In the Bible, God walks in gardens; He speaks from mountaintops; He works in the waters. But He tests in the wilderness.
Even His only Son.
In the extra-biblical story Last Days in the Desert, Jesus has wandered the wilderness for more than a month. He hasn’t eaten. Instead, the desert has feasted on Him—windblown pebbles and twigs stinging His face, sun pressing down like a gigantic hand. Jesus prepares for His future ministry by praying without ceasing … yet His Father is strangely silent.
If only Satan was, too.
Lucifer, a haughty doppelgänger clothed in Christ’s own form, haunts Jesus. The evil one tricks Jesus out of His water and belittles His Heavenly Father, pricking at the Savior’s body and soul like grit in a gale. He does not ask Jesus to turn stones into bread or dare Him to summon His angels: This demon preys on Jesus’ humanity, not divinity. And this Jesus knows He is the Son of God but little else; He does not remember His Father’s face, And Satan worms into areas of His uncertainty like a snake in the sand.
Then, as Jesus’ time in the desert nears its end, He comes across a small family at work building a small, stone house. The father has lived in this small corner of the desert all of his life, and he’d like very much if his son would do the same. The son has bigger dreams, though—of going to Jerusalem and sailing on a ship, of maybe becoming a doctor. For the boy, the desert is more prison than home. The mother—well, the mother is the only one keeping these two men together. And she’s dying.
Jesus accepts water from the family and intends to move on. But instead He decides to stay—to help build the house and perhaps heal the relational fractures just beginning to show. Satan, seeing the Christ display such kindness, suggests that Jesus submit to a wager: Solve the family’s problems to the satisfaction of all concerned, and Lucifer will leave the Light of the World alone through the rest of His wilderness sojourn. Untie this tangled knot, Satan says, and I will leave You be.
Our Lord does not submit in the way that you or I might. But in front of Him is still a puzzle that truly only the Divine could piece together.
Jesus isn’t the only one who wants to do what’s right, to help those around him. The members of the family he meets also seem to want what’s best for one another, even if that means setting aside their own wishes at times.
Yes, the father would like the boy to stay. But he knows that the son’s abilities are better suited and his inclinations lie outside this dusty land. He knows that his dying wife wants the boy to leave—to explore his potential in Jerusalem or some other place. Even though the son thinks the father doesn’t want him to go, the problem isn’t just stubbornness: The father also doesn’t have the money to send the boy away as an apprentice. And when he discovers something that might change all of their lives, the older man is willing to risk a great deal—everything—to make it happen.
The son, for his part, wants to honor both his father and mother. Though there’s a sad distance between them, the boy does his duty to his dad as best as he is able. We see no sign of wholesale rebellion, but we do glimpse a certain despondency that, as the years go on, is beginning to foment into resentment. Not that he wants to be resentful: It somehow seems unfair to blame him for that. But sometimes, as much as the mind wills something, the heart refuses to heel, and that resentment could indeed hold the seeds for something far worse.
Important life lessons for both sons and their fathers, of course, can be gleaned from this relationship. [Spoiler Warning] And the story eventually leads to a strange, albeit tragic, sort of reconciliation between father and son.
The movie’s executive producer, Erik Lokkesmoe, describes Last Days in the Desert as an “imagined chapter in Scripture.” It’s fiction, in other words, not wholly unlike The Young Messiah. And like Messiah, Last Days uses that fiction to ruminate on the character of Christ.
Where Messiah shows us a child growing to understand His divinity, Last Days‘ Jesus mulls His humanity. He doubts not His divinity, but His ability. He has anxious nightmares involving drowning and being attacked by wolves. He talks to Himself as we all might before an important business presentation, telling Himself that it’s best to speak through actions rather than words. He’s quite passive in His interactions with the family, refusing to offer opinions or solutions unless directly asked, and even then His advice doesn’t always work out. He does say that we are never alone and that “God speaks wherever man wants to listen.”
Though repeatedly called a holy man by the family, Jesus is no miracle worker here (even though Satan insists He could be and should be). The mother is not instantly cured when Jesus appears, and when He seems to finally want to heal her, she pushes Him away. The fractures between father and son are not seamlessly sealed. And sometimes it seems that Jesus and his own Father are in the midst of a disconnect, too. Perhaps that distance (just like the tension that separates the father and his son) is all part of the master plan—a necessary element to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and, thus, His future ministry. But there’s still a certain poignancy in the fact that the movie’s first four words come from Jesus: “Father, where are you?”
