Did Jesus Desire to Sin
December 6, 2005 — 15:02

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Christian Theology  Comments: 26

I don’t recall reading anything on this, though I suppose I must have read
something in Aquinas on it.  While I’m looking for that, I’d like to see
what you think.  The key issue is that the sentence "Jesus was tempted"
needs to come out true.  I’m going to assume that this is straightforwardly
true, that is, that Jesus was tempted.  It’s hard for me right now to
understand temptation sans desire to do the thing tempted.  I think this is
neutral w.r.t whether Jesus could have acted on such a desire, and if so,
in what sense of "could."  So consider the following argument.

  1. Jesus was tempted to sin.
  2.  ∀x(x is tempted to φ → x desires to φ)
  3. Jesus desired to sin.

I’ll put the rest below the fold.

This could potentially have pastoral import, for consider this extention.

  1. Jesus desired to sin.
  2. Jesus did no sin.
  3. To desire to sin is no sin.

You might think 5 sounds like sound pastoral advice or you might think it
sounds dangerously exculpating.  It would be interesting to hear people’s
impressions on that, but the main thing I’m interested in is whether people
think 2 is true.  And for those who think it’s false, I think there is some
explaining to do.

  • I’m tempted to sin but I have no desire to.

Sounds a little funny.  We can have a second-order desire not to sin and
still be tempted of course.  I imagine that’s the condition of most of us. 
However, the desire in question is intended to be read as a first-order desire
since φ in intended to range over types of actions. 

I’m looking forward to some instruction here.  I suppose one might even
put this under the heading of Advent Reflection, for the puzzle only arises
because of the Incarnation. 

  • Trent, nice problem.
    Isn’t (5) ambiguous between,
    5. On balance (i.e. given everything I desire) I desire to sin more than I desire not to sin.
    5′. On balance I desire to sin almost as much as I desire not to sin.
    5”. On balance I desire not to sin much more than I desire to sin.
    (5”) does not seem blameworthy at all, though I suppose (5′) and (5) might include an “involuntary sin” (as Robert Adam’s describes them). But there is a Kantian reflection that might be illuminating. Perhaps none of these is a sin at all. Suppose it is possible to act exclusively from respect for the moral law (incidentally, Kant actually held that angels–those extremely rational beings–would always do so). It might be that if we act (instead) from a desire to sin then BOTH the action and the desire are morally bad. But if we do not act from the desire to sin (or from any other desire, but rather from respect for the moral law) then neither are. Indeed for what it’s worth, the Kantian suggestion seems to capture “ordinary moral consciousness”: we praise without reservation those who overcome desires (a fortiori, strong desires) to the contrary and do what is morally right. We don’t seem to hold back our praise because there was present, after all, a desire to do wrong.

    December 6, 2005 — 16:00
  • On your primary question (though, please, I’m offering no “instruction” here or above–let someone else take that bait), it does seem true that you can be tempted to do X and have reflection reveal that you do not desire X at all. A vegetarian might, absent any thought or caught off-guard, be tempted to the prime rib. But on even minimal reflection, or gathering herself even slightly, realize that this is not something she wants at all.
    I think it can also be true that one can, post hoc, realize that one pursued something that one did not genuinely want. That is, I think it is coherent to say of some things that you thought you wanted them but in fact did not.
    Off course this is to understand desires as something more than more or less mindless or ill-considered or ill-informed urges.

    December 6, 2005 — 18:47
  • I want to augment Mike’s second comment by “taking the bait” and arguing that it’s quite possible to be tempted and have no desire to sin. Such a situation is possible when ‘being tempted’ refers not to some agent’s inner comportment (desire, say) but rather to the actions of a tempter.
    For example, a coworker might “tempt” me to break my no-chocolate vow in order to sell their child’s Helen Grace candies at the office, even though I wouldn’t necessarily feel “tempted” to purchase the said candies. (darn you Mrs. Bank’s sixth grade fund drive, darn you!)
    I take it that such was the sense used to describe Christ being tempted in the wilderness, for instance. On that interpretation of the word there would be no entailment from temptation to desire.

    December 6, 2005 — 20:34
  • The ambiguity I first thought of when reading your post, before I saw Mike’s first comment, was in “X desires to φ” (let’s hope I got that symbol right). You might read it as “X has a desire to φ”. You might read it as “X on balance wants to φ”. It may be that the first reading is all that’s required for temptation. To be dangerously exculpating, I think you’d need the second reading.

