The cool night is bluish-black, and a man is kneeling, visibly anguished and intensely embroiled in conversation, asking in the guttural language of Aramaic for “this cup” to be taken from him.

In the darkness, a gaunt, hooded woman appears.

“Do you really believe one man can bear this burden?” she taunts. “No one man can carry this burden. It’s too heavy. Saving their souls is too costly.”

A snake slithers from her robe toward the man who, for the first time, has diverted his eyes to this enemy. Suddenly, and without warning his foot comes down, crushing the serpent’s head.

In this dramatic two minutes, Hollywood heavyweight director Mel Gibson sets the stage for the horror, beauty, brutality and ultimate victory of the crucifixion, as retold in what is arguably the year’s most talked about film release, “The Passion of the Christ.”

After Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday (the film’s opening date), millions of people may find the same significance in the cross that Gibson has discovered. At least that’s his hope — as well as the hopes of thousands of pastors and church leaders nationwide who see the watershed film as an opportunity to engage the unchurched and respond to their questions about Christ and His sacrifice.

“I want this movie to affect people on a very profound level and reach them with a message of faith, hope, love and forgiveness,” Gibson told Outreach magazine. “Christ forgave even as He was tortured and killed. That’s the ultimate example of love.”

For Gibson, who has earned both respect and Oscars from Hollywood for his big screen portrayal of heroic figures like William Wallace in “Braveheart” and Benjamin Martin in “The Patriot,” putting the Gospel on the big screen meant stepping into both spiritual and professional deep waters to make what he calls the “most difficult film I’ve ever done.”

“It’s difficult because Christ’s Passion was difficult,” Gibson told Outreach. At 47, he is the third most powerful man in the entertainment business, according to Entertainment Weekly magazine. And while many celebrities with his status would play it safe, Gibson, like so many of the characters he’s chosen in his career, is championing a greater cause.

Actor Jim Caviezel who has flown under Hollywood’s radar in films like “Frequency,” “The Thin Red Line” and “The Count of Monte Cristo,” realizes that accepting the role of Christ in the film was what some in Hollywood might call a potential “career-breaker.”

“Mel actually said to me when I took the role, ‘You may never work again,’ ” Caviezel recalls. “But I can go down with the ship. If this is the one that takes me out, that’s fine.

“My prayer was literally, ‘I just want everyone to see Jesus. That’s it! I don’t want them to see me,” Caviezel shared with Outreach. “Then the second part of it was, ‘Because they see Him, conversions will happen.’ This film is going to be sold on people seeing Christ, and if they don’t believe in it, great. But at least they had the opportunity.”

Personal Motivation

Directed, co-written and bankrolled (to the tune of $25 million) by Gibson, “The Passion of the Christ” began its evolution 12 years ago when the actor/director began investigating the roots of his Catholic faith during a time in his life when he was what he terms “jump-out-the-window kind of desperate.”

“I had always believed in God, that He existed, and I was brought up to believe a certain way,” Gibson said in an interview with the international news agency Zenit during the filming. “But in my middle years, I kind of drifted, and other things took center stage. At that point, I realized I needed something more if I was going to survive. A closer investigation of the Gospel, of the story, of the whole piece, was demanded of me.

“That’s when the idea started to percolate inside my head. I began to see it realistically, re-creating it in my own mind so that it would make sense for me, so that I could relate to it.”

Now, more than a decade later as Gibson’s L.A.-based film company Icon Entertainment prepares to open “The Passion of the Christ” on 2,000 U.S. screens nationwide on Feb. 25, the film, he says, “heals me to watch it.”

“It’s a strange thing. But in watching it, I’ve found it’s actually purged me. I’ve never experienced a film like it. The wounds of Christ are what heal my wounds.”

