ by the priest during the celebration of the Mass. Consequently, Christ offers Himself afresh for our salvation every time the Mass is celebrated. This belief in the salvific value of the reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice at the Mass made it possible for Passion Plays to bring that sacrifice dramatically before the people for their own personal redemptive
involvement. This consisted of imitating and participating in Christ’s redemptive suffering. This teaching is foreign to Scripture where we are told that Christ “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins . . . [and] by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb 10:12, 14). These developments of the doctrine of the Mass and of the devotion to Christ’s human suffering were a precondition for the origin of the Passion Plays. All these beliefs and practices, as we shall see, represent human attempts to make salvation a human achievement rather than a divine gift of grace. It is important to note that a Passion Play is in many ways an animated Mass for devout Catholics. As Gibson himself said in an interview, “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.”4 The two are the same thing for Gibson simply because Catholics believe that at the altar the priest offers Christ afresh as a sacrifice for our salvation. This teaching exalts the power of the priest, while obscuring the oncefor-all sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. Devotion to Christ’s Wounds Bernard of Clairvaux (died 1153), author of the hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” is generally singled out as the initiator of the devotion to the humanity of Christ, especially His wounds. In one of his sermons, Bernard writes: “What can be so effective a cure for the wound of conscience and so purifying to keenness of mind, as a steady meditation on the wounds of Christ?”5 In the monastic literature of the time we often find reference to the five wounds of Christ. Each of the five wounds was intended to heal the entry of sin into our bodies through the five senses. Peter Damian (1007-1072), an influential monastic reformer, explains this point with clarity: “Jesus is stripped of His clothing; he is beaten, bound, and spat upon; his flesh is pierced by a 18
fivefold wound, so that we may be healed from the entry of vices which reach us through the five senses.”6 Many popular prayers and religious practices developed at this time centered on the five wounds. A prayer attributed to Clare of Assisi consists of five sections, each of them devoted to one of the wounds. “A Pater and an Ave [two popular Catholic prayers] followed each section, with the following versicle and response: V. The five wounds of God R. Are my healing medicine. V. By thy five wounds R. Deliver me, O Christ, from ruin. V. Grant peace, O Christ, R. By thy five wounds.”7 The Catholic devotion to Christ’s wounds helps us to understand Gibson’s confession that he survived a near suicidal period of his life by meditating on Christ’s wounds. “I had to use the Passion of Christ to heal my wounds,” he told an Australian newspaper.8 Gibson’s mystical understanding of healing through Christ’s wounds goes beyond Isaiah’s words: “with his stripes we are healed” (Is 53:5). The prophet speaks of stripes, wounds, and bruises in the context of the death of God’s Servant for the “transgression of my people” (Is 53:8). But in Gibson’s mystical thinking, Christ’s wounds have healing power per se, because they can be identified with our own wounds. “His pain is ours and our pain is His, all obediently borne.”9 In other words, believers can participate in Christ’s redemptive suffering by bearing physical pain. This notion is foreign to the Bible and ultimately enables believers to redeem themselves through their own sufferings.
Devotion to the Passion The devotion to Christ’s Passion assumed new heights in the thirteenth century with the coming of Francis of Assisi. He is the first person in the history of Christianity to claim to have borne the stigmata—that is, Christ’s wounds in his hands. In a Testament drawn up in 1226, shortly before his death, Francis claims to have received the wounds of Christ on September 17, 1224. In Catholic thinking, the stigmata are the decisive sign of complete identification with Christ by penance and prayer and a qualification for sainthood. The preaching of Franciscan, Dominican, and Carmelite friars during the thirteenth century led Christians all over Europe to accept the belief of suffering as the sole way to glory. The Christian devotion to Christ’s Passion focused especially on His physical sufferings. But, more importantly, the devotion to Christ’s Passion gave rise to Passion Plays and the so-called Stations of the Cross, which soon became very popular in central Europe. By 1700, Passion Plays were staged in 160 places in Bavaria alone and a similar number is documented in nearby Tyrol. The best-known European Passion Play is that of Oberammergau, which will be considered shortly. “A feature common to all these phenomena,” Jesuit Scholar John O’Malley explains, “was the practical neglect of the Resurrection. The Stations of the Cross, for instance, were precisely that. They ended with the placing of Christ in the tomb.”10 In his blinklength portrayal of Christ’s Resurrection, Gibson faithfully follows a well-established mystical tradition in which “suffering has meaning of its own and the ‘resurrection’ signals little more than that the mystical ordeal is over.”11 In Gibson’s mystical Catholic tradition, Christ’s teachings and active ministry are overshadowed by the attention paid to the mocking, scourging, torture, and death He endured for the sake of sinners. “Mystics built devotions around his scourging after a Cardinal returned from the Holy Land bearing the pillar to which he said 20
Christ had been chained. Flagellant lay groups clogged the streets, seeking bloody identification with the flayed Christ.”12 So dominant grew the devotion to the Passion, writes Catholic historian Gerard Sloyan, that believers felt “meditation on the Passion alone could achieve unity with Christ and yield some share in the work of redemption He accomplished. . . . It came to overshadow not just the Incarnation, but even the Resurrection.”13 The mystical emphasis on Christ’s suffering, at the expense of His Incarnation and Resurrection, is clearly evident in Gibson’s movie where one can miss the Resurrection by a blink of the eyes. THE ORIGIN OF PASSION PLAYS The devotion to the Passion inspired the staging of Passion Plays which portrayed the trial, scourging, torture, and crucifixion of Jesus. In the earliest stages, the Passion Plays consisted merely of the reading of the biblical accounts related to the major events of Christ’s life. Eventually, the sacred readings grew into Passion Plays with dramatic readings scripted and worship leaders acting the roles of key persons. Well-developed texts are available from the thirteenth century. Initially, Passion Plays were presented as part of the worship service inside a church. As the script became more elaborate, it became necessary to move them outside the church, staging dramatic presentations stsged in town squares. A major contributing factor to the origin of Passion Plays during the thirteenth century is the catastrophes and tragedies that changed the shape of European life and with it of Christian piety and prayer. Europe was ravaged by wars, disease, and famine. Among these were the Crusades (1095-1396), the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), and, in the midst of these, the Black Plague of 1348-49 that took the lives of over twenty million people. The specter of death was ever present. Most people lived mean, brutish, and short lives. In the midst of these multiple calamities, people became fearful, apprehensive, and superstitious. 21
By portraying Christ’s patient response to brutal sufferings, the Passion Plays became a source of encouragement for average believers facing misery and terror. Such believers thought that no matter how badly they suffered, the Christ of the Passion had suffered much more. One mystic reported that Christ told her: “I was beaten on the body 6,666 times; beaten on the head 110 times; pricks of thorns in the head, 110 . . . mortal thorns in the forehead, the drops of blood I lost were 28,430.”14 By dedicating their suffering to Christ’s, believers sought to atone for their sins and to avert divine judgments. Suffering as a Way of Salvation With such a mentality prevailing in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, devout Christians sought various ways to imitate Christ’s sufferings as portrayed in the Passion Plays. “Bridget of Sweden burned herself with a candle wax every Friday, to remind herself of Christ’s wounds and ate bitter herbs to recall the gall (reminiscent of Jewish seder practice memorializing Egyptian slavery). Jeanne Marie of Maillè thrust a thorn into her head during Passion Week one year; it fell out on Holy Thursday without leaving a scar. Peter Olafsson wounded himself with hair cords and the briars and brambles on which he lay, adding to this self-flagellation.”15 Devout believers took no pleasure in their pain. It disgusted them, but they bore courageously their self-inflicted wounds in order to participate in Christ’s Passion in the present and to share in His glory in the future. Flagellant confraternities developed in various parts of Europe. “Their whipping of themselves to atone for their sins spread all over northern Europe as an attempted means to check the Black Death (1347-49) and more generally ward off the wrath of God. They read letters that purportedly came from God threatening earthquakes, famine, and the devouring of people’s children by wild beasts if they did not repent.”16 22
People responded with outbursts of emotion to the display of Christ’s suffering portrayed by itinerant flagellants and the Passion Plays. The plague of 1347-48, the poverty, and the urban unemployment made people susceptible to the superstitious belief that by sharing in Christ’s sufferings they could atone for their sins and bring healing to many. One may wonder how Christians could believe that Jesus had to suffer and die again and again, even through the sufferings of His followers, in order to dispense the benefits of His redemption. The major reason is to be found in their ignorance of Scripture. The Bible was unknown to the laity. Their faith was nourished by superstitious stories and drama such as the Passion Plays rather than by the teachings of the Word of God. The problem still exists today, as several subscribers to my ENDTIME ISSUES newsletter expressed appreciation for the vital information about the prominent role of Mary provided by The Passion, though it is absent in the Gospels. For them, what they saw in the movie is more enlightening than what they read in the Gospels!
The Passion Plays Undermine the All-sufficiency of Christ’s Sacrifice The once-for-all character of Christ’s sacrificial death, as explicitly taught in Hebrews, was unknown to Medieval Christians. “Christ has entered . . . into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God in our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; . . . But as it is he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb 9:24-26). This fundamental biblical teaching of the all-sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is apparently unknown to Mel Gibson and to countless millions of Catholics who have been 23
blinded by the Catholic teaching on the salvific value of the reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice at the Mass. Gibson is determined to promote the Catholic heresy of the Mass. In an interview he stated his determination “to shake modern audiences by brashly juxtaposing the sacrifice of the cross with the sacrifice of the altar—which is the same thing.”17 This means that for devout Catholics The Passion is an animated Mass, which many unwary Protestant viewers accept as a biblical teaching. There is considerable variety in the texts of the Passion Plays. For the German-speaking regions alone, there are approximately 50 different plays. Among the best known fifteenth-century plays are the Vienna Passion, the St. Gall Passion, the Frankfort Passion, and the Maestrich Passion. Doubtless the best known European Passion Play is that of Oberammergau, which began in 1634. While the scenes of the plays cover mostly the same final events of Christ’s life, there is a tendency, even in the oldest Passion Plays, to break away from the biblical text by incorporating popular non-biblicalbeliefs. CHRIST’S BRUTAL SUFFERING TO SATISFY DIVINE JUSTICE One belief which is a central element of both classical Passion Plays and Gibson’s movie is that Christ had to suffer exceedingly more than any human being because He had to satisfy the demands of divine justice for all the sins of humanity. This belief is found especially in mystical literature. For example, in her book The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Anne Emmerich describes how angels “showed him [Christ] the satisfaction which he would have to offer to Divine Justice, and how it would consist of a degree of suffering in his soul and body which would comprehend all the sufferings due to the concupiscence of all mankind, since the debt of the whole human race had to be paid by that humanity which alone was sinless— 24
the humanity of the Son of God. . . . No tongue can describe what anguish and what horror overwhelmed the soul of Jesus at the sight of so terrible an expiation.”18 This belief is reflected in the brutal torture of Jesus both in the Passion Plays and Gibson’s movie. Contrary to the brief and sober account of the scourging of Jesus that we find in the Gospels (Mark 15:16-19; Matt 27:27-31), in The Dolorous Passion, Emmerich devotes a whole chapter to the scourgings of Jesus, describing in minute details the four scourging of Jesus carried out on an alternating basis by six drunk and sadistic Roman soldiers, who escalated the torture with their arsenal of instruments until they reduced His body to a bloody heap of shredded flesh.19 With unsurpassed cinematic skills, Gibson gives a stunning dramatization of Emmerich’s description of the scourging of Jesus. He has Christ tied to a post in Pilate’s courtyard, and then follows a ten-minute sequence in which “first, the Savior is whipped with a stick until his back is raw. Then he is whipped with a cat-o’-nine-tails that has metal barbs at the end of each tether; in one shot we see the hooks dig deep and tear out his flesh. Then Christ is rolled over and he is flayed from the front. Later, after the long march to Golgotha, he is nailed to the cross in slow-mo close-ups in which each hammer stroke brings forth a fresh gout of blood. . . . To Gibson, each drop is holy, so the more of it the better. Each chunk of flesh dug out by the lash is Christ’s sacrifice in all its beauty, so bring it on. The cumulative effect, however, brings only numbness.”20 This graphic violence is essential to Gibson’s theological understanding of the intensity of Christ’s sufferings in order to satisfy the demands of divine justice. We shall return to this point in the next chapter in the discussion of the Catholic satisfaction view of Christ’s suffering and death. 25
THE PROMINENT ROLE OF MARY Another significant feature of the Passion Plays is the prominent role of Mary in sustaining her Son and sharing in His suffering from Gethsemane to Golgotha. At the foot of the Cross she even utters a formal condemnation of the Jews, known as the “lament– planctus,” saying: “Oh the crime of this hateful race, the animallike hands of those crucifying you. Oh this barbarous people, oh blind, deplorable race! Oh He who is innocent is condemned by a damnable people, fulfilling what is necessary. Oh Men of blood rate against the Lord of salvation.”21 This lamentation and imprecation of Mary against the Jews has been a standard feature of the Passion Plays until recent times. Spielleitung Stückl concisely summarizes some of the Marian scenes present in Passion Plays, but absent in Scripture: “1. Planctus Mariae (Mary’s lament or complaint): Mary expresses her sorrow over Christ’s passion and death in a long poem or lament. In some plays Mary’s lament follow immediately after Christ’s death and the witness of the Roman Centurion (St. Gallen), in others her planctus begins already during the way of the Cross and is pursued after the death of Jesus. 2. Mary’s pleading with Judas and Jesus: in some plays Mary pleads with Judas to spare Jesus’ life or she pleads with Jesus to choose a different way to bring about redemption, a request Jesus must decline. Mary then accuses the angel Gabriel who declared her blessed among all women. The angel reminds her of Simeon’s prophecy. But Mary visits and reminds Jesus of his obligation to the fourth commandment [that is, the fifth commandment about honoring parents]. He in turn draws her attention to His obligation to the Father in Heaven.
3. Mary plays a role in the paschal events of Passion plays, especially in scenes where Christ appears to his mother. Sometimes this apparition is announced already at the Annunciation.”22’ The traditional prominent role of Mary in the Passion Plays is reflected in Gibson’s movie, in which Mary follows her Son along the Stations of the Cross. She urges Him to choose a different way to bring about redemption. She gathers His flesh and blood after the scourging. She comforts Him, embracing His bloody feet at the Cross, and holding His body on her knees in the famous Pietà pose. The message is clear. Mary actively participated with her Son in our redemption. In the next chapter we will examine what contributed to the development of the Catholic theology of Mary as a partner in Christ’s Passion on earth and intercession in heaven. THE HOSTILITY OF THE JEWS TOWARD CHRIST Another major theme developed in the Passion Plays is the hostility of the Jews toward Christ. Samuel Weintraub notes that “there are at least six anti-Jewish themes that are developed and belabored in most Passion Plays. “(1) The Jewish antagonists of Jesus—and by implication all Jews—are depicted as degenerate, loathsome, almost subhuman creatures. The Jewish priests in particular are hateful and bloodthirsty, zealous in defense of their own privilege, and obscene in their pleasure over Jesus’ suffering. These priests lead a corrupt religion, whose vindictive legalism is juxtaposed to Christian love, mercy and universalism. “(2) The crowd before the Roman Governor’s palace becomes a Jewish ‘mob,’ echoing their priests’ sadism. They—and again by 27
implication all Palestinian Jews—clamor for the death of Jesus. Gleefully, they welcome the responsibility for his execution, upon themselves and their descendants. Thus, Jews are judged to be collectively guilty of deicide, and permanently rejected by God. “(3) These plays either obscure or deny the Jewish background of Jesus and the apostles. Their commitment to Jewish religion and ethics is concealed; indeed, many plays represent them as total renegades from Jewish traditions. “(4) The most damaging perversion of history involves the characterization of Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor who ordered Jesus’ execution. Pilate, whom responsible historiography has described as a ruthless tyrant, is pictured as a fair ruler who was unfortunately swayed by Jewish pressure to order the crucifixion. Thus, the role of crucifier, and responsibility for the execution, is handily shifted from the Romans to the Jews. “(5) The use of Christian Scriptures is one sided and highlights texts with real or potential anti-Jewish import; New Testament passages which suggest more positive images of Jews and Judaism are frequently neglected. “(6) There is a tendency to sever the story of Jesus from its historical context in first century Israel. Thus, the plays dissociate the life of Jesus and the primitive Church from their setting in Jewish religion and social life. Similarly, they fail to present the realities of Roman oppression, which are necessary to understand both Jesus’ ministry and the actions of his Jewish antagonists.”23 The Jews Were Progressively Demonized In his classic book, The Anguish of the Jews, Jesuit Scholar Edward Flannery refers to the centuries which saw the development of the Passion Plays as “the centuries of woe, in which the Jews were progressively 28
demonized, that is, portrayed first as in league with Satan opposing Jesus and then as Devil themselves.”24 The latter was achieved by placing a monstrous horned headgear on the Jewish priests and leaders, making them look like the Devil himself. It was only in 1990 that significant changes were made in the Oberammergau Passion Play, which included the removal of the horned headgear from Jewish leaders. Bishop Eugene Fisher, Director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, points out that “during the centuries which saw the development of Passion Plays, Jews were increasingly blamed for all the ills of society, from killing Christian babies and poisoning wells to spreading the Black Plague. Though the popes and responsible Church officials condemned these absurd charges (pointing out, for example, that Jews drank from the very wells they were accused of poisoning), people became more and more vulnerable to believing just about anything evil that was said about Jews and Judaism.”25 The Persecution of the Jews The mass hysteria provoked by the Passion Plays found expression in two different ways. On the one hand, it inspired self-flagellation to atone for personal sins and to ward off the wrath of God. On the other hand, it fueled the persecution of the Jews. People who left their annual Passion Plays would be inflamed, raging against “Christ-killing Jews” and accusing them of being responsible for well poisoning, causing the Black Plague, and ritual murder. These accusations led to the dehumanization, brutalization, expulsion, and murder of Jews throughout Europe. The tragedy consequence of the Passion Plays has been the creation of a powerful melodrama foreign to the Bible. A clear distinction has been made between the good guys and the bad 29
guys. The good guys are the “Christians”—Jesus, His apostles, Mary His mother, Mary Magdalene, Veronica, and so forth. The bad guys are the evil “Jews”—the high priests Caiaphas and Annas, Judas Iscariot, and the Jewish mob that called for Jesus’ crucifixion. The fact that Jesus and His disciples were Jews themselves does not seem to matter. Nor does it matter that even after the Resurrection there were no “Christians.” The distinction in the book of Acts is between believing and unbelieving Jews, not between Christians and Jews. The latter distinction is a later development due to the intensification of the conflict between believing and unbelieving Jews. Yet, in the Passion Plays, including Gibson’s movie, Jesus and His followers have been portrayed through the centuries as innocent and holy Christians, and the Jews as corrupt and brutal thugs. This stereotyped image of the Jews as a wicked people has been fostered by the Roman Catholic doctrine that blamed them collectively as a people for the crucifixion of Christ. This doctrine prevailed until Vatican II in 1965. In a document called Nostra Aetate,“Our Times,” Vatican II rejected the deicide charge leveled against the Jews: “True, authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (cf John19:6). Still, what happened in His Passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as repudiated or cursed by God as if such views followed from the Holy Scriptures.”26 Historical Catholic Anti-Semitism The infamous Catholic teaching that blamed the Jews as a wicked people guilty of killing Christ has been promoted by some of the greatest Catholic saints until Vatican II. For example, John Chrysostom, a famous Catholic preacher and saint who served as Patriarch of Constantinople (397-403), preached a series of sermons against the Jews. He said: “The Jews are the most worthless of men— 30
they are treacherous, greedy, rapacious—they are perfidious murderers of Christians, they worship the devil, their religion is a sickness . . . The Jews are the odious assassins of Christ and for killing God there is no expiation, no indulgence, no pardon. Christians may never cease vengeance. The Jews must live in servitude forever. It is incumbent on all Christians to hate the Jews.”27 In a similar vein, Gregory of Nyssa (330-395), a renowned Catholic theologian and orator, describes the Jews as “Slayers of the Lord, murderers of the prophets, adversaries of God, haters of God, men who show contempt for the law, foes of grace, enemies of the father’s faith, advocates of the devil, brood of vipers, slanderers, scoffers, men whose minds are in darkness, leaven of the Pharisees, assembly of demons, sinners, wicked men, stoners and haters of righteousness.”28 The stereotyped notion of the Jews as wicked and murderous is also reflected in medieval poetry and art, where the Jews are identified with the Devil and are pictured with the Devil’s horns, tail, and a goat beard. Satan himself is pictured as a Jew, or in the company of the Jews, or riding on the back of a Jew. The Passion Plays reinforced these stereotyped images of the Jews by portraying them with horns and tails, sadistically torturing Christ’s body. Passion Plays Fueled Bloody Reactions against the Jews Historically, Passion Plays not only helped people to get ready for Easter, but also to fuel their hate against the Jews as “Christkillers.” Lethal bloody reaction against the Jews often followed the performance of medieval Passion Plays. The physical attacks against the Jews were so violent that in some cities the whole Jewish population was murdered. “In Rottingen, Germany, in 1298, the entire Jewish population of the city was put to the stake. 31
Then the angry mob spread through Germany and Austria, pillaging, burning and murdering about 100,000 Jews. In Prague in 1389, 3,000 Jews killed; in Seville, Spain, in 1391, 4,000 Jews killed. In three months that year, the slaughter spread across Spain, with a death tally of about 50,000 Jews. The year Columbus ‘discovered’ America, the nation that sent him out, Spain, expelled its entire Jewish population.”30 The slaughter of the Jews that followed Passion Plays became so frightening that both civil and ecclesiastical authorities forbade the production of Passion Plays in such cities as Freiburg in 1338, Frankfurt in 1469, Rome in 1539, Paris in 1548, and Strassburg in 1549. In Rome, the Passion Play was staged in the Colosseum by the Confraternity of the Gonfalone—a male-dominated institution actively involved in the social life of the city. In 1539, about 70,000 people viewed the play at the Colosseum. After the play, the crowd led by the Confraternity passed through the Jewish Quarter, killing Jews and destroying their properties. The violent incident prompted Pope Paul III to outlaw the play, despite the repeated attempts of the Confraternity to start it again.31 During the eighteenth century, local governments banned the Passion Plays in many parts of Europe. The people of Oberammergau pressured the Bavarian government to grant them a special permission to continue its play because of the solemn and binding vow they took in 1633 to stage the Passion every ten years if God would halt the spreading of the Bourbon Plague in their town. In the nineteenth century, Passion Plays regained popularity, partly because of the attacks of the French Revolution against Christianity and their impact on the European religious life. Concerned Christians felt that the world was becoming more 32
sinful and more hostile toward Christ and His message. To make reparation for the hurt caused to Christ by the anti-Christian philosophies, Passion Plays were revived to inspire Christians to imitate Christ in suffering for the sins of the world. Unfortunately, these plays also revived the historical “Christian” hate for the Jews. The ultimate consequence of the superstitious and violent antiSemitism fueled by church teachings and dramatized through the Passion Plays was the Holocaust. Hitler could not have carried out his Final Solution without the cooperation of many Christians in Germany and other European countries. Hatred for the Jews, nourished by centuries of church teachings dramatized by Passion Plays, eventually transformed Europe into a fertile ground for the mass murder of the Jews. The Oberammergau Passion Play The best-known European Passion Play is that of Oberammergau. This village, located in the Bavarian Alps, began the regular performance of the play in 1634. The story of its origin is well known. In 1633, during the chaos of the Thirty Years War, the bubonic plague was ravaging southern Germany. When the plague reached the isolated village of Oberammergau, it threatened to decimate it. The town council took a bold action. They pledged to perform a play depicting the life and death of Jesus the following years in 1634 and then every ten years thereafter, if God would spare the town from further ravages of the plague. The plague subsided and the villagers performed the Passion Play in 1634; with few exceptions, they have continued to do so each decade. During the eighteenth century, the Bavarian government banned the Passion Plays because they were superstitious and impious with the devil and his minions active on stage, inciting the Jews to torture and crucify Christ. The Oberammergau town fathers 33
showed an amazing persistence and succeeded in obtaining special permission to continue the play. To keep authorities from banning the play again after 1800, the script was rewritten. In each successive decade, significant changes were made to the text in response to political and theological pressures. Major revisions were made in 1990 and 2000 as a result of pressure put on the villagers by Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. Gone were the devilish-looking horned headgear of the Jewish leaders, and the blood curse from Matthew was diminished to a single line in 1990 and totally eliminated in 2000. The new revised Oberammergau Passion Play has become the model for the plays staged throughout the Christian world. Anti-Semitism in the Oberammergau Passion. Play It is fair to say that the people of Oberammergau most likely have never intended to present an anti-Semitic play. After all, there were no Jews living in their village during the nineteenth century. What they presented in their play reflected the mainstream Catholic tradition of branding the Jews as Christ’s killers, condemned to live under a perpetual curse. Pope Honorius III speaks of “the perfidy of the Jews, condemned as they are to perpetual slavery because of the cry by which they wickedly called down the blood of Christ upon themselves and their children.”32 We noted earlier that Vatican II attempted to make amends for the millennia of Catholic hostility toward the Jews by rejecting the traditional charge of deicide that accused the Jews of being Christ-killers under a perpetual curse. The current pope, John Paul II, has gone further than any previous pope in history by apologizing for the past Catholic atrocities committed against the Jews. There is no doubt that the Catholic Church, as well as
Protestants in general, has developed a more positive and tolerant attitude toward the Jews. Unfortunately, Gibson’s Passion Play is in the trajectory of the medieval Passion Plays in its portrayal of the Jews as bloodthirsty people, sadistically determined to see Christ tortured to death. He ignores the teachings of Vatican II and more specifically the guidelines for the production of Passion Plays which were published in 1988 by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.33 His use of the Gospels is one-sided, selecting texts with a potential anti-Jewish import while ignoring those texts which portray the Jews in a more positive light. Specific examples will be considered in the following chapter. The dramatic concept of the older version of the Oberammergau Passion Play (followed by Gibson) is the melodrama, which contains a clear contrast between the good and evil people. The good people are the “Christians”—Jesus, His disciples, Mary His mother, and so forth. The evil people are the “Jews”—the high priest Caiaphas, the leaders, Judas Iscariot, and the Jewish mob who called for Jesus’ crucifixion. The portrayal of the Jews in the Passion Plays as corrupt and brutal reflects the prevailing nineteenth-century view of the Jews as unbelieving foreigners who should be allowed to reside in European countries only by special permission. Occasional attempts by local authorities to grant to Jewish subjects something approaching equal rights were opposed because of religious prejudice. For example, a petition signed by the leading citizens and the priest of Hilders, Bavaria, in 1850 expressed outrage that civil and political rights might be granted to Jews, “an alien people that is hostile to Christians everywhere, and that to this day harbors the same hate toward our religion with which it once nailed the Savior to the Cross!”34
Adolf Hitler Loved the Oberammergau Passion Play It is not surprising then that Adolf Hitler knew and loved the Oberammergau Passion Play, which he saw in 1930 and 1934. He spoke glowingly of the play, saying: “It is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans. There one sees in Pontius Pilate a Roman racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry. If nowadays we do not find the same splendid pride of race which distinguished the Grecian and Roman eras, it is because in the fourth century these JewishChristians systematically destroyed all the monuments of these ancient civilizations.”35 Most likely the people of Oberammergau had no intention of inspiring the Holocaust as they staged the play that Hitler saw. “The Nazis,” as Prof. Gordon Mork points out, “would doubtless have gone their genocidal way without being able to include Oberammergau in their propaganda bag of tricks. But Oberammergau has had to bear a burden because its traditional play was fully capable of being exploited by Nazi anti-Semitic propagandists.”36 Passion Plays and Anti-Semitism Today Are Passion Plays or films still capable of fueling anti-Jewish hostility and propaganda? The answer appears to be “Yes.” For example, Steve Purham, the chief executive of SurfControl, notes that websites espousing religious hatred have increased 26% during the first four months of 2004. Some of the “news events that appear to have triggered the recent sharp increase in hate sites, include the controversy over gay marriages and the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which has been used by some extremists as a platform to express hatred of non-Christians.”37 36
In surfing the Internet, one can find numerous examples of antiJewish propaganda. For example, an anonymous “angry white female” writes: “The fact that Jews control so much of what we think via Hollywood, lends an air of mystery and awe to this Gibson vs. the Jews dispute. The man just may be something like William Wallace and The Patriot! Just imagine the Jews in power shaking in their boots at the prospect of being accurately portrayed as Christ-killers, rather than their usual arrogant churning out of anti-White and anti-Christian movies designed to promote self-loathing and hatred of White western culture, people and history.”38 Fortunately, such anti-Jewish voices in America are relatively few; but let us not forget that Adolf Hitler also was dismissed during the 1920s as a lunatic fringe of German politics. The history of the Passion Plays we have briefly surveyed teaches us that anti-Jewish sentiments can be fanned into conflagration, causing untold sufferings to the Jews. We need to learn from the mistakes of history so that we can avoid repeating them. One wonders whether Gibson has ignored the mistakes of history, or wishes to repeat them. One thing is certain. The timing of the release of The Passion was particularly poor, given the current rise in anti-Jewish as well as anti-Muslim sentiments in the world today. CONCLUSION Our survey of the history of the Passion Plays indicates that their origin goes back to the thirteenth century, as a result of two major contributing factors. The first is the devotion to Christ’s human sufferings, especially the wounds of His Passion. The preaching of Franciscan, Dominican, and Carmelite friars promoted the devotion to Christ’s Passion, which in turn influenced the staging of Passion Plays, focusing on the trial, scourging, torture, and 37
crucifixion of Jesus. Devout Christians sought various ways to imitate Christ’s sufferings as portrayed in the Passion Plays as a way of salvation. A second contributing factor to the origin of Passion Plays is the catastrophes and the tragedies that changed the Christian life and piety at that time. Europe was ravaged by wars and diseases like the Black Plague of 1348-49 that took the lives of over twenty million people. In the midst of these calamities, the Passion Plays became a source of encouragement for the misery and terror facing average believers. By dedicating their suffering to Christ, believers sought to atone for their sins and to ward off the wrath of God. In many ways, the Passion Plays became a dramatic and visible portrayal of fundamental Catholic beliefs and piety. One of the beliefs is that Christ had to suffer exceedingly more than any human being because He had to satisfy the demands of a punitive God for all the sins of humankind. In the next chapter we shall see that this Catholic view of God as a sadistic, exacting, and punitive Judge bound by a law outside Himself reduces the Cross to a legal transaction in which a meek Christ suffers the harsh punishment imposed by a punitive Father for the sins of humanity. This is a gross distortion of the Gospel, because the Cross reveals how the righteous and loving Father was willing through His Son to become flesh and suffer the punishment of our sins in order to redeem us without compromising His own character. Another significant Catholic belief that became embedded in the Passion Plays is the prominent role of Mary as a partner in Christ’s Passion on earth and intercession in heaven. During Christ’s journey along the Via Dolorosa on the way to Golgotha, Mary is portrayed in Passion Plays as always being near Christ, acting as His comforter and coach. Through their eye contact, Mary infuses mystical power on her Son. In the next chapter we 38
shall see how the elevation of Mary to a co-redemptive role with Christ has resulted in the widespread idolatrous worship of Mary in the Catholic Church—a worship condemned by the first and second commandments. A most disturbing feature of the Passion Plays is the portrayal of the Jews as a wicked, bloodthirsty people, collectively guilty for Christ’s death. We found that this infamous teaching was promoted by some of the greatest Catholic saints before Vatican II. This teaching has led to the dehumanization, brutalization, expulsion, and murder of countless Jews throughout Europe. In his movie The Passion, Gibson follows the traditional script of the Passion Plays by portraying the Jews as a sadistic and bloodthirsty people, collectively guilty of Christ’s death. The next chapter will show that Gibson intentionally disregards the positive Gospels’ scenes where multitude of Jews follow Jesus throughout His ministry all the way to the Cross. For example, he does not show “all the multitude who assembled to see the sight [of the crucifixion], and when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breast” (Luke 23:48). The reason for disregarding the positive response of many Jews to Christ is Gibson’s determination to follow the pre-Vatican II Catholic tradition that stereotyped all the Jews as a wicked people under God’s curse for killing Christ. Summing up, this historical survey of the Passion Plays has shown that the dramatization of Christ’s Passion during the past seven centuries has served to promote fundamental Catholic beliefs and piety. Unfortunately, these beliefs grossly misrepresent the biblical view of God’s nature, the meaning of Christ’s suffering and death, the role of Mary in our salvation, the use of images in worship, and the responsibility of the Jews for Christ’s death. The next chapter takes a closer look at these Catholic theological beliefs that are embedded in the Passion Plays, especially in Gibson’s movie. 39
ENDNOTES 1. John Dominic Crossan, “Hymn to a Savage God,” in the symposium Jesus and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” The film, the Gospels and the Claims of History (New York, 2004), p. 12. 2. John Dominic Crossan notes that “this film managed to breach every single one of the Criteria for the evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion issued by the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1988.” Ibid., p. 21. 3. Adolf Hitler, Hitler’s Secret Conversations, 1941-1944 (New York, 1954), p. 457; dated July 5, 1942. 4. “The Passion of Mel Gibson,” by Terry Mattingly, Scripps Howard News Service, January 21, 2004; also Christianity Today 2, 23, 2004. 5. Sermon 62, Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works, trans. Gillian R. Evans (New York, 1987), p. 250. 6. Peter Damiani, Opusculum 43 chap. 5 (PL 145, 683); see also Felix Vernet, Medieval Spirituality (St. Louis, 1930), p. 91. 7. Gerard S. Sloyan, The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith (New York, 1995), p. 170. 8. David Van Biema, “Why It’s So Bloody,” Time (March 1, 2004), p. 66. 9. Gerard S. Sloyan, note 7, p. 135. 10. John O’Malley, S. J., “A Movie, a Mystic, and a Spiritual Tradition,” America (March 15, 2004). 11. Richard Kieckhefer, Unquiet Souls: Fourteenth-Century Saints and Their Religious Milieu (Chicago University Press, 1984), p. 3. 12. David Van Biema, “Why It’s So Bloody,” Time (March 1, 2004), p. 66. 40
13. Gerard S. Sloyan, note 7, p.176. 14. David Van Biema, note 12, p. 66. 15. Gerard Sloyan (note 7), p. 177. 16. Gerards S. Sloyan (note 7), p. 179; see also Richard Kieckhefer, “Radical Tendencies in the Flagellant Movement of the Mid-Fourteenth Century,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 4 (1974), pp.157-176. 17. “The Passion of Mel Gibson,” by Terry Mattingly, Scripps Howard News Service, January 21, 2004; also Christianity Today (February 23, 2004). 18. Anne Catherine Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ (New York, 1904), p. 105. 19. The Dolorous Passion, pp. 183-189. 20. Ty Burr, “‘Passion of the Christ’ Is a Graphic Profession of Mel Gibson’s Faith, Globe (February 24, 2004). 21. Eugene J. Fisher, “Passion Plays from a Christian Point of View,” http://www.passionplayusa.net/dialog.htm. 22. Spielleitung Christian Stückl, The Passion Play of the Community of Oberammergau (Germany: Oberammergau, 1990), p. 16. 23. Samuel Weintraub, “Passion Plays in the United States,” http://www.passionplayusa.net/antismtsm.htm. 24. Cited by Eugene J. Fisher, in “Passion Plays from a Christian Point of View,” http://www.passionplayusa.net/dialog.htm. 25. Eugene J. Fisher, in “Passion Plays from a Christian Point of View,” http://www.passionplayusa.net. 26. Alexis P. Rubin, Editor, Scattered Among the Nations— Documents Affecting Jewish History 49-1975 (Northvale, New Jersey, 1995), p. 302. 27. NOSTRA AETATE: Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religion, Proclaimed by His Holiness Pope Paul VI, October 28, 1965, paragraph 4. 28. Allan Gould, What Did They Think of the Jews? (Portland, Oregon, 1997), p. 24. 41
29. Ibid., p. 25. 30. Richard Nilsen, “Fear of the ‘Passion,’” The Arizona Republic (February 22, 2004). 31. Anne Sarzin, “Passion Plays that Inspired Violence in Rome,” The University of Sydneys News (February 24, 2000). 32. Leon Poliakov, The History of Anti-Semitism (New York, 1962), vol. 2, p. 307. 33. Criteria for Evaluating “Passion Plays,” www.nccbuscc.org. 34. James Harris, The People Speak! Anti-Semitism and Emancipation in Nineteenth-Century Bavaria (Ann Arbor, 1994), p. 252. 35. Adolf Hitler, Hitler’s Secret Conversations, 1941-1944 (New York, 1954), p. 457; dated 5 July 1942. 36. Gordon R. Mork, “Christ’s Passion on Stage—The Traditional Melodrama of Deicide,” Journal of Religion and Film (February 2004), vol. 8, p. 9. 37. Patrick Barkham, “Religious Hatred Flourishes on the Web,” The Guardian (May 11, 2004), p. 12. 38. http://www.angrywhitefemale.net/mel-gibson.html.
