Friday, February 24, 2012

If Christ could not sin, how was he tempted in the desert?

1st Sunday of Lent, Mark 1:12-15
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.
We know that Jesus was truly tempted in the desert, for such is the teaching of Sacred Scripture. And yet, it should be clear that Our Savior could not – he simply could not – sin. The Lord Jesus is impeccable, he cannot sin.
If the Church teaches that Jesus could not possibly sin, in what sense can we affirm that he was tempted in the desert?

Jesus is impeccable – He could not possibly sin
Insofar as we recognize that Jesus Christ is truly God, it is clear that he cannot possibly sin. God cannot sin, therefore Jesus cannot sin. It is impossible to even conceive of Christ sinning without mentally separating and dividing his divine and human natures – that is, one cannot think that Jesus could sin without becoming a Nestorian heretic.
But, one says, “Jesus isn’t only God, he is also man. Therefore, his human nature allows him to have the possibility of sinning.”
Clearly this cannot be the case: For a nature does not sin, but a person. And Jesus is a Divine Person, therefore, as God and as man, he cannot possibly sin. If Jesus could sin, then it would not be a man sinning, but God sinning through a human nature – and this is absurd.
It is simply and absolutely impossible for Christ to sin, because he is God and God cannot sin.
Further, we add that, even in his humanity, our Savior could not sin because his human will was perfectly united to his divine will; and his human intellect enjoyed an immediate knowledge and vision of God.
Thus, although the human will is the type of thing which can sin (because it is not divine), yet Christ’s human will was so elevated by the grace of the hypostatic union as to be entirely free from every possibility of sin.
The Second Council of Constantinople condemned Theodore of Mopsuestia for claiming that it was only after the Resurrection that Jesus became impeccable and entirely unable to sin. Thus, Christians are not free to think that Jesus could have possibly sinned at any time during his life on earth.
But, if Jesus couldn’t sin, was he really free?
Of course our Savior had free will! After all, the ability to sin does not make us more free, but less free. God cannot sin, and so he is absolutely free –his freedom is essentially greater than our freedom, in fact.
Further, the saints in heaven (together with the angels) cannot sin – for they enjoy the fullness of the beatific vision – and they are most certainly free. (cf. CCC 1045)
What a terrible thought, that being free from sin would make us a slave! It is knowledge and truth (together with goodness and beauty) which makes us free, not sin – And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:32)
Sin and the ability to sin do not make us free, but rather enslave us: Whosoever committeth sin, is the servant of sin. Now the servant abideth not in the house for ever; but the son abideth for ever. If therefore the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. (John 8:34-36)
The confusion comes from misrepresenting the true meaning of freedom. Freedom is the ability to choose, but the choice to sin is actually a lessening of choice. Evil is not a positive reality, but is a deficiency, a tendency toward non-being. Thus, the sinfulness of an action is that action’s tendency toward non-existence and non-being. Further, the creature’s “ability” to sin is an expression of its tendency toward non-being.
Thus, it should be clear that the choice to sin is itself a movement toward non-existence. If that movement and tendency toward nothingness be taken away, then the creature becomes progressively more free. God is pure being, pure existence – and therefore, he is perfect goodness with no admixture of evil or of sin, nor even of the possibility of sin.
Freedom is the ability to do what one wills, but the will is attracted to goodness. Hence, if the will is fully alive (and informed perfectly by the intellect) it will be attracted to the good infallibly – and this means that the human will, when the intellect enjoys the beatific vision, cannot possibly be attracted to evil or to sin. Yet, the man is free, for he does whatever he will – but he can now only will that which is good, that which the will is naturally directed towards.
Jesus only suffered external temptations
Notice that Scripture does not simply say that Jesus was tempted, but that he was tempted by Satan.
We began this article by asking: “If Christ could not sin, how was he tempted in the desert?” And the answer is simple: He was tempted not by any defect of his will, nor by any sinful inclination, but by Satan (that is, from an exterior temptation).
There are three types of temptation: From the world, from the flesh and from the devil. Now, it is clear that Jesus could not possibly be tempted by the flesh – for this refers to the tendency toward non-existence, the interior attraction to sinfulness. But, Jesus could not sin, therefore he could not be tempted interiorly by the flesh.
However, our Savior was most certainly tempted by both the world and the devil – for these are exterior temptations, insofar as they do not originate within a man, but come from other forces which act upon him. The world tempted Christ through men who sought to entice him with vain and worldly glory, or who attempted to terrify him through the threat and execution of punishments. But these temptations did not weaken his will for even a moment – and hence there was no sin involved in his part, nor was there even the possibility of sin.
The devil tempted Christ when he was in the desert. But this too was an exterior temptation which did not, even for the slightest moment, turn his human will from the divine mission.
And yet, we must admit that these were real temptations.
The mere fact the Jesus did not and could not sin, do not make the temptations any less real. Is a temptation less real because we do not consent to it? Of course not! Is a temptation not a temptation if we push it aside immediately and without giving in to sin at all? No! Then, if our consent does not make a temptation any less real, why would the temptations in the desert be less real simply because Christ did not and could not possibly consent to sin?
Rather indeed, we say that our Savior suffered temptation in a manner even more grievous than we – for we have many times given into temptation early on, and thus the temptation ends and the sin begins; but our Lord never gave in, but instead bore the temptation to the end without the least consent of the will.
But he was tempted like us in all things!
St. Paul writes: For we have not a high priest, who can not have compassion on our infirmities: but one tempted in all things like as we are, without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)
Yes, Christ was indeed tempted, but not in those ways which involve sin – i.e. he was not tempted through an interior weakness of the will. Thus, he was tempted just was we are, excepting in those ways which involve sin.
Indeed, we can see that there are several ways in which we are tempted but in which Christ could not have been tempted: We are tempted by memories of past sins (but Christ had no past sins), we are tempted by doubt (which could not be in Christ), and many other ways besides.
Our Lord could not suffer any temptation as an interior struggle arising from his human will. However, he could be tempted through an exterior struggle against Satan and the world. And this was real temptation, which extended to every aspect of the human soul, but was without sin and without even the possibility of sin.


