According to the writer to the Hebrews, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Heb. 4:15). The implications of this statement for Christian theology down through the centuries have been profound. Even today, many a sermon begins by reassuring the congregation that Jesus knows what it is like to undergo temptations as we do because he was like us in every way, sin excepted.
But how are we understand this claim? The Gospels only record temptations that are hard for many of us to relate to: an appeal for Jesus to jump off a building, for instance, or a prayer to avoid the cross. Seemingly absent are the more pedestrian temptations Christians undergo daily, temptations toward cheating, overindulgence, pride, corrupt sexuality, and the like. How should the assurance from Hebrews be of help to Christians today?
The Jesus of the New Testament Gospels was certainly a human being. Human beings are tempted. So he was tempted. That much is like us. Yet Christ is not merely human as we are. For the traditional Christian claim is that he is God incarnate. As Charles Wesley’s Christmas carol puts it, “veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail the incarnate Deity!”
But here is the rub: Scripture also says God cannot be tempted. “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone” (James 1:13). So we have a dilemma. On the one hand, Jesus is like us in every way, being tempted as we are yet without sin. On the other hand, God is incapable of being tempted. Yet Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. How are we to reconcile these apparently competing claims in Scripture? This is the paradox of Jesus’ temptations.
As if that isn’t enough to deal with, the Bible says other things that make matters even more puzzling. In Romans, the Apostle Paul says that Jesus was made in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3). Elsewhere he writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21, emphasis added). Christ is not just made in the likeness of sinful flesh in his human nature, but even becomes sin for us in order to bring about our redemption. Then, in Galatians, Paul writes, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole’” (Gal. 3:13, emphasis added). Christ is made in the likeness of sinful flesh and becomes sin for us by being cursed in the crucifixion.
Now it might seem this has taken us rather far away from the original point about temptations. But, in fact, the two things—the temptations of Jesus and the crucifixion of Jesus—are related as far as our paradox is concerned. For if God’s eyes are too pure to look upon evil or tolerate wrongdoing (Hab. 1:13), how can he be united with a human nature in Jesus that is “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” even to the extent of becoming sin by being cursed on the tree? God and evil cannot mix any more than oil and water. And just as God cannot become sinful, and yet does in some way become sin for us in Christ, so also God cannot be tempted by sin, and yet he in Christ is tempted like us in every way yet without sinning.
What is more, there is a deeper way in which these two claims—about Christ’s temptations, and about being made sin for us—are related. In reflecting on these different New Testament claims about Jesus, some Christian theologians from the early church fathers onward came to think that one way to make sense of these different claims in the text of Scripture is to say that Jesus’ human nature is a fallen human nature. There is a relevant difference between being fallen and being sinful. We can be in a fallen state without actually sinning. So perhaps Jesus can have a fallen human nature, provided we mean by that a human nature that feels the effects of the fall—a bit like someone who may have flu-like symptoms even if she does not actually have the flu. That may also go some way toward explaining how Jesus may have been made “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” For like us, he has a human nature that feels the effects of the fall, including things like fatigue, pain, and death.
The Question of Capacity
Suppose that is right. How then are we to make sense of the paradox of Jesus’ temptations with which we began? There are two basic views in historic Christian teaching.
One option is called the sinlessness view. According to this view, Jesus is without sin but is capable of sin. The idea is a bit like someone who is capable of doing something though they refrain from doing it. Suppose Johnson has the capacity to be an NBA basketball player. However, it turns out that he is born into a family that despises basketball and forbids him from ever playing. Non-basketball playing Johnson still has the capacity to be a great basketball player. It is just that this capacity is never realized because he never has the chance and encouragement to develop that skill early on in life. Similarly, on the sinlessness view, Jesus is capable of sinning but does not actually sin—he has the capacity; it is just that he never realizes it in action.
