Scripture tells us that Jesus was tempted to sin on various occasions.  For instance, Luke records his repeated temptations by the devil (Luke 4).  And the writer of Hebrews says regarding Jesus that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Heb. 4:15).  However, given Jesus’ moral perfection—the fact that he had no sinful nature and was in fact divine—how can it be said that Jesus was genuinely tempted?  Isn’t temptation something that only sinners can experience?

While there are many ways to deal with this, my approach is as follows.  First, we need to ask what constitutes a “temptation” and then ask whether a morally impeccable (human) being could satisfy the requirements.  As I see it, these are the necessary (and jointly sufficient) conditions for genuine temptation:

1. A situation or context in which a person, S, could physically perform a particular action, X.

2. Doing X would be morally wrong (in this context).

3. S finds X attractive in some sense.

It seems to me that if these three conditions are satisfied, then you have a genuine temptation.  Now notice that none of them presuppose that the person tempted is morally imperfect or sinful.  In fact, a morally perfect person, even a God-man, could satisfy each of these criteria.  And, in the case of Jesus that’s just what we see in several instances when Jesus is tempted in the desert.  When, for example, the devil tempts him to “tell this stone to become bread” (Luke 4:3):  (1) this is something that Jesus could physically do, (2) doing this would be wrong in this context, and (3) Jesus finds the proposed action attractive (since he is so hungry).

So as with most temptations, the action in question is not categorically wrong (wrong in all contexts) but simply wrong in a certain context.  (Compare: extra-marital sex is wrong, though sex within marriage is good and even a marital obligation).  So it is not moral imperfection that is a key ingredient for human temptation so much as a particular context, combined with a certain attractiveness and ability to carry out the action.

Note my stipulation of physical ability to do X.  The reason I am careful to make this qualification is because I don’t believe it was metaphysically possible for Jesus to sin. Given his divinity, he would never sin.  This is what prompts some people to question the genuineness of the temptations of Jesus.  But that is to impose an overly strict condition on a definition of temptation.  In ordinary human experience, all that is necessary for temptation is the three conditions noted above.  So the addition of a further condition (such as that the person tempted must be a sinner or that giving into the temptation must be metaphysically possible) would be superfluous.

This is just a rough sketch of how I would handle this difficult question regarding the temptation of Jesus.


25 Responses to “How Could Jesus be Tempted?”


  1. Norman Rowe

     

    Excellent point Dr. Furthermore, Jesus was tempted in every way we are and more. We will never know the full force of his temptation because we have given in to sin and temptation and have not resisted to the end. Some may want to write off his resistance to the fact that he was God and think he had it easy. As a man he resisted to the end and felt and bore the full weight of temptation that we will never know. What a great High Priest. Cheers.

    Reply
  2. Marc Belcastro

     

    Dr. Spiegel:

    Your proposed criteria are intriguing, but I’d like to raise a worry regarding the conjunction of (1) and your final stipulation toward the end. If I interpret you correctly, you’re suggesting that when X is some sinful (or morally wrong) action, it was physically within Jesus’s power to perform X but not metaphysically within His power to perform X. But, with respect to any agent S and some other action Y, if it’s metaphysically impossible for S to perform Y, how can it be physically possible for S to perform Y? It seems to me that Y‘s being metaphysically impossible for S precludes its being physically possible for S. For if there are no possible worlds in which S performs Y, that entails that there are no possible worlds in which S performs Y.

    What do you think about the approach to the issue which Craig appears to favor? (I do indeed beg your pardon for continuing if you’re already familiar with the following.) Judging by what he’s said (or written) on various occasions, I think he accepts some Frankfurt cases and so attempts to use the intuition motivating such cases to account for how Jesus could’ve experienced genuine temptation even while being impeccable.

    In connection to Kaitlyn’s question, Craig basically denies that Jesus had the ability to do otherwise in certain circumstances. (As an aside, I’m persuaded to think that Jesus probably had the ability to do otherwise in certain other circumstances.) His inability to do otherwise (in certain circumstances) doesn’t eliminate His being free because, Craig contends, the capacity to do otherwise isn’t a necessary condition for freedom, though it might be sufficient. In Craig’s estimation, the absence of causal constraint is necessary for freedom, not the ability to do otherwise. So as long as Jesus’s choice wasn’t causally constrained, His having only one course of action to pursue is consistent with His having acted freely. That is, even if He had only one action available to Him to perform, His freedom wasn’t compromised. This presumably allows Craig to retain Jesus’s impeccability, His freedom, and the scriptural affirmation that He experienced temptation.