Sam said...

Is it a sin to desire something sinful but reject it? Is interior attraction sinful in itself even if the act is rejected?

For example, if a man were tempted to lust after a woman, but pulled his eyes away, would the desire to look at her be sinful? Or would it only be sinful if he gave in and lusted?

A Sinner said...

It might help to remember that "temptation" just means "testing." Jesus's will was certainly tested by the world and the devil. It was tested and found utterly impervious to the attempts to derail it. But testing something infallibly destined to still testing it. If I'm testing a train's ability to not derail in high winds, the fact that the train is too heavy and steady to ever be tipped off the tracks by wind doesn't mean that putting it through the wind tunnel isn't still a test, or that it didn't still have to resist the force of the wind with the force of its own mass and inertia. That's still a test.

Tito Edwards said...

If Satan is a fallen angel, that means he had perfect knowledge from day one. Hence he knew Jesus was unable to be tempted.

Yet, if Scripture states that Satan tempted him, that can only mean that Satan did not know that Jesus was the Son of God.

Which begs the question, that with perfect knowledge and that Jesus is infinite, ie, He was there when Satan was created, then Satan did not recognize that Jesus was the Son of God when He appeared on Earth?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Most of the Church Fathers hold that Satan did not realize that Jesus was true God.
Indeed, Satan does not have perfect knowledge of all things -- he is still limited, being a creature (even if a powerful creature).

The flesh of Christ hid his divinity ... especially, because our Lord was hungry (after the 40 day fast), Satan doubted whether Jesus was truly divine.

Great question! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Interior temptations are not sins in themselves, but they are the result of sin.
That is, without original sin and concupiscence, a man would never suffer interior temptations.

This is another reason why our Lord was not tempted interiorly (in addition to being God, and possessing the beatific vision as man).

Hope it is clearer now! +

Dismas said...

"Further, the saints in heaven (together with the angels) cannot sin – for they enjoy the fullness of the beatific vision – and they are most certainly free. (cf. CCC 1045)"

Does this mean that Satan and all the fallen angels weren't in Heaven and didn't enjoy the fullness of the beatific vision? If they enjoyed the fullness of the beatific vision prior to their fall and could not sin, how did they manage to get cast out of Heaven?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

That is correct ... Satan (and all the angels) did not start off with the beatific vision -- even though they were craeted in the state of grace, they had a moment to choose before being given the beatific vision.

Thus, Satan was cast of "heaven", meaning of the "upper parts", not meaning heaven proper -- after all, many times when Scripture says "heaven" or the "heavens", we are to understand something other than heaven proper (e.g. the birds are in the "heavens").

Thanks for the question, and helping me to clarify a bit! +

Michelangelo said...

Dear Father,

Excellent explanation! The little phrase that helps me to keep clear in my mind the Church's teaching on Christ as True God and True Man is:

Jesus is one "Who" and two "Whats".

He is one Divine Person with two natures, a Divine and a Human nature. He took on His Human nature at the Annunciation when He was conceived of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Mother. God bless you, Father.

Michelangelo said...

Dear Father,

On the related subject of Jesus's Agony in the Garden where He prays to the Father to let this chalice of suffering pass, but "not My will but Thine be done". I think you mentioned this in a previous post, but is it proper to say that Jesus experienced the normal healthy dread of suffering, that function of our nervous system and mind which kick into gear when, for example, we learn we must have what we fear will be painful surgery? This isn't temptation per se, but it is the body "doing its thing" to help us to avoid danger. Thank you and God bless.

Passerby said...

I have already heard this kind of explanation, and I always find it hollow in one way for which I have yet to find a satisfactory answer. So, let me ask here. This article discusses in great length how the ability to sin does not make us more free, but less free. Yet, to the question why there is so much evil in the world, the standard answer is that the evil is the consequence of human freedom. Note that in this case notion 'freedom' must include the ability to sin, otherwise that answer would be plain stupid. Now, if we are to claim that it is not quite so, and that taking away the ability to sin makes one more free, we are back to square one with the question why there is so much evil in the world. In that case, one has every right in asking why then couldn't God make Adam free in that way that he has not the ability to sin, since then we would have both freedom and no evil and suffering.

Father S. said...

This points to a larger issue in terms of understanding. In my experience, many Catholics (at least here in the Midwest) have the sense that temptation and sin are equivalent. In point of fact, they are quite different. Sin requires a human act, i.e., an act composed of desire, judgement, and an act of the will. In short, sin requires cooperation with temptation.

When any person is tempted, there cannot be sin unless that person averts to the sin that is suggested. Desire, in itself, is not sinful.

Kind Regards,
Father S.

David Urbanski said...

I noticed this morning that the verbs used in the first line of this passage are very vivid and strong: ekballei in Greek and expulsit in the Vulgate. In Mark, the very moment after Jesus is given his mission ("with you I am well pleased") the Spirit immediately "throws him out" into the desert. The Latin verb is the same used to mean "expel" or "disown." It's as if Jesus is disowned by God. I don't know how this fits into the discussion exactly, but as I read it, it certainly cast a very human kind of empty loneliness onto the scene. Not despair, but a desolation of some kind it seems.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Mr. Edwards, A Bishop Fulton J. Sheen noted in , "Life of Christ," the Devil did not know that Jesus was The Messiah and so Satan began his tempting by saying, "If..".

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

If I understand your comment correctly, then yes -- God could have made the world without sin, he could have created Adam not only in grace but with the beatific vision such that he could not sin (and there would still be freedom).

