The film made its debut in Craig last night, but believers from numerous denominations had already made the trip to Steamboat and elsewhere to see the show.
Pastor Brian Haynes said about half of the congregation at First Baptist Church watched the movie before it came to Craig.
People are talking about the movie at work. Haynes focused on it in recent sermons. And the irony of a Christian blockbuster making an end-run around Hollywood is not lost on local believers.
"It's about time," said Bonnie Thompson, a lifelong Catholic who says she can't remember the last time something in the popular culture had Christians feeling this hopeful.
"I think people are ready to say out loud that Christians have been muffled in the last 30 years by the trends, not just in Hollywood," Thompson said. "It's nice not to have to be quiet about who you are and what you believe in."
The "Left Behind" book series popularized Christian themes about the end times and became popular both in print and as a movie.
Dallas Jenkins is the son of the co-author of the series, and president of Jenkins Entertainment, a firm with a mission to produce positive, moral films of high quality. In an article at ChristianCinema.com, Jenkins spoke about some of his favorite secular movies, including "Braveheart", "Shawshank Redemption" and "Adaptation."
"Take special note of 'Schindler's List' and 'The Pianist,' two films very explicit in representing their filmmakers' faith and background," Jenkins wrote last summer. "Why can't we make movies like that about our faith and background? Great films, no matter how specific their subject matter, have universal appeal."
Haynes agrees. And he thinks that's one of the forces driving sales for "The Passion," beyond the controversy and the captive Christian audience. "There's no question our culture will go see a good movie," Haynes said. "I think the body of Christ can be encouraged that a quality movie like this has come out."
As early as December, material came flooding in about the release of the movie. Magazines advised pastors to be aware of what was coming. Copies of the movie's trailer and interviews with Mel Gibson arrived at churches. "I was getting cues already that this was going to be something of significance," Haynes said.
Graler sees the significance on a worldwide scale. He's read reports of Muslims flocking to see the movie. And in countries without theaters, the movie is still being seen on pirated DVDs, Graler said.
"God will use any method necessary to get the message out, and this is one example," Graler said. "We believe God can speak through this film."
"It's like the Berlin Wall coming down," Thompson said.
As American culture has evolved, Christian values have been diluted, Thompson said.
"We have a lot of things to wake up about," Thompson said. "This might be the beginning of remembering who we are as Americans."
Haynes said he'd love to see movies about the next 40 days following Christ's resurrection, stories about the "early church" and the beginnings of Christianity.
"This could be a one-time thing or it could pave the way," Haynes said.
The movie has given Christians an opportunity to talk about their faith, to expound on their fundamental beliefs and the nuances of their religious heritage.
While driving home with a van full of teenagers who had just witnessed a visual representation of Jesus' torture, there was a point when Graler decided he had to break the silence. Passing through Hayden, he talked to the students about his own feelings on the film.
The message, he told them, is that Christ commanded people to love one another like he loved us. The film portrayed the graphic intensity of Christ's sacrifice, and his love for humanity, Graler said.
Graler told the youth that the real message of the movie is to forgive one another and love one another. "We don't love each other passionately like we should," Graler said.
To be sure, there are Christians who oppose the movie.
Both Graler and Haynes said they noted certain inaccuracies and moments when Gibson took some artistic license. But the impact and the quality of the picture left both ministers endorsing the movie.
"I'd like to think people will watch 'The Passion' and do something with what they've experienced," Haynes said. "I hope they have some sort of change or response in their lives because they've experienced the passion of Christ. That is the gospel: Christ crucified, buried and risen again."