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The Passion: Should Evangelicals Exult?

download/print this treatise (with footnotes, 14 pages)


Pastor Bob Bixby
Morning Star Baptist Church, Rockford, Illinois

I would like to share some reasons why I will not watch Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and I would like to preface my protests with strong statements of admiration for the maker of that film. He has demonstrated a backbone that I wish many Evangelicals would have.

In a recent article, Mel Gibson is quoted as complaining that the Church of Rome has defected from its original teachings. “For 1950 years,” he says, “[the church] does one thing, and then in the ‘60s, all of a sudden they turn everything inside out and begin to do strange things that go against the rules…. Everything that had been heresy is no longer heresy, according to the [new] rules. We [Catholics] are being cheated…. The church has stopped being critical. It has relaxed. I don’t believe them, and I have no intention of following their trends.… It’s the church that has abandoned me, not me who has abandoned it.”

The most exciting thing about this entire phenomenon is Gibson’s refreshing honesty and courage. He has boldly placed himself in the camp of old-style Catholicism and has made his statement loud and clear in a world that has so capitulated to postmodernism that his audacity for truth as he sees it and personal conviction far outshines even that of most Evangelical pastors and leaders. We ought to be ashamed.

Part of me would love to see the film to support the decent and moral courage that it took to produce such a work in this postmodern era. Mel Gibson’s conviction is certainly to be commended and I wish that Protestants, Evangelicals, and those who preach the Gospel of the Reformed faith had the same kind of conviction.

Yet, while I salute the vigor and boldness of Mel Gibson and honor his courage, I will not watch his movie because in some ways I am an old-style Protestant as he is an old-style Catholic. I say the same thing Gibson has said about his church concerning the scores of Protestants, Evangelicals, and Fundamentalists who think that I am wrong for not supporting this film, “Everything that had been heresy is no longer heresy…. The church has stopped being critical. It has relaxed…. It’s the church that has abandoned me, not me who has abandoned it.” It is the millions of Protestants who have abandoned the old ways, not me. For if John Calvin, Martin Luther, the Puritan greats of what was called the Second Reformation such as John Owen, Stephen Charnock, with the famous Dissenters such as John Bunyan and the pilgrim fathers were to line up behind this microphone to state their opinion, they would be unanimous in their opposition. They would not go. I am not the one that has changed.

Ladies and gentlemen, our Protestant forefathers would not only not go to see this movie, but they would decry it as a human encroachment on a ministry that is to be spiritual and as a violation of the Second Commandment. God has said that those who worship Him, must worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:21). To them it would have been a trespass to have made a likeness of Jesus Christ in any shape, form, or picture. Thomas Watson’s answer to the question, “If it be not lawful to make the image of God the Father, yet may we not make an image of Christ, who took upon him the nature of man?” speaks for all the Puritans of his day. “No! Epiphanius, seeing an image of Christ hanging in a church, brake it in pieces. It is Christ’s Godhead, united to his manhood, that makes him to be Christ; therefore to picture his manhood, when we cannot picture his Godhead, is a sin, because we make him to be but half Christ – we separate what God has joined, we leave out that which is the chief thing which makes him to be Christ.”

And the great Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 asks, “Must we then make any image at all?” Answer: “God cannot and may not be imaged in any way.” Again, “But may not images be tolerated in churches as books of the laity?” Answer: “No, for we should not be wiser than God, Who will not have His people taught by dumb idols, but by the lively preaching of His Word.”

Now, there are two reasons why I personally will not watch Mel Gibson’s movie–besides the question of Christ’s representation, which is sobering enough to make one pause. The first is that if it is for entertainment the film is unquestionably macabre, unnecessarily violent, and despicably explicit. The Scriptures say in Ephesians 5:11, “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.” Nothing was more damnable, more hideous, more evil, and more blasphemous than the crucifixion of Jesus, the Son of God. It was the ultimate manifestation of human evil and if there is one mili-second of entertainment for anybody as there surely will be among the millions of godless people who flock to see it, I will not be privy to it. It is not worth going with those who say “come let us lay wait for blood” (Proverbs 1:11).

But the film is violent and explicit because it is intended to be a historically faithful representation of what really happened to our Lord Jesus Christ on Golgotha; and from my understanding of Gibson’s many interviews, he does not intend for it to be merely entertainment. He wants it to be instructive, an aid to and expression of worship. As evidence of this I would remind you of the fact that he uses his own hands in the scene to hand the nails to the persecutors and he had mass said many times during the making of this film. This is a religious expression. It is precisely because it is intended to be instructive, an aid to or an expression of worship that I have my second reason for not watching it.

The second reason is that if it is meant to be a spiritual experience, worshipful, or instructive in spiritual truths then it is not God’s Divinely appointed means for such things. And I, standing in a long line of Protestant men of God – including all the Puritans, John Bunyan, Spurgeon, Edwards, and others – will not use any other then the divinely-appointed means for the instruction of men in the faith. Nor would they use any other than divinely appointed means for worship. So, my friend, in my mind, if one says that there is no entertainment value, it is intended for instruction and for worship, I would say that that gives the second reason more impetus. And since I still do not mind ascribing to the old-style Protestantism, I won’t watch it simply because it is an act of worship.

We must be very discerning here, and we must not allow our admiration for Gibson’s outstanding qualities to diminish our alarm for an equally outstanding error. My friends, Spurgeon bemoaned the tragedy of his day when he said that “one of the perils of the hour is the failure of many good men to discern the peril.” I am a simple preacher from a small church – a nobody. But I would sin against my conscience if I did not at least remind you that it is a very easy task to prove to you that our Protestant forefathers would not attend this movie. I plead with you to give me an ear as I attempt to make the same case about my stance as Mel Gibson has about his religious convictions. We are of the old ways.

