The Strangest Temptation

     “Truly, this was the Son of God!” – Matthew 27:54

     Tomorrow begins Holy Week for this Year of Our Lord 2024. If you’re a Christian, you already know the significance of this portion of the calendar. If not: it’s the week when Christians commemorate the entry of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, into Jerusalem, in preparation for his Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

     The Passion of Our Lord was multiply witnessed. Many of those witnesses survived several decades after the event. A fair number of them were themselves tortured to death for maintaining their insistence on what they had seen in the face of Judaic or Roman insistence that they renounce it. Those early years after Christ’s Ascension were, to put it gently, no picnic for those who believed in Him.

     Yet despite that, and despite the extensive documentation of both the Passion and the subsequent sufferings of persecuted believers, it remains – drum roll, please – possible to disbelieve that any of those supposedly witnessed and recorded events really happened. While there is only one route toward belief, there are many avenues to disbelief. The skeptic can tell himself a multitude of doubt-supporting things. A few:

  • “Sentenced to death for preaching without a permit? Ridiculous.”
  • “I’m supposed to trust records two thousand years old? C’mon!”
  • “No one would voluntarily accept being tortured to death.”
  • “It was a con job by a few guys who wanted to be famous.”
  • “If He had Divine power, He could have defended Himself!”

     In the recent, underappreciated movie The Case For Christ, Mike Vogel as Lee Strobel puts the question directly to a Catholic priest:

     Yet for one determined to maintain a skeptic’s stance, even that explanation can be dismissed. “Love? What love is there in death by torture?”

     Which is why I led off with that quote from Matthew.


     Christ’s Resurrection – another multiply witnessed event – could not have happened without His Crucifixion. That approaches tautology. One who has not died cannot be resurrected. And it’s the Resurrection that places the seal of Divine authority on the teachings of Christ. Had He not been resurrected, it would have been easy for the Judaic authorities – remember, it was they who demanded His execution – to say to first-century Judea, “See? There was nothing special about Him!”

     And yes, it can be argued that some other demonstration of Divine authority would have sufficed to persuade the Hebrews that He spoke truly and with authority. But would any other demonstration of power beyond human capacity have expressed the desire to give – to love — as did His acceptance of death on the Cross?

     Skeptics and resolute atheists have never succeeded in disproving the Crucifixion or the Resurrection. It’s their most hated stumbling block, for the Resurrection is Christianity. They dismiss it as a fable and the records of it as fabrications. They pour sarcasm on those who “believe a fairy tale.” But as was depicted in The Case For Christ, proving that it did not happen is beyond them.


     “Those who love cannot help but give.” — Frank Yerby

     In what I regard as my best novel, I put the case for a loving God thus:

     “God, who created all things,” Ray said after refilling all the glasses, “is all things. As they come from Him, they are of Him. His will is in them. But above all else, He is love. Love is the only possible motivation for creating the Universe in the first place: to have something to love that is not identical to Him. It’s why Catholics believe that all of Creation is good, for He would not have created something He could not love.”

     C. S. Lewis, using the viewpoint of his demon-protagonist Screwtape, put it a bit differently:

     We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over.

     If, as Lewis posits, “He [God] wanted to make them [Mankind] Saints; gods; things like Himself,” love is the only credible explanation for Christ’s acceptance of His Passion. Indeed, it’s the only imaginable one. What other gift would have moved a troop of Roman soldiers – they who had crucified Jesus and waited upon His death – to exclaim as they did when He expired, when His Resurrection was still days hence?

     Yet they did.


     You might be wondering why I chose this subject today, just before the beginning of Holy Week. The answer may surprise you: despair.

     Theological despair is the abandonment of hope. Not merely hope in the temporal sense, of course, but hope in eternal life and the possibility of eternal bliss as well. It is the precursor to suicide, for one who elects to destroy the life of his body must have previously surrendered all hope.

     For completeness, I must include here two possibilities I first encountered in one of Larry Niven’s short stories. Perhaps the suicide believes that eternal bliss is guaranteed to all and that it beats temporal existence hollow, so why hang around on Earth? Or perhaps he believes that eternal torment is guaranteed to all, and it’s worse the older you are when you die. I can’t see either of those as consistent with a universe ruled by natural laws, but then, your mileage may vary. In any case, to adopt either of those stances nullifies the virtue of hope. If one’s future is guaranteed – the thesis of the predestinationists – there’s no room for hope, regardless of the nature of that predestined future!

