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Last Thursday night, I spoke to a conference of Christian college students and young professionals organized by the North American Missions Board and conducted at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas. There were approximately 2,000 in attendance, and after I talked for about a half hour, I stayed and took a seat in the audience because the organizers had arranged for a screening of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

Though Prestonwood is a state-of-the-art facility, the conditions for viewing the film were not ideal because of the size of the screen and my distance from it, but the reactions of some of my friends who had seen it, including the very serious theologian Mark D. Roberts and my Salem Radio colleague Michael Medved, as well as the controversy that has surrounded it for months, prompted me to stay put.

“The Passion of the Christ” is a phenomenal work of art – a moving and inspiring film that will certainly be shown again and again for generations to come. Though I am a follower of Jesus Christ, I do not believe that one needs to be a believer in the divinity of Christ to appreciate the majesty of the movie and its extraordinary commitment to authenticity and an objective recounting of the story of the passion and death of Christ as relayed through the Gospels.

If you do believe that Christ is the Son of God and that His death and resurrection are historical facts, the film will impact you because it assists faulty human understanding to grasp the immensity of the suffering and death of Christ that was required for our salvation. Scores of the young people in attendance at Prestonwood – young, media-savvy, almost impossible to impress, X-Cube playing and MTV-watching 20- to 30-year olds – wept after the film.

I was reminded of the only other time I had seen reactions of that sort occur in a theater: among veterans of World War II when “Saving Private Ryan” concluded. Those veterans wept because they had lived the drama they had just seen, and they were recalling the intensity of the conflict and the sorrow it entailed. Many Christians will weep in response to “The Passion of the Christ” for similar reasons, and millions more will more deeply understand the sacrifice their God made for them.

No doubt non-believers will not understand why the film will be celebrated and why attendance will be strong and the appeal of the film enduring. Mel Gibson has provided a tool to help the faithful understand what they already know, and those who do not already know will be puzzled.

It will surprise many – it certainly surprised me – that Satan is a co-star of “The Passion of the Christ,” and his evil presence provides the movie’s theological weight. This crucifixion is no mere crucifixion. There were hundreds of thousands of such executions in the Roman world. A hundred years before Pilate ordered Jesus crucified, Crassus lined the Appian Way with 6,000 followers of Spartacus, crucifying every one of them. Jesus’ death was horrible, but the means of his execution wasn’t unique.

In the film, Satan speaks the words in the Garden of Gethsemane that may help a non-Christian understand the unique aspect of the passion of Christ: “No one can bear such a burden.” The burden Satan refers to is the total guilt for all sin of all humankind from the first man to the last. I had wondered how Gibson could convey the theological significance of Christ’s suffering and death to a viewer unfamiliar with the Gospels, and his art in this instance is complete.

I doubt if the film itself will inspire much conversion among non-believers as some of its more enthusiastic viewers have been predicting. Certainly it will present many opportunities to explain the claims that Christ made for Himself, but the work of conversion, as C.S. Lewis so richly described in his memoir, can sometimes take years and years. Movies cannot overcome doubt and ridicule, only the Holy Spirit can do that. But we will have to wait and see.

What is not in doubt is the talent of Mel Gibson, and of the entire team and cast. I have read a great deal of Roman history and seen most of the films that purport to convey what it was to be a Roman and to govern with Roman authority. The depiction of Pilate, his problems, his legions, his wife and his limits are simply the most realistic rendition of a slice of the Roman world ever recorded on film. I believe his depictions of first-century Jerusalem and its citizens – overwhelmingly but not exclusively Jewish – generally must be as faithful as his treatment of Pilate and the Romans.

I do not understand the accusations of anti-Semitism – for except for Pilate and his soldiers, all of the players are Jewish, the most noble, the flawed and the corrupt. I do understand the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, and how it perverted the Gospels to its cause, but this film is not part of that shameful legacy. Should anyone try and pervert the movie to that end, there will be millions of Christians condemning such a kidnapping.

The actor who portrayed Christ, James Caviezel, made a brief appearance after the film concluded, and spoke quietly about his Catholic faith preparing him to make this film, and about the rigors of its production. I have interviewed a lot of actors over the years, and watched hundreds of interviews more of the men and women who play other people, and I have never heard such quiet and sincere intensity come from any of them as came from Caviezel. It will be interesting to watch his career from this film forward, as it deserves to flourish given this performance.

“If the world hates you, you know it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” John 15:18-19. These words of Jesus are a guarantee that the maker of “The Passion of the Christ” is in for a rough go of it, as well as its cast and crew. If anyone knows Mel Gibson, please pass along my thanks.

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