Carter vs. Starke on Jesus in the Movies

With the appearance of several new movies based on biblical narratives, Christians are debating whether or not movies should be deemed “appropriate,” especially as writers and directors take artistic liberties. There’s been significant uproar about the license filmmaker Darren Aronofsky took with Noah, which hits theaters today. And the recent Son of God has raised questions about the second commandment and complaints of sloppiness, while garnering just as many defenders for the film. 


Recently this debate unfolded over email between me and Joe Carter, a colleague and fellow editor at The Gospel Coalition, as we discussed articles about Son of God. After TGC linked to an article critical of the film, a reader told us, “Here is a good effort to put Jesus in the public square and we pick away at it with a response like this. Sad to see.” To which Carter replied to TGC staff, “If the standard is now that we should defend any movie that ‘as a whole presents Jesus in a most positive light’ then we all owe Martin Scorsese an apology.”

Carter is referring to Scorsese’s 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ, which radically departs from the traditional Gospel narratives and portrays a Jesus as a weak, fearful, and reluctant Savior who is tempted to get down from the cross and abandon his saving mission. (Spoiler: he does come down.) At the time many Christians denounced the film.

I responded to Carter’s email saying, “I loved Last Temptation, and I think every Christian should too. It supports the foundation of the gospel more than you think!”

Radio silence.

Then the discussion picked back up.

JOE CARTER: I really hope you’re kidding, but I can’t tell. If for no other reason, Last Temptation qualifies as heretical simply for having Willem Dafoe play the part of Jesus.

JOHN STARKE: Nope. Not kidding.

Last Temptation actually gives us the world that would have come about if Jesus had given into the temptation to not die on the cross for our sins: hopeless and embattled against itself, finally leading to destruction and ultimate despair. In other words, if Jesus didn’t come to pay for sins, there would be no hope.

People think it’s heretical because it gave the story of the Son of God abandoning the cross and marrying a woman instead of giving up himself. But it shows the misery of Jesus and the hopelessness of the world because of it.

CARTER: I could have excused that last section of the film (though I thought it was terribly boring). But I think even before the “temptation” part the film presented an inaccurate representation of Christ. I thought the movie incorporated the monophysitic views from Nikos Kazantzakis’s book (on which the movie was based). For example, Kazantzakis says, “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.” Kazantzakis’s view is that Jesus became divine by his obedience and refusal to give in to temptation.

I also thought the film presented a completely external view of temptation. For example, when Jesus was watching the “prostitute” Mary Magdalene have sex with her johns, it seems that he has a lustful interest in her (he later admits as much). Yet because he doesn’t physically act on the temptation, the movie implies that he hasn’t sinned. It’s that view that I think is most problematic. In fact, I think this one scene (see below) alone is enough to damn the movie as unsuitably heretical.

STARKE: Two things:

First, the narrative itself is meant to be “unreliable.” Of course the story swerves away from the truthfulness about the nature of Jesus when he ends up abandoning the cross in the end. The whole point of the movie is to question the narrative of the movie itself as being true. The film isn’t interested in giving us truth about Jesus; it’s interested in giving us what we want in Jesus and then show us how dissatisfied we are with it in the end.

Second, this is a larger discussion, but I think movies like Last Temptation don’t aim to communicate didactically—which is what you’re concerned about. No one coming from the movie is going to be learning or changing their view of how human nature relates to divine nature. But they will go away feeling the emotional message and wondering, Where is hope if we do not have atonement for sins? That’s what viewers feel from the movie by the end, whether they have an accurate depiction of the hypostatic union or not.

CARTER: I sort of see what you’re saying, but that sort of interpretation relies on the movie watcher being somewhat theologically sophisticated. The problem with these types of movies that take artistic license with a Bible story is that many people can’t distinguish between the presentation of biblical fact and Hollywood fiction. For far too many Americans, these types of movies are their primary source of knowledge about Jesus—which is why so many think Jesus is a non-judgmental hippie who loves everyone the way they are (i.e., unrepentant and unapologetic sinner) and was crucified because mean-spirited religious folks didn’t appreciate his “be yourself” message.

last-temptation-of-christ_judasWhat would a viewer who is unfamiliar with Jesus take away from the movie? How are we supposed to distinguish between the actual biographical details about Jesus, the parts that are intended to be an unreliable narrative (e.g., the temptation part on the cross), and the sections that reveal what the author/director really thinks about Jesus (e.g., he becomes divine through his actions)?

