Theology in 3D

The Third Temptation

Layton Talbert | November 13, 2018

You shall not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it you shall be as God, knowing good and evil.

Technically, of course, this is not the “third temptation” but the third argument of the original temptation. I have always taken the Serpent’s words in Genesis 3:4-5 as impugning God’s motives — implying that God was selfishly, unjustly, even fearfully trying to hide something good from Adam and Eve. I think that was Satan’s angle in Eden.

But in his story Perelandra, C. S. Lewis turns that reading around, looks at it from the other direction, and exposes an entirely different path to the same temptation that is just as real and just as devilish. He recasts it as a temptation to believe that the best way to obey God (Maleldil, as He is called in the Space Trilogy) is to disobey him; that asserting our independence from God is the necessary path to human growth, to realizing our God-given potential.

Here’s how Weston, the thoroughly possessed “Satanic” mouthpiece, reasons with the Lady (the Eve-like character) in Perelandra:

Have you understood that to wait for Maleldil’s voice when Maleldil wishes you to walk on your own is a kind of disobedience? . . . The wrong kind of obeying itself can be disobeying. . . . He longs — oh, how greatly He longs — to see His creature become fully itself, to stand up in its own reason and its own courage even against Him.

Then why (the Lady asks) has Maleldil not simply told her this? Why should He issue a command that He secretly wishes His creature not to obey? Weston replies,

But how can he tell it to do this? That would spoil all. Whatever it did after this would only be one more step taken with Him. This is the one thing of all the things He desires that He must have no finger in. Do you think He is not weary of seeing nothing but Himself in all that He has made? If that contented Him, why should He create at all? To find the Other — the thing whose will is no longer His — that is Maleldil’s desire.

Lewis has captured a canny, compelling, and profoundly demonic argument. “God knows that in the day you eat of it you shall be as God” becomes, in Lewis’s story, “This is secretly what God really wants you to do.” That’s why “you shall not surely die” — because God knows that human autonomy is the only means by which we grow to become like him. So God “forbids” it precisely because he knows that “disobedience” is the necessary and surest path to our attaining God-like sovereignty. He just wants what all parents ultimately want for their children: he wants you to grow up, to mature beyond childishly hanging on him, and constantly running to him for every little thing. He wants you to learn to be like him — independent, autonomous, maximizing your full potential by being your own person.

No, I don’t think that was Satan’s actual argument in Eden. But it could have been. It’s one of the deceptive devices he’s used many times since (2 Cor 2:11). And there are some similarities between the temptation in Perelandra and the one in Eden. Like The Bent One speaking through Weston’s mouth, Satan pretends to “know God better than the woman does”; he pretends to have fathomed the divine mind and “claim[s] to know what God knows” (Hamilton, Genesis, 189). Satan has known God longer, to be sure, but not better. (As Ransom counters at one point, “In our world to be older is not always to be wiser.”)

Lewis isn’t really suggesting a different reading of Gen 3:4-5 because Perelandra doesn’t depict the original temptation, but a later one in another world (Venus). This is imagination, not heresy — an elaborate “what if” and one of Lewis’s most intriguing and insightful reads. But in his reworking of the third temptation (if that is, indeed, what it’s intended to be), Lewis is onto something.

Lewis understands human nature well enough to recognize that independence and self-sufficiency is a perennial temptation for humans, and it takes many forms. What’s interesting is that on either reading — Genesis chapter 3 or Perelandra chapter 9 — the temptation is merely a different trail of twisted reasoning to the same end. Either way, in Eden or Perelandra, it is a temptation to autonomy which is, in the end, self-idolatry: self-love, self-will, and self-worship.

Any preaching or teaching, any philosophy or fleeting thought that urges us to walk independently of God — whether motivated by an ambition for self-actualization or by some deluded misconception that God wants us to become self-reliant and self-sufficient — is, in the truest sense of the words, diabolical (slanderous of God) and satanic (adversarial to our happiness and welfare).

One response to “The Third Temptation”

  1. Jon says:

    I think we use this kind of twisted logic to talk ourselves into sin more often than we realize. At least, it’s not uncommon for me to see it in myself or others. We would never use such glaringly sinful-sounding words as this, but how easy is it to rationalize sin once I have in mind some “greater good” that completely forgets God’s explicit good of “obey” or “submit!” Thanks for the connections!

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