Mel Gibson is a Catholic and he raises a centuries-old conflict that most Evangelical Christians seem to miss in their giddiness over the fact that something moral and decent has finally come from the film industry. We have so long resisted the waves of secularism and immorality that we have laid down our swords and lost our will to discern false religion – especially if it comes from the unexpected source of secularism and immorality, the movie industry. This is water, but it is bitter. Don’t drink.

This film is nothing more than a 21st century image intended to be used for worship. To think of it as anything less is to not be paying attention to what Mel Gibson is all about. Now, as I’ve already said, if Mel Gibson is unashamedly old-style in his Catholicism, I am unashamedly old-style in my Protestantism. I would like to say a word on behalf of Protestantism – a term which I use as broadly as the great Puritan writer John Owen did when he took up his pen to defend England from the literary onslaught of Romanism in the 1600s. He knew that there were many parties and divisions within the broad, non-Roman Church, just as there are today. But he chose to make his arguments broad enough to included everyone under the umbrella of Protestantism who believed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it is given to us in the inspired Word of God.

Owen suspected that there would be some so “addicted to their parties” that they would not accept his representation of them. There are Baptists who will not accept the term Protestant ascribed to them in any context whatsoever, even when it is in an effort to speak to one commonly held truth, and I pity them for their belligerence. Broadly speaking, however, since the Reformation any of us who have resisted the powerful reach of the Roman Church have historically shared common truths that have distinguished us from the Church of Rome. Those truths have been commonly labeled as protests against the Church and happy are the people who are mature enough to see the common cause. I say with John Owen, “if any be so far addicted to their parties… to [not] be joined in the same plea with them from whom in part they differ, I cannot help it. I pretend not their commission for what I do; and they may, when they please, disclaim my appearance for them. I suppose by this course I shall please very few, and I am sure I shall displease some, if not many. I aim at neither, but to profit all.”

So I appeal to all believers in Jesus Christ who drink from the fountains of blessing that spring from our Protestant heritage to remember that our forefathers would vehemently oppose this film on the grounds that it was breaking the Second Commandment.

The Second Commandment is clear. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord they God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6). God does not only want to be the only one worshipped by mankind, He wants to be worshipped His way only! Again, let me quote from another Puritan, James Durham, whose statement represents the long-held beliefs of Evangelicals in that he points out that this not only speaks of the making of images, but the methods of worship. “It holds forth this,” says Durham, “that in that external service and worship, God will not have men following their own humor, but will have them to walk by the rule given, or to be given by him; and otherwise it is in vain whatever worship men perform for him.” I would suggest that Gibson’s presentation of the Gospel message is both private and unwarranted. It is private (or “following his own humor” to use Durham’s words) because it is his own personal version of the last twelve hours. Too much is made of his obvious attempts to be historically faithful. What is not stated enough is that whatever details are supplied for the flow of the presentation that are not in Scripture are unwarranted. “This is my version of what happened in the gospels,” Gibson says, “and what I wanted to show – the aspect of it I wanted to show” (emphasis mine). And to say this is unwarranted is not an overstatement because God intends that His message be delivered His way.

The Church of Rome has always believed that images are the books of the ignorant. This is unfortunately true. And the sophistication of image making has not made viewers smarter, but dumber and less discerning. Obviously, the mind is less exercised in the viewing of a cinematic crucifix than in the viewing of a stone crucifix. Yet, historically, Protestants have argued against the images-for-books proposition because it served as justification to the Church of Rome to inspire devotion and teach doctrine in the masses of ignorant people with the use of icons. In other words, images should be used, they say, to instruct ignorant people the way of God. This seems harmless on the face of it, but because ignorance is not only a result of sin, but sin, men will immediately become idolatrous in the using of them. Images of any kind, even movies (or maybe particularly movies) will not lead men to God and it is a grievous error to suppose that this is going to be an effective evangelistic tool. Even as late as ten years ago, James Packer stood by his assertion that “those who look to manmade images, material or mental, to lead them to God are not likely to take any part of his revelation as seriously as they should.”

Consider these quotes from the great Reformer, John Calvin: “I am not ignorant, indeed, of the assertion, which is now more than threadbare, ‘that images are the books of the unlearned.’ So said Gregory: but the Holy Spirit gives a very different decision; and had Gregory got his lesson in this matter in the Spirit’s school, he never would have spoken as he did. For when Jeremiah declares that ‘the stock is a doctrine of vanities’ (Jeremiah 10:8), and Habakkuk ‘that the molten image’ is ‘a teacher of lies,’ the general doctrine to be inferred certainly is, that everything respecting God which is learned from images is futile and false. If it be objected that the censure of the prophets is directed against those who perverted images to purposes of impious superstition, I admit it to be so; but I add (what must be obvious to all), that the prophets utterly condemn what the Papists hold to be an undoubted axiom – viz. that images are substitutes for books.”

Christians today are so ignorant of the great truths of Scripture and the Gospel that most Evangelicals are ecstatically ascribing to this sophisticated image more power and significance than it deserves. This is not a new problem. It has been the centuries-old temptation of the people of God, when they have become so estranged from powerful preaching they have the “form of godliness but deny the power of it” (2 Timothy 3:5). Consequently, they attempt to stir up within their hearts a movement of religion by the use of images. It’s because preaching has become powerless and the lives of most Evangelicals are just as empty as their atheistic neighbors.

The only difference is that their hearts tell them there must be something more, something real. I agree with John Calvin that what they can’t find in preaching, they’ll look for in images. “But, I ask,” says Calvin, “whence this stupidity, but just because they are defrauded of the only doctrine which was fit to instruct them? The simple reason why those who had the charge of churches resigned the office of teaching to idols was, because they themselves were dumb. Paul declares, that by the true preaching of the gospel, Christ is portrayed and in a manner crucified before our eyes (Gal. 3:1).”

