Another Perspective on The Passion of Christ
by W. Jeffrey Marsh
I have not seen Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of Christ, but whether you choose to see this movie or not, you cannot escape the media buzz surrounding this film. With all its hype, and from the previews being shown, the indisputable suffering of Jesus Christ is portrayed in graphic and chilling reality. Yet, with all its realism, there is something more, something even greater, to consider about the suffering of the Savior that this movie does not-and perhaps cannot-consider.
A caller on a radio talk-show recently asked, How is the physical suffering of Christ as portrayed in this movie any different than the physical suffering of others who were beaten, scourged, and crucified by Roman soldiers? The host answered, Because of the reason Christ suffered. He added, “The thieves were crucified for being thieves, but Christ was crucified for our sins and then three days later He resurrected from the dead. No one else had ever done that.”
True enough. And perhaps therein lies the great irony of this movie. From the previews, it’s apparent that the movie does an excellent job of showing the physical suffering inflicted by the Roman soldiers. But are we convinced that this was the greatest suffering our Savior endured? Apparently, the movie portrays the vicious, brutal scourging and fierce flagellation, and the grim certainty of having monstrous spikes driven through hands and feet. But was the physical abuse inflicted by Rome the greatest and ultimate source of the Christ’s agony? In addition to, and even greater than, the physical suffering was the spiritual suffering Christ submitted Himself to in order to fulfill the will of the Father. God so loved us, that He gave us His Son (John 3:16), and Jesus “so loved the world that he gave his own life, that as many as would believe might become the sons [and daughters] of God” (D&C 34:3).
Even Gethsemane involved so much more than was shown in the movie. From the previews, the portrayal of Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane seems to be merely that of the Greatest of All struggling to psyche Himself up for the great torment and tortures to follow. Can we assume that that is all that occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane that fateful night? Mere mental calisthenics?
With so little information in the Bible about what happened in Gethsemane, it’s little wonder that most of the Christian world focuses on the cross and the events of Calvary. There is only one verse in the Four Gospels describing what happened physically to the Savior in Gethsemane: “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Without the help of modern inspiration, this verse literally reads as if the Savior simply sweated profusely and prayed more earnestly in the garden that night. But the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible gives us greater clarity and understanding. In the JST, this verse reads: “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and he sweat as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” Modern revelation confirms that He sweat blood from every pore while praying in Gethsemane (see D&C 19:18 and Mosiah 3:7).
Why did He bleed at every pore? What caused such agony to come upon Him? When the Savior spoke of His suffering in Gethsemane to the Prophet Joseph Smith, He said, “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit” (D&C 19:16-18). The Savior further described His agony: “How sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not” (D&C 19:15). As horrific as the scenes in this movie are, can anyone really know what Christ suffered for us? Obviously not, but why not?
Perhaps one answer to those questions lies in an understanding of what the Atonement really was. It is the reconciliation of fallen man to God. “Sin is the cause of the estrangement, and therefore the purpose of the Atonement is to correct or overcome the consequences of sin.” (LDS Bible Dictionary, p. 617.) In Gethsemane and on the cross, Christ took upon Himself our pains, afflictions, temptations, infirmities, sins, and death, so that “his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (see Alma 7:11-13). And according to modern revelation, the Savior’s suffering covered all places and planets where God the Father’s children are found (see D&C 76:40-42).
In addition to suffering for sin in Gethsemane, and in addition to being crucified, Elder James E. Talmage has written that during the final three hours he hung on the cross, all the pain, anguish and agony for our sins that He suffered in Gethsemane the night before, fell one more time on Christ before He died (see Jesus the Christ, 1962, pp. 660-661). Only this time there was no angel to comfort and strengthen Him, and this time even His Father withdrew His spirit. Christ was alone in the greatest moment of suffering ever to occur. He would later say, I have “trodden the wine-press alone, even the wine-press of the fierceness of the wrath of Almighty God” (D&C 88:106).
As great a job as the movie apparently does illustrating the physical pain and suffering inflicted by the soldiers, there is so much more to what Christ endured for us. In Gethsemane and on Golgotha He suffered the demands of justice for us all. He suffered the fierceness of the wrath of Almighty God (D&C 76:107) so that we could escape this pain ourselves (see D&C 45:3-5). He was our scapegoat (Leviticus 16:10). “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our [eternal] peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Our garments can be washed white “through the blood of the Lamb” (Alma 13:11) which was shed for us. And all He asks is that we remember Him and keep His commandments (see D&C 20:79). He came into the world to redeem us from sin (3 Nephi 9:21). He cannot save us in our sins, but came to save us from them-if we will but turn to Him (see Helaman 5:10).
How is it possible for all the sins and sufferings of all people to fall upon Him in one moment of time? President John Taylor has written that in “some mysterious, incomprehensible way, Jesus [took] upon Himself,.[all our] transgressions or sins.” President Taylor noted that the marvelous Atonement is “incomprehensible and inexplicable [in regards to how Christ] bore the weight of the sins of the whole world, not only of Adam, but of his posterity.” (See John Taylor, Mediation and Atonement, pp. 148, 149; see also Appendix 4:5.) We may not be able to comprehend how and what took place Gethsemane and on Golgatha, but that does not stop us from appreciating and bearing testimony to others of the importance and reality of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
The movie fails to note (and of course, we wouldn’t expect it to note this) that when Jesus Christ died a sacrifice for sin, He put an end to sacrificial offerings. “Ye shall offer up unto me,” the resurrected Christ told the Nephites and Lamanites in ancient America, “no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings” (3 Nephi 9:19). The sacrifice He asks of us now is the very same sacrifice He offered in Gethsemane and on the Cross-that of a broken heart and a contrite spirit (see 3 Nephi 9:19-20). The sacrifice of the Lamb of God did away with animal sacrifice, and in exchange, He now demands that we put the animal (the natural man) in us to death (2 Nephi 2:7). If we will, He promises us the gift of the Holy Ghost and Eternal Life, which are the greatest gifts of God (see 2 Nephi 31:13 and D&C 14:7).
If nothing else, Mel Gibson’s portrayals of the Savior’s physical pains and suffering should help remind us of the greater sacrifice for our sins. “Behold the wounds which pierced my side, and also the prints of the nails in my hands and feet,” the Savior said, and then commanded, “be faithful, keep my commandments, and ye shall inherit the kingdom of heaven” (D&C 6:37).
The Passion of Christ apparently does a fine job of portraying the suffering inflicted by the Roman soldiers, but no movie could ever capture the eternal verities that Christ’s suffering represents. The cosmic reasons for His suffering are simply beyond our ability to comprehend. The real test of the impact of this movie on modern Christianity will not be measured by the empathy it arouses in people’s hearts for the Savior-because it will certainly do that-but in the way it enriches the empathy we feel for one another. Isn’t that what the Savior would want us to experience, with or without the movie?
Bertel Thorvaldsen’s inspiring Christus statue depicts our Lord and Savior just as the scriptures describe Him, beckoning to us with open arms in a most pleasant manner, as if saying: “Come unto me” (Matt. 11:28); “Learn of me” (Matt. 11:29); “Come follow me” (Luke 18:22); “I am the Light” (3 Nephi 18:27); “I have set an example for you” (3 Nephi 18:16); “Do the things which ye have seen me do” (2 Nephi 31:10, 12). These invitations refer to the way as well as the end result. “What manner of men ought ye to be,” the Savior asked. “Even as I am” (3 Nephi 27:27). May we all “seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God the Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of them, may be and abide in you forever. Amen.” (Ether 12:41.)