Dialogue on The Last Temptation of Christ and the Responsibility of Moviemakers to be Historically and Theologically Accurate
+ Christian Filmmaker's Creed

Dave Armstrong and Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D.

Stan Williams, a good friend of mine, fellow Catholic convert, and a producer and director (Stan Williams Communications, LLC / http://www.StanWilliams.com), initiated this exchange, which I found quite enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. He has since reconsidered his views on certain aspects of the temptations of Jesus, based on a further study of Chalcedonian Christology, and wanted to let that be known in this preface. He also asked me to write a sort of creed for Christian filmmakers, for use in his own work. The last section is my first draft of such a proposed creed. Stan's words will be in blue.

Prologue (by Stanley D. Williams)

 Good job, Dave!  I like reading the dialogue below, even if you do chop it up and
 interrupt my essay a lot. You do good work. The essays you attached are insightful as
 well. But I would like to add one caveat. Here it is: One of the popular
 Evangelical issues about this film centered on the portrayal of Christ sinning by
 having sex with a woman. But, in fact the movie portrays only a temptation of Christ
 having sex, with the wife of his temptation. That is, the movie does not imply he ever
 had sex, it makes clear that he never did.  Besides, a man being married and having
 chaste sex with his wife is not (normally at least) a sin. What I can recall of the popular
 debate among EVANGELICALS at the time of the film's release had NOTHING AT
 ALL to do with the complexities of Christ's dual nature and the accuracy of its portrayal
 as you describe the problem below. From your evidence it is obvious that the Catholic
 and Lutheran reaction was more intellectually centered. But what I recall of the
 Evangelical issue mentioned above was and continues to be fallacious.

 But you have done a wonderful job defending and explaining this important issue of
 Christ's nature. I do not mind at all being taken apart on any issue if the result elucidates
 the truth. The debate in some respects, I suspect, is a modern rendition of what the early
 church contended with before the church formulated doctrines to settle the matter. It all
 reminds me of how this issue is not settled in the Bible. Thus, the importance of Sacred

 I think the highlight of your posting is the end of the dialogue that delves into the
 responsibility of filmmakers (especially Christians) and the dilemmas they face when
 producing a story about any historical event. But, you make it sound easier than it is.  In
 fact, I participated today in a debate about a story we're developing for a motion picture
 that is based on well documented history in the 1920s.  The debate was over how to
 make the movie "saleable" versus "accurate" and that goes back to my points about
 First, Second and Third Order Signs (i.e. semiotics).


As the result of recent discussions in the Christian press and in our home about the merits and dangers of the film Harry Potter and the Sorcerers’ Stone and also a recent viewing of The Sixth Sense, I finally decided to watch another controversial movie that I had long avoided. My doctoral research focused on the ultimate truth proclaimed by popular movies, that is the moral premise or theme. After watching these three films within several days of each other, and thinking about them from the perspective of the underlying message a film connotes and denotes, I find it disturbing that many Christians don’t see the very explicit pro-messages of paganism and mediums (both condemned in the Bible) explicitly evident in Harry Potter and The Sixth Sense, but have decided that the original negative to The Last Temptation of Christ should have been destroyed because it was so anti-Christian.

I don't know anything about Harry Potter. I'd have to see how the books and movie portray the use of supernatural powers (both white and black) to make a judgment, and to see how it could be morally and/or artistically differentiated - if at all - from C.S. Lewis fantasies, The Wizard of Oz, or the Star Wars series (or Peter Pan, for heaven's sake). I do agree with you that the overall discussion is much more complex than many Christians seem to think it is.

My bewilderment isn’t over the acceptance by some Christians of Harry Potter and The Sixth Sense (both of which have many, many references to the importance of courage, and loving sacrifice) but rather to the total rejection of The Last Temptation. I wonder if the Christian Church has not fallen into Satan’s liar by rejecting The Last Temptation because the movie makes so clear Christ’s mission and passion. Here are some of my observations.

The best grand lies always contain large portions of truth. That's what makes them good lies in the first place. I'm not being merely dogmatic and impervious to what you have to say. I'm simply making a general observation that even if the movie hit upon some genuine, even profound Christian truths, that would not necessarily justify it as worthwhile art or excuse its errors and blasphemies. I have no particular objection to the rest of your analysis.

The Last Temptation of Christ is a textbook example of “The power of the story is not in its being factual but in its being truthful” (Joseph Pearce). Many of the detailed facts about Christ’s life were not presented in the film as we know them. But the big events, the miracles, his dual nature as God and human, and especially the reason he came “to die for our sins” was explicitly clear. In fact, the theme of the movie could have been “Although he was divine, his human nature, of which he was completely, had to wrestle with his calling as God’s sacrificial son, and had to make a decision against all matters of human temptation, to choose death on the cross for the salvation of all mankind.”

Although the movie ends with his death on the cross (the film ran out of the camera just moments after the actor proclaimed “It is accomplished [finished]” and the timing of it is so mystical that the director left the colorful, eerie, tail of the film end as part of the picture) there are at least a dozen references to the FACT that he rises from the dead, not only in his own prophecies, but in the testimonies of St. Paul and other Apostles who (during his last temptation on the cross) attest to what happens in reality if Jesus doesn’t give in to the temptation.  Finally, the last temptation vision, which I thought would be like 20 minutes long is only 10 minutes out of a movie that is over 2 hours long.

It is clear (very clear) that the temptation is NOT reality but rather a temptation by multiple techniques. One is a little girl that never ages and who leads Jesus around through his tempted life. Another is the testimonies of those that knew/know what is supposed to happen and who argue with Jesus during the temptation, etc.  Except for some surface facts which conflict with dogma, the primary facts and the overall story arch, the theme, and the values, are wonderfully preserved. It is as if we’re watching an alternative story of Jesus’ life where the facts on the surface change, but the dual nature of Christ and his reason for coming is perfectly preserved.

