For more than a decade, issues of atonement theology have been a hot-button topic in the realm of academic theology. Now, within a very short period of time, Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of Christ, has moved that discussion into the popular realm as well—although not every person in the pew or on the sidewalk who is talking about the movie realizes that it reflects a particular atonement theory. If I have one word for those readers just entering the theological discussion about atonement for the first time and via Passion, it is that Gibson’s movie is one interpretation rather than the interpretation of the death of Jesus. This essay explains that comment, and in the process offers some critique of the particular theory that the movie reflects, and concludes with a very brief movie review.

The standard approach to atonement theology focuses on the death of Jesus. The claim is that this violent death benefitted humankind, that Jesus’ execution was somehow necessary and pleasing to God as the basis of human salvation. And that is certainly the message that Mel Gibson wanted his viewers to gain from The Passion of Christ, namely that Jesus’ suffering was necessary for their salvation. Gibson wanted viewers to see just how much Jesus had suffered for them. The particular way in which Gibson seems to picture that suffering becomes clear when the various atonement images come into view.

Scholars of the history of doctrine frequently identify a three-fold taxonomy of atonement images.1 We need to visualize the outlines of these theories in order to see the particular theory of atonement and the particular meaning apparently attached to the suffering of Jesus in Gibson’s Passion.

In the standard approach to theology, atonement theology responds to the question, Why did Jesus have to die?2 Answers fall into three categories. Christus Victor was the predominant atonement image of the early church. It existed in two forms, each of which involved the three elements of God, the devil, and sinful humankind. In the ransom version, the devil held the souls of humankind captive. In a contractual agreement, God handed Jesus over to Satan as a ransom payment to secure the release of captive souls. The devil killed Jesus, in an apparent victory for the forces of evil. In raising Jesus from the dead, God triumphed over the devil, and the souls of humanity were freed from his clutches. This victory through resurrection provides the name Christus Victor or Christ the Victor.

A second version of Christus Victor pictured the conflict between Satan and God as a cosmic battle. In this struggle, the devil killed God’s son, but the resurrection then constituted the victory of God over the forces of evil, and definitively identified God as the ruler of the universe.

For much of the past millennium satisfaction atonement in any of many different forms has been the predominant atonement image. For present purposes it suffices to sketch two versions of satisfaction atonement. One version reflects the view of Anselm of Canterbury, whose Cur Deus Homo or Why the God-Man (1098) constitutes the first full articulation of satisfaction atonement. Anselm wrote that human sin had offended God’s honor and thus had upset divine order in the universe. The death of Jesus as the God-man was then necessary in order to satisfy God’s honor and restore the order of the universe.

A change in the image of satisfaction occurred with Protestant Reformers. For them, Jesus’ death satisfied the divine law’s requirement that sin be punished. Jesus submitted to and bore the punishment that was really due to us—humankind—as sinners. Since he was punished in our place, Jesus substituted himself for us, and died a penal, substitutionary death—thus substitutionary atonement.

Abelard (1079-1142) developed the moral influence atonement image. In this image, the death of Jesus is a loving act of God aimed toward us. God the Father shows love to us sinners by giving us his most precious possession, his Son, to die for us.

Each of these atonement images attempts to explain why Jesus died for us. Many theologians try to lump these atonement theories together as complementary versions on one theme, but the theories are actually quite different and incompatible if we follow the logic of each. One can easily see how different they are by simply asking, What is the target or object of the death of Jesus? or What is the death of Jesus aimed at? For ransom and cosmic battle the death of Jesus has the devil as its object—God aimed Jesus at the devil. For satisfaction atonement, Jesus’ death is aimed Godward—the target of Jesus’ death is God or God’s honor or God’s law. Finally, for moral influence, the death of Jesus targets us, sinful humankind, as its objects. With the death of Jesus going off or aimed in three different directions, it is easy to see that they really are three different theories.

Passion of Christ as Penal Substitutionary Atonement

From this description of atonement images, it seems clear that Mel Gibson’s Passion best fits the penal substitutionary image. This atonement motif is built on the idea that Jesus suffered, bearing punishment that sinful humankind actually deserved. Although I would interpret the verse differently, the intent of the film’s opening quotation of Isaiah 53:5 was to establish penal substitution as the motif of the film: But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. The suffering of Jesus was depicted as necessary. The Jesus of the film was fulfilling a divinely appointed mission to suffer, and his temptation—whispered in his ear by the devil—was to abandon that mission. Jesus fulfilled his mission because he willingly and patiently endured the suffering to which he was assigned. According to God’s law, someone has to be punished for sin. Jesus took that punishment—a great deal of punishment—onto himself from God so that sinful humankind could be spared the punishment they deserve. The emotional response to the film by many viewers stems from their empathy with the Jesus who is suffering—for me—so that they do not have to suffer. For these viewers, the violence of satisfaction is satisfying violence.

