After I argued against the existence of Satan as a “person” in my last post, someone asked me how I would then account for Jesus’ encounter with Satan in the desert. I confess I have been at a bit of a loss as to how to structure an answer. That is not to say that I don’t have any thoughts on the matter, but rather that any answer that will make sense to my readers needs to be underpinned by a common understanding of Jesus’ mission and what “sin” is. Those are meaty concepts and I could write several posts on each. I even intended just that. But I have decided that a brief explanation will need to suffice and that it is more important to just answer the question. I will unpack the idea of sin, and provide a much more detailed opinion on how I understand Jesus’ mission at a later stage.
My interpretation of the events described in the gospels regarding Jesus’ trials in the desert, rests on a particular understanding of evil and sin. Evil, I would suggest, is not located externally. Nor can “evil” be confined to categorical descriptors for particular actions. That would be to suggest that the action is independent of the actor, and that the actions are independent of their consequences. Instead, I would like to suggest that evil is primarily a relational concept. It is a way of relating to God and to people. Sin, then, rather than being an event, is the process and result of relating to both God and other people in problematic ways. So while some behaviours can certainly be labelled as satanic or evil, they can be classified as such not because they break particular laws, but because of the impact of those actions on our relational structures. I do not think it is coincidental that in almost all of our understandings of the term “evil”, “evil” can be linked to some form of violence. And violence is, crudely put, the extension of our egos at the expense of others. That, by the way, is what I think Jesus is alluding to in the Sermon on the Mount when he says that even those who call their brothers “fools” are committing murder. It is not the act of killing per se that is at the heart of God’s prohibition of murder. It is the violence that destroys peaceful relations that is problematic, and such violence can be achieved through our attitudes towards others as easily as through physical shedding of blood. This link between sin and violence, I think, is key to understanding Jesus’ trials.
An understanding of how Jesus understood his mission is also imperative. According to Dr Jeffrey Gibson in his book Temptations of Jesus in early Christianity, the word that we translate as “temptation” or “trial” with regards to Jesus’ desert experience is, in its origin, a word that uses “trial” as a description of the process of proving, through hardship, one’s worth or commitment; a test of one’s mettle, so to speak. We cannot, then, talk of Jesus’ trials in the desert without understanding what aspects of his mission were at stake if he failed, or in ignorance of what it was to which he needed to prove commitment. If your understanding of what constitutes sin is ‘performing an action forbidden by God’, then Jesus’ trials in the desert would make absolutely no sense. Where does Torah ever caution against the grievous abomination of transforming metamorphic rock into a baked good? Given that Jesus was perfectly happy to transmute well water into merlot by the jarful, how does it make sense that a solitary loaf of bread would be taboo? If you understand sin only as individual actions that transgress a law, this cannot make sense. But if you understand sin as primarily relational, and linked to violence, then the light will go on.
What is at stake in the desert is the very relationship between humanity and God. The satanic, I think, is always linked to our own willingness to use violent means to extend our egos, to fulfil our own desires. What Jesus confronts in the desert is not an external locus of evil that wants to make him do naughty things; it is the dark side of his human nature that shows him the appeal of using his divine nature to satisfy his needs: his physical discomfort, his longing to have his mission understood, his authority recognised, so that he can restore righteous rule to his people. But Jesus resists the allure of the easy way out, of wanton and self-serving uses of his power. He could easily simply coerce people into his service through an overwhelming display of raw power, enforcing his will on them. But he refuses. Just as later, in Gethsemane, he reminds the disciples – as they draw their swords to protect him from arrest – that he is perfectly capable of defending himself should he so choose, but he renounces violence. It is the allure of the ease with which he could become the Davidic warrior Messiah that the disciples expected that causes him to chastise Peter in Matthew 16:23, where he alludes to this construction of the Messiah as being an ‘adversary’ to his mission.
In short, Jesus renounces violence – the forceful extension of ego at the expense of others – in the desert, and not only there, but in Gethsemane, in Caesarea, and probably on several occasions not documented. This was the core of his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. And in these trials, he proved that he was committed to the mission, that he could ‘walk the talk’. And it is just as well he did.
Had he failed in those trials, he would have trapped us in a relationship with a monster God, a violent God, a God willing to use force to make us submit to his will, even if that will is to our benefit. The end does not – nor ever can – justify the means. A peaceful and righteous, God-ruled kingdom cannot come at the price of an abusive relationship. Jesus refused to be the God that throughout the ages we have made him out to be – vengeful, aloof, pious, willing to get his way at all costs, even if that meant sweeping us aside. Instead, he let us hurt him in the name of justice, demonstrated that true evil happens when we turn religious piety into a weapon to accuse and “other”, when we assume our own holiness and compel others to be like us.. In the desert, and on numerous other occasions, it was not a personified, externalised evil over which Jesus triumphed. Even if the writers of the gospels may have understood it that way (And I am not convinced they did. Where, for example, would Jesus have found a mountain high enough to see the whole world, as Matthew’s account narrates?). It was himself, his capacity to act satanically. What was on trial was God’s very commitment to a relationship with humanity that does not require sacred violence. To show us that the shedding of blood as a requirement for atonement was always ours, not his. He was willing to die to show us that instead of forcing us to bow the knee. And then he forgave. Because God is not violent. God is not like us. He was tempted in every way, yet was without sin.