Because the surface facts are altered, and things are out of sequence from the Gospels, it is much easier to watch because I wasn’t always trying to say “well, that didn’t happen that way; get the facts right.” But in fact, I allowed my understanding of the surface detail to be suspended and saw the underlying truth much more deeply. The centrality of the Eucharist is wonderfully illustrated numerous times. The parallel of the lambs being slaughtered during Passover in the temple by the priests while Christ is going through his passion is there in all its gory detail, and I might add, is very appropriate and underlines Christ’s blood offering and suffering.  In conclusion, I think the church played into the hands of Satan once again and prevented this movie from being released. It is a most powerful testimony to the human nature of Christ and how HE is like US, and how WE, as humans, must make the same decisions that Christ made, to suffer and die with him, ...how we must not give in to the most powerful and convincing, and even seditious temptations to do God’s will.

Finally, the movie deserves its R rating. There is nudity and sexual situations, and there is violence, most notably Christ’s passion. Very graphic. More than any movie on the life of Christ, this film makes his passion clear and disturbing. There is no doubt that the author of the book (Nikos Kazantzakis, Greek Orthodox), the screenplay writer (Paul Schrader, Calvinist), and the director (Martin Scorsese, Catholic) give a haunting and provocative portrayal that expounds on the truth of Christ, who he was, and why he came. They were being good witnesses. I highly recommend it for adult Christians and non-Christians alike. They just need to be reminded as the filmmakers make it clear in an opening title, that the story is NOT based on the Gospels, and that liberties were taken with the story...but not at the expense of its essence or truth.

The movie explicitly says that some of the facts of the story presented are NOT Biblical...the very first title says this. Why is this important? Because the truth of a story never rests in the facts but in the TRUTH the facts construct, (e.g. Semiotic Theory...the first and second order signs construct the deeper meaning of the third level sign). The opening titles also make it explicitly clear that the movie is exploring a deeper truth than the surface facts of the Jesus story...

I certainly agree that Christians need to put on their thinking caps. No argument there. I would be inclined, I suspect, to agree with much of your critique of various unfortunate anti-intellectual or anti-artistic tendencies amongst Christians, especially evangelicals. The matter at hand, however, goes beyond merely appreciating art and artistic or dramatic license to make some point or other, or to stimulate reflection, to matters of supremely important theological doctrine; indeed to beliefs which Catholics (and all Chalcedonian Christians) MAY NOT entertain, as a matter of indispensable Christological orthodoxy.

Whatever the merits or demerits of the movie itself, nevertheless, you still make arguments that lead you into deep theological difficulties, at least as serious as the equally-erroneous and equally-unorthodox tendencies of many Christians to underemphasize the human nature of Christ. The developed theology of the Two Natures of Christ, or Hypostatic Union, as elaborated upon at the Council of Chalcedon [451 A.D.], does not deny either the human or divine natures of Christ. It asserts them both as equally true and important to believe. How they are to be thought of, in relationship with each other, however, is the tricky part.

My own opinion is that movies dealing with very well-known historical characters ought to vigorously seek to be historically accurate, as a matter of historiography, and responsibility to viewers, who - not quite as sophisticated as the typical Hollywood Bohemian (usually left-leaning)  intellectual - will assume consciously or unconsciously that the movie is - by and large - presenting historical fact (or respectable historical theories, at the least). A prime positive example of such responsibility manifested is the movie Gettysburg, which utilized many living history re-enactors, whose goal is always exacting historical accuracy, insofar as possible.

It is foolish, I believe, to deny that most viewers assume this. I think historical accuracy is all the more required when dealing with a religious figure. And in the present case, religious doctrines about the revered figure (no less than the incarnate God) make it an even more troublesome and controversial task for a director to deliberately and provocatively operate against the currents of orthodoxy. I know this is a long discussion in itself, and I'm probably already over my head, wrangling with one who is a professional in the field, but such is the enjoyment of good discussion.

If historical accuracy is not a routine requirement, why (I would like to know) is such painstaking attention paid to the minutest detail of things like clothing, architecture, the state of invention, automobiles, even mannerisms and ways of speech, etc., in movies, while the actual facts in the lives (or beliefs) of historical figures portrayed are (too often) not regarded in the same vein? Am I to believe that the non-material things are accurate to the period, but that the human figures need not be subject to any such "pickiness" of detail? That makes no sense to me.

For my part, realism has always been my preference in art, philosophy, or history (though I also love fantasy qua fantasy), but in any event, I say that the audience - rightly or wrongly - will simply assume that they are viewing historical fact as accurate as can be reasonably ascertained, at least partially precisely because they are familiar with the attention to detail, as mentioned above, and take it for granted that the same rigorous care will be applied to the people in the film. Just look at the number of historical consultants for any historical film. Why employ them at all, if accuracy is not a goal in the first place?

Deliberate, blatant, and obvious historical anachronism is one thing, but a straight historical movie is something else. The Last Temptation of Christ, as far as I can tell, is more in the vein of the tortured existential angst of Sartre or Camus.

Hollywood, unfortunately, often takes the greatest liberties with such things. Immediately, the examples of Gandhi and Mozart (Amadeus) come to mind. I don't believe that the theory about Salieri murdering Mozart is accepted by any respectable historian of classical music or Mozart himself. But no matter. So one might argue - though historically bogus according to present consensus - that it serves as a morality tale. Fine, but then, the same effect can be achieved without involving historical figures and unsubstantiated theories of historiography. A fairy tale or classic myth can easily serve that function quite well. But everyone knows that it is a fairy tale or a myth, which is the point. Actual history ought to be recruited as a morality tale only insofar as the known facts are consistent with the tale desired.

The movie Gandhi  was a piece of semi-fictional hagiography, pure and simple (which ignored the unsavory or plain silly aspects of the man). But - personally - I'm interested in drama (specifically, in this context, movies about historical figures) as a means to attain to facts and knowledge about the person portrayed (i.e., a visual and dramatic counterpart to a serious biographical book). The complexity and "messiness" of real life is always more than sufficiently interesting to hold an audience's interest, as much if not more so than fictions conceived by those with an agenda of one sort or another. Just my opinion . . .

that in Christ's HUMANITY (not his dual nature Divinity) is our role model for becoming the
Sons of God. This premise is missed entirely by Medved (possibly on purpose because he's Jewish), and by Dokovic (possibly because she wants to be in print again in Evangelical magazines).

