By Billy Corriher
After opening with an astonishing $125.2 million over five days, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is the top movie at box offices, drawing droves of Christians to theaters.
The five-day total is the third-highest ever, and www.forbes.com is reporting that international box office sales could reach $650 million by the end of the movie's run.
Hampton resident Eric Kessler said the theater was packed full when he went to see "The Passion" on opening day.
"It was really crowded," he said. "People have been waiting a long time to see this movie."
AMC Southlake 24 in Morrow has had several congregations see the movie as a group.
"What a lot of people are doing is buying out the whole auditorium," manager Kim Barnett said.
It was hard to find a ticket for the movie when it first opened, she said, but now the theater isn't selling out as often.
There are no theaters in Henry County, so residents there must drive to surrounding areas to view the film.
Spotlight Cinema in Riverdale, has sold out of tickets for the movie several times, and the theater is still offering group discounts to churches that want to see the movie as a congregation.
Many area Christians said they went to see the movie because its graphic depiction of the torture and death of Jesus Christ gives them a deeper appreciation of Christ's suffering.
Kessler said he was so moved by the movie that he cried during it.
"I don't think there was a dry eye in the theater," he said.
Kessler said the graphic torture of Christ reminds Christians who see the movie of the suffering their savior endured for their sins.
"It was painful to watch, but? it's very relevant for any Christian," he said.
Kessler said he even plans to see the movie again Easter Sunday, the end of Lent.
Josh Eisenhart, middle school pastor of the Jeremiah Justice Student Center at Community Bible Church in Stockbridge, said he has already seen the movie twice, though he said it was difficult to sit through the violence.
"It's a very uncomfortable movie," he said.
But Eisenhart said he thinks the movie is a good evangelistic tool for Christians.
"One of the most difficult things about evangelicalism is getting people to understand the suffering Christ went through," he said.
Many of his students have seen the movie, Eisenhart said, and it has led to many questions about the death of Jesus.
"It's opened up a lot of teaching opportunities for us," he said.
The Rev. Dwayne Barnes, of Living Waters Assembly of God in Riverdale, agreed that "The Passion" could be a good way for Christians to reach out.
Barnes said the movie gives Christians an understanding of Christ's suffering that reading the scriptures or seeing traditional Easter plays doesn't provide.
"Many Christians had forgot what really happened," he said.
Pastor Tony Guthrie of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Stockbridge agreed that the graphic violence made the story of Christ's suffering "unforgettable."
"It gave me a mental picture I will never forget," he said. "Movies in the past about the crucifixion have not gone into the details of the beating and scourging of Christ."
Cliff Monteau, a member of St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church in Jonesboro, said the violence of the movie is acceptable because of the context.
"It was not gratuitous violence," he said. "Because it has a spiritual or religious tone, it's okay."
Monteau also said claims that the movie gave Jewish priests too much of a role in Christ's death miss the point of Jesus' dying.
"It wasn't the Jews or the Romans," he said. "Christ died for all of man's sins."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.