At first glance, some might wonder if the presence of the devil and the resurrection scene at the end might place the film in the category of ransom theory, or at least add that theme to the penal substitutionary motif of the film. I think not. First of all, in no way is Jesus given to the devil as a ransom payment. Neither is Jesus really confronting the devil. The devil plays the role of tempter, tempting Jesus to abandon his divinely assigned mission of suffering. Second, the devil is vanquished to the underworld before the resurrection. It is the culmination of suffering—when Jesus dies and thus fulfills his mission—that results in the devil’s banishment. In no way can the resurrection then be portrayed as the victory of the reign of God, as in Christus Victor. Finally, the resurrection scene is a private moment for Jesus. It is certainly not the cosmic event that makes present the authority and power of God in the cosmos.

Much has been made of the violence of The Passion of Christ. People discussed whether they wanted to subject themselves to the violence; parents questioned whether to expose their children to the film’s violence. And the film was violent—although I personally was not particularly shocked by the violence, both because I was prepared for it, and because the plot and its violence was so predictable. No, it was not the violence per se that bothered and offended me. What was offensive—and dangerous—was the film’s portrayal of this violence as necessary. This violence was necessary as the way to bring salvation. What most offended me about The Passion of Christ was its portrayal of the theme of redemptive violence, the belief that good things—in this case salvation—happen through violence. Watching Passion, I was reminded of Saving Private Ryan. The first 30 minutes of that movie, which depicts the carnage of the D-Day invasion, followed by more and more killing throughout the movie left me feeling battered and emotionally drained. But the truly sad and horrifying aspect of Ryan was its message about glorified violence. In one of Ryan’s final scenes the now elderly Private Ryan visits the grave of the main character who died saving him, and Ryan says something like, Tell me I led a good life. The message of Saving Private Ryan is that the carnage and the selfless, sacrificial deaths of brave American soldiers was the basis of Ryan’s good life and the necessary price to pay in order that others may lead good lives. Saving Private Ryan proclaimed a strong message about redemptive violence. The Passion of Christ has another version of redemptive suffering and redemptive violence—Jesus suffered and voluntarily surrendered his life so that the rest of us could have good lives and escape punishment. The violence of satisfaction is satisfying violence.

A few commentators have said that the flashbacks to Jesus’ life and teaching in The Passion of Christ give the movie a meaning beyond the violence. I disagree. In fact, I think that the flashbacks add to the focus on violence. The Jesus of the flashbacks is a passive Jesus, a gentle Jesus meek and mild who submissively submits to abuse. I see a quite different Jesus when I read the Gospels. The Jesus I discover is far from passive. The declaration of his mission with real social implications got him thrown out of town (Luke 4.16-30). In a deliberately provocative action, he healed the withered hand on the Sabbath when he could have waited until the next day (Luke 6.6-11). His injunctions about turning the other cheek, giving the cloak with the coat and going the second mile are actually strategies for nonviolent resistance (Matt. 5.38-41).3 He used a Samaritan, a member of the discriminated-against social class, as a good example (Luke 10.25-37). He traveled through Samaria and accepted a drink from a Samaritan woman, both acts which were proscribed by the purity code. He used provocative and sarcastic language (Luke 11.40, 44, 52, et al.). He vigorously protested corruption in the temple (Luke 19.45-46). When these activist images are compared with the passive Jesus of the flashbacks in Passion, it seems obvious that Gibson’s intent was to picture a Jesus whose primary mission was to submit passively to suffering.

The issue of redemptive violence ultimately becomes a question about the character of God and the way that God works in the world. Consider again the focus on the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and his suffering in fulfillment of a divine mission. Would a loving God, called Father, really want his Son to suffer and die in that way? Would a God whose very being, according to Christian confession, is present in Jesus actually want or need for Jesus to get himself killed to satisfy a need of the Father? That such questions are unavoidable becomes apparent when we return to the standard atonement motifs and consider their historical relationship to each other.

Deleting the Devil from Atonement

The several atonement motifs did not develop as isolated entities. In the first book of Cur Deus Homo, Anselm specifically rejected the idea that Jesus’ death was a ransom payment to the devil. Satan has no contractual rights that would obligate God to make such a payment. And even though humankind deserves punishment, Satan has no right to inflict that punishment. These considerations make it unworthy of God to deal with Satan via a ransom. Thus Anselm deleted the devil from the salvation equation. Rather than seeing human beings as captive to the devil, Anselm made them directly responsible to God. Humans sinned against God, and the death of Jesus served to restore God’s honor and thus restore order in the universe.

Abelard followed Anselm in rejecting the idea of Jesus’ death as a ransom payment to the devil. But Abelard also rejected the idea of Jesus’ death as a payment to God. It made God seem vengeful and judgmental. Instead, Abelard saw the death of Jesus aimed not at God but at sinful humankind. It was a loving act of God designed to get the attention of sinners, and reveal the love of God for sinners while they were yet sinners.

Now move on to ask, Who or what needs the death of Jesus? For the ransom theory, one might say that the devil needs the death—it fulfills God’s part of the bargain when the devil releases the souls of humankind. For the cosmic battle image, the question makes little sense. For the satisfaction theories, it is God or God’s honor or God’s law that needs the death. Without it, the debt to God’s honor remains unpaid or unsatisfied, or the penalty required by God’s law remains unmet. Finally, for the moral theory, one might say that we—sinners—need the death since that is what enables us to perceive the Father’s love.

