Theological Moviegoings: The Last Temptation of Christ

The Last Temptation of Christ is probably the most potent and challenging film depiction of Jesus that I have ever seen. Having said that, I won’t be disingenuous or feign ignorance. This was an extremely controversial film when it was first released in 1988, and it remains a highly-charged viewing experience today. There are plenty of good reasons for this, particularly if you’re a fundamentalist who doesn’t take the time to watch and think about what you’re condemning, but even the less dogmatic might see good reason to approach this material with caution.

Honestly, if that weren’t the case, I rather doubt the result would be as powerful as it is. The film begins with a disclaimer of sorts, noting that it is based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, not on the biblical Gospels. Poppycock. I can understand the importance of establishing upfront that there is a literary source other than the Bible in play here, but what was Kazantzakis’ novel if not a re-imagining of that very source? Furthermore, I would argue that The Last Temptation of Christ makes very little sense without some knowledge of the original Gospels, and in fact, that its message is far more meaningful to a (receptive) Christian audience than a secular one.

The Last Temptation of Christ is a very dense 164 minutes, and there would be a lot to unpack in a full, detailed treatment of the material. In general terms, though, I regard the film as being divided into three distinct sections (the first and third almost entirely extra-biblical, framing a middle portion drawn largely from the Gospels). Each of these sections corresponds primarily to one of the three strong religious criticisms of the film identified and addressed by William Telford (in his essay from Explorations in Theology and Film). A brief response to these objections as they arise in the film will illuminate what I believe is being accomplished theologically through the narrative.

The first objection is that this Jesus believes himself to be flawed, at least in some sense, and expresses feelings of guilt for some unspecified sins, referring to himself as a liar and a coward. Telford’s response to this objection is not very compelling. He simply notes that Jesus’ sinlessness does not seem to have been a significant theological concern of the early church. More to the point, this objection fails to take into account the very nature of this film’s inquiry into its central character.

Jesus is introduced as the only Jewish carpenter willing to build crosses for the Romans, and Judas soon arrives to berate him. Jesus explains his bizarre actions as a way of resisting his purpose, of running away from God. This is, in fact, precisely what he does a few scenes later, after a visit to Mary Magdalene’s house of ill-repute. However, he finds that he cannot escape his calling, and when Judas arrives (on orders from the Zealots) to kill Jesus, he finds that a startling transformation has taken place.

No longer the tormented, half-crazed man he was a few days before, this Jesus is on a mission. Judas finds himself reluctantly following, although at first merely to observe and complete his own assassination mission if necessary. Eventually he will become the wisest and most loyal of Jesus’ disciples. He has witnessed the beginning of what one might clumsily call the “character arc” that maps Jesus’ growth from, not a bad man, but certainly not an admirable one, into the Savior of the world. Portraying a Jesus who struggles can be a tricky thing, but too often in film we get a Jesus who is not relatable because everything comes so easily to him.

This raises a second objection: That this Jesus is frequently doubtful, confused, and uncertain regarding his identity and purpose. He realizes only gradually that he is the Messiah, and explains to Judas that his message seems inconsistent because God’s revelation of the plan is somewhat fuzzy and limited. Telford approaches this charge with a double fistful of Bible verses which portray a Jesus who is ambiguous, a bit contradictory, and above all, human. What makes him the Christ in this film, however, (and perhaps in the Gospels as well) is his heroic victory over his own humanity, “of spirit over flesh.”

Part of what drives the narrative (as it unfolds in this film) is that Jesus doesn’t always know what will happen next, even when we do. Strangely, if anything, this only adds to the power of the scenes drawn explicitly from the Gospels, particularly Jesus’ temptation in the desert (which does depart considerably from Scripture in its specifics) and his resurrection of Lazarus (which is the most dramatic rendition I have witnessed).

