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Two Pastoral Letters About ‘The Passion of Christ.’ Part 2

Category Articles
Date April 22, 2004

Ian Hamilton, the pastor of the Cambridge Presbyterian Church in England, and William Harrell, the pastor of the Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia are old friends. Both adopt the Scottish tradition of writing a monthly letter to their congregations, and independently of one another the following were the letters they wrote in the past weeks on "The Passion of Christ" to their respective congregations. There is still widespread reaction and discussion of this movie all over the world. When it will appear in video form it is going to be around for many years, and so we do not hesitate to publish the thoughtful response of these two ministers to the film.


I have been asked by many people, who know that I am a minister, what I think of the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ. It is likely that many of your friends, workmates, and neighbors, who know you are a believer, are asking you the same question. Therefore, I share some of my thoughts on that question.

The short answer to the question should be for every believer that the Book is infinitely better than the film. But what are some of the reasons that this is so? The primary reason is that God inspired the Book, while an uninspired man made the film. Does this mean that the film is of no value, or even that it is for a believer defiling to watch?

At this point I should confess that I have not seen the film, nor do I plan to see it. You may say that this makes me an unqualified critic, but I maintain otherwise. I have heard reports of the film from both critics and fans, and I have gathered, I believe, an accurate understanding of its contents. Therefore, I ask:

What could a two hour visual representation of the sufferings of Jesus, cluttered by slow motion focused shots of His beatings, flashback shots of His boyhood, drawn totally from the imagination of man, and venerating scenes of His mother possibly add to my understanding of Jesus Christ – an understanding gained through thirty-three years of my apprehending Christ by faith as He is presented in His Word? Someone may answer that to first century readers of the Gospels, who had witnessed such beatings and crucifixions, the spare and suggestive accounts of the Savior’s sufferings given in the Gospels may have been sufficient for them to grasp the horrors of such treatment, but they are not adequate for us. To such an assertion I reply that God’s Word is sufficient for all believers in all ages, not standing in need of augmentation by twenty-first century cinematography.

But then there is, many cry, the evangelistic value of this film. Here I agree with the Apostle Paul, who, when he learned that some men were preaching Christ from impure motives, rejoiced that Christ was preached, whether in pretense or in truth (Phil. 1:18). For a time, at least, the name and the sufferings of Jesus will be in the minds of many people, and the Lord can and no doubt will use that for good. If Mel Gibson wanted to make a film, I applaud him for producing a sincere and serious depiction of Christ rather than some lewd and ribald film like so many others that crowd the screens of the world today. Yet, when Paul rejoices that Christ is preached even from men with impure motives, he surely is not commending those men uncritically.

I believe that Mel Gibson is a sincere and devout Roman Catholic. What he has produced is something that fits well into the Roman Catholic tradition. He has made a cinematic icon (his production company is named Icon Productions!). The icons of the Middle Ages were made to portray the Lord, His works, and especially His passion to masses of people who could not read. Some actually worshipped the icons, but most used them as aids to their devotion. But they all had more to do with art than with theology. That is why the icons, through the ages, have been so widely admired – even treasured – because they are great art, with the subjects they depict fading into incidental significance.

This film is in essence a piece of visual art. So insignificant is the audible message in it that Gibson has the characters speak in Aramaic and Latin. It may be, and I am inclined to believe that it is, a beautiful and moving piece of art. But visual art is not the mode best suited to convey the truth of God to men.

Very few of the people of God have actually seen the mighty deeds of the Lord with their eyes. One generation saw the plagues in Egypt, the Red Sea parting, and the awesome majesty of Sinai. A handful of prophets saw visions of the Lord’s glory, while another generation beheld the Savior, witnessed His miracles, heard Him speak as no man spoke, and saw Him crucified, buried, and resurrected. They were blessed by what they saw, although not all of them, and in some instances few of them were. A whole generation that saw God’s mighty deeds in their exodus from Egypt balked in unbelief when they should have entered the Promised Land. Two of Jesus’ disciples saw their resurrected Lord on the Emmaus road and failed rightly to perceive the identity of the One whom they were seeing. Some of those who saw were blessed, but many more who have not seen are no less blessed (Jn. 20:29).

The people of God see best and most truly and edifyingly when they see with the eyes of their hearts (Eph. 1:18). Such spiritual seeing is done with the ears, as faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). We shall be more blessed if we form our conceptions of Christ and His salvation from the testimony of God’s Word, as we read it and hear it preached week by week, than if we watch for a few hours an artistic production of an uninspired man. I had an e-mail from a woman who saw The Passion of the Christ, and she said that it moved her more deeply than anything in all of her eighteen years of being a Christian. I fear that many may experience the same sort of thing. Yet, that is indicative not of the film’s excellence or necessity, so much as of the poor preaching and poor hearing of the preached Word that such people experience.

One day, every believer will behold the face of the Savior (Rev. 22:4). Until that day, we shall perceive our Redeemer more clearly and sanctifyingly not through the visual artistry of men, but through the inerrant testimony of God’s Word. We should avoid having our minds cluttered by men’s finite and fallible conceptions of Christ. The Book really is better than this or any other film.

William Harrell

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