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by Frederica Mathewes-Green

The Meaning of Christ's Suffering

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This article is the third in an ongoing series on the atonement, following Richard Mouw's "Violence and the Atonement" [January/February 2001] and Hans Boersma's "The Disappearance of Punishment" [March/April 2003]. Perhaps no doctrine has been more central to evangelical theology, yet today among evangelicals, as among Christians more generally, one often hears it said that the classical understanding of the atonement is deeply flawed, that we must "rethink the atonement." Is that really so? The essays in this series consider such questions.

Most movies wait till after they're released to stir up controversy, but Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ has been preceded by nearly a year of fisticuffs. It provided an unusually rich opportunity for people who don't know what they're talking about to do just that. I'll continue that tradition by admitting that, as I write this, I still have not seen the film. I expect it will be good moviemaking, a powerful example of the artistic possibilities of film. I hope it will stir up old faith in Christians and break forth new faith in unbelievers.

But as I read interviews with Gibson before the release, one theme caught my attention. Listen to this quote, for example. In the September 15, 2003 New Yorker, Gibson told Peter J. Boyer, "I wanted to bring you there. I wanted to be true to the Gospels. That has never been done before."

That goal meant showing us what real scourging and crucifixion would look like. "I didn't want to see Jesus looking really pretty," Gibson went on. "I wanted to mess up one of his eyes, destroy it."

Now, if you're like me, you registered a double-take. Surely, the Crucifixion and its preceding torture were brutal events. But there's nothing in the Gospels specifically about Jesus' eye being destroyed. Didn't Gibson say he wanted to make this movie absolutely true to the Gospels, as "has never been done before"?

So I tried to picture a movie that reflected only what the Gospels tell us, and realized that there's not much there about the gore. A lot of each Gospel concerns the Passion, of course; 19th-century theologian Martin Kahler said that the Gospels are "passion narratives with extended introductions." Yet those narratives mostly record the swirl of events around Jesus in his last days, what people said and did. The description of his physical sufferings is as minimal as the writers can make it.

"Having scourged Jesus, Pilate delivered him to be crucified," the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) agree. "When they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him." Little more than a dozen verses later he is dead.

I'm not questioning whether the Passion actually was brutal. And I'm not questioning whether an artist is free to depict it however he likes. The thing I'm curious about is: why did Christians in the first millennium choose to depict it differently?

Did they avoid the bloody details because they were squeamish? Not St. Luke, who, though one of the most elegant New Testament writers, describes Judas' death in more graphic detail than we asked for: "Falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out" (Acts 1:18).

Were they ashamed of the Cross, an emblem of criminal execution? Not St. Paul, who states: "Far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal. 6:14).

Were the brutal elements of a crucifixion so familiar that they needed no elaboration? Yet the pain that Christ endured was exactly what later Christians cherished; if the early church had felt the same way, mere familiarity would not have quenched devotion. A lover does not grow weary of contemplating his beloved's face. But rather than poring over the details of Christ's suffering, earlier Christians averted their eyes.

Graphic meditation on Christ's suffering doesn't appear before the late medieval era, approximately the 14th century. Before that, the presentation is more in accord with the way Christ appears in the Gospel of John. In iconography, he reigns serene from the Cross, a victorious conqueror who has rescued us from Death.

In fact, the concept of "rescue" is the key. The wounds that Christ sustained are like those of a hero. Imagine that a young policeman has rescued some hostages at great physical cost, including his own capture and torture. It would be unseemly, even insulting, to continually ask him, "How did it feel when they tortured you? What did it look like? Where did you bleed?" The officer would understandably wish you'd focus not on his humiliation but on his victory.

That's the attitude we see in ancient hymns from Holy Week:

The sun was darkened, for it could not bear to see such outrage done to God, before whom all things tremble. … When Thou was crucified, O Christ, all the creation saw and trembled. The foundations of the earth quaked in fear of thy power. The lights of heaven hid themselves. … The hosts of angels were amazed.
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