Jesus begins his ministry by ad-libbing the Sermon on the Mount to the group that was just about to stone Mary Magdalene, but eventually comes to realize that events are leading, as they must, to his death. The longer he follows God, the more in-tune he becomes to what he is supposed to do. Ultimately, this leads him to convince a reluctant Judas that his greatest act of love and loyalty will be one of betrayal.

This leads to the titular last temptation experienced by Jesus as he hangs on the cross, surrounded by the groans of the two criminals on either side and the mocking shouts of the crowd. He is approached by a young girl who claims to be his guardian angel, and she helps him down from the cross (no one notices that he has disappeared) and explains that, just as Isaac was saved from the sacrificial blade at the last moment, so God is sparing his life. To his immense and visible relief, she reveals that he is not the Messiah after all, just an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary events.

This guardian angel leads him to a peaceful cottage where Mary Magdalene is waiting to marry him and tend to his wounds. This brings us to the third (and, no doubt, most emotionally-charged objection) that the Jesus of the film is “sexualized.” That is, he is physically attracted to women, chiefly Mary Magdalene, whom he actually impregnates during this extended dream/vision sequence in the final act. However, Telford points out that this takes place within the context of marriage and for the specific purpose of procreation, and it is clear that Jesus is tempted, not by a sexual fantasy, but by a domestic one. As a man (and a young man at that), he feels a desire to live a full life complete with a wife, children, and a home. Sex is incidental.

Jesus experiences a lifetime during these moments on the cross, living to an old age surrounded by loving women and by his many children. But, as he lays on his deathbed, chaos erupts outside and a few of his disciples, by now quite old as well, arrive to see him one last time. Peter is deferential as always, but Judas is furious with Jesus for abandoning his mission at the critical moment, and thus cheapening Judas’s own sacrifice in agreeing to betray him. He reveals that the guardian angel, who has stayed by Jesus’ side throughout the long years, is Satan, who has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by tempting Jesus from his post.

In response, Jesus struggles off of the bed and pulls himself across the floor and outside, where he begs God for another chance to finish what he started. As he cries out amidst the screaming and fire all around him, he “wakes up” and finds himself still on the cross. Presumably only a few moments have passed. Filled with a new resolve, Jesus draws himself up enough to finally proclaim “It is accomplished.”

The sense of genuine accomplishment that flows from the screen during this final moment of the film is indescribable. What remains for anyone familiar with the New Testament is a stunning portrait of a Savior who, being fully man even as he was fully God, fought heroically and overcame the temptations that all of us struggle with in order to complete his divine task. Given its length and depth, there are many other aspects of the film, both technical and theological, that are worthy of attention and discussion, but the film’s central purpose and most significant accomplishment is in showing that Jesus’ death on the cross was itself a significant accomplishment.


~ by Jared on September 15, 2009.

4 Responses to “Theological Moviegoings: The Last Temptation of Christ

  1. Overcome temptation?

    The LTC Jesus didn’t overcome anything. He lived a full and complete life. He gave into the temptation, fully and completely.

    Agreeing to go back on the Cross when you are on your death-bed anyway is hardly a virtuous act.


  2. Not so, in my opinion, although certainly this film stands open to interpretation. However, the most common “reading” of the film is that what transpires during the last temptation is a dream sequence as Jesus imagines what might have been and then rejects it in order to carry out the sacrifice. There are several clues that hint at this throughout the sequence, and it seems to me that the film should be interpreted this way if it is to be really consistent and coherent.


  3. Best review I’ve read so far (out of about 20).

    The key point that serious Christians miss… is that Jesus gave into the most mundane temptation of all… a simple domestic life. Nothing carnal here. Most of the Christians that curse this film, have been led into the same trap by Satan… and place building their families/kingdoms lightyears ahead of doing God’s work.

    That’s why Judas/Keitel’s climactic speech is soooo brilliant. It echoes Luke 14:26, where a radical Jesus insists that serving God comes before family = “women and children”. And virtually every Christian fails here, because domestic bliss is often Satan’s most devious trap.


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