What Would It Take to Forgive Mel Gibson?

Mel Gibson is still among the most reviled people in Hollywood. We all know about his bitter, violent anti-Semitism. And there’s more in the man’s record to revolt you if you can be bothered to dig further.

No amount of spin, no program of image management, not even a further body of impressive work is going to remove the ugly stain from his reputation.

Even his most famous film, “The Passion of the Christ,” has been widely derided as Gibsonian in the worst ways: excessive, heavy-handed, gratuitously violent, and, yes, anti-Semitic.

Watching it again today, however, I was struck by a new thought. Not that the film is in fact excessive, heavy-handed, or the rest: I think it is the best film by far in giving us some approximation, and only that, of the suffering Jesus underwent in the day before his death. “Excruciating” comes from crux, or “cross,” and only a film that stays with Jesus’ serial agonies in such a realistic way can begin to give us a sense of what he endured.

No, as I pondered Gibson’s portraits of the thuggish arresting guards in Gethsemane, the wickedly foolish Judas, the pompous hypocrite Caiaphas who thinks he is so very savvy, the dithering and dilatory Pontius Pilate who thinks he has escaped responsibility, the floundering Peter, the grotesque Herod, and the brutal floggers and executioners, I thought this: What would it take to atone for this amount of sin?

Usually, I have argued the other way. I take as axiomatic the conviction that an all-good, all-powerful God would not allow one bit of evil in the universe more than God has to allow in order for his great purposes to be fulfilled. And when Jesus prays in the Garden to be spared the horror awaiting him, and his Father impresses upon him an indisputable three times that that horror cannot be avoided, I conclude that only this much suffering will suffice—both what we can imagine from what we know of Jesus’s way to the Cross and what we cannot possibly imagine as the holy Lamb of God somehow atones for the sins of the world.

Today, though, as I cringed and cried my way through this movie, I came at it from the other side: Only this much suffering could atone for this much evil. Gibson’s movie could not be excessive, and no artistic depiction could possibly be, when it comes to what it cost God to redeem this much sin.





The soldiers’.

Mel Gibson’s.

And mine.

14 Responses to “What Would It Take to Forgive Mel Gibson?”

  1. April French

    Thanks for this reflection, John. As I was praying during the vigil at my current church, I was pondering the recent attacks in Turkey and Belgium and that Christ suffered even that evil on the Cross. I appreciate your words here.

  2. WoundedEgo

    Hi John. I’m afraid I don’t understand the question. Why does forgiving people involve any kind of abuse of one’s own son? Why can’t he just forgive Melvin? Assuming of course that he repents and asks for forgiveness. I mean, humans don’t ask people who offend them to abuse their children before forgiving others!

    “Well neighbor, you’ve done a terrible thing raping my daughter. Terrible. I’ll only forgive you if you also beat my son to a bloody pulp and the kill him!”

    That would be madness, wouldn’t it?

    Penal substitution and human blood sacrifice are *not* in taught in scripture (except perhaps in metaphor).

    • John

      Yes, if you put it that way, it’s just crazy, isn’t it? So chances are that it’s not the right way to put it–else millions of Christians, including some of its finest theologians, believe a patently crazy (and ugly) thing.

      So I have set out why penal substitution and human blood sacrifice are taught in Scripture, and (to double down here) are at the very core of the Scriptural economy of salvation in one of the posts listed earlier: http://www.johnstackhouse.com/2007/04/05/whats-good-about-bloody-good-friday/

      • WoundedEgo

        Thank you John for the relevant link. A few things…

        * “life for life” only works with animals. If you kill my cat, you can buy me another cat. Actually, you don’t have to buy me another cat! 🙂 But if you kill my son you can’t replace him with another son:

        Lev 24:17 “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death.
        Lev 24:18 Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life.

        People are not interchangeable:

        Eze_18:20 The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.

        (I would also add that many of us, myself included do not actually consider our animals as commodities either that can easily be replaced).

