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TEMPTATION . Approaches to the complex phenomenon of temptation are as diversified as are cultures, worldviews, the self-understanding of men and women, the concept of sin, and so on. But behind all the astonishing differences there might well be discovered agreement on one point: that the center of human temptation is egocentricity, and genuine love is its victor. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, reflection on temptation arises in the quest for the sources of evil, which leads to a questioning of both God's nature and the nature of humankind. However, for the Hebrews, these questions were further complicated because of their own negative reactions to earlier solutions put forth by their neighbors. A continuing theme in Israel's history is the belief that their neighbors were tempting them to abandon faith in Yahveh and the law of Moses. Consequently, they must destroy those who were or could become such a temptation. This sad pattern reappears in Christianity as a motive for the crusades, inquisitions, and the burning of so-called witches. Christians were thus diverted from the actual, horrifying temptations that drew them away from humanness, love of neighbor, and even from the true image of God as a merciful Father of all.

The problem of temptation seems to resist a rational, conceptual approach. Perhaps the most adequate approach to its historical study is by way of its symbols. The prototype of these symbols and myths is the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. Similar symbols are to be found in most African cultures. It seems that with these stories there is not yet the question of original sin but, rather, the more basic question: what is the response of humanity when confronted with evil?

The Fall of Adam and Eveof humanity in generaland its consequences are presented in the first twelve chapters of Genesis. There we see Cain tempted to do violence, a temptation to which he yields, killing his brother. The increase in violence finds its symbol in Lamech, whose warlike attitude is reflected also in his relationship with women. Finally, the world is so flooded with sin that Noah can withstand it only with utmost difficulty.

However, while a one-sided, legalistic understanding of faith and morality warned against the temptation of disobedience, it remained blind to the temptation to disown the prophetic tradition and blind to unjust structures and the unjust exercise of authority, which today's Christians sharply denounce as "institutionalized temptations."

All too often in Christendom the tendency prevailed to condemn any form of doubt about religious and moral doctrines and traditions, while today many Christians pray that God may grace them with the courage to doubt at the right point and, thus, to be preserved from the disgraceful temptation of choosing a false security over the sincere search for truth. Some Christians seem not to care much about the existential question of whether they are truly on the road to salvation, but for Martin Luther and many other Christians of all denominations, it has been a matter of faith to fight desperately against such a temptation.

In Western religions there have always been conflicting trends between those who gave primacy to the fight against temptations arising from one's own heart and those who gave first place to fighting unjust and dehumanizing structures as the main sources of temptation. There were and still are those who are overly optimistic about the individual's battle against temptation and, at the same time, pessimistic about changing immoral society. Today many who call for renewal of church institutions fall into the temptation of overlooking the interwovenness of persons and society and the difficulty of achieving simultaneously the ongoing individual conversion and the changing and healing of public life, including church structures.

For many religious people in the West it is still difficult to recognize the enormous temptation involved in renouncing one's own responsibility and yielding to anguish instead of making clear decisions about the Christian's mission to be salt to the earth. One aspect of this all-pervasive temptation is easy conformity to a culture of greed, consumerism, and a wasteful style of life.

Christians are awakening only gradually to the temptation to waste our human and ecological resources. Many are struggling with the temptation to render indiscriminate military service and grant one's own government a blind presumption of righteousness in respect to armaments, arms sales, and military actions. Perhaps here, however, we are beginning to perceive a major shift in Western Christianity's approach to the theme of temptation.

Definition of Temptation

For Immanuel Kant, temptation is the paradoxical expression of the human person, destined by nature for the good yet inclined to do evil. He defines temptation as a challenge to live one's freedom for good in the purest way.

In the Septuagint, and consequently in Christian tradition, the Greek word peirasmos indicates quite different concepts in different contexts. Often it refers to sinful people "tempting God," murmuring against him and challenging him in unbelief and distrust (cf. Ex. 17:17). The New Testament, too, warns against this temptation of humans "to tempt God," to challenge him (1 Cor. 10:9), to defy him in disobedience (Heb. 3:8), to request from him miraculous interventions at a whim or for purposes of self-exaltation (cf. Mt. 4:7: "You are not to put the Lord your God to the test").

