The Last Temptation of Christ of Martin Scorsese in the Context of the Individuation Process

The Last Temptation of Christ, the controversial film of Martin Scorsese from 1988, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, provoked a vehement reactions from conservative Christians, which was not in the least caused with its last part, which gave the name both to the novel and the film.

The Last Temptation of Christ, the controversial film of Martin Scorsese from 1988, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, provoked a vehement reactions from conservative Christians, which was not in the least caused with its last part, which gave the name both to the novel and the film. This is the last temptation of Christ happened on the cross in the dark hours in the middle of the day, when Jesus felt himself forsaken by God, the experience which is also recorded in the canonical Gospels in the New Testament. The film used this fact to give Satan an opportunity for the last temptation of Christ as an essentially new element. So the term 'Christ,' which psychologically symbolizes the Self, is better than Jesus, despite the fact that the hero is in the film presented as the earthly man given very realistically. But while the Self has its dark and bright part exceeding the ego from both sides, in the film Christ represents only the bright side of the Self, which only in the last part comes into relationship with the feminine element. This process can be also seen as the approaching of 'dogmatic' Christ toward the human nature with its dark side, whose dynamic is particularly present in the quotation from the novel of Nikos Kazantzakis The Last Temptation, the part of which also found its way in Scorsese's film:

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

Within me are the dark immemorial forces of the Evil One, human and pre-human; within me too are the luminous forces, human and pre-human, of God - and my soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met. (Kazantzakis 1988, p. 7)

Kazantzakis also speaks of 'the mystery of Christ' which is 'not simply the mystery for a particular creed,' because 'it is universal':

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. The struggle between God and man breaks out in everyone, together with the longing for reconciliation. Most often this struggle is unconscious and short-lived....

The strongest the soul and the flesh, the more fruitful the struggle and the richer final harmony. God does not love weak souls and flabby flesh. The Spirit wants to have to wrestle with flesh which is strong and full of resistance. It is carnivorous bird which is incessantly hungry; it eats flesh and by assimilating it, makes it disappear. (Ibid., p. 7f.)

This colorful description, despite been in sharp opposition to the last part of the film, pictures the atmosphere of The Last Temptation of Christ, where Christ-figure represents more a conflict then protection and certainty, contrary to our contemporary 'happy smiling Christianity,' which represents not so small part of Corpus Cristi today. The earlier quotation from Kazantzakis' book also outlines the kind of individuation process given in the Book of Revelation from 1st century A.D., which is structured from the same mythologem which is already present in 6th century B.C. in the so-called Suffering Servant Songs included into the Book of Isaiah.

After this introduction I will say something about the Christ-figure given in the first part of the film which is the peculiar mixture of the historical and traditional facts with the new elements, all taken very realistically. As the commentators observed, Christ is given as frail, uncertain human being, and in that context the title The Last Temptation of Jesus would be more appropriate. From the other side, 'Christ,' which psychologically represents the Self, points to the suffering of the whole psyche, not only of its more conscious part. In the film Christ is uncertain of his real vocation, of what God really wants of him, to the very end. This is to some measure also present in the canonical Gospels, where his destiny and vocation to be sacrificially crucified for the humanity, came only later to him. In The Last Temptation of Christ his destiny is unconsciously present in the very beginning as his almost compulsive making of the crosses for Romans, the same crosses on them they crucified Jews. Since Christ himself is active in these crucifixions, Judah accuses him for the collaboration with the Romans, and ironically also to be the traitor of Jews.

Maria Magdalena even spits on his face for this (and for other things too). They were together from the childhood, and when Christ decided to merry her, God forbid it. This turned Mary to a prostitute with a mixed feeling of love and embitterment, and even rage, toward Jesus. Yet this new element points more to the transformation of the anima and its relation toward the masculine ego in the Christian psychology, especially the medieval, then to the historical situation of Jesus' time. In fact, this can be seen as the symbolization of the secular collective process which Christianity introduced into the Western world, and which also today, despite been regressed into the background, still colors the Western psyche. On the individual level this can be seen as the first phase of the individuation process already given in Isaiah's Suffering Servant Songs and Revelation, characterized with the differentiation of polarities through their separation to the very end of the process. This separation, which brings to the maximal tension, seems to be a necessary condition for the later integration of the bright and dark side of the psyche when in the process are included its deepest layers. In that case the anima necessary regresses into the unconscious and there is contaminated with the activated 'impure,' that is, the indiscriminate shadow parts. In accordance with it in The Last Temptation of Christ, as well as in Revelation and Servant Songs, after the complete separation of the polarities, in the second part comes to the enantiodromia, to the great reversal prepared in the unconscious, but in the film in a totally different way then in the Bible.