THE THEOLOGY OF THE PASSION PLAYS
The spiritual dimension of the Christian life is largely dependent upon its intellectual content. What we comprehend with our minds we seek to experience in our religious life. A healthy religious life is largely dependant on a correct understanding of Bible teachings. Diligent study of the Bible has kept many Christians from being blown away by every wind of doctrine. However, today the tendency is to seek meaning and spiritual renewal not through the study of the Bible, but through subjective experiences. Our society values emotions over cognition or action. We hear people say, “I need to experience this movie or this play to revive my faith.” “Let us get away from the study of doctrines and experience Christ.” “I am not bothered by the biblical and theological errors found in Gibson’s movie on The Passion of the Christ, because the film moves me to accept Christ anyway.” The problem with this reasoning is the failure to recognize that being moved by Christ’s brutal sufferings is not the same as being His disciple. A religious experience based on faulty theology is like physical health built on junk food. If we feed our body unhealthy food, we live an unhealthy life, which ultimately leads to a premature death. Similarly, if we fill our mind with unbiblical teachings and manipulated emotional experiences, our religious life will be unhealthy and superstitious, ultimately causing us to lose eternal life. 43
In surveying the historical origin and development of the Passion Plays during the past seven centuries, we noted some of the unbiblical Catholic beliefs that have inspired the staging of such plays. The average viewers of a Passion Play or of Gibson’s movie may not realize that what they see today is not a mere reenactment of the final events of Christ’s life as described in the Gospels, but the outgrowth of centuries of superstitious Catholic beliefs, largely based on popular myths rather than on biblical teachings. The popular acceptance of such superstitious beliefs has fostered an idolatrous piety designed to placate a punitive God by imitating Christ’s suffering and by appealing to the meritorious intercession of Mary and the saints. To bring into sharper focus the major unbiblical beliefs and practices embedded in Passion Plays such as Gibson’s movie, in this chapter we will discuss more fully the theological significance of six major teachings that have emerged in our historical survey. Our focus will be not on the historical origin and development of these teachings—already surveyed in the previous chapter—but on their theological significance. The intent is to help truth-seekers better understand the theological import of the deceptive teachings that have been blindly embraced by millions of sincere Christians through the centuries. Six deceptive, unbiblical teachings will be considered: 1. The Devotion to Christ’s Passion 2. The Passion and the Catholic Mass 3. The Satisfaction Views of the Atonement 4. The Co-Redemptive Role of Mary 5. The Portrayal and Impersonation of Christ 6. The “Christian” Theology of Anti-Semitism
THE DEVOTION TO CHRIST’S PASSION
In tracing the origin of the Passion Plays, we found that the devotion to Christ’s Passion, especially to His wounds, played a major role in staging dramatic portrayals of Christ’s suffering and death. Bernard of Clairvaux, and especially Francis of Assisi, contributed in a significant way to the promotion of a popular piety based on devotion to and imitation of Christ’s physical suffering. Francis claimed to have received the stigmata—the very wounds of Christ. The belief in suffering like Christ as a sure way to glory gave rise to the Passion Plays which focus on Christ’s physical sufferings. The fundamental problem with the mystical devotion to Christ’s physical sufferings, especially to His wounds, is the morbid and idolatrous veneration of Christ’s human body, rather than obedience to His teachings and dependence upon His heavenly intercessory ministry. Historically, devout believers have focused on Christ’s physical wounds as having merit of their own, largely ignoring His incarnation, teaching ministry, Resurrection, Ascension, and heavenly ministry. They have looked primarily at the suffering Christ on the Cross, while ignoring the glorified Christ interceding for them in the heavenly sanctuary. Lay people have sought salvation by imitating the physical sufferings of Christ as portrayed in the Passion Plays. This belief has led people to whip themselves and wound their bodies in order to atone for their sins and to placate the wrath of God. This practice still continues today in many Catholic countries. The notion that believers can atone for their sins, by imitating Christ’s physical suffering, ultimately makes salvation a human achievement rather than a divine gift of grace. For these poor souls, Christ’s suffering and death have served at best as an example for them to follow in order to become their own redeemers.
Jesus’ call to follow Him by taking up His cross (Mark 8:34) is not a summons to self-flagellation, but to self-denial and selfcontrol. This entails overcoming sinful habits by His enabling grace, and being willing “to suffer persecution for the cross of Christ” (Gal 6:12). The suffering of the Christian life derives not from self-inflicted bruises or wounds, but from living in accordance with the moral principles Christ has revealed. A Christian who lives an upright, moral lifestyle can often become the object of ridicule, rejection, and persecution in a society where biblical moral teachings are largely rejected. It was the witnessing for Christ that sometimes resulted in martyrdom in the early church. In Greek, the same word is used for being a witness (marturia) and for being a martyr (martureo). The reason is that in New Testament times, witnessing for Christ by refusing to worship the emperor and to participate in pagan amusements and lifestyle often resulted in martyrdom. THE PASSION AND THE CATHOLIC MASS The devotion to Christ’s Passion derives from the Catholic view of the Mass as a small-scale Passion Play. In fact, the Mass has been rightly called “The Animated Crucifx.”1 According to Catholic teachings, the celebration of the Mass is a reenactment of Christ’s suffering and death. The Mass is a re-crucifixion of our Lord daily. Each time the Mass is offered, the sacrifice of Christ is repeated. When the priest consecrates the bread and wine (Eucharist), the elements are transformed into the physical body and blood of Jesus, which are offered to God as a repetition of Christ’s sacrifice for sinners. Thus the priest has the power to repeat Christ’s sacrifice every time the Mass is celebrated. The Catholic belief in the salvific value of the reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice at the Mass, dramatized through Passion Plays, has led people to believe that they can appropriate the redemptive 46
value of Christ’s suffering and death by imitating and participating in the Savior’s suffering. Such a belief gained prominence in the thirteenth century when Europe was ravaged by multiple calamities, wars, and diseases like the Black Plague, which claimed over twenty million lives. These calamities were seen by many as divine punishment for human rebellion. To atone for their sins and to ward off the wrath of God, many sincere people sought various ways to imitate Christ’s sufferings by acting out His Passion, whipping themselves, and inflicting bruises and wounds on their bodies. By imitating Christ’s sufferings, they hoped to atone for their sins and to placate God’s wrath. The outcome of this superstitious piety was not only spiritual pride, as people displayed their self-inflicted wounds, but also a denial of the biblical teachings regarding the all-sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice (Heb 9:24-26). The Detrimental Impact of the Mass. It is impossible to estimate the detrimental impact of the Mass on popular beliefs and piety. The notion that Christ must be sacrificed again and again at the altar, in order to meet the demands of divine justice turns God into an exacting, sadistic Being who can only be satisfied by the never-ending suffering of His Son and of His followers. This gross misrepresentation of God has done incalculable damage to the Christian faith by fostering a religion of fear rather than of love. It was the fear of the wrath of God, believed to be manifested in the multiple calamities threatening human lives, that led sincere Christians, like the villagers of Oberammergau, to stage Passion Plays in order to placate an angry God, who threatened to destroy their village with a plague. But nowhere does the Bible teach that God’s anger needs to be placated by staging the suffering of His Son or by parading the self-inflicted wounds of His followers. The Bible teaches that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world 47
unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:19). What God has accomplished through the perfect life and death of His Son is sufficient for our salvation. There is no need for priests or actors to reenact Christ’s sacrifice at the altar or in Passion Plays. Since Christ has “become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17), there is no need to placate God’s wrath by staging Passion Plays or displaying self-inflicted wounds. THE SATISFACTION VIEWS OF THE ATONEMENT Extreme Suffering to Satisfy Divine Justice. The central element of both classical Passion Plays and of Gibson’s movie is the relentless brutal whipping and flaying of Jesus’ body until He is reduced to a bloody heap of shredded flesh. The gory scenes of graphic violence in Gibson’s movie are not his artistic invention, but his fundamental theological belief that in order to satisfy divine justice and pay the debt of humankind’s sins, Christ had to suffer in His body and mind the equivalent of the punishment for all the sins of humanity. We noted earlier that this belief has been promoted by mystics like Anne Emmerich, whose writings have inspired the script of The Passion. The graphic images of the brutal torture of Christ will cling to the mind of millions of viewers, intruding upon their prayer life, for better or worse, for many years to come. The notion that God had to be satisfied or appeased for countless human sins by subjecting His own Son (and His followers) to unspeakable torment is revolting to thinking Christians. In his 1965 Gifford Lectures, published under the title, The Divine Flame, Alister Hardy asks whether Jesus Himself would be a Christian if He were alive today. “I very much doubt,” he replies. “I feel certain that he would not have preached to us of a God 48
who would be appeased by the cruel sacrifice of a tortured body.”2 “This sadistic picture of God,” notes Catholic Professor Philip Cunningham, “is hardly compatible with the God proclaimed by Jesus as the one who seeks for the lost sheep, who welcomes back the prodigal son before he can even express remorse, or who causes the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike. One wonders why it is necessary to communicate God’s love by scenes of unremitting torture. None of the Gospel writers felt obliged to go into such gory details and yet they have communicated God’s love for two millennia. Is it a sign of some cultural pathology that some people are looking forward to the feeling of being actually present at the scourging and crucifixion?”3 This rhetorical question highlights a major “cultural pathology” of our society. Watching the torture and beheading of captured Americans has become such a popular form of entertainment, that thousands of websites are making money by selling video or DVD recordings of such gruesome events. Hollywood knows very well that blood sells. Thus, practically every film that it produces, it is well spiced with blood and violence. Such scenes, however, communicate hate rather than love. This helps us to understand why God has chosen to reveal His love to us by focusing on Christ’s sacrificial death, rather than on His bloody torture. Satisfying the Devil. During the course of Christian history, different theologians have attempted to explain what demands need to be satisfied by Christ’s sufferings and death in order for God to forgive penitent sinners. The early Greek theologians represented Christ’s suffering and death as primarily a “satisfaction” to the devil, in the sense of being the ransom price demanded by him to release sinners from his captivity.4 49
The fundamental problem with the “ransom to the devil” theory is that it attributes to the devil rights which God is obliged to satisfy. The notion of Christ’s suffering and death as a necessary transaction to satisfy the devil’s claims over humankind can be rightly dubbed as “intolerable, monstrous, and profane.”5 The devil has no rights over humanity which God is obliged to satisfy. It is hard to believe that this outrageous theory was very popular for many centuries. Satisfying the Law. The early Latin theologians tried to explain Christ’s suffering and death as a satisfaction of the claims of God’s law. God loves sinners and is eager to save them, but He cannot do it by violating the law which condemns wrongdoers. The violation of the law entails terrible consequences. Thus, Christ’s sufferings and death were necessary to satisfy the demands of God’s law. There is scriptural support for the law-language, for Paul goes as far as to affirm that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). Nevertheless, we need to be aware of the danger of portraying God as prisoner of His own laws, and thus forced to inflict horrible sufferings and death upon Christ in order to satisfy the demands of His law. Disobedience to God’s moral laws brings condemnation not because God is obligated to enforce His own laws, but because He is the law’s creator.. In God, the law is not an external code, but an internal expression of His own moral being. Whatever is due to the law is due to God Himself, because the law is alive in Him. Satisfying God’s Honor and Justice. A new approach to the satisfaction view of the atonement, which relates more directly to the theology of the Passion Plays, was developed in the eleventh century by Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109). 50
In his epoch-making book Cur Deus Homo? (that is, Why God Became Man), he explains Christ’s suffering and death as a satisfaction of God’s offended honor. Anselm portrays God according to the feudal mentality of his time, in which feudal lords demanded honor and severely punished their inferior subjects for violating the code of conduct expected of them. Anselm reasoned that since sinners cannot repay what they owe to God for dishonoring Him, it was necessary for Christ, the Godman, to make reparation to the offended honor of God. Anselm must be credited for recognizing the extreme gravity of sin, the holiness of God who cannot condone any violation of His honor, and the unique capacity of Christ, as the God-man, to meet the demands of divine justice. Unfortunately, his feudal mentality took him beyond the boundaries of biblical revelation by speculating that Christ had to suffer the exact equivalent of the punishment due for all of humankind’s sins. Similarly, the Reformers’ emphasis on justification led them to stress the need for Christ to satisfy the demands of divine justice through the severity of His suffering and death. In his Institutes, Calvin wrote that it was necessary for Christ “to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment.”6 The mystics embraced and expanded this satisfaction view of the atonement by emphasizing the extreme sufferings Christ had to bear in order to meet the demands of divine justice for all of humankind’s sins. This view is graphically portrayed in Passion Plays such as Gibson’s movie, in which Christ is relentlessly and brutally tortured to death in order to meet the demands of divine justice. God Satisfying Himself. The notion that Christ had to suffer exceedingly more than any human being in order to satisfy the 51
demands of God’s law for all human sin presents God as a sadistic, exacting, and punitive Judge bound by a law outside Himself—a law that controls His actions. To satisfy the demands of His law for the sins of humanity, God was forced to compel Christ to suffer brutal torture unto death. The problem with such a view of the atonement—popularized by mystical literature and portrayed in Passion Plays—is the failure to recognize that the necessity of satisfaction arises not from the punitive nature of God, or from an external law to which God is subjected, but from the law within God Himself, the law of His immutable character. The law which God must satisfy is the law of His own Being. It is true that the Bible speaks of the Lord laying upon the Suffering Servant all our iniquities (Is 53:6), of sending His Son to atone for our sins (1 John 4:9-11; Acts 2:23), and of making “him . . . to be sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21). But none of these texts implies that Christ was an unwilling victim of God’s harsh justice. God was active in and through Christ’s suffering and death. John Stott rightly remarks that “We must not speak of God punishing Jesus or of Jesus persuading God, for to do so is to set them over against each other as if they acted independently of each other or were even in conflict with each other. We must never make Christ the object of God’s punishment or God the object of Christ’s persuasion, for both God and Christ were subjects not objects, taking the initiative together to save sinners. . . . The Father did not lay on the Son an ordeal he was reluctant to bear, nor did the Son extract from the Father a salvation He was reluctant to bestow.”7
The unity between God and Christ in the work of salvation is expressed in some of Paul’s great statements about reconciliation. For example, in referring to the work of new creation, Paul says, “all this is from God,” who “in Christ was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:18-19; Col 1:19-20; 2:9). Both the Father and the Son were active together in the work of reconciliation. This unity makes it possible for Paul to speak of “the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28, NKJV). Though God Himself did not die on the Cross, His blood is mentioned because God was in Christ throughout the ordeal of the Cross. The Cross was not a legal transaction in which a meek Christ suffers the harsh punishment imposed by a punitive Father for the sins of humanity. It was not the exact equivalent of the punishment of all of humankind’s sins; nor was it a securing of our salvation by a loving Christ from a mean and reluctant God. Instead, the Cross reveals how the righteous and loving Father was willing through His Son to become flesh and suffer the punishment of our sins in order to redeem us without compromising His own character. “The biblical gospel of atonement is of God satisfying Himself by substituting Himself for us.”8 Passion Plays Distort the Atonement. The biblical vision of God and Christ actively working together in the work of reconciliation is missing in the Passion Plays. What is portrayed instead is Jesus as a helpless victim being brutally tortured to death in order to satisfy the demands of a harsh and punitive God. In Gibson’s movie, the sadistic nature of God is reflected not only in the relentless brutality of the torture inflicted upon Christ’s body throughout the movie to satisfy the demands of His justice, but also in the cruel punishment of the thief on the Cross. After Jesus prayed, “Forgive them, Father, for they don’t know what they do” 53
(Luke 23:34), a crow swoops down and devours the eyes of the impenitent thief. There is a clear contrast between Jesus asking for forgiveness for the thief and God sending a crow to devour the thief’s eyes. Such a contrast creates a false dichotomy between a forgiving, compassionate Christ and a vengeful, merciless God. This dichotomy is unbiblical, because Christ is not an independent third person, but the eternal Son of God who is one with the Father in creation, redemption, and final restoration. The problem with the drama of the Cross as portrayed in Passion Plays such as Gibson’s movie is the role played by too many independent actors. There is God, the punitive Judge; Christ, the innocent victim; Mary, the compassionate mother, who supports her Son, participating with Him in the ordeal of the Cross; the guilty party, the Jewish leaders, and the mob clamoring for Christ’s death. Such a construct reflects a defective Christology, because Christ is not an independent third person, but the eternal Son of God, united with the Father in creation, redemption, and final restoration. A Punitive God Calls for a Compassionate Mary. The notion of God as a harsh, demanding, punitive Judge, whose justice can only be satisfied through the cruel suffering and death of His Son, paved the way for the intercessory role of Mary and the saints. Their role is to soften God’s heart, making Him more willing to forgive and save His erring children. This explains why Mary plays a prominent role in the Passion Plays and in popular Catholic piety. As the mother of God’s Son, she is in a unique position to intercede with God on behalf of sinners. The notion of God as a harsh, punitive judge, who can be influenced by mediation of third parties like Mary and the saints, is foreign to the Bible, where we read: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ 54
Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). In the biblical drama of the Cross, there are not four actors, but only two—ourselves, the sinners, on the one hand, and God in Christ on the other. This truth is expressed in those New Testament passages which speak of Christ’s death as the death of God’s Son: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16); God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom 8:32); “We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10). Texts such as these indicate that in giving His Son, God gave Himself. There is no separation between the two. Through the person of His Son, God Himself bore the punishment which He Himself inflicted. As R. W. Dale puts it: “The mysterious unity of the Father and the Son rendered it possible for God at once to endure and to inflict penal suffering.”9 This marvelous truth is lost in Passion Plays, where the focus is on the brutal sufferings borne by Christ to satisfy the demands of God’s justice. By distancing the role of the Father from that of the Son in the drama of redemption, Passion Plays promote the need for the intercessory role of Mary and the saints to procure salvation from a mean and reluctant Father. This popular Catholic belief is foreign to Scripture and destroys the unity of the Father and the Son acting together in redeeming humankind. This unity is missing in The Passion, where Gibson is so obsessed with the scourging and crushing of Christ to satisfy the demands of divine justice that he fails to explore the spiritual meanings of the final hours. He falls into the danger of altering the message of God’s redeeming love into one of hate. THE CO-REDEMPTIVE ROLE OF MARY In Gibson’s movie, The Passion of Christ is largely seen through The Passion of Mary. From Gethsemane to Golgotha, the sufferings of Christ are revealed through the anguish of Mary. She 55
sustains her Son and shares in His suffering throughout the ordeal. How can we explain the prominent co-redemptive role of Mary throughout Gibson’s movie? In the Passion narratives of the Gospels, Mary is mentioned only once, when Jesus entrusts her to the care of John, saying: “Woman, behold your son,” and to John, “Behold your mother” (John 19:26-27). The explanation is to be found not in Gibson’s fertile imagination, but in the medieval Catholic notion of God as a harsh, punitive Being who demands full satisfaction for humankind’s sins. This misconception of God promoted not only the devotion to Christ’s suffering, but also the veneration of Mary as a partner in the suffering of her Son for our salvation. Catholics believe that Mary is in a unique position to intercede for sinners, because she is the human mother of the Son of God who suffered with Him for our salvation. Being a compassionate, loving mother, Mary can soften the heart of God, moving Him to forgive penitent sinners. This belief has inspired the popular devotion to the “Sacred Heart of Mary.” Many devout Catholics display in their homes the image of Mary with her radiant heart enlarged and constantly illuminated by a candle-like bulb. This practice represents the Catholic belief in the co-redemptive role of Mary that motivated Gibson to highlight her role throughout the film, sustaining her Son from Gethsemane to Golgotha. During the procession to the Cross, Mary is present at each of the falls of Jesus, and at one point she goes directly to Him and encourages Him, saying: “I am here.” As a reaction to the Catholic exaltation of Mary, Protestants have tended to downplay the role of Mary, reducing her to an ordinary woman who fulfilled her motherly role in bringing Jesus into the world and training Him for His mission. Protestants have failed to give due credit to Mary. They tend to ignore that she was an 56
extraordinary woman of profound faith and transparent sincerity who “found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). She must have done a superb job in bringing up her Son in a dysfunctional family with several children of her older husband. Catholics Honor Mary’s Role in Our Salvation. Catholics venerate Mary, not only because she is the human mother of Jesus, but also they also believe that she plays a vital role in our salvation. This belief is expressed in the prayers offered to Mary, especially during the Masses celebrated at Lent. The Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary explains that “The Mass in celebration of Christ’s saving passion [at Lent] also honors the part played by the Blessed Virgin in achieving our salvation. When Mary became the mother of Christ ‘by the power of the Holy Spirit,’ she became by a further gift of divine love ‘a partner in His passion,’ a mother suffering with Him. The prayers of the Mass recall the plan of salvation, by which God joined the suffering of the mother with the suffering of her Son, and decreed that ‘the new Eve should stand by the cross of the new Adam.’”10 Catholics believe that Mary participates in our Redemption by undoing the disobedience of Eve. “As Eve indirectly contributed to the Fall of Man, so Mary indirectly contributes to our Redemption. As Eve gave Adam the instrument of the Fall (the forbidden fruit) so Mary gave Jesus the instrument of the Redemption (His Body). . . . Because a woman was involved (indirectly) in the Fall, God wanted the sins of the first man and woman to be reversed, not by a Man alone, but by a woman as well. . . . Mary participates in our Redemption in three ways: she obeyed God and so brought the Redeemer into the world, she united her sufferings to His on the Cross, and she participates in the distribution of the graces of salvation.”11 Being a traditional Catholic, Mel Gibson is true to the Catholic belief that Mary is a co-redeemer and proudly calls her “a tremendous co-redemptrix 57
and mediatrix.”12 With great subtlety Gibson portrays Mary as a participant in Christ’s suffering and death for our salvation.