Most frequently, however, the word temptation is used to describe humans being tempted in various ways. Two forms of peirasmos have to be distinguished carefully. One concerns the various troubles and trials seen as an opportunity, or kairos, for the believer to strengthen his faith, his endurance, and, finally, his capacity to share in Christ's redemptive suffering. James 1:23 describes this kind of peirasmos : "Whenever you have to face trials of many kinds, count yourselves supremely happy in the knowledge that such testing of your faith breeds fortitude, and if you give fortitude full play you will go on to complete a balanced character." Sometimes only the victorious conclusion of such a trial allows the positive evaluation of the event, as in James or, even more evidently, in the beatitudes (Mt. 5:1112, Lk. 6:2123).

The other kind of peirasmos refers to temptation in the sense of endangering salvation, that is, when the person is assaulted from within and/or from without by godless powers aimed at his downfall. The Lord exhorts us to pray that we may not be brought to such dangerous tests: "And lead us not into temptation" (Mt. 6:13, Lk. 11:4). Christ warns his disciples that his own terrible trial can become for them a dangerous test: "Stay awake, all of you; and pray that you may be spared, that you may not enter into temptation" (Mk. 14:38).

Martin Luther is particularly anxious that we do not confuse those tests in which God guides us through the trial from beginning to end with those temptations into which we walk self-confidently from the start and thus expose ourselves to the danger of downfall.

Temptation and the Tempter

While the scripture warns us against the tempter in his various disguises, the main emphasis is on our own "heart," our personal response to temptations. The Bible calls on Christians to take responsibility by consistently rebuking the sinner who wants to exculpate himself by inculpating others.

Temptation arises from within

James is most explicit: "Temptation arises when a man is enticed and lured away by his own lust" (1:14). Here the author of James follows the main line of the synoptic Gospels, as when Jesus calls for change of heart, for purification of one's inmost thoughts and desires: "It is from within men's hearts that evil intentions emerge" (Mk. 7:20). James speaks of epithumia ("desire"), which in the Jewish thought of the time referred to the ambivalent impulses and inclinations (or yetser ) assigned to Adam and Eve in rabbinic literature to explain their capacity for being tempted. Augustine's term concupiscence does not correspond exactly to yetser. While the Hebrew scriptures and rabbinic literature try to understand human vulnerability to temptation as epithumia, Augustine believes temptation to be based on our heritage of sin from Adam. We may understand concupiscence as that inner inclination for temptation and sin, the intensity of which depends on unrepented sins, the weakness or lack of a fundamental option for God and for the good, and the attraction to sin that comes from a sinful world around us, where the sins of the past continue to poison the human environment.

This same idea is present also in thought about the struggle that exists in our inmost being between sarx and pneuma (or "body" and "spirit"). For Paul, temptation manifests in our lower nature, the body, and is supported by the collective selfishness and arrogance present in all humanity. The sarx and with it, temptationloses power to the degree that we are renewed and guided by the pneuma.

God does not tempt anyone

James 's great concern that "God is untouched by evil" (1:14) already existed in Jewish wisdom literature. The main concern of the oldest Israelite tradition, however, was the absolute rejection of any kind of dualism: God has absolute sovereignty. The distinction found in this tradition between being "put to the test" by dangerous temptation or by trials destined to purify or refine had not yet been neatly elaborated.

A striking example is in a comparison of the story of David's temptation regarding a census, as told in 2 Samuel with the later story in 1 Chronicles. The first account says, "The anger of Yahveh once again blazed out against the Israelites, and he incited David against them. 'Go,' he said, 'take a census of Israel and Judah'" (2 Sm. 24:1). In those days a census was considered an attack on God's prerogative to give increase to his people. Hence David was punished by a pestilence that diminished the nation. The author of 1 Chronicles is more careful about the image of God as one of absolute goodness; he gives another version: "Satan rose against David to take a census of the Israelites" (1 Chr. 21). In this later tradition monotheism had become so firmly established that the introduction of a tempter inimical to God's people was not to be feared.