Not Just Another Jesus Movie

Golden locks, fair skin, blue eyes and British accents — they’re all characteristics typical of the “Jesus” movies Gibson had seen before. For the man whose “Braveheart” picked up a 1995 Best Picture Oscar, authenticity and historical accuracy were paramount. And though “The Passion of the Christ” is not meant to be a documentary or a work of theology, Gibson consulted with pastors and Bible researchers to ensure authenticity and held advance screenings around the country soliciting feedback.

“I’m telling the story as the Bible tells it,” Gibson told Zenit. “The Gospel is a complete script, and that’s what we’re filming.”

Consequently for the first time on any screen, audiences will witness the Passion in a way that many who have already seen the film say is “the closest to being there.” That includes the graphic brutality of Christ’s scourging and crucifixion; dialog (with subtitles) in the ancient languages; biblical and historical accuracy to the last detail, including a Coptic-looking Christ (Caviezel’s blue eyes were digitally altered to a deep, caramel brown); and scenes that were filmed on the outskirts of Matera, Italy, where certain sections of the city share a striking similarity to ancient Jerusalem.

Passion Facts

In theaters: Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2004
Studio/distributor: Icon Entertainment
and Newmarket Films
Screens: 2,000 throughout the U.S. (“Braveheart” opened on 2,035 screens; “Pirates of the Caribbean” on 3,300).
Director: Mel Gibson
Executive Producer: Steve McEveety
Cast: Christ: Jim Caviezel (“The Thin Red Line,” “The Count of Monte Cristo”
Mary Magdalene: Monica Belluci (“Tears of the Sun,” “The Matrix Reloaded”
Mary: Maia Morgenstern
Screenplay: Mel Gibson, Ben Fitzgerald
Music score: James Horner (“Titanic”)
Web site: www.thepassionofthechrist.com

Graphic Violence

Perhaps the element that most sets “The Passion of the Christ” apart from other movies about Jesus is Gibson’s commitment to show the horror of the cross.

“I think we have gotten too used to seeing pretty crosses on the wall, and we forget what really happened,” Gibson told Outreach. “We know that Jesus suffered and died, but we don’t really think about what it all means.

“Hey, I didn’t realize this either when I was growing up. The full horror of what Jesus suffered for our redemption didn’t really strike me. But when you finally see it and understand what He went through, it makes you feel not only compassion, but also a debt. You want to repay Him for the enormity of His sacrifice. You want to love Him in return.”

While the film is not yet rated, the graphic realism will most likely earn an R rating for the film — a potential roadblock for pastors who are uneasy about recommending an R-rated film to their congregations.

Jack Graham, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of 21,000-member Prestonwood Baptist in Dallas, Texas, believes that the excellent quality and subject matter of the film supercedes the rating dilemma.

“It is extremely violent because the cross was violent,” he says. Others, including Gibson, have noted that based on some of its content, the Bible itself would be rated R.

Still, Gibson contends that he stayed away from any gratuitous violence. “We actually held back. If we had filmed exactly what happened, no one would’ve been able to take it,” he says, adding that children 12 and under should not see the film.

Graham plans to recommend the film to his congregation — a “rare exception” for him. “Watching this film is like being at the foot of the cross,” he says.

Ancient Language

Adding to the visual realism is the linguistic authenticity as the reverberation of ancient Aramaic and Latin transports audiences into first-century Judea.

“There is something kind of startling about watching it in the original languages,” says Gibson. He initially conceived the film with no subtitles but eventually gave in to numerous requests for them. “The reality comes out and hits you. It’s full contact.”

The unknown tongue affords audiences who have read the scriptures throughout their lives the opportunity to hear the familiar words as they were originally spoken. “That’s the first time in my life that I actually got to taste what it would’ve sounded like. It was beautiful,” says Stan Kellner, director of church relations for the International Bible Society and a Jewish believer.

Biblical Accuracy

Based on the four Gospels, “The Passion of the Christ” retells the story of Jesus’ life and death, yet adds some dramatic nuances reinforcing aspects of the biblical account. The ominous figure taunting Christ in the garden of Gethsemane shows up throughout the movie, personifying Satan and portraying the spiritual battle being waged, culminating in Christ’s last hours.

