Christus Victor and The Passion of the Christ

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.

Let me start with some comments to bracket the two main controversies surrounding the film. First, was the movie anti-Semitic? In retrospect it seems clear that a lot of the worry that the film would be a catalyst for outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence was overblown. As best I know the movie hasn't been implicated in any violence against Jews. This may be due to the fact that evangelical Christians, who by and large loved The Passion, are growing increasingly protective of Israel, largely due to the role Israel is believed to play in popular "end times" scenarios. However, in the aftermath of the movie we've discovered that Gibson holds anti-Semitic views (or at least spouts them while drunk). So the Jewish worry about the film was not completely unjustified.

The second controversy surrounding the film involved the massive amounts of violence. The Passion is a prolonged meditation on the physical trauma endured by Jesus. In scene after scene the body of Jesus is pounded and lacerated. The blood of Christ becomes the dominant image and motif of the film. Blood is everywhere. And by the end, there isn't a spot on Jesus' body, from head to toe, that isn't cut or covered with blood.

We can approach the violence in The Passion historically, medically, and theologically. Historically speaking, how accurate is the violence in The Passion? Were people beaten to this extent prior to crucifixions? I have to think it occasionally happened. We do know that Jesus was scourged prior to his crucifixion, a mixture of punishments (two kinds of torture, one on top of the other) that was unusual, with criminals and dissidents usually getting one or the other.

Medically, is it possible that a human could withstand the punishment we see in The Passion? I don't know. Some people criticized The Passion for showing us a "superman" Jesus, one who could take upon himself this seemingly infinite amount of punishment. Again, I have no idea if a human could live through a scourging like the one depicted in The Passion. But we do know from the Bible that Jesus was unable to carry his cross and that he died on the cross earlier than the two thieves. This suggests that the scourging did physically traumatize Jesus, essentially killing him faster but more painfully.

And this brings me to the theological issues related to The Passion, the main thing I wanted to talk about.

A theological premise of the movie, one found in Scripture, is that all this violence is saving us. That all this blood was shed for our iniquities. This is signaled in the movie at a few different places. First, the movie opens with Isaiah 53:5:

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
After this opening we find Jesus in the garden praying. There Jesus encounters Satan who tries to instill doubt in Jesus claiming that the full weight of sin is too great and awful for any one human to bear. What is this "weight" of sin? No doubt some of the burden is spiritual (e.g., becoming god-forsaken). But the movie seems to suggest that much of the "weight" is in the form of physical trauma and pain. The physical body of Jesus has to endure the "weight" of sin. There is an interesting (and painful to watch) moment during the scourging that hints at this theology working in the film. The scourging begins with Jesus being beaten by rods. He is beaten until he can no longer stand. At this point the scourging seems to be over. But Jesus forces himself to stand up. Theologically, it seems that Jesus stands because there is more "weight" to lift, that if the scourging ended prematurely the "full penalty" for all human sin would not be "paid." Thus, Jesus stands so that the scourging can continue. Sociologically, Jesus' standing incites the Roman soldiers, who perceive it be be a kind of challenge or defiance, to extreme levels of violence. What follows are some of the most violent moments in the film.

Due to this violence I don't think I'll ever watch the film again. It's just too hard to watch. However, I wanted to watch the film again to see if the violence might have other interpretations. Obviously, many people viewed the film through the perspective of penal substitutionary atonement. The notion that all that punishment was really intended for me. Jesus, in his love for me, takes the punishment upon himself. And, given that Jesus is doing this for all of sinful humanity, his physical punishment is as extreme as we can imagine. It is the punishment for the sins of all humanity--living, dead and still to be born.

No doubt, as I noted above, penal substitutionary atonement is hinted at in the film. But not strongly so. For example, nowhere in the film is God's wrath mentioned. Nowhere is it indicated that God is demanding that Jesus must suffer in this way. True, these notions could be read into the film, but in their absence I wanted to know, in watching the film again, if other views of the atonement could be found in The Passion.