The wisdom literature provided helpful distinctions and directions of thought. The authors were careful not to allow the sinner any exoneration and to avoid any contamination by dualism. Their greatest care was to show God's wisdom in the sovereign government of world and history.

Temptation, uncomfortable as it may be, is an ingredient of life. Those who put their trust in God will overcome it, and it serves moral growth in their life. God does not incite to evil, but he allows both suffering and temptation as tests for the virtuous. "God has put them to the test and proved them worthy to be with him; he has tested them like gold in a furnace, and accepted them as holocausts" (Wis. 3:5). The sinner has no excuse, since he falls because of lack of love and fear of God. Those who truly adhere to God will make good use of freedom.

This is succinctly expressed by Jesus, son of Sirach: "Do not say, 'the Lord is responsible for my sinning,' for he is never the cause of what he hates. Do not say, 'it was he who led me astray,' for he has no use for a sinner. The Lord hates all that is foul, and no one who fears him will love it either. He himself made him in the beginning, and left him free to make his own decisions. To behave faithfully is within your power" (Sir. 15:1116).

The serpent and the woman in Genesis 3

The narrative of the fall is an anthropological myth of great depth and complexity. Its symbols express ancient Israelite reflections on the origin of evil. It depicts in a lively way the diversionary rhetoric of the sinner, who always needs a scapegoat for his own vindication. Adam attempts to use Eve as his scapegoat, while Eve blames the serpent. Some see in the role attributed to Eve a deeply ingrained misogyny in the Yahvistic authors. Paul Ricoeur may come closer to the intention of the narrative when he writes in his La symbolique du mal (Paris, 1960) that the woman here is not so much the "second sex" as, rather, an expression of the human being's frailty, man's as well as woman's (vol. 2, p. 239). The story exposes the sin of Adam more than that of Eve, because it unmasks Adam's domineering attitude toward the woman (Gn. 3:16). In the fall, man too must confess: "This is flesh of my flesh." There is a solidarity in both salvation and perdition.

Why is the serpent introduced to allow man to exonerate himself? We can respond that the very mechanism of exculpation is part of sinful man, since when he confesses his sin humbly before the merciful God, he finds no need to accuse others. Yet there is still more in this anthropological metaphor. The serpent is also a creature, one that is "the most subtle of all the wild beasts God has made" (Gn. 3:1). It becomes a metaphoric presentation of man's subtle pursuit of his egotism and his no less subtle self-defense and self-belying mechanisms (cf. Philbert Avril, Délivre-nous du mal, Paris, 1981, p. 23).

Ricoeur thinks that this is also the way James's epistle explains the self-deceptive concupiscence. The serpent is a part of ourselves as long as we have not the strength of truth to unmask the shrewdness of our exonerating maneuvers. It might also symbolize "the chaotic disorder in myself, among us and around us" (La symbolique du mal, vol. 2, p. 242). That would bring into the whole vision of the first twelve chapters of Genesis a sharper awareness of the various dimensions of solidarity in either good or evil, including the cosmic dimension and the need for humans to decide one way or the other.

While theologians and preachers during the last centuries frequently identified the serpent of Genesis with Satan or the devil, there seems to be a growing consensus among biblical scholars and theologians that in the early tradition reflected in Genesis 3, nobody thought or spoke of Satan, the personified Evil One. In his 19371938 work Creation and Fall: A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 13 and Temptation, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was insisting already that this narrative has no need of diaboli ex machina. The serpent symbolizes the ambiguity of people, their human relationships, and their environment.