If it shocks to visualize God needing the death of Jesus in satisfaction and substitutionary atonement, note what happens when we ask, Who arranges for or is responsible for the death of Jesus? Or put most crassly, Who ultimately killed Jesus?

With the ransom theory, it is obvious that the devil killed Jesus. But God certainly appears to be something less than a loving Father—handing the Son over for Satan to kill as a ransom payment to purchase freedom for God’s other children. One can easily sense Anselm’s distaste for this motif.

But the situation does not improve when one poses the question for Anselm’s satisfaction theory. Satisfaction atonement pictures a debt owed to God’s honor. God’s honor not only needs the death, but God also arranges for Jesus to die to pay the debt to God’s honor. The image implies that God has Jesus killed in order to pay the debt to God’s honor. Here is where we very pointedly see the result of Anselm’s deletion of the devil from the three-cornered relationship involving the devil, sinners, and God. With Satan deleted, remaining in the equation are God and the sinners who have offended God. But since these sinful human beings cannot save themselves by repaying God themselves, it is thus merely an extension of Anselm’s own logic that leads to the conclusion that God is the only one left to orchestrate the death of Jesus in order to pay the debt owed to God’s honor, or to provide Jesus’ death as the means to satisfy God’s law. God turns out to be responsible for the death of Jesus. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ actually presents us with an image of God as divine punisher, a God who asks Jesus, the divine son, to be tortured for the benefit of us sinners, who are the rest of God’s children.

One might ask, Wasn’t the devil or the mob or weren’t the Romans or the Jewish leadership, as The Passion of Christ implied, responsible for killing Jesus? Answering yes to that question within the framework of satisfaction atonement leads to a strange juxtaposition. Jesus, who is innocent and who does the will of God, becomes sin, and bears violent punishment. And the evil powers who oppose the reign of God by causing Jesus to suffer and die—whether the devil, the mob, the Jewish leadership or the Romans—are the ones who are actually supporting the will of God, by killing Jesus to provide the payment that God’s honor or God’s law demands. The strange implication is that both Jesus and those who kill Jesus would be carrying out the will of God. In fact, asserting that both claims are true is nonsense. Some folks attempt to avoid the implications of such mutually contradictory claims by cloaking them in a category such as mystery, or by claiming that the acts of God are too big for our categories to contain. But such dodges that do not deal with the problems just render meaningless any attempt to use theology to express Christian faith.

These observations about the role for God the Father in the standard atonement images help explain why a number of feminist and womanist (African American feminist) writers have claimed that atonement theology presents an image of divine child abuse—a father abusing his innocent son for his own purposes. While none of the classic motifs escapes, the sharpest feminist and womanist critique falls on satisfaction atonement, which is the image reflected in The Passion of Christ.

These images are particularly harmful for people who live in oppressive situations—a woman who is abused by her husband, or a people living under military occupation and whose land is being stolen daily by the occupiers. If these people are told to be like Jesus, it is an invitation for them to follow Jesus’ example of submitting passively to unmerited suffering because the ruler wants it. And is it any wonder that so many folks who claim the name of Jesus Christ but envision a God who orchestrates violence as part of a divine plan might justify violence themselves, claiming that justice is done by killing, that international problems can be settled by preemptive invasions and war?

There are other dimensions of violence in the standard atonement images and as penal substitutionary atonement is reflected in The Passion of Christ, but this sketch already shows why I have worked to develop an understanding of Jesus’ saving work that does not depend on divinely sanctioned violence nor an image of a God who uses violence.

Narrative Christus Victor

A constructive nonviolent alternative to violent atonement must be rooted in the biblical witness that in Jesus God acted decisively on behalf of human redemption through the triumph of the lamb. This alternative, which I call narrative Christus Victor builds from classic Christus Victor, which Anselm rejected, but with a difference. Rather than focusing on a cosmic confrontation between God and Satan, narrative Christus Victor focuses on the real-world confrontation between Jesus and the first-century forces of social oppression and military occupation. These forces, represented by the Roman empire, kill Jesus in a seeming defeat for God. But with the resurrection of Jesus, the reign of God triumphs over evil. In the resurrection, the rule of God is thus validated for all eternity quite apart from anything that sinful humankind does to or for or with God. But we—sinful humankind—can then choose to join in the rule of God, or are elected by God into the reign of God (depending on whichever side of the paradox of free will and election one chooses), and God accepts these sinful repentant people in spite of the fact that they can do nothing to compensate or satisfy God (which is grace). It can be shown that narrative Christus Victor solves all the problems identified for satisfaction and substitutionary atonement as well as for other traditional atonement images.4

Conclusion

This tour through atonement theology and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ reveals my dissatisfaction with the film’s theology of redemptive violence and briefly indicates why that theology is unproductive and should be abandoned. With the movie’s theology deconstructed, I have removed the need to see the movie as a religious experience or a worship experience. We are left to see The Passion of Christ for what it really is—a violent movie with an extremely predictable plot. And at that level, it really is not a very good movie. Those movie critics who gave it only three out of five stars were right.