Poignant flashback scenes from Christ’s life illustrate the dichotomy of compassion and brutality, as well as Mary’s love and anguish for her son.

The film is “substantially accurate,” says Darrell Bock, professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary who saw the film last June. “I’d say that of the two hours I saw, there might be four to five minutes where it’s not accurate,” he says, adding that he always asks the question: Is the general thrust of what’s happening here accurate?

“I don’t see the general thrust being out of line here,” Bock says. “There were several times that I found myself saying things like, ‘I’m in Mark 23’ based on the dialog. Like any movie based on a book, there’s a lot of filling-in of moments, but they’re logical here. When Mary thinks back to Jesus as a child, it’s a reflection of what a parent might feel.”

Unlike other movies about Jesus, which end with the crucifixion, Gibson’s rendering finishes with a risen Christ in the tomb — a scene he deemed important. “Without the resurrection, our faith is dead,” he says. “The story’s not complete without it.”

However some viewers would like to see the scene fleshed out in greater detail."

When Mel asked for feedback at the screening, I told him that I thought he needed to establish the resurrection more clearly,” says Mission America Coalition Chairman/CEO Paul Cedar. “It’s extremely subtle, and someone who doesn’t know the story would never understand that scene.”

Gibson, Cedar says, responded to his comment, saying that he hopes the scene is provocative enough to prompt people to want to know more about the “rest of the story” and show up in churches asking questions.

Miracles on the Set

Apart from a grueling schedule full of night shoots, extremely cold weather conditions affecting the health of almost the whole cast and an ever-growing budget for “The Passion of the Christ,” signs and wonders along the way — or what director Mel Gibson calls “miracles” — were evidence to him that God’s hand was covering his project.

“This was not your normal movie set,” Gibson says.

Testimonies of phenomenal events began circulating the first month of shooting in November 2002, when during the crucifixion scene, lightning struck assistant director Jan Michelini. The young man in his 20s stood up and walked away un-harmed with everyone on the set in awe.

When Gibson returned to Italy 10 months later to shoot additional footage, lightning struck again — hitting Michelini a second time as well as actor Jim Caviezel, who plays Christ in the film. Again, no one was hurt.

Gibson and his producer, Steve McEveety, recall other miracles on the set: “A case I know about was of sight regained,” Gibson says. “It’s true! And hearing! It’s weird because things have happened even with people who are just associated with people working on this movie.”

McEveety adds, “There was even a little girl (the daughter of a person connected with the crew) who had epilepsy since she was born and up to 50 epileptic fits a day. And now, she doesn’t have them anymore.”

Gibson echoes McEveety’s amazement: “They’re completely gone. It really gives you a lot of hope. It’s like, ‘Wow!’ We’re not kidding around about this stuff; it’s happening!”

Caviezel is likewise aware of the miracles and personal changes people were experiencing on the set. “There were many cast members and people who’ve been deeply moved, and some accepted the Lord during our time there,” he says. Gibson adds: “There were agnostics and Muslims on the set that came into an experience of Christ.”

"I talk with the men who play Judas [Luca Lionello] and John [Hristo Jivkov],” says Italian actor Francesco De Vito (Peter). “We talk about this movie, and we talk about faith on the set and in our life, and there is something going on with many of us. We've become very focused. It has changed us.”  —Holly McClure

Anticipating the Reaction

While it’s a sure bet that Christians across North America will see and be deeply impacted by “The Passion of the Christ,” reaction from those who do not know Christ is less predictable. Most leaders agree that non-Christians — whether they’re agnostic, atheists, Mormons, Muslims or Buddhists — will have questions about what they just watched.

