Despite vociferous religious opposition to "The Last Temptation of Christ," the film that was released Friday, many churches may use the occasion to examine anew and proclaim their beliefs about Jesus--especially the doctrine that he was truly tempted yet sinless.
Christianity holds that Jesus was fully God and fully human, and a verse in the New Testament's Letter to the Hebrews (4:15) explains that Jesus is "one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin." Other pertinent verses include Hebrews 7:26, 1 Peter 2:22, 1 John 3:5, 2 Cor 5:21.
Not that theater managers should expect parties of parishioners queuing up to see the movie as a stimulus for group discussions. Some Christians rarely attend movies; many more avoid an R-rated film such as "Last Temptation" with its scenes of blood, violence and nudity.
If the large protest by Christians on Thursday at Universal Studios or was any indication, groups of churchgoers will appear at the theaters only to demonstrate against the film. Yet, some clergy have suggested that the enormous publicity generated by the pre-release protests could be turned to faith's advantage, not merely Universal Pictures' advantage.
When the U.S. Catholic bishops this week officially gave the movie a "morally offensive" rating, Bishop Anthony G. Bosco, head of the bishops' Department of Communication, suggested that Catholics "use the issuance of the film as an opportunity to place before our people again the true image of Christ, the Christ of Scriptures and of the church."
The conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has advised members not to patronize the movie. But the Lutheran communications executive, the Rev. Paul Devantier, said the furor "may provide an opportunity for Christians to explain their understanding of Christ and the Gospel."
Right after he saw the movie last month, the Rev. Robert Maddox, a Southern Baptist minister, said he thought that the film "could trigger a great deal of real productive conversation around the country about the Christian faith, what it is, what it is not."
The very title of the Martin Scorsese-directed film and the Nikos Kazantzakis novel suggests the central theme common to both--that Jesus is tempted to evade his messianic role and martyrdom, right up to a "last temptation" while on the cross.
But the implications of the final scenes may have been misrepresented by antagonistic descriptions of the movie's content.
Because Jesus in that dream-like "last temptation" marries and impregnates Mary Magdalene, then loves and fathers children by the biblical sisters Mary and Martha, many protesters have inferred that Jesus really had sexual desires that show up in his dream.
A verse attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (5:28) is cited to demonstrate that Jesus would never lust for a woman: "I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
But this logic may be faulty. It may be an open question whether dreams really reflect our desires. Secondly, Matthew 5:28 probably is not to be taken literally. Matthew's next verse (5:29), also attributed to Jesus, says that "If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away. . . ." Biblical interpreters sometimes have suggested that since 5:29 is not to be taken literally, then 5:28 is also an exaggeration designed to make a point.
Aside from that, however, the "dream sequence" in the film may be a misnomer. Not so much a dream deriving from his own thoughts, the episode appears to be the devil's final attempt to dupe Jesus. Satan fools Jesus into thinking that he was spared the crucifixion by God, and it almost works. A sweet-looking girl who identifies herself as his guardian angel appears to remove the crucifixion nails from Jesus and take him away. Leading him to believe that God has not forsaken him after all, Jesus asks, "You mean I don't have to be the Messiah?"
Only when Jesus is an old man in this vision and confronted by his disciples, especially Judas, who recognizes instantly that the girl is a manifestation of Satan, does Jesus realize that he was deceived and must fulfill his role to die on the cross. The "dream" (and the movie) ends with Jesus smiling on the cross and saying, "It is accomplished."
Some biblical basis exists for the temptation themes. Satan is the one who offers Jesus enormous power in Gospel stories of the temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13), an episode also important to the movie.