The Greatest Question Ever Asked?

We’ve been doing a lot of media interviews for SuperFreakonomics, and once in a while you get asked a really interesting question.

But I don’t think this one will ever be topped. It comes from a journalist in India:

You state that your book is based on one fundamental assumption about human nature: people respond to incentives. Which is another way of saying that people are basically selfish. Take someone like Jesus Christ. What was his “incentive” to go on the cross?

This question made me think in about 10 directions at once. It also made me want to grab a New Testament and read it in an entirely new way. For starters, here’s an interesting blog post titled “The Economics of Jesus” which begins with this excellent line: “Jesus probably didn’t know much about macroeconomics, even though he was God.”

By the way, I haven’t yet answered this journalist’s question — it’s an e-mail Q&A interview — so I’m eager for your input.


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  1. jimi says:

    People are inherently selfish, Jesus is not.
    There is nothing wrong with selfishness, but nobody is 100% cynical or selfish. We all preform purely alturistic acts (personally, I tend to pick up hitch-hikers).

    Some of us are just more altruistic than others. And in Jesus’s case, he was being obedient: “That there was anyway this cup could be taken from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but your will, be done.”

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  2. Charlie says:

    This is an easy one. He goes right up to Heaven to be seated at his father’s right hand. And, he gets to be the savior of millions of people by giving up his life. I think Jesus had quite the incentive to be crucified. He even knew it was coming and didn’t do anything about it.

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  3. Justin says:

    I think you can go two ways with this, depending on your beliefs and/or his beliefs:

    If you’re a Christian, then he isn’t a person, he was an incarnation of an all-loving, benevolent God; thus, applying the assumption to him is inaccurate.

    If you’re not a Christian, then his incentive was a chance at being loved and worshipped into eternity. Ego is an incentive too, albeit an intangible one.

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  4. Orphan Cow says:

    Eternal Life… or eternal fame… depending on your beliefs.

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  5. superdave says:

    The exception proves the rule.

    Seems like your argument is reinforced by the fact that there has been one exception in the history of the world, and now billions of people worship him.

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  6. Ben says:

    He had tremendous incentive – the reconciliation of His people, whom He loves.

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  7. megan says:

    What better incentive than knowing you were the key component in giving every being the chance at eternal life?!?
    It is our human nature to be much more selfish than that–so thank God he didn’t create Jesus that way!

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  8. Nate says:

    Well Jesus’s “reason” for going on the cross was ostensibly “love” (“For God so loved the world…”). Love is, by definition, hard to define, but I’ve always looked at love as the state of mind where you place some other person’s interests above your own, thus making it the pinnacle of human emotion – the one emotion where our incentives are purely to prop up someone else. Therefore, Jesus’s incentive was taking pain upon himself so that those he loved – all of us – could be saved.

    And I’m agnostic, for what it’s worth.

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