“I think this film will open up the hearts of a lot of people,” says Kelly Williams, pastor of Vanguard Church in Colorado Springs, Colo. “It’s going to touch at the core of what people feel: pain. I think non-Christians are going to say, ‘Jesus understands me.’ ”

Roger Cross, president of Youth for Christ, is uncertain of how non-Christian teens will react to seeing Christ’s Passion in detail, but he believes it will be an “eye-opener.” One of the strongest features of the film, he says, is its ability to evangelize without being evangelistic.

“It doesn’t try to convince; it just tells the story,” says Cross. “You can’t really walk away from it and be neutral. There’s a point of deciding, ‘Who is this guy?’ ”

Questions the film raises:

  • What do I really believe? Do I believe this happened? A self-described agnostic, Sorel Carradine, 18, says she was left with those two questions. “Watching the film convinced me that it was true,” she says.

  • What does this mean for me and my life? Youth for Christ’s Cross believes unchurched teens will get around to asking the “me” question, but he cautions, “Kids won’t ask this question until they resolve the ‘Did it really happen?’ issue.”

  • Why, if there is a God, would He allow His son to go through this? “I think that will be the biggest question,” says Mission America’s Cedar. “That’s a tremendous opportunity to share the Gospel.”

  • Why did He suffer? “I believe non-Christians will be appalled at the depiction of Christ’s suffering, so one of the first questions will be, ‘Why would anyone choose to suffer like that?’” says Dr. Gary Hearon, executive director of the Dallas Baptist Association. John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif., agrees, noting that the big issue for most non-believers will be the “horrible, undeserved treatment of this man.”

Says MacArthur, “A non-Christian will see this as an utter outrage of justice and will have an immense amount of sympathy for what happened to Christ.” Yet he believes the message that God ordained Christ to go through the horror is clear in the film, so non-Christians will also be asking how God could’ve allowed it. Only Christians, he says, will read their own culpability into it. “I don’t think the message naturally transitions to, ‘This is what He did for me, and He’s actually the one who suffered in my place.’ ”

Carradine’s reaction gives credence to MacArthur’s summations: “I didn’t know the extent of what He did,” she says. “The whole film is painful to watch — how horrifically He was treated — but the fact that He was asking God to forgive these people who were doing this to Him really stuck out to me.”

Anti-Semitic?

Because “The Passion of the Christ” has been immersed in controversy months prior to its premiere, other questions will likely revolve around the anti-Semitism issue. The issue has placed both Gibson and the film in the line of fire from critics concerned that it portrays the Jews as Christ-killers, especially at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise around the world. Last August, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued a statement saying that the film portrays Jews as “bloodthirsty, sadistic and money-hungry enemies of God” and will encourage violence against the Jews.

However, observant Jews who have seen the film say that the ADL’s and other critics’ arguments are unfounded.

“It is not anti-Semitic,” says David Horowitz, president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture and a conservative Jew. “There is never any distancing of Jesus or His disciples from their Jewishness. And the film clearly states that it is a Jew that carries Jesus’ cross and shares His miseries. The film is faithful to the Gospels and therefore the Pharisees are Jesus’ enemies, and they and their flock do call for His death.”

For Horowitz, the message of the film — as he perceived it — was clear: Love your persecutors. “I was in tears a lot watching the picture,” he recalls. “In my view, the violence committed against Jesus in the film renders accurately what the 20th century has done to the children of God. Each time you see the worst that can happen, there’s something worse than that. That to me is very much the 20th century experience — all focused in one figure, Jesus. That in itself, I found very moving.”

Gibson is hopeful everyone will be “uncomfortable” and see their
own culpability.

“I want to be as truthful as possible,” he told Zenit. “But, when you look at the reasons behind why Christ came, why He was crucified, He died and suffered for all mankind, so that, really, anybody who transgresses has to look at their own part in His death.”