In accordance with it in the first part of the film dominates an another pair: Christ and redheaded Judas Iscariot, Christ's alter ego. They are closely related from the beginning to the end, where Judas psychologically corresponds to Christ's shadow, exactly the part of it, active in a conscious and extroverted way. Judas is an active revolutionary type, a member of the extremist Zealot party which with all means fought to overthrow Romans. There is one scene in which Judas claims that first must be reformed the outside world and then the interior, while Christ persists on the opposite process. This is a clear illustration of the extroverted and introverted mentality and their conflict. In difference to Christ, in Judas is not visible any trace of uncertainty; he is not dependent, like Christ, on the unclear or unformed God's will, which is for him present in his political program. Still, this is so only on a surface, which later brings Judas on Christ's side confronting him with his party. He is stronger then Christ, which beg Judas to betray him so that God's plan of the joining God and Man can be accomplished. Judas says that he cannot do it, and asks Christ, would he do it if he were on his place, on which Christ replies that he wouldn't, 'therefore he got the easier part of the job.' Psychologically speaking, here is the shadow stronger then the ego, which situation seems more in accordance with our time then with the beginning of the Christian era. The shadow figure here cooperates and helps, and he is not 'the device in the Satan's hand' as in the New Testament, which is also more in accordance with the modern situation. Yet, today the 'cooperation' of the shadow is not so often present in this kind of the individuation process, where it is, as a rule, reserved for its later part.

After the presentation of the first part of the film, there is left the last temptation of Christ and its posible symbolism. This last temptation happened to him in the film while been crucified on the cross. In that context it is worth quoting the conclusion of Edward Edinger present in his late book The New God-image: A Study of Jung's Key Letters Concerning the Evolution of the Western God-Image:

The image of Christ on the cross carries a reference beyond itself. Since it happens on the post-mortal plane, it can foreshadow an experience that can happen on the mortal, conscious plane sometime in the future. (Edinger 1996, p. 59)

This is a comment of Jung's letter:

The symbolic history of the Christ's life shows, as the essential teleological tendency, the crucifixion, viz., the union of Christ with the symbol of the tree. It is no longer a matter of an impossible reconciliation of Good and Evil, but of man with his vegetative (= unconscious) life. In the case of Christian symbol the tree however is dead and man upon the Cross is going to die, i.e., the solution of the problem takes place after death. That is so far as Christian truth goes. But is it posible .... In this case the post-mortal solution would be symbolic of an entirely new psychological status ... which is certainly a oneness, presumably that of the Anthropos. (Ibid.)

In accordance with it Christ in the film is, with the help of his 'guardian angel' in the shape of a young girl which is Lucifer or Satan himself, taken from the dead tree and brought into the beautiful green valley. There he sees Mary Magdalene in a white long wedding dress with his suite going to the marriage. This is the Christ's own marriage of almost a mystical kind, appropriately coming as after his death and resurrection, uniting the life and death, masculine and feminine elements, and the conscious and unconscious parts of the psyche. But the marriage in placed in a crude, 'primitive' earthly reality, which can be the reason that God comes and takes away pregnant Mary. In the context of the individuation process this means that the integration of the pregnant unconsciousness cannot be accomplished in that way. The film masterfully presents the problem of the integration, the tension in the Self approaching toward consciousness, with two aspects simultaneously coming into the world: as the late pregnancy of Mary, pointing on the immediate childbirth, and the coming of God in a strong light. Also, from the psychological point, Mary Magdalene was very appropriately placed into the huge but wretched hut made of a wooden sticks full of the gaps, symbolizing the psychic structure too weak and, still worse, intrinsically too large, to integrate the Self on this level; therefore Mary dies together with the child before its delivery. This situation also calls in mind Jung's observation:

God wants to be born in the flame of man's consciousness, leaping ever higher. And what if this has no roots in the earth? If it is not a house of stone where the fire of God can dwell, but a wretched straw hut that flares up and vanishes? Could God then be born? One must be able to suffer God. That is the supreme task for the carrier of ideas. He must be advocate of the earth. (Odajnyk 1993, p. 74f.)