Two Unbiblical Assumptions. The Catholic belief in the present participation of Mary in our redemption as mediator and intercessor is based on two unbiblical assumptions. The first, already mentioned, is that she suffered with her Son throughout the ordeal of the Cross. Consequently, as a partner in Christ’s suffering, Mary is supposed to have the right to share in Christ’s intercession and glorification in heaven. The second unbiblical Catholic assumption is that Mary ascended to heaven, body and soul, so that she might be close to her Son and intercede before the Father on behalf of the church. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly teaches that “The Most Blessed Virgin Mary, when the course of her earthly life was completed, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven, where she already shares in the glory of her Son’s Resurrection, anticipating the resurrection of all members of His Body.”13 The Catechism continues: “We believe that the Holy Mother of God, the new Eve, Mother of the Church, continues in heaven to exercise her maternal role on behalf of the members of Christ.”14 The Prominent Role of Mary in The Passion. The fundamental Catholic belief that Mary participates in our Redemption, because she shared in the earthly suffering of her Son at the Cross, is fully reflected in her portrayal in Passion Plays. Gibson’s movie provides a good example of Mary’s prominent role as a partner with Christ in the redemption. In The Passion Mary lends vital support to her Son throughout His trial, scourging, and crucifixion. In accordance with Catholic 58
belief, had she been absent, Christ would not have been able to offer Himself as the sacrifice for humankind. This heresy is taught especially by mystic writers like Ann Catherine Emmerich who presents Mary as co-redemptrix, that is, co-redeemer. She writes: “The Blessed Virgin was ever united to her Divine Son by interior spiritual communications; she was, therefore, fully aware of all that happened to him—she suffered with him, and joined in his continual prayer for his murderers.”15 Mary’s role as co-redeemer is clearly evident throughout the movie. An ordinary mother would have screamed at seeing her son brutalized. But Mary, though heartbroken, understands and consents to the ordeal her Son must undergo. “So be it,” she says at one point; and again, “It has begun.” At the foot of the Cross, she says to her Son: “Let me die with you.” In the Gospels’ narrative, Mary appears only once in the Gospel of John, when Jesus on the Cross, pointing to John, says to His mother: “Woman, behold your son!” (John 19:26). By contrast, in Gibson’s movie, Mary is present every step of the way, acting as His coach from Gethsemane to Golgotha. The message is that Jesus made it to the Hill because Mother Mary infused some mystical power through the meeting of their eyes whenever Christ had no strength to go on. In keeping with traditional Catholic theology, we witness Christ’s suffering and death in Gibson’s movie through Mary’s eyes. Mary is dressed like a medieval nun, rather than a first-century Jewish woman. She is present in the Garden to comfort her Son when she meets Peter on the streets after his denial of Christ. Peter in distress looks Mary in the face and falls on his knees, calling Mary “Mother.” John also calls Mary “Mother.” The assumption is that Mary was already accepted by the disciples as their spiritual Mother. Such an appellation, foreign to the Bible, reflects the traditional Catholic veneration of Mary as “Mother of God,” not just Christ’s human mother. 59
Peter confesses his sin to Mary and asks for her forgiveness. Mary is ready to absolve Peter for his sin, but he jumps up and says, “No, I am not worthy.” The source for this scene is The Dolorous Passion where Peter, after his denial, rushes out to Mary, exclaiming in a dejected tone: “O, Mother, speak not to me—thy Son is suffering more than words can express: speak not to me! They have condemned Him to death, and I have denied him three times.”16 The Catholic view of the intercessory role of Mary is loud and clear. Mary and Claudia. The prominent role of Mary is evident also during the scourging, when Pilate’s wife, Claudia, gives Mary fine cloths that she later used to mop up Jesus’ blood. Again the source is not the Bible but The Dolorous Passion, which says: “I saw Claudia Procles, the wife of Pilate, send some large pieces of linen to the Mother of God. I know not whether she thought that Jesus would be set free, and that his Mother would then require linen to dress his wounds, or whether this compassionate lady was aware of the use which would be made of her present. . . . I soon after saw Mary and Magdalen approach the pillar where Jesus had been scourged; . . . they knelt down on the ground near the pillar, and wiped up the sacred blood with the linen which Claudia Procles had sent.”17 This scene is vividly portrayed in Gibson’s movie, but it is totally absent in the Gospels. Incidentally, during the Middle Ages, the cloths stained with Jesus’ blood became holy relics venerated by devout Catholics. Mary appeals to Claudia, urging her to pressure the Roman soldiers to protect her Son against the angry Jewish crowd. Claudia aligns herself with Mary by influencing her husband on behalf of Christ. But Pilate’s efforts are too little and too late. Again, the interaction between Mary and Claudia is foreign to the Bible, deriving instead from The Dolorous Passion. Mary’s prominent role can be seen also in Christ’s journey along 60
the Via Dolorosa on the way to Golgotha, known in Catholic tradition as the “14 Stations of the Cross.” When the Roman soldiers inquire of her identity, they are told, “She is the mother of the Galilean . . . do not impede her.” During this journey, Christ stops and falls several times because He has no strength left to go on. At those points, Mary is always near Christ and acts as His comforter and coach. Mary and Jesus at the Cross. When Jesus hangs on the Cross with His lacerated body covered with blood, Mary embraces His bloody feet and her face is splattered with blood. What a powerful Catholic message in showing Mary as a co-partner in our Redemption! The message is clear: both Jesus and Mary have paid the price of our Redemption. After Jesus expires on the Cross, Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and John are shown taking Jesus’ body down from the Cross. Even more telling is the picture of Mary cradling Christ’s bloody body and holding His head in her arms, in the same position as Michelangelo’s Pietà. This unbiblical picture has a powerful message. It shows in a most appealing way the Catholic belief that Mary participated in Christ’s sacrifice by offering her Son for our salvation. The involvement of Mary in taking down Christ’s body and preparing it for burial is clearly contradicted by the Gospels where Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took down Christ’s body from the Cross and “bound it in linen cloths with spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews” (John 19:40). There is no allusion to Mary or to the other devout women handling the body of Jesus at the Cross. The exalted role of Mary in Passion Plays is a pure fabrication of Catholic mystics, who have been eager to glorify the intercessory 61
role of Mary at the expense of the centrality of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Today the exaltation of Mary as a partner with Christ in our Redemption is effectively promoted also by the Marian messages coming from apparition sites which have received the Catholic Church’s approval. For example, one Marian message from Our Lady of Akita to Sister Agnes Sasagawa says: “I alone am able still to save you from the calamities which approach. Those who place their confidence in me will be saved.”18 A similar message from Mary to St. Bridget of Sweden says: “I boldly assert that His suffering became my suffering, because His heart was mine. And just as Adam and Eve sold the world for an apple, so in a certain sense my Son and I redeemed the world with one heart.”19 Intercession Is an Exclusive Prerogative of Christ. Historically, Protestants have strongly rejected the Catholic belief in Mary as a partner with Christ in our Redemption. They have condemned such belief as a fundamental Catholic heresy that obscures the centrality and uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice and mediation. By attributing to Mary and the saints an intercessory ministry in heaven on behalf of penitent sinners on earth, the Catholic Church has developed an idolatrous religion that offers salvation through a variety of persons. The result is that many devout Catholics offer more prayers to Mary and the saints than to the Father or the Son. A major reason is their misconception of God as a stern and punitive Being difficult to approach directly by sinners. By contrast, Mary, as the “Mother of God” and co-redeemer, stands in a favorable position to intercede before God in heaven on behalf of penitent sinners on earth. The Bible is abundantly clear that only Christ ascended to heaven to minister in the heavenly sanctuary as our intercessor and mediator. “When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb 10:12). Contrary to the Old Testament levitical ministry in which “priests 62
were many in number” (Heb 7:23), Christ is the only priest and intercessor in heaven. “Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25). The Bible consistently presents Christ as the sole High Priest, Mediator, and Intercessor, ministering in the heavenly sanctuary on our behalf (Eph 4:5; Heb 4:14, 16; 7:23-25; 9:24; 10:11-12; 1 John 2:1). There are no allusions in the Bible to Mary or the saints interceding in heaven on behalf of sinners on earth. Intercession is an exclusive prerogative of Christ, our Savior. To elevate Mary to a co-redemptive role with Christ is to attribute divine qualities and attributes to a mortal human being. The ultimate result is the widespread idolatrous worship of Mary—a worship condemned by the first and second commandments, which enjoin us to worship God exclusively: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). Growing Acceptance of Mary as Co-Redeemer. An increasing number of Protestants are embracing the Catholic belief in the coredemptive role of Mary. Several factors are contributing to this development. For example, feminist theologians are promoting Mary as the female counterpart of God, thus attributing to her divine attributes and prerogatives. Another factor is the reemergence of the Goddess within the New Age Movement and eastern religions. In her book The Goddess Re-Awakening, Beatrice Bruteau notes that “the presence of the Goddess herself has never departed from her holy place in our consciousness, and now, as we enter what many feel to be a ‘new age,’ we sense that the Goddess is somehow making her way back to us. But in just what guise is so far unclear.”20 A more immediate contributing factor to the acceptance of Mary as co-redeemer is the subtle way in which Mary participates in the suffering of her Son throughout The Passion. In many ways Gibson’s movie portrays the Passion of Mary as much as the 63
Passion of Christ. In an interview with Christianity Today, Gibson himself expressed his amazement that evangelical Christians are so receptive to what he calls Mary’s “tremendous co-redemptrix and mediatrix” role.21 He said: “I have been actually amazed at the way I would say the evangelical audience has—hands down—responded to this film more than any other Christian group. What makes it so amazing is that the film is so Marian.”22 The influence of The Passion in leading many Evangelicals to accept Mary as a co-redeemer may prove to be one of the greatest Catholic evangelistic accomplishments of our times. Unbiblical Role of Mary. The Catholic exaltation of Mary as a partner with her Son in our redemption is clearly contradicted by Scripture. In the Gospels’ accounts of the Passion, Mary appears only once at the Cross when Christ entrusts her to the care of John, saying, “Woman, behold your son!” (John 19:26). Such an impersonal address hardly supports the mystical interaction between Jesus and Mary present in Passion Plays. Such an interaction obscures the relationship between the Father and the Son, making salvation more an accomplishment of mother Mary and her Son than that of the Father and the Son. In the Gospels the important interaction is between the Father and the Son, not between Mary and her Son: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt 26:39). And again: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). These pronouncements reveal the distinctive relationship that exists between Christ and the Father. Christ came, not to work together with His mother for our salvation, but to do the will of His Father: “Lo, I have come to do thy will” (Heb 10:9). The Cross reveals, not Mary offering her Son for our salvation, but the Father willing through His Son to become flesh and suffer the punishment of our sins in order to redeem us without compromising His own character. 64
Evangelicals Are Embracing the Catholic View of Mary. The exaltation of Mary as co-redeemer of humankind, mediating Christ’s grace, is effectively promoted by Passion Plays and Marian messages. These are posing a serious threat to Evangelical Christianity. Many well-meaning Evangelicals are enthusiastically embracing the Catholic view of Mary’s role in our salvation, without realizing the magnitude of the threat that such teaching poses to the centrality and uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice and mediation. The problem we are facing today is that many people are largely biblically alliterate and image-oriented, with the entertainment media functionally operating as their biblical authority. In other words, many Christians are influenced far more by what they see in the movies than by what they read in the Bible. The reason is that people spend far more time watching movies than reading their Bibles. A religious movie like The Passion will soon become the Gospel for many people. A woman sent me an email saying that she was grateful that Gibson’s movie brought out the “facts” of the Passion missed by the Gospels. She felt that the Gospels largely ignore the contribution that Mary made to our salvation. She was glad that “The Passion has set the record straight.” Is this sound reasoning? Do we test the accuracy of The Passion by the Gospels, or do we rewrite the Gospels according to a fictional religious movie? It is important to remember that God has chosen to reveal His will for our lives, not through drama and plays, but through the Written Word. The few references to Mary in the Gospels indicate that God chose her to bring His Son into the world because she was an extraordinary godly woman. She must have loved her Son deeply and devoted herself unreservedly to His upbringing. She must 65
have faced most difficult challenges in training her Son in a home made up of an older husband with stepbrothers and sisters. Her dedication to her Son is evident in the fact that she followed Him all the way to the Cross, feeling in her heart the brutal suffering of her Son such as only a mother can feel. Mary was a vessel used by God, and she deserves our respect. But to exalt Mary as a partner with Christ in our salvation, interceding in heaven on our behalf, is making a mortal human being into an immortal divine being. It means elevating the human mother of Jesus into the divine “Mother of God,” as the Catholics worship her. The result is the worship of Mary which the Bible clearly condemns as idolatry. “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). THE PORTRAYAL AND IMPERSONATION OF CHRIST Thousands of pastors and theologians were invited to an exclusive screening of Gibson’s movie The Passion prior to its release. Their reactions were mostly very positive. James Dobson calls The Passion “a film that must be seen.”23 Greg Laurie of Harvest Crusades said: “I believe The Passion of the Christ may well be one of the most powerful evangelistic tools of the last 100 years.”24 Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Community Church, stated: “The film is brilliant, biblical, a masterpiece.”25 Billy Graham himself is on record for saying: “Every time I preach or speak about the Cross, the things I saw on the screen will be on my heart and mind.”26 The Passion and the Second Commandment. What struck me in reading the comments of leading pastors is the fact that none of them mentions how the impersonation of Christ by a movie actor relates to the Second Commandment which states: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that 66
is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex 20:4-6). The question of the biblical legitimacy of dramatizing in a movie the final hours of Christ’s agony and death is never addressed in the reviews that I have read. The comments of movie critics and church leaders focus primarily on the artistic qualities, as well as the biblical and historical accuracy of the film. The problem is that a movie about Christ’s agony and death may be artistically brilliant but biblically flawed, because, as we shall see, any attempt to impersonate the Divine Son of God, reducing Him to a mere mortal human being, violates the intent of the Second Commandment, as understood in Scripture and history. Historically, Protestants have interpreted the Second Commandment as a prohibition against making images or representations of the three Persons of the Trinity for the purpose of worship. For example, in response to the question, “Are images then not at all to be made?” the Heidelberg Catechism responds: “God cannot and should not be pictured in any way. As for creatures, although they may indeed be portrayed, God forbids making or having any likeness of them in order to worship them or to use them to serve him.”27 The Reformers took a firm stand against visual representations of members of the Godhead and removed all paintings and statues from churches. Crucifixes with the contorted bloody body of the crucified Christ were replaced in Protestant churches with empty crosses. The focus of worship shifted from the Images-oriented 67
worship to Word-oriented worship, that is, from veneration of images and relics to the proclamation of the Word. In recent times, changes have taken place in the use of images for worship. A growing number of Evangelical churches are adopting the Catholic tradition of placing images of Christ and crucifixes with His contorted body in their churches. The reasoning is that the Second Commandment prohibits only the making of images to be used in the church for worship. However, pictures or even religious movies like The Passion, shown in churches to educate the laity, are supposedly permitted by the Second Commandment, because they are not used as aids to worship. The Meaning of the Second Commandment. The distinction between the liturgical and educational uses of pictures of God in the church is artificial and can hardly be supported by the Second Commandment. There is a progression between the First and Second Commandments. The First Commandment calls us to reject all other gods and to worship Yahweh as the only true God: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:2). The Second Commandment builds upon the First by warning against wrong and incorrect ways of worship by means of visual or material objectification of God. The meaning of the Second Commandment is clearer in its expanded version found in Deuteronomy 4:15-19, where Moses reminds the Israelites of the veiled appearance of God at Sinai: “You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the water below. And when you look to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed 68
into bowing down to them and worshipping things the Lord your God has appointed to all nations under heaven” (Deut 4:15-19; emphasis supplied). The fundamental reason given for warning the Israelites against making images of the Lord in the semblance of people, animals, or celestial lights is precisely because they saw “no form” of the Lord when He spoke to them. It is important to note that in the Old Testament God manifested His glory, not His face. On Mount Sinai God’s face was hidden by a cloud. In the sanctuary His presence was manifested as the shekinah glory between the cherubim, but there was no visual portrayal of God. Respect for the holiness of God precluded any attempt to represent the divine Beings of the Godhead. Even sacred objects such as the Ark of the Covenant, located in the Most Holy Place (symbol of God’s throne), could not be touched or looked into by ordinary people. We read in 1 Samuel 6:19 that God slew 70 men of Beth-shemesh because they dared to look into the ark of the Lord: “And he slew some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked into the ark of the Lord; he slew seventy men of them. . . . Then the men of Beth-shemesh said: ‘Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?’” (1 Sam 6:19-20). Later on when the ark was carried on a new cart to Jerusalem, “Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there because he put forth his hand to the ark; and he died there besides the ark of God” (2 Sam 6:6-7). No Visual Representation of the Deity in Bible Times. These tragic episodes teach us an important lesson. No human being can afford to treat lightly what is associated with God. The ark was the place where God manifested His presence (Shekinah). Thus, to treat it casually was sacrilegious. God’s people understood this
important truth. No pictures of God appeared in the Temple, Synagogue, or early Christian Churches. In the catacombs Christ is represented not by pictures, but by symbols like the fish, the anchor, the Jonah’s cycle as symbol of Christ’s Resurrection, or the Good Shepherd. The reason is that early Christians understood that pictorial and visible representations of the three Persons of the Trinity violate the prohibition of the Second Commandment against the use of images to worship God. In our visual society, it is difficult to accept the biblical principle that objectifying God by means of pictures, statues, drama, Passion Plays, or religious movies violates the intent of the Second Commandment. Christians today may not recognize that God is not a consumer product for our society to reproduce, use, and market. Paul explained to the Athenians, who were surrounded by countless artistic representations of gods in stone and images, that “we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man” (Acts 17:29; emphasis supplied). The Apostle explains that “God who made the world and everything in it, being the Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands” (Acts 17:24-25). God has chosen to reveal to us not His outward appearance, but His character. Yet, in spite of God’s precautions not to reveal His “form,” the history of the Israelites is replete with attempts to objectify God and worship Him through idols that could be seen and touched. The downfall and rejection of the Jews as God’s people is causally related in the Bible to the abandonment of the worship of the invisible God and the adoption of the worship of visible gods, often called balim.
Is it Biblically Correct to Portray or Impersonate Christ? Is the biblical prohibition against making visual representations of God the Father applicable to the Son as well? The answer of some Christian leaders is “NO!” They reason that the Second Commandment cannot be applied to Christ, because, contrary to the Father who did not reveal His “form,” Christ took upon Himself a human form and lived like a man upon this earth. Consequently, nothing is thought to be wrong in portraying the human side of Christ through pictures or drama. Bian Godawa argues that “The Passion of the Christ is a narrative depiction of Christ’s humanity, not of His divinity. “28 Consequently The Passion’s dramatization of the last 12 hours of Christ’s suffering and death does not violate the Second Commandment, because what is portrayed is the human side of Christ’s person. There are several problems with this reasoning. First, the human side of Christ cannot be artistically portrayed in isolation from His divine nature, because Jesus was not simply a man nor simply a God, but the God-man. The divine and human natures were not split, but mysteriously blended together in Christ. As stated in the classic definition of the Chalcedonian Creed, the two natures in Christ were united “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence.” The New Testament tells us that Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of His nature” (Heb 1:3). Jesus Himself said that “he who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). The fact that in Christ the divine and human natures were mysteriously united makes it impossible for any artist or actor to capture the 71
totality of Christ’s personality. How can any artist portray such divine traits of Christ’s nature as His creative and restorative power, His wisdom, His immortal nature, and His power to lay down His life and to take it up again (John 10:17)? Can Images of the Deity Be Used as Aids to Worship? Any portrayal of the human Christ must be regarded as an artistic creation based on the pure imagination of an artist, who creates his own Christ. Since no artist has seen the real Christ and no artist can grasp the mysterious union of the divine and human natures in Him, any portrayal of the Lord in canvas, stone, or drama must be seen as a distortion of the real Christ. Perhaps this explains why the movie Ben Hur exercised retraints in depicting Christ—showing only His hands, His back, and shadow, but never His face. Apparently the producer understood that Christ was no ordinary human being. The mystery of His divine and human natures could not and should not be legitimately portrayed. These comments should not be taken as an outright condemnation of any visual representations of Christ. Some plain pictures of Christ’s healings or teachings can be used for illustrating important truths about Jesus, but they should never be seen as factual representations of the real Christ. More important still, pictures of Christ should never be used as icons for worship, designed to help believers form mental images of the God whom they wish to worship. We cannot expect God to bless the use of images of Himself in worship when He enjoins us not to make them in the first place. In Catholic worship, the pictures or statues of Jesus or of Mary are mass-produced as icons for worship purposes. They are aids to worship in the sense that the believer kneels and prays before them in order to form a mental image of the real Christ or Mary that they are worshipping. Scripture condemns as idolatry the use of visual images to conceptualize God in prayer or preaching. Paul explains that idolatry involves exchanging the glory of the 72
immortal God for images of mortal beings: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man” (Rom 1:22-23). The historic Protestant confessions recognize that the idolatry condemned by the Second Commandment includes the use of images as aids in forming a mental image of God in worship. For example, the Westminster Larger Catechism states: “The sins forbidden in the Second Commandment are: . . . the making of any representation of God, of all, or of any of the three Persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshipping of it, or God in it or by it.”29 The biblical prohibition against the use of visual representations of the three Persons of the Trinity to form mental images in worship raises questions about the endorsement of The Passion by “name-brand” preachers like Billy Graham. In an interview Dr. Graham stated: “Every time I preach or speak about the Cross, the things I saw on the screen [of The Passion] will be on my heart and mind.”30 If a preacher like Billy Graham will be permanently influenced by Gibson’s “animated crucifix”—as The Passion is rightly called—will not millions of average Christians unfamiliar with the Gospels’ narrative “exchange the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man” (Rom 1:23)? Dr. Graham could have easily said: “Every time I preach or speak about the Cross, the things the Word of God and the Spirit have taught me will be in my heart and mind.” The fact is that now his preaching of the Cross will be permanently influenced by the crucified Christ of Gibson’s movie. This shows that people today, like the Israelites of old, are not satisfied to worship God in “spirit and in truth” (John 4:24) according to the all-sufficient Word, but long and yearn for a tangible God whom they can see and experience.
Nobody Knows What Christ Looked Like. This leads us to consider a second reason why visual representation or dramatic impersonation of Christ cannot be biblically justified: any representation of Christ is a misrepresentation, because nobody knows what the Savior looked like. In His wisdom Christ chose to leave no physical imprint of Himself. Popular church pictures and movies portray Christ as a robust, handsome, tall man with blue eyes, long flowing hair, and a light complexion. They are inspired by the pious imagination of gifted artists who are conditioned by popular conceptions rather than by biblical and historical sources. For example, Jim Caviezel, who plays Christ in The Passion, hardly looks like a first-century Jew. A typical Jew was of medium height with a semitic nose, pointed beard, and black, cropped hair. The archeological wall painting showing the arrival of a group of Palestinians in Egypt suggests what the Jews looked like.31 It is a known fact that ordinary Jewish men did not wear long hair as did Caviezel. The only exception was when a Jew took a voluntary and temporary Nazarite vow to dedicate himself to the Lord by abstaining from grape products (Num 6:3-4), avoiding ritual defilement (Num 6:6), and leaving his hair uncut until the close of the specified period (Num 6:5, 13-21). But Jesus was not a Nazarite. He wore short hair like the Jewish men of His time. Paul explains that the length of the hair distinguished a man from a woman. In the Jewish culture of the time, women wore long hair and men short hair. The reason given by Paul is that “for a man to wear long hair is degrading to him” (1 Cor 11:14). Thus, Caviezel with his long hair looks more like yesterday’s hippies than the New Testament Jewish Christ. Furthermore, most likely Jesus was not as attractive as movie star Caviezel. None of the Evangelists comment on the beauty of Christ’s physical appearance, presumably because what attracted people to the Savior was His character, rather than His appearance. Isaiah says: “He had no form or comeliness that we 74
should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is 53:2). If the real picture of Christ were available today for people to see, most likely many Christians would be disappointed by His unappealing appearance. People were attracted to Christ not because He was a handsome and strong Super Man who could carry a heavy cross of about 400 pounds, after being whipped for 10 minutes with a cat-o’-ninetails that tore out His flesh and drained His blood. Instead, what attracted people to Christ were the nobility of His character and His penetrating teachings that reached the depth of their souls. Even His opponents admitted, “No man ever spoke like this man” (John 7:46). The biblical Christ is not the invincible Survivor of The Passion, but the Divine Son of God, who took upon Himself our human limitations and was “made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17). Images of Christ Go Beyond Scripture. The problem with artistic representations of Christ is that the images or drama often go beyond Scripture. Few Christians are capable of or willing to recognize this fact. For example, we noted earlier that respected Evangelical leaders claim that Gibson’s brutal reenactment of the Passion is true to the Gospels. Gibson himself stated in an interview with the New Yorker magazine: “I wanted to be true to the Gospels. That has never been done before. I didn’t want to see Jesus looking really pretty. I wanted to mess up one of his eyes, destroy it.”32
Is this what being true to the Gospels means to Gibson and to Evangelical leaders? Do any of the Gospels portray Christ with a “destroyed eye” and with his body skinned alive as shown in The Passion? It is noteworthy that the Gospel of Mark makes no mention of blood in the entire passion narrative. The Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ flogging and crucifixion are as minimal as they could be. They all tell us essentially the same thing: “Having scourged Jesus, [Pilate] delivered him to be crucified,” . . . “And when they came to a place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him” (see Matt 27:26, 33; Mark 15:20, 22; Luke 23:25, 33). A few verses later, Jesus is dead. This is the whole brief, sober, and cryptic account of Jesus’ sufferings and death. The Gospel writers do not linger over the details of Christ’s brutal suffering to stir emotions or to promote the Catholic view of suffering as a way of salvation. The reason is that the Evangelists were not mentally unbalanced Catholic mystics obsessed with intensifying Christ’s suffering to satisfy what they believed to be the exacting demands of a punitive God. Instead, the Gospel writers were balanced men who learned at the feet of Jesus how to follow their Master, not by inflicting physical suffering on their bodies (self-flagellation), but by living in accordance with His teachings. There is a world of difference between the blood and gore of Gibson’s movie and the brief Gospels’ story of the betrayal, arrest, condemnation, and crucifixion which is told without recourse to blood and gore. Surely it was bloody, but the Evangelists chose not to dwell upon that. Instead they focus on Christ’s perfect life, atoning death, and glorious Resurrection. Gibson took 124 minutes to flagellate Jesus, throw Him off a bridge, bleed Him, slash Him, and nail Him on the Cross, but less than 2 minutes to show a fleeting resurrection. This imbalance reflects a Catholic sense of proportions which is tied to the ritual
of the Mass as a perpetual reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice. Such a view is foreign to the Bible. The point of these observations is that often popular representations or dramatic impersonations of Christ turn out to be gross misrepresentations of the real meaning of Christ’s life, suffering, and death. Christians who depend upon such misrepresentations to conceptualize and worship the Lord end up developing a superstitious faith based on the fear of a punitive God. A healthy faith is based on mental images inspired by the Word and apprehended through the eyes of faith. Such images help us to conceptualize God, not as a harsh, punitive Being who brutalizes His Son to meet the rigorous demands of His justice, but as a merciful God who satisfied the demands of His justice by substituting Himself for us. Images and Plays Upstage Preaching. The use of images, drama, plays, and religious movies during the worship service upstages the preaching, which is God’s chosen means for communicating the faith and nurturing the spiritual life of His people. The Apostle Paul explains: “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom 10:17). This means that saving faith comes through the reading, preaching, and hearing of the Word of God, and not through statues, plays, or religious movies. It is not surprising that Karl Barth observes that “speaking about God is commanded hundreds of times in the Bible but setting up images is forbidden and barred expressis verbis [by explicit words].”33 In theory God could use a movie to engender faith, but the reality is that He has chosen preaching instead to communicate the Gospel. As Paul puts it: “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor 1:21). Preaching seemed foolish in Paul’s time, when people responded more 77
readily to dramatic plays staged in amphitheaters visible throughout the Roman world. Preaching may seem even more foolish today in our mass-media society that values theatrics far more than preaching. Church growth experts tell us that preaching is old-fashioned and no longer appeals to Generation Y (born in the 80’s) or Generation X (born between 1964 and1982). To reach these new generations, experts say, preaching must be replaced with more effective means such as drama, movies, plays, and upbeat music. Word-worship Versus Image-Worship. The problem with this reasoning is the failure to recognize that God has chosen to use methods that may appear to be old-fashioned and foolish to save people. Just as the message of Christ crucified appears to be a foolish way to save people, so the means of communicating the Gospel through preaching appears to be foolish as well. From a human perspective, preaching may seem old-fashioned and ineffective compared to the extraordinary appeal of drama. But we must not forget that salvation is the work of God in the human heart, accomplished through the proclamation of the Word, rather than the staging of dramatic visual representations. Church history teaches us that when the preaching of the Word was gradually replaced by a visual worship consisting of the staging of the Mass, Passion Plays, veneration of images, relics, processions, and pilgrimages to holy shrines, the apostasy of the church set in, ushering in what is known as the Dark Ages. The movement today in the Evangelical world from Word-worship to Image-worship could well represent a repetition of the past downfall of the church and of the ancient Israelites. Most people think that seeing is believing. If they could only see Christ, then they might believe in Him. But the New Testament teaches otherwise. It talks about faith as coming from hearing, not 78
seeing. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). The temptation to worship a visible and objectified Christ leads to idolatry. This can be seen in dominant Catholic countries, where the only Christ that devout Catholics know and worship is the One they touch, kiss, see, and often wear as jewelry. Statues, crucifixes, and pictures of the bleeding Savior abound in devout Catholic homes. So, instead of worshipping the invisible Lord in Spirit and Truth, they worship idols that they can see, touch, and feel. God’s Precautions to Prevent the Objectification of Christ We can hardly blame God for the human attempts to objectify the three members of the Godhead through movies, statues, paintings, images, crucifixes, and religious jewelry. Christ took utmost precaution to prevent human beings from materializing and objectifying His spiritual nature. When this second Person of the Godhead became a human being for about thirty-three years, He refrained from leaving on this earth a single material mark that can be authenticated as His own. Christ did not build or own a house; He did not write books or own a library; He did not leave the exact date of His birth or of His death; He did not leave descendants. He left an empty tomb, but even this place is still disputed. He left no “thing” of Himself, but only the assurance of His spiritual presence: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt 28:20). Why did Christ pass through this world in this mysterious fashion, leaving no physical footprints, visual images, or material traces of Himself? Why did the Godhead miss the golden opportunity provided by the incarnation to leave permanent material evidence and reminders of the Savior’s appearance, life, suffering, and death on this planet? Furthermore, why do the Gospel writers minimize the suffering of Christ’s final hours? Why is the “blood” factor, which is so prominent in Gibson’s 79
movie, largely missing in the narrative of the Passion? Is this not clear evidence of God’s concern to protect humankind from the constant temptation to reduce a spiritual relationship into a “thingworship”? In surveying the history of the Passion Plays in chapter 1, we noted how the visual staging of Christ’s cruel sufferings and death inspired many people to imitate the physical suffering of Christ by wounding their bodies and carrying crosses. By focusing on the physical suffering of the dying Christ, they failed to see with the eyes of faith the triumphant Lord in heaven at the right hand of God. The Sabbath Discourages Visual-Oriented Worship It was because of this concern that God chose the Sabbath—a day rather than an object—as the symbol of a divine-human covenant relationship (Ezek 20:12; Ex 31:13). Being time, a mystery that defies human attempts to shape it into a physical idol, the Sabbath provides constant protection against a physical, visual-oriented worship, and is a fitting reminder of the spiritual nature of the covenant relationship between God and His people. If Gibson were to accept the message of the Sabbath regarding the spiritual nature of God and of our relationship with Him, he would soon realize that his reenactment of Christ’s Passion, though well-intentioned, tempts sincere Christians to worship a visible movie-Christ, rather than the mystery-Christ of divine revelation. The only Christ that many people will come to know is the Caviezel-Christ they have seen in the movie being tortured to death so as to satisfy the rigorous demands of a punitive God. Such a gory and bloody mental image of Christ distorts the Gospel story in which the focus is not on the lacerated, bloody body of Jesus but on His exemplary life, compassionate ministry, 80
profound teachings, perfect sacrifice for sin, and glorious resurrection. Such mental images, inspired by the Gospels, provide the legitimate basis for worshipping our Savior in “Spirit and Truth.” No Drama, Passion Plays, or Pictures in the Early Church The early Christians respected the Second Commandment by shunning any visual representation of the Deity in their places of worship. During the first four centuries, Christians did not use pictures of Jesus or Passion Plays for their worship or evangelistic outreach, despite the fact that they lived in a highly visual GrecoRoman culture. Pagan temples with statues of gods littered the countryside. Mystery religions like Mithraism, Cybele, and Isis had their own Passion Plays. A popular play was known as the taurobolium (bloodbath). It replicated the death and resurrection of the god Attis by killing a bull and covering a new believer with his blood. The primitive church did not adopt pagan religious visual practices for communicating the Gospel. In accordance with the Second Commandment, the early church did not allow pictorial representations of the three Persons of the Trinity to be used. Their worship was Word-centered, not Image-centered. The situation gradually changed as Gentile Christians brought into the church their pagan beliefs and practices. Soon pictures, statues, and plays became commonplace. During the Middle Ages, Passion Plays were staged first in churches, then in church yards, and finally in special outdoor amphitheaters. They have become important tourist attractions in several countries. In the year 2000, the Oberammergau Passion Play in Upper Bavaria, Germany, drew over half a million pilgrims from many parts of the world. In North America also there are popular Passion Plays in such places as Eureka Springs, Arkansas; Black Hills, South Dakota; and Lake Wales, Florida. At the local level, numerous 81
churches and Christians school are staging Passion Plays.