The reason the masses will find great pleasure in this film is because preachers of the Word of God have abdicated to other means the ministry of the Gospel. This is strictly forbidden in God’s Word, and it will not assuage His displeasure that the images are used only to evangelize the lost. The Passion by Mel Gibson is an image. And it is no different to go see it then to go to a chapel in Medieval times and gaze at a stone crucifix. One who does not believe this, does not understand Catholic doctrine. I stand by the Reformed conviction that Luther, Calvin and the Puritans all stood for: “the doctrine common to all should be set forth by the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments – a doctrine to which little heed can be given by those whose eyes are carried to and fro gazing at idols.”

You might think that I have taken this application of the Second Commandment too far when I apply it to the presentation of the Gospel. But I would remind you that we preach salvation by faith. Faith is the “evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) without which “it is impossible to please God” (v.6). Since our God is the invisible God that no man has seen at any time (1 Timothy 1:17; John 1:18), the only acceptable image would be one that qualified as “the express image of his person” (Hebrews 1:3). Anything short of that would be a blasphemous injury against the glory of God. Only Jesus, the glorious Son of God qualifies. “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Anything, friends, anything that falls short of a perfect representation of the Captain of our Salvation is as injurious and misrepresentative as any idol. And the Resurrected Lord decreed both an axiom of Biblical faith and a blessing when He told the doubting Thomas, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29). The Apostle Peter would praise his readers with a compliment that he could not apply even to his apostolic brethren when, speaking of their faith in the Son of God, he said, “Whom having not seen, ye love” (1 Peter 1:8). Truly, ours is a sightless faith.

The mark of our faith is that we are instructed throughout the whole Bible not to look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen (2 Corinthians 4:18). This applies even to the Crucifixion. It is the preaching of the Cross, not the reenactment of the cross that God has appointed for the Gospel ministry. We are to preach it in such away that, in a sense, Christ is portrayed as crucified right before them (Galatians 3:1). But of the use of images, all the Bible along with centuries of Church wisdom agree to denounce because we have a “sightless” religion.

It is this “sightlessness” that distinguishes our faith from any other in the world. Our faith is not proclaimed or upheld by sight. The only two ocular helps that we are allowed are the broken bread and wine of the Lord’s Table. That is all we need. Anything else undermines the truth that the cross is, as John Piper put it, both “a past event of substitution and a present event of execution.” Only a verbal delivery can preserve both the historicity and the actuality of the message of the cross.

The Second Commandment settled this for all time, but it marks a new low in Evangelicalism that there is so much hope placed in this film. It is sad that a faith that is clearly by divine decree not ocular should require an ocular delivery. It is, as John Owen says, “a sign how well men understand the apostle’s words, when they suppose themselves furthered in their meditation on them by images and pictures.” To hear some Evangelicals talk about this film, one would think that Pentecost has happened all over again.

Since our faith is not sensory but spiritual, so our message is to be spiritual. Thus, we are told in the Holy Scriptures that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17). The eye gate receives images and does things with it that are so dangerous to the spirit of man that we are strictly forbidden to use that gate as a channel for the Gospel message. Eve, when she saw that the fruit was good, took it. Even the Beloved Apostle John upon seeing some of the glories of the Revelation was so awe-struck that he fell to idolatry in that he began to worship the angel who showed him these things (Revelation 22:8-9)! Our eyes are not our friends when it comes to religion. “Hell and destruction are never full; so the eyes of man are never satisfied” (Proverbs 27:20). This film will not suffice. Soon we will crave for more and we remain at the mercy of a godless and unevangelical industry to help our faith since it is the only supplier of such fantastic images.

John Calvin is right when he says that the moment images appear in churches idolatry has entered “because the folly of manhood cannot moderate itself, but forthwith falls away to superstitious worship.” Since our eyes naturally have an insatiable lust for more sights, and since they have a nearly indomitable power over the imagination, who can say that this film will be the last of such theatrical icons? Some who have acknowledged the fact that the Reformers and Puritans would not see this film, have made feeble attempts to suggest that they did not forsee cinema and the presentation of the gospel in such a mode. My answer is that John Owen came pretty close to it when he used the term “stage-plays” in his condemnation of image use. And the Westminster Divines precluded the use of the film when they explained the Second Commandment in the Larger Westminster Catechism. Read the following words carefully.

Whatsoever; all worshipping of it [image], or God in it or by it [this is a very important phrase. Those who say that they don’t worship the image are guilty if they worship God by the use of it.] …whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense…” That some people admit that they will never be able to think of Christ again in the same way after they have seen the film is proof of this point.

It is impossible that an ocular “sermon” be faithful to a spiritual message. Even the divinely-appointed types in Old Testament literature were called by the inspired writers “shadows.” These visible representations of spiritual truths were deliberately unlike the real and temporary because it is always man’s sinful inclination to conform the reality of the spiritual world to the reality of what he sees and thus pervert the truths of the Gospel. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).

As already stated, the preaching of the Cross is by Divine intent a matter of the spirit, and it is the presentation of a truth that is not only historical, but is spiritual and dynamic. And it is to be done by God’s witnesses in His way. Martin Luther, the champion of “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture alone), said it bluntly: “The entire source and origin of salvation rests on this, that God sends out someone (a true minister of the Word). If He does not send out any, then they who preach, preach falsely, and their preaching is no preaching at all. In fact, it would be better for them not to preach. Then also they who hear, hear error, and it would be better for them not to hear. Then also they who believe would believe false doctrine, and it would be better for them not to believe. Then also they who call upon Him would call falsely, and it would be better for them not to call. For such preachers do not preach; such hearers do not hear; such believers do not believe; such callers do not call; they will be damned because they would be saved (by falsehood). So we read in Proverbs 1:28ff: ‘Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me: for that they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord.’”