Indeed, these explanations of evil which say that "in order to give man freedom, God had to allow for the possibility of sin" are radically contrary to the Catholic and Christian Tradition.
They became popular only after the rise of Protestantism and the modern era.

The better answer is that God had no obligation to make a world entirely without sin. He had no obligation to make the world at all.
But, allowing us to fall into sin, God shows us great mercy insofar as he saves at least some.
Hence, sin and evil are permitted in order that God may bring about some greater good and also show us his mercy.

Peace! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes, I believe you are correct ... insofar as avoiding pain is considered as an instinct, our Savior did indeed avoid the suffering of the Cross.
However, there was not the slightest weakness in his will.

Peace! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Father S.,
You are correct that temptation (even interior temptation) is not sin per se -- because concupiscence is not sin.
However, we must also be clear: Christ did not suffer from concupiscence and so could not have had any interior temptations.

"Desire, in itself, is not sinful" (as you say). But, our Savior could not have had even an inordinate desire ... because he had no original sin, and because he enjoyed the beatific vision, and because he is God himself.

Peace! +

Passerby said...

Thank you for your straight answer. If you put things that way, then there is indeed no this kind of problem, but then we have a God that creates men to suffer for his own pleasure. As they say in an article on evil on catholic encyclopedia - God has not made the world primarily for man's good, but for His own pleasure. The problem is I kind of don't like such God, but I suppose that's the matter of taste. Thank you anyway.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

The traditional Catholic theory would not promote this horrible idea of God which you put forward.

God creates man out of goodness and love. Where what is given is not demanded, but an act of generosity, there can be no judgment against God.
They say "Don't look a gift-horse in the mouth" ... I see the goodness of God in creating the world, and it is to our benefit (not for his pleasure, but for ours).

Greg L said...


Are you asserting that it was ontologically impossible for Jesus to sin or "merely" logically impossible?

I ask because in the Office of Readings for the First Sunday of Lent we read in Augustine's commentary on Psalm 62 that "[I]f he (Jesus) were not tempted he could not teach you how to triumph over temptation."

If Jesus were ontologically incapable of sin then any temptation, whether interior or exterior, would seem to be no temptation at all thus making the divide became Jesus and us insuperable However, if sin were ontologically possible but logically impossible (i.e. due to the perfect conformance of the human will to the divine) then we would be able to "learn" from Jesus' example.

I would appreciate your thoughts.

In Christ,

Passerby said...

Wouldn't promote? Well, I don't know how trustworthy catholic encyclopedia is, but I quote:

Secondly, to the question why God should have chosen to create, when creation was in no way needful for His own perfection, St. Thomas answers that God's object in creating is Himself; He creates in order to manifest his own goodness, power, and wisdom, and is pleased with that reflection or similitude of Himself in which the goodness of creation consists. God's pleasure is the one supremely perfect motive for action, (...) This is accordingly the sufficient reason for the existence of the universe, and even for the suffering which moral evil has introduced into it. God has not made the world primarily for man's good, but for His own pleasure; good for man lies in conforming himself to the supreme purpose of creation, and evil in departing from it (C.G., III, xvii, cxliv).

As for that gift-horse, that argument tacitly supposes that one is fond of horses which doesn't have to be the case. Taken that supposition away we have a situation that one is given (imposed?) a horse he has no specific desire for, which he can't return, and which by the way has bad teeth. As I said, it seems to be a matter of taste. I for example can't see the goodness and generosity in creating a world which has evil and suffering in it, if one could have created a world without it, especially if we are to claim that he could have done so and even preserve freedom and consequently love and all the other good stuff that goes with it.

deum videre said...

Can we, please, go back to the fallen angels for a while? If they fell because they said 'non serviam', but didn't do so in perfect knowledge and beatific vision, then how come there is no way that God can ever forgive them? I always thought that the Catholic teaching was that there can be no atonement for the sin of the fallen angels exactly because it was committed in full knowledge and while enjoying beatific vision. Please clarify this for me.

Father S. said...

@ Father,

I don't disagree. Did I lead you to think otherwise?

As it happens, even inordinate desire is not sinful. This is something that needs to be very clear. The lack of clarity is what leads people to identify a call to avoid cooperation with inordinate desire with rejection of the person. (e.g., same-sex desire)

Kind Regards,
Father S.

mrd said...

I am understand what your are trying to say, but the puzzle to me, is if one is not at all attracted to the evil how is one tempted? Example If I am a billionaire I simply would not be attracted to steal 1000.00. If I am married to a sports illustrated model, its unlikely I will be tempted to seek a prostitute. How could Jesus be tempted in a meaningful sense if Sin is not attractive on any level, even the good component of the sin ( for the will is only attracted to the good)

Anonymous said...

Allow me to discuss the statement, "God cannot sin, and so he is absolutely free –his freedom is essentially greater than our freedom, in fact." My question is about God's will. Since God is perfect, for God to make a choice implies that there are two or more ways in which perfection is attainable. Perhaps, in His perfection, God does not choose but simply and directly does the perfect thing. Like creating every possible universe which a perfect being can be fulfilled with. Can anyone prove that God makes choices?

Nick said...

A very good Scriptural argument to make is from Hebrews 3, directly quoting Psalm 95.

7 Wherefore, as the Holy Ghost says [in Ps 95]:
Today if you shall hear his voice, 8 harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the desert, 9 where your fathers **tempted me**, proved and saw my works, 10 forty years: for which cause I was offended with this generation, and I said: They always err in heart. And they have not known my ways. 11 As I have sworn in my wrath: If they shall enter into my rest.

Here the Scriptures plainly say that God was "tempted" by the Israelites. This is the same Greek word for "tempt" as used for Jesus. The only acceptable understanding is that of an external provocation, without the slightest suggestion that God could ever succumb.

This is a good text to know when speaking with Jehovah's (False) Witnesses, because they say Jesus could not be Divine since He was tempted.