The Temptation to Worship a Visible Christ. At the time of the Reformation, Protestants overwhelmingly rejected the use of images, statues, relics, and Passion Plays in the church as a violation of the Second Commandment. Rather than using icons, they relied on the preaching of the Word to save souls. As a result the Gospel made significant advances. This does not mean that we should follow the example of the Reformers by eliminating all pictures of Christ. Plain pictures of Christ’s life, teachings, and miracles can be used as illustrations without becoming objects of adoration. The problem arises when pictures are produced and used as icons for worship. In most cases, they portray and foster unbiblical teachings. For example, pictures of the Cross or crucifixes with Christ’s contorted body hanging on the Cross and covered with blood are still widely used today in Catholic countries to promote the devotion to Christ’s Passion. Devout Catholics wear, kiss, hold, touch, and pray toward such images to express their devotion to the suffering Savior. In these instances, pictures encourage an idolatrous form of worship. The sad reality is that many Evangelicals have become so conditioned by the entertainment industry that they are more and more drifting toward the Catholic system of worship with images, drama, Passion Plays, and religious movies. The highly Catholic portrayal of Christ’s suffering and crucifixion in The Passion is contributing significantly to the Evangelical acceptance of a visible Lord that dominates in Catholic worship. By accepting the use of images that were once rejected as signs of papal authority, Evangelicals are running the risk today of returning to the
Medieval false worship which the Reformers fought hard to reform. THE “CHRISTIAN” THEOLOGY OF ANTI-SEMITISM The drama of the trial, suffering, and crucifixion of Jesus is central to the Christian message of salvation through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. The interpretation of the role of the Jews in this drama has been the foundation of the “Christian” theology of contempt toward the Jews. Throughout the centuries and still today many believe that the roots of Christian anti-Semitism are to be found in the Gospels themselves. The popular assumption is that the Gospels are overwhelmingly hostile toward the Jews, blaming them collectively for the death of Christ. For example, Ken Spiro writes: “The negative role that the Jews play in the Passion served to create a solid foundation on which later Christian antiSemitism would be built.”34 Spiro continues: “Probably, the most damning of all accusations appears in John 8:44: ‘You are the children of your father, the Devil, and you want to follow your father’s desires. From the beginning he was a murderer.’”35 The companion text often quoted by those who argue for the collective guilt of the Jews as “Christ-killers” is Matthew 27:25: “And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’” Texts such as these have been used historically to accuse the Jewish people of deicide, that is, of being “Christ-killers.” Because of this crime, the Jews are allegedly under a permanent divine curse, which has doomed them to suffer rejection, persecution, and suppression during the Christian era until the end of time. The Passion Plays have served to dramatize the crime of deicide by portraying the dominant role of the wicked Jews in the 83
condemnation and crucifixion of Christ. The mass hysteria generated by the annual plays enraged the people against the “Christ-killing Jews.” People accused them of well poisoning, causing the Black Plague, and ritual murder. These accusations, as noted in Chapter 1, led to the dehumanization, demonization, brutalization, expulsion, and murder of countless Jews throughout Europe. The anti-Semitic climate fostered by the Passion Plays predisposed many Christians to accept Hitler’s “final solution” to the Jewish problem as a divine solution. Are the Roots of Anti-Semitism Found in the Gospels? The historical use of the Passion narratives to blame the Jews collectively for the death of Christ raises important questions: Are the roots of anti-Semitism to be found in the Gospels themselves or in later religious-historical developments? Are the Passion Plays true to the Gospels in portraying the Jewish people as being collectively guilty of murdering Christ? Do the Gospels place the blame for Christ’s death on all the Jews, including future generations yet to be born, or on some Jewish leaders and their followers? These questions deserve serious consideration, because what is at stake is the legitimacy of the “Christian” theology of contempt toward the Jews, effectively dramatized in Passion Plays. This theology, as noted in Chapter 1, has led to the systematic suppression, expulsion, and liquidation of millions of Jews during the course of Christian history. Furthermore, this theology has contributed in recent times to the development of dispensationalism—a theological system widely accepted by Evangelical churches today. A fundamental tenet of dispensationalism is that God terminated His dealings with the Jews at the Cross (or Pentecost) because they rejected and killed Christ and inaugurated the Christian 84
dispensation to last until the Rapture. This theological construct gives preferential treatment to Christians over the Jews. In fact, soon God is supposed to secretly rapture Christians away from this earth in order to pour out the seven last plagues on the Jews and the unconverted people left behind. This scenario is being popularized today by the movie Left Behind and the series of books by the same title, which are selling by the millions, faster than McDonald’s hamburgers. Were All the Jews Hostile to Christ? Since the roots of antiSemitism and dispensationalism are generally traced back to the role of the Jewish people in Christ’s death, it is imperative to understand what the Gospels really teach us on this subject. A superficial reading of a few isolated texts cited earlier, without attention to their immediate and larger contexts, could lead one to conclude that the Gospels place the guilt for Christ’s death collectively on the Jewish people, marking them as a cursed people for all times. But a closer look at all the relevant texts reveals that to stereotype all the Jews as Christ’s killers is to ignore the fact that Jesus, His disciples, and the many people who believed in Him were all Jews. To clarify this point, let us look at the use of the phrase “the Jews” in the Gospel of John. The reason for choosing John’s Gospel is the prevailing assumption that this Gospel is more antiSemitic than the Synoptics, because it uses the inclusive phrase “the Jews” over 60 times, in place of the terms “Scribes” and “Pharisees” used in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Does the frequent reference to “the Jews” in John’s Gospel make this Gospel particularly anti-Semitic? The answer is “NO!” because the phrase is used with three different connotations. First, the phrase “the Jews” is used to designate the Jewish people in general without any negative value attached to it. For example, when Jesus wept by the grave of Lazarus, we are told that “The 85
Jews said, ‘see how he loved him’” (John 11:36). In this instance, “the Jews” are the people surrounding Jesus who were moved by His show of affection for Lazarus. There is no indication that this group of Jews hated Jesus. Second, the phrase “the Jews” is used in John to denote the people who believed in Christ. For example, Nicodemus is described as “a ruler of the Jews” who believed in Christ (John 3:1). At the resurrection of Lazarus we are told that “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him” (John 11:45). Shortly we shall see that the growing popularity of Jesus among the Jewish people was seen by some religious leaders as a threat to their authority. Third, the phrase “the Jews” is frequently used to denote “the leaders of the Jews” who were scheming to kill Christ. Here are some examples. “The Jews took up stones again to stone him” (John 10:31). “The Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath, but also called God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). Again, “The Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend’” (John 19:12). Taken out of their context, these statements could be interpreted as descriptive of the determination of the whole Jewish nation to kill Jesus. However, such an interpretation ignores two things. First, the immediate context indicates that “the Jews” in question were those present at the incidents described, not the Jewish people as a whole. Christ’s Popularity Was a Threat to Jewish Leaders Second, in the larger context of John’s Gospel, “the Jews,” as noted earlier, also include the people who believed in Christ and followed Him. In fact, their numbers must have been significant, because we are told that “the chief priests planned to put Lazarus 86
also to death, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus” (John 12:10-11). This text highlights the contrast between the chief priests and “many of the Jews.” On the one hand there are the chief priests scheming to kill not only Jesus but also Lazarus, because their authority was threatened by the increasing number of Christ’s followers. But, on the other hand, there are “many of the Jews” going away from the priests because they believed in Jesus. Such a split in the Jewish community hardly indicates that all Jews were hostile toward Christ. The Gospels suggest that Christ’s growing popularity among the common Jewish people threatened the authority of the religious leaders. This is clear in the deliberation of the council held after the resurrection of Lazarus. The “chief priests and the Pharisees” said: “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him” (John 11:47-48). For the religious leaders, the issue was the survival of their own authority. If all the people came to believe in Jesus, their authority would be rejected. For them, it was a question of survival. Either they protected their authority over the people by eliminating Christ, or Christ would soon become so popular with the people that their authority would be ultimately rejected. In their thinking the only solution was to find ways to kill Christ before all the Jews accepted Him and rejected them. The Jews Were Divided in their Attitude Toward Christ. This scenario suggests that the Jews were divided in their attitude toward Christ. Some believed in Him and some rejected Him. The latter group supported the religious leaders in their efforts to kill Him. John mentions this division in the context of the reaction of the people to Christ’s speech about the Good Shepherd. “There 87
was a division among the Jews because of these words. Many of them said, ‘He has a demon, and he is mad; why listen to him?’ Others said, ‘These are not the sayings of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’” (John 10:19-21; emphasis supplied). The division in the attitude of the Jews toward Christ discredits the claim that all the Jews were collectively antagonistic to Christ and supported their leaders in their plans to kill Him. The fact is that Jesus enjoyed considerable support, especially among the common people. John tells us that “many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, lest they should be put out of the synagogue” (John 12:42; emphasis supplied). It is difficult to estimate the percentage of the Jews who were for Christ and of those who were against Him, because poll-taling was unknown in those days. But there appeared to have been a significant number of Jews who followed and supported Jesus all the way to the Cross. Luke tells us that many of Christ’s supporters followed Him all the way to Golgotha: “And there followed him a great multitude of the people, and of the women who bewailed and lamented him” (Luke 23:27; emphasis supplied). This multitude of Jews witnessed with great anguish Christ’s crucifixion: “And all the multitude who assembled to see the sight, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breast” (Luke 23:48). Luke’s description of a great multitude of Jews following Jesus all the way to the Cross, expressing their grief by bewailing and beating their breasts for the crime committed in torturing and crucifying Jesus, hardly supports the contention that all the Jews were hostile to Christ and called for His death. In his informative chapter on “The Jewish Leaders,” Alan F. Segal, Professor of 88
Religion and Jewish Studies at Columbia University, notes that a careful study of “the relevant texts in the Gospels shows that a relatively small and elite group of people, a group among the Temple priests and elders, was out to get Jesus.”36 Paul Rejects the Notion that the Jews Are a Cursed People The division among the Jews in their attitude toward Christ, which we find in the Gospels, is present also in the rest of the New Testament. For example, Paul rejects the notion that the whole Jewish people are cursed by God for their role in Christ’s death. He writes: “I ask then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Rom 11:1-2). To support his point, the Apostle explains that as in the time of Elijah when there were “seven thousand men who had not bowed the knee to Baal, so too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (Rom 11:4-5). The presence of a “remnant” of believing Jews indicates to Paul that God has not rejected the Jews as a cursed people, replacing them with Gentile believers. To clarify this point, he uses the effective imagery of the olive tree. The broken branches of the olive tree represent the unbelieving Jews who have been replaced by the wild branches of the Gentiles. The latter “were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree” (Rom 11:17). For Paul, the olive tree, representing the Jewish people, is not uprooted because of their role in Christ’s death, but rather is pruned and restructured through the engrafting of Gentile branches. Gentile Christians live from the root and trunk of the Jewish people (Rom 11:17-18). By means of this expressive imagery, Paul describes the unity and continuity that exists in God’s redemptive plan for the Jews and Gentiles. 89
The olive tree imagery leaves no room for the replacement theology of dispensationalism. The Jews are not a cursed people replaced by Christians, but are part of God’s plan for the salvation of Jews and Gentiles. Paul explains this mystery, saying, “I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:25-26). In Paul’s vision, God does not have two plans or dispensations—one for the Gentile Christians raptured to heaven and one for the Jews condemned to suffer the seven last plagues for killing Christ. This dispensational scenario, popular among Evangelicals, is foreign to the Bible. Paul envisions the ingathering of the Gentiles who join believing Jews, so that both of them will be saved. Summing up, the New Testament offers us a balanced picture of the Jews. On the one hand, it places the responsibility for Christ’s death on a relatively small group of Jewish religious leaders and their followers, who pushed for the condemnation and execution of Jesus. But, on the other hand, the New Testament acknowledges that a significant number of Jews who believed in Christ followed Him to the Cross, lamented His death, and responded by the thousands on the day of Pentecost and afterwards to the messianic proclamation (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 21:20). The Origin of Anti-Semitism. The balanced portrayal of the Jews in the Passion narratives of the Gospels, was gradually replaced by the one-sided picture of the Jews as a wicked people, collectively guilty of killing Christ. The development of this “Christian” theology of contempt for the Jews was a gradual process. Two major factors contributed to this development: the conflict between the church and the synagogue and the Roman suppression of Jewish revolts, which resulted in the outlawing the Jewish religion and the Sabbath.
The conversion of Gentiles to the Christian faith engendered considerable hostility on the part of the Jews, who felt threatened by the Christian growth. Paul compares the Jewish hostility toward Christians to that endured by Christ during His Passion. Speaking of the Jews, he says that they “killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all men by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they may be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins” (1 Thess 2:15-16). In this early period, Christian Jews like Paul spoke of “the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus,” without meaning to charge all the Jews collectively of deicide. The phrase was restricted to one particular group of Jews, namely, those Jewish leaders and their supporters who pushed for the condemnation and crucifixion of Christ. We noted earlier that Paul speaks of a partial hardening of Israel (Rom 11:25), which he compares to the breaking off of some branches from the olive tree of Israel. But, by the beginning of the second century, the growing conflict between the church and synagogue influenced the inclusive use of the phrase “the Jews” as descriptive of all the Jews. The fact that Jewish Christians were expelled from synagogues led them to abandon the use of the term “Jews” to describe themselves. Thus, ethnic Jewish Christians distanced themselves from the Jews by gradually identifying themselves solely as Christians. The Development of a “Christian” Theology of Anti-Semitism The development of anti-Semitism was precipitated by the antiJewish and anti-Sabbath legislation promulgated by Emperor Hadrian in A.D. 135. I investigated the Hadrianic anti-Jewish legislation in my doctoral dissertation From Sabbath to Sunday. I learned that after suppressing the second major Palestinian Jewish revolt in A.D. 135—called the Barkokeba revolt after its leader— Hadrian not only destroyed the city of Jerusalem and prohibited 91
the Jews from entering the city, but he also outlawed categorically the practice of the Jewish religion in general and of Sabbath keeping in particular. These measures were designed to suppress the Jewish religion, which was seen as the cause of all the uprisings. At this critical time when the Jewish religion in general and the Sabbath in particular were outlawed by Roman legislation, some Christian leaders began to develop a theology of contempt toward the Jews. This consisted in defaming the Jews as a people and in emptying Jewish beliefs and practices of any historical significance. For example, Justin Martyr (about 100-165), a leader of the Church of Rome, defames the Jews as murderers of the prophets and Christ: “Your hand is still lifted to do evil, because, although you have slain Christ, you do not repent; on the contrary, you hate and whenever you have the power kill us.”37 Religious institutions such as the circumcision and the Sabbath were declared by Justin to be signs of Jewish depravity, imposed by God solely on the Jews to distinguish them from other nations. The purpose of these signs was to mark the Jews for the punishment they so well deserve for their wickedness. “It was by reason of your sins and the sins of your fathers that, among other precepts, God imposed upon you the observance of the Sabbath as a mark.”38 The “Christian” Vituperation of the Jews. The verbal attack against the Jews continued unabated during the first millennium of the Christian era. For example, in 386 John Chrysostom, the Patriarch of Constantinople, delivered a series of eight brutally harsh sermons against the Jews. Among other things he says: “The Jews are the most worthless of men—they are lecherous, greedy, rapacious—they are perfidious murderers of Christians, they worship the devil, their religion is a sickness . . . The Jews 92
are the odious assassins of Christ and for killing God there is no expiation, no indulgence, no pardon. Christians may never cease vengeance. The Jews must live in servitude forever. It is incumbent on all Christians to hate the Jews.”39 In a similar vein, Gregory of Nyssa (A.D. 330-395), Bishop of Nyssa and a most influential theologian of the fourth century, vituperates the Jews, saying: “Slayers of the Lord, murderers of the prophets, adversaries of God, haters of God, men who show contempt for the law, foes of grace, enemies of the father’s faith, advocates of the devil, brood of vipers, slanderers, scoffers, men whose minds are in darkness, leaven of the Pharisees, assembly of demons, sinners, wicked men, stoners and haters of righteousness.”40 Catholic Professor Gerard S. Sloyan concludes his survey of the treatment of the Jews in the Christian literature of the first sixth centuries, saying: “It came to be assumed very early in the patristic age that every member of subsequent generations of Jews concurred in this wicked deed [of killing Christ]. There was, of course, no evidence for this assumption, but it was thought that their failure to become Christians proved it. . . . The Jews began a centuries-long history of being stigmatized as the killers of Christ on the Cross, when in fact they would have repudiated to a person the small number of Jews in power who had a part in the deed.”41 Anti-Semitism in the Second Millennium The notion of the Jews as “Christ-killers,” which developed during the first millennium, gained greater prominence in the second millennium. During the first millennium the Christian hostility toward the Jews was at the simmering stage, consisting mostly of verbal attacks. The situation changed dramatically with the dawning of the second millennium. Physical acts of violence against the Jews became commonplace. To understand this new development, we need to look at two 93
contributing factors. First, the continued existence of the Jews became an irritant situation to many Christians. For a thousand years Christians had been taught that the Jews had failed in their mission. By refusing to accept Christ as their Messiah, and worse, by conspiring to have Him killed, they were rejected by God and replaced with the “new chosen people.” By this line of reasoning there was no longer any purpose for the Jews in the world. They should have disappeared like so many mightier nations. Yet more than 1,000 years after the death of Christ, the Jews were still widely dispersed, and at times strong and prosperous. To give some sort of an answer to this problem, some Christian theologians developed the notion that the Jews have been doomed by God to wander the earth to bear witness until the end of time of the divine curse that rests upon them for killing Christ. This theology inspired fanatical Christians to prove God right by murdering countless Jews throughout Europe. The Devotion to Christ’s Sufferings. A second major contributing factor to the new wave of anti-Semitism during the early part of the second millennium is the new religious revival in the Christian world which historians call the “New Piety.” The focus of the New Piety, as noted in Chapter 1, was the devotion to Christ’s suffering and a desire to suffer with Him in His Passion as a way of salvation. The devotion to the Passion inspired the staging of Passion Plays which portrayed the role of the Jews in the trial, scourging, torture, and crucifixion of Jesus. By imitating the sufferings of Christ’s Passion, believers sought to placate God, whom they believed to be responsible for the catastrophes and tragedies that were ravaging Europe at that time. The portrayal of the Jews in the Passion Plays as collectively guilty for Christ’s death inflamed the people who left their annual Plays raging against the “Christ-killing Jews,” accusing them of well poisoning, causing the Black Plague, and ritual murder. 94
These accusations led to the dehumanization, demonization, brutalization, expulsion, and murder of countless Jews throughout Europe. The Problem of the Passion Plays The problem with Passion Plays is the one-sided and collective portrayal of the Jews as a sadistic and bloodthirsty people determined to see Christ killed at any cost. A good example is Mel Gibson’s movie on The Passion. The Jews appear throughout the movie as mean and sadistic, with angry faces and bad teeth. There are no scenes in the movie of the multitudes of Christ’s supporters following Him to Golgotha and expressing their grief by beating their breast.Why did Gibson leave these scenes out? Apparently because Gibson was determined to follow the pre-Vatican II tradition that blamed the Jews collectively for the death of Christ. Gibson focuses exclusively on the wicked, sinister-looking Jewish leaders who always stand in the front row of the crowd. These terrible Jews show no compassion for the lacerated body of Jesus made worse at every passing moment by the relentless blows. The only time the Jews express grief is when they see their Temple collapsing as a result of the earthquake that accompanied Christ’s death. This scene is one of the many unbiblical and unhistorical episodes, seemingly designed to show God’s rejection of the Jews. In a penetrating analysis of the portrayal of the Jews in The Passion, Professor Alan Segal rightly observes: “No one can miss that The Passion uses the Jewish leaders badly to express the evil undercurrent of the film. . . . They are the only power to arrest Jesus in the garden, whereas the Gospels also include the Romans (John 18:3). They throw the shackled Jesus off a bridge on his way to the high priest. They mistreat Jesus throughout the film. When Mary Magdalene entreats the Romans to help Jesus, they 95
answer by saying, ‘They are trying to hide their crime from you.’ Agents of the high priest bribe a crowd to demand Jesus’ death. The Jews are present at the scourging as well as at the crucifixion. Furthermore, Satan is constantly depicted as present among them. Even Jewish children turn into devils to torture Judas before he hangs himself. An aide of Pilate tells him that the Pharisees hate Jesus. Pilate criticizes the Jewish abuse of Jesus by asking the question: ‘Do you always punish your prisoners before they are judged?’ Pilate tells his wife that he fears that the Jewish high priest will lead a revolt against Rome if he does not yield to Jewish demands to have Jesus killed.”42 Segal continues by pointing out that “none of the aforementioned depictions of the Jews in Mel Gibson’s film—from the arrest of Jesus to the leaders’ mistreatment of Jesus, to the bribe to whip up the crowd, to the presence of Satan among them, to the presence of the elders at the crucifixion—none of them are present in the New Testament. In spite of Gibson’s frequent claims that his film is true to the Bible, in these crucial places it is not. Every one of these Jewish actions depicted in the film is not in the Gospels.”43 Did Gibson Intend to Be True to the Gospels? Had Gibson wanted to be true to the Gospels, he could have portrayed the clandestine arrest of Jesus at night, because the chief priests were afraid of a popular uprising by the multitude of people who supported Jesus. We read in Mark 14:2 that “the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth . . . lest there be a tumult of the people.” Gibson could have respected John 11:48 by portraying Caiaphas expressing fear that the Romans might destroy the Temple rather than depicting Pilate as fearing that Caiaphas would incite a revolt. Gibson could have followed the account of Mark 15:15 and Matthew 27:26 where Jesus is scourged after Pilate’s condemnation as part of the Roman crucifixion procedure. Instead, Gibson chose to have Pilate order the scourging of Jesus 96
before the condemnation in order to show that nothing could change the determination of the wicked Jews to demand Christ’s death. The intent of this rearrangement of the time of the scourging is designed to show that the Jews were so bloodthirsty that nothing could change their minds. Had Gibson wanted to be true to the Gospels, he would not have portrayed Pilate saying to Caiaphas: “Do you always punish your prisoners before they are judged?” The intent of these unbiblical words is to portray the Jews as a lawless people who take the law into their own hands. What they did to Christ is part of their wellknown wicked nature. Again, he would not have had Pilate say the following words not found in any Gospel: “Isn’t this scourging enough?” “It is you who want him crucified, not I.” These unbiblical words are designed to heighten the responsibility of the Jewish people for Christ’s death. More important still, had Gibson wanted to be true to the Gospels’ picture of the Jews, he would have depicted “a great multitude of the people, and of women who bewailed and lamented him” (Luke 23:27) on the way to Golgotha. He would also have shown in the movie “all the multitude who assembled to see the sight [of the crucifixion], and when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breast” (Luke 23:48). Why Did Gibson Ignore the Multitude of Jews Who Followed Christ to the Cross? Why did Gibson choose to ignore the scenes of the multitude of the Jews grieving over Jesus’ death? Why did he choose to have Christ’s body taken down from the Cross by John and Mary, instead of following the biblical account which speaks of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus taking care of Christ’s body (John 19:38-39)? Why did Gibson choose to disregard those episodes of the Passion that depict the positive response of many Jews to Christ? The answer to these questions is simple. Gibson was 97
determined to follow the pre-Vatican II Catholic tradition that stereotypes all the Jews as a wicked people under God’s curse for killing Christ. To create his own cinematic version of The Passion, Gibson relied primarily on Anne Catherine Emmerich’s The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The following chapter examines Gibson’s dependency upon The Dolorous Passion. We shall see that her hateful depiction of the Jews as Christ-killers is totally inappropriate for a confessing twenty-first-century Christian community that has largely recognized that Christ’s death cannot be blamed on all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of later generations. Gibson’s hateful depiction of the Jews, as Segal aptly puts it, “is not just a blemish on an otherwise wonderful film: it takes a film which was capable of being a milestone of spirituality in its depiction of Jesus’ sufferings and turns it into a moral tragedy. The screenwriter and the producer were conscious of the [untrue] depiction and must bear responsibility for this issue. To go beyond the Gospels in the depiction of the opposition of the Jews is to say that one is supplying part of the anti-Jewish polemic from one’s own imagination. . . . The charge of anti-Semitism against this film ought to be taken very seriously.”44 A Summation. Our study of the origin and development of the “Christian” theology of contempt for the Jews can be summed up in four major points. First, contrary to prevailing assumptions, the roots of anti-Semitism cannot be legitimately found in the New Testament. The Gospels’ writers and Paul place the responsibility for Christ’s death on a relatively small group of Jewish religious leaders and their followers, who pushed for the condemnation and execution of Jesus. They acknowledge that a significant number of Jews believed in Christ, followed Him to the Cross, lamented His death, and responded by the thousands on the day of 98
Pentecost and afterwards to the messianic proclamation (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 21:20). Second, the origin of “Christian” anti-Semitism can be traced to the post-apostolic period as a result of two major factors: the first is the conflict between the church and the synagogue, and the second is the Roman suppression of Jewish revolts, which resulted in the outlaw of the Jewish religion in general and of the Sabbath in particular. When the Roman government attempted to suppress the Jewish religion, Christian leaders launched a twofold attack against the Jews: they defamed the Jews as a people, and they emptied Jewish beliefs and practices of any historical significance. The vituperation of the Jews continued unabated during the first millennium of the Christian era, though it consisted mostly of verbal attacks. Third, with the dawning of the second millennium, a new wave of anti-Semitism erupted, spurred by a new religious piety which was characterized by the devotion to Christ’s suffering as a way of salvation. The devotion to Christ’s Passion inspired the staging of Passion Plays which portrayed the Jews as collectively guilty for Christ’s death. The Plays inflamed the people against the “Christ-killing Jews.” The result was the brutalization, expulsion, and murder of countless Jews throughout Europe. Fourth, Gibson’s movie on The Passion follows the traditional script of the Passion Plays, where the Jews are portrayed as a sadistic and bloodthirsty people, collectively guilty of Christ’s death. We have found that Gibson intentionally chose to disregard the positive response of many Jews to Christ. The reason is his commitment to the pre-Vatican II Catholic tradition that stereotyped all the Jews as a wicked people, under God’s curse for killing Christ. 99
Gibson’s one-sided and hateful depiction of the Jews, as Prof. Segal perceptively observes, “takes a film which was capable of being a milestone of spirituality in its depiction of Jesus’ sufferings and turns it into a moral tragedy.”44 Gibson’s hateful depiction of the Jews as Christ-killers is totally inappropriate for a confessing twenty-first-century Christian community that has long recognized that Christ was killed by sinners in general, not exclusively by the Jewish people. CONCLUSION Our survey of the theology of the Passion Plays has shown that six major unbiblical beliefs have been embedded in the portrayal of Christ’s Passion during the past seven centuries. These beliefs represent fundamental Catholic teachings, which historically Protestants have largely rejected. This conclusion briefly summarizes these beliefs. First, Passion Plays reveal the Catholic devotion to Christ’s physical sufferings, especially His wounds, promoted by Bernard of Clairveaux, and especially Francis of Assisi. This devotion contributed in a significant way to the staging of Passion Plays which focus on Christ’s physical sufferings. These plays inspired devout believers to seek salvation by imitating the physical sufferings of Christ by whipping themselves and wounding their bodies in order to atone for their sins and placate the wrath of God. The notion that believers can atone for their sins, by imitating Christ’s physical suffering, ultimately makes salvation a human achievement, rather than a gift of divine grace. Second, Passion Plays have popularized the Catholic view of the Mass, which is a small-scale Passion Play. According to Catholic teachings, the celebration of the Mass is a reenactment of Christ’s suffering and death. Each time the Mass is offered, the sacrifice of Christ is repeated on behalf of penitent believers. By staging the 100
suffering and crucifixion of Christ, Passion Plays offered to the people an animated Mass. The notion that Christ must be sacrificed again and again at the altar and in Passion Plays, in order to meet the demands of divine justice, negates the all-sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. The Bible clearly teaches that there is no need to repeat Christ’s sacrifice, because “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (Heb 9:28). Third, Passion Plays have promoted the belief that in order to satisfy the rigorous demands of a punitive, exacting God, Christ had to suffer in His body and mind the equivalent of the punishment for all the sins of humanity. The relentless brutal whipping and flaying of Jesus’ body in Gibson’s movie reflects this fundamental satisfaction view of Christ’s atonement. This view ignores the fact that the Cross was not a legal transaction in which a meek Christ suffered the harsh punishment imposed by a punitive Father for the sins of humankind, but a revelation of how the righteous and loving Father was willing through His Son to become flesh and suffer the punishment of our sins in order to redeem us without compromising His own character. Fourth, Passion Plays emphasize the prominent role of Mary as a partner in Christ’s suffering for our salvation. From Gethsemane to Golgotha, the sufferings of Christ are revealed through the anguish of Mary. She sustains her Son and shares in His suffering throughout the ordeal. This fundamental Catholic belief obscures the centrality and uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice and mediation. By attributing to Mary a co-redemptive role on behalf of penitent sinners, the Catholic Church has developed an idolatrous religion that offers salvation through a variety of persons. The result is that many 101
devout Catholics offer more prayers to Mary and the saints than to the Father or the Son. Fifth, Passion Plays impersonate the divine Son of God, reducing Him to a mere human being, whom people worship as the real Christ. This practice is condemned by the Second Commandment which warns against a wrong form of worship by means of a visual or material objectification of God. This warning is ignored, especially in dominant Catholic countries, where the only Christ devout Catholics know and worship is the One they touch, kiss, see, and often wear as jewelry. Statues, crucifixes, and pictures of the bleeding Savior abound in devout Catholic homes. Instead of worshipping the invisible Lord in Spirit and Truth, they worship idols that they can see and touch. Many Evangelicals have become so conditioned by the entertainment industry that they are shifting from a Wordcentered to an Image-centered style of worship with images, drama, Passion Plays, and religious movies. By accepting the use of images that were once rejected as signs of papal authority, Evangelicals are running the risk today of returning to the Medieval false worship which the Reformers fought hard to reform. Sixth, Passion Plays have historically portrayed the Jews as collectively guilty for Christ’s death. The Plays inflamed the people against the “Christ-killing Jews.” The result was the brutalization, expulsion, and murder of countless Jews throughout Europe. Gibson’s movie on The Passion follows the traditional script of the Passion Plays, where the Jews are portrayed as a sadistic and bloodthirsty people collectively guilty of Christ’s death. The hateful depiction of the Jews as Christ-killers is totally 102
inappropriate for a confessing twenty-first-century Christian community that has long recognized that Christ was killed by sinners in general, not exclusively by the Jewish people. In summation, the theology of the Passion Play represents the outgrowth of centuries of Catholic superstitious beliefs, largely based on popular myths rather than on biblical teachings. The popular acceptance of such superstitious beliefs has fostered an idolatrous piety designed to placate a punitive God by imitating Christ’s suffering and by appealing to the meritorious intercession of Mary and the saints. The subtle ways in which Catholic superstitious beliefs are embedded in Passion Plays, like Gibson’s movie, are leading many unsuspecting Evangelicals to accept as biblical truths what in reality are Catholic heresies. Our safeguard is to test what we see portrayed in religious movies by what we read in the revealed Word of God. Our faith and worship should be Word-centered, not Image-centered.
ENDNOTES 1. “The Animated Crucifix,” http://www.letgodbetrue.com/TodaysWorld/passion.htm. 2. Alister Hardy, The Divine Flame (Oxford, 1966), p. 218. 3. Philip A. Cunningham, “Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: A Challenge to Catholic Teaching,” http://www.bc.edu/research/cjl/metaelements/texts/reviews/gibson_ cunningham.htm. 4. For a historical survey of the different theories of the atonement, see H. E. W. Turner, The Patristic Doctrine of Redemption (London, 1952); Robert Mackintosh, Historic 103
Theories of the Atonement (London, 1920). 5. R. W. Dale, Atonement (New York, 1894), p. 277. 6. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Allen, translator (Philadelphia, 1930), pp. ii, xvi.10. 7. John R. W. Storr, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois, 1986), p. 151. 8. Ibid., p. 160. 9. R. W. Dale, note 4, p. 393. 10. Excerpts from the Introductory Commentary to the Mass, Collection of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Volume 1 (Sacramentary, Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1992), p. 65. 11.“Is Mary the ‘Coredemptrix’?” http://home.nyc.rr.com/mysticalrose/marian14.html. 12. “Mel, Mary, and Mothers,” Christianity Today (March 2004), p. 25. 13. Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York, 1997), p. 276, paragraph 974. 14. Ibid., p. 276, paragraph 975. 15. Anne Catherine Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ from the Meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich (Rockford, Illinois, 1983), p. 172. 16. The Dolorous Passion, p. 174. 17. The Dolorous Passion, p. 211. 18. Teiji Yasuda, O.S.V., English version by John M. Haffert, Akita: The Tears and Message of Mary (Asbury, NJ, 1989), p. 78. 19. Thomas Petrisko, Call of the Ages (Santa Barbara, CA, 1995), p. 247. 20. Beatrice Bruteau, compiled by Shirley Nicholson, The Goddess Re-Awakening (Wheaton, IL, 1994), p. 68. 21. “Mel, Mary, and Mothers,” Christianity Today (March 2004), p. 25. 22. Ibid. 23. Quotations taken from Ron Gleason, “The 2nd Commandment and ‘The Passion of the Christ,’” 104
http://www.christianity.com/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTI D23682%7CCHID125043%7CCIID 1716514,00. 24. Ibid. 25. Ibd. 26. Ibid. 27. The Heidelberg Catechism (Question 97). 28. Bian Godawa,“The Passion of the Christ,” http://www.christianity.com/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTI D23682%7CCHID125043% 7CCIID1712182,00. 29. Westminster Larger Catechism, Answer 109. 30. “What Others Are Saying,” www.passionchrist.org. 31. SDA Dictionary, end sheet, explanation on p. xxiv. 32. New Yorker (September, 2003), p. 21. 33. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance (Edinburgh,1970), I/1:134. 34. Ken Spiro, “The Passion: A Historical Perspective,” http://www.aish.com/literacy/jewishhistory/The_Passion_A_Hist orical_Perspective.asp. 35. Ibid. 36. Alan F. Segal, “The Jewish Leaders,” in the symposium Jesus and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The film, the Gospels and the Claims of History, Edited by Kathleen E. Corley and Robert L. Webb (New York, 2004), p. 98. 37. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho chapter 133; for a discussion of the texts, see Samuele Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday (Rome, 1977), pp. 227-229. 38. Justin, Dialogue 21,1, Falls, Justin’s Writings, pp. 172-178. 39. Allan Gould, Editor, What Did They Think of the Jews? (New York, 1997), p. 24. 40. Ibid., p.25. 41. Gerard S. Sloyan, The Crucifixion of Jesus. History, Myth, Faith (Minneapolis, 1995), pp. 96-7. 42. Allan F. Segan (note 36), p. 91.
