10 Religious Movies That Sparked Controversy

Art can be quite personal, and when religious movies tackle delicate topics, they tend to stir up a storm of passionate debate.

Hollywood often creates movies that stir up a buzz, and that’s no surprise. Movies are a form of visual art and art, well, it’s all about personal taste. You can’t please everyone in the art world. So, some films touch the hearts of one group while rubbing others the wrong way. Each viewer sees a film through their unique lens because we’re all different and bring our own perspectives to the theater.

Religion is another topic where everyone has their own take. I mean, there are over 4,000 ‘recognized religions’ worldwide – that’s a lot of beliefs. So, when you mix religion and movies, you will spark some conversations. Hollywood has made quite a few films with religious themes over the years: think “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc,” and “Silence,” among others.

But not all these religious-themed movies have been smooth sailing. Some have faced intense scrutiny from prominent Christian leaders. Today, we’re diving into the world of 10 of the most controversial movies with religious themes, the kind that made waves on the big screen and stirred up some serious controversy.

1. *The Passion of the Christ* (2004)

Religious movies

The title, “The Passion of the Christ,” tells the story of the final hours of the life of Jesus Christ, his crucifixion in Jerusalem, and the suffering he endured. It was Mel Gibson, a Catholic director and actor, who created this film. It stands as the highest-grossing non-English language movie, surpassing “La Dolce Vita” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” It’s also the most successful independent film, according to Indiewire. Among Biblical tales, it ranks 4th, 5th among R-rated releases, and 79th in domestic earnings.

However, despite its massive success, the film was surrounded by controversy. Some people found it too graphic and violent, depicting the brutal acts of whipping, nailing to the cross, and the crown of thorns. These intense and bloody scenes upset many viewers, causing some to feel sick or cry uncontrollably.

The number of complaints was so high that Mel Gibson decided to re-edit the movie, saying, “After its initial run in theaters, I received many letters from people across the country. They wanted to share the experience with loved ones but worried that the harsh scenes would be too much. In response, I decided to re-edit ‘The Passion of the Christ.’”

Aside from the violence, the film faced accusations of antisemitism due to its portrayal of Jews. The National Catholic Reporter criticized the film for depicting Jewish leaders as a heartless mafia and showing Jesus and his apostles as separate from Jewish religious life. The film suggested that all Jewish people eagerly watched Jesus being tortured and killed.

A sequel is coming soon

It’s been nearly 18 years since its release, and a sequel, “The Passion of the Christ: Resurrection,” is in the making. Star Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus, has hinted that this new film from Mel Gibson will be even more impactful than the first one. We will see whether it stirs controversy like the original.

2. *The Last Temptation of Christ* (1988)

Religious movies

“The Last Temptation of Christ” retells the life and death of Jesus, delving into his human struggles like fear, doubt, reluctance, depression, and even lust. The film starts with a statement that it’s not based on the Gospels but explores an imaginary spiritual conflict. However, this portrayal of Jesus as a mortal grappling with temptations and sinful thoughts angered many Christians, who saw it as blasphemous.

In one part of the movie, Jesus, played by Willem Dafoe, admits, “I’m a liar, a hypocrite; I’m afraid of everything. I don’t ever tell the truth; I don’t have the courage … I don’t steal, fight, or kill — not because I don’t want to — but because I’m afraid. Also, I want to rebel against you, against everything, against God, but I’m afraid. You want to know who my mother and father is? Do you want to know who my God is? Fear! You look inside me, and that’s all you’ll find.”

Another scene, which troubled many Christians, shows Jesus on the cross fantasizing about having sexual relations with Mary Magdalene. In contrast to traditional Christian teachings, these elements depict Jesus as an imperfect human rather than the pure Son of God. Still, some view Scorsese’s film as a powerful Easter experience.

3. *Dogma* (1999)

Religious movies

In 1999, Kevin Smith took the director’s chair for the fantasy comedy “Dogma,” featuring the dynamic duo of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as two fallen angels. These angels, Bartleby and Loki, were banished from Heaven but hatched a plan to return by exploiting a loophole in Catholic dogma. This plot would, however, challenge the infallibility of God and risk undoing all of creation.