Unknown said...

Very good reflections father! Extremely insightful. I've never really considered these theological questions before. Eastern Catholic theologies might differ from you on some points, but the overall thrust is the same. I'll go and think about it some more and maybe see if I can dig up some legitimate differences in theological opinion to continue the conversation.

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Anonymous said...


If evil is "a tendency toward non-being" (the Augustinian position), what kind of ontological status has Satan?

Charles said...


Passerby,I believe,that the only pleasure which God created the world for is to get back all souls.

So the pleasure through creating this world,which God is pleased with, is the acquiring back not only all souls,Jesus spirit substance since all by Him,but also the flesh body on the last day which their origin,I believe,are Lucifer and His
angels. This is the charity,love and mercy of God through His Son Jesus.

Also it is through our behaviour both by being in this world and with nature in general,which determines our future in the next world.The more we love the world,and our flesh,the more we are away from God,so in a way the world itself is not a friend of God.

Regarding Jesus'temptation,I believe that Jesus' soul was not under the grip of Satan,like humans were, through Adam's sin.

So the fact that Jesus was the redeemer,it was vital for Him to be immaculate in order to be free from all evil influences in whatever way they would come.

This is confirmed in Luke 4:13And when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season.

14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee:

So here scripture is confirming that when Jesus was in the desert,He was not in the power of the spirit,which means He was as a normal human being,and this gives us a good reason why He was tempted.

I am expecting your correction father.

stephenj said...

The temptation refers, i think, to Satan's behavior rather than Jesus' behavior. There was an effort made by the devil to divert our Lord from his task. There is no scriptural indication that the devil was successful in this effort. The effort to cause one to sin is in itself the sinful part of the interaction. That our Lord was not deceived into sin is entirely unsurprising. Doubtless his human nature fully understood the efforts of the adversary. Scripture does not dwell on any aspect of an internal struggle, and it need not: even the notion that Jesus was in fact tempted through the efforts of the devil is rather laughable. The semantic argument here is really the source of the confusion: Just because person 1 tries to tempt person 2 does not necessarily imply any sin at any level for person 2.

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Anonymous said...
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yan said...

Hi Fr.,

Simple question I think [for a change]: if the devil didn't know Jesus was the Son of God, how do we explain the gospel passages which state that the demons knew who He was?


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Nicholas said...

Tito Edwards said...
If Satan is a fallen angel, that means he had perfect knowledge from day one. Hence he knew Jesus was unable to be tempted.

Yet, if Scripture states that Satan tempted him, that can only mean that Satan did not know that Jesus was the Son of God.

Which begs the question, that with perfect knowledge and that Jesus is infinite, ie, He was there when Satan was created, then Satan did not recognize that Jesus was the Son of God when He appeared on Earth?
February 24, 2012 9:53 AM
Father Ryan Erlenbush said...
Most of the Church Fathers hold that Satan did not realize that Jesus was true God.
Indeed, Satan does not have perfect knowledge of all things -- he is still limited, being a creature (even if a powerful creature).

The flesh of Christ hid his divinity ... especially, because our Lord was hungry (after the 40 day fast), Satan doubted whether Jesus was truly divine.

Great question! +
February 24, 2012 11:41 AM

Sorry for reviving a long done topic. I just feel uneasy with the theory that the Devil did not know Jesus was the Son of God as the event was preceded by His baptism (Mt 4:13; Mk 1:9; Lk 3:2). At the baptism, the Father announced "This is my Son, the Beloved; he is my Chosen One.

Please help me in my lack of understanding.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

To those who made purely anonymous comments...
I have asked many times that all comments have at least a pseudonym attached.
You have till noon Pacific time to claim your comments, or they will be deleted.

Once a comment is claimed, then I will consider answering.

At least use a name/pseudonym at the end of the comment ... like so,

- Fr. Ryan

mrd said...

Dear Father:
Again trying to understand this, to be troublesome temptation has to be "attractive" in some fashion. I am not attracted to every kind of sin. No one is. So most people are tempted in this or that manner depending on their own flaws. It is not a "temptation" to me to offer an opportunity to do something sinful that I simply have no attraction to. Just to make the point, clear It is simply impossible for a heterosexual to be tempted to indulge in homosexual activity, they would not find this sin at all attractive. So a temptation here is impossible, or at least meaningless. Now in the Case of Jesus you are stating that no sin would of course be in any way attractive, and this is of course consistent with the traditional teaching. I do not dispute it. Still do you not think then it is paradoxical to describe his encounter with the Devil as "temptation", I am not sure what the word could possibly mean in this context. It would seem that a temptation must be at least attractive to some degree or one is not "tempted" Again I am not "tempted" to engage in some activities so it is rather effortless to not engage in them, regardless of whether they are sinful or not. If this was True of Jesus regarding anything sinful, ie he has no desire for it, what do we mean by temptation?
I think this is a paradox, that is not easily answered by the traditional teaching.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Greg L,
I do not believe something could be a "logical" impossibility while at the same time being an "ontological" possibility.

I just don't understand.
If 2 + 2 cannot logically equal 5, then 2 apples and 2 apples most certainly cannot ontologically equal 5 apples.

So to, if God cannot sin (as a logical impossibility), then most certainly it is an ontological impossibility for Jesus to sin.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

In one sense, God made the world for his pleasure ... insofar as he was not obligated to do so.
On the other hand, it is out of love for us that he created us.
He does not benefit from creation, we do.

And thus, to say that you don't really care for "horses" (mocking my analogy of looking a gift-horse in the mouth), is a very silly thing ... you are saying that you don't really care whether you exist or not and that, if your existence is not just as you like it, then you may well rather not exist at all.

Such ingratitude!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Deum Videre,
please look at my earlier article on why hell is eternal ...