    I find Craig’s thesis attractive, though there are days, I admit, when my stronger libertarian intuitions incline me (indeterminstically, of course) not to relinquish the condition of being able to do otherwise. But the advantages of his view may counterbalance or ultimately override those intuitions, for I wonder if we’re forced to adopt something like Craig’s view when considering the problems associated with divine freedom.

    — Marc

    Reply
  3. Louis

     

    This is textbook cognitive dissonance reduction. Why not just chalk it up to divine mystery as is done with all other contradictions within the Christian faith? The divine omniscience escape clause is at least logically consistent.

    Reply
  4. Marc Belcastro

     

    Louis:

    Do you have a particular argument in mind which motivates the assertion that Dr. Spiegel’s account suffers from “textbook cognitive dissonance reduction”? Could you elaborate?

    — Marc

    Reply
  5. Josh

     

    Interesting post. I wonder what you’d think of this concern. Let ‘g’ name the proposition God Incarnate refrains from strangling innocent children to death for fun. For any proposition p, let ‘N(p)’ name the proposition It is metaphysically necessary that p.

    (1) N(g) [Premise]
    (2) N(No one, in any sense of ‘ability,’ has the ability to do something that would render a metaphysically necessary truth false) [Premise]
    (3) Therefore, N(no one, in any sense of ‘ability,’ has the ability to do something that would render g false) [from 1, 2].
    (4) Therefore, N(it is false that Jesus has the ability, in some sense of ‘ability,’ to do something that would render g false) [from 3].
    (5) N(Jesus strangling an innocent child to death for fun would render g false) [Premise].
    (6) Therefore, N(it is false that Jesus has the ability, in some sense of ‘ability,’ to strangle an innocent child to death for fun) [from 4, 5].

    This argument might make trouble for the truth of your claim that Jesus was physically able to do morally wrong things. The first premise is plausible. The second premise merely tells us that it is not within any one’s power to make it false that 2=2 or that whatever is blue is colored. Premise five also seems pretty intuitive.

    I myself am not yet persuaded by this argument, though getting around it is very difficult. I wonder what premise you would reject.

    –Josh

    Reply
  6. Marc Belcastro

     

    Josh:

    Hey there. Since you’re unpersuaded by the argument, which premise(s) are you inclined to reject?

    Am I right to assume that, in (5), there aren’t possibly any countervailing or surmounting goods which strangling the child for fun would bring about? I’m guessing so, because a “hidden” possibility of that sort would seemingly render the fun of the strangulation a means and not an end, and your argument seems to present it as an (and the only) end.

    — Marc

    Reply
  7. Louis

     

    Marc,

    Do you have a particular argument in mind which motivates the assertion that Dr. Spiegel’s account suffers from “textbook cognitive dissonance reduction”? Could you elaborate?

    The Christology assumed by Dr. Spiegel’s account is that Jesus was both 100% human and 100% divine. Do you care to explain how that can be so in logical terms?

    Reply
  8. Kaitlyn Dugan

     

    Dr. Spiegel –

    I meant to say “had” not “has” … I’d love your thoughts. I have nothing to add to the above discussion, I just wanted your opinion concerning Jesus’ freedom in light of the fact that He is the fullness of God’s self-revelation, confessed by the Church in faith to be the living and eternal Word now made flesh in the Incarnation.

    Also, this is an excellent post and I thought you’d enjoy it since it is film + theology – two of the best things ever! :) http://derevth.blogspot.com/2010/10/2010-kbbc-week-2-day-1.html

    Grace and peace,
    Kaitlyn

    Reply
  9. Jim Spiegel

     

    Kaitlyn,

    I don’t know if Jesus has the power of contrary choice. But if he does, it need not include the capacity to choose sinfully. It need only include the power to choose among multiple morally good options.

    Reply
  10. Jim Spiegel

     

    Josh,

    Thanks for your very interesting response to my account. To answer your question, I wouldn’t reject any of your premises, as I think your argument is sound. But I don’t think the conclusion refutes my account. In fact it affirms what I am quite happy to affirm, namely that Jesus could never do such a thing as strangle a child for fun. You say, “this argument might make trouble for the truth of your claim that Jesus was physically able to do morally wrong things.” Notice that my account merely stipulates that Jesus must be physically able to do certain things which _when performed in a certain context_ would constitute a sinful action. However, since it’s metaphysically impossible for Jesus to sin, he never _would_ perform such an action. Thus, again, your conclusion is true.