There is a valid and orthodox sense in which this is true, but The Last Temptation of Christ is not consistent with this, and clashes with orthodox, Chalcedonian Christology, a "freedom" no orthodox Christian is at liberty to indulge in, not even (I don't think) as a matter of "dramatic license," so to speak.

Here are some specifics:

[Film critic Michael] Medved spends his time critiquing first level signs (Semiotics) such as
tattoos and an actors accent. His conclusion that the movie is "prevailing tedium relieved only by great bouts of gore" reveals he has little respect for the importance his Jewish ancestry put on blood sacrifice of innocent lambs. Could he have been actually offended at the strong parallel the Last Temptation creates between the Jewish sacrifice of innocent lambs during Passover and the Jesus' sacrifice as the innocent lamb? One of the strongest messages of Last Temptation is that Jesus was the "innocent and sinless" lamb murdered during the Passover sacrifices (going on across town). Such a message would have been an offense to any practicing Jew. By criticizing
the movie on superficial grounds he pans something that may well have convicted him of the truth.

Dokovic, on the other hand, takes a critical look at the second level signs of Semiotics, but for the most part misses their meaning or purposely chooses to misrepresent what dialogue makes clear. And she really ought to watch the film again. Some of the things about the film she relates are justnot true; Mary Magdalene is not stoned in the film, it IS an anonymous woman. What I'm surprised at is that Dokovic DOESN'T mention that Scorcese has Magdalene playing a prostitute...and that is NOT in the Bible.

More significantly, Dokovic totally misses the "subtext" of why Jesus' character says "I'm a liar, a hypocrite, I'm afraid of everything....Lucifer is inside me.  He tells me I am not a man, but the Son of Man, more the Son of God, more than that, God."

But Jesus - in orthodox, Chalcedonian Christianity, simply would not and could not have said this. More below.

On this statement by Jesus' character there are two things to recall: (a) the movie is about how Jesus was tempted in his HUMAN nature. The first part of this line by Jesus is RHETORICAL
restatement of the film's premise as it underlines the moral dilemma our Savior faced in his human nature.

Jesus faced no moral dilemmas! That implies doubt and lack of knowledge, and Jesus didn't possess those. His human nature can never contradict His divine nature. This is the fundamental heresy of the film, and the fatal flaw in the logic of your review.

It is Biblically consistent that Lucifer would have said that EXACT line to Jesus and that Jesus would have mulled it over and over (as part of the devil's ongoing temptation) as Jesus grew to maturity.

No it's not. This is a deficient, Nestorian-like Christology, I'm sorry to say. And I'll document this shortly, from Catholic teaching.

This isn't blasphemy because the movie makes it clear, time and time again, that his human side struggled  with these things...yet he DID NOT SIN.

It isn't just the lack of sin which is involved, but the posited lack of knowledge, and doubt in Christ. To accuse Jesus of even thinking that He had sinned, is indeed blasphemy, because it attributes to the incarnate God what intrinsically cannot be present in Him. Doubt implies lack of knowledge. Jesus simply could not have "mulled over" whether He had sinned or whether He was not what Christians believe Him to be: God in the flesh. This is intrinsically impossible within orthodox Christian Christology, though many Protestants, unfortunately, tend towards a latter-day Nestorianism themselves.

(b) The last phrase of that statement is this: "...he (Lucifer) tells me I am not a man, but the Son of Man [Daniel 7:13], more the Son of God, more than that, God." This last phrase makes clear the rhetorical sense of the first part of the statement about Jesus being a liar.  Let's start a
new paragraph to explain this very important point fully consistent with Christian doctrine.

If "Jesus" in the film is merely repeating what the devil said, fine. If He believes any of the satanic nonsense for even (literally) a second, then it is NOT the biblical and actual Jesus being portrayed. I submit (mere speculation, mind you) that it is a "Jesus" that these apostate filmmakers would like to believe was actual (and promulgate among so many millions of viewers), so as to justify their own lack of fully orthodox faith. But I digress . . .

There is a reason, I think, why atheists on a list I participated in, loved this film, all the while believing (some of them) that Jesus never even existed, or was vastly different than how He is presented in the Bible.  One can find an inexhaustible font of humor and irony in those farcical simultaneous opinions. :-) Yet in another more important sense, it isn't funny at all, but utterly sad and tragic. In my own opinion (again, mere speculation, but with a very strong "hunch" based on long experience), nominally-religious or agnostic and atheist reviewers love this film at least in part because it presents a heterodox and unbiblical Jesus, one more to their personal liking.

This requires some critical thinking and 90% of movie audiences wouldn't get it.

I bet 99.99% of them wouldn't get the Hypostatic Union in all its complexity, either . . . I don't claim to know all the ins and outs of it myself, by any means, but I know when it is plainly contradicted, and I can always go to scholarly and dogmatic sources.

But, one of the biggest theological mistakes that Evangelical Protestants make is in making Jesus more God than man.

As with the Monophysite heresy. But this film, and many Protestants (and theological liberals) go to the other extreme and make Him more man than God. Both are wrong, and heretical. He is the God-Man.

In fact, the human nature of Jesus was nearly ignored in my Evangelical upbringing; and the Greek Orthodox author of The Last Temptation book, the Calvinist screenwriter, and the Catholic director seemed to agree that the human nature of Christ needed some emphasis.

Of course, because all theological liberals do that. It is altogether expected. Men have always sought to undermine the divinity of Christ. It's the same old story. I'm not talking conspiracy; I believe that most worldviews are taken in and spread unconsciously, and quite sincerely. But they are in error when they contradict Christianity. Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth did it right. The Jesus portrayed there is fully human and fully divine. He is neither ethereal/pie in the sky nor so human that people forget where He came from. So it can be done.

Why is this important? Because without Christ's human nature his sacrifice would have been for nothing. And this is what The Last Temptation is about: Jesus had a dual nature, he was completely man and he was completely God.

But not in the Chalcedonian sense, as you describe it.