Here you will see why the angels only make one choice for or against God.
It is part of their very nature (and our souls are similar to this after the separation from the body).

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Father S.,
I presumed that we were in complete agreement, but only wanted to make it very clear for others (besides yourself) that Jesus not only did not sin, but was not even the subject of inordinate desires.

Peace! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Jesus would see the good in all actions (even in sinful actions), but would not be attracted to that good in an inordinate or irrational way.
Thus, the temptation could only be exterior, but was still a real temptation (insofar as our Savior was assaulted from without).

A temptation does not become real only when the will consents, after all.
Think more on this truth, and you will see the meaning of the traditional doctrine.

Peace to you! And keep searching! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

God is not free (in the sense we normally say "free") when it comes to things within the Trinity.
The Father could not have done anything other than generate the Son, for example.
Still even here there is a freedom which is beyond what we can comprehend -- for God is not in any way restricted by either nature or being or by any outside force.
It is a mystery indeed!

When it comes to the world, God is free insofar as he did not need to create the world, and he could have made it either better or worse than it is.
So he had/has many choices there!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You are mostly correct ... except that, when in the desert, Jesus was not a "mere man" or a "normal human being" ... he was (and always will be) fully God and fully man.
However, his divinity was hidden through the weakness brought on from the fast.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Good points!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

The demons (and Satan himself) did not know with certainty, but they suspected.

However, during periods of great suffering, Jesus seemed to be a mere man and to be abandoned by God ... hence Satan tempted him in the desert and inspired the Romans and Jews to conspire to kill him.

Had Satan known with certainty that Jesus is God, he would never have had him put to death -- since he would know that this would bring about his [Satan's] destruction.

Peace to you! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

See my above comment to Yan.

Satan suspected but was not sure.
Especially when Jesus was weak through suffering and bodily fatigue, Satan thought "perhaps he is only a prophet?" and "has God abandoned him?"

Anonymous said...


If evil is "a tendency toward non-being" (the Augustinian position), what kind of ontological status has Satan?"


PS. I posted as anonymous because there are no other viable identity choices for me.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thank you for using a pseudonym at the end of your comment ... that is just fine!

Satan is not pure evil, else he would not exist. Rather, there is some good in him -- and in this sense he still participates in God.
Satan and God are not polar opposites ... Satan in no way is comparable to God, as an evil counter-god.

Rather, he is a mere creature, who participates in God's goodness ... but does not participate in the supernatural goodness of salvation.

Hope that is clearer now! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Several purely anonymous comments (not having even a pseudonym placed at the bottom of the comment) which were unclaimed, have been deleted.

In the future, all wholly anonymous comments will not even be posted.

It is just too difficult to try to respond to numerous "anonymouses" ... if you want to join the discussion, have the good manners to provide a name or pseudonym.

Richard A said...


I don't think you quite understand how temptation and sin actually work in our lives. Several years ago a powerful Chicago congressman - was it Dan Rostenkowski? - was compelled to resign when the extent of his financial corruption was revealed. What struck me at the time was the incredulity of some observers at how a man as rich as he was would stoop to diverting something like $5400 from his office's postal allowance into his personal account. And of course, Tiger Woods is, or was, married to a Sports Illustrated model. Which did not serve to keep him from the other pretty ladies, did it?

If you have a billion dollars, it will be because you like having money. Even another 100 grand. If you have a swimsuit model wife - unless her appearance is far down the list of her attractive qualities - it will be because you like the pretty girls. And you will notice your wife is not the only one.

Your Conscience said...

Dear Father Ryan Erlenbush, comments submitted under "Anonymous" are in fact submitted under the pseudonym "Anonymous" and were in fact openly invited for posting under that pseudonym by you/your blog. It may come across as lacking in "good manners", indeed hypocritical, for you to then allege that such posters lacked "good manners" for having accepted your invitation, for using the pseudonym you so kindly offered. Again, such posters did provide a pseudonym, indeed the one you offered them to use: "Anonymous", and they were accepting your/your blog's own invitation to post as such. If you find it difficult to try to respond to numerous "Anonymouses", your blog gives you a tool: the date/time of the post. For example, "Anonymous 11:44 AM". Perhaps your blog also gives you the opportunity to remove the "Anonymous" pseudonym from your blog's menu choices, for I've seen many other blogs that seem to have done that rather than invite and then insult the invited guests.

Questor said...

Dear Fr. Ryan Erlenbush,

If "It is simply and absolutely impossible for Christ to sin... even in his humanity, our Savior could not sin", can you tell us, why does the Catholic Church teach the following:

(1) "Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom." (CCC#1861)

(2) "the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning... is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach." (CCC#1732)

According to CCC#1861, it seems that if Jesus had "human freedom", then there must have been "a radical possibility of mortal sin". And conversely, if it was impossible for Jesus to sin, then Jesus did not have "human freedom", i.e. he -lacked- human freedom.

Likewise, according to CCC#1732, it seems that if the acts of Jesus were in any way human, or if there was any "basis of praise" for Jesus (or God), then there was "the possibility of... sinning". Otherwise, there's no "basis of praise" for Jesus or God.

How do you explain this seeming contradiction without saying that the Catechism is not saying what it says?

And if Jesus was not tempted "by any defect of his will, nor by any sinful inclination" nor "by the flesh", then what is the sense in saying that Jesus was tempted in "all things like as we are"? If it's "excepting in those ways which involve sin", i.e. if it's not all things like as we are, then how is that "all things like as we are"? What exactly does the phrase "all things like as we are" really mean?

Another translation such as "similarly been tested in every way" might be used, but that too seems problematic, as how could Jesus have been tested "similarly" and "in every way" if he was not inclined in the same ways and to the same things as other people? For example, we don't "similarly test in every way" how a man would react in space by sending a rock into space, do we? And how could a man be tested "in every way" in just a relatively few days time? Indeed, to test "in every way" in just a few days time would mean not testing over a longer period of time, and thus not be "in every way".