    December 6, 2005 — 21:10
  • James Gibson

    Sean Choi (UCSB) and I presented a paper on this topic at the last Western EPA conference. The paper needs some reworking and editing before we send it off to try to be published, but we think the account as a whole is still correct. Basically, we argued that impeccabilists (that includes Sean and I) have the difficulty of explaining what it means to say Jesus was tempted if he could not sin. Our approach to the topic is to make use of Frankfurt’s notion of external ideas, which we argue is implicitly found in the early church. As such, we suggest that while Jesus desired to do some action q, the desire to q is one that Jesus did not identify with (we leave the proper account of identification open to interpretation). We would reject your second premise; so it is false that for any x and any q, if x desires to q, then x desires to sin.
    If we treat the desire to sin as the desire to break God’s law or moral commands, then Jesus never desired this. If we treat the desire to q such that acting on q implies breaking God’s law, then we think this should be treated as an external desire. But having the desire to q, e.g., turning stones into bread, is not in itself sufficient for being a desire to sin. If you write me off list, if you like, I’ll send you a copy of the paper.

    December 7, 2005 — 0:21
  • James Gibson

    Yikes. I’m confusing organizations. I wrote EPA, I meant EPS 🙂

    December 7, 2005 — 15:13
  • Heath White

    It seems to me that “is tempted to X” has an extensional reading, while “desires to Y” is almost always intensional. That is, from
    1. Jesus desired not to be crucified
    2. Jesus’ not being crucified would have been a sin
    it does not follow that
    3. Jesus desired to sin;
    while from “Jesus was tempted not to be crucified” and “not being crucified would have been a sin” it does follow that “Jesus was tempted to sin.”
    Compare: I can desire to eat a dozen Krispy Kremes; eating a dozen KKs will make me fat; it doesn’t follow that I desire to make myself fat. But the corresponding syllogism with “tempted” would be valid.

    December 9, 2005 — 10:24
  • Heath, that is an interesting suggestion. Tell me if I have this wrong. It looks like you’re saying that ‘S was tempted to Y’ is referentially transparent (i.e. an extensional context) while ‘S desired to Y’ is referentially opaque. So you urge that substitutivity of identicals should preserve truth (or truth-value) in the case of ‘tempted’. You say,
    1. Jesus was tempted not to be crucified.
    2. Not being crucified = the sinful action A.
    3. :. Jesus was tempted to sinful action A.
    You formulate it without explicitly assuming a substitutivity principle and (indeed) you hint that you’re assuming a closure principle to license the inference to (3), such as (4),
    4. If [S is tempted to A and [](A -> B)] then
    S is tempted to B.
    But closure principles such as (4) might well govern opaque contexts. For instance, many hold that closure principles govern certain knowledge contexts, which are certainly opaque. Substitutivity principles do not.
    But coming back to your inference, I find it difficult to read the context as transparent. Oedipus might have been tempted to sleep with woman X, but he loathed the idea of sleeping with his mother, even though X = Oedipus’ mother. This is as good as any counterexample to substitutivity, it seems to me.

    December 9, 2005 — 14:41
  • James 1:14-15 “Each is tempted when he is carried away by his own lust. Then when lust is concieved, it gives birth to sin; when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.”
    This is implying that being tempted, desiring something and sinnning are all separate actions.
    therefore 2.∀x(x is tempted to φ → x desires to φ) is not valid.
    The best we can say is that wrong desires can lead to sin. Not that they are sin or even that they necessarily lead to sin. I would suggest that both wrong desire and a wrong choice consummating that desire are necessary for sin to exist.
    In the Greek, tempted is related to tested. Using this definition our desires test us when we desire the wrong thing. Sin happens if we act on the desire, instantiate it.
    One more point, consider this
    x desires to φ where φ is God’s will
    is then x tempted to φ? I would say not.