    What you’re argument reveals is that my account proceeds on the assumption of a free agency view of freedom, where a person is free if she is able to act according to her choice. Jesus is always free in this sense, I think, including situations where he is tempted. _If he chose_ to speak the words “Stone, become bread,” he could do so in the sense that he was physically able to use his mouth, tongue, and lungs to utter those words. But given the context and, therefore, the meaning and import of such a sentence, he _would not choose_ to utter those words at that time and place. If this is unsatisfying to you, then perhaps it is because you hold to a different (e.g., libertarian) conception of freedom. For all I know, Jesus has the power of contrary choice within the realm of good choices. But if it is metaphysically impossible for him to sin, this power cannot include sinful options.

    Reply
  11. Jim Spiegel

     

    Marc,

    I trust my remarks in response to Josh’s argument suffice to address your worry about my account. As for Craig’s approach, it seems to dovetail well with mine.

    Reply
  12. Jim Spiegel

     

    Louis,

    My account does indeed assume the traditional, orthodox view that Jesus was both human and divine, but it is a (common but egregious) mistake to interpret this as affirming that Jesus was both 100% human and 100% divine. Such would indeed be a contradiction. To be precise, the orthodox view (found in the Creed of Chalcedon) affirms that Jesus was FULLY human and FULLY divine, but this simply means that he possessed all of the qualities necessary for membership in the class of humans AND all of the qualities necessary for membership in the class of divine things (of which God is one of a kind). And there is nothing in this that involves a contradiction. For a superb treatment of this issue and other related matters, see Thomas Morris’s excellent book The Logic of God Incarnate.

    Reply
  13. Louis

     

    Jim,

    There are well-respected orthodox theologians who disagree with your semantical claim. Take John Piper, for example, who states:

    Having seen the biblical basis that Jesus is both God and man, the second truth that we must recognize is that each of Christ’s natures is full and complete. In other words, Jesus is fully God and fully man. Another helpful way to say it is that Jesus is 100% God and 100% man.

    You can play the semantics game all you like, but the contradiction maintains. Theologians such as John Hick have freely acknowledged the overt contradiction and have refuted Morris’s two-minds account. Says Hick:

    Neither the intense christological debates of the centuries leading up to the Council of Chalcedon, nor the renewed christological debates of the 19th and 20th Centuries, have succeeded in squaring the circle by making intelligible the claim that one who was genuinely and unambiguously a man was also genuinely and unambiguously God.

    John Loftus also provides a nice summary here.

    Reply
  14. Marc Belcastro

     

    Louis:

    Presenting a question to Dr. Spiegel’s account doesn’t constitute an argument against his account, nor does it provide an argument on behalf of your assertion. So I’m not sure that your criticism has been justified.

    I agree with Dr. Spiegel that Morris’s work on the Incarnation is excellent. For a brief introduction to Morris’s view, you might consider this article at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. That article also contains introductions to the views of other prominent Christian philosophers, such as Marilyn McCord Adams and Eleonore Stump. And for a slightly expanded but very concise treatment, have a look at the last chapter of Morris’s Our Idea of God.

    — Marc

    Reply
  15. Jim Spiegel

     

    Louis,

    Piper didn’t write those words you attributed to him. That piece on the Desiring God website was posted by someone named Matt Perman. He certainly is not a “well-respected theologian” (but rather the “senior director of strategy” at the DG ministries: http://www.whatsbestnext.com/about/).

    Also, please don’t accuse me of semantical game playing, as if I’m being insincere or intending to deceive. You are familiar enough with philosophy to know that half the battle is clarifying the language and defining our terms. Besides, you were the one who misrepresented the orthodox view with that phrase in the first place. I simply corrected your misrepresentation.

    Reply
  16. Josh

     

    Marc,

    I might take issue with premises (2), although I really don’t know what to say about the argument yet. I wouldn’t have thought that it was for lack of raw physical power that Jesus didn’t strangle innocent children. He had the physical strength to pull it off. That, in certain moods at least, seems to me enough to confer on him a sense in which he has the power to choke innocent children. In Jesus’ case, however, his raw power is necessarily checked by wisdom. Leibniz tried to distinguish metaphysical necessity from moral necessity. The former he regarded as a ‘blind necessity,’ a necessity grounded in no fashion on the free choices of a substance. The latter, however, he regarded as a ‘happy necessity,’ one rooted firmly in value-laden considerations and divine wisdom. With this distinction, he famously went on to argue that although other worlds are metaphysically possible, they are not morally possible, since this is the best possible world. I think he may very well be on to something here, but I’m not smart enough to sort it out (and unfortunately he didn’t elaborate much either).