Satan and his helpers

Satan interests us here only in relation to temptation. What does the tempter add to the understanding of temptation? In the older tradition, Satan never appears; it is God who tests man and calls him to decision (Seesemann, 1968, p. 25). In the Book of Job, we find God testing man in much the same way as he tested Abraham. The successful end is decisive: the person who counts on God will overcome temptation. What is new in Job is that God acts through intermediary forces.

The nebulous Satan here has nothing to do with the super-Satan of the Persian religion or with the apocalyptic and threatening "prince of darkness" of later writings in Judaism and Christianity. This Satan is a not very effective literary effort meant to exonerate God from appearing as the source of evil. Such a Satan becomes a real threat to the sufferer through those "friends" who, having a false image of God, judge the sufferer to be one who deserves such punishment. For the sufferer, these friends are indeed Satan's cruelest helpers. Even Christ on the cross was exposed to them: the pseudo-religious people who insulted him. Job's victory over this temptation occurs because of his trustful adoration of the ever greater God.

The shrewd Satan who tempts Jesus in the desert embodies the insidious temptation put to Christianity in the first and following centuries. The misuse of the Bible by cleverly twisting its words to create false meanings tempted people away from the faith.

Satan represents also the terrible temptation of a too earthly understanding of the messianic hope of Israel and the mission of Christ. This is seen strikingly when Jesus rebukes Peter for refusing to believe in a suffering and humble servant-Messiah: "Away with you, Satan; you are a stumbling-block to me, because the way you think is not God's but man's" (Mt. 16:23).

Satan at his most shamelessasking Jesus to adore himmirrors the vain self-glorification of the earthly powers of the time, particularly in the divinization of the Roman emperors. The figure of Satan should not turn attention away from these perennial temptations but should emphasize the superhuman dimension. It is a sharp warning against belittling any situation of temptation.

As we saw in Genesis 3, for the believer there is no way of denying guilt by pointing to a tempter or to the devil. Aware of the powers of darkness in their mysterious solidarity of perdition, the followers of Christ put their trust in God and make the wholehearted decision for his reign, a reign of justice, peace, and love. They put on "all the armor which God provides to stand firm against the devices of the devil" (Eph. 6:10). They will not only avoid being tempters in any way, helpers of the powers of darkness, but will commit themselves to active and generous membership in a solidarity of salvation.

This was the mind of the early church in an integrated discourse on the Christian's decision for Christ and for battle against temptations arising from the gnostic and Manichaean trend toward speculations on angelic and demonic hierarchies. We find this sobriety still in Thomas Aquinas. But in the following centuries great parts of Western Christianity indulged in fantastic speculations about witches and a slavish fear of devils as well as ritual exorcisms of them, while lacking trust in God and making no firm decision for an all-embracing solidarity.

Today there is a strong reaction, partially in favor of the original sobriety and partially in indifference to the figure of Satan, whereby the vast dimensions and blinding powers of evil are lost to sight. Referring to Ernst Bloch, Leszek Kolakowski, in his Gespräche mit dem Teufel (3d ed., Munich, 1977), wonders whether some Christians realize the depth and cosmic dimensions of evil. Reading Kolakowski one thinks of the devilish temptation to expect a paradise of peace in the midst of ever increasing conflict and hatred.

The Christian discourse on the tempter points to the great temptations arising from bad example and evil "friends" who initiate the inexperienced into the skills of crime and corruption. The diabolic temptation seeks directly the moral corruption of others. It is masterfully described in the famous novel Les liaisons dangereuses (1782) by Choderlos de Laclos. Laclos exposes both the superficial optimism of the Enlightenment and the libertinism of the time preceding the French Revolution. The book aroused much anger in its time, since it disclosed the truth of fallen humans, who can go to the limits of malice and cunning in tempting others, especially those devoted to virtue. But even to those most skilled and aggressive tempters there come moments when humanness somehow shines through, insinuating "that malice does not constitute a hopeless and irrevocable fact in human existence" (Knufmann, 1965, p. 202).