    December 9, 2005 — 14:49
  • Heath White

    You have the right idea re referential opacity/transparency in desire/temptation contexts. But I would not sign on to your 4. Rather, I would agree to
    4′. If (S is tempted to A, and S knows that A->B) then S is tempted to B.
    In general, you can’t be tempted to things you don’t know you’re doing. Oedipus doesn’t know that the beautiful queen is his mother, so he isn’t tempted to sleep with his mother even though he is tempted to sleep with the beautiful queen. Jesus does know that forgoing his crucifixion is sin, so he is tempted to sin, even though he doesn’t desire to.
    Here is a broader thought I had over the weekend:
    The orthodox position on Jesus’ anthropology is that he is one person with two natures, one divine and one human, and that each of these natures has a separate will, so that Jesus has two wills. (How one person could have two wills can be the topic of another Prosblogion post.) The texts for this two-will doctrine are “Not my will but thine be done” (at Gethsemane) and “I come not to do my own will, but the will of the Father who sent me.”
    The reason this was thought necessary, so far as I understand it, is that Jesus was seen as the second Adam, who overcomes the power of sin and the devil and thus frees the human race, just as Adam doomed it through succumbing. It is vital that Jesus does this conquering AS MAN, the idea being that it is no big deal if God can conquer sin and the devil, while humanity is only freed if a man does the conquering.
    I go through all this because I take it the problematic aspect of Jesus being tempted is that he is divine, and how could God sin or even be tempted to. There *might* be room to say–I emphasize that I am way over my theological head here–that Jesus’ human will is tempted while his divine will is not. That might seem puzzling but no more than the idea of having two wills in the first place.

    December 14, 2005 — 9:16
  • “Oedipus doesn’t know that the beautiful queen is his mother, so he isn’t tempted to sleep with his mother even though he is tempted to sleep with the beautiful queen”.
    Well, yes. That is what I was saying. If the context of ‘S is tempted to X’ were transparent (or more precisely, if ‘X’ occurred transparently in that context) substitutivity would not fail as it does.
    I did not urge that this context was transparent; on the contrary, you did. The Oedipus example shows that it isn’t transparent and hence isn’t an extensional context. This is contrary to your initial suggestion).
    On (4′), as far as I can see, it is not relevant to the opacity/transparency question. It is not relevant (even) to the closure question, since S might not know anything about the inference rule (here, more or less, MP) that takes us to the desired conclusion. So I have no idea what (4′) does to further your view on the extensionality of ‘is tempted’ contexts.

    December 14, 2005 — 19:56
  • Heath White

    Mike, let me back up. The point of my suggestion is that the objects of desire and temptation can come apart; that was what I had in mind in saying you had the right idea. Transparency/opacity is one way for that to happen, but not the only way. I didn’t mean to commit myself to saying that temptation is referentially transparent; you are right that its not and the Oedipus example shows this. Sorry for the unclarity.
    Here’s a better example. It’s common to distingish between intentional actions, unintended but foreseen actions, and unintentional (and unforeseen) actions. Suppose I am a sniper in wartime. I might intentionally shoot an enemy officer, foresee but not intentionally alert the enemy to my presence, and unintentionally and unforeseen shoot a close relative.
    My thought was that desire is like intention, while temptation is like unintended-but-foreseen. Jesus desires to forgo his crucifixion; he does not desire to sin but foresees that he would be sinning if he yielded to his desire to forgo his crucifixion, and thus is tempted to sin. Whereas Oedipus cannot foresee that he would be sleeping with his mother in sleeping with the beautiful queen, so he is not tempted to do that.
    I hope that’s clearer.

    December 19, 2005 — 10:22
  • I think it’s clearer. But that’s complicated! You’re saying that desire is like intention in the sense that (1) is true of desire, right?
    1. If I desire x and x entails y then I might not desire y.
    But you urge that (2) is also true,
    2. If I desire x and x entails y, then I am tempted to y.
    But then if I desire to eat the pizza and you inform me that the pizza is sprinkled with arsenic, then (since eating the pizza would entail eating arsenic) I am tempted to eat the arsenic? I don’t know, that doesn’t seem entirely right. But it is a very interesting idea, and I know you’ve just sketched it. So counterexamples at this point don’t mean much. Thanks for the clarifications.