SO, when the voice inside Jesus (the Temptation of the Devil) says to Jesus "You are God. You are NOT man." ...Jesus is tempted to believe this, to lie to himself, and to  accept that he can not die for mankind, because he is not fully a human. Jesus is tempted to think this and when he says this to himself in the process of the temptation (that could have lasted for a decade of his life) he is a liar (in a rhetorical sense). But it is purely a rhetorical statement as the movie makes perfectly clear when Magdalene, Peter, and even Paul (in the temptation at the end) articulate to Jesus and the audience that Jesus dies on the cross SINLESS to save all mankind.

Simply put, Jesus could not have thought or said this. To even think that Jesus could be tempted for a decade (in the sense of having interior doubt or mulling over the temptation as if the possibility of succumbing existed) is ludicrous from an orthodox Christian (and especially a Catholic) perspective.

The Last Temptation messes terribly with the first level signs of Christ's life as we know them from the Gospels.

That's bad enough, from my perspective, as explained above.

But the movie reinforces the critical truth of Christ's dual nature in a way that is disturbingly and authentically Christian.

No, my good friend, it is, rather, disturbingly and authentically Nestorian and heretical.

The Last Temptation shows how the human nature of Christ was tempted in every way that all men are tempted (even with pornography) but he did not sin. And we are called to do the same.

He cannot be tempted in exactly the same way because He wasn't subject to original sin and the result of concupiscence. That's why He couldn't doubt and He couldn't possibly succumb to the temptations.

The movie does require a critical and intelligent mind, and for that reason perhaps, most Christians should stay away from it.

I think Christians choose to stay away from it because they believe (with much justification; even the screenwriter Paul Schrader admitted this: see below) that it is blasphemous and heretical, and they don't wish to patronize a movie of that sort, for any reason, artistic or otherwise. It's a principled objection. Theological liberalism requires a great deal of thought indeed, but that doesn't make it true, or even worthy of much consideration, once its outlines and intellectual influences are fairly well understood. Intelligence for its own sake counts for little in my book. I'm much more concerned with truth.

As Os Guinness has suggested there are too many Christians that have "buns of steel and brains of silly putty."

I love Os Guinness, but c'mon, Stan, I think you're way off here, in what you imply. It's almost as if you set up a scenario whereby any Christian who disagrees with your appraisal of the movie is anti-intellectual and lacking in grey matter. I don't think you believe that of me, as far as I know. Yet I couldn't disagree more strongly with you here. It's fine to make an observation about the widespread lack of critical faculties among Christians (I readily agree) but to make objection to this film almost an inevitable result of (and a result only because of) those tendencies is a bit much to take.

My objection has nothing to do with a lack of intelligence or thinking, or denial of the true humanity of Christ, but everything to do with what I firmly believe is a blasphemous and heretical portrayal of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. If that is a result of a lack of thinking, then so be it. By the same token, one could turn the tables on you and state that it is at least equally arguable that you haven't applied your considerable intellectual abilities to the Hypostatic Union, and what it entails, and how and why the "Jesus" in this film is not consistent with the Chalcedonian, orthodox Christian Jesus (which is quite enough reason for any Christian to refuse to watch it).

These reviews of the Last Temptation clearly demonstrate the fallacious nature of what some conservatives and Christians write in an attempt to make their political points. I'm embarrassed.

The following dogmatic conclusions of the Catholic Church are the backdrop of my objections to this film. I'd be interested to hear how you can synthesize these Church teachings with the film and continue to maintain that in its deeper meanings (and portrayal of the alleged inner "struggle" of Christ) it is "authentically Christian."

Pope St. Pius X's encyclical Lamentabili (1907), on the errors of modernism, CONDEMNS, among other things, the following propositions:

28. When Jesus exercised His ministry, neither did He speak with the intention of teaching that He was the Messiah nor were His miracles meant to prove it.

30. In all the evangelical texts the name "Son of God" is equivalent only to that of "Messiah." It does not in the least signify that Christ is the true and natural Son of God.

31. The doctrine which Paul, John and the Councils of Nicaea, Ephesus and Chalcedon teach about Christ, is not what Jesus taught but what the Christian consciousness conceived about Jesus.

32. The natural meaning of the Gospel texts cannot be reconciled with what our theologians teach about the consciousness and the infallible knowledge of Jesus Christ.

34. A critic cannot assert that Christ's knowledge was unlimited, unless by making the hypothesis, which is historically inconceivable and morally repugnant, that Christ as man had God's knowledge and yet was unwilling to communicate so much knowledge to His disciples and posterity.

35. Christ did not always have the consciousness of His messianic dignity.

Likewise, the Decree of the Holy Office, confirmed by Pope Benedict XV in 1918, declared:

Can the following propositions be taught safely?:

1. It is not certain that the soul of Christ during His life among men had the knowledge which the blessed, that is those who have achieved their goal (comprehensores), have.

2. The opinion cannot be declared certain, which holds that the soul of Christ was ignorant of nothing but from the beginning knew in the Word everything, past, present and future, that is to say everything which God knows with the "knowledge of vision".

3. The recent opinion of some about the limited knowledge of the soul of Christ is not to be less favored in Catholic schools than the ancient option about His universal knowledge.

Answer: NO

[i.e., these propositions must NOT be believed or taught by Catholics]

Likewise, theologian Ludwig Ott, in his well-known Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma:

Christ's soul possessed the immediate vision of God from the first moment of its existence. (Sent. certa.) (p. 162)

Christ's human knowledge was free from positive ignorance and from error. (Sent. certa.)

Christ's freedom from ignorance was denied by the Arians, the Nestorians, and especially the Agnoetes, a monophysitic sect of the 6th century . . . Only if one accepts Nestorianism can ignorance on the part of Christ be maintained: 'He who is not a Nestorian cannot possibly be an Agnoet' [Pope Gregory the Great] . . .

