Tempted On All Points?

Here’s John Piper’s answer to Justin Taylor’s question based upon Hebrews 4:15.

Can Jesus really identify with me when he doesn’t know the experience of indwelling sin raging war against the Spirit? Aren’t our temptations more powerful than those faced by Christ on earth?

I preached on this recently and suggested three illustrations to help understand this verse:

The Arithmetic Illustration

When we learn arithmetic, we don’t learn every single possible sum that can ever be learned. Instead, we learn formulas, methods, and techniques that we then practice using a sufficiently large representative sample of numbers.

In the same way, Jesus did not need to experience every single temptation possible, but only a sufficiently large representative sample that enabled Him to comprehend and understand every possible temptation in the world. In that sense we can say that He was tempted on all points through a sufficient sample, yet without sin.

The Temptation Meter Illustration

When we connect electricity to a voltage meter, the needle rises to a level that reflects the power of the supply. But imagine a voltage meter that was strong enough to resist the power; no matter how much voltage was applied, the needle didn’t move even a milimeter. The voltage is turned up until the power supply is maxxed out at 100% and still not a hint of movement.

When the power of temptation comes into our lives, we often succumb so easily. The power level hardly reaches 20% or 30% when the needle starts to move as we incline towards the temptation and then give in to it. We, have no idea what it is to be tempted with 100% power because we cave in heart or in word or in action way before then.

But the power of temptation was turned up in Jesus’ life again and again until it maxxed out in in the wilderness temptations and in the Gethsemane temptations; and His needle didn’t budge. He knows what it’s like to be tempted at 100% power because He was able to resist perfectly all along the scale. In that sense, we can say He was tempted on all points of the temptation scale, yet without sin.

The Stress Illustration

Every day we face temptations that challenge our minds, our emotions, and our bodies. Most of the time, unless we are climbing Everest perhaps, we are not stressing every part of us to the maximum. Sometimes, very rarely, perhaps we are close to 100% of our mental capacity or 100% of our physical capacity or 100% of our emotional capacity. But we are never maxxed out in every domain at the same time, or at least for a long time.

However, the temptations that Jesus faced continually pushed him to the maximum of his mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual capacity and did so for lengthy periods of time. In the sense we can say that He was tempted and pushed on all points of His human nature, to the max possible level, yet without sin.

All Sympathy

Because Jesus was tempted by a sufficiently large and difficult sample of temptations, because He was tempted to the highest point on the temptation scale, and because He was tempted to the maximum stress of His whole human nature, we can say he was tempted on all points and therefore can sympathize on all points.

For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15.).


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“The Heart Has Its Reasons Of Which Reason Knows Nothing”

Blaise Pascal is one of the few apologists who uses both existential and evidential arguments to persuade people to become Christians. In Chapter 3 of  Existential Reasons for Belief in God; A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith, Clifford Williams pauses to analyze Pascal more in more detail.

After using the standard evidences of Christianity (miracles, fulfilled prophecy, etc.) to persuade people to become Christians, Pascal goes on to make the existential argument that Christian faith is justified because it satisfies certain deep human needs. Williams quotes Pascal’s classic “infinite abyss” passage:

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.

The existential interpretation of this passage is:

1. Humans have an indefinite and intense craving for true happiness.
2. Only faith in God satisfies this craving.
3. If only faith in God satisfies this craving, then we are justified in having it.

Williams is convinced that the existential interpretation of this passage is correct because of a few other related passages. For example, Pascal also argues for the Christian faith not because it is true but because it satisfies heart-need:

Without any doubt after this, considering the nature of life and of this religion, we ought not to resist the inclination to follow it if our hearts are so inclined.

Then there’s this passage in which Pascal distinguishes between knowing God through the reason of the mind and knowing God through the reasons or perceptions of the heart:

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing: we know this in countless ways. It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.

Two other quotations from Pascal make similar points:

No one is so happy as a true Christian, or so reasonable, virtuous, and lovable.

The Christian religion alone has been able to cure these twin vices ["pride or sloth, the twin sources of all vice"], not by using one to expel the other according to worldly wisdom, but by expelling both through the simplicity of the Gospel.

Again, note Pascal is not saying we ought to believe because the truth has been proven, but rather because it satisfies our needs.

