What Is the Bible's Definition of Temptation?

The Bible is full of tests and trials, usually with temptation at the core

wood print of Satan Tempting Jesus
Satan Tempting Jesus.

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Throughout the Judeo-Christian Bible, temptation is defined in two separate ways: a test of an individual by God, or a test of an individual by Satan—in some cases, God incites Satan to tempt humans. Both of these tests are in the form of a trial, designed by God or by the "Great Tempter" Satan, to give a person the opportunity to do evil and commit a sin, or not do an evil and remain sinless.

Defining Temptation in the Bible Key Takeaways

  • Temptation in the Bible refers to an external test of an individual, created by God or by Satan.
  • Examples of temptations are found throughout both the Old and New Testaments.
  • It is not a sin to be tempted, but it is to give into it.
  • The "Original Sin" is Adam and Eve giving in to the temptations of the serpent.

Matthew 26:41

“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26:41 

Sometimes it seems the point is to confuse the subject about what good and evil really are. Other times it's to simply see if the person really understands what good and evil are in the first place. God may do the tempting, or Satan may be given this task. All temptation of the children of Israel or the followers of Christ, or Christ himself for that matter, is external. According to the Bible, the sin is not being tempted; rather, it is in giving into that sin. But by resisting temptation, the believer gains great rewards.

"Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him." James 1:12

Temptation and The Original Sin

One of the first stories in Genesis is the serpent tempting Eve and Adam. The first human couple was satisfied with their lives in Eden, as the Bible tells us, until the serpent, as an avatar of the devil, appeared to tempt them:

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it." Genesis 3:46

As a result of giving in to temptation and disobeying God's order to leave the Tree of Life alone—what Saint Augustine referred to as the "original sin"—humankind was forced to leave Eden and wander the world.

Old Testament Temptations

Other temptations in the Old Testament include Joseph and Potiphar's wife. Joseph was a Hebrew slave in the Egyptian court, tasked with taking care of everything belonging to Potiphar. Potiphar's wife demanded he come to her bed and when he refused, he was thrown into jail, "But while Joseph was there in the prison, the Lord was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden." (Genesis 39:6–9).

King David was tempted by Satan (or by God asking Satan to tempt him, depending on which verse you read) into running a census on how many fighting men he had, rather than trusting in God. God's displeasure was exercised by instituting a plague on Israel (2 Samuel 24, 1 Chronicles 21).

But perhaps the best-known story is Daniel in the lion's den at the court of Darius, the great Mesopotamian king. Daniel was a Hebrew and a favorite of Darius's and he had many enemies at court. Those enemies urged Darius to implement a new law that said, "Anyone who prays to any god or human being during the next thirty days, except to you, Your Majesty, shall be thrown into the lions’ den." Daniel responded to this new law by praying to God about it, and Darius had him thrown into the lion's den:

"So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and threw him into the lions’ den. The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!” Daniel 6:16

Daniel survived this test, of course,

"And when Daniel was lifted from the den, no wound was found on him, because he had trusted in his God." Daniel 6:23

Daniel's opponents and their families were thrown into the lion's den and did not survive.

"Then King Darius wrote to all the nations and peoples of every language in all the earth: 'May you prosper greatly! I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.'" Daniel 6:2526

New Testament Temptations

Temptation is also a large part of the New Testament stories, particularly within the story of Christ's last days on Earth. His apostle Judas was tempted into betraying Christ for 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26:14–16); none of the apostles could stay awake to help Christ through the dark night before his arrest (Matthew 26:36–45); and after that arrest, Peter was tempted into denying Christ three times "before cockcrow" (Matthew 26:69–75). 

Of course, the most famous temptation in the New Testament is that of Christ himself: 

"Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" Matthew 4:1–4
"Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Matthew 5–7
"Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him." Matthew 8–11

Does God Test Us?

The Christian tradition suggests that God (or Satan at the behest of God) does tempt Christians, and that temptation actually has value and should not be shunned too strongly. If there is no temptation, then are no opportunities to overcome temptation and thereby strengthen one’s faith. Where is the value in the practice of celibacy by Catholic priests, for example, if one never experiences any temptations to sexual behavior?

"This third I will put into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.’” Zechariah 13:9
"These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world." 1 Peter 1:7