The intrinsic reason for the impossibility of error in Christ lies in the Hypostatic Union. In consequence of the finiteness of human nature, the human actions of Christ are indeed subject to the general human imperfections. It is, however, irreconcilable with the dignity of the Divine Person in act, to ascribe to Him special imperfections such as error or moral deficiency. (pp. 165-166)

Freedom from doubt flows logically from freedom from ignorance. Therefore, Jesus could not doubt and "mull over" the lies of Satan, or be tempted by them in some sense of internal, existential agony - as if He were actually influenced by Satanic lies - He who possessed all knowledge and holiness (with no concupiscence), as a function of His Divine Nature. Even in His human nature, He possessed the Beatific Vision which all who go to heaven will one day possess. And He possessed infused knowledge.

Doubt was, therefore, impossible, just as faith and hope were impossible for Jesus. Faith and hope presuppose a certain lack of knowledge. Since Jesus was God, He couldn't have faith or hope, because He already possessed all knowledge, as God. And He never did (nor could) doubt or not know for a second (or a trillionth of a second) that He was God.

That's why your analysis of this film is impossible to take, given Catholic teaching, and even the larger category of Chalcedonian Christology. The two are incompatible. You might say, I suppose, that the movie inhabits its own abstract, philosophical, metaphysical, existential world, where all things are possible for a viewer to believe as he watches it (sort of a Jesus-in-Wonderland).

The difficulty there is that in your analysis you have made explicit reference to the purported fact that the film is "authentically Christian" in its treatment of Christ's human nature. So you have tried to set forth a case that it (at least in that respect) is consistent with legitimate orthodox Christianity. I don't see how that it possible, given the above dogmatic considerations I have detailed. I would be highly interested in your reply. Thanks for the stimulation of thought (though I respectfully disagree with your conclusion).

Here are portions of two reviews by articulate, informed Christians (Lutheran and Catholic). They expand upon some points I made, and add many others. No anti-intellectual fundamentalists, these . . . The Passantino piece goes into great detail about the beliefs of Kazantzakis and Scorcese - they are far from orthodox Christianity: precisely as I suspected.

The Last Temptation of Christ Denied

     By Bob and Gretchen Passatino [Lutheran counter-cult researchers and apologists]
     Copyright 1989 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino

[The entire article is excellent, extremely informative, and helpful, and should be read by anyone who is interested in the debate over the theological content of the film]

Jesus Never Sinned

We have shown before that a God who can sin is a finite God who is impotent, inconsistent, and unable to save himself, much less anyone else. Since Jesus is God, he never sinned--in his thoughts, his ideas, his beliefs, or his actions. He could not "grow out of" sinning to become God. Remember, Man did not become God through Jesus' struggle; God became Man in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ never sinned. Hebrews 4:15 describes the difference between Jesus being tempted and Jesus sinning: "For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin."

What does it mean to be tempted "yet without sin"? Even as God can be tempted, but never successfully, so Jesus was "put to the test" but never wavered in his perfect holiness.

The Last Temptation (and many critics of the protesters) think that "without sin" only means that he didn't perform sinful acts, but that true temptation would allow him to have sinful feelings and inclinations. What hypocrisy! Here is a philosophy that says matter is more Man and spirit is more God, matter is less important and spirit is more important, and yet the sins of the spirit are not sins, but the sins of the flesh are! Jesus pierced the sham of hidden sins when he said, "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man." When The Last Temptation Jesus looked at a woman and wanted to have sex with her, but was afraid to, he fulfilled Jesus' definition of a sinner. Sin is rebellion against  God's righteous holiness, and for The Last Temptation Jesus to build crosses to defy God is sin. The Jesus of the historical record is the one who "humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross."

The Struggle Between Flesh and Spirit

A word needs to be said about The Last Temptation's obsessive struggle between flesh and spirit. Because of the panentheistic view that the material universe is growing into God, attention is often focused on matter or flesh as bad, immature, or evil; and on spirit as good, evolving, and holy. Many people, without even thinking about it, assume this kind of matter/spirit dualism. That's one of the reasons critics of the protesters misunderstand Christians' objections to the movie. They wrongly assume that Christians share this panentheistic idea that matter is bad and spirit is better.

They think we don't like Jesus as man because we think God would never cheapen himself enough to take on flesh. They think we don't like Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene (and Mary and Martha of Bethany) because sex is an icky fleshly kind of thing, and to have sex is spiritual prostitution.

Surprise! This is really the attitude of Kazantzakis, not of Christians or the Bible! Listen to him:

It is not God who will save us--it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit.

The Last Temptation of Christ: An Essay in Film Criticism and Faith

          By Steven D. Greydanus

[Steven D. Greydanus is a publishing film critic whose work has appeared in American Outlook and This Rock magazines and on the Catholic Exchange website. He is a weekly guest on the Ave Maria Radio show Heart, Mind, & Strength, hosted by Dr. Gregory Popcak, where he discusses “Faith on Film.” He is also a recurring guest on the Catholic Answers Live radio show, a production of Catholic Answers. He has degrees in media arts and in religious studies.]

. . . Imperfect art and the perfection of God

Does a dramatic portrayal of Christ’s humanity have to be perfectly compatible with every article of faith about him in order to have any value?

No, not necessarily. Even an imperfect vision of Christ — one that doesn’t entirely correspond to known truths of faith, that contains elements that are clearly erroneous — could still be worthwhile and valuable, if it remains, on the whole, generally evocative of important truths about Christ.

That doesn’t seem like too much to ask or expect: That a work of art be, on the whole, generally evocative of the truth about its subject; that it be reasonably true to that subject, that it not turn the subject into something antithetical to itself. A movie about the man Jesus may have value if is shows Jesus to be recognizably and authentically human, while at least minimally leaving room for his divine nature, remaining at least compatible with Christian belief in his deity — in a word, while not turning him into a fallible, fallen man, one who could not be God.

A Jesus who commits sins — who even thinks he commits sins, who talks a great deal about needing “forgiveness” and paying with his life for his own sins; a Jesus who himself speaks blasphemy and idolatry, calling fear his “god” and talking about being motivated more by fear than by love; who has an ambivalent at best relationship with the Father, even trying to merit divine hatred so that God will leave him alone — all of this is utterly antithetical to Christian belief and sentiment. This is not merely focusing on Jesus’ humanity, this is effectively contradicting his divinity.