At first glance, the sinlessness view seems attractive. Don’t we want to say that Jesus really feels the gravitational pull of temptation, so to speak, but never actually sins? Isn’t that like having a capacity that is never realized? The problem with this is that someone who has a capacity to do a thing is still able to do that in the right circumstances. Even if Jesus doesn’t actually sin, in this view he is capable of sinning. But we have already seen that one part of the paradox of temptation is that Jesus is God incarnate, and God cannot sin. So if Jesus is God, Jesus cannot sin. Saying that he could sin but doesn’t is not enough. We need some solution that means Jesus can really be tempted, but is configured so that it is impossible for him to realize the capacity to sin.
Let us turn to another option, which we can call the impeccability view. Someone who is impeccable is not merely sinless, though capable of sin. Rather, to be impeccable is to be incapable of sinning. Return to our hypothetical basketball player, Johnson. He has a capacity for world-class basketball that may or may not be realized given the upbringing he has. But not all his capacities are like this. Suppose Johnson is born blind. No matter what situation he is placed in, blind Johnson has no capacity for sight. He is incapable of seeing. The impeccability view says that Jesus is incapable of sinning in a way analogous to blind Johnson’s lack of sight. It is not something he can do under any circumstances.
Now this seems to be a good fit with the biblical claim that God cannot be tempted (James 1:13) or that God cannot look upon evil (Hab. 1:13). But how can this view be consistent with the idea that Jesus is like us in every way, and yet did not sin as per Hebrews 4:15? This seems to emphasize the divinity of Jesus at the expense of his humanity—making of him a kind of cyborg who feels nothing though he appears to be fleshly like the rest of us.
Can Jesus Feel a Gravitational Pull to Sin?
Perhaps a homely illustration will help. Imagine someone who is an invincible boxer. When he fights, he is hit, he feels pain, he can be bounced around the ring. But it is impossible for him to be beaten. He cannot be knocked out. That is what it means to be invincible. Nevertheless, the boxer can really experience the fight. He can really be affected by the punches of his opponent. It is just that the outcome is secure. Perhaps Jesus’ temptations are like that. He really feels them in his human nature. But there is no possibility of him succumbing to them.
But how could this be? One possibility is that Jesus’ human nature, though capable of sinning like any other human nature, is prevented from sinning by being united to his divine nature. This would be a bit like packing a fragile glass in foam. The glass is still fragile. It still has the capacity to break. But because it is wrapped in the foam packing it will not break—it is rendered incapable of breaking for all practical purposes. Perhaps the union of Jesus’ human nature with his divinity means that his “fragile” human nature, which is like ours in every way, is rendered incapable of sinning. The divinity of Jesus acts like the foam packing, making it impossible for him to succumb to sin even though, humanly speaking, he still has that capacity.
Still, that seems like a sleight of hand. Does that really resolve the paradox with which we began? Isn’t someone who is impeccable really unlike us in important ways? Can such a person really feel the gravitational pull of temptation as we do?
Some theologians have suggested that Jesus can feel the gravitational pull of certain sorts of temptations, but not others. He cannot feel the pull of those sorts of temptations that require a person to be in a state of sin to find the thing in question attractive, such as murder or lying. But there are certain sins that don’t require that the person tempted is already a sinner, such as defying divine commands. That is what the story of Adam and Eve is about: being tempted to ignore a divine command, sin being the result. This also seems to fit with the New Testament stories about Jesus’ temptations. In the wilderness, Jesus is tempted by the Devil to deny divine commands, or deny his messianic mission—both of which are tantamount to refusing to do what is asked of him by God. The same is true of his agony in the garden of Gethsemane. But, like Adam and Eve, it is feasible to feel the gravitational pull of such temptations without being in a state of sin.
The temptations of Jesus are the source of serious theological difficulties. How can we make sense of them? As with many deep theological matters, we may understand something of the faith we have been given, but it may be that complete explanation eludes us because we are limited in what we know and how we can grasp the mysteries of the divine nature. Nevertheless, it does seem that there are resources in the Christian tradition for making some headway here, so that we may grasp something of what it means to say that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”
Oliver D. Crisp is professor of analytic theology at the University of St. Andrews.
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