The Last Temptation of Christ: Understanding the Messiah

Image retrieved from TMDb

I grew up as the son of a pastor (church jargon calls someone like me a pastor’s kid, or P.K.). I had a Christian family and went to a Christian school. Because of this, I was inundated with Christian theology, doctrine, and worldview throughout most of my childhood. The ideas and stories in the Bible always seemed natural to me because I grew up with them.

Moses parting the Red Sea, David fighting Goliath, Daniel in the lions’ den, or Jesus being raised from the dead never seemed crazy to me. I liked fantasy stories and superheroes, so my young mind had the frame of reference to comprehend something supernatural. Conceiving of these events as actual accounts was an almost completely foreign idea. When I learned about the Bible and its stories in Sunday School, I was always shown pictures or cartoons of the people in the stories wearing sandals and tunics or cloaks – as they would have been in the actual histories. But conceiving of these events as actual accounts was all but a completely foreign idea to me.

This made it difficult to internalize everything I was being taught – they were just stories of famous people to me. It felt like I was being encouraged not to think too deeply about the stories I was being told. They were all presented so matter-of-factly that I never stopped to question what I was being taught, until I was around high school age.

I was just a young kid being thrown from one sensational story after another. The adults who were teaching me had many years to think about them so they could come to their own conclusions and wrestle with the ramifications, while I was being asked to just accept them as historical accounts.

So it was difficult to then grow up and try to figure out how these incredible, supposedly true stories from thousands of years earlier applied directly to my life. All of this along with learning more about other religions and the history of Christianity made it difficult to know what to believe. There were ideas I didn’t understand, claims which seemed contradictory, and people who believed what I did yet acted in ways that were the polar opposite to the ideas laid out in the Bible.

In a way, it almost just became too difficult to reconcile all of this. So I tried to boil everything down to its core and just focus on the life of Christ. The Bible was written by humans and Christians believe these humans were divinely inspired, but again, there were too many discrepancies in lots of different facets of Christianity for me to settle on certain ideas and feel comfortable with them. So I tried to boil everything down to its core and just focus on the life of Christ.

Theoretically, the life of Christ is the perfect place to go for someone in my position. Much of what he teaches is objectively good: be kind to others, put love first, and always forgive. Even for one with a more critical mind and attitude, these teachings can provide a good moral framework to live by. But even this could only take me so far. After all, there is only so much to read of Jesus’ specific teachings in the Bible. And on some subconscious level, it was still difficult to relate to Jesus. Yes, he is fully God while also being fully human, but no one can relate to the part of him that is fully God.

This is where the power of cinema intervened.

I watched The Last Temptation of Christ after years of hearing about its controversial portrayal of the life of Jesus. But purely on the basis of a film the fact that it is a Martin Scorsese picture starring Willem Dafoe and written by Paul Schrader is reason enough to watch it.

Though I tend to get a lot out of movies which deal with themes about Christianity (Scorsese’s Silence is my favorite faith-based film), I was not prepared for how much The Last Temptation of Christ would absolutely floor me.

This film’s controversy is derived from the idea that – gasp – Jesus, who was fully human, was tempted like a human. Until I watched this movie, I didn’t even realize how much I needed to reconcile Christ’s duality. As I said, it was something that I was presented with matter-of-factly, so I never gave the idea the time of day. I knew Jesus was fully God and fully human, he never sinned, and he gave his life for the salvation of humanity. These ideas were just presented as fact without the critical questions which should come along with them.

If Jesus was fully human, he certainly would have had some sorts of natural human tendencies. Wouldn’t he be tempted, scared, angry, anxious, confused, and so many of these other basic feelings that we have as people? If so, I never heard about it  when I was being taught in school or church. I mean, people told me of these ideas, but I can’t remember a single time the ramifications were explored. The emphasis was always on his divinity rather than his humanity.

If Jesus was confused about whether he was actually the Messiah, how did that affect his ministry? Would he feel the pressure of being the Messiah? The Bible gives an account of him praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking the Father if there was any way to bring salvation other than through crucifixion, but wouldn’t that struggle be incredibly profound?

These questions and more are addressed in The Last Temptation of Christ. From the beginning of the film, we see Jesus tempted to act on natural urges towards Mary Magdalene. He does not give in, but we’re presented with the idea of a Messiah who was fully human. From hearing God’s call, to being tempted by Satan, to beginning his ministry, the film depicts Jesus as a human with everyday struggles. Of course, the struggles are of higher importance than yours or mine, but they are struggles nonetheless.

But the more you watch this movie and the more you are invested in what’s happening, the more you may begin to fall in love with the idea of Jesus in a different way than you ever have before. I certainly did. Instead of some abstract idea of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness, we’re shown a human struggling to not give in to temptation. I’ve seen other film versions of Jesus, but this one was the most human and most relatable in his struggles.

After the first 45 minutes or so, the movie almost becomes a straight up adaptation of the biblical narrative. There are added scenes and dialogue, but it shows Jesus beginning his ministry and gathering his disciples, all the way to his crucifixion. The crucifixion scene is where it completely goes off script, though. We actually see Jesus come down from the cross and live the life he never got to live as a man. He marries Mary Magdalene, has children, grows old, and even meets Saint Paul. 

It turns out that Jesus was only seeing this life as a possibility. His last temptation in life was to end his own suffering, come down from the cross, and live his life. But he instead learns the real importance of his life. He needs to be on earth and he needs to give his own life – but it has to be his choice to do so. It can’t be the result of a feeling of obligation; it needs to be Jesus actively choosing to live and die for the sins of the world.

This movie really put Jesus’ life into a new perspective for me. I finally began to think of him as a human, choosing to end his life. He saw exactly what he was giving up, and if he was just a normal person, he could have had a perfectly happy life. But he needed to ultimately make the active choice to sacrifice himself. 

The Last Temptation of Christ really is an incredible and beautiful depiction of the life of Jesus. For someone like me who often feels lost among so much information about Jesus and Christianity, it is a great way to ground me. It helps me relate to the one person I should relate to out of everyone in the Christian tradition. It’s a beautiful film and perhaps the most important depiction of Christ on film. It is for me.

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