Also, what does it mean for Jesus to atone for our sins when, as in the movie, he is a self-professed sinner who only becomes one-with-the-divine through his obedience to God? It may seem rather nit-picky to point out the film’s confusion about the hypostatic union, but the film is presenting a particular—and particularly heretical—view about the divine-human natures.

STARKE: I’m not saying I would’ve written Last Temptation, nor do I think it’s fully sanctified and ready to be played in Sunday schools everywhere in order to teach the necessity of the atonement.

At the same time, such movies depend on a certain level of engagement in order to be meaningful. Shocking art is trying to catch our attention, and the viewer can either just walk away from the shock with distaste in his mouth or ask what the artist is trying to say. Whenever an artist uses biblical themes to say something, he’s always trying to say something about ultimate reality (God, self, or the world). I think, for Christians, it’s worth sticking with a film long enough to understand his purpose. It will either give us a surprising perspective about God that we don’t ever consider or gives us insight into how our society views God (or what we want him to be like). I think Last Temptation gives us both.

What Christians would change about the movie is obvious. But what the film is trying to say about what happens to a world where its last hope gives into temptation himself is pretty profound and worth noting.

CARTER: I think a lot of my criticisms of Last Temptation could have been abated if it had started with a title card that read, “Based on a True Story.” Many people thought it was a movie about Jesus when it was really just about a Christ-figure who happened to be called Jesus.

I agree with you that in this movie Scorsese was trying to say something about ultimate reality. I even think he could have even been successful had he taken the elements from a standard Jesus bio-pic (like Son of God) and then, near the end of the film, thrown in the temptation on the cross. That would have been shocking and controversial and still led to outraged denunciations of the film. But it also could have (possibly) succeeded in giving us a fresh perspective on Jesus.

I don’t think the film succeeded in doing that, though, because it didn’t give us a unique perspective on Jesus; it gave us a unique perspective on a Christ-figure. The Jesus in the film was the Jesus of Kazantzakis’s imagination, not the Jesus of the Gospels. It was a New Age Jesus, a human who became a god by submitting to his divine nature.

The problem is many under-informed viewers of the film assumed that Scorsese, a semi-devout Catholic, was presenting a fairly accurate rendering of Jesus. And many people probably left the film thinking they wanted nothing to do with Jesus since they assumed he must really be a grotesque, conflicted New Age hippie. It’s one thing for people reject the Jesus of the Gospels. They are rejecting the Truth based on a true description. But it disturbs me when people reject the true Savior because they confuse him with the Jesus of pop culture.

STARKE: Okay, but isn’t the Christ portrayed in the Last Temptation the Jesus everyone wants? A hippie, sensitive Jesus in tune with the divine, though not divine himself?

And then doesn’t the film show a world hopeless because that Jesus is inadequate?

It seems to me, the film is giving us the Jesus we want, then showing us that that Jesus isn’t sufficient.

[I just heard someone from the balcony yell, “Preach!”]


I’m not sure who wins this debate. And, in the end, the debate really isn’t about any one particular movie, but how comfortable we should be with writers taking liberties with biblical narratives—especially narratives about Jesus. Carter is concerned about the worldview implications of a movie like Last Temptation and even Son of God. I want to say that what is communicated is less didactic and propositional and more aimed at our longings and hopes. One will want to preserve the biblical narrative as it’s used in films, the other will be more generous with artistic allowances.

  • tak

    I don’t know if you’re joking, but in Last Temptation Jesus doesn’t come down after all.

    • John

      Thank, Tak — Yes. The movie ends with Jesus back on the cross.

      • Philmonomer

        This is, hugely, hugely important. And vital to the conversation. At the end of the movie, Jesus is back on the cross.

        That, indeed, is everything the movie has been leading up to.