43. Ibid., p. 92. 44. Ibid. Emphasis supplied.
THE SCOURGING AND CRUCIFIXION OF JESUS
It seems to be a mark of our age that we do not believe something to be realistic unless it is brutal. Judged by the graphic portrayal of the relentless brutal torture inflicted on Christ’s body, The Passion is very realistic. It achieves Gibson’s goal of showing what real scourging and crucifixion must have been like. In an interview with Peter J. Boyer of the New Yorker, Gibson said: “I wanted to bring you there. I wanted to be true to the Gospels. That has never been done before. I didn’t want to see Jesus looking really pretty, I wanted to mess up one of his eyes, destroy it.” Since there is nothing said in the Gospels about Jesus’ eye being destroyed, did Gibson succeed in making the movie absolutely true to the Gospels, as “has never been done before”? None of the evangelists depicts Jesus with a destroyed eye. In fact, their description of Jesus’ scourging and crucifixion are as minimal as the writers could make it. “Having scourged Jesus, Pilate delivered him to be crucified.” “When they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him.” A dozen verses later Jesus is dead. This is the extent of the Gospels’ account. By contrast, The Passion portrays for two hours the vivid and excruciating details of the scourging, flogging, and crucifixion of Christ. Excessive and Relentless Brutality 107
A common criticism of many reviewers is the excessive and relentless brutality of The Passion that goes far beyond the succinct accounts of the Gospels. Apparently it was not difficult for Gibson to brutalize Jesus’ body, because he is a master of cinematic violence. Newsday says that “the film shows that the Braveheart star and director is skilled at depicting violence . . . with grisly, horrific details of Christ’s physical mutilation and torment.” Jeff Strickler writes in the Star Tribune: “As much as ‘The Passion of the Christ’ has been ballyhooed as a religious film, it is, above all, a Mel Gibson movie. Sure, the Oscar-winning director of Braveheart slips in a little dogma [too much in my view], but what he really lays on your face is brutality. Blood splatters. Skin rips open. Eyes swell shut. Gibson’s thesis is that Jesus suffered for people’s sins, and his focus is on the suffering.”42 Surprisingly, the words “suffering” and “passion” (pathein in Greek) do not occur in the Gospels, because the focus is not on the intensity of Christ’s suffering, but on the nobility of Christ’s sacrificial death. Similar criticisms of the excessive brutality of The Passion have appeared in major newspapers. Writing for the New York Times, A. O. Scott notes that “The Passion of the Christ is so relentlessly focused on the savagery of Jesus’ final hours that this film seems to arise less from love than from wrath, and to succeed more in assaulting the spirit than in uplifting it. Mr. Gibson has constructed an unnerving and painful spectacle that is also, in the end, a depressing one.” Ty Burr writes in the Boston Globe: “A profoundly medieval movie, Yes. Brutal almost beyond powers of description, Yes. More obsessed with capturing every holy drop of martyr’s blood and sacred goblet of flesh than with any 108
message of Christian love, Yes. More than anything, The Passion of the Christ seems to be exactly the movie Mel Gibson wanted to make as an abiding profession of his traditionalist Catholic faith. On that score it is a success.” I fully agree with Burr. Gibson has done a masterful job in producing a brutal and gory reenactment of Christ’s Passion in full accordance with his traditional Catholic faith. To bring into sharper focus the contrast between the Gospels’ accounts of Christ’s sufferings and death and the exaggerated brutality of Gibson’s movie, we will compare what these two sources have to say regarding five major episodes: 1. The Physical Abuse of Jesus at the Arrest 2. The Mocking of Jesus before the High Priest 3. The Scourging of Jesus before Pilate 4. The Procession to Calvary 5. The Crucifixion Scene These five episodes are the most brutal and shocking parts of the movie. Since the brutality portrayed in the movie is largely derived from Emmerich’s The Dolorous Passion, the text of the latter will be compared with the Gospels’ account. The influence of The Dolorous Passion on Gibson’s movie cannot be overestimated. Anyone who has a doubt should read the book alongside the Gospels after having seen the film. It soon becomes evident that The Dolorous Passion was used by Gibson as the underlying script for the shooting of the film. The Physical Abuse of Jesus at the Arrest 109
In The Passion, the abusive treatment of Christ begins in the opening scene at His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the Gospels there is no detailed description of any binding of Jesus. John only tells us: “The band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews seized him and bound him” (John 18:12). The other Gospels do not mention any binding at all, but only that “. . . they laid hands on him and seized him” (Mark 14:46). But Gibson ignores the Gospels, choosing instead to portray the detailed description of Christ’s binding given in The Dolorous Passion. We quoted earlier Emmerich’s description of how Jesus was tied like a sausage with ropes around his neck, arms, waist, and legs to allow the soldiers to drag Christ “from side to side in the most cruel manner.” The physical abuse of Jesus increased while the temple soldiers escorted Him to the chief priests. When they reached a bridge, the soldiers threw Him off a bridge, and it was only His chain jerking taut that arrested His fall. Such a scene is not found in the Gospel accounts. Its source is The Dolorous Passion: “I saw our Lord fall twice before he reached the bridge, and these falls were caused entirely by the barbarous manner in which the soldiers dragged him; but when they were half over the bridge they gave full vent to their brutal inclinations, and struck Jesus with such violence that they threw him off the bridge into the water, and scornfully recommended him to quench his thirst there. If God had not preserved him, he must have been killed by this fall; he fell first on his knee, and then on his face, but saved himself a little by stretching out his hands.” In The Passion, the scene of Christ’s examination before the chief priest shows common people being awakened in the middle 110
of the night and paid to go to witness against Christ. No such scene is found in the Gospels. Emmerich provided Gibson this information: “They hastened to all the inns to seek out those persons whom they knew to be enemies of our Lord, and offered them bribes in order to secure their appearance. But, with the exception of a few ridiculous calumnies, which were certain to be disproved as soon as investigated, nothing tangible could be brought forward against Jesus.” In the following chapter Emmerich says: “The customary prayers and preparations for the celebration of the festival being completed, the greatest part of the inhabitants of the denselypopulated city of Jerusalem, as also the strangers congregated there, were plunged in sleep after the fatigues of the day, when, all at once, the arrest of Jesus was announced, and every one was aroused, both his friends and foes, and numbers immediately responded to the summons of the High Priest, and left their dwellings to assemble at his court.” This scene is foreign to the Gospels, which tell us that “the chief priests and the whole council sought false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none” (Matt 26:59-60; Mark 14:55). The Mocking of Jesus before the High Priest The Gospel account of the abusive treatment Christ received before the Court of Caiaphas is very brief: “They all condemned him as worthy of death. Then some began to spit at him; they blindfolded him, and struck him with their fists, and said, ‘Prophesy!’ And the guard took him and beat him” (Mark 14:6465; cf. Matt 26:67). By contrast, The Dolorous Passion describes in detail the gruesome methods used to torture Christ in the Court of Caiaphas—methods shown in the movie, but 111
absent in the Gospels. “No sooner did Caiaphas, with the other members of the Council, leave the tribunal than a crowd of miscreants—the very scum of the people— surrounded Jesus like a swarm of infuriated wasps, and began to heap every imaginable insult upon him. Even during the trial, whilst the witnesses were speaking, the archers and some others could not restrain their cruel inclinations, but pulled out handfuls of his hair and beard, spat upon him, struck him with their fists, wounded him with sharp-pointed sticks, and even ran needles into his body; but when Caiaphas left the hall they set no bounds to their barbarity. They first placed a crown, made of straw and the bark of trees, upon his head, and then took it off, saluting him at the same time with insulting expressions, like the following: ‘Behold the Son of David wearing the crown of his father.’ “Next they put a crown of reeds upon his head, took off his robe and scapular, and then threw an old torn mantle, which scarcely reached his knees, over his shoulders; around his neck they hung a long iron chain, with an iron ring at each end, studded with sharp points, which bruised and tore his knees as be walked. They again pinioned his arms, put a reed into his hand, and covered his Divine countenance with spittle. They had already thrown all sorts of filth over his hair, as well as over his chest, and upon the old mantle. They bound his eyes with a dirty rag, and struck him, crying out at the same time in loud tones, ‘Prophesy unto us, O Christ, who is he that struck thee?’ He answered not one word, but sighed, and prayed inwardly for them. “After many many insults, they seized the chain which was hanging on his neck, dragged him towards the room into which the Council had withdrawn, and with their sticks forced him in, vociferating at the same time, ‘March forward, thou King of 112
Straw! Show thyself to the Council with the insignia of the regal honor; we have rendered unto thee.’ A large body of councillors, with Caiaphas at their head, were still in the room, and they looked with both delight and approbation at the shameful scene which was enacted, beholding with pleasure the most sacred ceremonies turned into derision. The pitiless guards covered him with mud and spittle, and with mock gravity exclaimed, ‘Receive the prophetic unction—the regal unction.’ Then they impiously parodied the baptismal ceremonies, and the pious act of Magdalen in emptying the vase of perfume on his head. ‘How canst thou presume,’ they exclaimed, ‘to appear before the Council in such a condition? Thou dost purify others, and thou art not pure thyself; but we will soon purify thee.’ They fetched a basin of dirty water, which they poured over his face and shoulders, whilst they bent their knees before him, and exclaimed, ‘Behold thy precious unction, behold the spikenard worth three hundred pence; thou hast been baptized in the pool of Bethsaida.’” This description of the shameful and relentless physical abuse that Christ suffered before the Sanhedrin is vividly portrayed in the Passion, but is absent in the Gospels. Nowhere do the Gospels speak of the crowd pulling Christ’s hair and beard, wounding Him with sharp pointed sticks, piercing Him with needles, dragging Him around with a chain hanging around His neck, bruising and tearing His knees with a studded chain with sharp points, and pouring dirty water over His head to mock His regal unction. The exaggeration of Christ’s physical abuse before the Sanhedrin serves to support the Catholic view of redemption through the excessive suffering of Jesus, but it obscures the real meaning of Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation as presented in the Gospels. In the Gospels, after His examination before the chief priests, Jesus is bound and taken to Pilate (Mark 15:1; John 113
18:28). But Gibson follows The Dolorous Passion which describes Jesus being shackled and imprisoned in a subterranean prison: “The Jews, having quite exhausted their barbarity, shut Jesus up in a little vaulted prison, the remains of which subsist to this day. . . . The enemies of our Lord did not allow him a moment’s respite, even in this dreary prison, but tied him to a pillar which stood in the centre, and would not allow him to lean upon it, although he was so exhausted from ill treatment, the weight of his chains, and his numerous falls, that he could scarcely support himself on his swollen and torn feet. Never for a moment did they cease insulting him; and when the first set were tired out, others replaced them.” At this point The Passion portrays Mary kneeling on the flagstones and pressing her ear to the ground to listen to the groaning of her Son. Again, the source of this touching scene is not the Gospels, but probably this account in The Dolorous Passion: “Mary was with Jesus in spirit, and Jesus was with her; but this loving Mother wished to hear with her own ears the voice of her Divine Son. She listened and heard not only his moans, but also the abusive language of those around him.”52 The Scourging of Jesus before Pilate The contrast between Gibson’s movie and the Gospels is most evident in the account of the scourging of Jesus in Pilate’s judgment hall. In the Gospels the account of the scourging is brief and sober. They merely state: “. . . having scourged Jesus, he [Pilate] delivered him to be crucified” (Mark 15:15). “Then Pilate took Jesus and scourged him” (John 19:1). The Gospels spend more time describing the mocking with the crown of thorns before the high priest (Mark 15:17-20) than they do the scouring! Yet in The 114
Passion the scourging seems to go on forever, lasting ten minutes. It is the most brutal and graphic portrayal of violence in the movie that has been widely criticized. The details of how the scourging was carried out are taken not from the Gospels, but from The Dolorous Passion. The whole of chapter 22 of The Dolorous Passion is devoted to the scourging of Jesus. The chapter describes in minute details the four scourgings of Jesus carried out on an alternating basis by six Roman soldiers, who escalated the torture with their arsenal of instruments. Since the scourging of Jesus is the centerpiece of Gibson’s movie, we quote a few paragraphs which Gibson portrays with unsurpassed Oscar-winning brutality. “Pilate was determined to adhere to his resolution of not condemning our Lord to death, and ordered him to be scourged according to the manner of the Romans. The guards were therefore ordered to conduct him through the midst of the furious multitude to the forum, which they did with the utmost brutality, at the same time loading him with abuse, and striking him with their staffs. The pillar where criminals were scourged stood to the north of Pilate’s palace, near the guard-house, and the executioners soon arrived, carrying whips, rods, and ropes, which they tossed down at its base. They were six in number, dark, swarthy men, somewhat shorter than Jesus; their chests were covered with a piece of leather, or with some dirty stuff; their loins were girded, and their hairy, sinewy arms bare. . . . “These cruel men had many times scourged poor criminals to death at this pillar. They resembled wild beasts or demons, and appeared to be half drunk. They struck our Lord with their fists, 115
and dragged him by the cords with which he was pinioned, although he followed them without offering the least resistance, and, finally, they barbarously knocked him down against the pillar. . . . “Jesus trembled and shuddered as he stood before the pillar, and took off his garments as quickly as he could, but his hands were bloody and swollen. The only return he made when his brutal executioners struck and abused him was to pray for them in the most touching manner: he turned his face once towards his Mother, who was standing overcome with grief; this look quite unnerved her: she fainted, and would have fallen, had not the holy women who were there supported her. . . “The Holy of holies [was] violently stretched, without a particle of clothing, on a pillar used for the punishment of the greatest criminals; and then did two furious ruffians who were thirsting for his blood begin in the most barbarous manner to scourge his sacred body from head to foot. The whips or scourges which they first made use of appeared to me to be made of a species of flexible white wood, but perhaps they were composed of the sinews of the ox, or of strips of leather. . . . “Our loving Lord, the Son of God, true God and true Man, writhed as a worm under the blows of these barbarians; his mild but deep groans might be heard from afar; they resounded through the air, forming a kind of touching accompaniment to the hissing of the instruments of torture. These groans resembled rather a touching cry of prayer and supplication, than moans of anguish. . . . “Several of the servants of the High Priests went up to the brutal executioners and gave them money; as also a large jug filled with a strong bright red liquid, which quite inebriated them, 116
and increased their cruelty tenfold towards their innocent Victim. The two ruffians continued to strike our Lord with unremitting violence for a quarter of an hour, and were then succeeded by two others. His body was entirely covered with black, blue, and red marks; the blood was trickling down on the ground, and yet the furious cries which issued from among the assembled Jews showed that their cruelty was far from being satiated. . . . “Then two fresh executioners commenced scourging Jesus with the greatest possible fury; they made use of a different kind of rod, a species of thorny stick, covered with knots and splinters. The blows from these sticks tore his flesh to pieces; his blood spouted out so as to stain their arms, and he groaned, prayed, and shuddered. “[Then] two fresh executioners took the places of the last mentioned, who were beginning to flag; their scourges were composed of small chains, or straps covered with iron hooks, which penetrated to the bone, and tore off large pieces of flesh at every blow. What word, alas! could describe this terrible—this heart-rending scene! “The cruelty of these barbarians was nevertheless not yet satiated; they untied Jesus, and again fastened him up with his back turned towards the pillar. As he was totally unable to support himself in an upright position, they passed cords round his waist, under his arms, and above his knees, and having bound his hands tightly into the rings which were placed at the upper part of the pillar, they recommenced scourging him with even greater fury than before; and one among them struck him constantly on the face with a new rod. The body of our Lord was perfectly torn to shreds, it was but one wound. He looked at his torturers with his eyes filled with blood, as if entreating mercy; but their brutality
appeared to increase, and his moans each moment became more feeble.” The Gospels Focus on Christ’s Sacrificial Death The preceding lengthy quotes from The Dolorous Passion offer a most bloody and gory description of Christ’s scourging, which Gibson portrays masterfully. However, the Gospels offer no details about Christ’s scourging, because they are not obsessed with capturing every holy drop of Christ’s blood and every sacred goblet of His flesh flayed during the flogging. Their account is brief, consisting of only one sentence: “Then Pilate took Jesus and scourged him” (John 19:1). The inflicting of physical suffering on Christ is the central action of Gibson’s movie, but is secondary in the Gospels. The Gospels teach salvation through Christ’s sacrificial death, not through the intensity of His suffering. We noted in Chapter two that the notion of salvation through suffering is a fundamental Catholic belief that originated in the early part of the second millennium. It is noteworthy that the word “Passion” (pathein) is never used in the Gospels with reference to Christ’s sufferings, because the focus is on His sacrificial death for our salvation, not on the intensity of His sufferings to satisfy the demands of a punitive God. In The Passion, the beating, whipping, and ripping of Christ’s flesh is relentless until He is skinned alive and taken apart. When the viewer thinks that the flaying of Jesus’ flesh can get no crueler, it does. In those endless moments when the soldiers escalate their torture with new instruments, Gibson proves his Oscar-winning abilities in portraying violence. The violence of Braveheart becomes Bloodheart in The Passion.
Gibson seems determined to show only one color from the full Christian spectrum: blood red. Why Does Gibson Focus on the Brutal Torture of Jesus? Why is Gibson dishing out to Christ the kind of punishment that would kill any SUPER MAN three times over? The answer is found in the Catholic understanding of redemption through suffering promoted by The Dolorous Passion. The book assumes that to satisfy the demands of a punitive God for humanity’s sins, Christ had to suffer in His body and mind the equivalent of the punishment for all the sins of humankind. Gibson’s unrelenting and brutal vision of The Passion reminds us of the great revivalist Jonathan Edwards who during the first great awakening tried to trigger mass conversion by preaching hellfire. His favorite sermon was titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In The Passion, Gibson attempts to convert millions to his Catholic understanding of redemption by portraying “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners.” Behind both visions stands a bloodthirsty Father, more eager to damn and punish than to save. Such visions may convert some people through fear, but may also cause many to hate God for His sadistic and angry character. Dr. Charles Krauthammer, a Washington Post columnist, finds “Gibson’s personal interpretation [of the scourging of Jesus] spectacularly vicious. Three of the Gospels have but a one-line reference to Jesus’s scourging. The fourth has no reference at all. In Gibson’s movie this becomes ten minutes of the most unremitting sadism in the history of film. Why ten? Why not five? Why not two? Why not zero, as in Luke? Gibson chose 10.”
A reason for Gibson’s choice of ten minutes of brutal flagellation is to be found in the Catholic punitive view of God reflected in The Dolorous Passion. According to this view, God demands full satisfaction for all the sins of humankind through the brutal and inhuman torture of His Son. We noted in Chapter two that such a punitive view of God is foreign to Scripture. In the Bible, the Cross was not a legal transaction in which a meek Christ suffers the harsh punishment imposed by a punitive Father for the sins of humanity. Instead, the Cross reveals how the righteous and loving Father was willing through His Son to become flesh and suffer the punishment of our sins in order to redeem us without compromising His own character. The Procession to Calvary Victims to be crucified were required to carry the crossbar, not the entire cross with pole and crossbar. Most likely Jesus carried only the horizontal beam, not the entire Cross, as portrayed in the Passion. The load would have been too heavy for a man who had been scourged according to the Roman custom. Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not mention Jesus carrying the Cross. They simply say that Jesus was “led away to be crucified” (Matt 27:31; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:27). Instead they refer to Simon of Cyrene being required to carry the Cross “behind him,” according to Luke (Luke 23:26; Matt 27:31-32; Mark 15:20-21). John 19:17 describes Jesus as carrying His own Cross, without any mention of Simon of Cyrene. Gibson follows the text of The Dolorous Passion in placing the entire Cross on Jesus’ shoulder: “The archers led Jesus into the middle of the court, the slaves threw down the cross at his feet, and the two arms were forthwith tied on to the centre 120
piece. Jesus knelt down by its side, encircled it with his sacred arms, and kissed it three times, addressing, at the same time, a most touching prayer of thanksgiving to his Heavenly Father for that work of redemption which he had begun. . . . The archers soon made him rise, and then kneel down again, and almost without any assistance, place the heavy cross on his right shoulder, supporting its great weight with his right hand.” In The Passion Gibson has Simon of Cyrene and Jesus carrying the cross together. This scene openly contradicts the Gospels’ account: “And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus” (Luke 23:26; cf. Mark 15:21; Matt 27:32). In the Gospels it is clear that Simon carries the Cross for Jesus by himself while following the totally exhausted Jesus. One wonders, Why does Gibson misrepresent the Gospel story by having both Jesus and Simon carry the Cross together? Most likely it is to promote more effectively the Catholic devotion to the Passion of Christ. Had Christ been relieved altogether from carrying the Cross, then His sufferings would have been reduced, and consequently He would have failed to satisfy the demands of divine justice for the sins of humankind. In The Passion Jesus falls seven times during the procession along the traditional 14 Stations of the Cross. Again this information is derived not from the Gospels but from The Dolorous Passion, which describes in great detail the seven falls of Jesus in chapters 31 to 36. The story of the seven falls of Jesus is based on medieval legends that have become part of Catholic religious tradition.
Another unbiblical scene described in The Dolorous Passion and portrayed in the movie is Mary accompanying Jesus along the Via Dolorosa using side streets. In The Passion, when the Roman soldiers inquire of her identity, they are told, “She is the mother of the Galilean. Do not impede her.” During this journey, Christ stops and falls seven times because He has no strength left to go on. At those points, Mary is always near Christ and acts as His comforter and coach. Through their eye contact, Mary infuses mystical power on her Son. At one point she reassures her Son, saying: “I am here.” In The Dolorous Passion we read that when Jesus fell the second time, “Mary was perfectly agonized at this sight; she forgot all else; she saw neither soldiers nor executioners; she saw nothing but her dearly-loved Son; and, springing from the doorway into the midst of the group who were insulting and abusing him, she threw herself on her knees by his side and embraced him. The only words I heard were, ‘Beloved Son!’ and ‘Mother!.’” The Story of Veronica The Dolorous Passion incorporates also the medieval legend of Seraphia, who became known as Veronica, because the vera icon, that is, the true image of Christ, was imprinted on her veil. According to the medieval story Vindicta Salvatoris (Vengeance of the Savior), Veronica had earlier been healed by Jesus. On the Via Dolorosa she was able to get through the crowd and wipe the bloody face of Jesus with her long veil, thus imprinting His face permanently on her veil. Gibson does a masterful job portraying the legend of Veronica, which is not in the Gospels. 122
Note the similarities between the movie and The Dolorous Passion: “Seraphia [the original name of Veronica] had prepared some excellent aromatic wine, which she piously intended to present to our Lord to refresh him on his dolorous way to Calvary. She had been standing in the street for some time, and at last went back into the house to wait. She was, when I first saw her, enveloped in a long veil, and holding a little girl of nine years of age whom she had adopted. . . . Those who were marching at the head of the procession tried to push her back; but she made her way through the mob, the soldiers, and the archers, reached Jesus, fell on her knees before him, and presented the veil, saying at the same time, ‘Permit me to wipe the face of my Lord.’ Jesus took the veil in his left hand, wiped his bleeding face, and returned it with thanks. Seraphia kissed it, and put it under her cloak. The girl then timidly offered the wine, but the brutal soldiers would not allow Jesus to drink it.” Emmerich continues: “No sooner did she reach her room than she placed the woolen veil on a table, and fell almost senseless on her knees. A friend who entered the room a short time after . . . and saw, to his astonishment, the bloody countenance of our Lord imprinted upon the veil, a perfect likeness, although heartrending and painful to look upon. He roused Seraphia, and pointed to the veil. She again knelt down before it, and exclaimed through her tears, ‘Now I shall indeed leave all with a happy heart, for my Lord has given me a remembrance of himself.’” This popular legend has a great emotional appeal for devout Catholics, but it has no biblical basis whatsoever. It is a purely Catholic legend designed to promote the veneration of relics and icons. Again,
Gibson chose to embellish Christ’s Passion by using a popular Catholic legend foreign to the Gospels. The Crucifixion Scene The crucifixion scene in The Passion stands in stark contrast with the Gospels, because it graphically portrays many brutal details not found in the Bible. The Gospels simply state: “. . . they crucified him” (Mark 15:24; Matt 27:35; Luke 23:33; John 19:18). No details are given on how Christ’s crucifixion was carried out. It is evident that the crucifixion was a most cruel and brutal means of execution, usually reserved for murderous slaves, bandits, and insurrectionists. But the Gospels offer us no details of Christ’s crucifixion. The reason will be discussed shortly. By contrast, The Dolorous Passion devotes seven chapters (38 to 45) to a detailed description of each phase of the crucifixion. For the sake of brevity, we cite only one example, namely, how the soldiers nailed the hands of Jesus to the Cross. This example will suffice to show how closely Gibson follows Emmerich’s account. “Then seizing his right arm they dragged it to the hole prepared for the nail, and having tied it tightly down with a cord, one of them knelt upon his sacred chest, a second held his hand flat, and a third taking a long thick nail, pressed it on the open palm of that adorable hand, which had ever been open to bestow blessings and favors on the ungrateful Jews, and with a great iron hammer drove it through the flesh, and far into the wood of the cross. Our Lord uttered one deep but suppressed groan, and his blood gushed forth and sprinkled the arms of the archers. . . . The nails were very large, the heads about the size of a crown piece, and the thickness that of a man’s thumb, while the points came through at the back of the cross. . . . When the executioners had 124
nailed the right hand of our Lord, they perceived that his left hand did not reach the hole they had bored to receive the nail, therefore they tied ropes to his left arm, and having steadied their feet against the cross, pulled the left hand violently until it reached the place prepared for it.” Gibson goes even beyond Emmerich’s brutal description of the long nails that went through Jesus’ hands to the back of the Cross by portraying the soldiers swinging up the Cross and then slamming its weight down over the body of Jesus pinioned underneath. Professor John Crossman offers a vivid description of this scene from The Passion: “After Jesus is nailed to the Cross, it is swung up toward us on a beam-bottom and beam-left ends and then flipped over so that its weight slams down on the top of Jesus’ pinioned body. He thuds to the ground, dust rises as his face hits the earth, and the camera moves in for a close-up. The heavy cross is now upside-down on the top of Jesus and we see the sharp nails protruding from the back of the crossbar, as in Emmerich’s book. But in Gibson’s film the soldiers then hammer the nail-points at the right angles until they are flat to the wood, the reverberations going through it to the hands and arms of Jesus.”60 Crushing Christ’s body by slamming it under the weight of a heavy falling Cross should have been sufficient to kill Christ on the spot. But for Gibson, Christ is a SUPER MAN who can survive the most brutal punishment in order to satisfy the exacting demands of a punitive God. Is Gibson Faithful to Scripture? The foregoing examination of selected scenes from the mocking, scourging, and crucifixion of Jesus is by no means exhaustive. But the conclusion from the above examples is quite clear: Gibson’s portrayal of the Passion of Christ is largely based
not on the Gospels, but on Emmerich’s mystical visions recorded in The Dolorous Passion. There is no problem with Gibson choosing extra-biblical sources as well as using his own creative imagination for his movie. After all, a film is meant to be a creative artistic expression, not a documentary. The problem is with Gibson’s claim regarding the faithfulness of his movie to the Gospels and history—a claim that is widely accepted as true, even by respected church leaders. When asked: “How do you find the balance between staying true to the Scripture and your creative interpretation?” Gibson replied, as noted earlier: “Wow, the Scripture are the Scripture—I mean they’re unchangeable, although many people try to change them. And I think that my first duty is to be as faithful as possible in telling the story so that it doesn’t contradict Scriptures.” Gibson’s claim to be “as faithful as possible” to Scripture is openly contradicted by his extensive use of The Dolorous Passion—a book based on mystical visions and Catholic legends which are foreign to the Bible. We have found that Anne Emmerich alters substantially the Passion story of the Gospels in order to be faithful to traditional Catholic beliefs and legends. To her credit, we noted earlier that she did not regard her visions “as being of any historical value.” Unfortunately, many viewers lack the knowledge necessary to evaluate Gibson’s claims and therefore take at face value his statements about the movie, especially since respected church leaders fully support them. It is our hope that this study provides the needed information to help the viewing public to distinguish between the Passion of Christ according to the Gospels and the Passion of Christ according to Mel Gibson.
Why the Gospels Do Not Describe the Brutal of Christ’s Scourging and Crucifixion? The most striking difference between The Passion and the Gospels is found in the presentation of Christ’s suffering and death. While the Evangelists mention the scourging and the crucifixion with very few words— “Having scourged Jesus, Pilate delivered him to be crucified” (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)—Gibson spends two solid hours portraying with jarring details the relentless torture of Jesus from Gethsemane to Golgotha. Why did the Evangelists and the Christians of the first millennium not linger over the brutal physical sufferings of Jesus? Were they ashamed of the Cross, an emblem of the shameful execution of criminals? Hardly so. Paul speaks boldly about Cross: “Far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14). Were they squeamish about the bloody details of the scourging and execution of the Savior? Hardly so. Luke, regarded as the most elegant New Testament writer, describes Judas’ death in most graphic details: “Falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18). The Evangelists handled the events of the Passion so discreetly not because they viewed them as embarrassing or unimportant. After all, the Gospel story builds toward them. Rather, the reason is to be found in their theological understanding of the Cross. Simply stated, for them the Cross meant sacrificial death, not brutal suffering. They understood that Christ paid the penalty of our sins not through the intensity of His sufferings, but through His perfect sacrificial death. He came not to suffer for our salvation, but “to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; Matt 20:28; emphasis supplied). He “has appeared 127
at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb 9:26; emphasis supplied). The suffering which Christ experienced through His life, especially at the Cross, qualified Him to be a perfect sacrifice for our sins (Heb 5:8-9). The focus on Christ’s sacrificial death, rather than on the intensity of His suffering, is also found in Christian literature and iconography of the first millennium. During this period, the depiction of the scourging and crucifixion shows little blood. Unlike Gibson, painters and writers follow the Gospels in rendering the Passion with restraint. The depictions are not without drama. Mary and John stand at the foot of the Cross reeling in grief, but Jesus does not express His agony. He is serene, almost regal. His body is not brutalized and torn to shreds, because, as already stated, the Cross was seen as the symbol of Christ’s perfect sacrifice for our redemption. From Sacrificial Death to Brutal Sufferings A change came about in the eleventh century when a new understanding developed of the meaning of the Cross. It was a change from a sacrificial death to a brutal suffering view of the Cross. Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109), in his epochal book Cur Deus Homo?, that is, Why God Became Man, explains that to meet the demands of divine justice, Christ had to suffer in His mind and body the exact equivalent of the punishment due for all of humankind’s sins. The mystics embraced and expanded this satisfaction view of the atonement by emphasizing the exceeding sufferings Christ had to bear in order to meet the demands of a punitive God for humankind’s sins. This view has served as the wellspring of Christian art and devotion for centuries. It gave rise to that strand 128
of devotion that emphasizes imitation of Christ’s suffering as a way of salvation. It has inspired the late Renaissance painting of the Crucifixion with the contorted bleeding body of Christ, the meditations of mystics, and Bach’s glorious setting of “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded.” Gibson’s movie follows this old Catholic tradition that focuses on Christ’s brutal suffering to satisfy the demands of a punitive God for humankind’s sins. Scripture Focuses on Christ’s Death, not Suffering The writers of the Gospels chose to describe Jesus’ Passion differently from Gibson. They describe Jesus’ sufferings in the briefest terms, as if drawing about it a veil of modesty. What is important for them is not that Jesus suffered intensively for our sins, but that He died vicariously for our sins. According to the Gospels, Christ came, not to save us through the intensity of His sufferings, but “to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; Matt 20:28). Paul summarizes the Good News he had preached to the Corinthians in this way: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” (1 Cor 1:3; emphasis supplied). “He has reconciled us in his body of flesh by his death” (Col 1:22). By partaking of the sacred emblems of the bread and wine, believers “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). The emphasis of the apostolic proclamation is on Christ’s vicarious death, because He saved us through His sacrificial, substitutionary death, not through the intensity of His sufferings. We noted in Chapter one that a shift occurred in the thirteenth century from the proclamation of Christ’s death to the imitation of Christ’s sufferings. The outcome of this shift was the development of the unbiblical belief characterized by salvation 129
through sufferings. By imitating Christ’s sufferings in their own body, people were taught that they could share in Christ’s redemptive sufferings. A good example is Anne Emmerich, who courted suffering to atone for her sins and the sins of others. In the biographical introduction to The Dolorous Passion, we are told that “A great portion of her illnesses and sufferings came from taking upon herself the sufferings of others. Sometimes she asked for the illness of a person who did not bear it patiently, and relieved him of the whole or of a part of his sufferings, by taking them upon herself; sometimes, wishing to expiate a sin or put an end to some suffering, she gave herself up into the hands of God, and he, accepting her sacrifice, permitted her thus, in union with the merits of his passion, to expiate the sin by suffering some illness corresponding to it. She had consequently to bear, not only her own maladies, but those also of others—to suffer in expiation of the sins of her brethren, and of the faults and negligence of certain portions of the Christian community—and, finally, to endure many and various sufferings in satisfaction for the souls of purgatory. . . . For sufferings to be really meritorious we must patiently and gratefully accept unsuitable remedies and comforts, and all other additional trials.” The notion of expiating through sufferings one’s own sins as well as the sins of others is a fundamental Catholic belief which is nowhere to be found in Scripture. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that through suffering the believer experiences “union with the passion of Christ. By the grace of this sacrament [of anointing the sick] the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion. . . . Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a 130
new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus.” This Catholic belief in salvation through sufferings inspired countless devout Christians, like Anne Emmerich, to bear courageously their sickness and even self-inflicted wounds in order to atone for their sins and the sins of others. The lesson of history is clear. By shifting the focus from Christ’s sacrificial death to the intensity of His sufferings, the true meaning of the Cross was obscured, and a human system of salvation through personal sufferings has resulted. CONCLUSION We began this investigation of Gibson’s portrayal of The Passion of the Christ by noting his claims concerning the “accuracy” of the movie, namely, that it faithfully depicts the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ final hours. Being a movie—an expression of artistic creation—Gibson was not obliged to be faithful to the Gospels. He was free to use extra-biblical sources to portray Christ’s Passion according to his own Catholic traditions. However, if viewers are led to believe, on the basis of Gibson’s claims and with the endorsement of popular preachers, that The Passion is faithful to Scripture and history—a claim that we have found to be untrue—then it is imperative to help people understand what is biblical and what is unbiblical in the movie. This is the overall purpose of this chapter and of this book. We wish to provide the tools to help viewers understand the difference between the Passion according to Mel Gibson and the Passion according to the Gospels.