Maybe you might answer the question if asked differently: How does Jesus "sympathize with our weaknesses" if he doesn't have and never has had our weaknesses?

Thank you for your patience.

Questor said...

Fr. Ryan Erlenbush, I take note of your statement that "Had Satan known with certainty that Jesus is God, he would never have had him put to death -- since he would know that this would bring about his [Satan's] destruction."

That raises some questions: Did Satan have to "know with certainty" in order to "bring about his [Satan's] destruction"? If not, did he also not know that too?

And by "certainty", do you mean "moral certainty" or do you mean "absolute certainty"? Which is the standard for bringing about one's destruction?

And had not Satan already "brought about" his [Satan's] destruction before Jesus was put to death, in the sense that he had already committed a capital offense of some sort?

Again, thank you for your patience.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Your Conscience,
When a person leaves a comment, above the box where the comment is written one will find the following:

"If you want your comment to be published: Use a name or pseudonym, and keep it short (generally, less than 100 words), to the point, and civil.

All comments must be approved by a blog-administrator. If your comment is deleted, please don't take it personally."

I do not remove the ability to post as "anonymous" because I want to allow people to post without having a subscription to blogger or other such accounts.
Still, it is extremely difficult to try to respond to many different comments when I can't tell whether they are from the same person or different people.

Why don't you start your own blog? Then you can allow free speach to whomever you choose. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You ask a couple of very good questions!

1) CCC 1861 is very clearly speaking of human freedom in this life of viatores, prior to the beatific vision.
In heaven, the saints are free, though mortal sin no longer remains a possibility.
Yet, to be clear, it is indeed true that the human will is in itself (as a creature) capable of sin ... and in this sense, we may even say that Christ's human will (considered as a creature, in itself and not as "of Jesus") was "capable of sin" ... however, in concrete reality, Jesus could not possibly sin ... and thus, he was totally free.

2) Regarding the question of growing in merit ... it is true that Christ merited all things in the very first moment of his existence ... indeed, he did not essentially grow in holiness or in merit throughout his life.
This is a mater of faith ... and your intuition here is correct. Christ, because he possessed the beatific vision, did not grow in holiness or in merit throughout his life, but was full of grace and perfect in merit from the first moment of his existence.

Finally, regarding Christ's temptations ... Scripture says (in a most literal translation), he was "tempted in all things in like manner - apart from sin" ... meaning, he was tempted in every way we are, excepting in those which arise from sin.

For example: Do you really think Jesus was tempted from memories of past sins? Of course not! It is blasphemy.

Likewise, he was not tempted from concupiscence, because he did not have original sin.

Without weakness of the will, he could only suffer exterior temptations ... and he suffered them to the end, in a manner far greater than we have. +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I have not been very clear ... what I mean to say is that Satan DID NOT know with certainty (not even moral certainty) that Jesus was God ... and this is why he had him put to death ... had he known, he would have realized that the death of Jesus would bring about the salvation of sinners -- and he would never had desired to have Jesus put to death.

So, the "destruction" of Satan, of which I speak, does not refer to his fall from heaven, but to the harrowing of hell.

Hope it is clearer now! +

P Dan Long said...

Re: gift horse with bad teeth. I quote:
And thus, to say that you don't really care for "horses" (mocking my analogy of looking a gift-horse in the mouth), is a very silly thing ... you are saying that you don't really care whether you exist or not and that, if your existence is not just as you like it, then you may well rather not exist at all.

Such ingratitude!
Dear Fr. I was hoping for a better response than that. I am a catholic priest for 18 years and I see many young people- due to many sinful situations, etc... saying" " I prefer not to" why should I live, I did not ask to be born, I never wanted to be, so I will live my life as I see fit or take my life...." to respond to them "such ingrates" is to not hear their pain and confusion.... And also a question I find hard to answer--- why would such a good God, who wants me to freely love him, leave me only the "choice" of loving the "gift horse" (right now I am dealing with a woman who was abused by her father for over 8 years)... loving him, accepting the cross, or living forever in hell.... why can't this Good God, there seems to be no alternative, between God or hell (after this life) it would seem, if I could choose hell, nothingness or God, I would willingly choose nothings- preferring never to have lived than heaven or hell--- there are people so damaged that would say it would have been if I never had been born (Job)... how is it freedom when the choice is God's way or no way (hell).... Fr. DL

Passerby said...

Father, you say:

you are saying that you don't really care whether you exist or not and that, if your existence is not just as you like it, then you may well rather not exist at all. Such ingratitude!

Yes, that is precisely what I am saying. And calling it 'ingratitude' isn't much of an argument, you are aware of that? I mean, this kind of thing angers me. When you call me ingrateful, you actually suppose the thing that you should prove. The thing being the goodness and the beauty of the world. I honestly said I don't like it. Should I lie?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I'm sorry ... I am not clear on what it is you are looking for.

If you are searching for pastoral counsel, that is one thing.
If you are hoping to engage in theological discussion, that is quite another.

The comment box here is really only suited to theological discussion ... feel free to email me if you want to talk on a more pastoral level.

Regarding the theological point: It is a simple axiom that being is good ... it is not the type of thing which can be proven ... though to deny it can be shown absurd -- since, if being is not good, then there is utterly no meaning at all.

If you are seriously doubting whether existence is worth it ... the only advice I can give here is that you should get off the internet, get off the blogs, go to your local parish priest and talk with him.
Get in touch with family or friends quickly, don't be alone for any extended period.
Find a counselor quick (your parish priest should be able to help with this).

Peace to you. +

Anonymous said...