That emotions be stirred by the violent death of a man some two thousand years ago is not the same thing as a revival, even if it is recognized that that bloody and sacrificial moment was on our behalf. Don’t be deceived by the plethora of testimonies about the strong, spiritual and intense emotions that were felt by the audience at the viewing of this movie. One would be callused indeed if he was not moved by the vivid reenactment of any man’s death on behalf of anyone even if he was not the Son of God. I imagine that a lengthy film of the quality that Mel Gibson is capable of directing were made of any crucifixion, there would still be the same stunned silence at the end of the movie that so many reviewers claim to be the moving of God. God forbid that anyone could walk away from such a movie on the death of anyone, even a crook, laughing and smacking the popcorn butter off his lips. People have watched hardened murderers and rapists executed and there was stunned silence there too.

It reveals a naïveté of horrific consequence that so many people would rejoice in the strong emotion this film causes as if it is turning men to God. That there would be some reaction immediately is human and has been evident in other films of other types. That many will immediately become “Jesus fans” will not surprise me. That some even make vows of obedience or professions of faith is to be expected. It is human. And something this powerful will cause what the great Scottish preacher and friend of C.H. Spurgeon called “transient devotion.” He said, “in the affairs of this life, men are often led by the operation of strong causes to act in opposition to their real character… in these cases, as in that of religion, there is a suspension of the natural disposition, not a renewal of it. All religion must be transient, by whatever cause it is produced, and by whatever ardor it should, for a season, be practiced, that does not spring from a regenerated mind… Do not then, my dear children, be satisfied with a mere excitement of the feelings, however strong it may happen to prove; but seek to have the general bias of the mind renewed.” Again, he warns his children of the intoxicating danger of emotional excitement that could in fact harden the heart against God. “Instead of preparing you at some future time to receive the gospel,” he says, “such a state of mind, if persisted in, has a most direct and dangerous tendency to harden the heart.”

It also reveals a confused and unbiblical conception of sin that must see the reenactment of a crucifixion to feel the grief of one’s crimes against the Lamb of God. My own sins crucified the Lamb. Granted, Gibson believes that Jesus was wounded for our transgressions, but while he attempts to faithfully depict the Crucified Lord and is unsuccessful, neither can he accurately depict our sinfulness. The movie cannot possibly be as realistic as it must be unless every face of the hateful mob resembles mine, unless every Roman soldier looks like me, and unless images of every one of my sins are inflicting the wounds, the lashes, the spittle, and the nails. But since it is impossible to accurately forge representative images of my sins that would look nearly as demonic and hideous as they should, it is also impossible to properly recreate the crucifixion through images. It is the Holy Spirit of the Crucified One that convicts of sin, righteousness, and judgment and the real dread of the Cross is made real to me by Him in a spiritual way. My bloodguiltiness for His crucifixion is impressed upon my broken heart against the backdrop of my own willful and daily disobedience.

Ocular images may flood my mind through the eye gate and overwhelm my emotions. But they will not accomplish God’s design. It is the Sword of the Lord, the Holy Word of God, that is “living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). Gibson’s Passion will never pierce that deeply and expose that much; and God forbid that I give it an opportunity to attempt it lest it inoculate my spiritual sense to the working of God in the inner man. For it is in the inner man that we are to be strengthened by the Spirit (Ephesians 3:16) and the physical eyes have no power whatsoever to transfer any image of any kind that deep. John Calvin is right. God’s “injunction is, that the doctrine common to all should there be set forth by the preaching of the Word.”

Mel Gibson is a Catholic. Not only is he a Catholic, but he is unashamedly committed to the old ways. I highly respect him for his courage, but I highly deplore both the old and new ways of the Church of Rome. It is still deceitful and it continues to replace the Verbal with the Ocular. The Scriptures say, “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1) – not “the Image.”

My belief is that this film will do what images have done for centuries – only with a more insidious power – and that is to draw tears to men’s eyes while simultaneously hardening their hearts. Iron, by being frequently heated, is hardened into steel. Presenting the historical fact of the crucifixion in pictorial mode will fail to present the spiritual and current fact that our sins trample underfoot His blood, which is why the drama of the Cross must be preached. As horrible as Golgotha was, many men died in that same fashion. Only One, the Precious Lamb of God, endures attempted re-crucifixion in the hearts of men millions of times over every day until the end of time (Hebrews 6:6). For it is a spiritual truth that Jesus Christ not only suffered, but He still suffers – not as the Roman Catholics perceive it as if He is still being sacrificed – but in that when His Church is persecuted for His truth, He is grieved. There is a sharing of affliction that takes place when we become true ministers of His Word (Colossians 1:24). It is a spiritual truth that not only does the blood of Christ atone for our sins in that He died once for all, but that it “keeps on cleansing us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). It is a spiritual truth that if we love Him and proclaim Him as we should we will enter into the “fellowship of His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10) and that we will “fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” (Colossians 124). Piper is not exaggerating to say as mentioned above that the crucifixion is “both a past event of substitution and a present event of execution.”