Passion for Your Community - 15 Ideas to Maximize Your Outreach

  1. PRE “PASSION”- Plan and prepare for this unique opportunity: Pray for people who may see it.
    Carefully choose a neighborhood you believe God wants you to reach. With multiple prayer teams, walk every street and pray for every house, asking God to reach each person with the message of the cross.

  2. Preview “The Passion of the Christ.”
    Show your congregation the four-minute movie trailer included on the DVD in this issue. Let worshippers know the movie’s outreach potential.

  3. Connect your Easter celebration with the movie.
    Connect specific themes from the film to themes in your service. Potential themes include new life from death; joy from suffering; and redemption from sin.

  4. Plan a sermon series.
    Schedule “Passion”-related messages in the weeks prior to Easter. See page 30 for ideas and thepassionoutreach.com for links to complete sermon manuscripts.

  5. Use mailings to tell people about the film.
    Focus on the parts of your community that God is calling you to reach and mail fliers, postcards and/or invitations to homes in driving range of your church. For resource materials, go to outreach.com.

  6. Train and equip worshippers to invite friends.
    The process is simple: Invest in relationships through prayer, personal contact, service and authentic acts of kindness. And equip members with invitations or cards they can use to invite friends to a “Passion”-related event with your church.

  7. Distribute door hangers.
    Give worshippers “Passion”-related door hangers to distribute to the homes surrounding your church. Use the door hangers to invite people to see the movie and to visit a “Passion”-related event at your church.

  8. Purchase a block of movie tickets.
    Make movie tickets available for church members to give to friends who don’t know Christ. For more information on theater locations or how to purchase a block of tickets, call (800) 332-0965.

  9. Host a movie event.
    Talk to a local theater about purchasing tickets for every seat in a given showing for your church. Sell the tickets to your congregation and ask theater management if you can address the audience either before or after the movie. During that time, let people know about any “Passion”-related activities your church has planned in the coming weeks.

  10. Reach out at the theater.
    Have a team of youth or adults sensitively provide related follow-up literature and or invitations to your “Passion”-related church events or Easter service.

  11. POST “PASSION”- Be ready to respond to the questions: Host “Passion” Q&A sessions.
    You may want to keep these gatherings pretty informal, giving people the freedom to drop in and drop out easily and inconspicuously. Address critical questions that skeptics and seekers ask about the movie.

  12. Host a panel of experts (pastor, professor, author, etc.).
    Ask a diverse group of experts who can talk intelligently about the film and Scripture to be part of a panel discussion. Host the event in a neutral place such as a coffeehouse or local bookstore. Encourage worshippers to bring their unchurched friends.

  13. Follow up with “Passion”-specific resources.
    Several ministries and organizations are offering booklets centered on the film’s themes to use either in a small group or one-on-one. For a list of ministries developing curriculum, go to outreachmagazine.com.

  14. Invite friends to “Passion”-focused small groups.
    Invite movie attendees to participate in a small group or Sunday school class that tackles themes and questions the movie presents. If you decide to preach a film-based message series, consider offering small groups during the week to discuss series’ topics (suffering, love, sin, forgiveness, redemption, injustice, guilt, confession, mercy, grace, death, sacrifice, commitment, faith).

  15. Give away Scripture.
    Buy and distribute affordable New Testaments or Gospels to worshippers to give to their friends after seeing the film together. Print up a list of Old Testament references to Christ and the crucifixion, and train worshippers to use Scripture to answer their friends’ questions.

The Opportunity

As already noted, “The Passion of the Christ” represents the first time in 2,000 years that Christians and non-Christians alike will have the opportunity to witness Christ’s sacrifice for mankind in this way.

The Church’s opportunity to raise and answer questions with unbelievers; to share testimonies; to invite people to church or small groups; and to discuss what Christ’s Passion means to them personally could potentially be at an all-time high. According to Barna Research Group, 65 to 70 million Americans are unchurched, and 64 percent of all unchurched adults believe that a
good person can earn his or her way into Heaven.

