Every trial is a quest to determine who committed the crime in question. Is the defendant responsible, or is some other person really at fault? Jurors listen to testimony and examine exhibits—a process that’s often dry, tedious, and complicated by dense legalese. It is not uncommon to see jurors nodding off during the seemingly interminable pauses and delays.
But what if the jurors could see a videotape of the crime itself? The drama and intensity would certainly captivate them. The images would be much more compelling than the words that would be used later to describe what had happened.
The Passion of the Christ illustrates the ability of film to engage its audience. In shock and disbelief, repelled by the brutality and suffering, we witness the gruesome crucifixion of Jesus—and our instinct for justice is stirred. “Who did this?” we want to shout. “Who’s to blame for this atrocity?” The endless flogging, the swollen eye, the shredded flesh—all of the horrific violence compels us to demand, “Who is responsible? Surely the guilty party must pay for this!”
Is Satan behind it all? Judas? Pilate? The religious leaders? The Roman soldiers? The screaming mob? For that matter, why didn’t the disciples step in and try to stop the madness? A lot of people were involved, and yet we can’t seem to figure out who’s primarily responsible.
Pilate orders the unjust execution, and Roman troops carry it out with inhumane efficiency. The disciples scatter, except for Peter, who denies Jesus in the midst of the confusion and chaos. The chants from the crowd create a terrifying rhythm in the background, jeering each step of Jesus’ journey to Golgotha and every slam of the hammer. Judas, the betrayer, hangs himself. The sinister presence of a shrouded Satan is haunting. He—or is it she?—is eerily delighted when Jesus is finally pronounced dead.
In that swarm of characters and commotion, where do we point our finger of blame? Suspicion and sensitivity run high as we explore the list of potential perpetrators. Of course, the depiction of Jesus’ death has always created controversy, whether it is told through medieval passion plays or the latest filmmaker’s interpretation.
Amazingly, newspapers carried stories about the debate over The Passion of the Christ months before the film was even released. One concern was that the movie—even unintentionally—would focus blame on Jews collectively, vilifying them and encouraging anti-Semitism.
What is the truth behind the death of Jesus? Who are the real culprits? Our sense of justice requires a verdict. Maybe if we expose who is really to blame, we’ll begin to make some sense out of the apparently senseless horror.
Open for Discussion
1. Name the movies you have seen that have dealt with the story of Jesus. Which one was the most powerful? Why?
2. What impact did The Passion of the Christ have on you? How did it inspire or surprise you?
3. What did you like most and least about the film? Which scene is most memorable for you?
4. Religious upbringing, the media, comments of friends, and even motion pictures can raise questions in our minds about Jesus. What questions or doubts are especially pressing to you?
5. Have you ever witnessed someone being treated unfairly and felt an intense desire for the perpetrator to be held accountable? Describe what happened.
6. How did The Passion of the Christ change your opinion about who was most responsible for Jesus’ death? Who would you say the movie portrays as being guilty? Why?
7. What difference does it make who killed Jesus? How important is it to you to know who killed Jesus? Why?
8. How are the allegations concerning anti-Semitism supported or weakened by the fact that Jesus was Jewish, his closest friends and followers were all Jewish, he lived in a Jewish community, and he was hailed as a hero by Jewish crowds as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday?
9. Take a few moments to read the verses below. Then, based on what those references suggest, complete the chart by listing the possible accomplices to Jesus’ death. How does your list clarify or confuse the issue for you?
Bible verses Accomplices
10. Read the following Bible passages. Given the tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, who do you think the Bible claims is ultimately responsible for Jesus’ death?
“Where do you come from?” [Pilate] asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” John 19:9–11
[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Philippians 2:6–8
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 1 Peter 2:24
11. Do you agree with this statement made by Billy Graham after he saw The Passion of the Christ: “The film is faithful to the Bible’s teaching that we are all responsible for Jesus’ death, because we have all sinned. It is our sins that caused his death, not any particular group”? In what sense do you think we are responsible since we had not even been born when Jesus was crucified?
12. Check the statement(s) below that best describes your position at this point. Share your selection with the rest of the group and offer some reasons for your response.
____ I’m not sure why the question of who killed Jesus is relevant.
____ I’m convinced no single group of people alone is responsible for Jesus’ death.
____ I understand the Bible teaches we are all responsible for Jesus’ death, but I’m not sure I believe it.
____ I believe my sin and the sins of the world crucified Jesus.
____ I believe the specific characters identified in the Bible each had a role in Jesus’ death.
____ I have all kinds of doubts about God, because it doesn’t make sense to me that he would simply stand back and allow his son to be murdered without stepping in to stop it.
____ I’m confused about how I could somehow be responsible for Jesus’ death.
____Write your own phrase here: ___________
Scripture for Further Study
• Acts 2:22–24 •2 Corinthians 5:21
• Romans 3:9–12, 21–26 •Philippians 2:6–11
• Romans 5:6–8 •1 Peter 2:22–25