This idea was theologized by Origen, who wanted to leave open the hope that after a long duration of "eternity" even the devil and his helpers might be converted and saved by the divine power of apokatastasis. Origen's thought, problematic as it may be, opposed tenaciously the dualism of Manichaeism. Sinnerseven the tempter and his helpersbecause they are God's creatures, keep, somehow, a remnant of goodness. The theory also intended to emphasize that no sinner on earth should be considered a hopeless case.

For many contemporary Christians this thought is unacceptable in view of the diabolical crimes in our times. Mohandas Gandhi, however, thought that the coherent and thorough spirituality of satyāgraha ("doing the truth in love") could hope to change even persons like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin into satyāgrahin s. For Gandhi, "it is an article of faith that no man has fallen so low that he cannot be redeemed by love" (quoted by Pie-Raymond Reagmey in Nonviolence and the Christian Conscience, London, 1966, p. 199). This optimism is not a blindness to the horrifying evil present in humans but a recognition of the power of their spirit, enkindled and guided by the universal spirit to overcome such evil at all costs. It may be one of the most diabolic temptations of Western people not to consider this opportunity and be willing to pay its price in order to overcome the diabolically vicious circle of nuclear madness.

Psychological Perspectives

Psychoanalysis and psychotherapy have made major contributions to a better understanding of the mechanisms of various temptations. We note especially the ego-defense mechanism of repression (unconscious forgetting or prevention of consciousness) of what is too difficult to face consciously. It could be, for instance, a call to a more truthful search for life's deeper meaning. Repression usually works through a security complex which refuses to let reality challenge it.

Karl Menninger notes that temptations and sins arise from the "huge world of the unmanifest" (1973, p. 221). The "unmanifest" includes not only whatever the filter of repression is hiding but also unconfessed guilt feelings which often become confused with real guilt. On this point, Menninger refers to the Bible: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 Jn. 1:8).

The result of the individual and collective temptation to deny sin and guilt is frequently undefinable anguish, feelings of senselessness, and/or despair about human freedom and dignity. The deeper source of these temptations is an unwillingness "to do the truth in love," thereby hindering truth from setting us free (cf. Jn. 8:3141).

Another ego-defense is the tendency to project one's own evil inclinations on another, on some villain. In her work with children, psychotherapist Christine Lutz found that the healing and growth of moral sense progressed when the children realized that what they saw in others was, to a great extent, a projection of their own shortcomings (Kinder und das Böse: Konfrontation und Geborgenheit, Stuttgart, 1980).

Depth psychology has studied the mechanism of aggression. On the one hand, there is the danger of trying to repress it instead of channeling it wisely. On the other hand, there is the uncontrolled and mutually contagious mechanism that leads to the vicious circle of aggressive challenges and aggressive reactions. Although psychology suggests that it is sometimes liberating to allow one's anger an honest expression, Menninger rightly warns: "But there is always a temptation to use it as a whip, and what begins as a device for relief continues as a weapon for aggression" (1973, p. 144).

Sociological Perspectives

The broad theological expression "sin of the world" is given sharper contours in modern studies on "institutionalized temptation." In his book Our Criminal Society (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1969), Edwin M. Shur has an apt formulation: "In a sense, existing patterns of crime represent a price we pay for structuring society as we have structured it" (p. 9). In a society and culture that emphasize "having" over "being," with an educational system oriented to personal success and a whole economic system that encourages increasing consumption, people yield thoughtlessly to temptations, and nobody feels guilty. "No one thinks sin was involved" (Menninger, 1973, p. 120). The "respectable crimes" of the wealthy and powerful, their unpunished corruption, and their clever manipulations are constant incitement for others to further injustice and dishonesty in smaller matters. The little thief is caught and condemned to a prison system in which massive temptations are forced upon inexperienced transgressors of the law.

The people of wealthy countries have adopted lifestyles inseparably connected with the predatory exploitation of the earth's resources and pollution of the environment. Here we see temptations of planetary dimensions that increase the tensions between countries of free enterprise and those of massive state capitalism. How many horrifying temptations are involved in the arms race, the arms trade, and, above all, the nuclear threat! One source of the massive "institutionalized temptations" is the lack of prophetic voices; another is the unwillingness to pay earnest attention to those voices that might be heard.

