The Last Temptation Of Christ Controversy Explained: How Martin Scorsese's Passion Project Became A Nightmare

In 1988, Martin Scorsese directed "The Last Temptation of Christ," based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis about the life of Jesus Christ as a quotidian man and the temptations he faces on his way to the cross. Both the book and film adaptation were met with outrage from conservative Christian groups. Bill Bright, the founder of the American Family Association and Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC), wanted to purchase all of the film's prints and destroy them. Theatre chains in Georgia, Louisiana, California, and Oklahoma banned the "The Last Temptation of Christ." Blockbuster refused to carry it on home video. 

Mother Angelica (founder of the Eternal World Television Network) warned believers that if they watched the "sacrilegious" film, they would be "committing a deliberate act of blasphemy" that would send them to hell and bring America as a whole under God's "chastisement." Mother Teresa also commented on the controversy, rallying Catholics to pray so that "Our Blessed Mother (Mary) will see that this film is removed from your land. 

Universal Studios defended the exhibition of Scorsese's contentious drama on the grounds of the First Amendment; they believed Americans had the right to choose whether or not they wanted to see the film. What was it about the "The Last Temptation of Christ" that caused the religious community to react with such vitriol — up to the point that they wanted to erase all traces of it from the earth? Why did Christians believe that watching it would damn you to Satan's lake of fire? 

Jesus is a Flawed Sinner

Although "The Last Temptation of Christ" opens with the statement, "This film is not based on the Gospels, but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict," Christians still believed it was blasphemous to represent Jesus Christ as a mortal man at war with his divine responsibilities. Scorsese's Jesus (played by the remarkable Willem Dafoe) deals with the ordinary challenges of pride, doubt, depression, and lust. He is also a traitor that makes crucifixion crosses for the Romans, and Judas (a betrayer of Jesus in the Bible) is the one to upbraid him for this. But Jesus is aware of his shortcomings, proclaiming to a group of puritans: 

"I'm a liar, a hypocrite; I'm afraid of everything. I don't ever tell the truth, I don't have the courage ... I don't steal, I don't fight, I don't kill — not because I don't want to — but because I'm afraid. I want to rebel against you, against everything, against God, but I'm afraid. You want to know who my mother and father is? You want to know who my God is? Fear! You look inside me and that's all you'll find."

Conservatives took issue with the fact that their savior Jesus Christ was portrayed as just another worldly sinner begging for forgiveness. Bishop Anthony G. Bosco of New York commented on this unfavorable characterization of Jesus in the Los Angeles Times: "I looked in vain for the message of love. Scorsese has given us an angry Christ, a bumbling Christ, a Christ more of this world than the next." This depiction defies the teachings of the Gospels where Jesus is not a simple man chosen by God to become humanity's savior but is already the Messiah from birth. In Luke 2:11, the angels proclaim, "For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." Therefore, the idea that Jesus was born an immoral human at odds with his holy vocation was insulting to the very foundation of Christianity's beliefs. 

The majority of Scorsese's filmography features themes of religious doubt and characters who are searching for God. "The Last Temptation of Christ" amplifies the crisis of faith narrative by placing it onto Jesus Christ himself in order to discover the true meaning of spirituality. In the film, Jesus is not a flawless cipher, he is a complex figure who experiences a wide spectrum of human emotion and is torn between earth and heaven. This liminality between the flesh and spirit and his imperfection is what makes the film so fascinating. While it may oppose the words of the Gospel, Jesus' internal battles make his ultimate sacrifice on the cross more meaningful. 

Jesus Dreams of Having Sex

For many Christians, the worst scene in "The Last Temptation of Christ" is when Jesus, while violently nailed to the cross, imagines choosing an ordinary life with Mary Magdalene instead. He fantasizes about having sexual relations and raising a family with her. During his vision, Mary Magdalene dies and he marries another Mary, then has an affair with her sister Martha. Jesus' sincere desire to give in to these wrongful impulses deeply offended the religious community. In their eyes, Jesus Christ is a holy being who never experienced concupiscence: the unshakeable urge for humans to commit sin — particularly sexually. They believe Jesus is free from original sin and therefore all of humanity's frailties. Although the Gospels depict Jesus being tempted by Satan in the desert (a version of this story appears in "The Last Temptation of Christ"), he is not swayed by the devil's efforts.

Conservatives castigate "The Last Temptation of Christ" for its illustration of Jesus as an everyday sinner, but they fail to see that this is exactly what makes Jesus' active decision to resist temptation and save humanity by sacrificing himself so incredibly admirable. Scorsese's Jesus may not be the magical paragon of perfection as written in the Bible, but he willingly rejects his dreams of normalcy because he cares about mankind's well-being more than his own; that takes a lot of strength. Isn't putting others before yourself Jesus' ultimate credo? As one of Scorsese's greatest works, "The Last Temptation of Christ" is a compelling drama that makes Jesus relatable through his struggles with the expectations of others and his own longings.