by Sarah Welch
“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”
“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
— Mark 9:19-24, NIV
I am a Christian. I am forthcoming about my faith. My best friends in graduate school were collectively dubbed “the God Squad,” and there were a surprising number of us, given that we were attending a well-known secular institution. My reputation as a believer follows me wherever I go. I can’t help it; it just keeps coming up. And I have doubts.
The church I was raised in spent very little time on doubts and misgivings. In the Evangelical Church, once you’re “saved,” that’s it. You’re a Christian now, and although the evangelical church is more than happy to educate its newcomers in doctrine and teaching, there is no more room for doubt. The congregations I grew up in were not, in my experience, authoritarian. Questions weren’t discouraged, but there was a tendency to shy away from conversations about full-on doubt in faith, especially among the youth. We didn’t know what to do with someone who didn’t think they believed what the church was teaching them.
High school youth groups in particular reinforced doctrine without questioning its purpose. See, we all believe this. Nothing to worry about here. And those of us who did have doubts would push them down below layers of doctrinal teachings. You might be able to admit a faith crisis in the comfort of a small group Bible study, but only with people you’ve known for a long time. Even then, admission of doubt can change the dynamic of a group irrevocably. The Evangelical community has been notorious for telling its members with depression that they must not be believing in Jesus hard enough. Christians who struggle with the “temptation” of depression have to put up with other churchgoers telling them to consider unaddressed sin in their lives. Better to keep the status quo than admit your doubt. Strong Christians who falter in their faith are unsettling to the rest of the congregation, so to admit your doubt could endanger someone else as well.
If a doubtful Christian disturbs the peace so much, how much more damage could a doubtful Christ do?
Two films in particular deal with Christ as a human being—especially as a human being who doubts. The first is Martin Scorsese’s 1988 The Last Temptation of Christ. The second is Rodrigo García’s 2016 Last Days in the Desert. Both attempt to answer the question, “What was Jesus the human like?” Both take care to establish that they are not explicitly based on the Bible. Nor are they particularly concerned with questions of Christ’s divinity, either. They show Jesus laughing, crying, enjoying life in his body. Both show the physical agony of the crucifixion, although both also shy away from showing the resurrection; they are not movies about the divine, but rather about a very charismatic teacher—a fact that made both, especially Last Temptation, controversial upon release. Both, frustratingly, also cast white men as a Middle-Eastern character. Both rewrite an often-told Bible story.
The Bible story is this: Jesus has just been baptized and has been driven by the Spirit of God into the wilderness. There he stays for forty days, fasting and praying, before returning to society to begin teaching. During his time in the desert, Jesus is tempted by Satan three times: once to turn stones into bread (traditionally an analogue for gluttony), once to take control over all nations in the world (avarice), and once to throw himself off the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem (pride). Jesus responds by quoting scripture at Satan until Satan goes away. This story can be found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; they’re all worth reading.
In The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus goes into the desert, draws a circle in the dirt, and tells God that he won’t leave that circle until he hears God speak. Up until this point, he has been wracked by doubt. He’s been told that he’s the Messiah the Jews have been waiting for, but he isn’t ready to accept it yet. He’s afraid of God’s love and God’s purpose for him, and he dreads the consequences of becoming God’s chosen. It is only after Jesus faces down Satan in the form of a cobra, a lion, and a flame that he accepts his role as a Messiah. The result is a wild-eyed preacher stumbling out of the desert, eager to fulfill the purpose he’s been running from up until this point.
Last Temptation is not about the temptations in the desert; the titular temptation comes much later. This is a large-scale film that traces the major points, Biblical and imagined, of Jesus’ life, tying them all together with the thread of his alternating doubt and devotion. Willem Dafoe depicts Jesus as deadpan when he isn’t preaching; he isn’t fully alive unless he’s telling people that they should love one another. Last Temptation insists in an opening scroll that it isn’t based on the Gospels, but on the 1955 Nikos Kazantzakis book of the same name. Despite this assertion, nearly every scene feels as though it rephrases the Bible stories. I didn’t know the exact words that were going to be used, but I knew most of the dialogue before it was going to be said. Last Temptation felt to me what it must be like to be someone who has never believed but hears the Gospel story every so often: alien, intriguing, somewhat familiar, and very off-putting.
