Temptations of Christ
Could Christ Have Sinned?
Are the temptations of Christ real temptations? The divinity of Christ is a foundational doctrine of the Christian faith, and we therefore understand that Jesus, being divine, cannot sin. However, as Matthew and Luke report, Satan offered three temptations to Jesus during his earthly ministry. Here Dr. Craig explains how the temptations of Christ can be real temptations even though He could never have fallen into sin.
I am listening to the podcasts of your "Defenders Class" and enjoying them thoroughly. Recently, when listening to you discuss the attributes of Jesus, you mentioned that because he was fully God as well as fully man, he could not sin. While you acknowledged that he was tempted, you contended that it was impossible for him to sin. As a Christian, this troubles me. I have long thought of Jesus as someone who had the same capacity to sin as me, but who overcame sin through living a perfect life. Additionally, when I think of the idea of temptation, that seems to imply the possibility of the thing that tempts you. For example, I may be tempted to eat the leftovers in the refrigerator when I'm up at midnight. But it would seem to be a wrong use of the word "tempted" to say something like "I am tempted to travel back in time" because it's impossible for me to do so. I could say "I wish I could travel back in time" but to say I'm tempted seems to include the possibility of me actually traveling through time. Therefore, when we talk of Jesus being tempted, that seems to imply the possibility of him actually being able to do the things tempting him. When Satan told him to throw himself off the temple, I have a hard time imagining that Jesus couldn't have done so. If that were the case, then would he truly have been tempted? And if it was impossible for him to sin, how can we say that he was tempted like we are? After all, when we're tempted, there is always the possibility of us giving into that temptation. In my reading of the New Testament, it seems that for Jesus to be fully man, we have to allow for him to have been able to give in to his temptations. Otherwise, it seems they aren't, in fact, actually temptations.
I would love your thoughts on this to help me clear up the issue in my own mind. Thanks for the great work that you do. You continue to be in my prayers!
Thanks for your prayers, Scott! The doctrine of Christ's impeccability (or inability to sin) is not some peculiar doctrine but part and parcel of an orthodox doctrine of Christ. It is affirmed by all the great confessions of Christendom. It's easy to see why, when you think about it for a minute. God, as an essentially perfect being, cannot sin. But Christ is God, the second person of the Trinity. Therefore, Christ cannot sin.
Now you might say, "But granted that Christ could not sin according to his divine nature, couldn't he have sinned according to his human nature? It's analogous to his omnipotence: he was omnipotent according to his divine nature, but limited in power according to his human nature."
But this analogy won't work. For sinning is something a person does. But the human nature of Christ is not a person. (The idea that the human nature of Christ is a person distinct from the Second Person of the Trinity is a heresy called Nestorianism. It destroys the unity of Christ's person by splitting him into a human person and a divine person, so that there are really two persons involved in the incarnation, not one person with two natures.)
So the person who is Christ is a divine person and as such cannot sin.
My colleague Thomas Flint has argued for the novel view that Christ's human nature could, in fact, have sinned, but that if it had, then it would have been a person—that is, a merely human person—and so Jesus would not have been the Second Person of the Trinity. So Flint agrees that Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, could not have sinned; but the human nature of Christ, which is, in fact, not a person and which was tempted by the devil, could have sinned and so been a person, a sinful, human person. Flint's view has the strange and, some would say, absurd consequence that being a person is not an essential property of a person. If you want to read more on this recondite theological dispute, take a look at my article "Flint's Radical Molinist Christology Not Radical Enough," though I warn you that it's very technical. If we think that being a person is not a contingent property which something has but an essential property, then Christ's human nature could not have existed as a person apart from the Second Person of the Trinity, whose incarnate human nature it was. We shall then stick with the view that neither Christ nor his human nature could have sinned.
Temptations of Christ – Capacity is not a necessary condition for temptation
So how are we to understand the temptation of Christ? Well, very simply, you don't have to be able to do something in order to be tempted to do it. To take your example, suppose you're in a mad scientist's lab and you really believe that he has a time traveling DeLorian. He leaves you to guard the lab with strict instructions, "Do not take the DeLorian out on a spin through time!" Now you might be sorely tempted to take a journey through time during his absence—after all, you could come back as soon as you left so that no one would be the wiser! You might have to really struggle to resist that temptation. Little did you know that the scientist was a quack and there was no possibility of your taking a jaunt through time! But you did your duty; you resisted temptation and might even deserve to be commended for it and might have been strengthened in your moral life by this exercise of your will.
Or to take a more realistic example, suppose you're dieting and are tempted to go to the fridge to get the chocolate cake that your wife left there last night. You courageously resist, never knowing that she had already eaten the cake during a midnight raid and the refrigerator was empty! Examples like these show very convincingly, I think, that in order to be tempted to do something, we needn't be actually able to do the thing we're tempted to do.
Now certainly Jesus could have physically performed the actions Satan was calling upon him to do, like throwing himself off the temple or turning stones to bread; but he could not have done these things at Satan's behest, for that would have been sinful.
Temptations of Christ – Limited conscious knowledge can allow for real temptations
The really interesting question, I think, then becomes, what sort of cognitive limitations must a person possess in order to be tempted? Did Christ know that he was incapable of sin? If so, how could he be tempted if he knew that he could not succumb? Since Christ is divine, he must be omniscient and so must have known that he could not have succumbed to Satan's temptations.
Yes, but here I think we want to say that a genuine incarnation implies that Jesus had an ordinary human consciousness and therefore could grow in wisdom and maturity from infancy to manhood. One way to understand this is by differentiating levels of consciousness in Jesus' person. If much of his superhuman knowledge was subliminal, then he was not aware of all he knew, just as we are often unaware of knowledge that lies in our subconscious. Perhaps he was unaware of his impeccability, or if he knew it, perhaps his other cognitive limitations were such that he still had to fight against temptation, just as he had to struggle against anxiety, fear, and fatigue. Having an ordinary human consciousness, Jesus could feel the lure of temptation even though he was divine and so incapable of yielding to it. If you're interested in pursuing a theory of the incarnation according to which Jesus had different levels of consciousness, see my chapter on the incarnation in Philosophical Foundations of a Christian Worldview (Downer's Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003).
The other interesting question that arises is this: if Jesus was incapable of sinning, then did he freely resist sin? If not, then of what moral significance is his victory? If so, then how is this compatible with our ordinary understanding of freedom as the ability to choose between opposites? I address this question in Question 56 "Freedom and the Ability to Choose Evil."