Logical-Rationality And Need-Rationality

Williams wants us to be clear that this is not just a faith based on feelings. Rather, when we believe in order to satisfy our needs, to experience so much good and remove to much bad, we are doing something that is perfectly reasonable. Williams calls this kind of reasonableness “need-rationality” or “need-reasonableness” because “those who satisfy their needs by believing certain things are being sensible and wise. They are taking care of themselves. Need rationality consists of successfully satisfying needs.”

In contrast “logical rationality” (a phrase coined by American philosopher William James) relies purely on logic and reason; it even sees needs and feelings as a hindrance to objectivity, impartiality, and rationality.

However, as we are not only creatures of reason, but also creatures of feeling, Williams wants us to base our faith on both need and reason. Indeed, he says, “We would be irrational not to let both features of our nature generate faith.”

Biblical Examples Of Existential Argument

Williams appeals to the Bible in support of using the existential (needs-based) argument for faith. For example, in Matt. 11:28-30, Jesus calls the burdened and the tired to come to him for rest. In Matthew 7:24-26, Jesus assumes that people feel the need for security and solidity, and promises that building a life upon his teaching will provide that. In addition to these and many other explicit examples, there are innumerable others that are more implicit than explicit (e.g. Romans 8:1; Psalm 51:2).

Finally, Williams calls us to notice how different this is to the despairing existentialism associated with the French atheistic existentialists, Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre. Williams’s, Pascal’s and Christ’s existentialism is full of hope. Yes, there are great human needs, but the Christian God can satisfy them all and has done so on many occasions. Whereas Camus and Sartre used the dark holes in humanity to run away from God, this existential argument uses them to drive us to God and, as such, is much closer to nineteenth century theistic Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s existentialism.


The Needs-Based Argument for Faith

In chapter 3 of  Existential Reasons for Belief in God; A Defense of Desires and Emotions for FaithClifford Williams makes a critical distinction between two related but different apologetic arguments based on need:

1. The existential argument based upon needs (the one his book is focused on).

2. The evidential argument based upon needs.

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

The Existential Argument

This says that faith in God is justified because it satisfies specific needs. It doesn’t say anything about whether God exists; it simply says that as faith in God satisfies basic human needs, that’s sufficient justification for believing in God. The three-step argument is:

1. We feel these basic human needs.
2. Faith in God satisfies these needs.
3. Therefore, we are justified in having faith in God.

The Evidential Argument

This says that having these needs that only God can satisfy is evidence of God’s existence (because all natural explanations of the presence of needs fail). It is an argument about the existence of God, but it doesn’t say anything about whether faith in this God is justified. Again this argument has three steps:

1. We feel these basic human needs.
2. Only God can satisfy these needs.
3. Therefore, God exists.

Williams turns to food to illustrate these two different arguments.

Existential Argument To Justify Eating

1. I am hungry.
2. Eating satisfies hunger.
3. I am justified in eating.

But notice, this argument is not saying anything about the existence of food, at least about food nearby that will satisfy the hunger.

Evidential Argument For The Existence Of Food

1. I am hungry.
2. Only food satisfies hunger.
3. Therefore, food exists.

The evidential argument tries to prove the existence of food by showing that food’s existence is needed to explain how people get hungry for food. It’s a claim that food exists but not that we should eat.

Before returning to the existential argument that justifies having faith in God, Williams looks more closely at the evidential argument, the argument that attempts to prove God’s existence or Christianity’s veracity based upon the evidence of needs we find in people.

A Closer Look At The Evidential Argument

First, the evidential argument says that the only explanation for the needs that we feel is that God created us with them. Attempted natural explanations of many of these needs fail. For example, neither evolution, Freud, psychology, or biology can explain the need to experience awe?

Second, Christianity correctly describes human needs. As the needs that Christianity says exist and claims to supply, match the needs people do actually possess, we can conclude that Christianity is true or at least partly true. Blaise Pascal, for example, argued that Christianity alone accounts for both the greatness and wretchedness of man. He exclaimed:

“How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe!”

Christianity’s perfect description of this dueling dual nature in humanity, supports the truthfulness of Christianity.

Third, Christianity does not just describe our needs but claims to meet them, and actually does meet them, as we often see. Christianity, therefore, gives an accurate account of reality.

Same Needs, Different Argument

As you can see, both the existential and evidential arguments claim that Christian faith satisfies many basic needs. The evidential argument uses this to make a case for believing the Christian faith is true. The existential argument is not making a claim about truth or theism. It’s simply saying that if such a faith satisfies need, you are justified in having that faith.

