Magazine article The Christian Century

Understanding the Passion

Magazine article The Christian Century

Understanding the Passion

Article excerpt

THE PASSION of Jesus, more than other parts of the gospel story, cries out for a theological commentary. While the uninitiated can easily appreciate scenes of Jesus' ministry, in which he appears as a compassionate healer and teacher, they will be less clear about what to make of a gruesome execution. The crucifixion made no sense to Jesus' own followers, who had to start rereading their scriptures in an effort to discover why the mighty prophet of God, the one God raised from the dead, died an ignominious death.

As an evangelistic tool, then, Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ presents some challenges. Offering only fleeting references to Jesus' life and ministry, the movie focuses on a bloody day of torture and therefore on that most mysterious of theological topics--atonement.

The earliest creeds of the church never dogmatized about atonement. The Nicene Creed says that Jesus' death was "for us and for our salvation" but does not explain how the death, accomplished the salvation. The various theories that have been offered--it was a sacrifice for sin, an appeasement of God's wrath, a victory over the evil powers, the ultimate example of self-giving love, an exposure of the scapegoat mechanism--are all suggestive and helpful, but none unravels the mystery precisely or completely.

Gibson's own emphasis is clearly on Jesus as substitute victim: he bears the punishment we deserve. The film's only theological account of the brutality is an opening citation from Isaiah: "He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities . …

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