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Liberation theology, not Calvinism, is behind Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto

Giles Fraser is wrong to say the film supports the Protestant heresy that sin must be paid for with pain

By on Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Apocalypto: terrifying, beautiful and macabre

Apocalypto: terrifying, beautiful and macabre

The one redeeming feature about the recent spate of Bank Holidays and the fact that it gets dark so early is that one can find time for the guilty pleasure of watching DVDs. Over New Year I hunkered down with Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, which I think is an absolutely brilliant film. Others disagree. One such is Dr Giles Fraser , who took the film to task in the Guardian for theological error and anti-Semitism, among other things. I strongly disagree with what Dr Fraser has to say about the film’s supposed anti-Semitism, and I think his reading of it as an allegory where the Mayan priests stand in for the Jews is simply wrong. I also strongly disagree with what he implies in the following:

What’s more sinister is the connection Gibson is always forging between salvation and violence. The root cause is a theology associated particularly with Anselm and Calvin. Human beings are wicked and can only make it to heaven if they are punished for their sin, thus righting the scales of justice and wiping clean the slate. The problem is, human wickedness is so deep that the required punishment would be too much for us to bear. So Christ offers to take our place, accepting our punishment in the form of an excruciating crucifixion. It’s the story of salvation, as read by the religious right. All sin must be paid for with pain.

The technical term for this theology is penal substitution. It is, among other things, the reason so many conservative Christians like Gibson support the death penalty – wickedness must be paid for with blood. And it’s precisely this equation that has come to rot the Christian moral conscience from within. For this theology is intrinsically vindictive, bloodthirsty and vengeful. Though many evangelicals and conservative Catholics think it the beating heart of the good news, it’s a much later medieval interpretation that refuses the gospel’s insistence upon forgiveness and non-violence.

I imagine that Mel Gibson or indeed any Catholic, no matter how “conservative”, would find the accusation of holding a Calvinist theology simply laughable. I have said it before now: Catholics do not hold the doctrine of penal substitution. It is unfair of Dr Fraser to assume that we do. Penal substitution is a Protestant heresy. It is doubtful that Anselm believed it, and there is no Catholic theologian of today who teaches it, as far as I know. I do not see it as my job to defend Mel Gibson, but it simply cannot be right to see him as an ultra-Conservative Catholic and a crypto-Calvinist at the same time: you cannot be both.

But to get back to the film. It is an astonishing piece of cinematography, while at the same time being bloody and frightening in the extreme. The world of the Maya is quite unlike our own: terrifying, beautiful, and macabre.

As for the accusation of cultural chauvinism – well, actually, human sacrifice is wrong, and the Maya did practise it. Such practices do need to be challenged, and should not be accepted uncritically. As the child of a South American mother I may well be prejudiced, but the Spanish conquest of America brought huge advantages to the continent, the greatest of which was, and still is, the Catholic religion. The Cross, which so notably appears right at the end of Apocalypto, is a sign not of enslavement, but of liberation. Giles Fraser is wrong in his reading of Mel Gibson’s theology: the film has no hint of Calvinism to it, to my mind, but rather points to a particularly Latin American theology – liberation theology.

  • Annie

    One of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. Absolutely outstanding. Mel Gibson is a great film maker.

  • Anonymous

    What’s needed today is a renewed catechesis on the Biblical nature of sacrifice.  Gibson shows us the non-Biblical, destructive kind of sacrifice in his great film, as practised by the pagans there.  But, as you note, he also shows us the Cross, from which Christ, despite its destructive nature, freely offered himself as a pleasing gift to the Father.  Both Christ and the main character of this film show us how to build a culture of life even when surrounded by a prevailing culture of death.     

  • Peter Bolton

    Why does Dr Fraser insist on this wrong-headed view of Anselm? It is quite clear, if one actually bothers to read Anselm, that he is works out his Theology of the Atonement in direct response to the penal substitution theory of which he was strongly critical. (And because he was writing in Latin, was much more precise in his arguments that the erstwhile Canon of St Paul’s).

  • Oconnord

    If I may make a point purely as a film fan.
    Mel Gibson has been re-making the same movie for decades. Consider the Mad Maxs, the Lethal Weapons, Braveheart, Ransom and so on. They all have the same plot, just different scenarios. Bad guy hurts the hero’s family (or a thinly veiled substitute) the hero then takes, usually violent, revenge.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Yes, I do see your point, but I doubt I could sit through a Mad Max film; whereas I was mesmerised by Apocalypto – it is so amazingly wonderful to look at. Whereas Mad Max, if I remember, the bit I saw, was all dust and Tina Turner in some sort of silly costume…. The storyline of Apocalypto was pretty basic – a chase movie really – but the way it was made was breath-taking, even if there were a few creaky bits to the plot e.g. the oh so convenient solar eclipse, the arrival of the Spanish at just that moment, etc….