But the Jesus of Last Temptation does all of the above things, and more. The film gives us a human Jesus, but a Jesus of fallible, fallen humanity — a Jesus who could not be God. This is evident, not just in the sequences containing obvious blasphemy, such as the scene where Jesus the carpenter explains that he makes crosses for the Romans and helps crucify his fellow Jews so that God will hate him and leave him alone; or even in the scenes depicting Jesus’ persistent doubts and confusion about the nature of his identity and mission, or whether he is the Messiah at all; but everywhere you turn in the film. The fact is, Willem Dafoe’s Jesus has hardly a scene — hardly two lines of dialogue put together — in which the falseness of the character is not the dominant fact about him . . .


.....Message over medium

In short, my conclusion is that the religious critics who think Last Temptation a bad film are correct. Does this mean that the fans and film critics who think it a creative masterpiece are wrong? I’ve made my case for the film’s spiritual bankruptcy, but what about its value as art?

It’s quite true that a film can be morally or spiritually objectionable and still have significant artistic or entertainment value. That’s the whole point of my specialized ratings system. I had grave moral objections to The Cell, American Beauty, and Being John Malkovich, but I gave them all high marks for artistic/entertainment value. Whatever other faults these movies may have, each of them is in its own way interesting to watch. Parts of them I might even want to see again.

Yet, for me at least, The Last Temptation of Christ is a complete wash. Not because of a directorial failure on Scorcese’s part, but simply because no director in the world could possibly make this material into a film worth sitting through for its own sake.

Sometimes it’s possible to prescind from a movie’s offensive use of themes and appreciate its achievements in spite of its moral failings. One can bracket one’s objections to the Marxist propaganda in The Battleship Potemkin, or the racist celebration of the original Ku Klux Klan in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and still value the striking imagery of the famous Odessa Steps sequence from the former, or the groundbreaking editing in the climactic chase scene of the latter.

But I for one don’t see how it’s possible to bracket all the objections that must be raised to all that is anti-Christian in Last Temptation, and still have anything worthwhile left over to appreciate or enjoy. Past a certain point, objectionability obliterates all hope or desire of approaching a work as art or entertainment. No level of production values or technically proficient filmmaking could make it worthwhile to watch a movie that indulged in child pornography, or that relentlessly celebrated the Holocaust, or that overtly romanticized the degradation and abasement of women. Cross a certain line, and message overwhelms medium, substance overwhelms style, what you have to say drowns out how you might be saying it.

Last Temptation goes way over that line. Poisonous morally and spiritually, it is also worthless as art or entertainment, at least on any theory of art as an object of appreciation. As an artifact of technical achievement, it may be well made; but as a film, it is devoid of redeeming merit. I find myself reflecting on the significance of the fact that this film represents the collaboration of a writer of Greek Orthodox heritage and a filmmaker of Italian Catholic background. Only artists so steeped from childhood in the rich profundity of Christian tradition could possibly create     something so profoundly antithetical to that tradition, so deeply heretical and blasphemous. It could never have been made by an ordinary nonreligious or atheistic filmmaker, or even by a lapsed Protestant.

It IS true that I have not studied the church's deeper explanations of Christ's Hypostatic Union. I will study what you have sent and as I have time in the days to come I will reply.

It's very heavy but fascinating stuff, what I have read of it. I think we would all benefit from delving more deeply into that subject. A good place to study it further would be various articles in the online Catholic Encyclopedia [linked below]. Ludwig Ott also has much material.

I'm sorry I put you through this,... but not really.

:-) Hey! Like I said, it was stimulating and fun.

What I will study up on and perhaps what we need to discuss in person is the meaning of (Heb. 4:15) "...we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are yet was without sin."

Yes. The key is that Jesus also had a divine nature, and He didn't have concupiscence (because He had no sin and no fallen, corrupt, human nature). So He can be tempted, meaning that the devil or persons can try to do that, but He never did and indeed never could, by the nature of things, succumb to the temptation in the least. He can obviously suffer physical pain and emotional anguish, as in His lamentation over Jerusalem, and on the cross and the Garden of Gethsemane, but not the sort of doubt and existential angst that The Last Temptation of Christ entails.

I will remark on one thing that I have thought of, and that is the debate over the historic authenticity required of any story telling, film or written. To me this is a dilemma. Unless you were there to shoot the actual events and leave in all the time lapse it is impossible to accurately show history...besides you'd need multiple screens running in sync.

I think here the distinction needs to be drawn between the impossibility of 100% accurate, exhaustively documented historical fact (a given) and outright, deliberate (or even non-deliberate, irresponsible) fabrication and known falsehood, for a merely rhetorical or dramatic effect (or worse, an unsavory ideological agenda). I am the first to agree that everyone is biased. But one can be fair and scholarly to the best of their abilities, if they can't be totally objective. Malcolm Muggeridge wrote a lot about the disconnect between video-type historical chronicle and reality, or fact ("see with and not through the eye," etc. From William Blake, I think).

All writing and retelling of history requires interpretation and bias.

I totally agree. But The Last Temptation of Christ  goes far beyond that. It is revisionist (and, for that matter, blasphemous) history, making Christ out to be a poor man's Albert Camus or worse. And the more one reads about Schrader and Kazantzakis and Scorcese (as I have been doing), one sees that they are existentialists with nihilist tendencies, and all backslidden Christians. Schrader was raised a Calvinist, but big wow. That doesn't make him one now. I was raised a liberal Methodist, which has little or no connection to my present beliefs. Scorcese has said that he doesn't follow the Catholic religion anymore, and has had four wives. Kazantzakis had a number of unorthodox beliefs.

It is surreal to think that this motley connection of modernists could put out an orthodox, pious rendition of the life of Christ. They might be able to do lots of things well, granted (I loved Scorcese's The Last Waltz). But the life of Jesus is not one of them. Their biases certainly show through. I think, personally, that the life of Jesus can only be done well by a believing Christian, or at least one who fears God enough to not mess with such sacred material for their own ends, just as a decent history of the papacy has to be written by an orthodox Catholic (as Catholic historian Warren Carroll has stated).