This suffering of, or for, God is strangely absent from the rest of this last part of The Last Temptation of Christ, where in place of the suffering came contentment, and instead of earlier wooden house came the more solid house made of earth. But first, after falling in rage, Christ accepts the short explanation of his guardian angel that God gives, and takes away. In fact the young girl says to Jesus: 'Why are you angry. You can't do nothing. Thrust God's way.' She also explains to him: 'There is only one woman in the world, one woman with many faces. This one falls, next one raises. But Mary, Lazarus' sister, she is Magdalene with different face.' This clearly points to the anima. In fact, we have here a regression into her more archaic state after the failed integration. Therefore in The Last Temptation of Christ Mary Magdalene can be compared to some degree with Helen from Goethe's Faust. But, while Magdalene represents the second, romantic stage of the anima in Jung's classification, Helen can be seen as the mixture of the last three stages, especially of the romantic and wisdom stage. Therefore in Faust the individuation process goes further, hence Faust and Helen have a child, Euphorion, but he soon leaves the earth, and Helen takes his way shortly after him. Though we can say that here the individuation process goes further, especially because of its further conscious structuring, it does not include the deepest layers, which can be the real reason for the death of the old rustic couple, Philemon and his wife Baucis. Also the final transformation of Faust is left in the medieval Christian world with Mephistopheles not integrated, or even transformed, shadow part of the Self. Yet, we cannot be too critical toward Goethe and his opus magnum traditionally completed in death, since even Jung did not include, let alone integrate, the most archaic parts of the psyche in his model.

In the film, contrary to this development, Christ, after the death of Mary Magdalene, lives with another Mary, one of Lazarus' two sisters, with whom he has a lot of children. Mary and her sister Martha are here presented as the realistic, down-to-earth women, always doing some works in the house made of earth, therefore symbolizing the first stage of the anima: the earthy woman, here fragmented into two halves. So when Mary is absent, Martha comes to Jesus, who stretched on the earth 'enjoys life for the first time,' and calls him into the house. The guardian angel, also laying by Jesus, repeats him that there is only one woman in the world with many faces, and then we see that the family is enlarged.

All this points to the regression into the early polygamous stage, this time in conformity with Jesus' 'simple and primitive way of life.' The fact the two Jesus' wives are sisters also speaks for the inclusion of the endogamous libido, which goes together with the disappearance of the individual into the collective archaic life, which in the film in fact happened to Jesus.

Thus here again is confirmed the peculiarity of Scorcese's film as been a mixture of the traditional and new elements, which in psychological context more provokes the thinking of a posible solution of the integration process, especially in its deepest form, than it presents the solution. In that context the film, which deals with 'the eternal conflict in the human soul,' represents the individuation process which failed in the early stage and than (fortunately) regressed into the most primitive stage. In that context the 'last temptation' is rightly called so - since it brings into a regression as the permanent state. Therefore in the end of his 'ordinary earthly life,' when awaking on the cross, Christ is happy seeing that he is really crucified, saying in the very end of the film: 'It is accomplished.'

Yet from the deeper aspect this is also the solution which symbolizes the individuation process already given in Isaiah's Suffering Servant Songs, and later in the Book of Revelation, characterized with the differentiation of the polarities through their separation to the very end, which seems to be a necessary condition for their later integration when the deepest layers of the psyche are included. But in that case the suffering on the cross, symbolizing the prolonged and mysteries second death present in Revelation, would be only the beginning of the repeated individuation process with a long way toward the realization of Christ's last sentence. In that context also Christ's triadic relationship acquires much deeper meaning pointing toward the archetypal structure, for which speaks no smaller personalities then Martin Luther, and especially C.G. Jung, in whose life this triadic structure seems to be permanently present. The archetypal basis for this triadic relationship, whether in a symmetrical or asymmetrical arrangement, can be also connected with the mythologem of the individuation process which includes the deepest aspects of the psyche, causing the repetition of the opus, and also the 'duality' of the two layers of the collective unconscious, symbolized, for example, in the Servant Songs with Israel and the Gentiles, which together with the Servant form the triadic structure. But this triadic arrangement as the posible archetypal structure would be analyzed in another assay.


Edinger, E. F. (1996). The New God-image: A Study of Jung's Key Letters Concerning the Evolution of the Western God-Image. Wilmette: Chiron Publications.

Kazantzakis, N. (1988). The Last Temptation. London: Faber and Faber.

Odajnyk, W. V. (1993). Gathering the Light: A Psychology of Meditation. Boston & London: Shambala.