  • Jjpepe

    I am not going to argue if Apocalypto is a bad or good movie. Yet,
    it is not about the Mayan or their culture or their history. It is more like
    Rambo in the tropical forest speaking Maya.

  • theroadmaster

    Apocalyptio is a very rewarding and beautiful cinematic experience for the avid film enthusiast which unflinchingly gives us a birds-eye view of the ritual bloodletting that characterized Mayan culture.  It is hard to see how Calvinism can have such a prominent part in Mel Gibson’s motivations in the making of this film as it is essentially about how a pagan, highly-organized society appeases the anger of whimsical gods by barbarous human sacrifice.  This has no part in traditional Catholic theology which Gibson would be very familiar with.  Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was the culmination and perfect emulation of all the previous sacrifices offered by previous generations of patriarchs and high priests observing Judaic ritual.  The reality that our Messiah was incarnated in human form while retaining His Divinity, was nothing more than the demonstration of our Creator’s love for humanity and is a clear refutation of the Calvinist heresy of the depravity of man.  Surely if God thought that man was not worth saving due to inherent evil,  then the giving up of the Life of His Son, as a ransom for the collective sin of mankind, would not have  been conceived.  

    The once popular belief of Jansenism, which was very influential  within religious and social circles in France and beyond in the 17th century, could  be described as the nearest that some theologians within Catholicism got to the Calvinist doctrines of the depravity of man and predestination.  But they were given short shrift then by the Catholic Church and ever since.

  • Mikethelionheart

    Dr Fraser is not to be taken seriously. His ‘theology’ is consistently poor, shallow and attention seeking.

  • Anonymous

    “Penal substitution is a Protestant heresy.”

    How ?

  • Anonymous

    Isn’t animal sacrifice as laid down in the Hebrew Bible “destructive” ? Or sacrifice in which an offering is destroyed by fire (Judges 13) ? Calvary – which the Church calls a sacrifice – is pretty “destructive”. And all are Biblical. FWIW, a good many non-Biblical sacrifices were not destructive.

  • Anonymous

    It’s hard to believe he didn’t make “Avatar” – which this film sounds very like. Since he likes making incomprehensible Catholic gore-fests, an epic about Attila the Hun & St.Leo I is probably next; that, or how the evil British are the sole cause of the Great Hunger in mid-1840s Ireland.  Or, if another “A” flick is wanted, an epic Catholic gore-fest about Antichrist, with the AC being an evil British hobbit from Vatican II who travels in time on the star-ship “Titanic” to destroy the Church. That should keep Mel occupied – it could be the Catholic “Left Behind With Demons Code” 

  • Anonymous

    René Girard has some interesting things to say on this topic:

  • Mac

    Mel Gibson has not been a practicing ROMAN Catholic some time before his film The Passion of Christ.  He is a member of a schismatic “Catholic” church his father, Hudson Gibson who made himself a bishop (giving Mel and annulment of his first marriage), started.  Don’t know what his father calls his church, somewhere in California — where else, huh?  In other words, Mel is probably, along with his father, according to Roman Catholic canon law, a self-excommunicate.  I say “probably”, as it might take a canon law lawyer to figure it out, but when one accepts a self-appointed bishop in a non-Roman Catholic church as your bishop, it would seem Mel has self-excommunicated himself.


  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Good point. Canonically Mel is out in the wilderness. So too is Bishop Richard Williamson. However, this does not stop an awful lot of people using Mel and others against the Church as if they were somehow typical representatives of the Catholic Church, which is hardly fair.

  • Annie

    Avatar is a cartoon, James Cameron at his overblown and syrupy worst.

    Apocalyto is a movie. The two are as like as chalk and cheese. I don’t find Mel Gibson’s ‘Catholic gore-fests’ incomprehensible, I find them thought provoking, and superbly filmed, and moving. The gore that’s there is there because it was a gory and violent period of history. I don’t think there’s a ‘nice’ way to show human sacrifice.

    Apparently, Mel Gibson’s next project may be the Viking invasion of Britain, with English subtitles.

  • Adam Thomson

    “Penal substitution is a Protestant heresy.”


    Surely HE hath borne OUR infirmities and carried our sorrows: and we have thought him as it were a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted.  But HE was wounded for OUR iniquities, HE was bruised for OUR sins: THE CHASTISEMENT OF *OUR* PEACE WAS UPON *HIM*, and by HIS bruises WE are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray, every one hath turned aside into his own way: and the Lord hath laid on HIM the iniquity of US all. (Isaiah 53.4-6)

    Who his own self bore our sins in his body upon the tree: that we, being dead to sins, should live to justice: by whose stripes you were healed. (1 Peter 2.24)

    Don’t these passages teach substitution? What is your objection to it?

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Could I refer you to the post that is linked to in the post above?