I like your desire that spiritual figures need to be described with greater accuracy, however, and I won't argue with that. But it is a desire unapproachable...even for Jesus of Nazareth which you liked.

What one can do, at the very least, is do their best to see that whatever is portrayed of historical figures on screen is either widely-accepted historical fact or quite plausible or possibly true, given what other things we know about the person. I don't see how such considerations mitigate against art or drama in the least, because the art is then built upon truths, which always makes for a better presentation, just as satire is always better, the more it is based on a dead-on appraisal of its subject.

But your arguments for all this, if I were to take it to heart, would cause me never to do a historic film...even about a living person. In short, anything presuming to be history should never be produced, for it cannot accurately satisfy every person's interpretation of the actual events.

I don't think this follows. You're throwing the baby out with the bath water. The filmmaker (like the writer) can try to be fair and true to history insofar as the scholarly consensus applies. They should avoid wholesale distortion for polemical purposes, and stick to pure fiction if that is their aim. Even historical fiction packs a dramatic punch only inasmuch as it is based on widely-accepted truths about the person(s) in question (as I think you would agree).

E.g., there was an excellent movie in the past few years, on VH-1, called Two of Us, which was about a fictionalized meeting between John Lennon and Paul McCartney in 1976. Now, I'm a Beatles fanatic (I'm listening to a George Harrison tribute on the radio as I write) and I was skeptical of this at first because of my views on more or less total realism in biography. But it was very well conceived, written, and produced. And it was because it was clearly based on carefully- and heavily-researched data as to what John and Paul might have said to each other - according to their known (often public) past conflicts and common interests, etc.

I knew this because I know quite a bit about the Beatles. So the movie succeeded because it was based on known truth, and then tried to build upon that to produce a quite-plausible and believable historical fiction. The Last Temptation of Christ, on the other hand, is a pure piece of revisionism which attempts to make of Jesus (in part, but still quite offensively) something that simply cannot be found either in the historical record or within orthodox Christian theology in all three of its major branches. It is neither plausible nor believable.

Here's some more interesting stuff I found:

The Last Temptation Reconsidered

       By Carol Iannone
 Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 60 (February 1996): 50-54.

. . . If his motives were not commercial, neither were they simply to shock. Scorsese claims he had learned "from a priest friend that the Kazantzakis book is used in seminaries, not as a substitute for the Gospels, but as a parable that is fresh and alive, which they can discuss and argue about. And this is what I hoped the film would do." Scorsese was raised a Catholic and at one point wanted to be a priest. Although he no longer practices his religion and has been married four times, Scorsese claims to be a believer still: "I believe that Jesus is fully divine," he has declared, "but the teaching at Catholic schools placed such an emphasis on the divine side that if Jesus walked into a room, you'd know he was God because he glowed in the dark," instead of being someone "you could sit down with, have dinner or a drink with."

For Scorsese, if Jesus was so easily, so effortlessly, so unambiguously divine, "then when the temptations came to him, surely it was easy to resist them because he was God. He could reject the temptation of power in the desert; he could reject especially the temptation of sex, and he could undergo the suffering on the Cross, because he knew what was going to happen." Thus, Scorsese was drawn to a portrayal of the human Christ who had to struggle with fleshly desires and limitations. It is the gradual assimilation of Jesus the man into Jesus the Christ, i.e., the quenching of all earthly fears and longings in the movement toward union with God, that brings out the meaning of the Cross.

If Scorsese's opponents don't acknowledge his sincerity, at the same time the defenders of the film oversimplify their support. Scorsese was assured by Bishop Paul More that it is     "Christologically correct" to insist on Christ's human side, that the Gospels suggest it when, for example, "the Pharisees and the Sadducees complain about his eating and drinking, saying he wasn't in the tradition of prophets like John the Baptist." Critic David Ehrenstein notes that "the Scriptures indicate the importance of Jesus' human dimension," and producer Tom Pollock observed that some Christians "are very uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus is fully human."

Christian theology certainly holds that Jesus was fully human: it is as heretical to deny Christ's humanity as to deny his divinity. But the markers of Jesus' humanity in the Gospels (weeping at Lazarus' tomb or struggling in the garden) don't come close to the prolonged identity crisis of the film. As Ehrenstein himself daintily concedes, "the psychological depth" that is "prerequisite for fiction is bound to be strongly resisted when the character is Christ himself" . . .

. . . Kazantzakis' spiritual memoir, Report to Greco (1961):

My principal anguish, and the wellspring of all my joys and sorrows, has been the incessant merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh. . . .

Every man partakes of the divine nature in both his spirit and his flesh. That is why the mystery of Christ is not simply a mystery for a particular creed; it is universal. . . . Struggle between the flesh and the spirit, rebellion and resistance, reconciliation and submission, and finally-the supreme purpose of the struggle-union with God: this was the ascent taken by Christ, the ascent which he invites us to take as well, following in his bloody tracks. . . .

If we are to be able to follow him, we must have a profound knowledge of His conflict, we must relive his anguish. . . . In order to mount to the Cross, the summit of sacrifice, and to God, the summit of immateriality, Christ passed through all the stages which the man who struggles passes through.

All-and that is why his suffering is so familiar to us; that is why we pity him, and why his final victory seems to us so much our own future victory. That part of Christ's nature which was profoundly human helps us to understand him and love him and to pursue his Passion as though it were our own. If he had not within him this warm human element, he would never be able to touch our hearts with such assurance and tenderness; he would not be able to become a model for our lives. We struggle, we see him struggle also, and we find strength. We see that we are not all alone in the world; he is fighting at our side. . . . This book was written because I wanted to offer a supreme model to the man who struggles; I wanted to show him that he must not fear pain, temptation, or death-because all three can be conquered, all three have already been conquered.

The Last Temptation of Christ seems to me the effort of an ordinary man to understand Christ's sacrifice from the inside and to experience it as his own. In order to speak to modern man, arriving so late in the ages of belief, Jesus must be made to bear the infirmities of our age-the doubt, the angst, the fear and trembling, the existential dread, and yes, even the sexual obsessiveness. Moreover, in an age of complacent materialism Christ must be tempted not only by extraordinary evil but by the possibility of a life of ordinary pleasure as well-not only by lavish indulgence but also by the life of middle- class satisfactions.