The basic outline of The Passion is true to the Gospels: the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, the examination by the High Priest, the trial before Pilate, the scourging, and the crucifixion. These aspects of the film are true to the Gospels and history. But, much of the film does not represent accurately either the Gospels or history. In crucial areas of the story, The Passion departs from the Gospels’ narratives. Moreover, several Catholic beliefs embedded in The Passion: the brutal sufferings of Jesus to satisfy the demands of a punitive God, the Catholic devotion to Christ’s physical sufferings, the Catholic view of the Mass as a reenactment of Christ’s suffering and death, the prominent role of Mary as a partner in Christ’s redemption, and the collective guilt of the Jews for Christ’s death. The last belief was repudiated by the Catholic Church at Vatican II, but is evident throughout the movie. Summing up, Gibson is a traditionalist Catholic who has produced a Catholic film with a Catholic message. The movie is offering an unprecedented evangelistic opportunity to the Catholic Church. The Catholic Passion Outreach rightly affirms: “The Passion of The Christ offers an unprecedented cultural opportunity for you to spread, strengthen, and share the Catholic faith with your family and friends. Unlike any other, this movie will inspire hearts and change minds.” The viewing public must be made aware that The Passion of the Christ tells the story of Jesus’ sufferings and death according to Catholic traditional beliefs. Numerous scenes, like the story of Veronica and the seven falls of Jesus on the way to Golgotha, derive from Catholic legends and superstitions. Most moviegoers do not generally make distinctions between biblical truths and unbiblical legends when viewing a film like The Passion, because they respond to the movie emotionally rather than rationally. 132
It is my hope that this study may help truth-seekers to recognize and appreciate the distinction between The Passion of Christ according to Mel Gibson and The Passion of Christ according to the Gospels.
THE CROSS OF CHRIST
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, has sparked fresh interest for the Cross of Christ. Since the release of the movie, thousands of articles and books on the meaning of Christ’s sufferings and death, have been published or posted on websites. Both professional Bible scholars and lay Bible students have been inspired by the movie to take a fresh look at the meaning of the Cross of Christ for twenty-first century Christians. Irrespective of how one may feels about the movie, Gibson must be credited for causing many people to reconsider the fundamental question: Why was it necessary for Christ to suffer and die for our salvation? This question is especially relevant today when the presence of sin and the need of a Savior are largely dismissed as outmoded concepts. No psychology text book ever mentions “sin” or “divine grace” as factors influencing human behavior. Our humanistic society has reached the point when social customs have displaced the law of God, social mores have replaced biblical morals, moral relativism has substituted biblical moral absolutes, and belief in human progress has taken the place of faith in divine redemption. Throughout its history the Christian church has taught that our fundamental human problem is sin and the Cross of Christ provides the only hope to solve the sin problem. Today, however, the concept of “sin” is regarded by many as an outmoded holdover from the days of simplistic religious beliefs. Sin implies some form of disobedience against an absolute moral law that governs the relationship between human beings and God. 134
But, many people today question the existence of such relationship. By accepting Darwinistic teachings regarding the accidental and materialistic human nature, many no longer see the need for believing in an absolute moral law that governs our relationship with God and fellow-beings. The problem with the materialistic evolutionary view of human nature, is that it has not succeeded in eliminating the awareness that there is something transcendent about our human nature, something that transcends our physical bodies. We recognize that there is within ourselves a moral nature that expresses itself through our conscience. We know when we say or do something which is wrong or when others do wrong things. Despite the contemporary dismissal of the reality of sin, guilt remains a constant reality in the human psyche. Psychologist Karl Menninger writes: “I believe there is a general sentiment that sin is still with us, by us, and in us—somewhere. We are made vaguely uneasy by this consciousness, this persistent sense of guilt, and we try to relieve it in various ways. We project the blame on others, we ascribe the responsibility to a group, we offer up scapegoat sacrifices, we perform or partake in dumb-show rituals of penitence and atonement. There is rarely a peccavi [a confession: I have sinned], but there is a feeling.”1 This is a phenomenon of our times. Many live under the burden of guilt, fully aware that they acted against the moral directives of their conscience, yet they dismiss the notion of sin and of the existence of a moral law that stands outside them and above them. They try all sorts of ways to rid themselves of guilt feelings, only to recognize that human remedies do not work. The reason we cannot clear our consciences of guilt feelings is because as Paul explains, the principles of God’s law are written in the human heart (Rom 2:15).
The message of the Scripture is that the solution to the human problem of guilt and sin is to be found not in human devices, but in God’s initiative to enter into human time and flesh to liberate us from the bondage of sin through the sacrificial death of His Son. The message of the Cross is that God has been willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of dying on the Cross in the Person of His Son to pay the penalty of our sins and restore our broken relationship. Objectives of this Chapter. This chapter investigates the reasons for Christ’s death, its achievements, and its benefits for our life today. Trying to understand these vital aspects of Christ’s death, is not easy. The reason is that the Bible does not give us a systematic explanation of the meaning of Christ’s death. Trying to piece together the scattered references to Christ’s death into one meaningful explanation, is like attempting to assemble a puzzle without the picture of the puzzle on the cover of the box. This chapter attempts to develop an accurate picture of the scope of Christ’s death by taking in consideration the relevant biblical references. For the sake of clarity this chapter is divided into the following three major parts: 1. The Centrality of the Cross 2. The Necessity of the Cross 3. The Achievements of the Cross THE CENTRALITY OF THE CROSS Religious and political movements usually have a visual symbol to represent their history or beliefs. Modern Judaism has adopted the so-called Star of David, that represent God covenant with David about the perpetual duration of his throne and the coming 136
of the Messiah out of his descendants. Islam is symbolized by a Crescent, which depicts a phase of the moon. It is a symbol of the expansion and sovereignty of the Moslem conquest. The Lotus Flower is associated with Buddhism. Sometimes Buddha is depicted as enthroned in a fully open lotus flower. Its wheel shape is supposed to represent the emergence of beauty and harmony out of muddy water and chaos. In 1917 the Soviet government adopted a crossed hammer and sickle to represent the union of factory and field workers. The Swastika was adopted early in the twentieth century by a German group as the symbol of the Aryan race. Hitler took it over and made it the symbol of Nazi racial bigotry.
The Cross is the Symbol of Christianity Christianity is no exception in having a visual symbol. The Cross in time became the universally emblem of the Christian belief in salvation through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. At first Christians avoided using the Cross as the visual symbol of their faith, though they boldly spoke about the Cross (1 Cor 1:23; Gal 6:14). Being the object of wild accusations and persecutions, the avoided associating their faith in Christ with the Cross, because it was the shameful symbol of execution of common criminals. Thus, on the walls and ceilings of the catacombs, the earliest Christians used such noncommittal paintings as the peacock (symbol of immortality), the dove (symbol of the Holy Spirit), a palm branch (symbol of victory), and especially the fish. Only Christians knew that the Greek word for fish, ichthus, was an acronym for Iesus Christos Theou Huios Soter, that is, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” During the second century Christians began painting such biblical themes as Noah’s ark, the Jonah cycle, the Good Shepherd, the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace, and the rising of Lazarus. All 137
of these pictures were intended to represents aspects of Christ’s redemptive mission. Eventually, Christians chose the Cross as the best pictorial symbol of their Christian faith in redemption through Christ’s sacrificial death. There were a wide range of emblems suitable to express the Christian faith. They could have chosen the manger as symbol of the incarnation, the empty tomb as symbol of the resurrection, the dove as symbol of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the throne as symbol of Christ’s sovereignty. Instead, they chose a simple Cross, because it effectively represented the core of the Christian belief in redemption through Christ’s sacrificial death. The crucifix with Christ’s contorted body attached to it, “does not appear to have been used before the sixth century.”2 The Christians’ choice of a Cross to represent their faith, is most surprising when we remember that the cross was the most cruel method of execution, reserved for slaves and foreigners, who had been convicted as murderers or insurrectionists. The crucifixion was so shameful that Romans citizens were exempted from it. The early enemies of Christianity capitalized on the shame of the crucifixion to ridicule the Christian claim that Christ saved mankind by dying on the Cross. A fitting example is a graffito from the second century, discovered on Palatine Hill in Rome. It is a crude caricature of Christ’s crucifixion. It depicts a man stretched on a cross with the head of a donkey. On the left stands another man with one arm raised in worship. Underneath are scribbled these uneven words: ALEXAMENOS CEBETE THEON—”Alexamenos worships God.” The accusation that Christians worshipped a donkey, reveals the Romans’ contempt for the Christian worship of a crucified Savior.
The fact that the Cross became the symbol of the Christian faith, in spite of its shame and ridicule, shows that the early Christian understood that the sacrificial death of Jesus on the Cross, was the foundation and core of their faith. They were not prepared to exchange it for something less offensive. They firmly clung to it, because it was the symbol of their loyalty to their Savior and acceptance of His sacrificial death for their redemption. Christ’s Death is the Central Theme of the Scripture Christ’s death is the central theme of the Scripture. Walking on the way to Emmaus with two of His disciples on the evening of His Resurrection, Jesus gave them what must have been one of the most exciting Bible study of all time. “Beginning with Moses and the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:26). Jesus explained to them how the prophets wrote about His death, without knowing who He was and when He would come. The whole sacrificial system of the Old Testament was a symbolic portrayal of the sacrificial death of Jesus for mankind’s sins. Similarly, the Passover lamb sacrificed by each believing Jewish family, celebrated not only the deliverance from the Egyptian bondage, but also the future Messianic redemption from the bondage of sin. As Paul puts it: “Christ, our paschal lamb has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7). Christ was the fulfillment of the promise of redemption typified by the Passover lamb and the sacrificial animals offered at the Temple on behalf of penitent sinners. John the Baptist understood the Messianic typology of the sacrificial system. When he saw Jesus coming toward him at the Jordan river, John the Baptist said: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29).
Those who in faith offered animal sacrifices in the Old Testament looked forward to the coming of the Messiah who would redeem them with His own blood. In the same way, we today look back by faith to Christ’s sacrificial death. The blood of animal sacrifices did not save, but faith in what the shed blood symbolized did. In the same way we are saved, not through the bread and wine, the symbols of Christ’s broken body and shed blood, but through the sacrificial death of Jesus represented by these symbols. Christ’s Perception of His Mission Already at the age of 12 when Jesus was left behind at the Temple by mistake, He appears to be conscious of His mission. He told His anxious parents: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). By speaking of God as “my Father,” and by expressing His inner compulsion to occupy Himself with His Father’s affairs, Jesus revealed to be conscious of His mission at an early age. His Father had sent Him into the world for a special purpose. At His baptism and temptation, Jesus revealed His commitment to fulfill His mission, rather than the Devil’s plan. He was prepared to go the way of suffering and death, rather than the way of comfort and acclamation. Later in His ministry three times Christ attempted to explain to His disciples the so-called “Messianic secret” regarding His death. The first time is when Jesus and His disciples were travelling through the villages of Caesarea Philippi. On the way Jesus “. . . began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, an be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly” (Mark 8:31-32). Jesus revealed gradually to His disciples His sacrificial death, because the Jews expected the Messiah to be a revolutionary 140
political leader. The second unambiguous reference to His death occurred when Jesus was passing secretly through Galilee. He said to the Twelve: “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31). The disciples did not understand what Jesus meant and “they were greatly distressed” (Matt 17:22). Probably this was the time when Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). He was determined to fulfill His mission. Christ made the third and most explicit prediction of His death on the way to Jerusalem with His disciples. “And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘Behold, we are going to go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise” (Mark 10:32-34; cf. Matt 20:17). Luke adds that “everything that is written of the Son of man by the prophets will be accomplished” (Luke 18:31-34). The most impressive aspect of these three predictions is Christ’s determination to fulfill His mission. He must suffer, be rejected, and die, so that everything written in the Scripture must be fulfilled. It is evident that Christ understood that the purpose of His coming in this world was to accomplish the redemption of mankind through His death, as predicted by the prophets. John omits the three precise predictions about Christ’s death, yet he bears witness to the same event, by his seven references to Jesus’ “hour” (John 2:4; 7:8; 7:25; 8:12; 12:20-28; 13:1; 17:1). He says that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father” (John 13:1), and lifting up His eyes to heaven, Jesus said: “Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee” (John 17:1). In these statements Christ speaks of His death as the moment of His glorification by 141
His Father. This vision of the Cross differs radically from Gibson’s movie where Christ’s brutal suffering and death serves to meet the demands of a punitive God. In the Bible, as we shall see, God is not a spectator, but a participant in the death and glorification of His Son. The evidence supplied by the Gospel writers indicate that Jesus knew that He would die a violent but purposeful death. He knew that he would die because of what the prophets had predicted about His death and resurrection. There was no fatalism or a martyr complex in Jesus’ mind. He was determined to fulfill the revealed purpose of His coming, however painful that may be. He had come “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) and “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:44). He set His face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem, not allowing anything to deter him. He freely embraced the eternal purpose of His Father for the salvation of sinners through His own sacrificial death. Despite the great important of Christ teaching, miracles, and perfect life, none of these were the fundamental reason for His coming into this world. As John Stott put is, “What dominated his mind was not the living but the giving of his life. This final selfsacrifice was the ‘hour,’ for which he had come into this world. And the four evangelists, who bear witness to him in the Gospels, show that they understand this by the disproportionate amount of space they give to the story of the last few days on earth, his death and resurrection. It occupies between a third and a quarter of the three Synoptic Gospels, while John’s Gospel has justly been described as having two parts, ‘the Book of the Signs’ and ‘the Book of the Passion,’ since John spends an almost equal amount of time on each.”3 The Apostles’ Understanding of the Cross The centrality of the Cross is evident in the preaching and writing of the Apostles. They frequently emphasize that Christ died and resurrected 142
according to the Scripture. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul summarizes the Gospel, saying: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3). Paul defines his Gospel as “the message of the Cross” (1 Cor 1:18), his ministry as “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:22), baptism as initiation “into his death” (Rom 6:3), and the Lord’s Supper as a proclamation of “the Lord’s death till he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). So convinced was Paul of the centrality of the Cross, that he decided “to know nothing . . . except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). The testimony of Peter is equally clear. He introduces his first letter by reminding the readers that they have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood (1 Pet 1:2). Few verses later he tells his readers: “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such a silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Jesus, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet 1:18-19). Later in his epistle Peter explains how Christ’s suffering and death enable believers to die to sin and live righteously. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet 2:24). Hebrews explains to Jewish Christians tempted to relapse into Judaism, that there is no need to offer the same sacrifices continuously, because Christ “has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb 9:26). Like Peter, Hebrews mentions the sanctifying power of Christ’s sacrificial death: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all times those who are sanctified” (Heb 10:14). In the Book of Revelation 28 times Jesus is referred to as “the Lamb,” not so much because of the meekness of His character, 143
but rather because He was slained as a sacrificial victim and by His blood he has set His people free. In chapter 5, one heavenly choir after another praise the Lamb. The four living creatures and the twenty four elders, who most likely represent the whole church of both the Old and New Testaments, sang a new song, saying: “Worthy are thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation . . .”(Rev 5:9). In Revelation, Christ as the Lamb, occupies center stage, not only in worship but also in salvation history. At the end the unbelievers will try to escape from the wrath of the Lamb while the redeemed are invited to celebrate the marriage of the Lamb. The lost will call upon the mountains and rocks, saying: “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev 6:16). By contrast, the great multitude of the redeemed, will shout for joy, saying: “Let us rejoice and exult and give him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come” (Rev 19:7). Christ as the Lamb is presented at the side of God, mediating God’s salvation. He is worthy to serve as our mediator, because he was slain and by His sacrificial death, He secured our salvation. By presenting Christ as “the Lamb that was slain” since the foundation of the world, John is telling us that from eternity past to eternity future, the center stage belongs to the Lamb of God who was slained for our salvation. Conclusion The centrality of Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross, is the foundation and center of the Christian faith. We have found that Christ understood His saving mission, not in terms of living to teach moral principles, but in terms of dying to save people from their sins. The apostles clearly understood the centrality of the 144
Cross. In their preaching and teaching they proclaimed the message of the Cross, that is, salvation, not through human devising, but through “the precious blood of Jesus, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet 1:18-19). The recognition of the centrality of the Cross, led Christians to adopt the emblem of the Cross as the symbol of their faith, because it effectively represented their belief in salvation through the sacrificial death of Jesus on the Cross. Note, however, that the early Christians adopted a plain cross, not a crucifix with the bleeding and contorted body of Jesus attached to it. Why? Simply because they believed that Christ saved us, not through the intensity of His suffering, as portrayed in Gibson’s movie, but through His voluntary sacrificial death. In his book The Cruciality of the Cross, P.T. Forsyth, aptly observes: “Christ is to us just what the Cross is. All that Christ was in heaven or on earth, was put on what he did there on the Cross. . . . Christ, I repeat, is to us just what the Cross is. You do not understand Christ till you understand His Cross”4 The Cross is the prism through which we understand Christ, because it reveals the ultimate purpose of Jesus’ incarnation, perfect life, and atoning death. THE NECESSITY OF THE CROSS The biblical emphasis on the centrality of the Cross as the only ground on which God forgives sinners, bewilders many people. Some argue that if God does not pardon sin without requiring the death of Christ, He must not be an all-powerful God or else He must be a punitive God, concerned more about enforcing His law than expressing His love. The latter is the picture of God portrayed in Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, where Christ is brutalized beyond recognition to meet the demands of justice of a punitive God.
Does God need to submit His Son to brutal torture to meet the demands of His justice? Is redemption in the Bible achieved by the intensity of Christ’s suffering, as portrayed in Gibson’s movie, or by the sacrificial death of Jesus on the Cross? Can God forgive sin out of His pure mercy without the necessity of the Cross? Since God expects us to forgive those who sin against us, why doesn’t He practice what He preaches? God Deals with Sin in Accordance to His Holiness and Justice These are legitimate questions that need to be addressed. We shall attempt to answer them in the light of God’s holiness and the gravity of sin. The analogy between our forgiveness and God’s forgiveness, ignores the fact that God is not a private, sinful being. It is true that Christ taught us to pray: “forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” But the point of Christ’s teaching is that we cannot expect to be forgiven by God if we are unforgiving toward fellow beings. To argue that God should forgive us unconditionally, as we are expected to forgive wrongdoers, means to ignore the elementary fact that we are not God. John Stott rightly explains: “We are private individuals, and other people’s misdemeanors are personal injuries. God is not a private individual, however, nor is sin just a personal injury. On the contrary, God is himself the maker of the laws we break, and sin is a rebellion against him.”5 To appreciate the problem of God’s forgiveness, we need to keep in mind the contrast between God’s perfection and our human rebellion. The problem God faces in forgiving sin, is reconciling His loving mercy with His perfect justice. For, although “God is love,” we need to remember that His love is “holy” and “just;” it is a love that yearns to forgive sinners, without compromising His justice and holiness.
At the Cross, God’s mercy and justice are equally revealed and reconciled. His mercy is revealed in offering His Son to pay the full penalty of our transgressions, and His justice is manifested in taking upon Himself the punishment that we deserve, in order to offer us the forgiveness that we do not deserve. In the Cross of Christ “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Ps 85:10). At the Cross, as A. H. Strong puts it, “Mercy is shown not by trampling upon the claims of justice, but by vicariously satisfying them.”6 It is important to realize that God exercises all His attributes in harmony with each other. In His holiness God demands atonement for sin, while in His mercy He provides it. God’s attributes are not antagonistic to each other, but work together in full and complete harmony. Those who object to the necessity of Christ’s death on the Cross to atone for our sins, fail to understand that God is merciful and just at the same time. This is the problem with those who say: “Why doesn’t God forgive and forget? Shouldn’t God forgive people who are sorry for their wrong doings and endeavor to become better persons? Isn’t unreasonable to claim that only the sacrificial death of Jesus on the Cross can remove sin?” God’s Holiness Requires the Punishment of Sin These questions ignore that God cannot overlook sin, pretending that it does not exists, because He is righteous and just. “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of thy throne” (Ps 89:14). “His work is perfect; for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is he” (Deut 32:4). God’s ethical absolutes are not philosophical abstractions existing in ideal realms. They are rooted in God’s very being and thus they are immutable as God Himself. ”God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). God can only do what is right because His nature is altogether just. The reason human beings 147
have a sense of right and wrong, is because they have been created in God’s image (Gen 1:26) and, thus, have the principles of God’s law written in their hearts (Rom 2:15). The just, holy, and righteous nature of God is incompatible with sin. God’s “eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong” (Hab 1:13; NIV). Consequently our sins effectively separate us from God. “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you so that he does not hear’ (Is 59:2). The Meaning of God’s Wrath. The reaction of God’s holiness to sin, is frequently described as the “wrath of God.” “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18; cf. John 3:36; Eph 5:6; Col 3:6; Rev 14:10). The wrath of God in the Bible is not an irrational, capricious, emotional outburst of anger, an outburst of “seeing red.” Rather, it is His consistent and necessary reaction to the objective reality of moral evil. In the words of Leon Morris, God’s wrath is His “personal divine revulsion to evil,” and “his personal vigorous opposition to it.”7 Contrary to human wrath, which is usually arbitrary and uninhibited, divine wrath is principled and controlled. It is free from personal animosity or vindictiveness. It is always accompanied by undiminished love for the sinner. God’s wrath in the Bible is always judicial in the sense that it is the wrath of the judge who administers justice (Eph 5:6). It is His intense displeasure and condemnation of sin. It issues not from passion, but from God’s holiness and righteousness which is the basis of the administration of the universe. John Stott rightly observes that “What is common to the biblical concepts of the holiness and the wrath of God, is the truth that 148
they cannot coexist with sin. God’s holiness exposes sin; his wrath opposes it. So sin cannot approach God and God cannot tolerate sin.”8 This Biblical understanding of God’s nature is unpopular today. Most people prefer an easygoing God, tolerant of their offenses. They want God to be gentle, accommodating, without any violent reaction. They want to bring God down to their level and raise themselves up to His, so that ultimately there is no need for the sacrificial death of Jesus on the Cross on their behalf. To counteract this misconception of God, it is imperative to recover the Biblical revelation of God who hates evil, is angered by it, and refuses to compromise with it. It is essential to understand that God’s holiness requires that sin be punished. If God failed to punish sin, then He could not claim to be perfectly just. His infinite justice demands the punishment of the sinner or of an appropriate substitute. Frequently the Bible reminds us that God cannot excuse or overlook sin. “I will not acquit the wicked” (Ex 23:7). “I will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex 34:7; cf. Num 14:18). The Gravity of Sin. To appreciate the necessity of the Cross, it is essential to understand not only God’s holiness, but also the gravity of sin. The biblical notion of sin has been largely rejected by our secularized society. Wrongdoers are no longer called “sinners,” but persons with behavioral disorders to be treated as sickness rather than sin. In the Bible, however, sin is not a regrettable lapse from accepted social standards, but an active rebellion against God. The New Testament uses five Greek words for sin, which help us to understand its various aspects. The most common is hamartia, which signifies “missing the mark.” Adikia signifies “unrighteousness” or “iniquity.” Poneria means a vicious or 149
degenerate kind of evil. Parabasis means “transgression,” the stepping over a boundary. Anomia is “lawlessness,” “the violation of a known law.” Each of these terms imply the violation of an objective standard of conduct. In the Scripture the objective standard of conduct is God’s law which expresses His own righteous character. It is the law of God’s own being, as well as the law that He has implanted in the human heart (Rom 2:15). Thus, there is a vital correspondence between the moral principles of God’s character and the moral principles that should govern our relationship with God and fellow beings. The emphasis of Scripture is on the godless self-centeredness of sin which results in active violation of God’s law. “Every one who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness: sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). Every sin that we commit reflects a spirit of rebellion against God. David acknowledges this fact in his confession: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight, so that thou art justified in thy sentence and blameless in thy judgment” (Ps 51:4). Emil Brunner sums it up well, saying: “Sin is defiance, arrogance, the desire to be equal with God, . . . the assertion of human independence over against God, . . . the constitution of the autonomous reason, morality, and culture.”9 Forgiveness through Christ’s Sacrifice The fact that sin is an act of defiance against God, poses a question: “Could sinners be forgiven by others means than Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross?” In theory, God could have saved mankind by other means than the Cross. But, in practice any other method would not have been consonant with the exigencies arising from the perfections of His character which are reflected in His law.
God’s law necessitated the sacrificial death of Christ, because law carries with it the penal sanction of death for the transgressors. These sanctions are immutable and eternal because they reflect God’s nature and character. God’s holiness causes Him to condemn sin and His justice requires Him punish sin. And the penalty for sin prescribed by God’s law is death.” In the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen 2:17). “The soul that sins shall die” (Ez 18:20). “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). “Sin when is full-grown brings forth death” (James 1:12). “Since God is true and cannot lie, these threatening must necessarily be executed either upon the sinner himself or upon a surety.”10 The Good News is that God in His mercy has offered His own Son as the “surety” for our salvation. The New Testament explains the necessity of Christ’s death in terms of the sacrificial shedding of blood for the remission of sin. For example, Hebrews affirms: “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin” (Heb 9:22). If the method of salvation depended solely upon God’s arbitrary decision, then He could have devised a bloodless redemptive plan. But, God’s decisions are not arbitrary. They are consonant to His inner Being. Hebrews explains that not only is the shedding of blood necessary for the remission of sin, but also that only the blood of Jesus can accomplish this purpose. “For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (Heb 10:4). “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God . . . For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb 10:11-12, 14). Only Christ’s Death Meets the Demands of Divine Justice If God could have forgiven sin by a mere act of volition, without 151
first demanding the satisfaction of the penalty of sin, then the whole biblical teaching of remission of sin through Christ’s sacrificial death, would be totally untrue. Furthermore, the Cross of Christ would hardly be the supreme demonstration of God’s love (Rom 5:8; 1 John 4:9,10), if the redemption secured by it, could have been achieved without it. If it had been possible for the cup of Christ’s suffering and death to pass from Him, then surely the Father would have answered His Son prayer in Gethsemane. The fact that it was not possible, shows that only the sacrificial death of Jesus could fulfill the exigencies of divine justice. The ordeal of Calvary reveals the depth of God’s love for lost sinners. When the Cross is viewed in this light, then the love of God manifested at Calvary, takes on new meaning, and fills us with adoring amazement. Although God is almighty and omniscient, there are certain things that He cannot do. For example, God cannot lie (Tit 1:2; Heb 6:8); He cannot deny Himself (2 Tim 2:13); He cannot tempt people to sin (Jam 1:13). He cannot violate the moral principles that govern His own nature. This means that when God determined to save human beings from the consequences of sin, He could only design a plan consistent with His moral law that envisions death as the punishment for sin. God’s plan for the salvation of lost sinners, could only be carried out through the incarnation and sacrificial death of His Son. This is indicated by the fact that Christ is presented as “The Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev 13:8). Through this plan of salvation, as Paul puts it, God is able to demonstrate that “ He himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). God is Just in Justifying Penitent Sinners In Romans 3:21-26 Paul explains that by offering His Son as an expiation for our sins, 152
God was able “to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous” in justifying those “who have faith in Jesus.” The reason is that God acts in harmony with His whole character. On the one hand He shows His complete abhorrence of sin by punishing it, while on the other hand He reveals His mercy by offering to pay its penalty. The notion of God offering His Son to die for our sins, as an innocent victim for guilty sinners, is regarded by some as immoral and unjust. In a human court an innocent person cannot assume the guilt and punishment of a wrongdoer. This reasoning, however, ignores two important considerations. First, Christ was not an unwilling victim. The glory of the Cross is to be seen in the voluntary nature of Christ’s incarnation, life of suffering, and sacrificial death. “Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but . . . humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the Cross” (Phil 2:7-8). Christ’s sacrifice was voluntary act, not an imposition. Second, God is just in justifying penitent sinners (Rom 3:26, because through Christ’s atoning death, He not only acquits sinners, but He also empowers them to become righteous. “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19; emphasis supplied). This is something a human judge cannot do. A judge’s declaration of guilt or innocence does not change the behavior of the dependent. But the Good News of the Gospel is that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We could say that from a biblical perspectives, justification through Christ’s death, entails not only a declaration of acquittal, but also a transformation into newness of life. “We were buried 153
therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). The new life in Christ, made possible by accepting His atoning death, prove that God’s plan of salvation is both just and effective. It accomplishes both the reconciliation and the transformation of the penitent sinner, or to use more technical words, the justification and sanctification of believers. Conclusion The necessity of the Cross stems from the holiness of God and the gravity of sin. God’s holiness requires the punishment of the sinner or of an appropriate substitute. Christ’s sinless life and sacrificial death were the only way for sinners to be saved. Jesus said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:7). The Cross serves as a constant reminder that “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF THE CROSS The heart of the Cross is God in Christ substituting Himself for the salvation of sinners. We noted that the necessity of the Cross stems from the holiness of God and the gravity of sin. We need now to move from the necessity of the Cross to the achievements of the Cross. Why did God take our place and bear our sins? The New Testament offers two major answers to this question, which may be summed up as revelation and salvation. Revelation is the subjective aspect of Christ’s death, namely, how Christ’s atoning death reveals God’s love in a way that it can rekindle a loving response in the heart of sinners. Salvation is the objective aspect of Christ’s death, namely, how Christ’s atoning death satisfied 154
divine justice by dealing with the objective reality of sin. For the sake of clarity we examine the achievements of the Cross under these two main categories: 1. The Revelation of God 2. The Salvation of Sinners
1. THE REVELATION OF GOD God has revealed Himself in various ways, but as Hebrews 1:1-3 points out, through His own Son He has spoken to us in a special way. This means that Christ’s life, suffering and death offer to us a unique revelation of God’s love, character, and nature. Being the culmination of Christ’s life, the Cross is also the supreme revelation of God’s love. This truth is emphatically stated in the New Testament. The Cross is a Supreme Revelation of God’s Love Twice John affirms that Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross is the supreme manifestation of true love. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). For John the true definition of love is to be found at Calvary, not in a dictionary. John’s second verse is still more precise. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). God’s love is true love because it was manifested in sending His only Son to die the death that we deserve “so that we might live through him.” Paul also writes about the love of God twice in the first part of Romans 5. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). “God 155
shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). These two texts point to the subjective and objective aspects of God’s love. Paul says that we know God’s love objectively because He has proven His love through the death of His Son, and subjectively because He continuously pours His love into our hearts through the indwelling of His Spirit. The Cross is a supreme revelation of God’s love, first because it tells us that He sent His own Son, not a third party. Second, because God sent His Son, not merely to teach us or to serve us, but to die for us—for undeserving sinners like us. The value of a love-gift is determined by what it costs to the giver and how deserving is the recipient. In the gift of His Son God gave everything for those who deserved nothing from Him. Calvary must be seen as a revelation of the love of both the Father and the Son, because God initiated and participate in the selfgiving of His Son. As Paul puts it: “All is from God who through Christ reconciles us to Himself . . . God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:18-19). At Golgotha, the Father was not a spectator, but a participant in the anguish and suffering of His Son. Consequently, Christ’s experience of the limitations, sufferings, agony, and death of human flesh is a supreme revelation of both the Son and the Father’s love. The Cross Kindles a Loving Response. The revelation of divine love through the life, suffering, and death of Christ, is designed to kindle a loving response in the heart of sinners. The human heart responds to a genuine manifestation of sacrificial love. Jesus said: “Greater love has no man than this, that a many lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The sinner who hears the Good News of the Savior who died to rescue him from the penalty and power of sin, is moved to respond by repenting of his sin and accepting divine forgiveness and salvation.