Thus, preaching is worship because it fulfills the great commission and continues the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ here on earth. I agree with Charles Haddon Spurgeon that the hearing of sermons is an act of worship. “Moreover, if the observation be meant to imply that the hearing of sermons is not worshipping God, it is founded on a gross mistake, for rightly to listen to the gospel is one of the noblest parts of the adoration of the Most High. It is a mental exercise, when rightly performed, in which all the faculties of the spiritual man are called into devotional action. Reverently hearing the word exercises our humility, instructs our faith, irradiates us with joy, inflames us with love, inspires us with zeal, and lifts us up toward heaven.” Yes, hearing the preached Word is worship, which implies that the preaching of the Word is worship. And this is rightful worship. For our Lord decreed that the Gospel be brought to men through preaching. “How shall they hear without a preacher” (Romans 10:14)?

When a film is presented as the provocateur of spiritual worship it teeters on the precipice of idolatry and has already plummeted into the depths of ignorance. That this film has been heralded with such enthusiasm by Christian circles is thanks to the persistent indoctrination of supposed experts on worship that have convinced the masses that worship is an experience, a rush, and an emotional drama brought on by carefully orchestrated programs, moods, music, and images. But these supposed experts are radically different than the experts in the 1600s, our Puritan forefathers. Their view of worship was much higher. “Worship is an act of the understanding, applying itself to the knowledge of the excellency of God and actual thoughts of his majesty; recognizing him as the supreme Lord and Governor of the world, which is natural knowledge; beholding the glory of his attributes in the Redeemer, which is evangelical knowledge.”

A recognized fact about movies is that it is almost impossible to think during the watching of it. Movies produce simulated spirituality, the kind so eerily described by William Dean in his book, The American Spiritual Culture and the Invention of Jazz, Football and the Movies.

Movies are important because they allow people to “look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen” (2 Corinthians 4:18). When the Apostle Paul asked people to “look” at what is “unseen,” he called on the followers of Jesus to perceive what they could not perceive with their five senses. Admittedly, rather than shun the sensed world, the movies rejoice in it; nevertheless, like Paul, the movies rely on what cannot be sensed. That is, the faith of the movies lies not in their visual images, nor in their audible words and music, but in the combined, intangible effects of both of these. Movies trust that the real motion of the world is not to be sensed, but nevertheless, experienced. The movie’s light and sound, like the Eucharist’s bread and wine, are not themselves the important things. The movies makes possible “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
The audience, for which two hours appeared impassive, files out of the auditorium converted, by another movie possessed. As with great stories told at houses of worship, the movie’s story transforms receptive congregants into witnesses of power greater than the medium’s own sensate power.

These very words would be encouraging to the simple minded person who believes that Mel Gibson’s The Passion is the gospel on film. But we have already stated that the Gospel message cannot possibly be given on film through drama. Therefore the converts that file out of the auditorium are not converts of the true Gospel unless God, as He graciously can and sometimes does, works repentance in a viewer, not because of the film, but in spite of it.

Some may oppose my opposition and, in an effort to shame me for my position, be ready with anecdotes of evidence that God has used the movie in spectacular ways. I have no doubt that by the time this is read there will be thousands of stories of spiritual experiences that took place on opening night. This fact does not unsettle me. In fact, my friends, I hope that there are genuine conversions that take place.

How little you understand those of us who love the Gospel if you think that we will be embarrassed if God mercifully uses this. In fact, we hope that God will use it. We pray that God will graciously use any means to draw men to Himself. And we rejoice “when Christ is preached whether in pretense or in truth” (Philippians 1:18). But, while we hope for blessing it is not because we are confident that The Passion is the right thing, it is because we are confident that this movie is the wrong thing. While we acknowledge the tender mercy of God that uses many things to draw men to Himself, we are not of the ilk that says that the end justifies the means. For as precious as the souls of men are, God has said obedience is better than sacrifice (1 Samuel 15:23).

I will not attend the movie or rent the video. Likewise, I will encourage others to avoid the movie. Yet, I will be the first to lift up my hands to the glory of God when He uses it to bring poor lost sinners to Him. God used Balaam and his donkey to speak truth. But I do not desire to be Balaam, nor his donkey nor do I wish to emulate their methods. To claim the rightness of something because God uses it is to ignorantly suppose that God is eager to jump on board with all of our schemes, and that He endorses everything that He blesses. This shows a lack of understanding, both of the sinfulness of men and the holiness of God. That God uses anything or any of us is a condescending act of grace and mercy. God’s blessing is not an endorsement or a blank check to keep on doing what we are doing. He causes it to rain on both the just and the wicked (Matthew 5:45). Therefore, a blessed result does not absolve us from the guilt of choosing our methods over His appointed methods.

So, as a preacher of the Gospel, I pray to God to draw souls to Himself through this movie in spite of its gross errors. And I will rejoice if He does it. Yet at the same time, I openly and unashamedly speak out against the method, decry images, preach the Gospel, and protest the movie. “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16,17). But this? This is a 21st century image crafted by a courageous Catholic who has gone back to the real heart of his religion. May God give Protestants the same admirable courage that he has to go back to the heart of our religion and say “no” to images.


12 Responses

  1. Pastor Bixby’s protest against the evangelical ecstasy over the Passion movie

    “It’s the best evangelization opportunity we’ve had since the actual death of Jesus,” Lisa Wheeler, associate editor of Catholic Exchange, a Web portal dedicated to Internet evangelism, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. THE PASSION premieres tomor…

  2. Thankyou Pastor.

  3. I was wondering what you thought of religious/sacred art (e.g. the Museum and Gallery at BJU). It seems like your position precludes viewing that as well. (This is an honest question, not an attack. I don’t want you to think that at all.)

    And thank you for your treatise on this topic.

  4. Dear Pastor,

    I was encouraged by a friend to read this article that you have written concerning the Passion movie that is being released tomorrow. I admit your perspective is quite thought-provoking and different from most I have seen. I trust I will not be out of line in asking you to clarify a few things that came to mind as I read the article. I certainly do not mean to be negative, as I do respect and admire your obvious desire to be biblical in your perspective, even if the position you take may be unpopular. But, I think it would be helpful to me in my own journey if you can speak to a couple points here.