Last Temptation is long, full, and brash; an epic that takes the familiar stories and shifts them in such a way that people who are familiar with the conventional tellings will find this version both fresh and deeply disturbing by turns. Jesus’ world in Last Temptation is dusty and bloody, with wild religious fanatics preaching their followers into frenzies, and routine executions by the Roman government. Little details that turn the religious into horror are everywhere: the cavalier treatment of women, especially prostitutes, the sacrificial blood pouring off the temple, the decaying Lazarus stumbling from the tomb. Jesus may or may not be divine here, although it’s certain that he is special; he does things that can’t be explained, and he knows things no ordinary person could know. He’s also extremely reluctant to step into his role—at one point, before beginning to preach, exclaiming that he wishes he could crucify all of God’s Messiahs. Once he’s accepted who he thinks he is, though, he commits to the role. No outward questioning, no hesitation—at least until it’s time to die. And once he’s committed to being the Messiah, the Jesus of Last Temptation becomes someone a little different: less knowable, harder to understand. He isn’t quite human anymore.
Last Days in the Desert, by contrast, focuses exclusively on the humanity of Jesus, and on the end of his time in the desert, before he begins to preach. Last Days is quiet, poetic, and minimalistic, an introspective short story to Last Temptation’s epic. Yeshua (as the film calls him) has spent nearly forty days in the wilderness, and it is time for him to come out and rejoin civilization. Where the Jesus of Last Temptation initially rejects God and wishes he were not loved by him, Yeshua desperately wants to know God and understand him. In Last Temptation, God speaks to Jesus even when Jesus least wants to hear; in Last Days, Yeshua cannot hear God, no matter how hard he tries.
The film opens slowly. The sun rises and sets over a washed-out desert, where Yeshua (Ewan McGregor) shivers in the cold nights and sweats in the hot, long days. We spend time getting acquainted with the desert’s face until Jesus finally speaks for the first time. The utterance is startling.
“Father, where are You?”
This is not the Christ we know from the Bible, nor is this the firebrand from Last Temptation. The Christ from the Gospels speaks with confidence and authority, telling Satan in no uncertain terms to leave him alone, performing miracles, teaching in the temple at the age of twelve. The Jesus from Last Temptation knows who God is and what God is asking of him, but he’s stubborn, unwilling to yield ground. The Yeshua coming out of the desert in Last Days is exhausted and discouraged, thirsty, alone. He’s hanging on to belief, but his grip on his own faith seems tenuous at best. He says he knows God is out there somewhere, and he speaks and prays as though God is listening, but this is a Jesus who is racked by that most human of feelings: doubt.
When Christians talk about Jesus as fully God and fully human, I think we make the mistake of glossing over both ideas. “Fully God” is easy to grasp when we mention the miracles, the prophecies, and the resurrection and ascension, but “fully God” sounds distant and difficult to relate to. But if “fully God” is an alienating concept, “fully human” is even more difficult. Evangelical Christians are comfortable with talking about Jesus getting angry—there’s a memorable episode in which he drives money changers out of the temple, and another in which he withers a fig tree because it isn’t bearing any fruit. Christians talk about Jesus’ sadness for the death of Lazarus, and we talk about his desire to not have to go through with the trial and crucifixion. But for all our talk about Jesus being fully human, we still hold him at arm’s length, emotions muted, unwilling to consider the consequences of a God who walks the earth, disrupting everyday religious life. We’re unwilling to consider if God himself has ever had doubts.
Last Temptation tackles this problem with memorable lines and a wild-eyed Messiah. Perhaps Jesus is the Messiah; perhaps he’s deluded or mentally ill; the film is unclear about the stance viewers should take, although it does establish that there’s something uncanny about this man who preaches love and pulls his beating heart out of his own chest. In contrast, Last Days is far more meditative, with fewer memorable lines but more time to think about what’s been said. In this film, Yeshua is a capable carpenter and stoneworker, a man. But he is not sure of himself, nor of his purpose. He’s unnerved by the hallucinations he might have seen in the desert, and he’s discouraged by God’s seeming silence. This film feels post-apocalyptic: there is no life in the desert, only people clinging to the edge. The word apocalypse, from the Greek, means “unveiling”. Last Days traces Christ’s journey from discouragement to realization, through the darkest doubts a person can face, until it is clear to both himself and to the people around him that he is no ordinary man.