Theological Perspectives

In a brief synthesis of theological perspectives that recur continuously, the point of departure for the Christian is Jesus having been tempted as we are: "Since he himself has passed through the test of suffering, he is able to help those who are meeting their test now" (Heb. 2:18). The church fathers stressed the point that it was after his baptism that Jesus underwent the temptation, and they connect this with the final test of his passion. Similarly, those baptized in Christ can best face temptation and suffering by putting their trust in Christ and holding fast to their baptismal commitment.

Jesus overcame temptation not just by enduring the suffering it brought but by making this very suffering the supreme sign of God's love and saving solidarity. That this love is the goal of all Christians is revealed by gospels that unmask the temptations involved in clinging to laws while betraying the covenant, now understood as the supreme law of unselfish, all-embracing love between God and humankind.

Another biblical direction is to combat evil by doing good, to overcome violent injustice by doing the truth of love in nonviolent commitment (cf. Rom. 12:21; 1 Thes. 5:15; 1 Pt. 3:9; and above all, Mt. 5). For believers, all temptationsbut particularly those arising from the vicious circle of violenceare a challenge to sanctity, to redemptive love. An unrenounceable perspective grows out of Paul's understanding of the combat between sarx and pneuma, whereby false images of love and freedom are exposed by searching wholeheartedly for true love aided by the promptings of the spirit (cf. Gal. 5:13, 6:2).

See Also

Apocatastasis; Evil; Fall, The.


There are innumerable books and articles concerning the temptation of Jesus and, in that light, temptation in general. The following books merit special attention: Ernest Best's The Temptation and the Passion: The Markan Soteriology (Cambridge, 1965) and Jacques Dupont's Les tentations de Jésus au désert (Paris, 1968). Both books contain excellent bibliographies. A comprehensive presentation of the church fathers' explanation of the biblical texts and their application to the understanding of Christian life is found in Santino Raponi's Tentazione ed Esistenza Cristiana (Rome, 1974). On the biblical use of the term peirasmos, see Heinrich Seesemann's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, 1968), vol. 6, pp. 2336. See Horst Beintker's study Die Überwindung der Anfechtung bei Luther (Berlin, 1954) for an overview of Martin Luther's approach to temptation from the perspective of the doctrine of justification by faith. Helmut Thielicke's Theologie der Anfechtung (Tübingen, 1949) is representative of a good part of Protestant theology's discussion of the issue. Also important is Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Creation and Fall: A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 13 and Temptation (19371938; New York, 1965). While at times emphasizing the power of Satan, Bonhoeffer never allows for man's exculpation. His ideas seem to reflect the time of great affliction for the church in Germany.

Of the numerous studies about the impact of a poisoned environment and a defective culture and society on temptation, Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York, 1932) and Edwin M. Shur's Our Criminal Society (Engelwood Cliffs, N. J., 1969) are noteworthy. In his much-read book, Whatever Became of Sin? (New York, 1973), Karl Menninger points to the mechanisms and temptations of denying sin and thus, also, human freedom and responsibility. C. S. Lewis attempts to unmask real temptation in his widely known book The Screwtape Letters (New York, 1946). Helmut Knufmann reflects on novelists' treatment of temptation as a theme in his book Das Böse in den Liaisons Dangereuses de Choderlos de Laclos (Munich, 1965).

New Sources

Brewer, Talbot. "The Character of Temptation: Towards a More Plausible Kantian Moral Philosophy." Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 83 (June 2002): 103131.

Schiavo, Luigi. "The Temptation of Jesus: The Eschatological Battle and the New Ethic of the First Followers of Jesus in Q." Journal for the Study of the New Testament 83 (June 2002): 103131.

Sorabji, Richard. Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation. New York, 2000.

Bernhard HÄring (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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