For this third part of our series in examining supposed contradictions and discrepancies in the Bible, I want to look at what role God plays, or doesn’t play, in temptation.
This is an issue that is often brought up by skeptics and atheists as a way to explain their belief that the God of the Bible is logically contradictory. In a 2009 debate against Kyle Butt, atheist Dan Barker cited James 1:13 and Genesis 22:1 in his opening speech, asserting that the God of the Bible cannot logically exist since He cannot both tempt a man (Gen. 22:1) while also not tempting men (James 1:13). This is a good place for us to start.
Does God Tempt People?
Let’s first take a look at the primary text used for this alleged contradiction.
“Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man” James 1:13 (KJV)
“And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham…” Gen. 22:1 (KJV)
If you’re familiar with the story in Genesis 22, you’ll know this is when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. You also may recognize I’m specifically using the King James Version in the above quotation. That’s because the King James Version, a translation from 1611, is one of only three [edit point below] English translations out of the nearly 50 in existence that render it “tempt” here. Yet it’s the one skeptics will use to press the contradiction into service. The word for ‘tempt’ here is the Hebrew word nissa. According to various Hebrew lexicons and dictionaries [citation 1 below], it is more correctly rendered as “test” or “try”. Our understanding of the Hebrew language, as well as the availability of ancient Greek and Latin texts has increased dramatically since 1611. The quality of translations have made significant strides in the last 400 years. Additionally, consider the verse in context and I think you’ll see why “test” is a better translation here.
We should immediately remember that Abraham had already been told by God that through Isaac his seed will be called (Gen. 21:12). If this wasn’t a test, Abraham would’ve been first the one to call God on a contradiction. Considering the promise Abraham had already received, it’s reasonable to assume he thought he was being tested. Additionally, a true temptation is allowed to play out. Not put the brakes on right at the payoff. If we continue reading in Genesis 22, we see that verse 12 confirms this as a test rather than a temptation. “And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.” (Gen. 22:12). Not only do scholarly sources prefer ‘test’ or ‘try’ rather than tempt, the immediate context does as well.
Can God be Tempted?
This next challenge also deals with James 1:13, specifically that part which proclaims that “God cannot be tempted with evil”. Yet the New Testament proclaims the deity of Jesus in no uncertain terms. John 1 says “In the beginning was the Word (Jesus), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Hebrew writer says that Jesus was “in all points tempted as we are” (Heb. 4:15). And of course we have the account of Jesus being tempted directly by Satan in the wilderness. So how could Jesus be God if God cannot be tempted?
The answer to this question lies in understanding, or attempting to understand, Jesus’ self-limitation during his time on earth as a man. Paul describes it in his letter to the Philippians…
“although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:6-8, NASB)
The NIV has a good rendering of this as well, he “made Himself nothing”. When Jesus was tempted he was not ONLY God. He was God AND Man. He subjected himself to the state of a bond-servant and was made in the likeness of a man. This includes all the struggles, trials, and temptations that men face daily. He did not abandon his divine nature, but rather took on an additional human nature. Admittedly this is not a simple concept to grasp, but it is not a contradiction. As the pre-incarnate Word He was God (John 1:1), and when the Word put on flesh he was still by nature God, he had only humbled himself to become the tempted, but perfect Man so he could “be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Cor. 5:21)
Lead Us Not Into Temptation
Even though we’ve dismantled this alleged contradiction between Genesis 22:1 and James 1:13, and despite a reasonable explanation for how Jesus could be God yet also still be tempted, a related issue remains to be dealt with. When instructing his disciples on how to pray, Jesus comes to this part of his prayer, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Mt. 6:13). Does it make sense to pray that God “lead us not into temptation” when we’re assured elsewhere that He doesn’t tempt us?
The explanation used earlier for the word “tempt” in Gen. 22:1 can be used here as well. The Greek peirasmos used here for temptation can also mean “test” or “trial”. In fact, James uses this word as well in his letter yet it is translated as “trials”. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials [peirasmoi] of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. … Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial [peirasmos], because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life” (James 1:2-3; James 1:12). But, let’s assume for the moment that what Jesus meant in his prayer was indeed “temptation”. Do we have a contradiction? To reconcile this we must dive a bit deeper into the character of God.
In doing so I must point out the obvious; the text does not say “don’t tempt us”, it says “do not lead us into temptation”. God is not the tempter, but as the sovereign Lord of all creation He has allowed circumstances to arise in which we are faced with temptation. The prayer to lead us not into temptation is a humble request to spare us those circumstances. But, as the sovereign Lord of all, he is not under any obligation to spare us any hardships, trials, or temptations. Think of the example we just covered previously in which Jesus was tempted by Satan. If the Father would not spare His own Son of such a circumstance, we should not assume we will be spared. The prayer reveals a heart of reliance and dependence on the Father as Lord of our lives and director of our steps. While God does not tempt, He can use temptation to secure His will. In commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham would have been tempted by Satan to disobey. The command led Abraham to that, but Abraham’s obedience demonstrated a faithful heart. God used that to provide a commendation and a promise. The Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness (Luke 4) and there He was tempted by Satan. Jesus overcoming those temptations and His reliance on the Word not only inspires us and exemplifies how we might turn from sin, but also identifies the core issues at stake in the Lord’s mission on earth.
As men and women we face temptation on nearly a daily basis. But we can take confidence in the assurance that God is not tempting us as though he were a puppeteer picking and choosing who he might take down. God allows us the freedom to succumb to that temptation or turn to Him for stability. When we falter, as we all have and do regularly, we must have faith in God to do what the rest of the Lord’s prayer says, “deliver us from evil”. Only in Jesus can we have a hope of being brought up from the pit that our sins drag us down into.
I invite your comments below for questions or challenges to this issue. To view my entire series on Dismantling Alleged Discrepancies, click here.
1 – Brown, Drive, & Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Jennie & Wasterman Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (1997). Botterweck’s Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (1998).
Edit point – Another of the three is the Douay-Rheims American Edition (DRA) published in 1899. The third is the BRG Bible (Blue Red and Gold Letter Edition (yes, I’m serious)) published in 2012. In actuality, the BRG is merely a colorized version of the King James translation as explained here. So in summary, the last true translation to render the Hebrew word nissa as ‘tempt’ was published in the 19th century, but skeptics will continue to flaunt is as a contradiction despite the better translations now available.