Last Days in the Desert is a tone poem about the arid beauty of the desert. It was made with a skeleton crew and a shoestring budget, but it was filmed by the gifted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (a three-time Oscar winner, best known for his work with Cuarón and Iñárritu), who traded in the long flowing takes of Gravity and Birdman for simplicity and stillness, washed-out stone and natural lighting (Lubezki’s more famous naturally lit movie, The Revenant, was filmed in 2015, a year after Last Days). The desert itself is a character, a shorthand for the emptiness and want that all humans must face at some point in their lives.
Yeshua meets a family in the desert embroiled in its own small, quiet drama, but the most interesting character in Last Days besides Yeshua is Satan. Also played by McGregor, Satan wants to see the end of everything. He’s sick of the endless infinitesimal variations that God imposes on his creation, over and over again; bored by his surroundings, he’s nevertheless eaten alive by his own curiosity about how the world will differ from “previous tellings.” Satan presents himself as arrogant and worldly, sporting jewelry and finer clothes than the things Yeshua wears, refusing to help the others build a house on the edge of a cliff. He taunts and sneers at Christ’s dogged pursuit of God’s voice. He pretends that he’s seen it all. And when Yeshua catches him interested in a shooting star at night, he brushes it off as just another in a long existence. “I’ve seen every shooting star since the first…nothing’s interesting any more.” He wants to see what the world has to offer, but he refuses to engage with the world in order to enact change.
Yeshua takes a different tack. He doesn’t know the different possibilities about what might happen with the family on the desert’s edge. He’s unable to solve a riddle that the boy of the family asks him. He’s completely human, and he feels that weight in every sleepless night, every bleary morning, every nightmare. McGregor wears Yeshua’s tiredness like it’s clothing, waking slowly in the cool of the morning, shielding himself from the heat of the sun, sitting in tired silence after a long day of work. But for all the bleakness of his situation, Yeshua is able to find the wonder and humor in it too. Few, if any, movies are willing to have their Christ struggle with his faith in one scene and laugh at a boy farting the next.
Yeshua works no miracles in this movie. There is no battle of Scripture-quoting wits between Christ and Satan, as in the passages this film is lifted from. Nor is there fiery preaching, as in Last Temptation; at one point Yeshua tells himself that examples and silence are better teachers than words. Here Yeshua is a tired traveler, a holy man who at times doubts his own holiness.
I like the idea of doubt colored by faith. It brings to mind the parable of the mustard seed, in which Christ states that someone who has faith as small as a mustard seed can still move mountains. I have days when all I can do is pray: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” It’s a desperate prayer, and an uncomfortable one, because when I pray it I admit that I don’t know if I’m right. And yet, when I pray this prayer, I admit that it doesn’t matter, and that my faith isn’t dependent on whether or not I feel like believing on a given day. It’s a freeing thought. Doubts can outnumber faithful thoughts and still not fully drown the faith out. If faith is going to prevail, it needs to bump up against doubt, acknowledge its existence, then find its way around, like a man wandering his way out of the desert.
When Last Days’ Yeshua faces off against his mirror image Satan, it’s a kind of introspection; examining the worst parts of himself and holding them up to the light. I see myself in Jesus’ reluctant acceptance of his role in the world in Last Temptation. I see myself in Yeshua’s introspective struggle in Last Days. I’m no Messiah. But one of the things I believe Christians are called to do is to enact justice and change in a broken world, and the thought of trying to perform that task and failing terrifies me. Before discovering the “Help my unbelief” passage, I didn't want to try at all.
I am no longer uncomfortable with the end of Last Days in the Desert. Like most Jesus films, it closes with a crucifixion. Satan visits to pay his respects and to offer Yeshua a way out if he wants it, which Yeshua refuses. There’s a burial scene. Women shiver outside the tomb, just as Yeshua shivered in the desert at the beginning of the film.
Then the music changes. The desert appears again, this time brighter; the plaintive violin that played throughout the bulk of the film remains measured but grows more lively. Two people in modern dress walk to the cliff on which most of the film spent its time. They take pictures of each other in front of the view, then walk away. I’d argue that, despite all appearances to the contrary, there is a resurrection scene at the end of Last Days. There’s no angel, and no dazzling white robes. But life goes on, even in the desert, the edges of the screen painted green and gold as people continue to return to the cliff’s edge. So long as there’s life, there’s hope, but Last Days states that so long as there’s life, there’s quiet doubt, too. As long as we’re willing to face the cliff head on, that life will continue.
Sarah Welch has just completed a master’s degree in the humanities at the University of Chicago. She likes theology, knitting, and shouting about science fiction.