    –Josh

    Reply
  17. Marc Belcastro

     

    Dr. Spiegel:

    Your response to Josh’s argument was very helpful. Thanks. I think I’m still unclear, however, about a couple of aspects of your approach: (i) what you mean by “physical ability to do X” and (ii) what you mean by “S could physically perform a particular action, X.”

    Returning to your first condition, you wrote: “A situation or context in which a person, S, could physically perform a particular action, X.” In the second paragraph of your response to Josh, you seem to have suggested that physical ability concerns one’s capacity to perform certain actions with one’s body, such as using one’s mouth, tongue, and lungs to speak the words, “Stone, become bread.” That seems perfectly reasonable. So, when we say that S has the physical ability to do X in a certain situation or context, we’re saying that S possesses the requisite physical investiture to do X in that situation or context. Does something along those lines cohere with your understanding of “physical ability to do X”?

    Let X be the action of uttering the words, “Stone, become bread,” and let C be the circumstances (i.e., the situation or context) in which Jesus was tempted to do X. If we assume that moral wrongness supervenes on certain physical actions and events (or on certain states of affairs describing physical actions and events) such that it would’ve been morally wrong for Jesus to do X in C, then Jesus’s impeccability doesn’t seem to permit us to hold that He was physically able to do X in C, even though His physical investiture was sufficient for His doing X in other circumstances. The conjunction of conditions (1) and (2), however, appear to entail the contrary: that although doing X in C would’ve been morally wrong, Jesus had the physical ability to do X in C. But if moral wrongness supervenes on doing X in C, it seems to me that the details of Jesus’s physical investiture may be irrelevant. That is, although Jesus had the requisite physical investiture for doing X in C*, where doing X in C* was physically identical to doing X in C but wouldn’t have been morally wrong, doing X in C would’ve nonetheless been morally wrong. Thus, by virtue of His impeccability, Jesus couldn’t have physically done X in C, which is inconsistent with conditions (1) and (2).

    So, I wonder if indexing physical actions to circumstances in this fashion creates a problem. But perhaps I’m missing something about what it means to physically do X and about what it means to say that S could perform X.

    — Marc

    Reply
  18. Marc Belcastro

     

    Josh:

    Resisting (2), I suspect, might require the ambitious Cartesian strategy of affirming universal possibilism. Otherwise, I’m not sure how to account for the ability to render false a metaphysically necessary truth.

    I agree that Jesus didn’t lack the physical strength required to strangle a child. I’m guessing that this might be what Dr. Spiegel means when he says that Jesus had the physical ability to do X — i.e., His physical investiture was consistent with His doing X. I’m hesitant to say, however, that Jesus could’ve physically done X, where X is morally wrong, which admittedly seems peculiar since I’ve just agreed that Jesus possessed the physical strength required to do X. So it appears that I’m oddly (and perhaps mistakenly) objecting to the conflation of (a) “physically able to do X” and (b) “S could physically do X.”

    The “could” causes me some trouble, but, the more that I think about it, I’m probably illicitly importing nonphysical considerations into “could.” For I’m inclined to index this physical action to circumstances, circumstances on which moral wrongness supervenes, which may be inappropriate on Dr. Spiegel’s view. And it may be superfluous when the physical action in question is intrinsically wrong. Since not conflating (a) and (b) probably demands an explanation I’m not prepared to give just yet, it looks I might be in agreement with Dr. Spiegel without realizing it. I need to think about it some more . . .

    Leibniz’s distinction between metaphysical necessity and moral necessity is interesting, but I wonder if we can allow for metaphysical necessity to absorb or subsume moral necessity without sacrificing anything significant. For I take it that we can legitimately talk about morality and value in modal terms: e.g., necessarily good or contingently wrong. But I’m not smart enough to sort out this business either.

    — Marc

    Reply
  19. Marc Belcastro

     

    Louis:

    You insisted that the doctrine of the Incarnation entails an “overt contradiction,” and you suggested that Morris’s account has been refuted by Hick and others (such as Loftus). (As a brief aside: while Loftus may believe that the Incarnation entails a contradiction, it’s unclear whether he was attempting, in his blog post, to demonstrate that the doctrine entails a contradiction.) It seems to me, though, that Morris’s account is free from contradiction, quite intelligible, and answers or anticipates the kind of objections which Loftus and others have deployed. But I don’t think Morris wants to be understood as having advanced an account completely devoid of difficult conceptual issues or the need for further explanation.

    His defensive strategy (as he calls it) is to provide an account which is possibly true, coherent, sensitive to metaphysical intuitions and conceptual distinctions we’re inclined to hold, and faithful to both the ecumenical councils of the early church and the New Testament portrait of Jesus which preceded them. To my mind, Morris has plausibly achieved this. And I think his remark is appropriate: “more caution is needed here than is customarily exercised.”