     Of course, suicides that believe either of Niven’s conjectures are vanishingly few. Now and then we hear about a bunch of them — Heaven’s Gate, for example – but they’re obviously not common, else the streets would be littered with corpses. The common suicide disbelieves in any life other than that of the body…and that life, he finds intolerable and hopeless.

     But back to the main point: As Christ was both fully Divine and fully human, He was capable of being tempted. He suffered in His extremity on the Cross the temptation to despair. He expressed its power in a few words, near the end of His torments: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” [Matthew 27:46] It was His human nature speaking: for a human father to allow his son to die so horribly surely seems inconsistent with paternal love.

     The possibility that in His last moments, the Son of God might have surrendered to despair is among the most terrifying things imaginable. I cannot say whether it was nonzero. But it did not happen. With His last words, He accepted death and commended His spirit to His Father.

     I think in this lies the best demonstration of Christ’s unique dual nature, both fully human and fully Divine. And further, I think it an indication that every man who lives will face the temptation to despair. None of us are so strong that we cannot be tempted. But we have His example, and His demonstration of the Divine authority with which He spoke, to sustain us.


     Christians have often been called “people of hope.” Indeed, the whole of our faith rests upon hope. And hope is the antithesis to despair.

     Pascal’s Wager has been referenced often here at Liberty’s Torch. It has a curious flavor, for it rests upon a quasi-probabilistic assessment of terminal expectations: the possibility of an afterlife that might be filled with either bliss or remorse, versus the possibility that no such prospect is real. In omitting hope as an influence of importance, Blaise Pascal sought to exclude religious conviction from human decision making, such that a coldly objective assessment of the prospects would cause men to choose to behave in accordance with God’s commandments. Yet he, one of the highest intellects of his era, failed to realize that his wager implicitly includes hope. For what, after all, would compensate for a life deliberately restricted by the Commandments if there were no afterlife?

     The answer is hope, whether for an afterlife such as Christians expect, or for the complete extinction of the human consciousness at temporal death. One makes one’s wager according to one’s hope.


     As always, the great phrase shook him to the heart. But it was obvious that it meant nothing to anyone else in the room; were such men hopeless? No, no. That Gate could never slam behind them while they lived, no matter how the hornets buzzed for them behind the deviceless banner. Hope was with them yet. – James Blish

     William James, no Christian, once said that “We believe ourselves immortal because we believe ourselves fit for immortality.” He conflated religious belief with insanity, so it seems he disagreed. His emphasis was on the “cash value” of ideas. He dismissed as unworthy of consideration propositions that have no practical consequences. From this one can see how easily a man would be led to dismiss the afterlife.

     But therein lies the temptation to despair: the conviction that one’s existence is temporally bounded and therefore ultimately meaningless. That strangest of all temptations can afflict even mightiest geniuses our race has produced. We have all sorts of literary attestations to it. Have one from Percy Bysshe Shelly:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'”

     Shelley, to be sure, was not a person of hope.


     That’s it. That’s all. The choice is between hope and despair, yet even that choice is bifurcate. One can hope for an afterlife that one can earn with obedience to the commandments, or one can hope there’s no afterlife and cut loose to one’s fullest, Cthulhuvian extent. The atheists I’ve known not only believe there’s no afterlife; they hope that that’s the case. Yet even they tend to behave according to the Commandments. I’ve toyed with polling them for their reasons, but…naah, life’s too short.

     Inversely, one can believe in that either-or afterlife and still surrender to despair. The temptation to think oneself inherently damned can be strong. Yet among Catholics’ treasured maxims is this one:

Every saint has a past;
Every sinner has a future.

     A loving God offers us all the possibility of eternal bliss.

     Anyway, please enjoy your Holy Week. Armor yourself against despair, that strangest of temptations. Wrap yourself in hope. No matter who you are, no matter what sort of life you’ve lived to this point, hope will remain while you live… perhaps even afterward. It will not fail you. May God, whose Son went voluntarily to His death by torture in demonstration not only of His Divine authority but of the magnitude of God’s love for us, bless and keep you all.