Unsurprisingly, Smith’s irreverent take on the Catholic Church and religion sparked controversy. The Catholic League swiftly labeled it as blasphemy and anti-Catholic. Many religious critics were upset that God was portrayed as a woman, played by singer Alanis Morissette, and that the film’s hero, Christ’s descendant, worked at an abortion clinic. Smith relished the public outcry and even joined the protesters outside a theater, playfully taunting those who opposed his comedy.

4. *The Master* (2012)

Religious movies

In 2012, Philip Seymour Hoffman performed as the mysterious religious leader Lancaster Dodd in Paul Thomas Anderson’s psychological drama, “The Master.” The film revolves around World War II Navy veteran Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who becomes entangled in the unusual teachings of the charismatic Dodd while traveling with his family to spread these teachings to the masses. Dodd drew partial inspiration from L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, and this resemblance caused concern within the religious movement.

Initially, the production company behind “The Master” denied any direct connections to Hubbard. Anderson clarified that he didn’t intend to create a Hubbard biography, stating, “It’s not the L. Ron Hubbard story.” Despite this, some in Hollywood’s Scientology community were reportedly anxious that the film might unveil too much about their faith. Anderson screened the drama for his friend and staunch Scientologist, Tom Cruise, to address these concerns. It’s worth noting that Scientology officials were said to be displeased when the film hinted that Dodd’s belief system might be a product of his imagination. However, they didn’t make any attempts to prevent the movie’s release.

5. *The Golden Compass* (2007)

Religious movies

This is another film adaptation of a popular book. The 2007 fantasy adventure film is based on the 1995 novel “Northern Lights,” the first part of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. “The Golden Compass” follows Lyra, a girl whose inner spirit exists outside her body: They call it a dæmon. Lyra and her dæmon set out on a mission to rescue her kidnapped best friend. The trilogy as a whole revolves around Lyra’s quest to oppose the Magisterium, a powerful group of antagonists in the story. Interestingly, “Magisterium” is a term with a dual meaning, referring both to the fictional group and the real Catholic Church’s teaching authority, as explained by Catholic Answers.

The Catholic Church openly expressed its perspective: “Though much of Pullman’s trilogy includes mystical worlds with talking animals and magical witches, the underlying theme is not mere fantasy. In His Dark Materials’ fictional universe, there is no real God; instead, there is a high angel known as the Authority, claiming to be God. The Catholic Church, often called the Magisterium, is depicted as an evil force to be overcome.” The Catholic League even published an extensive online booklet, citing direct quotes from Pullman’s books to support their argument. They aren’t entirely wrong; author Philip Pullman is an atheist and said once, word-for-word, “My books are about killing God.”

6. *The Da Vinci Code* (2006)

Religious movies

The Da Vinci Code” is a film adaptation based on the book of the same title written by Dan Brown and one of the most controversial religious movies. It’s a part of his series of novels featuring Robert Langdon. In this movie, we follow the journey of Robert Langdon, a professor at Harvard University, as he unravels clues that reveal hidden secrets within Leonardo da Vinci’s renowned artworks.

These clues eventually lead him to a groundbreaking revelation about the history of Christianity. What he discovers shakes the very core of this faith. He learns that the Holy Grail, often thought of as a cup, is actually a symbol tied to Mary Magdalene and her lineage. According to this perspective, Mary was not only Jesus Christ’s wife but also the mother of his children, whose descendants still walk among the world’s population.

These ideas diverge significantly from traditional Christian teachings, sparking intense debates. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a former Vatican official, expressed his concerns in an interview, stating, “The Da Vinci Code disseminates false ideas about Christianity’s origins, and we must respond with accurate information and critical thinking.”

Opus Dei, an international Catholic organization, labeled the book as dangerous fiction lacking historical evidence. They emphasized the need for further research and critical analysis, asserting that the claims made in “The Da Vinci Code” regarding Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalene, and Church history are unsupported by reputable scholars.

7. *Monty Python’s Life of Brian* (1979)

Religious movies

The Monty Python comedy team, known for their uproarious antics and daring approach, presented “Life of Brian” in 1979. This comedy stars Graham Chapman as the title character, a man born on the same day and in the same place as Jesus Christ, leading to a hilarious case of mistaken identity. Despite the mix-up, Brian, an idealistic individual, embarks on a journey to challenge the Roman occupation of Judea.

