Last night Jana and I watched Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. We had seen the film when it first came out. And as you know, there was a lot of conversation swirling around the movie's release. So it was hard then to watch The Passion independently of the controversy surrounding the film. Everyone wanted to know "What did you think about it?", "Was it too violent?", "Was it anti-Semitic?". So I knew then I'd want to wait a few years to watch the movie one more time to revisit my feelings about the film. So we got the movie on NetFlix and watched it, purposefully, on Good Friday.
All in all, then, although there are overtones of penal substitutionary atonement in the film, one could approach the film from a Christus Victor perspective. All the physical trauma is from Satan who is intent upon breaking Christ's will and body. The only view of God the Father is a single tear, a symbol of sympathy and sadness not judgment and wrath. The climatic moment of the film is the defeat of Satan and the military drumbeat of the resurrection.
And there is another interesting point in the movie that hearkens back to early church thought regarding Christus Victor and ransom theory. If Satan knew that the death of Jesus would redeem the world why would Satan allow Jesus to be crucified? Some of the church fathers posited a bit of cosmic trickery. God was hidden inside the human Jesus. And, like the Trojan Horse, after Jesus' death Satan takes Jesus into hell thinking he's won the fight. Unfortunately, Satan has brought God Himself into hell! God in Christ then cracks open the gates of hell and sets Satan's captives free. What is interesting in The Passion is that in the confrontation in the garden Satan seems unsure about who, exactly, Jesus is. Satan seems to get his answer when Jesus crushes the head of the snake, but Satan's initial uncertainty about Jesus' true identity is interesting in light of church history. It highlights, once again, the Christus Victor themes, the confrontation between God and Satan in the person of Jesus.
Does any of this rescue The Passion on theological grounds? I have no idea. Mainly I wanted to see if another view, one other than penal substitutionary atonement, could rehabilitate the film. My conclusion is that a plausible Christus Victor reading does work for the film and may, in fact, be a better fit for the film than penal substitutionary atonement. We can read the violence in the film as Satanic in origin rather than coming from the Father. This doesn't remove the penal substitutionary overtones in the movie, but those overtones come from biblical themes and Gibson can't be faulted for including them. But my take is that the penal substitutionary overtones are more subtle than the consistent, beginning to end, Christus Victor themes.
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