The person convinced by the existential argument says, “I believe because it satisfies my needs.” The person convinced by the evidential argument says “I believe because the Christian faith is true.” To further highlight the essential difference between these arguments, Williams points to British philosopher Richard Swinburne who illustrated how people believe certain non-religious things based upon need:

  • The mother who has to believe that her missing son is alive or else she will to go to pieces psychologically.
  • The husband who has to believe that his wife is faithful if he is to avoid mistreating her.
  • The lawyer who has to believe that his client is innocent if he is to make a good speech in his defense.

None of these people rely on evidence for their “faith”; they believe to avoid certain painful feelings or to enjoy certain positive feelings.

After giving three examples of writers who have used evidential arguments based upon need, Ernest Becker (Denial of Death), N. T Wright (Simply Christian), and C. S Lewis (Mere Christianity), Williams points out that, in each of these cases, the evidential argument points to the presence of needs as a fact that needs explaining, whereas the existential argument doesn’t try to explain why there are needs but simply uses them to move one to faith.

Blaise Pascal

Despite the common focus on needs in both the existential and evidential argument, Williams claims Blaise Pascal is one of the few apologists who has used existential and evidential arguments to persuade people to become Christians. We’ll take a closer look at him in the next post.


13 Needs That Christianity Meets

Why did you become a Christian?

Perhaps you answered, “I was convinced by evidence and argument that it was true.”

For most people, though, the answer is closer to “because it met my needs.” But what needs does Christianity meet?

That’s the question Williams answers in chapter 2 of Existential Reasons for Belief in God; A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith, a book that argues for Christian faith on the basis of the number of basic human needs that it meets.

Before listing thirteen of them, he makes two qualifications. First, he is not claiming that everyone feels all thirteen of the needs (feeling only one of the needs is all that’s required to make the needs-based argument relevant). Second, he demonstrates that not all these needs are purely self-centered by dividing the thirteen needs into two categories.

  • Self-directed needs: Aimed at getting something for ourselves.
  • Other-directed needs: aimed at the good of others or is what is good (which incidentally and unintentionally gives us something too).

Williams’s description of these needs can be summarized as follows:

Self-directed Needs

  • Cosmic security: We want to feel protected from difficulties and suffering; but if these do come, we want to be sure that all will still be well with us.
  • Hope of life beyond the grave: That we will keep on being conscious even after we die.
  • Heaven: This goes beyond just existing after death, and describes the kind of blessed existence we crave.
  • Goodness: Despite the imperfection of this life, we still crave a good and virtuous life, and not just for ourselves, but for others too.
  • A larger life: We want new experiences of things, people, and places, that we may experience amazement, exhilaration, and moral awe (i.e. the admiration of others’ goodness).
  • To be loved: For emotional security, we want to be known, loved, trusted, and enjoyed by our parents, by friends, by a spouse, by our children, and by others.
  • Meaning: A sense of significance, purpose, and destiny.
  • Forgiveness: For going astray, and especially for transgressing in our pursuit of love and meaning.

Other-directed Needs

Surely “other-directed needs” is an oxymoron. How can needs be other-directed? Don’t needs spring from self-concern? Williams admits the seeming contradiction, but insists that these desires are both other-directed and self-satisfying.

  • To love: We want to love others.
  • Awe: Experienced through encounters with a magnificent landscape, powerful people, or moral heroism, and especially when we encounter God.
  • Delighting in goodness: We rejoice in the moral qualities of others.
  • Being present: Enjoying being with those we love.
  • Justice and fairness: Pursuing justice for others.

At this point Clifford briefly explores how other apologists have described existential needs. For example, in Simply Christian, N. T. Wright listed four basic human needs:

  • The longing for justice.
  • The quest for spirituality.
  • The hunger for relationships.
  • The delight in beauty.

Regardless of how we categorize these basic existential needs, Williams’s basic point is that the more needs that are recognized, and the more deeply they are felt, the more powerful and persuasive needs-based reasoning becomes.

He admits that if these feelings never progress much beyond mere “I’d like that,” then they will be much less compelling as arguments to believe in God than if the feeling rises to a level of “I desperately need that and I must have it.” However he also argues that what’s most relevant is not the number or the intensity of the desires but the essential nature of the desires and the immensity of the object of the desire – God.

Isn’t it truly amazing how Christianity meets every basic human need so well!