They Crucified Him

“And they led him out to crucify him.” (Mark 15:20b)

I saw The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004) for the first time this week.  Prior to viewing it, I was encouraged to listen to this podcast by Allistair Begg. I found that it prepared me for the movie in some very helpful ways. (I should note that he does not once reference the movie, but rather the sermon provided a helpful theological underpinning for processing it.)

Your experience may have been different, but my impressions of The Passion of the Christ when it first came out was that it was nearly a mandate for Christians to see. The argument went something like this: In our sanitized western minds, we have no idea what a crucifixion is like. It is easy, then, to gloss over the events of Christ’s passion and to miss the magnitude of what He did for us. Seeing this movie will help us overcome that.

I would not for a moment argue that our western minds are sanitized from the earthy and cruel realities of crucifixion. However, Allistair Begg’s sermon on Mark 15 put this argument in a different context. He points to the simplicity of Mark’s description of the crucifixion (and that of the other gospel writers), and asserts that they are not so concerned with how Christ died as they are withwhy. 

The gospel writers did not feel compelled to clarify what it meant that “they crucified him.” More significant is the jeering from those at the foot of the cross, demanding that he prove his deity by coming down (Mark 15:29-32), or His redeeming the thief who hung beside him (Luke 23:39-43). The actual bloody violence is mentioned, to be sure, but to a careful reader of the gospel accounts, it does not seem to be the focus. 

I had to ponder this for a while. It’s not because God is afraid of graphic descriptions – Ezekiel’s condemnation of Samaria and Jerusalem compares them to two prostitutes with startling detail. Yet at the crucifixion of His own Son, He draws the attention to Christ’s willing sacrifice of His life and His choice to redeem fallen sinners above the violence of the sin itself.

In this context, I watched The Passion of the Christ. I expected to see its startling and graphic portrayal of Christ’s crucifixion, but was encouraged that Gibson intentionally pointed his viewers back to scenes from Christ’s ministry. He drew attention to many of the same moments that the gospel writers do, but also juxtaposed images of Christ instituting the Last Supper against the brutal violence of the crucifixion in a way I found quite poignant. In that sense, I would acknowledge that the filmmaker beautifully placed the emphasis where the gospel writers would, as much as was possible in a film like this.

Still, that doesn’t answer the question of whether the violence is necessary. While I found the movie helpful, even powerful, I wouldn’t say it created a dramatic shift in my experience of the Christian faith. It aided in providing context, and it emphasized that context in a way that guided my thoughts while observing the Lord’s Supper with Grace Church on Good Friday. All of this, though, was with the underpinning of Begg’s reminder that the why of the crucifixion is vastly more significant than the how.