  • Anonymous

    The Biblical purpose is to offer the animal, etc. to God in the form of smoke, which drifts up to him as a pleasing sacrifice (e.g. Genesis 8:20-21).  The sacrificial purpose of the Cross is for Christ to offer himself to the Father as a pleasing sacrifice (of which the Ascension is part), which continues in the Mass.

  • John Bowles

    Oh dear. You doubt Anselm’s authorship of ‘Cur Deus homo’ then? 

    The substitutionary theory of atonement was not even a matter for dispute at the Reformation. It was part of the common deposit of faith which Calvin did not question. It might look like a ‘Protestant Heresy’ from your ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ point of view, but it is perfectly orthodox from a Tridentine perspective. 

  • Poppy Tupper

    Ed Tomlinson kept telling me to read the Catholic Catechism, so I did. Paras 602 and 603 star the substitutionsry view of the atonement.

  • Attende

    I agree that Apocalypto is an interesting and provocative film however I am not sure that you are correctly interpreting the appearance of the cross at the end. What is notable about this scene is that the last two Mayans remaining in pursuit of the hero immediately are drawn to the incoming powers wielding the cross but the hero is not. The hero takes his family and heads to the hills explicitly stating his intention of living freely there. What’s consistent is Gibson’s position against established authority which is always corrupt compared with brave free men protecting their families – just as true of the Scots in Braveheart. In Passion of the Christ a similar dynamic exists as the powerful are all depicted as most concerned with maintaining their power while Christ, the perfect innocent, is destroyed by them and only  powerless people (the women of Jerusalem, Simon of Cyrene) make any effort to comfort him. All the main characters become fully realised through their suffering. The cross in Gibson’s Passion is the location of suffering. But at the end of Apocalypto wielded as a symbol of political power it is merely the announcement of a new ruling power ultimately different from the Mayan rulers only in degree.

  • The Catholic Herald

    I am out of the office until Monday, January 9. If you have an urgent query, please email

  • Oconnord

    But don’t judge by those. Offhand three movies from there would  be:

    Romper Stomper.
    The Dish.
    The Castle.

  • Adam Thomson

     1. I’ve had a look at those links, but they don’t seem to say very much.
    You explain Penal Substitution by saying, ‘In crude terms, God murdered
    his own Son to satisfy his own blood-lust. Love had nothing to do with
    it. This represents a misunderstanding of what happened on Good Friday,
    and a misunderstanding of the way Jesus voluntarily, and out of love,
    sacrificed himself.’

    Then in the comments you respond to emmaus53
    by saying, ‘These passages in St Paul that speak the language of penal
    substitutiuon, are, as far as I can see, using an analogy. To me the
    matter is summed up in the language of the second Eucharistic prayer
    which talks of Christ freely going to his death’ and later you speak of
    ‘the difficulty with SA ie that the Father punished his Son… how could
    he when he loves him so much?’

    None of this seems to present any
    substantial objection to substitutionary atonement. I doubt if a single
    believer in S.A. denies that Jesus ‘voluntarily, out of love,
    sacrificed himself’ or that he ‘went freely to his death.’ There is no
    contradiction between the Father laying our punishment upon his Son and
    the Son freely accepting and submitting to that.

    2. Neither do
    believers in S.A. doubt the eternal and infinite love of the Father for
    his Son. You ask, ‘How could [the Father punish his Son] when he loves
    him so much?’ But how is that a problem confined to one particular
    theory of the atonement? You believe that Christ suffered terribly. He
    suffered physically under cruel Roman soldiers – scourging, beating,
    mocking – to such an extent that he could hardly carry his own cross. He
    suffered the appalling physical pains of crucifixion. And he
    experienced mental anguish leading the cry of dereliction. And the very
    prospect of all this was sufficient to cause him to sweat as it were
    great drops of blood in Gethsemane.

    But all this happened
    according to the will of God! On any Christian theory of the atonement,
    one must surely accept that God willed these things to happen, and that
    he did so for man’s salvation. But if they happened according to the
    will of God, surely that itself must lead to the question ‘how could he
    when he loves him so much?’ Whatever theory of the atonment we hold, the
    same question arises : How could God give the Son he loves so much to
    suffer like this?  We cannot get away from the fact that Christ did
    suffer these things, and that God willed that he should. And to some of
    us, the moral necessity that is embedded in the theory of
    Substitutionary Atonement best answers the question, ‘How could he?’

    You keep refering to Penal Substitution as a ‘Protestant heresy’. If it
    is a heresy, the church must have condemned it. Can you please tell us

    Thank you!

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Perhaps we should ask the CDF for a ruling on this one?

  • Adam Thomson

    Forgive my ignorance, but what is the CDF? I tried Google and they came up with the Collider Detector at Fermilab, the Corporate Design Foundation, the China Development Fourm, the Christian Dental Fellowship (I expect they believe in substitutionary atonement!). Presumably none of these was what you had in mind?