Paul emphasizes the compelling power of Christ’s love revealed at the Cross, saying: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all” (2 Cor 2:14). Similarly John writes: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16). Passages such as these clearly emphasize the moral influence exercised on the human heart by God’s love exhibited at the Cross. The “Moral Influence” Theory The unique demonstration of God’s love at the Cross, has led several theologians during the history of the Christian church, to find atoning value in the moral influence of the Cross. To them the efficacy of the Cross lies not in any objective satisfaction of divine justice through Christ’s death, but in its subjective inspiration of the Cross to respond to God’s love by changing our attitudes and actions. The most famous promoter of the “moral influence” view of the Cross, was the French theologian Peter Abelard (1079-1142). He was a popular lecturer who attracted large audiences at Notre Dame, Paris. He strongly disagreed with his contemporary, Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109), on the reason for Christ’s death. In his epoch-making book Cur Deus Homo?, that is, Why God Became Man, Anselm explains that Christ had to suffer in His mind and body the exact equivalent of the punishment due for all of mankind’s sins, in order to satisfy the demands of divine justice. Abelard rejected Anselm’s satisfaction view of Christ’s death, proposing instead what is known as “the moral influence” view of the atonement. He wrote: “How cruel and wicked it seems, that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any way please him that an innocent man should be slain—still less that God should consider 157
the death of His Son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world.”11 Instead, Abelard explained the function of Christ’s death in exclusively subjective terms, namely, as a revelation of divine love designed to move human hearts to repent and turn to God. He wrote: “Redemption is the greatest love kindled in us by Christ’s passion, a love which not only delivers us from the bondage of sin, but also acquires for us the true freedom of children, where love instead of fear becomes the ruling affection.”12 A favorite text that Abelard quoted to support his view, is Luke 7:47, where Jesus, referring to the adulterous woman who anointed His feet, says: “I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Abelard misunderstood this text. He made love the ground of forgiveness, rather than its result. For him Christ’s death offers forgiveness by evoking a loving response. When we love Christ we are forgiven. As Robert Franks put it, “Abelard reduced the whole process of redemption to one single clear principle, namely, the manifestation of God’s love to us in Christ, which awakens an answering love in us.”13 Supporters of the Moral Influence Theory. The moral influence view of Christ’s death has enjoyed considerable support throughout the centuries. Peter Lombard, who became Bishop of Paris in 1159, defended the view in his famous Book of Sentences. Other proponents of this view were Socinus, a sixteenth century theologian who also denied the Trinity, and Friedrich Schleiermacher, regarded as the father of nineteenth century liberal theology. At present, the moral influence view has been reproposed by evangelical theologians who find the substitutionary view of Christ’s death no longer acceptable today. 158
In their view the notion of substitution reflects the ancient Roman court setting, rather than that of a family love relationships. The new model that is being promoted is that of a family relationship, where God deals with sinners like parents deal with disobedient children. In an article in Christianity Today, entitled “Evangelical Megashift: Why You May not Have Heard About Wrath, Sin, and Hell Recently,” Robert Brow, a prominent Canadian theologian, explains that “One of the most obvious features of new-model evangelicalism is an emphasis on recalling the warmth of a family relationship when thinking about God. It prefers to picture God as three persons held together in a relationship of love. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, it argues, made humans in their image with a view to bringing many children to glory. So instead of being dragged trembling into a law court, we are to breathe in the atmosphere of a loving family.”14 According to this new model, as Robert Brow explains, the Cross is no longer God satisfying the demands of His justice by being willing to bear through His Son the punishment of our sins, but “the inevitable cost of loving. God is love, and love always gets hurt. We can hold back from getting hurt, or we can go through Gethsemane to accept the sacrifice that is involved in loving.”15 Allegedly sins are forgiven out of the bounty of God’s loving tolerance, which elicits a loving response from the sinners’ heart. No substitutionary sacrifice for sinners is necessary. The Limitations of the “Moral Influence” View of the Cross. The moral influence theory is correct in affirming that the love of Christ shines through the Cross and elicits our loving response. But it is faulty in denying the substitutionary function of Christ’s death. We know that Christ gave Himself for us, because he loved us. His love awakens ours. In John’s words, “We love because he 159
first loved us” (1 John 4:19). But the question is: How does the Cross demonstrate Christ’s Love? Did Christ suffer and die merely to show His love toward us? If that were true, it is hard to understand why would Christ choose to show love in such a cruel way. If a person dashes into a burning building to rescue someone, that rescue is seen as a demonstration of love, because it was designed to save a life. But if a person jumps into the burning building because he wants to be burned to death, that would be a demonstration of folly, not of love. In the same way Christ’s death on the Cross can be a demonstration of love, only if he gave His life in order to rescue us. The Cross can be seen as a proof of God’s love only when it is a proof of His justice. Christ death on the Cross must have an objective purpose before it can have a subjective response. Paul makes this point when he says: “Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Cor 5:14; NIV). The compelling manifestation of Christ’s love rests on the costliness of the Cross. When we recognize that He died that we might live, then His love grips our hearts, compelling us to live for Him. The drawing power and moral influence of the Cross, is one important function of Christ’s death, which is only valid and valuable if it is understood as the effect rather than the primary cause of Christ’s death. The Scripture emphatically states that the purpose of Christ’s death was to deal directly with the objectively reality of sin: “He died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3). “His blood cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Summing up, the divine revelation of love at the Cross and our human response to such a revelation is determined by the recognition that Christ died not merely to show love, but to pay the penalty of our disobedience. If Christ had sacrificed His life merely to demonstrate His love toward us, it is hard to understand why such cruel demonstration was necessary. Love is best 160
demonstrated, not by dying for someone, but rather by living for and serving that person. The Cross must be seen as a revelation of both divine love and divine justice. To limit the value and the function of Christ’s death to its moral influence upon the human heart, is to attribute to the natural person the capacity to save oneself merely by responding to God’s love. Such a view ignores both the depravity of human nature (Rom 3:23) and the need of salvation from sin (Rom 6:23). Salvation is through divine expiation of human sin and not merely through a divine revelation of love.
2. THE SALVATION OF SINNERS Scripture teaches that the sufferings and death of Jesus were not merely the revelation of His sacrificial love to elicit our loving response, but also the salvation of sinners through Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice. When we examine how Christ accomplished the salvation of sinful people, we find that the Scripture presents multifaceted images, each designed to help us understand an important aspect of Christ’s redemptive accomplishments. No single image could exhaust the many aspects of the Cross. For the sake of clarity we will consider five major word-pictures of salvation which are used in Scripture to illustrate the achievements of the Cross. The first is propitiation which derives from the sacrifices offered in the Temple court. The second is redemption which is taken from the market place. The third is justification which comes the lawcourt. The fourth is reconciliation which is inspired by family relationships. The fifth is intercession which comes from Christ’s heavenly ministry.
The foundation of all these word-pictures is the substitutionary nature of Christ’s sacrifice. As John Stott rightly points out: “If God in Christ did not die in our place, there could be neither propitiation, not redemption, not justification, nor reconciliation. In addition, all the images begin their life in the Old Testament, but are elaborated and enriched in the New, particularly by being directly related to Christ and His Cross.”16 Christ’s Death as Propitiation The central part of Christ’s sacrificial death is removal of the guilt of our sins, known as expiation or propitiation. Paul affirms that the central purpose of Christ’s shedding of blood is to make “expiation” for our sins: “Whom God put forward as an expiation [propitiation–KJV] by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom 3:25). Similarly, John declares that Christ is “the expiation [propitiation–KJV] for our sins” (1 John 2:2). The English term “expiation” used in the RSV or “propitiation” used in the KJV, are a translation of the Greek verb hilaskomai (Heb 2:17), the noun hilasmos (1 John 2:2; 4:10), and the adjective hilasterion (Rom 3:25; Heb 9:5). The meaning of these word-pictures derives from the lid of the ark which is called haphar in Hebrew (Lev 16:20) and hilasterion in Greek (Heb 9:5). The sin was “covered,” that is, was expiated in the Old Testament through the sprinkling of the blood upon the mercy seat, which symbolized forgiveness, atonement, through the satisfaction of divine justice. In the New Testament antitype, sin is covered through the sacrifice of Christ who satisfies divine justice. Perhaps the most important text in this regard is Romans 3:25 (KJV), where Paul says that God has set forth Christ as the “hilasterion—mercy seat” for sinners, designed to propitiate the divine (wrath) displeasure against sin. By means of Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice the guilty 162
person is covered in the eyes of God and the guilt is removed. The sin is dealt so effectively that it is no longer the object of God’s condemnation. The RSV translates the hilasterion word-group as “expiation,” because the translator were uncomfortable with the notion that Christ’s death “propitiated,” that is, appeased or pacified God’s wrath. But the New Testament use of hilasterion has nothing to do with the pagan notion of “placating an angry God” or “appeasing a vindictive, arbitrary, and capricious God.”17 The text of Romans 3:25 tells us that “God in His merciful will presented Christ as the propitiation to His holy wrath on human guilt because He accepted Christ as man’s representative and divine Substitute to receive His judgment on sin.”18 God’s wrath, as noted earlier, is not an irrational, capricious, emotional outburst of anger, an outburst of “seeing red.” Rather, it is His consistent and uncompromising reaction to the objective reality of moral evil. God’s antagonism against sin is satisfied by Christ’s “propitiatory sacrifice,” which reconciles to God those who accept by faith His sacrifice. Expiation and propitiation are linked together, because expiation deals with sin by clearing the guilt in such a way that propitiation is effected toward God and the forgiven sinner is restored to fellowship with God. Sacrificial Offerings. To understand the propitiatory function of Christ’s sacrifice, we need to consider the Old Testament sacrificial system, which typified the redemptive work of Christ (Col 2:17; Heb 9:23-24; 10:1). The animal sin-offerings were designed to teach the need of vicarious atonement to expiate sin. The sin of the penitent Israelite by means of confession (Lev 1:4) was transferred to a sacrificial animal that died in the place of the sinner. Through this process the sin was expiated as punishment
was met and God was propitiated as His displeasure was terminated. The vicarious meaning of the animal-sacrifice was highlighted especially through the ritual of the blood which symbolized the atonement through a substitutionary life: “The life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement by reason of the life” (Lev 17:11). This text makes three important affirmation about blood. First, blood is the symbol of life. For this reason God forbade to eat meat which had its “lifeblood” still in it (Gen 9:4; Deut 12:23). The emphasis is not on the bloody torture of the sacrificial victim, like in Gibson’s movie where the bloody body of Christ is reduced into a pulp. Instead, the focus is on the blood shed by the sacrificial victim for the penitent sinner. Simply stated, in Scripture blood stands for salvation through sacrificial death, not through the intensity of suffering, like in The Passion. The animal-offering was not tortured before being sacrificed, because atonement for sin was accomplished by the sacrifice of the innocent victim. Second, blood makes atonement because the life represented by the blood is sacrificed in the place of sinner. Thomas Crawford expresses this truth well: “The text, then, according to its plain and obvious import, teaches the vicarious nature of the rite of sacrifice. Life was given for life, the life of the victim for the life of the offerer, indeed, the life of the innocent victim for the life of the sinful offerer.”19 Third, blood was provided by God to make atonement. God says: “I have given it to you.” This means that the sacrificial system was God-given, not man-made. It was not a human device to 164
placate God, but a divine provision to save penitent sinners. The sacrifices were recognized as divine provisions, not human meritorious works. They were not intended to make God gracious, because God Himself provided them in order to be merciful toward His sinful people, while at the same time meeting the demands of His justice. Salvation has always been a divine gift of grace, not a human achievement. Atonement Through Christ’s Blood. The meaning and function of blood in the sacrificial system, helps us to understand two crucial text in Hebrews. The first says: “Under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22). The second text says: “For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (Heb 10:4). These two texts highlight two important truths. The first text tells us that there is no forgiveness without blood, because the penalty of sin has to be met by a substitutionary sacrifice. There had to be life for life. The second text explains that the blood of animal sacrifices could not atone for human beings, because, as Jesus Himself said, a human being has “much more value . . . than a sheep” (Matt 12:12). Only the “precious blood of Christ” was valuable enough to atone for the sins of mankind. Old Testament believers were taught through the shed blood of animal sacrifices to look forward in faith to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). Peter reminds believers that they “were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from the fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Jesus, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet 1:18-19). Hebrews explains more explicitly than any other New Testament book, that Christ’s perfect sacrifice for sin on the Cross, represents the fulfillment of 165
the Old Testament substitutionary sacrifices. Christ “has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb 9:26; cf. 10:12, 14). The Bearing of Our Sins. The substitutionary nature of Christ’s sacrifice is also taught by those Scriptural passages which speak of our sins being “laid upon” Christ (Is 53:6; cf. 2 Cor 5:21) and of His “bearing” our sins (Is 53:12; Heb 9:28; 1 Pet. 2:24). According to Scripture, our sins were imputed to Christ. This does not mean that Christ bore our sins by becoming morally guilty, affected by sin. He “knew no sin” (2 Cor 2:21). Christ bore our sins by assuming the legal obligation of our punishment. What can be transferred is not subjective moral sinfulnessguiltiness, but the objective punishment of sin. It is the latter that was imputed to Christ. To appreciate this point it is important to recognize that sin may be considered in terms of its nature, which is transgression (culpa–guilt) of the law (1 John 3:4), and in terms of its legal consequences (poena–punishment), which is punishment (Rom 6:23). It is only in the latter sense that Christ bore our sins vicariously by assuming our liability to punishment. This can be transferred because punishment is an objective reality which is not inherent in the person of the sinner. Christ then bore our sin by accepting their condemnation which is death (Rom 6:23); by being willing to die “the righteous for the unrighteous that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18). The Prepositions Huper and Anti. The substitutionary meaning of Christ’s sacrifice is also expressed in those passages which use the Greek prepositions huper and anti to describe Christ’s work for sinners. The preposition huper can mean both “in place of” and “for the benefit of.” The latter meaning is probably found in passages such as John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, 166
that one lay down his life for (huper) his friends” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb 2:9). In other passages, however, the preposition huper clearly means “instead of.” For example, in 2 Corinthians 5:14, Paul says: “The love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for (huper) all. Therefore all have died.” Obviously, Christ’s death here is substitutionary because it would be nonsense to say that because “one has died for the benefit of all, therefore all died.” (See also Gal 3:3; John 11:50; Mark 10:45; 1 Pet. 3:18; 2:22; Heb 4:15). It is only on the assumption that Christ’s death was substitutionary that Paul could have drawn the immediate inference “therefore all have died.” The meaning of substitution is conveyed unequivocally by those passages which use the preposition anti which clearly means “instead of” or “in place of.” For example, Christ said: “The son of man came to give his life a ransom for (anti—in the place of) many” (Mark 10:45; emphasis supplied; Matt 2:22; 5:38; 20:28). 1 Timothy 2:6 provides an interesting example where both anti and huper are used in the same text: “Christ Jesus . . . gave himself as a ransom (antilutron) for (huper) all.” Here the use of anti together with huper suggests that Christ’s death is a substitute ransom for the benefit of all. Thus, the Scripture clearly teaches that Christ endured suffering and death not only for the benefit of, but also in the place of sinners. The substitutionary nature of Christ’s sacrifice helps us understand Paul’s description of Christ’s death as “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2; cf. Gen 8:21; Lev 1:9). “Christ’s self-sacrifice is pleasing to God because this sacrificial offering took away the barrier between God and sinful man in that Christ fully bore God’s wrath on man’s sin. Through Christ,
God’s wrath is not turned into love but is turned away from man and borne by Himself.”20 The Innocent Cannot Suffer for the Wicked. Some argue that it is illegal to make an innocent suffer for the guilty. Consequently, Christ’s death cannot justly be a substitutionary sacrifice of “the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Pet 3:18). This objection fails to recognize that it is not God imposing a vicarious punishment upon a third party, His Son, but it is God Himself willing to suffer in and through the person of His Son for sinners: “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself” (2 Cor 5:19). The Father did not impose on the Son an ordeal He was reluctant to bear, nor did the Son extract from the Father a forgiveness He was reluctant to give. “There was no unwillingness in either. On the contrary, their wills coincided in the perfect self-sacrifice of love.”21 It is not unjust for a judge to choose to pay himself vicariously the penalty of someone else’s disobedience. The transference of penalty from a guilty to an innocent person is unjust in a human court because there is no human judge who can remove the causes of disobedience by paying its penalty. However, Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice not only pays the penalty of sin, but also breaks the power of sin. (1 John 1:9); it not only declares the penitent sinner just (justification) but it also enables the sinner to become just (sanctification). The Need for Repentance Excludes Substitution. Others object to the substitutionary view of Christ’s death because God still expects us to confess and to repent of our sins. If Christ’s sacrifice vicariously paid the penalty of our sins, then God should release us altogether from punishment without any preconditions. This objection ignores that the substitutionary payment is made, not by a third party, but by God Himself. Christ is both the 168
vicarious sacrifice and the judge (Rom 14:10). Consequently, God has the right to determine upon what basis forgiveness is to be granted. Christ’s obedience does not make ours unnecessary, but possible. Thus, Christ has the right to require repentance and faith as conditions for forgiveness and salvation. The Father Would Be Unjust in Sacrificing the Son for the Sins of Mankind. Another objection to the doctrine of vicarious atonement is that it makes God guilty of injustice because He would have sacrificed the Son to meet the demands of His own justice. This objection, like the previous one, ignores that the plan of redemption was conceived by the triune God and was not an imposition of the Father upon the Son. Christ voluntarily undertook to pay the human penalty for sin and to satisfy the demands of the divine justice: “I lay down my life for the sheep... for this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.” (John 10:15,17,18). The objection fails to recognize also that in the drama of the Cross, the Father is not the Judge punishing His Son, the innocent victim. Instead, both of Them are mysteriously united in carrying out our redemption. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). God “did not spare his own Son” (Rom 8:32). “We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10). In giving His Son, God gave Himself. God is the Judge who in the person of His Son bore the penalty which He Himself inflicted. As Robert Dale puts it, “The mysterious unity of the Father and the Son rendered possible for God at once to endure and to inflict penal suffering.”22 In order to save us in a way consonant to His justice, God substituted Himself through Christ for our salvation. The selfsacrifice of God on the Cross reveals the simultaneous blending 169
of justice and mercy. There is nothing unjust in the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ, because the substitute for the lawbreaker is none other that the divine Lawgiver Himself. Moreover, Christ’s sacrifice must be viewed not only in terms of pain and suffering, but also in terms of gain and glory. It has resulted in a countless multitude of redeemed praising Him with a loud voice saying: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain” (Rev 5:12). Finally, if Christ’s death was not a substitutionary sacrifice, His bitter suffering and shameful death would truly be an unjust, irrational, and cruel exhibition. Conclusion. Our discussion of the propitiatory function of Christ’s sacrifice has shown that Christ did not die to placate God’s anger and persuade Him to forgive sinners. The initiative was taken by God Himself who put forth His own Son to be a propitiatory sacrifice. God did not offer an animal or an object, but Himself in the person of His Son. Thus, God himself in His loving mercy took the initiative to appease His righteous anger by bearing it Himself in the person of His own Son who took our place and died for us. The sacrificial system clearly show that Christ’s substitutionary death paid the penalty of sin, and averted God’s wrath “so that God can look on man without displeasure and man can look on God without fear. Sin is expiated and God is propitiated.”23 God is both the provider and the recipient of the propitiation. Christ’s Death as Redemption In seeking to understand the achievements of the Cross, we now move from the word-picture of propitiation associated with the sacrifices in the Temple, to that of redemption that comes to us from the market place. The term “redemption” translates the Greek apolutrosis, which derives from lutron, which was the “ransom” or “price of release” paid in the market place for the purchase or manumission of a slave. While propitiation views the Cross from the perspective of divine 170
wrath or displeasure satisfied by Christ’s sacrifice, redemption sees the Cross as the release from the bondage to which sin has consigned us. It views the work of Christ not simply as deliverance from the bondage of sin but also in terms of the ransom price paid for our deliverance. The meaning of redemption is clarified by Christ’s words: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his love as a ransom (lutron) for many” (Matt 20:28; cf. Mark 10:45). In this declaration Christ explains that His mission was one of ransom—lutron, which is also translated “redemption.” The ransom price was His life, and the payment of the ransom price was substitutionary in nature. The same idea is expressed in numerous other passages that deal with redemption.24 Leon Morris warns against reducing the biblical concept of redemption to cheap deliverance. “The language of redemption is that of securing release by the payment of a price, and it is this concept that is applied expressly to the laying down of Jesus’ life and the shedding of His blood. Jesus shed His blood in order to pay the price of our ransom. Redemption cannot be reduced to lower term.”25 In the Old Testament property, animals, persons, and the nation could be “redeemed” by the payment of a price. The right to redeem belonged to a “kinsman redeemer.” An impoverished Israelite compelled to sell himself into slavery could later redeem himself or be redeemed by a relative (Ex 30:12-16; 13:13; Num 3:40-51; Lev 25:47-55). In either cases the “redemption” was a costly intervention. Somebody paid the price necessary to free the person from slavery. Israel as a nation were redeemed from slavery in Egypt (Ex 6:6; Deut 7:8; 15:15) and from exile in Babylon (Is 43:1-14; 48:20; Jer 31:11). Redemption always involved the payment of a price and 171
Israel’s redemption was no an exception. “I am the Lord, and I will bring you from under the burden of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment” (Ex 6:6; cf. Deut 9:26; Neh 1:10). In the New Testament the meaning of redemption is expanded to include two new concepts. First, the plight of those needing redemption is moral, not material. It is a deliverance, not from physical or political oppression, but from the spiritual bondage of sin. Second, the price paid for our redemption is not monetary, but the precious blood of Jesus. “You were ransom from your futile ways . . . not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet 1:18). The Scope of Redemption. The scope of Christ’s redemption through His sacrificial death, includes three areas, all of which are related to our bondage to sin. First, there is deliverance from the penalty of sin. Paul explain that Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (Tit 2:14). In this text Paul describes redemption both as deliverance and purification. Deliverance from all iniquities is defined by Paul elsewhere as “the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Eph 1:7). In other words, Christ’s death secures our legal acquittal and penal release from our transgressions of God’s law. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). The curse of the law is the condemnation it pronounces upon transgressors (Gal 3:10). Second, Christ’s redemption delivers believers from the power of sin. Through His substitutionary death, Jesus not only pays the penalty of our sins, but also enables us through His Spirit to break 172
the grip of sin in our lives. Christ gave Himself “to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (Tit 2:14). Redemption and purification go together. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with his word” (Eph 5:25-26). Thomas Taylor writes: “Redemption and sanctification are inseparable companions; none is redeemed who is not purged. The blood of Christ has this double effect in whomever it is effectual to salvation; for he is made to us righteousness and sanctification (1 Cor 1:30).”26 Third, Christ’s redemption reassures us of the final consummation to be realized at Christ’s glorious coming. That is the “day of redemption” (Eph 4:30) when we will be made perfect. This includes “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23) from sin, sickness, and death. Only then Christ will complete the redemption of the human and subhuman creation from sin, sorrow, and death. This show how closely related is the present redemption accomplished by Jesus on the Cross to the final consummation of redemption that will take place at the glorious day of His Coming. Christ’s Death as Justification Thus far we have considered the achievements of the Cross as portrayed by the two word-pictures of propitiation and redemption. These two word-pictures have led us from the sacrifices in the Temple’s court (propitiation) to the price paid for the manumission of the slaves in the market place (redemption). The third word-picture used to describe the achievements of the Cross is “justification.” This picture takes us from the market place to a lawcourt, because the word was used to describe the verdict of a judge who pronounced an accused person “not guilty.” 173
The term “justification” is a translation of the Greek dikaioma, which means “righteous requirement,” “judicial sentence,” and “act of righteousness.” It also translates dikaiosis which signifies “justification,” “vindication,” “acquittal.” The related verb dikaio, means “to be pronounced and treated as righteous,” “to be acquitted,” “to be set free, made pure.”27 The basic meaning of justification is the act of God that declares a penitent sinner righteous or regards him as righteous. Justification is the opposite of condemnation (Rom 5:16). There is a logical progression in the order we are reviewing the great achievements of the Cross. Propitiation comes first, because God’s displeasure and condemnation of sin (wrath) must be appeased by the sacrificial death of Jesus, before salvation can be extended to human beings. Once the demands of divine justice have been met, the redemption, that is, the rescue of penitent sinners takes place at the high price of Christ’s blood. The next picture justification expands on the divine deliverance by depicting God as Judge who imputes the righteousness of Christ to a believer and declares that person to be forgiven of all sins, thus pronouncing the person righteous in his sight (Acts 13:38-39; Rom 4:5, 24). Justification is best understood in the context of a judicial court of law (Rom 8:33-34). Being sinners we deserve the death punishment (Rom 6:23). Justification is the act of God as the universal judge who acquits penitent sinners of their guilt and declares them as righteous (Rom 5:8). Justification is the opposite of condemnation. By means of Christ’s righteousness, God justifies penitent sinners by forgiving their sins and reconciling them to Himself. In an attempt to better understand Paul’s teachings on the divine justification of sinners, we will consider four of his key phrases which relate to the source, ground, means, and effects of justification. 174
The Source of Our Justification. The source of justification is indicated by the phrase justified freely by his grace: “We are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24; NIV; emphasis supplied). Justification is an undeserved favor because “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3:10). Self-justification is utterly impossible because nobody can declare himself righteous before God (Rom 3:20; Ps 143:2). It is only “God who justifies” (Rom 8:33), and He does it not because of good works done by penitent sinners, but because of His grace. The Ground of our Justification. The ground or the righteous basis of our justification is expressed by the phrase justified by his blood: “Since we have been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him” (Rom 5:9; emphasis supplied). Justification is not an arbitrary act of God declaring bad people good, or saying that they are not sinners after all. Rather, as John Stott aptly observes: “God is pronouncing them legally righteous, free from any liability to the broken law, because he himself has borne the penalty of their lawbreaking.”28 The basis of justification is not our obedience, but Christ’s, for “through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life . . . By one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:18, 19; KJV). Through Christ’s obedience, believers are “justified freely by His grace” (Rom 3:24; KJV). The Means of Our Justification. The means of our justification is indicated by Paul’s favorite expression justified by faith. “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Rom 3:28; emphasis supplied; cf. Rom 5:1; Gal 2:9). The 175
reason Paul speaks of faith as the sole means of justification, is because, as mentioned in the previous verse, he wants to exclude human boasting. “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith” (Rom 3:27). Paul’s statement on justification by faith, has been the object of endless controversies between Catholic and Protestant theologians, since the sixteenth century Reformation. What is at stake is the definition of the nature of faith and of the dynamics of the process of justification. Before discussing how Catholic and Protestant theologians have defined their positions, let us mention the effects of justification. The Effects of our Justification. The effects of our justification are described as a restored relationship with Christ. This is suggested by Paul’s expressions that we are justified in Christ (Gal 2:16-17; Rom 8:1; 2 Cor 5:21). “We have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ . . . But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we ourselves were found to be sinners, is Christ then an agent of sin? Certainly not!” (Rom 2:1617; emphasis supplied). Being justified in Christ points to a personal relationship with the Savior that believers can enjoy now. This fact shows that justification is not purely an external judicial declaration of acquittal, but an internal union with Christ that brings assurance of the believer’s acceptance. No matter how sinful one’s past life may have been, God pardons all our sins and we are no longer under the condemnation of the law. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). The realization that our Savior’s sacrifice forgives our sinful past, brings healing to our body and mind. It enable us to forget the dark chapters of our past life, because His forgiving grace has 176
taken care of them (Phil 3:13-14). It motivates us to “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4). The reassuring message of justification by faith appears to be a simple and clear biblical teaching, yet it has been intensity debated since the Reformation. It is a teaching that has deeply divided the Catholic from Protestant churches. The limited nature of this study allows for only a summary statement of the respective Catholic and Protestant understanding of justification by faith. The distinction between the Catholic and Protestant understanding of justification by faith, revolves around four major questions, aptly summarized by Avery Dulles: “1) Is justification the action of God alone, or do we who receive it cooperate by our response to God’s offer of grace? 2) Does God, when He justifies us, simply impute to us the merits of Christ, or does He transform us and make us intrinsically righteous? 3) Do we receive justification by faith alone, or only by a faith enlivened by love and fruitful in good works? 4) Is the reward of heavenly life a free gift of God to believers, or do they merit it by their faithfulness and good works?”29 The Reformers’ Understanding of Justification by Faith. The sixteenth-century Reformers were convinced of the central importance of justification by faith. Luther called it “the principal article of all Christian doctrine, which maketh true Christians indeed.”30 Martin Luther developed his answer to the above questions on the basis of his study of Paul and of his personal monastic experience. As an Augustinian monk, he sought in vain to find reassurance of salvation by submitting himself to a rigorous regiment of fasting and prayer. But in spite of his rigorous spiritual exercises, he still felt as a condemned sinner in God’s sight.