        * the “lamb of God” designation is not really related to the sacrificial system since that animal played only a very minor part in the system and no part of Yom Kippur (the “day of atonement”). The figure actually indicates that Jesus will *violently* remove sin from the land:

        Mat 3:10 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
        Mat 3:11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:
        Mat 3:12 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

        Rev_6:16 And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:

        Rev_14:10 The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb:

        * you referred to Jesus as a “scapegoat” and that is appropriate but on Yom Kippur the “scape goat” was the goat *that was not killed*. It was the one upon whom the sins of the people were figuratively placed (by the laying on of hands) and let loose alive into the wilderness. So too Jesus “ever *lives* to make intercession”.

        * the death of Jesus is never referred to as an “atonement”; it was a “propitiation”. An “atonement” is something done by a sin perpetrator to express remorse for sin and to appeal for forgiveness.

        Now I do think you did successfully illustrate (in the example of the mom, I think) that there was nothing in God’s own heart or will that had to be modified or persuaded to dispose him to forgive sins. He claims over and over that he is of a great and abundant mercy and even love:

        Exo_34:6 And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,

        Deu_4:31 (For the LORD thy God is a merciful God;) he will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which he sware unto them.

        Instead, as you pointed out, the death of Jesus was not to motivate God (he is the one who loved the world and gave his son) but rather to fix “other stuff”. The other stuff is his rectoral concerns:

        * by not punishing a repentant Mel Gibson or Hitler he lays himself open to criticism from those that they have harmed. How will he answer those who say “We did not avenge ourselves on these men. We trusted in you because you said ‘vengeance is my job, I will repay’ and yet you haven’t. You have forgiven him and not punished him, so we lay unrequited. Shall not the judge of all the earth do right”?

        * by subverting justice with mercy (because mercy triumphs over judgement) some might lose confidence in his government and come to believe that sin is not so bad;

        * in order to restore confidence he had to show that he too “had some skin in the game” by making his own son a victim and thus make him a co-wronged person. In so doing he can’t be faulted as being flip or negligent about forgiveness;

        * this propitiation is not about satisfying justice, but rather about justifying mercy. All of this is spelled out in Paul’s magnificent description of precisely what the propitiation was all about in Romans 3:

        Rom 3:23 for all did sin, and are come short of the glory of God–
        Rom 3:24 being declared righteous freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
        Rom 3:25 whom God did set forth a mercy seat, through the faith[fulness] in his blood [ie: his son], for the shewing forth [ie: public display] of His righteousness, because of the passing over of the bygone sins in the forbearance of God–
        Rom 3:26 for the shewing forth of His righteousness in the present time, for His being righteous, and declaring him righteous who is of the faith of Jesus.

        I haven’t read it yet (am getting ready to order the book) but I understand that John Stott delves into this in his book “The Cross of Christ”.

        Thanks for hearing me out.

  3. Jim Carlson

    John, we met a mutual acquaintance ‘s home on Orcas Island a few years back.
    As Good Friday remembrances would have it too watch The Passion of the Christ today. I wept over His suffering and my sin. Amazing as it could ever be I am forgiven.
    I remember on Orcas we were all pushing you to use Twitter and I see that you have found the value in it as have I. Media serves the message well today is once again a film by a broken soul like mine was used to remind me of such great sacrifice and unbounding grace

    • John

      I remember meeting you, Jim, and I was thinking back just a few days ago about your exhortation to get on “the Twitter.” Well, 4000 tweets later, I guess I’m on it, although I feel a little abashed that I have far more tweets than I have tweeps!

      Anyhow, thanks for the reminiscence and the camaraderie in appreciating the power of “The Passion of the Christ.” Here’s hoping we both get back to Orcas again ere long.

  4. Jim

    Human beings die horrific deaths everyday….the cross in its time was not that remarkable nor exclusive. Focusing on the gruesome mode of death seems to be more a product of our fallen nature and our attraction to human suffering. I don’t need a gory movie to appreciate the price to be paid. I just witness daily human suffering and comprehend the cost.

