On Intellectual Adultery

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Adultery is often thought of as one of the most serious of sins (and rightly so). However, one of the reasons our contemporary culture counts it as so heinous is because it is so sensual.

We tend to rank sensual, fleshy sins as more wicked than “ethereal,” spiritual, or intellectual sins.

In fact, many today would be hard-pressed to even conceptualize what could be meant by the term “intellectual sin.” That’s why it’s so astonishing that Jesus refers to an intellectual sin as “adulterous” in Matthew 16:

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. So he left them and departed” (v. 4).

It would be easy to conclude from this verse that His rebuke of them as “an evil and adulterous generation” is based merely on the fact that they were seeking a sign. But when this verse is read in context, it becomes clear that their evil is not that they sought a sign, but that they were being intellectually dishonest:

“And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, When it is evening, you say, It will be fair weather, for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening. You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (v. 1-3).

Jesus does not condemn them for seeking a sign, per se. He condemns them for ignoring the signs that had already been given (i.e. “the signs of the times”), and pretending that such signs were insufficient. This is why Jesus begins his answer to them with the parable about predicting the weather. He’s pointing out that they are perfectly capable of reasoning accurately about things that actually matter to them, like the weather.

They see the signs in the sky, and rationally infer what the weather will be—and then act accordingly. If the sky is red in the evening, they know there will be fair weather, so they plan to go out and fish. And if the sky is red and threatening in the morning, they know it will be stormy, so they don’t go out.

But when it comes to the Kingdom of God, they suddenly act as though they are incapable of inferring from the signs of the times all around them. They pretend that they need more evidence—that the works of Jesus, and the prophecies about Him aren’t enough. This is why Jesus calls them an evil and adulterous generation: because their unwillingness to see the plain truth from “the signs of the times” is born from their adulterous hearts that long for other loves besides God. Their request for another sign is not an honest admission of ignorance, but a dishonest mask intended to hide the fact that they just don’t care that much about the truth.


John Piper elaborates this point in his book, Think:

“Jesus’ response is to show them that they have all the signs they need, and that they are perfectly able to use their senses and their minds to make valid judgments when they are trying to draw inferences about what they want. They really want to see true signs about the safety of the seas because they love their lives. So their minds are in full gear to think clearly about sunrise and sunset. But not so when it comes to thinking clearly about Jesus. The explanation of their skepticism about Jesus is not lack of evidence or lack of rational powers. The explanation is: they are adulterous. Jesus says their hearts are evil” (62-63).

So, in this interaction between Jesus and the pharisees, we have a clear example of intellectual adultery. But is this the only case of intellectual adultery, or are there others? How can we guard against this intellectual sin in our own lives? To do that, we first need to identify what is at the essence of intellectual adultery.

We could begin by realizing that intellectual adultery involves ignoring the clear evidence that would lead us to Christ, due to disordered and sinful desires. This behavior is adulterous because Christ is the one who deserves the love we have given to other things. It is intellectual adultery because we have employed our minds in a dishonest effort to evade and justify our disordered love.

But does intellectual adultery only occur when we evade Christ, or is it also occurring when we evade truth, in general, in the same manner? I would argue that any evasion of clear truth, due to disordered or sinful desires, is an example of intellectual adultery—for at least two reasons:

  1. We cannot divorce truth from Christ. Unfaithfulness to one is unfaithfulness to the other. Christ is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). All truth is ultimately about Him. But, perhaps more importantly, all truth is also from Him, and through Him. Christianity has always taught that all truth is part of God’s revelation. Therefore, to evade any particular truth is to evade that revelation, and thus, to evade the God who has revealed it. Since “all truth is God’s truth,” we dare not treat truth as a buffet, picking and choosing as we please.
  2. Evasion of truth is intellectual adultery because of the very nature of our relationship to truth, in general: It is not possible to persist in evading “mundane” truths without training one’s mind to evade the truth of Christ. Our minds are integrating machines, which integrate according to the basic principles and standards which we have accepted—whether implicitly or explicitly. To sacrifice truth for the sake of one’s evil desires in just one area or issue is to implicitly establish a standard which, in effect, states: Whenever my dislike for the truth is strong enough, it is okay for my desire to override and suppress the truth. It programs one’s mind to ultimately bow to one’s desires, making one’s desires the ultimate judge of truth. And once desire has replaced reason as the ruler of the mind, Christ will no longer be the ruler of one’s life, because every true thing about Christ and what He has to say will be falsely interpreted through the lens of one’s evil desires.

Therefore, the key to avoiding intellectual adultery is not merely in checking to see whether we have believed Christ at particular points (for if we have submitted our minds to evil desires, then we may be re-“interpreting” Him without realizing it). Instead the key is to make sure we are not submitting our minds to our own desires at any point. Following Jesus’ reason in the above passage, our goal should be to treat God and the things of God the same way we treat everything else in life: with objective reason. When we approach God or His word with our minds, we must do so in the same way we approach the weather, or our jobs, or our grades: with careful, objective, inferential rationality.1 And, we must be sure that we are approaching everything in life in the same way—not “fudging” on anything (to the best of our knowledge) in order to indulge some irrational desire. You cannot subject reason to emotion in one area of life and expect such a practice to remain isolated. The atheist, Ayn Rand, explains this expertly:

“Whenever you committed the evil of refusing to think and to see, of exempting from the absolute of reality some one small wish of yours, whenever you chose to say: Let me withdraw from the judgment of reason the cookies I stole, or the existence of God,2 let me have my one irrational whim and I will be a man of reason about all else—that was the act of subverting your consciousness, the act of corrupting your mind. Your mind then became a fixed jury who takes orders from a secret underworld, whose verdict distorts the evidence to fit an absolute it dares not touch—and a censored reality is the result, a splintered reality where the bits you chose to see are floating among the chasms of those you didn’t, held together by that embalming fluid of the mind which is an emotion exempted from thought.”3


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1This doesn’t mean that there should not be something additional in the way we approach God, but it does mean that whatever the differences are in the way we approach Him, those differences will be more than rationality and objectivity, never less. Ideally, of course, we approach Him with a loving and worshipful heart in addition to a rational mind. The point is that we must not allow ourselves to think that a loving and worshipful heart can replace a rational mind.

2Obviously, we would say that Rand was the one guilty of evading the plain truth of the existence of God. However, because so many Christians in the past few centuries have so vehemently insisted that you cannot “reason your way to God,” but that you must simply accept His existence on faith, it is not difficult to see why she thought she was justified in discarding belief in God as an irrational whim. This should be a judgment, and a challenge, to modern Christians, that we must not treat God as exempt from reason. Jesus didn’t in the passage above.

3Atlas Shrugged, p.949

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