Summary: The Apostle’s Creed - suffered under Pontius Pilate
There’s no doubt that Mel Gibson’s film, "The Passion of the Christ" has been widely criticised in the media and elsewhere. But what’s surprising is the issue that most of the criticism has been about. It isn’t that it’s anti-Semitic, although that was the accusation before it was released. No, the greatest criticism seems to be that it’s too violent. Someone writing in The Melbourne Anglican suggested that it was just an extension of Mel’s past roles. It was the "Mad Max" version of Jesus Christ.
Others have suggested that maybe the fact that the film so emphasises the physical suffering of Christ prior to the actual crucifixion means that we lose something of the spiritual significance of the crucifixion, of the atonement for sin that was the result of Jesus dying.
Well, if you’ve seen the film you probably have a firm view on whether it was too violent or not. I, like many others, think the flogging scene was too drawn out. But I want to suggest that the idea behind its portrayal of suffering was right at both an apologetic and a theological level.
It was right to emphasise Jesus’ suffering at an apologetic level, because it makes us ask the question, "If he suffered like that, if he died for me, then what sort of response should I make to him?" And if I decide to ignore what he’s done for me how much does that compound his suffering, since it was to no avail in my case? I went to the dentist this week. Now I don’t think anyone likes going to the dentist and certainly not me! Not that my dentist isn’t a very pleasant chap. I had a very pleasant one sided conversation with him as he drilled my teeth. No, it isn’t the dentist that’s the problem, it’s the pain involved. But I’m willing to go through that small amount of suffering because I know it’ll result in the removal of pain later. But if I got home and found that my tooth was hurting just as much after he’d finished I’d be pretty upset wouldn’t I? Well I guess that’s a bit of a picture of how Jesus must weep as he watches human beings, for whom he suffered and died, ignore the gift he offers them.
But in fact there’s more to it than that. Jesus’ suffering before the cross as well as his death on the cross are both vital to our theological understanding of how he brings us back to God. So each week we repeat these familiar words: Jesus suffered; He died; and he descended to the dead.
At the start of "The Passion" it’s made clear that the premise on which the film is based is the passage from Isaiah 53:3-5 "He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. 4Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed."
It’s interesting isn’t it, how that passage from Isaiah speaks of his suffering, his bruises, as the things that heal us. I think we evangelicals have mostly understood the atonement as resulting from Jesus’ death, from his descent into hell, and certainly we’ll see in a moment that that’s a big part of it. But how do his bruises heal us, if that’s what God meant Isaiah to say to us? How do the wounds he received help us with our sins?