      • Philmonomer

        I think it is supposed to be an open question as to whether or not Jesus actually comes down off the cross. Or whether it is all a dream sequence. At least that is my memory of the film.

        But the film certainly ends with Jesus back on the cross.

        (sorry if I repeated this comment.)

        • tak

          I personally don’t think it’s an interpretive question whether Jesus comes down. I think the film pretty clearly portrays Jesus as deciding not to come down after all. But if it *is* an interpretive question, then the best thing to do is not to say “spoiler alert” because that’s a preface usually used for descriptive, rather than interpretive points.

          At any rate, as long as we agree on what the film shows, then I’ve no qualms. So thanks, John, for acknowledging that the film ends with Jesus on the cross.

    • Philmonomer

      I remember watching this film on VHS with my sister, years and years ago in our family room. She was lying on the couch and basically sleeping through the film. At one point, she half-woke up and said, grumbling, “This film is so NOISY!”

      Later during the film, a few minutes after the girl appeared at the foot of the cross, she again half woke-up and said “Ah, it is so quiet now!” — with a big smile on her face, and she went back to sleep.

  • Curt Day

    Though I can’t say this about all movies, and an example here would be the movie The Book Thief, but what I can confidently say about all movies on the Bible is that it is more important to read the book. And if you happen to see the movie, then ok.

    But in as much as these movies become conversation starters, as the book and movie The Da Vinci Code, then the movies can contribute–I had many students come up and ask me what I thought of the book and movie. And regardless of what I think of these movies, I like Starke’s approach of itemizing positive qualities about movies such as what he did with the movie The Last Temptation

  • Sean

    I first watched Last Temptation when I was 18, 2 years before I became a Christian. I remember it making me want to read the actual gospel accounts.

  • trevor_minyard

    This article seems to be more about how you and Joe debate, and less about the movie(s). -_______-

  • Aron Gahagan

    The whole debate gets rather simple if we accept that the 2nd commandment still has moral authority. It seems to me the conversations started by that interaction would be more fruitful, and more to the point, than these possibly plausible interpretations of what Scorsese and others did or did not mean to say. E.g., “I didn’t see the movie, and I won’t either–God forbids images of deity, and Jesus is just that: God incarnate. He is real, He is my God and King, and whatever fruit may or may not come from artistic speculation cannot hold a candle to the fruit that will come from obedience to His revealed will.”

    • John

      Absolutely, Aaron. Completely agree. I would just say that thoughtful Christians throughout history still accept the authority of 2nd commandment (like me!), while seeing it different than you. For example, paintings of Christ throughout history. Catholics and Protestants alike disagree with how to apply the 2nd commandment to paintings, film, and other art forms. Just because the people in the above debate didn’t begin with the 2nd commandment, doesn’t mean they haven’t thought it through.

  • The_Repentant_Curmudgeon

    I haven’t seen Last Temptation yet. Does Scorsese actually say in an interview somewhere that the Jesus of his movie is meant to be a false God and rejected by the viewer? Regardless, it’s somewhat hard to believe because it would be suggesting that Scorsese wants the viewer to think about movie-making and not the story of the film.

    Often books and films written by the unfaithful can affirm what the faithful know (and I had this experience recently re-reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). On the other hand a movie like Tree of Life (a love it or hate it film, I know) can overwhelm the faithful in how it makes a connection between our lives and a Bible story.

    But when a filmmaker seeks to rewrite Scripture itself, he’s strapping the viewer in a chair and making him judge. The whole experience for the believer is to wonder what is in Scorsese’s head, and to worry what influence the movie has on the non-believer. The movie ceases to be a story and becomes an op-ed piece.

    So now I’ll have to see it and see how my comment holds up!

    • Tim Mullet


      I wouldn’t recommend watching the movie, unless you want do some further repenting…

      Here is the imdb parent’s guide. I am kind of suprised that Christians do not seem to look these things up…

      There is a quick scene with a topless, tattooed woman.

      Several men are shown (one at a time) having sex with a woman but not much nudity can be seen.

      A woman is seen fully naked for a long period of time, her breasts, buttocks, and genitals are seen.

      There is a short scene of full-frontal nudity (male and female).