In my opinion, Christus Victor themes seem to be as strong, if not stronger, than the penal substitutionary themes in The Passion. Again, the movie opens in the garden with the confrontation between Jesus and Satan. At one point Satan sends a snake over to Jesus. At the decisive moment, the moment when Jesus accepts the task set before him, he stands and crushes the head of the snake under his heel. This is a clear echo of Genesis 3.15 where God curses the snake and makes a prognostication:
"And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel."
So the battle lines are drawn. And as the movie progresses Satan follows Jesus, haunting every scene. More, the demonic infuses the scenes with Judas and Satan is there when Judas commits suicide, seemingly driving Judas mad so he would seek relief in taking his own life. At the death of Jesus, in a scene alluding to the harrowing of hell, we see Satan screaming in defeat deep in the bowels of hell. Finally, at the end of the movie we see Jesus walk out of the tomb while martial music begins to play. Many have criticised the military overtones of the the final soundtrack but, theologically speaking, it fits with the Christus Victor themes of the movie.

Here's what struck me about all this. The way Satan moves in and out of the trial and the scourging scenes of the movie suggests that Satan is bringing this punishment upon Jesus. The Passion seems to argue that Jesus hands himself over to Satan who then tries to defeat Jesus with physical trauma and pain. But Jesus endures it and, in the end, defeats Satan. And let's go back to that scene during the scourging when Jesus stands back up to take more punishment. During this scene Mary, the mother of Jesus, asks herself how long Jesus will allow this punishment to go on. Jesus, Mary believes, could stop the punishment by calling a legion of angels to his aid. The point, given that Satan is prowling around in the crowd, is that Jesus is standing up in defiance of Satan. In short, it is a contest of wills. So Jesus stands back up. Finally, the only view of God we have in The Passion is a single tear drop that falls from the sky when Jesus dies.

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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4 thoughts on “Christus Victor and The Passion of the Christ

  1. I have a question about God-hidden-in-Jesus. If the demons recognized Him, before the crucifixion, how could Satan not know who He is? There does seem to be some recognition on Satan's part as well during the temptations in the wilderness.

    Is it possible that Satan believes he can defeat God? We know that he aspired to be like God.

    As to how this relates to the movie, I can't say. I can't watch the movie. I am overcome by the violence.


  2. Saying the demons recognized Jesus might be stating it too strongly. Certainly they (and Satan) knew that he was God's Anointed, the Mashiach or Messiah. Did they also recognize him as the Logos of God himself? That's less clear. Certainly, Satan's temptations of Jesus in the desert make less sense if that's the case. Of course, it is also possible that Satan actually believed the Logos as a human being could be ensnared by death. And perhaps he was even right if his temptations had succeeded. But the thread that the Incarnation was a conspiracy by God to trick the forces of evil that ensnared us and free us from the bondage of death is a strong one. The harrowing of Hades or Sheol (which is to say death) is a dominant image in early Christianity. (And it's pretty hard to miss in Matthew especially where the dead get up and start walking around again.)

    I do think the Christus Victor themes come through in Passion of the Christ, even though they are at times subtle and understated.

  3. As a Roman Catholic I am familiar with the "Stations of the Cross", and the retelling of the Passion of our Lord every Good Friday. Over time, the familiarity with the story can dull our emotional response to the sacrifice of Christ. I have always found Gibson's movie difficult to watch because of the graphic nature of the depiction of Jesus' suffering. For that very reason I have chosen to make it an annual meditation every Good Friday. It brings forth for me the naked reality of the true suffering that Jesus endured for all humanity. It is this very emotional response that makes the reality of Good Friday's remembered events more significant for me and makes the subsequent celebration of the Resurrection at the Easter Vigil more powerfully present to me. Redemptive sacrifice is a very Catholic theme with which I am familiar and all too often forget about. I am grateful to Gibson for producing the movie for that reason.

  4. I have never really been able to plumb the depths of scholarly Christology (although I am slightly more appreciative of historical Christologies). However, I very much appreciate your examination of this film and this topic.

    I saw the film during both of its theatrical releases, and was disturbed since I do not really having any taste for substitionary atonement, much less the penal image of God the Father. Yet, I was very moved by the film, even beyond my revulsion to the violence. Somehow I felt the movement of the Spirit. Your exploration brings to mind and connects my experience of the film to an earlier 'vision.'

    'Vision' is an overblown way of referring to what I experienced. I was going to work on Good Friday (years before the film) and - oddly and dangerously, while driving on the freeway - looked up at a billboard and 'saw' a movie of sorts. I saw Jesus running around in a prison with a huge pry-bar. It lasted just a second or two, but it expanded in my mind through Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday into a cinematic experience. The more I reflected on this scene, through a lens of comparative mythology, I was left with an image of Jesus the Trickster who sneaked his way into hell under Satan's very nose.

    I have been astonished that I have never heard anyone ever preach about the Trickster Jesus.

    Again, thank you!

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