As I expected, the issue I didn’t get to last night has surfaced pretty quickly. It was the one quote from Gibson’s interview on ABC that tended to attract the most attention from my Christian friends. The common sentiment was – I thought the whole thing was great, but what in the world did he mean when he said “everyone gets to heaven, I just have an easier way?” For the record, this is how it actually went down…
Diane is voicing over shots of Mel’s Traditionalist Catholic church, noting that his particular home in Catholicism stands in opposition to the Vatican reforms of the 1960’s (known as Vatican II…not to be confused with Lethal Weapon 2). Among those reforms was a more inclusive view of other faiths. Concluding her voiceover, Diane says, “So when we talked with Gibson and his other actors, we wondered, ‘Does his Traditionalist view bar the door to Heaven for Jews, Protestants, Muslims?’”
Mel’s response: That’s not the case at all. Absolutely not. It is possible for people who are not even Christian to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s just easier for– …And I have to say that because that’s what I believe.
Diane: You have the nonstop ticket?
Mel: Well, I’m…yeah. I’m saying it’s an easier ride where I am because it’s like, uh, I have to believe that.
I have some thoughts on what that particular moment in the interview might represent, and I tend to break those thoughts into a couple of possibilities.
First, I think it’s worth talking about context a bit. I know a little about TV and film production, and I was occasionally confused during the interview by the cut-aways from Mel and Diane’s one-on-one shots to this other interview where Mel was accompanied by Maia Morgenstern, the actress who plays Mary, and Jim Caviezel, the actor who plays Jesus. This particular answer is one of those occasions. We hear the question in Diane’s voiceover, then they cut to his answer from this other interview that we don’t really know much about. It seemed like an odd edit with all kinds of questions about context. We don’t actually know what he was asked to provoke that particular answer, and he could have been saying something fairly different from how it played with that edit. It could have been something as simple as Paul’s declaration in 1 Corinthians 1 that the preaching of Christ crucified is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. He could have simply meant that the road to eternal life is “easier” for him because he was raised Christian (or Catholic) than it is for those who live most of their lives under Muslim or Jewish teachings. Remember, he said Jews and Muslims can get to Heaven – he didn’t say they could get there without Jesus. In that sense, believing the Gospel is often easier for those who are raised under Christian teaching than those who aren’t.
It’s also entirely possible that the editing was a coincidence and that we didn’t miss the context of what he said and meant. So, if the context was fairly solid, what did he mean? I think the answer to that has a lot to do with him being Catholic. Before I take a swing at this, let me acknowledge that I’m not a master theologian. If that’s true about my command of Protestant doctrine, it’s certainly truer when it comes to Catholic theology. It’s also worth noting that it’s a bad idea to assume the label “Catholic” is a monolithic and universal descriptor. There are all kinds of Catholics just like there are all kinds of Baptists. There are Baptists who ordain homosexuals, and there are Baptists who wag around picket signs that say, “God hates fags.” Most Baptists are somewhere in between those extremes. A lot of Protestants are inclined to paint Catholics with broad strokes that don’t necessarily apply to any and every Catholic. My attempt to discuss Mel’s Catholic theology will be feeble and very, very general. There are at least a few regular visitors here who either are presently Catholic or have some Catholic background or connection. Feel free to chime in and correct or clarify my hacking up of what you learned in Catechism class.
I’ll start by reminding everyone that Mel is very Catholic. Most of what he said to Diane Sawyer was safe for evangelicals, but Traditionalist Catholicism generally thinks of itself as more Catholic than the Vatican. He’s not going to be walking the aisle of Hollywood Baptist Church anytime soon.
That said, the perspective that Mel was probably representing with his statement that “it is possible for people who are not even Christian to get into the Kingdom of Heaven,” is a fairly standard Catholic doctrine when it comes to salvation. As I understand it, it’s generally the idea that certain folks who aren’t terribly evil have a second chance of sorts in the afterlife to have Jesus burn away their sin so they can eventually get their ticket punched. It’s not ideal since Purgatory isn’t Disneyland, but I guess it beats the eternal smell of sulfur. They don’t necessarily view it as a way around Christ as The Way; they just think Jesus can work atonement for some folks post-humus. The standard Protestant reminder is that Catholics generally factor in the role of works or deeds more than Protestants when it comes to determining who’s under the cover of grace and who isn’t. So it probably makes some sense that they think some non-confessors can get a second chance if their lives were somehow good enough to avoid immediate damnation. This is not universalism. It’s not a declaration that all good Jews and good Muslims and good whatevers get to Heaven eventually. The Catholic belief in Purgatory is not a guarantee for good people who don’t follow Christ. It’s just a possibility, and a fairly mysterious one at that.
I also think it’s fair to point out, lest we start looking down our Presbyterian and Baptist noses at the concept of Purgatory, that there are a lot more Protestant theologians than you might think who espouse a very similar notion, minus some of the details. Here’s some blog homework before you comment on all of this – take five minutes and read the first half of Romans 2, paying particular attention to verses 11-16. (I’ve linked to a couple of versions here that I think are particularly interesting. Read verse 16 in The Message a few times.) Mull that over and let me know if you’re absolutely sure about what it means about who definitely gets into Heaven and who doesn’t. This is one of those passages most people (wisely) won’t declare a precise interpretation of, but many suspect it means God works salvation for some who we wouldn’t necessarily identify as Christians using our particular language and labels. I think the typical end game in those interpretations is to say, “I’m not sure who that might be, and I don’t know that we can know who it might be, so you’re better off not trying to slip in under that cover.” That’s pretty similar to Mel’s: “It’s an easier ride where I am.” I’m not entirely sure what to do with all of that, but I’m pretty confident that none of our theological systems will lack for gaping holes when exposed to the fires of eternal Truth.
I’m not arguing for an ecumenical or universalist mish-mash, but I don’t think Mel is either. The guy just spent three-hundred-hundred Gs of his own coin to make a film about the brutal death of a homeless man from Nazareth two thousand years ago. I’m pretty sure he thinks Jesus is relevant to folks’ eternal destinies.