THE INSCRIPTION ON Nikos Kazantzakis'
tomb in Heraklion, Greece reads:
I hope for nothing.I fear nothing.I
The same inscription could have been placed on Jesus' tomb had they
buried him in Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ. Kazantzakis
draws a compelling image of Jesus as a human who struggles to find his
divine calling, and who in struggling finds the freedom to hope for
nothing and fear nothing. This is an image of the Human One by which
we cannot help but be inspired.
If you are accustomed to Jesus as he is portrayed in the Gospels, Kazantzakis'
Jesus will be shocking. He is a troubled young man, attacked by pains
that mimic bird's claws, nagged by his mother, and disappointed in his
father. But most striking is how really unsure he is of his divine calling.
In true human form, the main character's identity is so ambiguous in
the first chapters of the novel that he is referred to only in generic
terms such as the young man, the sleeper, or the youth. He speaks of
"a way", but is unsure of what way this might be.
His struggle, and likewise ours, if self-awareness might allow us to
admit, is constant. "I am wrestling," Jesus tells Judas. "With
whom?" "I don't know
I'm wrestling." The temptations
with which Jesus wrestles throughout his life are varied, but similar
in their attempts to distract him from his calling. Unable to ignore
God's digging claws, Jesus leaves home to hide from God in a desert
monastery. On the way, the aroma of baking bread and the sight of harvest
vegetables remind him of the comforts of a domestic life, a life which
he often dreams of living with Mary Magdalene; he hurries with even
more purpose to evade these temptations. Instead of a hiding place within
the monastery, however, he finds a confessor to whom he is able to admit
not only his carnal temptations but also his pity for the suffering
In listening to the call of his heart, rather than the demons of his
fears, Jesus begins to emerge from the shell of this young, previously
generic man. His stirred heart overflows with love for the tortured
souls he sees in those around him. Jesus' public ministry begins when
he saves Magdalene from being stoned. His "clawing look" stirs
inner reflection in her attackers, destroying their certainty that she
is the only sinner among them.
this point on, Jesus recognizes that God has conquered him. But it isn't
an unambiguous conquest. Just as the lost young man of the earlier chapters
is easy to identify with, so is this conquered, but unsure Jesus. A
potential candidate for Toastmasters, he struggles to find the courage
to speak in front of assembled groups. While Judas is convinced of the
need for militancy, Jesus' guiding image changes from the heart, to
the sword, to the cross. It is as if having said yes to the initial
call, Jesus walks into a new land where the paths are no more clear,
and fears no less alive. What has changed is that his intention is more
This pattern continues throughout the novel. Jesus continues to move
forward in faith in spite of his fears, even when he realizes that the
cross rather than military victory is in the forecast. When his final
and greatest temptation comes on the cross, we see not only how strong
the pull to lead a 'normal' life has been for Jesus, but also how truly
Jesus wants to serve God. Every step in his life is a struggle to freedom,
not freedom from struggle, but freedom in struggle.
I enjoyed reading about this ambiguous youth as an option to the Jesus
stories from the Gospels. More accustomed to a Jesus confident in his
role as God's son, I found it cathartic to read about the indecision
and avoidance of a young man to whom I could relate, first in his identity
crisis and then in his struggle to be courageous in the presence of
Although I don't feel God's clawing call to introduce a new paradigm
to the world, I have been called to bring a new perspective to my world.
As small as this task may seem, the temptation to slip on the tarnished
glasses of cynicism and depression is great for me. Having recently
drawn up a personal mission statement which sites "seeing with
eyes of hope" as my main goal, I am daily aware of how short I
fall. I am the generic one, struggling to choose the call to consciousness
- refusing to resort to the temptation of the habitual.
Kazantzakis wanted to offer "a supreme model to the man who struggles;
I wanted to show him that he must not fear pain, temptation or death
- because all three can be conquered, all three have already been conquered."
Almost as much as finding hope in Kazantzakis' Jesus, Kazantzakis himself
inspires me. I see in both the determination to not give up, to believe
in spite of fear, to struggle in spite of pain.
Kazantzakis never intended on writing a historical biography of Jesus.
He wrote to describe the human struggle of existence and the hope which
breaks through, as modeled by Christ. The greatest gift of Kazantzakis'
Jesus is the model of a human being who, like us, struggles to follow
the call of God, and who in the struggle finds freedom.
Kazantzakis, Nikos. The Last Temptation
of Christ. London: Faber and Faber, 1988. 518 pages.
If you have been challenged by a book on
Jesus, post your response on our literature messageboard.
Respond to the author here
(responses may be posted).