    — Marc

    Reply
  20. Marc Belcastro

     

    Dr. Spiegel:

    To exonerate a fourth consecutive comment, I should begin with this: I think there might be a direct relationship between the amount of times I comment consecutively and the extent to which I further understand and become sympathetic to your approach. I think I was originally misapprehending what you mean by physically able and physically could.

    At any rate, I’ve been thinking more about your third condition (with which I agree)—“S finds X attractive in some sense”—and I’ve been entertaining the following three questions. One: Did Jesus know He was impeccable? Two: To be truly tempted, did He have to be ignorant about His being impeccable? Third: How do we account for an impeccable (human) person’s finding sin attractive in some sense? I’ve been specifically preoccupied with this last question, so I’m curious about your thoughts on the matter.

    With respect to that question, I think it might be prima facie counterintuitive to suppose than an absolutely impeccable human person would ever find sin attractive. And since, plausibly, Jesus’s impeccability would’ve been “operative” (as it were) with or without His knowing about His impeccability, it seems plausible that His impeccable disposition (if you will) would’ve rendered Him necessarily disinclined from finding sin even remotely attractive. So if Jesus was untainted by a sin nature and was absolutely impeccable, one could seemingly hold that there just weren’t any available reasons for Jesus to have found sin attractive.

    In response to such an objection, I guess one could make reference to Adam’s unfallen nature and suggest that Jesus’s nature was analogous to (or just like) that. The objector would surely want to know about Jesus’s impeccable disposition which Adam didn’t share and which, according to the above rationale, should’ve necessarily disinclined Him away from finding sin even remotely attractive. (This assertion about an impeccable disposition, and about an impeccable disposition’s necessarily disinclining Jesus away from finding sin attractive, is probably disputable.) In developing a reply, one could return to the explanation that Jesus voluntarily operated within the confines and limitations of the human condition, where being human (like Adam was human) leaves one susceptible to finding sin attractive. It was only on certain occasions (Morris might say) that Jesus was able to access the divine mind and its Anselmian benefits (like omniscience), and Jesus chose not to access or didn’t have access to the divine mind when He encountered temptation. I suspect that the objector, unsatisfied, might claim that Jesus’s impeccability was functionally different than His other divine properties; that His impeccability should’ve extended to His moral disposition in a way that many of His other divine properties (like omniscience) wouldn’t have; and that His impeccability should’ve been continually operative regardless of whether He consciously accessed it.

    I don’t find myself convinced by the objector’s appeal to the functional difference of Jesus’s impeccability with respect to His other divine properties, and I’m curious about whether you would endorse the above strategy in responding to the objector.

    — Marc

    Reply
  21. Louis

     

    Jim,

    I suppose we must assume that Piper doesn’t approve writings before they are posted on his site. No sense arguing over that. But did not Kierkegaard consider the incarnation to be “absurd” and the “absolute paradox,” taking the lead of Martin Luther, who said of the incarnation:

    Now, to be sure, we Christians are not so utterly devoid of all reason and sense as the Jews consider us, who take us to be nothing but crazy geese and ducks, unable to perceive or notice what folly it is to believe that God is man and that in one Godhead there are three distinct Persons. No; praise God, we perceive indeed that this doctrine cannot and will not be perceived by reason.

    Do Kierkegaard and Luther meet your standards for respectable Christian thinkers? Does Luther misrepresent the orthodox view?

    Reply
  22. Jim Spiegel

     

    Louis,

    Kierkegaard and Luther are, indeed, good Christian thinkers. But Kierkegaard is no theologian, and he certainly doesn’t represent orthodoxy when he calls such doctrines absurd. And I actually agree with Luther’s view that the doctrines of the divine incarnation and the Trinity cannot be fully comprehended by reason (if that’s what he means by “perceived by reason”). But that’s quite different, after all, than conceding that there is a contradiction in the doctrine.

    Reply
  23. A Reader

     

    Can anyone explain how the statement “Jesus is 100% God and 100% man” contradicts itself? Does this statement assert that Jesus only had a divine nature and at the same time only had a human nature?

    Reply
    • Jim Spiegel

       

      Yes, you have it right. The statement that Jesus is 100% God and 100% human is contradictory because the notion of “100%” implies “only,” whereas to say Jesus is “fully” God and “fully” human just means that he is truly divine and truly human. Or, in other words, the adjective “fully” in this context entails that there are no essential divine or human qualities that Jesus lacks.

      Reply

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