      As Jesus is being beaten just before he is taken to be crucified, there are brief views of his naked rear end.

      As the crown of thorns is placed on his head, he is shown nude from behind for several seconds.

      Jesus is seen having sex with Mary Magdalene, but not much nudity is shown.

      Mary Magdalene is seen with a pregnant stomach and her breasts are also visible.

  • hannah anderson

    Thanks for this. The best part, for me, is that this piece actually shows the process of engagement. If either of you had simply written a piece after the fact to outline your particular position, it would have been less effective. This approach models how to disagree. More pieces like this please.

    • The_Repentant_Curmudgeon

      It also shows how you can only have a fruitful debate if you share common foundation. This is why Left-Right debates are usually a complete waste of time. For example, what would be the point of debating with the person holding this sign:

      • Philmonomer

        I disagree that (we can know beforehand) there would be no point in debating with the person holding this sign.

        Clearly, both of you share a common foundation (“life is important, and should be valued/respected”)

        You may actually have an interesting conversation about why, given a common foundation, the two of you have reached radically different results. Are you likely to change that person’s mind? Not at all. But that doesn’t mean it may not be a fruitful debate/conversation.

        But more importantly, how do you get those cool pictures embeded in your comments?

  • Christopher Williams

    Very interesting dialogue — I’m currently watching movies about Christ throughout Lent (shameless plug: writing about them at, although I’m a bit behind). Last Temptation is on my list, but not for a few weeks.

    It’s been a few years since I’ve seen it, but I find myself on the fence as to who I side with in this debate. I actually think the final act of “Last Temptation” is not offensive — it’s engaging what Christ possibly could have been tempted with and, very importantly, shows him resisting that temptation and finishing what He came to do. It’s shocking, yes, but powerful. But I do think the fearful, guilty-feeling and weak Christ of the film’s first half is problematic, particularly the moments where Christ comes out and struggles with whether he hates God or loves him. I understand what Scorsese’s doing here, but I think he errs too much on the side of humanizing Christ (which is necessary), but bleeding too much of his own guilt into the story (guilt, of course, is one of Scorsese’s favorite themes).

    But I agree that moving away from didactic films about Christ is so essential. I don’t want a visual flannelgraph of Christ’s life. I have no use for a film just repeating the story verbatim — if I want a sermon, I’ll go to church. I want art to wrestle with the text, even if sometimes it has to go off-script. It’s not that I think a good film can’t be made by sticking strictly to the gospel accounts (see Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to Matthew”), but I think it gains vitality when it explores the issues and questions instead of simply presenting them. I recently watched “Jesus Christ Superstar” for my first time and while it’s definitely an unorthodox retelling, I think it very interestingly captures the emotions that might have been swirling around Christ as well as the various perspectives of those who encountered him. I’m more interested in a problematic and flawed film like that than in a cash-in of a stitched-together miniseries like “Son of God.”

  • Jonathan

    Thank you for a very reasonable (but too darn short!) debate between brothers who share a foundation. In this era that I’ll call “The Preaching Bubble” (i.e. the growing, unsustainable divide between the clergy and laity), real dialogue is has been discarded in favor of loud, brand making, monologue (or what many are calling a commitment of expository preaching as the only non-negotiable in Kingdom life).

    I was in college with “Last Temptation” came out and I remember some small protests. I saw the movie and was frustrated at the portrayal of Jesus until I too, saw that this particular Jesus – the one, btw, that my college friends on the Left so wanted to proclaim as the real one – was unable to save anyone. It could have been a great opportunity to spur a meaningful biblical dialogue. But it turned into another opportunity for choosing sides (those of my generation who grew up Southern Baptist might recall that this movie came out toward the end of something of convention wide fight over direction and foundation…we loved labels back then).

    I’ve purchased DVD copies of both Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar and have watched them with my children. We have a copy of Mel Gibson’s epic as well. Rather than falling in line with the ordained chorus that preaching is the only appropriate path of gospel delivery (and “preaching” is defined exclusively in its North American context), our family takes a both/and approach to encouraging these discussions. Movies, podcasts, daily readings, family devotions, theme papers on “The Incarnation” by our children, etc…have all been used to as exercises in getting our minds around these very heavy themes that our inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God has for us.