    First, would I be correct to assume that, in light of your comments, you would be opposed to “Passion plays” in a local church or Christmas plays in which Mary and Joseph are seen with the baby Jesus? Or sacred art as might be seen in a place such as the Bob Jones University Art Gallery? What about visual aids that we see used in children’s Sunday school classes, such as flannel graph boards and coloring sheets which depict Christ? What should be our guidelines for how far we take this?

    Second, if we are to avoid “images” in our worship, what should be our attitude during preaching when the pastor tells a story of an event in the Gospels? Often, I have heard preachers tell the stories in a compelling manner during which time I naturally develop mental “images” of the story. I “see” in my mind Jesus distributing food to the 5,000 or walking on the water with Peter. Ought I to strive against developing these images, since they obviously cannot accurately depict the full Godhead of Christ? And when teaching my children during our family devotional time, should I use caution in how I tell these Bible stories to them, lest they violate the commandment by developing like mental “images”? I don’t mean to be silly or take this to an absurd level, but if the commandment is as serious and restrictive as you say (“the only acceptable image would be one that qualified as ‘the express image of his person’…. Anything short of that would be a blasphemous injury against the glory of God”), it would seem that these would be valid concerns.

    Third, while it is true that the Bible emphasizes the “unseen” characteristics of our faith, it seems that God does at times use “ocular images” for the purpose of evangelization. To see this, we need go no further than the immediate context of our discussion. Was it not when the Roman centurion saw Christ being crucified that he made his confession of faith? Was it not the seeing of Christ and his calm strength in the face of death that provoked the cry for mercy from the penitent thief? In each instance, they looked upon only the humanity of Christ without being able to see the fulness of his deity, yet those visual experiences drew them to Christ. There is no indication in the gospel accounts that preaching was involved; rather, it appears that seeing the events there unfold caused these men to turn to Christ.

    Nor must we stop at that account. The apostles often spoke of their having personally “seen” Christ after his resurrection as an argument for their faith in Him. Visual events such as the Holy Spirit represented as a dove at Christ’s baptism or as tongues of fire at Pentecost certainly were not blasphemous because they did not completely express the fullness of the Spirit! These images were used in both cases as faith-confirming events. The apostles used miracles to enhance their preaching, and the early church included speaking in tongues. And, although I believe these gifts have passed on, clearly we cannot say, as in your article, “anything else [beyond the ocular helps of the broken bread and wine] undermines the truth [of the cross].”

    Could it be that the verse in Hebrews 11, speaking of faith as being the evidence of things not seen, might be, as I have always understood it, referring to the “unseen” hope of a future with Christ in Heaven? For, if the author of Hebrews was Paul or another apostle, he could not logically refer to his “unseen faith” as having not seen Christ, because he did!

    I certainly understand the second commandment and believe it is applicable today and forever; however, in the context of Exodus 20 and the first commandment, is not the second commandment referring to the use of images for worship? And, while I agree that a representative image of Christ could certainly be mis-used in violation of the second commandment, do we really believe that people are going to go see this movie and bow down or worship the images of the screen?

    More than anything about your article, it seems that your view of “preaching” is too narrow. Now, before I am misunderstood in that statement, allow me to elaborate. Obviously, the Scriptures clearly state that preaching is the method God has chosen to communicate the truth of His Word. However, can preaching be defined only as a verbal presentation of the Gospel totally devoid of any visual aids or other means of enhancement? I do not believe so. For God clearly uses circumstances of life and other “visual” means along with the verbal presentation in order to draw men to Him. A movie like The Passion, totally separated from any appeal to turn to Christ or apart from any personal meditation and self-examiniation by a believer who sees it could certainly be in violation of the second commandment, and it is very likely that Mel Gibson is personally in error here. However, as a believer, I plan to see the movie and to use it as a impetus to a time of meditating on Christ’s sacrifice for me.

  5. Good questions. Good comments. And heartfelt thanks. I did foresee many of these as my wife is concerned about what we will do next Christmas with our nativity set!

    There are two clarifications I need to attempt:

    1. My first goal in the beginning of this treatise was to show that the Protestant forefathers would not go to this movie. The Thomas Watson quote was given to illustrate that. Though I am not sure that I would apply it that severely, the intention here was simply to encourage pause in our enthusiasm for the movie because of the almost unniversally held convictions of men that we admire in our heritage. No image of Christ was ever tolerated even for didatic purposes.

    2. My second point (which I wish I had been able to make clearer) is that for Mel Gibson this was an act of devotion (worship), it is thoroughly Catholic and, as such, the stakes are much higher. This is a religous effort that will fill the coffers of a Catholic church and we are invited to participate in the “Passion experience.” That word ‘experience’ bothers me. This concept is, of course, quite possible in Catholic theology because Christ is crucified over and over again with the Holy Eucharist. Mel Gibson had mass said on set in order to eat (literally, in their minds) the body of Christ every day while they made this film. (A morbid thought.) My protest is that Evangelicals are planning on using this as a worship experience. Admittedly, I am clumsy in my articulation of these things. (Frankly, I am shocked at the support this film is getting.)But I am sure of this: the near impossibility of separating worship from the image would have Calvin, Owen, and others brandishing their swords – especially, since this movie was unquestionably sent out with that mission.

    I have one more obersvation: it seems that so many times there is an opposing view to the majority position, the burden of proof is always on the minority. My arguments are required to be flawless. Every chink in the armor is readily discovered. I would say that the burden of proof is on the ones who are acting in direct opposition to our all of our confessions, the writings of the Reformers, and the Puritans. Has the Body of Christ so democritized that the majority gets a free pass? Having said that, however, I accept the responsibility to defend, articulate, and hone my position. And I am willing to be talked out of anything that is erroneous.

