Critics fear Mel Gibson's upcoming film, The Passion of the Christ, could be a too-bloody retelling of Jesus' final hours, and potentially could stoke the fires of anti-Semitism.
But Gibson tells Diane Sawyer in an exclusive interview — airing Monday at 10 p.m. ET on ABCNEWS' Primetime — that those who accuse him, or the film he directed, of sparking anti-Semitism avoid the central point he hoped to make.
"I don't want people to make it about the blame game," Gibson says. "It's about faith, hope, love and forgiveness. That's what this film is about. It's about Christ's sacrifice."
‘Height of Spiritual Bankruptcy’
Gibson tells Sawyer that ultimately he was moved to depict Jesus' sacrifice on film after reaching "the height of spiritual bankruptcy" himself more than a decade ago. Things got so bad that he says he once contemplated hurling himself out a window.
Instead, he turned to the Bible.
"I think I just hit my knees," Gibson says. "I just said, 'Help.' You know? And then, I began to meditate on it, and that's in the Gospel. I read all those again. I remember reading bits of them when I was younger."
"Pain is the precursor to change, which is great," Gibson says. "That's the good news."
Gibson's renewed faith will be on display for moviegoers to see starting Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday, when The Passion, his Aramaic- and Latin-language film depicting the final 12 hours of Jesus' life, debuts in theaters.
Gibson insists on Primetime he is no anti-Semite, and that anti-Semitism is "un-Christian" and a sin that "goes against the tenets of my faith."
When asked who killed Jesus, Gibson says, "The big answer is, we all did. I'll be the first in the culpability stakes here."
Critics have worried the movie's depiction of the Jewish role in the death of Jesus could encourage anti-Semitism. But Gibson tells Sawyer he simply tried his best to interpret the Gospels in The Passion of the Christ.
"Critics who have a problem with me don't really have a problem with me in this film," Gibson says. "They have a problem with the four Gospels. That's where their problem is."
‘Potential to Fuel Anti-Semitism’
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, tells Sawyer in remarks to be broadcast with Gibson's interview that he doesn't believe Gibson is anti-Semitic. But Foxman still has concerns about The Passion of the Christ.
"I do not believe it's an anti-Semitic movie," Foxman says. "I believe that this movie has the potential to fuel anti-Semitism, to reinforce it."
"This is his vision, his faith; he's a true believer, and I respect that," Foxman says. "But there are times that there are unintended consequences."
Gibson also raised hackles recently with published statements in which he noted Holocaust victims were among many victims of World War II. He tells Sawyer he doesn't mean to deny either that the Holocaust occurred or that millions died.
"Do I believe that there were concentration camps where defenseless and innocent Jews died cruelly under the Nazi regime? Of course I do; absolutely," he says. "It was an atrocity of monumental proportion."
Asked if the Holocaust represented a "particular kind of evil," he tells Sawyer it did, but adds, "Why do you need me to tell you? It's like, it's obvious. They're killed because of who and what they are. Is that not evil enough?"
But Gibson says that is not what his film is about. Jesus Christ "was beaten for our iniquities," Gibson says. "He was wounded for our transgressions and by his wounds we are healed. That's the point of the film. It's not about pointing the fingers."
"It's about faith, hope, love and forgiveness," he says. "It is reality for me. … I believe that. I have to … for my own sake … so I can hope, so I can live."
‘Didn’t Want to Go On’
Gibson suggests his life was not quite as full of spirituality when he hit bottom about 13 years ago.
"I just didn't want to go on," he tells Sawyer.
At his lowest, Gibson says he considered jumping out a window.
"I was looking down thinking, 'Man, this is just easier this way,' " he says. "You have to be mad, you have to be insane, to despair in that way. But that is the height of spiritual bankruptcy. There's nothing left."
The "spiritual bankruptcy" led him to reexamine Christianity, and ultimately to create The Passion of the Christ — "my vision … with God's help" of the final hours in the life of Jesus.
Asked whether he considers his film the definitive depiction of the passion, Gibson says: "This is my version of what happened, according to the Gospels and what I wanted to show — the aspects of it I wanted to show."
‘I Wanted it to Be Shocking’
Some critics wonder if Gibson chose to portray the story too graphically.
Gibson admits his version is "very violent," but adds, "If you don't like it, don't go. … If you want to leave halfway through, go ahead."
"I wanted it to be shocking," Gibson says. "And I also wanted it to be extreme. I wanted it to push the viewer over the edge … so that they see the enormity — the enormity of that sacrifice — to see that someone could endure that and still come back with love and forgiveness, even through extreme pain and suffering and ridicule."
Foxman hopes viewers come away with that sort of message, rather than anger or bias.
"I hope that most people see it, Diane, as a passion of love," Foxman says. "Maybe when it's all over, in a sobering manner, we'll be able to come back and look each other in the face and say, 'We have to deal with this hatred that's still out there.'"
Gibson says he, too, wants dialogue.
"Let's get this out on the table and talk about it," he says. "This is what the Talmud says. This is what the Gospel says. Let's talk. Let's talk. People are asking questions about things that have been buried a long time."
"I hope it inspires introspection, and I think it does," Gibson says. "I want to inspire and make people feel."