The film graphically dramatizes what happened in the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, drawing on gospel accounts. Viewers feel Jesus' pain in being betrayed, falsely charged, mocked, whipped and flogged into a bloody heap until it seems a miracle that he survived long enough to face the cross. The rendering exalts him as the Lamb of God, whose innocent suffering would atone for the world's sins. At the end, images of an open tomb and resplendent sunshine hint at resurrection.
Few who consider themselves followers of Christ would argue against the notion that Jesus' mission was to save sinners. But some worry that a fixation on suffering - including perhaps in this film - may foster an unfortunate piety of imitation. "I've seen people let themselves get crushed because they believe judgment is God's alone," and tolerate circumstances like domestic violence, says the Rev. John Hughes, pastor of First Parish Church, United Church of Christ in Manchester-By-The-Sea, Mass. "You could mislead somebody ... into leading a life that is not only not redemptive but is destructive."
In classical Christian doctrine, only the perfect Savior could accomplish the atonement by taking the world's sins upon himself. Gibson, a Roman Catholic, frames the movie as an orthodox witness by showing the prophecy of Isaiah 53:5 at the outset: "He was wounded for our transgressions, [and] by his wounds we are healed."
"It's a wake-up call for a whole lot of Christians in name only and have no idea what Jesus, founder of the church, went through," says scholar Craig Evans, author of "Jesus and the Ossuaries" (Baylor University Press, 2003). In his view, Gibson's theology is sound. "What's going to shake up a lot of conservative Christians is the humanity of Jesus, but that's part of who he is - human and divine - and I give Mel Gibson credit for showing that humanity in a Jesus who's scared."