His quest for a gracious God, not a stern judge, led him to discover in Paul’s writing that justification is by faith, without the works of the law. To ensure that his German people would understand the exclusive role of faith, he added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28: “We hold that a man is justified by faith alone, apart from works of the law.” This interpretation made him feel like a new born person, entering Paradise. Out of pastoral concern for the terrified conscience of people buying indulgences to avoid the temporal punishment of their sins, Luther developed the slogan “By grace alone, by faith alone.” Luther concluded that justification is a divine act, by which he imputes Christ’s righteousness to a believer, irrespectively of his cooperation. God declares a person to be forgiven of all sins, thus pronouncing that person righteous in His sight (Acts 13:38-39; Rom 4:5, 24). According to Luther we are justified by God’s grace that freely imputes to us the merits of Christ, apart from our inner renewal. We receive justification by faith alone, that is, by a passive faith that accepts God’s provision of salvation, not by an active faith manifested in obedience to God’s commandments. The problem with Luther’s interpretation, as we shall see shortly, is that faith is never alone—it is never passive, because it involves the mind and the will. In summation, Luther understood justification by faith as a declarative and judicial act of God, based on Christ’s righteousness. It changes the legal standing of a believer from condemnation to justification (acquittal), but is not dependent upon a change in the person behavior. This means that a person can be simultaneously saint and sinner—simul justus et peccatoris. The problems with the Lutheran (Protestant) understanding of justification by faith, will be discussed shortly after describing the Catholic understanding of justification by faith. 178
The Catholic Understanding of Justification by Faith. The Catholic view of justification by faith was formulated by the Council of Trent in 1546 A. D. , largely as a response to the teachings of Luther and Calvin. Since Trent, the official Catholic views have not substantially changed. The recent study (1986 to 1993) on Church and Justification produced by the LutheranRoman Catholic International Commission, as well as the joint Catholic-Lutheran declaration, show that fundamental differences still do exist. Simply stated, for the Roman Catholic church justification by grace is not a declarative judicial act of God that imputes Christ’s righteousness to the believer, but an infusion of grace that enables believers to produce good works. The latter is a process that begins at baptism and continues through the whole life as believers partake of the sacraments and produce good works. Avery Dulles succinctly summarizes the teachings of Trent, saying: “The Council taught that although justification is an unmerited gift, it needs to be freely accepted, so that human cooperation is involved. Secondly, it taught that justification consists in an inner renewal brought about by divine grace; thirdly, that justification does not take place by faith without hope, charity, and good works; and finally, that the justified, by performing good works, merit the reward of eternal life.”31 The new Catechism of the Catholic Church reiterates the teachings of the Council of Trent, by affirming that justification is an infusion of grace bestowed at baptism that enables believers to conform to God’s righteousness. “Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy.”32 By linking justification to a person moral condition, the Catholic church believes that the righteousness received in justification can 179
be increased or decreased. If lost, justification can be recovered by good works such a Penance. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly states that those who “since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace . . . to them the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification.”33 Such a view goes against the popular Protestant belief that once saved, always saved. Once believers are imputed with Christ’s righteousness and are declared righteous, allegedly they cannot loose the legal standing as a forgiven children of God. Unfortunately both positions misinterpret the biblical view of justification. Evaluation of the Protestant and Catholic Understanding of Justification by Faith. A comparison between the Catholic and Protestant formulations of the doctrine of justification by faith, reveals the extreme definitions formulated in the crossfire of controversy by the respective churches. Protestants tend to reduce God’s justification to an external legal declaration of acquittal which is not condition by interior renewal. By contrast, Catholics make justification by faith into a process of moral transformation that continues throughout one’s life, and if necessary in Purgatory. For Protestants Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers, while for Catholics it is infused by means of baptism and the other sacraments. For Protestants justification is received by faith alone, while for Catholics is achieved by faith together with works of obedience. For Protestant, believers put on righteousness like a cloak, leaving their character and conduct unchanged, while for Catholics believers are infused with righteousness which enable them to become righteous by means of sacraments and good works. These series of extreme contrasts between the Protestant and Catholic positions, serve to highlight how both positions 180
misrepresent the biblical truth expressed through the word-picture of justification by faith. For example, the Reformers’ teaching that every justified Christian is simul justus et peccator, that is, a saint and a sinner at the same time, makes justification a phoney external transaction which leaves people internally unchanged. Such an understanding of “justification by faith alone” can become a thinly disguised license to go on sinning. In their zeal to emphasize the free gift of salvation in opposition to the Catholic emphasis on good works, Protestants have often given the impression that obedience to God’s law is not important, because after all justification is a judicial declaration of acquittal, not a moral transformation. The separation between these divine saving activities can only occur in the mind of speculative theologians, not in the practical experience of believers. Believers who are justified are also sanctified at the same time. Note how Paul lumps together regeneration, sanctification, and justification: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). The fact that Paul mentions the cleansing, the sanctification, and the justification as saving activities experienced by believers at the same time, tells us that at the moment of justification, believers are also sanctified. The reason why “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1), is not merely because penitent sinners have been declared “not guilty” before God’s court, but because “God sent His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin . . . in order that the just requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:3-4). Both the legal declaration of justification and the moral transformation of sanctification, are gifts of divine grace received by believers at the same time. “The righteousness by which we are justified is imputed; the righteousness by which we are 181
sanctified is imparted. The first is out title to heaven, the second is our fitness for heaven.”34 Both the imputed and imparted righteousness of Christ are offered at the same time to those who accept God’s provision of salvation. Catholic are right in affirming that justification by faith is not merely a legal declaration but also a moral transformation. But they are wrong in claiming that such transformation is triggered by an infusion of grace that begins at baptism and continues through life by means of the sacraments and good works. To the Catholics, justification is ultimately, not a divine gift of grace, but a human accomplishment by believers who co-joining their works with faith. This understanding of salvation is reflected in Passion Plays, like Gibson’s movie. We have seen in chapters 1 and 2 how the Passion Plays have inspired Christians to imitate Christ’s suffering as a way to earn their own salvation. Salvation is achieved through penitential suffering, rather than being received as a divine gift of grace. Luther’s Understanding of Faith. “Faith” lies at the heart of Paul’s doctrine of salvation, being often presented as an indispensable requirement for salvation. The definition of “faith” lies also at the root of the difference between the Catholic and Protestant on their understanding of salvation. Trying to capture the exact Catholic and Protestant understanding of faith is a most difficult task, because their respective literature hardly offer clear, unambiguous definitions of faith. Justification by faith alone was Martin Luther’s great spiritual and theological breakthrough. To find peace with God he tried everything from sleeping on hard floors, confessions, prayers, and fasting to climbing the “Holy Staircase” in Rome while kneeling in prayer. All these good works proved fruitless. Finally, Luther found peace when he discovered in the study of 182
Paul’s writings that justification is by faith, not by the works of penance he had been performing. The phrase “justification by faith alone” became for Luther the key to unlocked the Bible. What was Luther’s understanding of the justifying faith? The answer seems to be complete trust in Christ’s forgiving grace. He wrote: “Justifying faith is a sure trust, by which one believes that his sins are remitted for Christ’s sake; and they that are justified are to believe certainly that their sins are remitted.”35 He further explains: “No previous disposition is necessary to justification; neither does faith justify because it disposes us, but because it is a means or instrument by which the promise and grace of God are laid hold on and received.”36 In his “Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” Luther wrote: “Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures.”37 Faith and Works. These statements suggests that for Luther “faith” was absolute trust in Christ’s forgiving grace. It involves the mind rather than the will, that is, mental acceptance of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, rather than willingness to obey God’s commandments. He reached this conclusion because all his works of penance, never gave him the assurance of salvation. What Luther failed to realize is that the doctrine of justification by faith, does not mean that we are saved by faith without works, but that we are saved by God’s grace without human merits. “Works” for Paul are the works of the law, that is, acts of obedience motivated by the desire to gain righteousness. Such works obviously negate faith, that is, the acceptance of salvation as a divine gift of grace. For James, however, “works” are not a means of salvation, but an outward manifestation of genuine faith. 183
A professing faith is a practicing faith (James 2:14-26). With these connotations, the terms “faith” and “works” are fully compatible. The two apostles address two different concerns. Paul addresses the question of the basis of salvation: Is it a human achievement or a divine gift? James discusses the effect of salvation: It is a profession or a practice? Both apostles are concerned about the misuse of the law. Paul addresses the problem of legalism: using the law as a means of salvation. James discusses the problem of antinomianism: disregarding the law as irrelevant to salvation. Understood in their proper contexts, there is no conflict between Paul and James on the question of faith and works. For Paul faith is not purely an intellectual acceptance of the provision of salvation, but a complete commitment to God, manifested through obedience. Three times Paul states: “neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision,” and each time he concludes this statement with a different phrase: “but keeping the commandments of God . . . but faith working through love . . . but a new creation” (1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:6; 6:15). The parallelism suggests that a believer that has been saved by faith, is not released from the observance of God’s commandments, but empowered to observe them. The Catholic View of “Faith” The Catholic understanding of the saving “faith,” differs substantially from the Protestant one. In Catholic thought faith occupies a subordinate place. The Council of Trent admits that faith does play a role during the life process of justification, but final justification only occurs when a person receives the infused grace at their water baptism. While in Protestant teachings faith is the instrumental cause of justification is faith, in Catholic beliefs baptism operates as the instrument of justification.
The new Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him.”38 Since Baptism is viewed by the Catholic church as a sacrament administered by the church, it is through the church that the believer receives the faith. As stated in the new Catechism, “It is through the Church that we receive faith and new life in Christ by Baptism.”39 This means that for the Catholic church faith is a dispensation of the church, rather than a disposition of the believer. The fact that Baptism is administered at birth, when the new born baby is unable to mentally accept Christ’s forgiving grace, shows that for Catholics the saving faith is an external infusion of grace, rather than an internal, intelligent decision. The initial infusion of grace at baptism is instantaneous but from that point on grace is a process that works with the believer for the rest of one’s life to earn salvation. Faith as Infusion of Grace. The Roman Catholic church sees grace everywhere. For example, believers by God’s grace must suffer to pay the penalty of their sins throughout the present life, and if necessary in Purgatory. The sufferings of Christ portrayed in Passion Plays like Gibson’s movie, serve as a model for believers to imitate Christ’s sufferings to atone for their sins. The Council of Trent is most explicit on this matter: “If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema.”40 God’s grace can shorten the stay in Purgatory! God’s grace can generate more grace through the eating of Christ’s actual body and drinking of His actual blood at the Catholic eucharist! God’s 185
grace enables believers to secure more grace through indulgences, or by paying for perpetual Masses on behalf of departed relatives and by praying directly to Mary to ask special favors of the Son! It is evident that for the Roman Catholic Church salvation or eternal life can be attained through a combination of grace, faith, and good works. It is a works-oriented method of salvation that challenges believers throughout their lives to do “good works” and to receive the sanctifying grace of the Sacraments, in order to reach the level of righteousness needed for entry into heaven. The Catholic combination of grace and good works as the method of salvation, negates the biblical teaching that salvation is entirely the free gift of God. By grace God makes available to us through Christ His provision for our salvation, which we accept by faith, that is, by trusting in Him, not through our own good works. To use Paul’s words: “For by grace you have been saved through faith: and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8; cf. Rom 5:1). Christ’s Death as Reconciliation The fourth word-picture of salvation that illustrates the achievements of the Cross is “reconciliation.” This is probably the most popular of the four word-pictures, because it portrays the restoration of relationships with family members and friends. Through the previous wordpictures we have travelled through the Temple court to understand propitiation, the slave-market to clarify the origin of redemption, and to the lawcourt to grasp the meaning of justification. Now we are going home to renew our relationship with family and friends. Reconciliation expresses the ultimate purpose of the Cross is to reconcile us to God and fellow beings. The verb katallasso (“to reconcile”) occurs six times in the New Testament (Rom 5:10; 1 Cor 7:11; 2 Cor 5:18-20) and the noun katallage (“reconciliation”) four times (Rom 5:11; 11:15; 2 Cor 5:18f). The central idea in all these occurrences is the termination of the estrangement between 186
God and man by the death of Christ: “When we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son” (Rom 5:10). The message of reconciliation is most relevant today when many people feel alienated and estranged from their homes, churches, workplace, and society. To them the message of reconciliation is Good News. To appreciate the full import of this divine act of reconciliation, it is important to consider both the divine and human dimension of this reconciliation. Divine Dimension. The act of reconciliation is in the first place a divine and not a human initiative. It is accomplished by God through Jesus Christ’s atoning death which removes divine judgment against the sinner: “All things are of God, who has reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ . . . God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself not imputing their trespasses unto them” (2 Cor 5:18-19). In Colossians Paul reminds the believers that it pleased the Father “through him [Christ] to reconcile to himself all things . . . making peace by the blood of His cross. And you . . . He has reconciled in His body of flesh by his death” (Col 1:19-22). Note that reconciliation is the work of God, initiated by Him and accomplished through the Cross. Reconciliation is accomplished not by a change in human attitude toward God but by the objective historical reality of Christ’s death. Christ is the agent of reconciliation. This is crystal clear in 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, where Paul says: “God . . . through Christ reconciled us to himself . . . in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” Both statements tell us that God took the initiative to reconcile and He accomplished it through Christ. The beneficiaries of reconciliations are both “us” and “the world.” This show the universal scope of reconciliation. The cosmic scope of reconciliation is expressed more fully in Colossians 1:19-20, where the supremacy of Christ is linked to 187
His work of reconciliation: “For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross.” The ultimate reconciliation will take place at the end when all the natural order will be liberated “from its bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21). God reconciled us to Himself by the death of His Son “while we were enemies” (Rom 5:10). What this means is that the believers does not cause but accepts the reconciliation already effected on the cross. Through the Cross, God reconciled the world unto Himself by “not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor 5:19) because He has dealt with them in Jesus Christ. Reconciliation is then a work outside us, initiated by God who through Christ removes the barrier of sin that separates us from Him. Human Dimension. Our response to God’s initiative involves first of all the acceptance of the reconciliation provided by God: “We rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation” (Rom 5:11). The acceptance of God’s act of reconciliation gives joy to the believer (“we rejoice”), knowing that he has been restored to the Fathers’s house. We experience “peace,” Paul says, because we “are no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:12-19). Accepting God’s provision for our reconciliation means also to accept the mandate to become the ambassadors of the reconciliation. Paul explains that not only has God in Christ reconciled us to Himself, but He has also “entrusted to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:19-20).
God finished the work of reconciliation at the Cross, yet it is still necessary to appeal to people to be reconciled to God. It is significant to note that God has entrusted to us a message and a mission. The message is the Good News that God in Christ has reconciled the world to Himself. The mission is to appeal to people to come to Christ. John Stott perceptively points out that “it is not enough to expand a thorough orthodox doctrine of reconciliation, if we never beg people to come to Christ. Nor is it right for a sermon to consist of an interminable appeal, which has not been preceded by an exposition of the gospel. The rule should be ‘no appeal without a proclamation, and no proclamation without appeal.”41 It is a remarkable truth that the same God who achieved the reconciliation through Christ, now is working through us to announce the message of reconciliation to others. By sharing the good news of reconciliation, we experience its blessings and express our gratitude to God for His gracious provision. Christ’s Death as Intercession The fifth word-picture of salvation that illustrates the achievements of the Cross is “intercession.” This word-picture describes Christ’s heavenly ministry at the right hand to make available to us the benefits of His redemptive mission. In the previous four word-pictures we have looked the achievements of the Cross through Christ’s sacrificial death on earth. Now our eyes are directed heavenward to catch a glimpse of the benefits of the Cross extended to us on earth through Christ’s heavenly ministry. The Inauguration of Christ’s Heavenly Ministry. Christ’s intercessory ministry in the heavenly sanctuary began at the time of His ascension to heaven and exaltation to the right hand of God. Jesus had prophesied at His trial that “from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God” 189
(Luke 22:69). Peter at Pentecost announced the fulfillment of the exaltation of Jesus, saying: “This Jesus God raised up . . . being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you se and hear” (Acts 2:33). It is noteworthy that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost—the most significant even of the Apostolic Church—is connected with the exaltation of Christ and His installation at the right hand of God. The installation of Christ to His heavenly ministry is reflected in those passages which speak of Christ “sitting” at the right hand of God (Acts 2:34; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3, 13). The sitting signifies not a position of repose, but the official enthronement to His intercessory ministry. This is indicated by the fact that Stephen saw “the heaven opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56; Emphasis supplied). The “standing” position points to Christ’s role as our heavenly advocate and intercessor before the Father. The meaning of “sitting” is further clarified in Hebrews 8:1-2 where Christ is presented as the “high Priest . . . seated at the right hand of the throne of the majesty in heaven, a minister of the sanctuary and the true tent.” These word-pictures of Christ standing or sitting at God’s right hand signify Christ’s official enthronement in His heavenly intercessory ministry. The nature of Christ’s ministry is described in prophetic, kingly, and priestly terms. For the purpose of our study we will focus only on the priestly ministry of Christ. Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross, did not terminate His priestly ministry, because “he holds his priesthood permanently” (Heb 7:23). Just like in the Old Testament sacrificial system, the priests, not only offered sacrifices for the people, but also interceded for them, so Christ continues His ministry of intercession after having offered Himself for our sins. “He is able 190
for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25). Christ’s heavenly priestly intercession is based on His sacrifice on the Cross. This connection is brought out, for example, in 1 John 2:1-2: “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, not for ours only but also for the whole world.” Christ’s death accomplished our salvation, His heavenly intercessory ministry applies the benefits of the Cross to our lives today. New Dimension of Christ’s Ministry. When Christ ascended into heaven, he entered the heavenly sanctuary to present to His Father his completed sacrifice. Louis Berkhof writes: “Just as the high priest on the great Day of Atonement entered the Holy of Holies with the completed sacrifice, to present it to God, so Christ entered the heavenly Holy Place with His completed, perfect, and all sufficient sacrifice and offered it to the Father.”42 “Now Christ appears ‘in the presence of God for us’ (Heb 9:24), and thus continually embodies before God the sacrifice He made for our sins. . . . the perpetual presence of the completed sacrifice of Christ before God contains in itself an element of intercession as a constant reminder of the perfect atonement of Jesus Christ.”43 The heavenly intercessory ministry of Christ at the right hand of God, points to the new dimension of Jesus’ Lordship. Wayne Grudem comments that “After his resurrection, Jesus was given by God the Father far greater authority over the church and over the universe. God raised him up and ‘made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church’ (Eph. 1:20-22; cf. Matt. 28:18; 1 Cor. 15:25). That authority over the church and over the universe will be more fully 191
recognized by people when Jesus returns to earth in power and great glory to reign (Matt 26:64; 2 Thess 1:7-10; Rev 19:11-16). On that day he will be acknowledged as ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’ (Rev 19:16) and every knee shall bow to him (Phil 2:10).”44 Earthly Sufferings and Heavenly Intercession. The sufferings that Christ experienced during His life and sacrificial death qualified Him for His sacerdotal heavenly ministry. The Cross must be seen as the culmination of Christ’s life of suffering. There is a tendency to focus on the suffering of the last week of Christ’s life, or even the last twelve hours, like in the case of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Such tendency ignores that throughout His life Christ suffered pain, fatigue, hunger, and thirst (Matt 4:2). He suffered temptation at the hands of Satan (Heb 4:15). He suffered rejection from His people (Matt 11:2024). He suffered denial (Luke 22:60) and betrayal (Matt 26:47-56) from His friends. What was the purpose and value of the sufferings Christ experienced in His life and death? While the sufferings of Christ’s death represent, as noted earlier, the satisfaction of divine justice, His life of suffering has a broader purpose, which includes two significant aspects. Suffering to Become a Perfect Sacrifice for Sin. Twice in Hebrews the sufferings of Christ are mentioned as a means of perfecting Him. Hebrews 2:10 says that the Author of our salvation was made “perfect through suffering” (emphasis supplied). Later we read that Christ “learned obedience through what He suffered; and being made perfect He became the source of eternal salvation” (Heb 5:8-9; emphasis supplied). Sufferings perfected by Christ by enabling Him, not to overcome moral imperfection, but to become a perfect Savior for sin. In 192
what sense? Through the pain and stress of temptation and suffering Christ “learned obedience.” He learned what it means to obey as a human being under the stress and strain of human limitations and temptations. His perfect life of obedience, in spite of sufferings, qualified Christ to be a perfect Savior for sin and an understanding intercessor. The sufferings which Christ experienced through His life, which climaxed at the Cross, enabled Him to offer up Himself as the blameless Lamb who takes away our sins through His once-for-all sacrifice (Heb 9:28; 10:12). Christ’s obedience, manifested in His willingness to suffer even unto death rather than disobey, qualified Him to expiate our sins through the sacrifice of His life. As sin and death came into the world through the disobedience of one man, so, Paul explains, “by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19). It is Christ’s obedience, even unto death, that gives atoning value to His death. Suffering to Become a Perfect High Priest. The suffering which Christ experienced in His life and death qualified Him for His role of Mediator and High Priest. The priests functioned as mediators between sinners and God by providing the means of reconciliation through sacrifices (Heb 8:3; 10:11). Hebrews explains that Christ can rightfully function as our heavenly High Priest for two reasons. First, because He was fully man (Heb 2:14,17) who “in every respect has been tempted as we are” (Heb 4:15). The experience of suffering and of being tempted enabled Christ to be a sympathetic High Priest: “We have not a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with us, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are yet without sinning” (Heb 4:15). The human suffering undeniably gave Christ an experiential understanding of human woes and temptations. A second reason why Christ can rightfully function as our High Priest is because through His suffering and sacrifice, He secured 193
our “eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12). Hebrews explains that Christ has no need “to suffer repeatedly” (Heb 9:26), because His onetime sacrifice qualifies Him “to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb 9:24). There is an unmistakable connection between the atoning function of Jesus’ suffering and death and His right to function as our heavenly High Priest. Having suffered to atone for our sins, Christ “is able for all time to save those who draw to God through Him since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25). What is the nature of Christ’s intercessory work in the heavenly sanctuary? Obviously, it is not intended to induce God to love us since the Father shared in the sacrifice of His Son (John 3:16; 2 Cor 5:19). Its function is to represent us before God’s throne in order to make available to us the gracious provisions of divine redemption. To appreciate the scope of Christ’s intercessory work, we shall briefly consider some of its benefits. Extension of Human Probation. Christ’s intercession extends to the whole human family by offering physical life and temporal benefits to all. As Paul explained on Mars Hill: “He Himself gives to all men life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). It is by virtue of Christ’s atoning work that the punishment for human disobedience has been stayed. Ellen White comments: “Whether man receive or reject Him, He works earnestly for them. He grants them life and light, striving by His Spirit to win them from Satan’s service.”45 Sustenance of the Church. Christ’s intercession sustains the church in her mission to illuminate the world with the good news of salvation. John the Revelator saw “in the midst of the lampstand one like a Son of Man” (Rev 1:13). Since the “seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Rev 1:20), which symbolically represent the church at large, the standing of Christ 194
in the midst of His church points to His sustenance of those who have accepted Him and who keep their light shining before the world. As the earthly priests daily trimmed and filled the lamps to keep them burning, so Christ in the heavenly counterpart of the holy place, symbolically ministers daily at the candelabra by sustaining and strengthening the church. This ministry is accomplished through the work of the Holy Spirit who is also identified in Revelation 4:5 with the seven lamps: “Before the throne burn seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God.” It is noteworthy that these “seven spirits” are explicitly identified with the “seven eyes” of the Lamb-Priest: “I saw a lamb standing . . . with seven eyes, which are the seven spirit of God sent out into all the earth” (Rev 5:6). Through the Holy Spirit, Christ fully sees (“seven eyes”) and supplies the needs of His people. Mediation of Believers’ Forgiveness. Christ’s intercession mediates repentance and forgiveness of sin to penitent believers. Peter proclaimed before the council: “God exalted Him [Jesus] at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31). Similarly, John explains: “My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; He is the expiation for our sins, and not for our only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2). Forgiveness involves not merely the cancellation of punishment, but also the cleansing of believers (1 John 1:9) and their restoration to full fellowship with God. All of these are provided through Christ’s continuous ministry in the heavenly sanctuary. Mediation of Believers’ Prayers. Christ’s intercessory ministry makes it possible for our prayers to ascend to the Father. In our human sinfulness we cannot approach our holy God in prayer 195
without claiming the merits of Christ. Looking forward to His heavenly ministry, Jesus promised; “Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, He will give it to you in my name” (John 16:23-24). This dimension of the heavenly ministry of Christ is portrayed in Revelation 8 by the incense from the golden altar given to an angel, presumably by the Lamb: “Another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne” (Rev 8:3). It is noteworthy that the “prayers of the saints” ascend to the throne of God “with” the smoke of the incense” (Rev 8:4). It is Christ’s merits and intercession represented by the incense, that makes our worship and prayers acceptable to God. Ellen White perceptively explain the unique intercessory role of Christ represented by the incense: “The religious services, the prayers, the praise, the penitent confession of sin ascend from true believers as incense to the heavenly sanctuary; but passing through the corrupt channels of humanity, they are so defiled that unless purified by blood, they can never be of value before God. They ascend not in spotless purity, and unless the Intercessor who is at God’s right hand presents and purifies all by His righteousness, it is not acceptable to God. All incense from earthly tabernacles must be moist with the cleansing drops of the blood of Christ. He holds before the Father the censer of His own merits, in which there is no taint of earthly corruption. He gathers into this censer the prayers, the praise, and the confessions of His people, and with these He puts His own spotless righteousness. Then, perfumed with the merits of Christ’s propitiation, the incense comes up before God wholly and entirely acceptable. Then gracious answers are returned.”46
Ministration of Angels To Human Beings. The intercessory work of Christ makes possible the ministry of angels to human beings. The veil and the curtain covering the tabernacle were inwrought with cherubims (Ex 26:31), representing the angels surrounding the throne of God (Dan 7:10; Rev 5:11) and the ministry angels render to God’s people. Hebrews concludes the first chapter, not only asserting the superiority of Christ over the angels, but also asking the question: “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation?” (Heb 1:14). In Revelation 5:6 Christ is represented as a “Lamb standing . . . with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” Similarly, in Revelation 1:16,20 Christ is represented as holding “seven stars” which are interpreted as typifying “the angels of the seven churches.” This imagery effectively illustrates the close connection between Christ and the angels who serve as His messengers to human beings. “Through Christ,” Ellen White writes, “communication is opened between God and man. Angels may pass from heaven to earth with messages of love to fallen man, and to minister unto those who shall be heirs of salvation. It is through Christ alone that the heavenly messengers minister to men.”47 This brief survey of Christ’s intercessory ministry in heaven, has shown its vital importance for our present life and eternal salvation. As our heavenly High Priest, Christ sustains us, offering us repentance, forgiveness, and cleansing. He makes our prayers acceptable to God, and provides us with the invisible, yet real, assistance of His angels. Such a knowledge of Christ’s heavenly ministry can make the difference between living without assurance of divine assistance in this present life and consequently without hope for the future, and living with the
assurance of divine help and grace for our daily life and with hope for a glorious future. CONCLUSION Our study of the Cross of Christ has highlighted the richness of meaning and function of Christ’s sacrificial death. The various word-pictures employed to explain the significance and value of Christ’s death, represent partial attempts to capture its many-sided dimensions. The total scope of meaning of Christ’s death cannot be reduced to few conceptual statements, but will always remain “the mystery of the gospel” (Eph 6:19). The contemplation of this master will engage our minds through countless ages, constantly heightening our appreciation for the love of God. We have found that the Cross has both a subjective and an objective dimension. Subjectively, through the Cross God revealed the depth of His love in being willing to offer His Son for undeserving sinners. Objectively, the Cross reveals how God dealt with the objective reality of sin, not by minimizing its gravity, but by revealing its costliness, by assuming its penalty, thus satisfying divine justice. We have found that the substitutionary significance of Christ’s death is central to the New Testament understanding of the Cross. Christ is the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world by expiating through His substitutionary sacrifice our grievous disobedience. Thus, at the Cross, divine love was manifested not through the relaxation of justice, but through the satisfaction of its demands through the voluntary substitutionary sacrifice of Christ, who paid the price of human disobedience. Five major word-pictures are used to explain how God deals with the objective reality of sin, namely, propitiation, redemption, justification, reconciliation, and intercession. These word-pictures 198
help us appreciate what God did for us and is doing in us. Christ died to redeem us not only from the penalty of sin (Gal 3:13) but also from the power of sin (Titus 2:14). Redemption is not only a rescue but also a cure, not only a liberation but also a transformation. It is important to maintain both of these dimensions of the Cross in their proper balance. The Cross is not merely an important doctrine but the very essence of the Gospel. Paul, recognizing the fundamental value of the Cross, explained: “I have decided to know nothing among you, except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:12).
ENDNOTES 1. Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin? (New York, 1973), p. 17. 2. John R. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois, 1986), p. 21. 3. Ibid., p. 32. 4. P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross (London, 1909), pp. 44-4. 5. John R. Stott (note 2), p. 88. 6. A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia, 1907) , p. 766. 7. Leon Morris, Cross in the New Testament (London, 1965), pp. 190-191. 8. John R. Stott (note 2), p. 106. 9. Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt: A Christian Anthropology (Lutterworth, 1939), p. 129. 10. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1994), vol.2, p. 423. 11. “Abekard’s Commentary on Romans 3:19-26,” in A 199
Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham. Library of Christian Classics, ed. Eugene Fairweather (London, 1970), vol. 10. p. 283. 12. Ibid., p. 284. 13. Robert S. Franks, The Work of Christ: A Historical Study of Christian Doctrine (New York, 1962), p. 146. 14. Robert Brow, “Evangelical Megashift: Why You May not Have Hard About Wrath, Sin, and Hell Recently,” Christianity Today (February 19, 1990), p. 12. 15. Robert Brow, “Letters to Surfers: Doesn’t God’s Holiness Require a Substitutionary Payment to Satisfy the Demands of His Justice?” in http://www.brow.on.ca/Letters/GodHoliness.htm. 16. John Stott (note 2), p. 168. 17. Raul Dederen, “Atoning Aspects of Christ’s Death,” in The Sanctuary and the Atonement, eds. Arnold V. Wallen-Kampf and W. Richard Lesher, (Washington, D. C. 1981), p. 295. 18. Hans K. LaRondelle, Christ our Salvation (Mountain View, California, 1980), p. 26. 19. Thomas J. Crawford, The Doctrine of the Holy Scripture Respecting the Atonement (London, 1888), p. 237. 20. Hans K. LaRondelle (note 18), pp. 26, 27. 21. John Stott (note 2), p. 152. 22. Robert W. Dale, The Atonement (London, 1894), p. 393. 23. David F. Wells, The Search for Salvation (London, 1978), p. 29. 24. See Luke 1:68; 2:38; 24:21; Hebrew 9:12; 1 Pet 1:18; Rom 3:24; Eph 1:7; 1 Tim 2:6; Tit 2:14. 25. Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance (London, 1983), p. 106. 26. Thomas Taylor, Exposition of Titus (Minneapolis, 1980), p. 375. 27. W. E. Vine, an Expository Dictionary of the New Testament Words (Old Tappan, NJ, 1966), pp. 284-286; William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, 1973), 200
p. 196. 28. John R. Stott (note 2), p. 190. 29. Avery Dulles, “Two Languages of Salvation: The Lutheran– Catholic Joint Declaration,” First Things (December 199), p. 25. 30. Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (1535; Edinborough, 1953), p. 143. 31. Avery Dulles (note 29), p. 26. 32. Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York, 1995), p. 536, paragraph 1991. 33. Ibid., p. 403, paragraph 1446. 34. “Sanctification,” SDA Bible Dictionary, rev ed., p. 979. 35. “Martin Luther’s Eight Statements on Justifying Faith,” posted in http://grace-for-today.com/54.htm 36. Ibid. 37. “An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” Luther’s German Bible of 1522 by Martin Luther, 1483-1546, Translated by Rev. Robert E. Smith from DR. MARTIN LUTHER’S VERMISCHTE DEUTSCHE SCHRIFTEN, Johann K. Irmischer, ed. (Erlangen, Germany, 1854), Vol. 63, p. 124. 38. Catechism of the Catholic Church (note 32), p. 47, paragraph 153 39. Ibid., p. 52, paragraph 168. 40. H. J. Schroeder, O. P., The Canons And Decrees Of The Council Of Trent, (New York, 1978), p. 46, Sixth Session, Chapter XVI, Canon 30. 41. John R. Stott (note 2), p. 201. 42. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, new combined edition (Grand Rapids,1938), p. 402. 43. Ibid. 44. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, 1994), p. 624. 45. Review and Herald, March 12, 1901. 46. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible commentary (Washington, 201
D. C., 1958), vol. 6, p. 1078. 47. Ellen White, Selected Messages (Washington, D. C., 1958), vol. 1, p. 280.
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