The media has been buzzing for several weeks about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ. The people with whom I have discussed the film have had mixed sentiments, and the question on the lips of many people has been “Who killed Jesus?” But as I watched the movie on Friday night, I realized that this is not the only question we should be asking.To be sure, the question of who killed Jesus is an important one. The media has been very animate about Gibson’s portrayal of the events surrounding Christ’s death because they believe the film may instigate anti-Semitism. While it is sadly true that the Jewish people have suffered persecution throughout history, the biblical accounts from which Gibson was working do portray the Jewish leaders as having an instrumental role in the execution of Christ. Yet, it is surprising to me that the media would be so up in arms about the possibility of renewed anti-Semitism given the fact that the movie portrays the Romans as the most violent aggressors in Christ’s sufferings. So, while it is true that the Jews killed Jesus, it is also true that the Romans killed Jesus.
But even this is not a sufficient answer to the question. In an act of cinematic symbolism, Gibson cast his own hand driving the nail into Christ’s hand, thus emphasizing that it was the sin of those he came to save that killed Jesus. Gibson’s response to this question has been “I am the one who killed Jesus.” True as this may be, the answer is still incomplete.
At one point during the film, we witness a flashback to a moment in Christ’s life where he is speaking to the crowds (I’ll spare you the Aramaic). He says, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18). In these words, we find that Jesus himself is responsible for his own death. He was not a passive victim, but an active participant in giving himself to die. Not only Jesus, but his father also was involved in this affair. Isaiah 53:10 says, “It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief….” Romans 8:32 says that God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all…”
So the answer to the question, “Who killed Jesus?” is far from simple. Yet still, I believe that ultimately this is the wrong question for us to be asking. There are four other questions about the death of Christ that are much more significant.
1. Who died? Who was that man on the cross? According to Scripture, “Jesus is the Christ [i.e. the Jewish Messiah], the Son of God” (John 20:31). Again, the ancient creeds af-firm that Jesus is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God…being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made” (Nicene Creed, 325 AD).
2. For whom did Jesus die? He died for his people: “those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). On the cross, Jesus did everything that was needed to completely save those who belong to God from beginning to end.
3. Why did he die? In the passage just quoted, Paul says that Jesus justified his people. Justification means that Jesus has removed his people’s condemnation, by suffering in their place, so that they stand before him as if they had never sinned. When we watch a graphic representation of the crucifixion, we can be easily distracted from this essential purpose. The events represented in Gibson’s film are certainly real, but they are not unique. Thousands suffered Roman scourging and crucifixion. We miss the point if we focus on that. The thing that makes Jesus’ death unique is that he suffered the wrath of God, not that he suffered the wrath of humans.
4. What are the consequences of his death? Jesus rose from the dead. He became the first-born of a family of people who share in that resurrection life. He went into heaven and now reigns as King of the universe at his Father’s right hand. He offers life to those who repent of their sin and turn to him. In this, Christ’s death has significance for all of us. “The wages of sin is death.” We are all sinners and therefore deserve the condemnation of God’s wrath. The horrible crucifixion pictured in Gibson’s movie does not even begin to approximate that wrath. Since God is a just God who cannot ignore sin, our sin will be punished. For those who repent and flee to Christ, that wrath has already been poured out. For those who ignore his call, there is only “a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:27). So the death of Christ can, at the same time, mean great hope for some, yet great hopelessness for others. Because so much is at stake, I believe that these are the real questions we should be asking about the death of Christ.
John Muehsam is a WCU student.