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Biblical Condemnation and Religious Trauma

I’ve heard Dan Barker make the point that when he was a preacher of the gospel, he had to first convince people they were dammed and condemned to hell before he could “sell” the solution, which was faith in Jesus Christ.

unworthy-womanFor those of us who were raised in the church, it’s a familiar message. But now that I am on the outside of it (my story is here), I see how psychologically damaging it is. The Biblical message tells us that:

You are unclean.
You are unworthy.
You are a sinner.
You are depraved.

You are scum.
You are the reason Jesus had to die a horrible agonizing death that involved flogging, nails, and death on a wooden cross.

There’s also the passage in the New Testament where Jesus promotes self-mutilation (i.e., pluck out your eye & cut off your hand) as a way to deal with sin and thus keep yourself from going to hell (Matt. 5:29-30). I recall as a young man feeling guilty about my sin, and pondering that passage and whether it should be followed literally or symbolically, and whether I should take any action. Unfortunately, young people have taken it literally. While attending Bible college in the 1980’s, I was aware of at least one young man who did. Samantha Field shares a story in her blog of witnessing a young man reveal what was under his eye patch. He was one who took the admonition of Matthew 5:29 literally too.

The Bible uses other terms to describe us “sinners” like: detestable, cowardly, and unrighteous. It also labels people with words like idolater, reviler, homosexual and drunkard – – just to name a few.

marlene-winellDr. Marlene Winell has been helping people in the area of Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) for over 20 years, and I can now understand why. She states on her website:

The doctrines of original sin and eternal damnation cause the most psychological distress by creating the ultimate double bind. You are guilty and responsible, and face eternal punishment. Yet you have no ability to do anything about it.

You must conform to a mental test of “believing” in an external, unseen source for salvation, and maintain this state of belief until death. You cannot ever stop sinning altogether, so you must continue to confess and be forgiven, hoping that you have met the criteria despite complete lack of feedback about whether you will actually make it to heaven.

Salvation is not a free gift after all. For the sincere believer, this results in an unending cycle of shame and relief. It is a cycle of abuse. As one believer said:

“I expected the meetings with my bishop to be compassionate and reassuring. It was more like an IRS audit. I prayed endlessly to be delivered from those temptations. I beat my fists into my pillow in agony. I used every ounce of faith I could muster to overcome this problem. “Lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil” just didn’t seem to be working with me. Of course, I blamed it on myself and thought there was something wrong with me. I thought I was perverted. I felt evil inside. I hated myself.”

This psychological abuse is referred to as a trauma to the person’s well-being, and I can now understand why. It can be quite damaging to a person with symptoms that can include: depression; anxiety disorder; obsessive compulsive disorder; eating disorder; social disorder; marital and sexual dysfunction; and suicide, just to name a few.

Certainly not everyone is hurt to the same degree, and a person’s religious environment can vary quite a bit. While some are in a very mild, easy-going faith group that is fairly tolerant of others, many are in militant Christian churches or at least in very conservative fundamentalism.

The question is, what can we do to help these people?






  1. pinki

    I keep attempting to think of some thoughtful response, but am too overwhelmed by emotion to cobble one together. This post is profound, as is your series. At this point, I simply want to say thank you. I’m 48 and have spent the last 14 years deconverting. I am raising my children to believe opposite both sets of grandparents while knowing this revelation would be too much for them to bear. I’m married to someone in the ministry, so I sit in my closet lined with tears. Okay, not tears. But a lot of greek yogurt and mental anguish. Thank you so much for the gift of your words.

  2. Pingback:Is there a link between religion and mental illness? | Life After 40

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