    December 19, 2005 — 13:39
  • Heath White

    I’m glad we’re on the same page now.
    1. If I desire x and x entails y then I might not desire y.
    Correct – either because (a) you don’t know that x entails y, or because (b) the y-description is unappealing.
    2. If I desire x and x entails y, then I am tempted to y.
    Not quite – if I desire x and I know x entails y, then I am tempted to y.
    Regarding the pizza: if I desire the pizza and then you tell me it’s sprinkled with arsenic, I’ll probably stop desiring the pizza. But if it’s a really really delicious-smelling pizza and I haven’t eaten for three days, I might still desire to eat it and then, yes, I would be tempted to ingest arsenic just to get at that pizza.
    I should also add that the relation for which you have used “entails” is probably looser than entailment, but what exactly it is, is a very good question. (For example: a woman desires to get rid of the baby she is carrying, without necessarily desiring for it to die–she just wants it out of her. Removing the baby from the womb, even dismembering it, does not *entail* that the baby get killed; after all, some tremendous miracle might occur. But I think it’s clear that the death of the baby is reasonably foreseen in this case, and thus on my criterion she is tempted to have her baby killed. The literature on double effect is full of cases like this.)

    December 19, 2005 — 20:46
  • Right, certainly, I didn’t mean logically entail. Exactly what that relation is, I’m not sure. But clearly eating the pizza does not logically entail eating the arsenic. What I cannot see is any temptation to consume the arsenic itself. Temptation plays an explanatory role in behavior. It makes no sense to me to answer the question “why did he eat the pizza?” with “because he could not resist the temptation to eat the arsenic”. It seems rather the other way around, “why did he consume the arsenic?”, “because he he could not resist the temptation to eat the pizza”.
    Concerning the abortion case, it would be very difficult to find a single discussion of DDE in which dismembering a baby is even momentarily regarded as something other than directly intending to kill the fetus. I frankly do not know of one. The standard “difficut case” is ectopic pregnancy in which defenders of DDE consistently urge that abortion is direct killing to save the mother and so prohibited.
    But all that aside, temptation again does not have the right explanatory role in the abortion case you describe. “Why did she rid herself of the baby?”, “well, because she was tempted to have her child killed”. Again, it seems explanation goes the other way.
    Suppose Ulysses did sail to the sirens. Imagine this explanation:, “why did Ulysses sail to the sirens?”, “oh, because he could not resist the temptation to crash his boat into the rocks.”

    December 20, 2005 — 1:24
  • I’m just catching up on old comments. Mike, I’m not sure why you think DDE prohibits killing the fetus to save the mother’s life. It seems to me that it’s unclear whether it does. DDE as I understand it says that it’s ok to kill for a higher purpose as long as the killing isn’t the end and as long as you can’t achieve the goal without the killing.
    In this case, the killing isn’t the end. The saving of the mother’s life is the end. Given that you can’t achieve that goal without the killing, what determines whether DDE allows it is whether saving the mother’s life counts as a higher purpose, and I think reasonable people can disagree on that. In particular, some people think saving the life of a mother is more important than saving the life of a fetus, because the mother is already mature and has preferences for continued life that it would be wrong to frustrate in general if one can prevent it. Other people place a higher value on the fetus’ life because it has potential for much more, whereas the mother has already had a chance to live for awhile. The fetus hasn’t even had that chance.
    Were you thinking DDE doesn’t allow it because you have a particular view on the latter question, or were you understanding DDE differently?

    January 31, 2006 — 16:10
  • Jason Levene

    Hello, my name is Jason Levene and I am engaged in a debate about whether Jesus desired evil in Gethsemane and I base my positon that he did desire evil on the following 3 points:
    1. Jesus did not want to go to the cross (Matthew 26:39).
    2. It was God the Father’s will that Jesus go to the cross (Matthew 26:42).
    3. Jesus, in his temptation (Hebrew 4:15), thus did not want to fulfill the Father’s will and in this way I believe he desired evil..
    Do you think I am wrong?

    February 24, 2006 — 14:55
  • ck

    Problem is, Jason, the first verse you cite goes on to say that Jesus wants to obey the father’s will as well. So the problem here is a sort of clash of internal wills, not a cut and dry “Jesus doesn’t want to obey.”
    The question is whether wanting to want to obey (a sort of second order desire) is evil.

    February 24, 2006 — 15:42
  • But Jason, the problem is that Jesus did want to go to the cross, at least under the description of wanting to do the Father’s will, which he knew full well was for him to go to the cross.
    It might be accurate to describe him as having a second-order desire that he wished it could be the case that he not go to the cross but also fulfill the Father’s will, an unfulfillable second-order desire but a desire nonetheless. You might abbreviate that by saying he had a desire not to go to the cross. It doesn’t follow, howver, that he didn’t have a desire to go to the cross. He did, as the first paragraph of this comment shows.