“Today, so many people are searching for meaning in life, asking questions. They’re looking for answers,” Gibson asserts. “If people’s hearts can be changed from this, that’s a huge thing. I’m hoping it will have the power to do that.”

Kelly Williams, whose Colorado Springs, Colo., congregation’s average age is 32, points out that the film gives churches a tool to speak to the often elusive 30-and-under generation. “They’ve grown up in a culture that is dominated by the power of video. People are open to receive movies because they don’t perceive them to have an agenda.”

The film medium played better with 18-year-old Sorel Carradine, who has encountered Christians before only to be “turned off.”

“I’ve told all my friends, ‘You have to see this movie,’ ” she says. “I have one friend who’s an atheist, and I told her that she should really see it.”

Prestonwood’s Graham recognizes the opportunity pastors have to tie the film’s strategic premiere date with a message series heading into Easter and plans to preach a film-related Easter Sunday sermon.

“This film combined with Easter is a huge opportunity to communicate with a culture that’s visually oriented,” he says. “People will be talking about this movie, discussing it at Starbucks. Thousands are going to know what He did, but they won’t know why He did it.”

Moreover, the film also has the potential to inspire and equip Christians across America to share their faith. “I have no doubt that the movie will be one of the greatest evangelistic tools in modern-day history.” says Ed Young, pastor of Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas.

Gibson recalls a conversation with a young Christian who saw the movie: “She told me that driving home that night she found herself praying, telling God, ‘I’m sorry Lord … I forgot.’ That’s what I hope for — that the people remember the sacrifice Christ made for us, that they recall the price He paid.”

Will You Be Ready?

So what does this film that has been hailed by critics as Gibson’s “spiritual and artistic triumph” mean for churches in the next few months? How can the Church be ready to respond to a movie that has brought people like Cher and Motion Picture Association President Jack Valenti to tears?

While Grace Community Church is still in the process of formalizing its plans, MacArthur says he will definitely tell his congregation to see the film with a non-believer, then follow it up with a thoughtful discussion. “The personal approach is always the best strategy,” he says.

Prestonwood, Graham says, will offer follow-up Bible studies related to the film and plans to use or create a film-specific tract.

Kelly Williams of Vanguard has already talked to his congregation about the movie and its potential. He plans to show the movie trailer and use the film as discussion starters for the church’s X-groups, developed for people who don’t have a relationship with Christ.

But first priority for all churches, says MacArthur, is to make sure all worshippers are equipped and ready to answer the questions.

Mission America’s Cedar encourages pastors to ask their congregations to start praying for someone who doesn’t know Christ, then invite them to go see it with them. He cautions churches against prematurely “pouncing” on anyone. “We need to allow the Holy Spirit to do His work and for us then to have the opportunity to respond to the questions people are asking,” he says. “One of the most effective ways of witnessing is asking questions.”

Gibson says praying for “The Passion of the Christ” is the most “powerful tool,” and that he knows churches have been praying.

“I hope the film raises a lot of questions, and makes people search for answers — kind of like, ‘You’ve seen the movie; now read the Book!’ That’s where the churches can come in — to handle that response.” Still, the man who has seemingly taken on the world with prayers and a camera lens reverts back to the original reason for what he has described in interviews as “potentially his last work.”

“I just wanted to be pleasing to the Almighty, that’s all. I think that I was as faithful as I could possibly be to the story as it’s told, as it’s related in the Gospels. And hopefully I’ve done work that’s good enough to please Him. That’s really what it’s about.”



Reprinted by permission from the Jan/Feb 2004 issue of Outreach Magazine. © 2004 Outreach Magazine. All rights reserved. www.OutreachMagazine.com
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All photos used with permission from "The Passion of The Christ," a film by Mel Gibson. © 2003 Icon Distribution Inc. All Rights Reserved. A Newmarket Films release. Photo credit: Philippe Antonello.