    As to some of the excellent questions, observations, and valid criticisms please bear with me. I am not dodging them. I am overwhelmed at the moment, and my own family and people are at the top of the list of priorities. This is, however, something I would love to debate and discuss over time.

    Thank you again for your comments.

    It is true that the Apostles saw Christ, but it was not to prove their faith as one of the men said above. They were weak in faith when Christ was among them physically. They saw the crucifixion literally and went and hid for several days. Paul (who also saw Christ literally) said, “Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer” (2 Corinthians 5:16, NKJV).

  6. I hope my thoughts are welcome here…

    Our Protestant Forefathers: Should we filter everything through what they would have or would not have done? While they are men of renown, they are still men. For example, Martin Luther is sometimes considered anti-Semitic.

    Why does it seem that fundamentalist like to go negative for the sake of being against something? Are we supposed to stand with the liberal media and Jewish leaders who are decrying the Passion of the Christ, albeit for a whole host of different reasons?

    It seems to me, to take a stance in opposition to the movie on some contrived ‘Biblical’ reasons would most definitely condemn the use of art in other aspects of worship and evangelism.

  7. Sorry to jump in so late. Concerning the second commandment issue and the perspective of Protestant forefathers, I have been wondering to what extent their views were influenced by the dominant force of the Roman Catholic use of icons had in their culture. It seems that 21st century believers are less likely to react to an image with a worship reflex than 16th century Protestants would have.

    A parallel today might be this: Orchestrate a Beatles tune. Play that arrangement to two groups of people–one composed of regenerate former hippies, and the other made up of teenagers. The former will inevitably dredge up memories of a past they would rather forget. The latter might say, “Somebody please turn off that classical music.”

    Is this historical context not a factor we should consider when evaluating whether the perspectives of past Protestants are fully applicable today?

  8. Icons are still here. In force. The Roman Catholic Church is here and is essentially no different than they have always been. Just yesterday, while getting my haircut, my barber told me that he and many of his clients are purchasing the movie to view systematically for devotional purposes.

    Admittedly, having grown up in Europe, and ministering in Belgium I have seen icons on every corner so I am more sensitive to it – not as a former worshipper (as former hippies might be more sensitive to the Beatles), but as someone who has witnessed the grip idolotry has on people’s souls.

    Another thought that you raise which has been often repeated to me is that the Protestant “fathers” were reacting to the church of Rome. While there is no doubt of this, I think that one has to prove that every thing they wrote was reactionary. I happen to think that they were much more proactive then people give them credit for. I would also add, however, that they would not have had any problem reacting to this movie.

  9. Thank you Pastor Bixby. My family has been so saddened by the dearth of biblical rebuttal of this film. Our initial reason for not going to this film was we couldn’t stand to see our Lord go through this open shame. We fully appreciate and understand He did this for us but we didn’t want to witness the shame He despised.(Heb 12:2)

    After thinking through our decision we came to realize this film was a violation of the Second Commandment but couldn’t verbalize our reasons nearly as succintly as you have. Thank you for that.

    We were surprised that all the Evangelical leaders praised this film. In retrospect, we should have expected it since they have all signed on to the Roman Catholic Church led Evangelicals and Catholics together movement. But we are devastatedly saddened that not one nationaly recognized Fundamental Pastor wrote a rebuttal of this film. We went on line to look for rebuttals. Their lack of response is deafening!

    What we did find on-line however, is even more disturbing. At http://www.cuttingedge.org/ we came across articles that describe an extremely large amount of Satanism displayed in this film. One symbol in particular raises a question in our minds. The author explains, from knowledgable occult sources, that the anti-christ will have a blinded right eye. Apparently, this depiction of Jesus throughout the movie is a person with a blinded right eye.

    Several brothers and sisters have mentioned in Bible studies and Prayer meetings that they will always have these images of Jesus in their minds when they are praying to God. Our question is; If these brothers and sisters have this image of the anti-christ in their minds as they are in their daily devotions, are they worshipping, and praying to, the anti-christ?

    We realize this is a question we should be asking our pastor, who has not seen the film and does not intend to see it, but has not cautioned our congregation against it. We have asked the pastor to respond to this question. We are waiting on his response but would really appreciate a response from you or someone in your ministry. We realize how burdened you may be for time and we thank you and thank God for you.

    Your article is so refreshing to us. We thank God for bringing it to our attention just as we have seemed to reach the bottom of the pit of sadness. He is so faithful in refreshing His children!!!

    God bless you brother,
    Bill & Joy

  10. I certainly sympathize with your frustration concerning the non-reaction of many leaders toward the film. However, I think that one pitfall one must avoid is the propensity to sensationalize the threat of anything we don’t like and thereby minimizing the effect of our legitimate arguments.

    As to the fact that the “Jesus” in the film was blinded in one eye, I have heard nothing about. IF that is the case, and IF the anti-Christ is/going to be blind in one eye (another thing I have never heard), it would actually be irrelevant to me. The problem I have with the film is that it undermines evangelical faith in the power of the Written Word and its God-ordained means of dissemination – preaching.

    I argued – perhaps unclearly – that the possible Second Command violation of the film is not merely that there is an image of Jesus (although our Protestant forefathers would find that sufficient enough as I tried to point out), but that the use of that image (the film) is being exalted to a level of preaching and celebrated by some as the greatest evangelistic tool of all time violates the spirit of the Second Command in that the Second Command is not about worshiping other gods since the First Command effectively deals with that, but it is about worshiping the true God wrongly.

