The Crucifixion of Christ: The Real Emphasis

Wayne Jackson
Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” continues to generate controversy —especially the prolonged scenes of violence. How does this emphasis compare to the Gospel accounts of the death of Christ? Read this week’s Penpoints for a discussion of this matter.

Mel Gibson’s extravaganza, “The Passion of the Christ,” has made its public debut, and, contrary to the dire financial forecast of the liberal prognosticators, it is hundreds of millions of dollars.

As expected, though, it has received mixed reviews. Some have charged that it is “anti-Semitic,” that is, that it portrays a misleading view of the first-century Jews and, at the very least, it will generate hateful, anti-Jew emotions in an unstable society.

Some cite references to Gibson’s father, who, supposedly, has questioned the “statistics” of the German Holocaust during World War II. Others charge that the Gospel records themselves are the culprits. Allegedly, the ancient biographies are the source of malevolence for the Hebrews that supposedly oozes from the pores of this cinematic production.

One oft-repeated criticism of the movie is that it is far too graphic —overly filled with gore that is protracted, on and on to the point of nauseous extremity. An apologist for the film might contend, with some measure of reason, that this is a judgment call. One man’s repulsion might be another’s deeply moving experience.

I do believe, however, that something is awry when folks claim that they have never been so moved regarding the death of Jesus as by seeing this movie. Claudia Puig, a columnist for USA TODAY, wrote that, “Watching the sadistic torture and crucifixion of Jesus ... provides a more visceral experience than reading the New Testament ever could render” (2/24/04). Apparently, for such folks as these, Mel Gibson has been able to achieve, through his cinemagraphic skills, what the Holy Spirit was unable to accomplish through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Many years ago, the celebrated scholar J. W. McGarvey produced a number of works that assembled a powerful case for the divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures. One of the arguments the professor employed was that of the uncommon “restraint” that was so characteristic of the biblical writers. McGarvey, in his Evidences of Christianity (III, p. 219), wrote about the,

“imperturbable calmness with which they trace the current of history, relating with as little apparent feeling the most wonderful and exciting events, as those the most trivial; as calmly, for instance, the final sufferings of Jesus as the fact of his taking a seat on Peter’s fishing-boat to address the people. They appear to have been restrained from giving natural utterance to the intense feeling which burned within them, or to have been lifted above all human weakness, so as to speak like him,

‘Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall;

Atoms or systems into ruin hurled,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world.’"

An example should suffice to illustrate the point. Admittedly, the apostle John was the disciple who was the closest to the Savior. John especially is designated as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (Jn. 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7,20). One would expect, therefore, that John, when composing his account of the crucifixion, would have poured his soul into the record, describing with agonizing detail, the horrors of this bloody and dreadful scene of an inch-by-inch death. And yet that is far from the case.

The apostle, with amazing brevity, depicts the actual crucifixion in less than four dozen words in the Greek New Testament.

“Then therefore he delivered him unto them to be crucified. They took Jesus therefore: and he went out, bearing the cross for himself, unto the place called the place of a skull, which is called Golgotha in Hebrew: where they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus in the middle” (19:16-18).

Where is all the groaning, the technicolor descriptions of gushing blood, the battered, swollen face, tormenting insects, gnawing dogs, etc.? Such descriptives are conspicuously absent!

These elements are not essential in order to drive home the theological point —he died for our sins! We think it represents a misguided emphasis to dwell inordinately upon the physical aspects of the Lord’s ordeal, over against the profound truth that the innocent Savior died for guilty sinners who are deserving of eternal banishment from the holy God.

While there are a few prophetic portrayals of the horrors of the Messiah’s death (cf. Psa. 22; Isa. 53), this is not the prime emphasis of the Scriptures.

The real issue is this: the Son of God gave himself for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3; Gal. 1:4); he offered us redemption by means of his plan of salvation (Rom. 3:21-26; Acts 2:38). And what are we going to do about it? Rail against it? Ignore it? Or humbly submit to its demands?

No shedding of a few tears during a movie, sincere though they may be, can ever be a substitute for genuine obedience to Jesus Christ (2 Thes. 1:7-9; Heb. 5:8-9; 1 Pet. 4:17-18).