    February 24, 2006 — 15:42
  • I think Heath might deny this, but desire does not seem closed under causal consequence. So, (1) is false.
    1. S desires X, and Y is a causal consequence of X (and S knows this), only if S desires Y.
    There are obvious counterexamples to (1). I might desire to eat chocolate. Since I know I’m allergic to it I know it will cause a painful reaction. I don’t desire to suffer the painful reaction. Of course that does not mean that I stop desiring the chocolate. I just have a stronger desire not to eat it.
    Here’s a more plausible closure principle that (I think) is also false.
    1′. S has a stronger desire for X than for ~X, and Y is a causal consequence of X (and S knows this), only if S desires Y.
    I have a stronger desire to get a flu vaccine than not to get one, I know that getting the innoculation will cause some pain, but I do not desire the pain. Or, to offer one other example, Smith might have a stronger desire to be truthful (than not to be truthful) with Smith about his job application. Smith might know that being truthful will cause Jones some pain. But it is perfectly possible that Smith has no desire at all to cause Jones pain.
    How does this apply to Jason’s problem? Here’s one way it could apply.
    1. Jesus has a stronger desire to fulfill the will of the Father than not to do so.
    2. A causal consequence of fulfilling the will of the Father is going to the cross (and He knows this).
    3. But He does not desire to go to the cross.
    (1)-(3) are consistent; they do not involve the bizarre desire to be crucified; and they do not involve a desire for evil. (1)-(3) also makes sense of the plea to fulfill the will of the Father in some other way, if possible. That’s one way to understand the plea at Gethsemane.

    February 25, 2006 — 11:05
  • Jason

    The way I figure it, it’s pretty clear cut and dry. Jesus did not want to go to the cross. It was the Father’s will that he go to the cross. Jesus thus did not want the Father’s will fulfilled (hence his words not my will but yours be done after asking the Father to take the cup away from him).
    Do you think this is right or wrong?

    March 7, 2006 — 9:33
  • Why did Jesus go to the cross anyway if he didn’t want the Father’s will? What was he even saying when he said “not my will but yours be done?” That sounds to me as if he’s saying he wants the Father’s will.

    March 7, 2006 — 11:51
  • Jason

    Why did Jesus go to the cross if he didn’t want to do the Father’s will? Because he was obedient (Phil. 2:8). Jesus’ words ‘not my will but yours be done’ were framed around the request to take the cup away from him. He was letting us know that his will was not to drink of the cup and this will was in contradiction with God the Father’s will. But in Matthew 26:42, Jesus rejected his own will and subjected himself to God the Father’s will that he drink of the cup and go to the cross.

    March 7, 2006 — 21:03
  • Why was Jesus obedient if he didn’t want to be obedient?
    Your argument assumes all the resolutions to this problem above will not work, but you haven’t explained what’s wrong with them, e.g. distinguishing between two conflicting desires Jesus had, the opaque context solution, and so on.

    March 7, 2006 — 21:39
  • Jason

    Jesus was obedient even though he didn’t want to be obedient because that’s what being without sin is all about…choosing God’s will rather than your own will. Take Peter for example. He told Jesus he would give his life him but what did he do when outside the Temple courtyard? He denied Jesus 3 times just as Jesus had predicted. It just seems logical that in order to be obedient, you have to want to be disobedient and reject that disobedient desire.
    And as for Jesus’ desires…I would say Jesus didn’t want to be disobedient to the Father but he did not want to fulfill God the Father’s will…at least not as long as he didn’t want to go to the cross. That I believe was what his words ‘not my will but thy will be done’ meant. He knew his will was in contradiction with God the Father’s will.

    March 8, 2006 — 18:10
  • Jason

    Wait I think that last post needs some clarification. Jesus did not want to be disobedient to the Father in that he wanted the Father to take the cup away from him. He wanted to be obedient to the Father but without the suffering. But here’s why that is evil. If the Father had taken the suffering away from Jesus, there would have been no fulfillment of the prophecies requiring Jesus to suffer in order to be glorified (Luke 24:44). So in essence Jesus disobedient desire was to be obedient to the Father but without the suffering. Hope this clears everything up.

    March 8, 2006 — 18:22