    Do I think that folks watching the film are worshipping the anti-Christ? No. It is more likely that they are worshipping Christ, the true Christ, if they are actually worshipping. And those dear people are sincere. However, they are worshipping Him wrongly.

    Frankly, I would be quite surprised if someone as smart as Satan would do something so obvious as to dress up an actor to look like the anti-Christ. His tactics are generally different. He would make the actor good looking and as close to the beautiful ideal any human imagination could create. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if he tried to undermine legitimate, biblical concerns by steering people into extra-biblical theories. In other words, show me in the Bible that the anti-Christ is going to be blind in one eye, then I’ll investigate. But since the anti-Christ and all of his followers are liars, I hardly believe any of their predictions concerning him. After all, what if it is the left-eye? “Knowledgeable occult sources” are children of the father of lies.

    These are my initial reactions. Stick with the Word. It doesn’t need the help of our conjured up conspiracy theories. It can stand alone.

  11. Gentle people,

    As a fundamentalist and someone who has actually seen the film, I’d like to comment here.

    When I was in the States, I passed over seeing the release of the Passion, as I’m not a big movie-goer and for all the gore and all. But here in Ukraine, my husband is the leader of a small village church, and the Passion is here, too, and one of the girls brought it to us on a DVD, so we watched it with the the small group that comes Sunday nights.

    It was actually very powerful. I wasn’t moved much emotionally, as I worked with video for several years, so I watch a bit more analytically. But the way flashbacks are used is very, very effective in making Jesus’ teachings and life clear.

    As for the second commandment, I don’t accept the reasoning that any portrayal of Christ is a violation of this. Seems to me, the point of that commandment is not to worship anything but God. Works of art can be used to help us in worship and meditation, and we can be worshiping the true God while watching these things because of our understanding of the Bible. Kissing, revering, pryaing to an image (i.e., giving worth/value to a wrong idea), as many Catholics do/did, is another matter. But my watching this film, I wasn’t worshiping the video strip, the computer screen, the actor, or anything like that. I have a solid foundation of the Bible to where I can channel my worship to God. I have a brain that works fairly well and can be discerning. God said that it’s not what goes into me that dirties me. It’s what comes out– my thoughts, words, etc. We do the same thing when we look at the stars or trees or hear the birds sing. We can choose either to worship them or God (or ignore it all together).

    For example, someone I knew wouldn’t listen to Wagner because he was a supposed satanist and Hitler liked Wagner. So, if I listen to Wagner, am I worshiping Satan? Am I aligning myself with Hitler? (That seems to be the same reasoning why you won’t watch the Passion.) It depends on my heart. I can listen to Wagner and glorify God because He gave humans capability to make such great music, etc. So I can watch the Passion and worship God.

    The movie isn’t entertaining. In certain ways, it could even be considered dull. But you basically know why you’re there to watch it.

    And I think it can be used very powerfully to tell people about Christ. There are lots of people without Bibles in the world and lots who can’t read. But this movie makes the gospel clear enough to be very well-understood. Is that Satan working, so people get saved? Sure, he can thwart the casting of seeds, but can’t God also use it to do His work? Who is to judge what God will use?

    As for the reactions of other religious persons/groups (i.e., your opinion of this film based on the praise people give it), why judge the value of something on that basis? Is that how God judges? If a liberal praised you for something, does that mean you are automatically wrong before God?

    As for the Puritans, like that other guy said, I don’t think it’s valid to ask “what would the puritans do.” The puritans didn’t have the culture and world we do. And they weren’t always right either. Maybe Puritans wouldn’t have used cars or radios either. Who’s to guess?

    Anyway, no hard feelings. And forgive me if I’ve sounded hard or anything. I’m trying to have a soft tone. But sometimes i sort of think we tend to judge things (even what we’ve not actually watched or read ourselves) the way God doesn’t. And maybe if we lived in Jesus’ day, we all would have been Pharisees. Paul was. 🙂

    :o) Watch the film sometime. It’s not perfect, but it is powerful and well-done.

  12. Howdy Bob,

    I appreciated your article and enjoyed reading it. Thanks for taking the time to give it so much thought and making your comments available. Here in the Basque region of Spain we see the Passion movie posters all over the place. My wife and I were over at a new convert’s home the other night and they (he and his wife) brought up the subject of the movie, probably expecting us to be excited about it. It was not the place nor time to get into a deep discussion but I did tell him that I had no interest whatsoever in seeing it.

    I explained that God chose the times and means of delivering us His Word and the revelation of His Son, and that was many centuries ago, in written form. I have heard enough about the film to know that I do not want to color my reading of the four pure Gospels with strong scenes of someone else’s imagination. God gave us in writing no more and no less detail about His precious Son’s death than He wanted us to have. The Gospel accounts have a perfect blend of detail and silence about our Savior’s dark hour. They describe horrible humiliation, but He is honored. The worship that goes on within a believer’s soul as he reads these heart-wrenching accounts of the crucifixion are mainly a private thing between him and God. I cannot see any benefit in adding to my reading (or hearing) of the biblical passion account the blood and gore of a modern, high-tech production.

    I agree with you in rejoicing over whatever good might come through the viewing of the movie as well as in insisting that the fact of positive results does not make it right. Moses found that out when the water came out of the rock even though he hit it in disobedience. In His marvelous wisdom God will sometimes glorify Himself by using the most unusual and surprising means. Who but God would have dared use a donkey to display common sense or ravens to deliver good food?! God be praised because He will ultimately receive all the glory, even through the failures and mistakes of men.

    I have already seen that good witnessing opportunities can develop as a result of the movie even though (or perhaps, because!) my family and I will not be watching it.

    God bless you.

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