    • John

      Good for you. God’s ordination of crucifixion, however, which is one of the most awful forms of judicial torture and execution ever devised, probably shouldn’t be dismissed as just another way of dying badly. Nor the whole sequence of events, and sufferings, from betrayal in the Garden to ignominy on the Cross that the movie depicts. Most of the rest of us conclude that the Evangelists’ devoting significant portions of their Gospels to the last few days of Jesus life must be worth contemplating, and at the modern remove from those events, Gibson’s movie helps some of us see what ancients would have understood all too vividly. Odd that you would attribute bad motives to us….

      • WoundedEgo

        The scriptures do, indeed spill a lot of ink on the details of the suffering and death of Jesus and in fact ask us to contemplate them:

        Heb 12:1 Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
        Heb 12:2 Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.
        Heb 12:3 For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.
        Heb 12:4 Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.

        However, to Jim’s point, it must be admitted that as far as journey through this world of woe Jesus lived a relatively cushy life and did not suffer or die a terribly unusually amount, though he had a few bad days at the end. He “tasted” death but because he prayed in the garden that the cup would pass quickly he was spared the worst of it. He only experienced the first 3 hours of his crucifixion. Contrast the treatment of body slaves in Christian South, the brutality of the inquisition, the torture in Sadaam Hussein’s regime, etc!

        Suffering is not redemptive. It did, however make Jesus a more compassionate high priest. In suffering Jesus learned things about obedience to God.

        We should contemplate but not exaggerate his sufferings.

        • John

          I’ll just register my dissent, “WoundedEgo,” and say that I stand with the orthodox tradition in regard to the suffering and death of Jesus. I think your account is woefully deficient in regard to what Jesus actually suffered–the crucifixion, awful as it was, was symbolic of the much greater agony he underwent to atone for the world. You don’t even have Gethsemane right: Jesus asked that the cup would pass from him; it wasn’t going to; so he submitted to the will of God. There was nothing “quick” about it. So yes, read John Stott on “The Cross of Christ,” and Happy Easter….

          • WoundedEgo

            When you say it was “sympolic” of the “greater suffering” are you suggesting some kind of “cosmic suffering” as I’ve heard suggested by some? If so, I see no evidence that he endured anything supernatural in terms of suffering.

            • WoundedEgo

              “God may, through Christ, pardon the greatest sinner without any prejudice to the honour of his majesty. The honour of the divine majesty indeed requires satisfaction; but the sufferings of Christ fully repair the injury [here’s rectoral language]. Let the contempt be ever so great, yet if so honourable a person as Christ undertakes to be a Mediator for the offender, and suffers so much for him, it fully repairs the injury done to the Majesty of heaven and earth. The sufferings of Christ fully satisfy justice. [here’s where rectoral and penal start to mix.] The justice of God, as the supreme Govemor and Judge of the world, requires the punishment of sin. The supreme Judge must judge the world according to a rule of justice. God doth not show mercy as a judge, but as a sovereign; therefore his exercise of mercy as a sovereign, and his justice as a judge, must be made consistent one with another; and this is done by the sufferings of Christ, in which sin is punished fully, and justice answered [Notice that God’s honor/sovereignty is not what’s answered by the full punishment of sin.]. Rom. iii. 25, 26. ‘Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time, his righteousness; that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.’ –The law is no impediment in the way of the pardon of the greatest sin, if men do but truly come to God for mercy: for Christ hath fulfilled the law, he hath borne the curse of it, in his sufferings; Gal. iii. 13. ‘Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.'”
              From Jonathon Edwards’ sermon “Pardon for the Greatest Sinners” (in On Knowing Christ, [Banner of Truth], 270).

  5. Jim

    Hi John, no bad motives intended on a personal note. More about the general human condition. We suffer, God suffered and we continue to suffer. Gibson and others made a lot of money and used the graphic elements of the movie to draw the crowd. No different than so many other secular violent movies.


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