Atonement in The Passion of the Christ

This continues through a paper which I wrote for a course Jesus Through the Centuries a couple of years ago while in seminary, analyzing the recent film The Passion of the Christ. It has had little to know adaptation to this blog post. In this section I examine how the film portrays atonement.

Jesus as Suffering Penal Substitution for Sin

The film unashamedly showed a lot of gore

To begin with the question of the work of Jesus, there is clearly a strong sense of penal substitution atonement. This seems like the only appropriate place to begin an analysis of the film as the extent of Jesus’ suffering absolutely dominates the movie.  The film opens with an Isaiah quote frequently cited as evidence for penal substitution: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; by His wounds we are healed” with a date of 700 BC.[2] A large portion of the movie can be summed up by those few words.

The centrality of Jesus’ death is also obvious in the movie, just as in many traditional creeds completely jumping over everything between birth and passion. There are a few flashbacks to his life, but they all in some way relate to one of the other themes I’ll be discussing through this blog series.  None of the flashbacks have to do with any other teaching or any of his miracles. The resurrection is barely shown as well, taking up about a minute at the end of the two-hour film.

The cinematography also plays a huge part in this central position afforded to Jesus’ suffering.  The film is littered with facial close-ups:  of Jesus’ bloody and bruised face, of Mary and some other women crying, and of the Jewish leader Caiaphas seemingly indifferent to the pain he’s watching (more on the Jewish indifference in the next post). Another repeated camera trick is the slow-motion fall, in which time slows as Jesus collapses under the total agony he is experiencing.

A penal substitution understanding as the reason for this extreme suffering does not take long to directly appear. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the film has inserted a temptation scene with Satan in place of the angel of heaven sent to comfort him (Luke 22:43). In this interaction, Satan attempts to get Jesus not to go to his death, with an interesting parallelism of Jesus asking the Father not to go to his death and Satan encouraging him not to.[3] Satan asks Jesus, “Do you really believe that one man can bear the full burden of sin?… No one man can carry this burden, I tell you.  It is far too heavy.  Saving their souls is too costly. No one. Ever. No. Never.”

That is far from the only hint of a penal understanding, however. In a flashback to the Last Supper, Jesus establishes the tradition of the Eucharist with the words that his blood is poured out for the forgiveness of sins. The two criminals on either side of Jesus represent this crime and punishment understanding as well: one admits he deserves to die and repents, and the other mocks Jesus and is given an extra punishment of a bird plucking out his eyes. Finally, the most visually vivid image comes when Jesus is stabbed in the side by the Roman soldier. As the blood comes out in a rush, the Roman soldier falls to his knees while the blood pours over him. He is quite literally washed in the blood of Christ at the foot of the cross.

Jesus as Conqueror of Satan

Interestingly, though, penal substitution is not the only atonement theology well represented in The Passion of the Christ. There is an unexplained but obviously important role for Satan as well, lending to an understanding of Christus Victor. In the previously mentioned Garden scene, Jesus asks the Father to be able to avoid the trap set for him (willingly stepping into an evil trap being another common motif of CV). At the end of the prayer, a snake appears and Jesus crushes its head. The snake has regularly been a symbol of Satan through Christian history, and Jesus therefore fulfills the promise of Genesis 3:15 about a child of Eve crushing the serpent.

Satan continues to be lurking around for the remainder of the movie, including a very curious and unexplained scene in which he is holding some form of demonic-looking baby. Satan also seems to cause the death of Judas via children with very demonic properties chasing him out of town to where a rope is around a dead donkey. The children then suddenly disappear – presumably visions – but Satan remains to witness the suicide.

This confused me in which theological message Gibson was attempting to get across. In the opening Garden scene, Satan does not want Jesus to die because he knows that it would forgive the sin of the world, but for the rest of the movie Satan seems to be happily observing.  Near the end, though, in Satan’s final appearance, it is clear that he was defeated in some way as he falls to his knees screaming from what was surely meant to be a depiction of Hell.

[2] The dating in itself is an interesting testimony to some traditional understandings for two reasons.  First, scholars are generally agreed that Isaiah 53 was written much later than 700 BC.  Second, the use of BC instead of BCE is also telling when the more neutral BCE-CE distinction was in use by 2004.

[3] Does this also in a way establish doubt as wrong since questioning the Father is equated to the words of Satan?  Slightly earlier in the film, I felt that doubt was discouraged in another way as Jesus tells John not to get the other disciples because he does not want to be seen in such agony questioning his Father.  This may be a stretch and likely not intended but there was an immediate parallel in my mind.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.