DVD Review by David Ng


. . . [screenwriter Paul] Schrader is more academic in his defense. He concedes that the movie is blasphemous because, from a purely theological viewpoint, if Jesus is God, then he cannot be used as an artistic metaphor, or as a symbol to convey the filmmaker’s message. As a Calvinist, Schrader explains, he grew up in an environment where the Scripture was hotly debated every Sunday and was treated as a piece of literature to be picked apart and scrutinized. It’s this confrontational spirit that he wanted to guide the movie. This is probably the most cerebral film about Jesus ever made.

[emphasis added]

Christian Filmmaker's Creed

The primary goal of the Christian filmmaker is to promulgate - with all the artistic means at his disposal - truth, from a broad-based, biblically-grounded Christian perspective, or worldview (Philippians 4:8). Positively, this entails a presuppositional adherence to those theological doctrines agreed-upon by virtually all Christians, formulated classically in the Nicene Creed.

In a negative sense, the Christian filmmaker should always seek to avoid the cinematic glorification, gratuitous use, or "normative portrayal" of (from a broad Christian view) morally and theologically objectionable ideas or acts (e.g., clear violations of the Ten Commandments, nihilism, unnecessarily explicit sexuality, prejudice and bigotry, hedonism, narcissism, ethnocentrism, etc.).

Such morally or theologically "objectionable" elements will ordinarily be present in a Christian film, in the antagonists and to some extent in the protagonists (as all human beings are fallen and flawed, and legitimate drama demands this), but in such a way that they are ultimately contrasted against the backdrop of a Christian ethos or framework. They are not, therefore, in the Christian filmmaker's work, sanctioned or condoned  in any way, shape, or form, and furthermore, the negative results flowing from sin are made manifest in some fashion in the script (perhaps only at the end of the movie, but obviously so, in any event).

In other words, typically non-Christian traits must be leading characteristics of the "bad guys" and shown (in the final analysis) in their true, repulsive colors, as both sinful and harmful to the individual and others. Many "secular" films indeed exhibit this aspect in many ways, some quite effectively and profoundly, but the Christian film makes the true nature of reality, beauty and love, the benefits of grace and discipleship, and the consequences of sin its primary goal, whether this is portrayed implicitly or explicitly (truth can be set forth in many different ways, depending on the filmmaker's purpose and intended target audience).

Even a fantasy world ought to contain (or at least not blatantly contradict) a transcendental God (i.e., a theistic universe), as in, e.g., the fantasies of C.S. Lewis, because God is the root and ground of all reality (Colossians 2:3; Acts 17:27-28). Adultery or murder would, therefore, be just as evil in a fantasy-world as in a cinematic presentation of a "real world," just as a parable of Jesus does not and cannot contain a moral falsehood, even though it is purely fictional.

Some popular movies (though usually not totally devoid of moral or artistic merit, by any means) in effect glorify (biblically-forbidden) white magic, or sorcery, and present it as normative to everyday reality, whereas the Christian movie (by nature) could not do this, and would ultimately ground beneficent supernatural or (to use a better word) miraculous acts in the divine will and power; in God, as opposed to (famously) a so-called "force." Theism need not always be explicit in a film, but the overall worldview of a "Christian film" must be consistent with a biblical, Christian understanding of reality in all its aspects.

The presentation of historical events and figures - particularly Christian or biblical persons and history - poses peculiarly difficult and complex problems of historical accuracy, insofar as that can be achieved, given the usual and inevitable bias of individuals. At the very least, the Christian filmmaker must avoid all tendentious or ideological distortions of the known, widely-accepted facts of history. Historical fiction is valid and plausible insofar as it dramatically builds upon more-or-less accepted facts, so that it doesn't distort (a half-truth being almost as bad as a plain lie) essential characteristics of persons and events.

Beyond that, the Christian film cannot present as truth doctrines or viewpoints which are widely rejected among Christians. An example of such distortion would be the portrayal of (what Christians know as) the Two Natures of Christ (or, Hypostatic Union), in The Last Temptation of Christ. In an erroneous (even if well-intended) attempt to "humanize" Jesus, to help us to better "relate" to Him (according to the director's and screenwriter's own stated goals), our Lord, the incarnate God, is shown to possess certain Nestorian-like traits such as doubt or inner turmoil, and enticement towards sin, which are blatantly contrary to the orthodox Christology which is accepted by all three major branches of Christianity (developed in its final form at the Council of Chalcedon in 451).

Truth has an inherent power, and is able to be ascertained by any individual who seeks it, by the grace of God (Romans 1:18-20, 2:13-16). It can, and should, therefore, affect viewers of well-made, artistically meritorious Christian films in a special and profound way. The Christian film might choose to emphasize a particular aspect of truth (aesthetic, metaphysical, scientific, moral, relational, emotional, spiritual, etc.), utilizing a full and free artistic and technically proficient expression, yet the goal is to always base the dramatic vision within a truly Christian framework and worldview, so that the viewer can walk away with a better grasp of one or more aspects of the truths of Christianity and the gospel or (more generally) a theistic universe, than he or she possessed before having watched the film.

References for Further Reading on Christology and the Two Natures of Christ / Hypostatic Union

From the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia:

Temptation of Christ
Knowledge of Jesus Christ
The Incarnation
Communicatio Idiomatum (Communication of Idioms)
Hypostatic Union
Nestorius and Nestorianism
Original Sin

Other Related Sources:

An Ignorant Jesus? (William G. Most)
The Double Consciousness of Christ (Bertrand de Margerie)
The Consciousness of Christ (William G. Most)
The Human Knowledge of Christ (John O'Connell)
The Humanity of Christ (Romano Guardini; 279K)
Could God Have Sinned? (God, the Moral Law, & Logic) (Dave Armstrong)
Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue on 2 Corinthians 5:21: Was Jesus Christ Literally Made Sin on the Cross? (Dave Armstrong vs. John Vrablic)

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