The Monty Python group shared a skepticism towards organized religion but directed their humor towards the everyday character Brian, avoiding any mockery of Jesus. However, this didn’t prevent criticism of the satire. Some Christian groups were upset about Brian’s crucifixion, feeling it made light of Jesus’ suffering. This sparked protests, with nuns and rabbis even picketing the film.

As a result, “Life of Brian” faced bans, lasting eight years in Ireland and a year in Norway. In response, director Terry Jones remarked, “Any religion that venerates a form of torture as an icon seems rather troubling to me, honestly.”

8. *The Exorcist* (1973)

The Exorcist

William Friedkin’s 1973 supernatural sensation, “The Exorcist,” is widely hailed as a top-tier horror movie. It tells a spine-tingling tale of a 12-year-old girl named Linda Blair who seems to fall under the sway of a wicked spirit. To rescue her, her anxious mother seeks the assistance of a Catholic priest, portrayed by Max von Sydow, who embarks on an exorcism mission to save her life. In the film, young Reagan exhibits eerie abilities like speaking in strange tongues, levitating, displaying supernatural strength, and even claiming to be the devil to the terrified mother, portrayed by Ellen Burstyn.

Predictably, “The Exorcist” stirred up quite a commotion during its initial theatrical run. Moviegoers fainted, got sick, or hurriedly exited the theater, all thanks to the disturbing imagery on the screen. The scene involving the crucifix, which mixed sexuality and religion, particularly shocked the audience. This led to criticisms from the Catholic Church, Protestant groups, and individual priests, who found the themes troubling.

The film was also slammed for allegedly promoting belief in the occult and Satanism, earning accusations of blasphemy. Linda Blair faced death threats and career challenges, though director Friedkin appeared unfazed by the religious objections, even saying, “One of the best things that could happen is if the Pope denounces it.”

9. *Noah* (2014)


Aronofsky once again stirs religious debate. Most folks, whether they’re religious or not, are familiar with the tale of Noah and how God spoke to him, instructing him to build an ark to safeguard his family and Earth’s creatures from a colossal flood. The 2014 rendition of Noah recounts this biblical story but with a Hollywood twist. It includes epic battles and rock giants, creatures not found in the Bible.

Before the film’s release, when its trailer hit screens, many Christians fretted that it might misrepresent the biblical story or overdramatize it. There were also questions about the director’s intentions since Darren Aronofsky, the film’s director, has openly declared himself an atheist.

When the film finally came out, it received mixed reviews. However, it earned praise from Catholic priest Fr. Robert Barron, who noted, “What’s remarkable is that Noah remains unwaveringly focused on God’s desire and purpose, rather than his own freedom. God, creation, providence, sin, obedience, salvation—quite a lot for a major Hollywood film!” Steven D. Greydanus, a Catholic film critic and creator of Decent Films, added, “Noah isn’t a film for everyone, and not all Christians may want to watch it. Still, there’s no categorical reason why all Christians, as Christians, should avoid it. It’s a movie with both strengths and weaknesses, one that may repel some and appeal to others.”

10. *Mother!* (2017)


In 2017, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky brought us the divisive psychological horror film “Mother!” Jennifer Lawrence plays a young woman living a tranquil life with her poet husband, portrayed by Javier Bardem. But their peaceful existence is upended when a mysterious stranger and his family disrupt their cherished union. Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer also join the cast.

The film quickly became the center of controversy for its violence and biblical references, with some critics seeing it as an attack on Christianity. The movie’s unsettling final act stirred the most debate. Many questioned whether Aronofsky was openly ridiculing biblical passages. Surprisingly, “Mother!” received an audience rating of F from CinemaScore, even though it received some praise.

Jennifer Lawrence shed light on the film’s allegory and theme, describing it as depicting the “rape and torment of Mother Earth.” In her view, she represents Mother Earth, Javier Bardem embodies a creator or a god-like figure, while Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris represent Eve and Adam. The story even contains elements of Cain and Abel and, at times, resembles the Garden of Eden.

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