What is unclear—and likely key to whether the film succeeds or fails—is how Gibson will navigate the tricky question of what Christ was up to between his death and resurrection. The world’s Christians are divided: millions of Catholics believe Jesus visited hell while millions of Protestants—including the evangelicals who Gibson courted carefully for Passion—do not. If Gibson, who is Catholic, chooses to portray what’s known as the “harrowing of hell” or the “descent of Christ,” he risks turning off a sizable portion of his intended audience. According to Pew Research, Protestants, at 43 percent of the population, are the largest Christian group in America while Catholics are second at 20 percent.
The theological divide over the harrowing stems in part from the Apostle’s Creed based on the teachings of the 12 Apostles though written about six decades after the last of them had died. About 200 years later, text was added to the Creed stating that Jesus “was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.” Darrell L. Bock, senior research professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary says “Catholics find it in some of the creeds, and if something is creedal, it tends to lock in.” The idea of Christ descending into hell is generally embraced not only by Catholics but also by Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists. Evangelicals, however—roughly 25 percent of the U.S. population, though estimates vary depending on how the term is defined—largely reject the notion of Jesus visiting Satan in the underworld. J.D. Hall, for instance, a controversial Baptist preacher who runs Pulpit & Pen, a website visited by about one million Christians a month says,”The concept of Christ descending into hell is less scripture and more a manufacturing of the Roman Catholic Church.”