Mike over at The A-Unicornist has a solid history of taking on the apologetics of believers who have managed to publish books. I took on a post by one of those apologists, David Marshall, who was responding to Mike. It wasn’t that I thought my assistance was needed (it wasn’t). I suppose I just felt like responding. It turned out to be unfruitful due to the surprising and abundant childishness of Marshall, but I’m going to put that experience in the back of mind and respond to another theist Mike has recently taken on, Randal Rauser. (In Mike’s most recent posts, he discusses Rauser’s censorship. Apparently Rauser wasn’t a big fan of having his beliefs taken apart, so he went on a deleting binge. As a result, I don’t think I’ll be posting on his blog – a censor cannot be trusted – but I will post here.)
The Rauser post that caught my eye was one in which he discusses why Jesus was never really tempted:
In their trials and temptations many Christians have drawn strength from Hebrews 4:15: “For 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.” (TNIV; cf. Heb. 2:18) Unfortunately, the significance of this passage is widely misunderstood, and thus its true force is often lost.
The problems are rooted in the erroneous belief that to be tempted means that Jesus could have sinned and that he was somehow enticed by sin (that is, he found it appealing but still resisted it). Both assumptions are deeply mistaken.
Rauser takes this on from two angles. First, he notes that Jesus is God and God cannot sin, thus Jesus was never actually tempted into doing wrong. It isn’t hard to see why this isn’t much of an answer. Rauser is noting two claims in the Bible – God is perfect and Jesus was tempted – and he is arbitrarily deciding that the claim to perfection must be true. That is, there is a clear contradiction, so Rauser effectively declares that the Bible is wrong in one of its claims. I’m sure he wouldn’t phrase it this way at all, but it’s plainly what he has done.
But, okay, maybe he’s talking about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man. So what of the man? Well:
“But what about his humanity? Couldn’t Jesus sin because he was a man?” Ironically, I argue that the opposite is the case: it is also because Jesus is human that he could not have sinned.
The key is to recognize that Jesus was not simply a man, but the perfect man. First ask what is it that makes human beings uniquely human? According to scripture, the answer is the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). But while we are made in the image of God, Jesus is the image of God (Col. 1:15). That means that he is not just another man, but the standard and essence of human perfection.
This just brings us further down the rabbit hole. What does it mean to be “the perfect man”? Can the perfect man not sin? Does that mean he lacks free will? Can perfection be attained without free will? And what of emotions? Was Jesus able to feel guilt and envy and jealousy? Hatred? If he lacked basic human characteristics – free will, emotions, etc – then I fail to see how we’re describing a human at all.
So where does this leave us? Well, if Jesus was unable to experience, say, envy like any other human, then he wasn’t really human, perfect or not. That isn’t to say he needed to experience envy in order to be human, but he did need to have the ability to experience it. So let’s say that he could experience envy, but he simply did not. That’s all fine and well for the perfect human argument, but it fails the Jesus-couldn’t-be-tempted argument. That is, if he could experience envy (or any other human emotion), then he could be tempted. That then leads us to conclude that he could sin – which then means that he could be imperfect.
But if Christ could not have sinned then what does it mean to say Jesus was tempted? Is there a contradiction between the statement that God cannot be tempted (James 1:13) and the statements in Hebrews that Christ was tempted?
Not at all. To resolve the tension we need to understand that the Greek word for temptation (peirazo) has two meanings: temptation and testing. God cannot be tempted in the sense of finding sin enticing. But he can be tested (1 Cor. 10:9).
None of this answers questions about whether or not Jesus could logically be a “perfect man”, but it does avoid the problem of declaring one Biblical claim correct while saying another is incorrect simply because it’s inconvenient that they contradict each other. That is, if the Bible only ever says Jesus was tested, then there is no issue with the claim that he is also perfect. This leaves me to wonder why Rauser bothered with his first claim at all.
As to the notion that Jesus couldn’t be tempted because he was “a perfect man”, I don’t see a satisfactory resolution. Parsing the original Greek works for one issue, but the whole point here is to demonstrate that Jesus could not sin. That, to me, destroys his humanity. It takes from the story of when he flipped over the merchant tables in the temple. If that wasn’t his humanity, what was it? He may have been righteous, and a few weak philosophies will justify using any means to achieve a desirable end, but he was also fundamentally human at that moment. Jesus’ sin in destroying the merchant tables cannot and should not be explained away.