Chances are that if you liked The Bible miniseries that aired on The History Channel last year, you’ll like the upcoming film Son of God. The film, composed of scenes from the miniseries focusing on the life of Jesus Christ, is due for a theatrical release on February 28. The original miniseries was a smash hit, reaching over 100 million cumulative viewers and setting TV-to-DVD records.
Now, married Christian producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey hope to repeat the same success with Son of God. But fans of the original miniseries will notice that one crucial character has been cut out of the film entirely: the Devil. “It gives me great pleasure to tell you that the devil is on the cutting-room floor.” Downey said in a statement, “This is now a movie about Jesus, the son of God, and the devil gets no more screen time.”
When The Bible first aired, the scenes with Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness went viral due to actor Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni’s uncanny resemblance to President Obama (you can judge for yourself using the photo above). The miniseries’ producers were forced to address the controversy by saying any resemblance was coincidental. “Both Mark and I have nothing but respect and love our President, who is a fellow Christian,” Downey said at the time. In light of the controversy last year, some might sat the removal of Ouazanni’s scenes makes business sense and maybe even evangelical sense. The political controversy would distract from the producers’ stated goal of bringing the message of Jesus Christ to the masses.
Those arguments would be easier to swallow if Downey’s comments didn’t delight so much in the removal of Satan (a “great pleasure”) while simultaneously revealing critical flaws in her understanding of Satan’s role in the Gospel narrative. “This is now a movie about Jesus,” she said, as though it wasn’t one with Satan in it. The entire tenor of the statement wasn’t that an Obama-looking devil was a distraction from the message of Son of God; it’s that Satan himself was a distraction. “For our movie, Son of God, I wanted all of the focus to be on Jesus.” she writes in a USA Today op-ed, “I want his name to be on the lips of everyone who sees this movie, so we cast Satan out.”
In reality, Satan and the temptation in the wilderness is pivotal to both the narrative of the Gospels and our theological understandings of Christ Himself. Theologically, Jesus’ facing temptation was necessary in order for Him to be fully human. As Hebrews tells us, Jesus was “tempted in every way, just as we are- yet he did not sin.” It isn’t simply happenstance that Jesus faced temptation. If Jesus hadn’t faced temptation of any sort, His sacrifice on the cross, His unselfish ministry to the poor and sick, and His sinless nature all would have been unremarkable. Jesus essentially becomes an Asimov robot, only doing good works because He is programmed to do so. How could mankind relate to a Savior like that?
(Christology nerds will recognize that this temptation-less view of Jesus is essentially monothelitism, the belief that Jesus’ human will was always at one with His divine will. Monothelitism was declared a heresy less than fifty years after it was first formulated in 638 A.D.)
Christology aside, the Temptation of Christ at the hands of Satan also plays a key role in the narrative of the Gospels, something filmmakers in particular ought to appreciate. In the three Gospels in which it appears, the temptation in the wilderness always occurs before Christ’s ministry begins. Satan tests Christ’s resolve by encouraging Him to use His powers over Creation for selfish reasons, which Christ ultimately rejects. It’s a pivotal moment, one in which Jesus full-heartedly embraces the role He was born to play. Without 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus begins His ministry and the path to crucifixion almost whimsically, without any reflection of the massive sacrifice it entails.
It’s also important to the greater Biblical narrative not just that Jesus is tempted, but that Satan does so personally. For one thing, it telegraphs Jesus’ importance in the greater scheme of things that the Prince of Darkness himself steps up to bat. Also, the only other people tempted face-to-face by Satan in the Bible are Adam and Eve, who were also sinless at the time. In the wilderness, Jesus faces the same decision they faced, to turn against the will of God out of pride, but rejects in. The scene is therefore something of a rebuttal of the original sin, and a sign that its blemish on mankind is soon to be rectified through Jesus’ sacrifice. (This parallel was not lost on other directors of Gospel films. In The Last Temptation of Christ, Satan appears in the wilderness as a cobra. The Passion of the Christ takes place after Jesus’ time in the desert, but still has Satan personally tempting Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and with a snake to boot.)
Perhaps I’m making too much of one minor aspect of Son of God. But the decision to leave Satan on the cutting-room floor is symptomatic of a much greater problem in modern Christianity. Downey’s view that Satan’s existence is a “distraction” from Jesus’ story instead of the entire reason for Jesus’ story is all too common in mainstream denominations, in practice if not necessarily in theology. Perhaps the most recent example was the Church of England’s flirtation with removing any mention of Satan and sin from its baptism rites.
Evangelism is much easier when the only discussions are about love, forgiveness, and self-affirmation. Love your neighbor, God loves you no matter what; those parts of Jesus’ message poll pretty well among general audiences. Satan, sin, and an eternal Hell? Not so much. What results far too often is a kind of “feel-good Christianity,” with lots of loving the sinner, not too much hating the sin, and certainly no discussion of that guy with horns and a pitchfork you see in cartoons. In actuality, the Jesus of the Gospels spends a lot of time talking about why you should love your neighbors and give up earthly possessions: because the wage of sin is eternal damnation.
Jesus Christ certainly didn’t shirk away from attributing sin to demonic influences, either. There was all those exorcisms, of course. But perhaps the most telling incident appears in three of the Gospels, when Peter inadvertently tempts Jesus by saying He didn’t need to die. Jesus famously responds to Peter (in the much cooler-sounding KJV), “Get thee behind me, Satan! Thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” Just imagine the backlash a prominent Christian would receive today for suggesting anyone was speaking on behalf of Satan, let alone a fellow Christian. But Jesus doesn’t hesitate to ascribe even well-intentioned thinking from his head disciple to satanic influence.
Sometime in the Middle Ages, the superstition arose that speaking of the Devil would cause him to appear. “Speak of the devil” is still said in jest today, but it appears a new generation of Christians has taken the old adage to heart. No doubt the producers of Son of God mean well, and it’s certainly refreshing to see a film about Jesus driven by two people who genuinely love God and care about the subject matter. But as Jesus’ admonition to Peter makes clear, even well-meaning Christians devoted to Him can err in their thinking, and even when he isn’t onscreen, Satan can still be lurking beneath the surface.