Despite God’s silence, Jesus, as mentioned, knows exactly who He is, and that big things are in store for Him. Not even Satan suggests to Jesus that He is anything less than the Son of God. And when the tempter implies that God created “others” like the Savior—perhaps referring to Apollo or Buddha or Muhammad or any number of other supposed sons of gods or paths to enlightenment—Jesus rejects the notion with a firmness He rarely shows elsewhere.
“No,” He says. “There is only Me.”
So Satan—an admitted liar—tries to find other avenues to attack this far-from-omniscient Messiah. Jesus seems to know very little about God’s character here, and Satan tells Him that God is a faceless tinkerer—one who, when you stand before Him, envelopes you so thoroughly by His essence that it’s hard to know where you end and He begins. He tells Jesus that God has created and destroyed the universe countless times before, changing a few details every time. All of creation is a plaything to God, Satan suggests, adding, “Everything matters to Him more than You.”
But Satan is, befitting the former angel Lucifer, a complex character in his own right. Even as he belittles God, there’s a certain sadness in the separation from Him that he feels. He’s furious when Jesus suggests that it was pride that brought him down. And when he sees a shooting star jet across the night sky (a reference, perhaps, to Isaiah 14:12, which reads, “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low!”), he seems moved. (Later he tells Jesus he found the celestial show to be a “bore.”)
A woman morphs into a demon. Jesus, years later, hanging on the cross, is visited by a hummingbird—the implication being that it is Satan once again. And when Jesus dies, we see the tomb with stones piled upon the entryway, sealing it off as mourners sit outside. There is no accompanying scene of Jesus’ resurrection.
Satan pretends to be the wife, appearing to Jesus topless, with only hair covering her breasts. (Jesus shies away from the sight.) There’s an implication of the son’s illegitimacy.
A dead body is seen naked (with critical areas covered with cloth). There’s talk of poisoning and a hanging. Jesus’ crucifixion scene is, like most such scenes, grisly and painful to behold. His body is bloody, and thorns pierce His brow. In the tomb, the camera lingers on the wound in His side and the nail hole in his hand. [Spoiler Warning] Someone falls to his death, and we see the body careen down a cliff face. Blood stains the corpse.
One use of “h—” as an exclamation.
It seems that the father is drunk one evening by the fire.
While Jesus and the son are out in the wilderness together, the son crouches beside a dead wolf; he noisily passes gas, and both he and Jesus laugh.
Introducing the movie during an advance screening, Erik Lokkesmoe told those present that we’ve already seen movies depicting the Son of God (perhaps a reference to the 2014 movie of that same name). Last Days in the Desert, he said, was about the Son of Man.
Therein lies both this movie’s beauty and blemishes.
It’s difficult for us to hold with equal weight the truth of Jesus being fully human and fully divine. These two elements seem, in our mortal understanding, contradictory. Theologically we believe this paradox to be true, of course. We know that Jesus suffered and died, that he got tired and hungry and footsore. But often, I think, we forget. For many of us, Jesus is forever clad in bleach-white robes, a look of peace and mercy upon His face. Scores of paintings and many movies reflect that sense of divinity. They emphasize that even while physically on the earth with us, He was set apart from us in some spiritually mysterious way.
Last Days in the Desert forces us to consider the humanity of Jesus in ways that can be challenging and, at times, unnerving. It’s one thing to read in Luke that Jesus was tempted in the desert. It’s another to consider what that might have looked and felt like. It’s one thing to learn that Jesus, while on the cross, asked His Father why He had forsaken Him. It’s another to see our Savior doubt Himself in more mundane, human ways.
Lokkesmoe admits that Last Days in the Desert is not your typical “Christian” movie. That it’s not an evangelical tool in the way that, say, Risen is. That it’s not out to fortify the faith of believers, like the God’s Not Dead movies try to do. It is, Lokkesmoe says, intended to be a catalyst for conversation. And in that respect it succeeds, perhaps even wildly so. One could indeed converse about what we see in here for hours, if not days.
But in that approach lurks failure, too, for there is much to argue about. Satan’s view of God is naturally damning—fitting for the Prince of Lies, of course, but potentially damaging to those who absorb his mendacities without a firm grasp on their own faith. And while showcasing Jesus’ humanity is thought-provoking, the film does so at the expense of His divinity: To concentrate on His death while completely ignoring His resurrection feels like more than an unfortunate oversight.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.