The difference between people and animals: I think someone like Passerby could feel painfully – excruciatingly – the dilemma presented (loving all-powerful God, yet world of evil and horrible temporal suffering and existence of hell) without being suicidal, if such a person recognized that they have an indestructible soul and hence have no power to put themselves completely out of existence. (They’d be in even less in danger of suicide if they also believe in hell.) Such a one would not seek suicide, but rather understanding – but they’d seek it rather urgently, desperate for an answer to the intellectual dilemma so painful to them. Apparent contradictions such as Passerby is struggling with, Fr DL re-articulating, are surely able to be resolved…
- T

Passerby said...

But this is theological discussion, isn't it? We are discussing what freedom is, and where the supposition that man can be free even without possibility to sin leads us. You now say that goodness of existence is an axiom. Yes, I agree, within that theory it is an axiom. But let us now consider where does that axiom, together with human (but no Jesus-human) kind of freedom, lead us. You are aware that my thinking existence not worth it is a sin within that worldview? Therefore, in thinking existence not worth it, I am exercising my human (no Jesus) kind of freedom. And it is not pleasant, you can take my word for it. If I didn't have that kind of freedom, then I would think existence is real nice. Since I have to exist, that would be much better. What's more, if I keep thinking the way I do till I die, I go to hell. Actually, that's what hell is - not wanting for all eternity something that God wants, which therefore is, and suffering because of it. So, resuming all that, we have a God that out of his pleasure created the world as it is, gave us the ability not to like it, and then said 'if you like it, good for you, if not - go to hell (literally)'. Therefore, something is good by the sheer fact that it is (i.e. exists) and that God is the strongest who makes to be all that is. That is the christian theory, when you get to the bottom of it?

PS. I do think existence not worth it, but I won't kill myself just yet, don’t worry.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

In order to have theological discourse, the basic premises of faith and reason must be already accepted.
Thus, theological discussion is possible for a Catholic and a protestant, but not for a Catholic and an atheist.

Rather, when the fundamental axioms of the faith are not accepted, the discussion must be philosophical.
And a Catholic and atheist can have a philosophical discussion (as can a Catholic and an Hindu).

However, if even the basic premises of philosophy are doubted -- as in the principle of non-contradiction or the fact that being is good -- then even philosophical discourse is impossible.

You have rejected the axiom that being is good ... thus, no, this is not theological nor even philosophical discourse.
Nothing more can be done ... at least, not in terms of rational discussion in comment boxes.

Rather, better to get out and see the beauty in creation, be with other people in friendship, etc. Easier to regain reason in the world than on the web. +

Marko Ivančičević said...

The proposition you are making is only apparently christian. It seems horiffic. But you are missing one big thing. God revealed Himself and all those things. It would be horrible if He didn't. But He did and we can know His Revelation and thus we can be saved from the eternal fires of Hell.

P Dan Long said...

we have a God that out of his pleasure created the world as it is, gave us the ability not to like it, and then said 'if you like it, good for you, if not - go to hell (literally)'. --- passerby summarized well, the apparent dilemma and misconception of the word freedom. It seems there is no freedom (we are not rationally free not to choose God) - my question is most people do not understand freedom and would say there is no freedom in a choice that boils down to heaven or hell. How do you present a simple layman's explication of freedom to such people--- where is their misconception and how to correct it? when they say I only have two choices- heaven or hell- therefore I reject this kind of "game" or choice... ?

Passerby said...

@Father: But you are running from the discussion in a dishonest way. Don't you see that I accepted your axiom in a previous post and then considered what kind of implications that axiom has. Beware, the same axiom within different theories has different implications. For example, both euclidean and non-euclidean geometric theories have lines in it. It's just that lines in non-euclidean theories are no more so straight. The same thing is with the term 'good'. That term has one meaning in everyday speech, but when one considers implications the same term has in your theory, it seems to me it is no more 'so straight'. In everyday speech, good is generally considered as something one would like. In your theory, it is more of a reference point. Just like unit on a number line. It is put somewhere on the line, and if you happen to be on the same side as it is then you are positive, but if you happen to be on the other side then you are negative. In other words the world is as it is, that is the way God liked it, and he is the mightiest of us all, his will is done. He is the reference point. If you like it his way - good for you, you are on the positive side, if not then suffer. To put the same thing another way, I have a question for you - what does the goodness of creation mean to those who are in hell?

PS. As for that counsel of yours, to get out and see the beauty of creation, maybe I am writing this from a wheelchair in an institution with wicked nurses which don't like taking me out? Maybe I am writing this from a basement in Gaza strip/Iraq/Afghanistan, and I can't get out since there are bombs everywhere, while my family and friends are already killed? That is a possibility, isn't it? But alas no, I am writing this from a peaceful and beautiful town in Europe, and I do get out to marvel the beauty of creation (especially nature). But I still don't find it worthy. And it still isn't much of an argument.

Anonymous said...


I am wondering the status of a missing comment I had signed...

It had a question about the implications of existence as a good in itself on our attitudes towards the putting down of animals. I humbly submit that though such – and the questions of Passerby which inspired it - may perhaps lean toward more of a philosophical consideration, the great theologian St Thomas did not shy away from elucidating philosophical considerations for the reader as well as theological ones.

If somehow my signature failed, can this count as “claiming” the comment for publication?

- T

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I'm sorry, the comment must not have gone through.
I didn't delete it ... it must have just been lost in cyber-space.

Truly, apologies.

If you would like to re-submit, please feel free. Though, in truth, I probably won't have time to respond.

Peace to you. +

Anonymous said...


If my may comment on one thing – the idea that you are presenting that good means one thing on one worldview and another thing in another worldview, one thing when spoken of creation another when spoken of God and his nature, I am not sure is fairly stating the case.

Have you ever read the divided line section in Plato’s Republic? That section has helped to shape my (still very imperfect) understanding of what we mean when we say God is good. That passage speaks to the various goods of this world having their origin in a Good surpassing them all.

