Christian Stockholm Syndrome

I’ve been asking myself lately just what it was that kept me so fervent and loyal in my commitment to conservative Christianity in the past, given the deep ambivalence I always felt toward some of the disturbingly wrathful parts of the bible. It’s not simply that my reasons to stay slightly outweighed my doubts. On the contrary, I was emotionally overwhelmed and overjoyed again each Sunday as I experienced the refreshment of renewed grace. I had no more impulse to leave my convictions than a drowning man would have an impulse to throw away his lifeline. My strong emotional commitment to my conservative faith co-existed with my strong inner repulsion to the doctrine of eternal hell. I’ve long wondered why that is.



I can think of lots of reasons I would have stayed in the faith – social pressure, my perennial struggle to please my parents, an ignorance of the stunning truth of evolution by natural selection, which offers some real answers to some of life’s confusing questions – but none of those reasons explains why I was so passionate about staying. But the other day, an interesting thought struck me.

I realize this may sound offensive to some people, and I’m not suggesting that this is true of anyone else. But looking back on my own journey, it feels to me like some of my passion for the gospel may have been motivated by Stockholm Syndrome.

Let me explain what I mean. First, I think the disturbing doctrines I encountered in the bible were necessary, in a way, for provoking the loyal emotional reaction I remember. I would read in the Old Testament about how poor Achan was stoned to death for stealing a few items from the ruins of Jericho; and because God was so mad, he told the Israelites to kill Achan’s wife and kids, too, who had no prior knowledge of the “crime”. (Later, when I read elsewhere in the bible that God forbids his people to punish children for the crimes of their parents and vice versa, I had a really hard time understanding why God would command it here, especially since the bible says he’s immutable. But that’s a rabbit trail.) Then, I would cringe when God told Moses to stone to death someone who committed the sin of picking up sticks on the sabbath. And he killed Aaron’s sons for getting their priestly rituals wrong. And he killed poor Uzzah for reaching out to steady the Ark of the Covenant when it was about to tip off of a wagon. And he killed a bunch of kids by she-bears for mocking a balding man of God. And of course we have lots of shocking commands such as this one he made through Moses:

Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves. (Numbers 31:17-18)

Or disturbing psalms like this:

Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (Psalm 137:9)

What this did to my psyche, as I recall, was both to terrify and confuse me. I didn’t really know why it was so bad to try to steady the Ark, I just knew I had to be really, really careful with what I thought or said or did about religious topics, because otherwise implacable divine wrath may fall unexpectedly from heaven and cut me off forever from grace. Which means I would go to hell, a truly horrifying thought.

The New Testament didn’t make it any better. Some of the most frightening bible passages to me were the words of Christ in places like Mark 9 or Matthew 25.

And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:47-48)

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…. (Matthew 25:41)

About the only passages that terrified me more than these were the so-called “Hebrews warning passages”. When I made my first post about my ideological changes, I was surprised to discover that most of the reactions were gracious. Not all of them were, of course. I remember one person made a simple comment on my feed: “Hebrews 6…”.

That may seem innocuous enough, but he knew I would immediately understand what he was saying. The New Testament book of Hebrews paints these vivid word pictures of divine wrath and punishment; but the worst part is, it says that if you’ve ever had faith, but then you end up rejecting that faith for a time, it’s impossible to repent again. You’re definitely going to hell at that point, no matter how much you may want to repent and believe the gospel again later. And it will be way more brutal for you than for someone who never had faith in the first place. So in essence, this guy was saying to me, “You’re hopelessly damned now. You’re going to burn in hell and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Which is a disturbing thing to say to someone, but to be fair, it’s more disturbing that someone wrote it in the bible. I’m actually amazed at just how horrible an idea this all is. No amount of torture in this life is punishment enough, so the bible posits an eternal life in order to maximize pain to infinity. It would be hard to dream up a way to increase the suffering – the physical agony of it all, the absolute isolation, the eternal awareness, and so on. And to top it all off, the judgment for a thought crime as simple as waffling on your first faith is immediate damnation with no hope of future grace. I have a vivid imagination, and I couldn’t imagine a single addition to make the doctrine more horrifying.

Back to the point. I realize now that the terror of the threatened punishments, combined with the seeming capriciousness of it all, put me in such a state of fear and self-loathing that when I encountered biblical expressions of grace, I responded with such emotional joy and fervor and gratitude as if I really were such a bad person as to deserve that state of fearing hell. If I really deserved the abuse (and I was convinced I did, because the alternative was to call into question God’s justice), then anything done to save me from it must be truly extraordinary love and mercy. I still remember the flood of endorphins (I’m not sure I actually even know what an endorphin is, I just remember the brain rush) every week when I took communion. It was an intense experience. I felt immense gratitude. But I wonder if part of it may have been Stockholm Syndrome.


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