Ponderings on The Passion

Written by Mark Beckwith

It is classical medieval theology. Jesus offers himself as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. That is the underlying theme of The Passion of the Christ, and to his credit, Mel Gibson’s film is congruent with this medieval message, which still casts its influence over vast swaths of the Christian landscape. From the opening scene in the Garden of Gentleman, where Jesus nearly implodes in anguish over his decision to take on the burden of humanity’s wickedness, through his brutal treatment during the rest of the film, there is the clear implication that the more suffering Jesus can endure, the more sins he will atone for—and the more mercy God will have on us. It is often referred to as redemptive suffering—since so much punishment has been visited on Jesus, God will withhold punishment on us.

“That’s not it!” I shouted to myself as I watched Jesus get up after having received forty lashes in the movie, only to receive forty more from more vicious implements of punishment. “That’s not it!” I murmured to my friend as Jesus got to his feet, freely and willingly choosing more suffering so he could extract a few more sins from the human heart.“It’s not atonement. That’s not what the Passion (the story, not the movie) is about.”

So if not that, then what? I was hard-pressed to come up with an alternative, because the medieval message of atonement still echoes in my soul, and the film was so effective—with its lighting, camera work and use of subtitles—in reinforcing a Passion perspective that has been the norm for more than a thousand years.

After a few days, I was reminded of a biblical paraphrase attributed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a Jesuit priest and paleontologist devoted to Christian evolution. Tailboard reworked John 3:16—"God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son"—changing it to “God so loved the world that he planted the Christ seed so deep in nature that, over time, it evolved into the person of Jesus of Nazareth—whose life, death and resurrection gave new life to the Christ seed in others.” From this perspective, Jesus came into the world as a giver, not as one who takes away (the sins of the world). His life and ministry were given to humanity as a gift by God, who had already established himself as an extravagant giver.

The gift Jesus so deeply desired to pass on was the gift of life, love, hope and freedom. And Jesus knew in his wisdom that he would certainly have to suffer and die because the world didn’t want these gifts. Individuals wouldn’t easily be able to handle unbridled life and freedom (Jesus’ disciples were certainly testimony to that); and principalities and powers wouldn’t be as able to manage and control people whose lives were marked by love and hope. And so Jesus suffered because he knew that humanity would reject his precious gift. But Jesus was so committed to passing on the gift that he died in the process.

Jesus and God mysteriously worked together to create Easter—the most extravagant gift ever. And we have been struggling with that gift ever since— from simply receiving it to trying to twist it into something that fits our agenda.


Copyright ©2004 Mark Beckwith