The temptation of Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve tempted by the serpentThe idea, that human beings always want what they cannot or should not have, is seen as so fundamental a part of human nature that the writer of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, sets out to explain it at the start. Immediately after the description of God's creation of the world and the first human beings, Adam and Eve, the Bible gives an account of the temptation of Eve by the serpent. First Eve, and then Adam, succumb to the temptation of eating the fruit of the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil' – the one fruit that God had forbidden them to eat, as the consequence of eating it would be death (Genesis 3:1-28). This account is frequently termed ‘the fall of humankind' in Christian theology.

Temptation in the Bible involves turning away from obedience to God and doing wrong in order to achieve a perceived benefit. In this particular instance, the serpent suggests that Eve will become ‘like God, knowing good and evil' (Genesis 3:5). Giving in to the temptation actually brought Adam and Eve a loss of innocence and an experience of guilt and shame which damaged their relationship with God and with one another.

The temptation of Jesus

In Christian thought, Jesus is sometimes referred to as ‘the Second Adam', because he too changed the course of human history through a reaction to temptation - in Jesus' case, by rejecting the temptation to take earthly power, and choosing instead to follow the road of which would eventually lead to his crucifixion. Accounts of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness are recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, who both describe how Jesus rebukes the temptations of the devil, saying, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test' which was translated in earlier versions as ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God' (Luke 4:1-13).

These accounts also tell how Jesus stayed in the desert for forty days, being tempted by the devil. ‘He ate nothing during those days' (Luke 4:2) as he prepared for his ministry on earth. Consequently, some Christians practice resisting temptation by fasting (restricting what they eat) or by some other act of self-control during the forty days of the season of Lent which comes before Easter.

Temptation, sin and forgiveness

The Bible portrays all human beings as vulnerable to temptation and sin. Christians believe that the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, made it possible to receive forgiveness for human sin, thus offering the hope of redemption.

The Seven Deadly Sins

In the early centuries of the Christian Church, the kinds of self-indulgence to which humans are often tempted were later categorised as the seven Deadly Sins and were commonly referred to in medieval literature and art. All of these sins - pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger and sloth (laziness) - reflect human desires which put physical indulgence before spiritual well-being.

Dr Faustus

A famous and graphic illustration of temptation occurs in Christopher Marlowe's play Dr Faustus, where Faustus is tempted by the devil Mephistopheles to sell his eternal soul to Satan in return for twenty-four years of earthly power.

Related topics:

Big ideas: Serpent, Devil, Satan, Beast; Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam'; Sin; Cross, crucifixion; Redemption, salvation

Other cultural references:

Marlowe's Dr Faustus

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