    Of course, its not without risk. But then, where in Scripture is life without risk advocated?

  • Ryan

    “It seems to me, the film is giving us the Jesus we want, then showing us that that Jesus isn’t sufficient.”

    I don’t think anyone is going to walk away from this film (Last Temptation) thinking the above statement. I wouldn’t even be thinking that, and I’m theologically literate, so why would an unbeliever come anywhere close to your conclusion?

  • Aaron kooienga

    seen Last Temptation of Christ at least five times (four of those
    prior to my conversion and once after,) and honestly it is
    heretical Paul
    Schrader (the film’s screenwriter who was raised in a devoute Christian Reformed home in Grand Rapids MI but has since apostatized). Flat out
    admits that the movie is by definition, at least sacrilegious in the
    audio commentary to Criterion collection DVD of the film.

    the book it’s based on had it’s author Nikos Kazantzakis
    excommunicated from The Greek Orthodox Church on charges of heresy and even goes so far as to question the reliability of the Gospel accounts and even infer they may have been Satanically inspired while making Jesus into an “Existentialist sock puppet” for the latter half of the book and portraying Judas as “the beloved disciple”,

    At one point (pre-conversion) found it a spiritually fulfilling story
    that presented an more relatable Christ than I found in my (than LDS
    belief system).

    Even now saved and more knowledgeable of Christology I still find it an more honest portrayal of man’s spiritual quest for God and I can respect something for at least making me think even if I think it’s deeply flawed and wrong in many profound ways.

  • Michael

    I feel like this debate is about two separate questions: Mr. Starke seems to be asking if a Christian can engage with the film in a meaningful way (which the answer is ‘yes’ because he casts the narrative in a compelling light) while Mr. Carter seems to be asking if the film has an intrinsic merit that’s plainly clear (which the answer is ‘no’ based on his reasonable statement that a non-believing viewer would likely not come close to the compelling viewpoint of Mr. Starke).

    The movie seems to beg a good deal of theologically-informed engagement, which can be great if a viewer has a theologically-informed person to talk to. What, though, of the viewer who does not have that luxury? Is the film still helpful in its net impact?

    This could easily be a debate about the individual vs the collective. Sure, an individual can redeem this narrative with careful thought, but does the film have redeeming qualities for the larger collective?

  • Karen Butler

    “The problem with these types of movies that take artistic license with a
    Bible story is that many people can’t distinguish between the
    presentation of biblical fact and Hollywood fiction. For far too many
    Americans, these types of movies are their primary source of knowledge
    about Jesus…”

    These movies are teaching us. They are more of a stumbling block to understanding, not a pathway to it. ‘Not many of us should become teachers, because there is a stricter judgement’ — so we should fear for these directors. The second commandment was given for everyone’s safety, and flourishing, both for the makers of images, and their viewers. This ‘artistic license’ just another word for tampering with the sacred text. We need to be warning these image-makers of their certain preference for millstones in a future day, not cheering them on, and adding to their box office receipts.

    • Mary

      Amen, Karen.

  • Always_Learning

    Why don’t these films ever depict Jesus as an ethnic Jew with decidedly Middle Eastern physical traits? As a matter of authenticity, this seems to be a glaring oversight.

  • TJ

    It seems to me that you both missed what I see as the point of Last Temptation – what Jesus actually gave up when he DIDN’T give into the temptation (are you guys both forgetting the last 30 seconds of the film?). Obviously, none of us can know what it would really feel like to be God in human form being tempted by things you know are wrong because they separate you from yourself. I think this movie is mostly trying to go at the nature of such a strange occurrence and unpack it a little bit.

  • Jonathan

    I wonder if anyone has considered Francis Schaeffer’s thoughts in the 2 essays in “Art and the Bible” as applicable to this debate?

  • Dave

    These are sophisticated arguments that not all are able to appreciate. They, also, assume a sophisticated film being screened, which is not frequently the case.

    It is safer not to suggest this type of film for fear of a brother stumbling. Viewing the films for a particular reason and group makes more sense.

  • thatbrian

    Carter 1, Starke 0.

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