In other words (as I understand it…), if the sunshine feels good, if the flower looks good, the chocolate tastes good; and (moving towards more intangibles), if the intellectually beautiful order of geometry is good, if the justice of a properly resolved court case is good, if the love of mother for child is good – to the extent that these can all be called good univocally (and I think there’s a readily perceivable – though hard to articulate – way that they can), to that extent (what they have in common) they reveal their Cause, reveal God.

For me, this helps make God’s goodness a bit – just a bit – easier to think about, nearer, more comprehensible, more “real”. I don’t know if I am expressing it well at all though…

It may not directly answer the “problem of evil” aspect of your question, why this good God created the world with so little of his own goodness in it… but it does perhaps reassure that the things we do like about it – the things that really are good, not the bad parts like war and wicked nurses and stubbed toes – those things we wish were all in all – will in fact be all in all when we go to heaven. Provided we choose heaven. I think it may be hard to choose heaven if we think of the wicked and nasty parts of the world as reflecting God’s nature, when – they don’t.

I have a hard enough time understanding / trying to explain goodness of God that I will not make any attempt to try and offer any ideas towards explaining the evil in the world (there are wiser people than I who have and can address that). But perhaps these thoughts are maybe a start towards thinking out at least one aspect to your questions and eventually getting to the whole?

So sorry Fr. Ryan this is very long – if you read it and it is not worth the length, please do not publish. But perhaps ramblings like this are not wholly unproductive…

- T

Anonymous said...

Father Ryan,

Thanks for the insightful article, somehow you've always managed to ask some very enlightening questions that I've never even thought about!

I have a questions related to the discussion in this thread about free-will.

You said that free-will as defined for human beings on earth is actually less free than that possessed by the saints in beatific vision since they are no longer able to choose evil.

I had always thought that the reason God gave us free will is to be able to love him freely, i.e. if we have a choice not to love Him then our choice to love Him is meaningful.

He could have created us to be automatons or robots that are unable to choose not love Him, completely subservient to all His commands. Is this the definition of freedom you are talking about?

It also raises the question about our Blessed Mother, since we praise her Fiat (yes) to the Incarnation so much. If she was unable to say No, why do we even celebrate her Yes?

A final question, is there a reason why only Mary is Immaculately Conceived? Could God also not create everyone in the same way and prevent anyone to go to hell?

Your clarifications on these matters are very much appreciated.


yan said...

Hi Fr., thanks for your reply. You said:

The demons (and Satan himself) did not know with certainty, but they suspected.

However, during periods of great suffering, Jesus seemed to be a mere man and to be abandoned by God ... hence Satan tempted him in the desert and inspired the Romans and Jews to conspire to kill him.

Had Satan known with certainty that Jesus is God, he would never have had him put to death -- since he would know that this would bring about his [Satan's] destruction.

Peace to you! +
February 27, 2012 11:31 AM

3 questions: 1] how do we know that the evil one knew that if Christ were God that His death would fulfill God's plan?

2] I still don't see the textual basis for lowering the degree of knowledge of Christ to mere suspicion when the text says that the demons knew who He was. Isn't the point of view that they did know Him vindicated by virtue of the fact that He told them what to do, and they obeyed Him? 'Come out of him; go into those swine, etc., etc.'

3] would it be reasonable to explain the temptation and the crucifixion [and slaughter of the innocents] despite the demons' knowledge of Christ by reference to their inability to will or do anything but evil?

Anonymous said...

@ Passerby
I realize this post is from some time ago and do not know if my comment will even be posted, but it seems that your idea of freedom is seriously misunderstood. To be free to choose an action does not in any way free you from the consequence of that action. No such thing could exist. However, you are nonetheless free to choose and with that choice, the consequences inherent in it. If this were not so, what good would choice be? Then, and only then, would life be truly meaningless, for no action on my part could yield any result at all, whether for good or evil. To argue that choice should be free of consequence or else, is not in fact ‘free choice’, is to argue for absolute chaos, which is impossible.
As for the goodness of God, He does not want you to choose a specific thing to please Him or for His good. God is complete; He does not need you to do anything for Him. Rather, God pursues you for your good, because you are made to share in Him, an unimaginable gift, and are thus incomplete without Him; He wants you to be whole. It is not a will God exerts on humanity to ‘follow Him or else’, but an ultimate respect for our choice, just as the path He laid out for us isn’t a demand to obey Him, but a road placed with care for our good, which can only be achieved in Him. Would you argue that a parent, telling their child to stay away from a hot stove is concerned only with a totalitarian concept of obedience, or that the parent is demanding a ‘my way or the highway’ ultimatum? No, the parent is concerned for the good of the child. To say that your freedom is a farce because the only choices are to touch the stove or not to touch it, and to bear the consequences of such a choice, is to deny the purpose of choice and thus, become the very realization of meaningless.
All of this said I see good in the fact that you find the world unworthy. You are unsatisfied; that is good because, if you were satisfied, you would not bother to look further. I was just such a person, restless and unsatisfied. I urge you, be restless, demand answers, seek… Most of all be open to what you find.

- Brand New Catholic

Anonymous said...

Thank you Fr. on your article. The way I explain Jesus' temptation is I 1st ask the person what food they really dislike. Then I state if I came to you with a barrel full of that food and asked you to do something and in return you would get that barrel of food, would you do it? You see I just tempted you BUT you were not tempted. Now satan came to Jesus with a barrel full of sin and tempted Jesus BUT Jesus was not tempted.

Lee said...

Satan did not believe that God could create a man that was unable to sin or be tempted by evil. All the effort Satan made to tempt Jesus failed and this is to prove to us that we have a messiah that in nature is like God, righteous, unable to be tempted by evil and incapable of sin. This was the lamb without spot or blemish and the example to us of the perfection we are to follow after. We are to be transformed to be in the image of Jesus who was the image of the invisible God.

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