I recently saw a discussion online about hell. In the course of things, one person noted their childhood trauma connected with teaching on this doctrine. Another (or possibly the same) went to suggest they couldn’t possibly see how growing up with a particular view of hell didn’t lead to childhood trauma. The doctrine itself was inherently trauma-causing and the implication was that this in itself counted strongly against its truth. Others chimed in, both for and against, either disagreeing or trying to defend the doctrine in question.
I didn’t have time to jump in at the moment, but I’ve been chewing on the issue for a bit. Not so much the doctrine of hell, but more generally what role considerations about a doctrine’s adverse psychological effects ought to play in doctrinal construction. So I wanted to test out a few tentative thoughts on the issue.
Words Matter. Let me begin by saying I am not doubting the experiences of trauma of those who were claiming it in that conversation. I don’t know some of them and I don’t have reason to doubt the ones I did know.
I will say, I do think there is a general tendency towards carelessness with words on this point, though. A friend of mine who is doing work in the area of trauma and theology has helpfully pointed out that words like “trauma”, “abuse”, “trigger”, and so forth, have specific, technical meanings related to qualitatively different sorts of psychological conditions and events. This is missed when we sloppily overuse them and apply them broadly to any generally unpleasant or disturbing experience (as is sadly common today).
This is unhelpful because it can illegitimately (even if unintentionally) be used to gain unfair and manipulative leverage in conversations by those who are not actually trauma sufferers. What’s more, in so doing, it actually minimizes and waters down the experiences of said, actual trauma sufferers.
Be Careful Not to Universalize Your Particular Experience. On that point, while I wouldn’t for a moment want to ignore or deny their experiences of dread and psychological distress connected to the doctrine, I would also caution we mustn’t deny the experience of those who did not have those same experiences. Because it seems empirically not the case that growing up with this particular view of hell is universally and necessarily traumatic, even if it sadly was so for some.
I’ll dangerously use myself as an example. I grew up being taught some version of that same doctrine from a very early age. It wasn’t something my parents or Sunday School teachers dwelt on obsessively, but they didn’t ignore it. And while I remember a short season in junior high being quite worried about judgment (I had been cursing at school and it haunted me at night), I eventually came to an assurance of the gospel and it passed. It’s not to say I don’t still find the reality of it troubling, or worth wrestling with—much the way I do many other awful realities. But it is not something that has left a lasting, psychic scar on me. And I know a great many of my friends and families and members of various churches who could say the same. What’s more, it’s entirely plausible that a larger survey would reveal the non-universality of this doctrinally-driven trauma far beyond my anecdotal evidence. Indeed, if we expand that survey across the globe and across the history of the Church, that seems manifestly obvious.
I suppose I am making a version of the argument against cultural imperialism in theology. One of the things that’s become clear over the years is that people from other times, cultures, and places read the Bible and experience Christian teaching in different ways than affluent, Post-Enlightenment Westerners. Go back a thousand years in church history. Or maybe a thousand miles across on an ocean. Texts we find shocking, they do not. Texts they find shocking, we do not. And it would be presumptuous to assume that our cultural-driven theological instincts automatically give us more insight. They don’t necessarily give us less insight, either. But considerations like that ought to give us pause.
My point is that we similarly shouldn’t be psychological or experiential imperialists, assuming the texts or doctrines which trouble us particularly, will trouble or shock others in the same way. There is a certain intellectual and empathetic myopia involved there—one which I have found myself guilty of on numerous occasions—which needs to be reckoned with. My experiences, my position, my place, my psychological make-up incline me in a particular direction theologically. But so do others. And it’s not that I need to always assume I’m wrong, but I need to acknowledge that. And this is true not only for positive experiences, but also negative ones and how we related them to our doctrine.
One example that comes to mind is the doctrine of God’s sovereignty over suffering and evil. Some find the idea that God has a purpose (either immediate or mediate) behind allowing their pain and suffering—the loss of a child to early death—to be one of horror and disgust. Others find it absolutely necessary to maintain any sort of faith in God’s goodness in the face of the exact same tragedy. At that point, we have two instances of sufferers reacting to the very same teaching in diametrically opposed fashion. Whose psychological experience with that teaching should be weighted more strongly? Whose comfort is more trustworthy?
Truth Can Be Troubling. Following on this, we must keep in mind that the truth of an idea, may indeed be troubling—even traumatic. Growing up on a mountain, a child may be taught to take care not to shout too loudly in certain areas lest they trigger a rock slide, or an avalanche. They may then come dwell on that idea incessantly and obsessively. This is sad and possibly psychologically traumatic. Now, this may be a good reason to not live on that mountain, but it would not be a reason for rejecting the belief that avalanches are a liability in in their locale. The truth of the reality is fairly independent of whether it is potentially traumatic to believe it.
I would go on to point out, though, that even good truth, inappropriately introduced or dwelt on, could probably cause trauma, or at least have adverse psychological effects. Let’s be a bit Freudian and use sex as an example. That nearly every child has been begotten by an act of sexual love between a mother and a father is a good and beautiful truth. That God created sexual love as a pleasurable experience is as well. Both are good for people to know.
Yet we can all agree that exposure to pornography at a young age (or at all) would be a wrong, distorting, and harmful way to learn about them. Or, turning away from the immoral, it seems quite possibly traumatic to be introduced to these truths at the age of 7 by walking into your parent’s bedroom at the wrong moment, forcing a subsequent explanation. This could easily have adverse effects that, in the right sort of child, lead to sad, unhealthy fixations later on in life. But this being the case by no means counts as an argument against the good truth of the reality of sex. It is an argument for bedroom locks, discretion, and a game-plan for talking to your child about sex in an appropriate fashion.
A Diagnostic, Not a Criterion. But then is there any place someone’s psychological experience of a teaching should play in the way we think about it? I think there is. But we must not confuse what kind. I would suggest that it at least plays the role of a diagnostic light on your dashboard, warning you that something needs to be addressed.
Now, what needs to be addressed is not always immediately clear. Someone might experience great distress—unhealthy pain—at a doctrine for a few reasons. First, yes, the teaching itself is possibly flawed. I’m not saying that’s never a possibility. It definitely is. Second, it could also be that the teaching is not flawed but it is being taught and applied in a harmful and unhelpful fashion which needs to be addressed.
For instance, it’s possible to take doctrines and distort them—even wonderful doctrines about forgiveness, reconciliation and grace can be used abusively. Here the social and moral context of the teaching proves toxic and that toxicity affects how it is being received. Or, it could be that a doctrine is being taught not wrongly, or falsely, or “abusively”, but is being over-emphasized or without being properly set in the context of the rest of Christian truth.
One friend pointed out that doctrines like hell, or the fear of losing your salvation (or that you’ve never had it) can take on an extra psychological pressure in environments where much emphasis is laid on having a visible “conversion” experience, a second blessing, etc. The monastic context in which Luther struggled against the judgement of God might be another. Or one thinks of Kierkegaard’s testimony about the effect his father’s tumultuous personality paired with a pietistic focus on Christ’s sufferings hand on him as a young child. An individual doctrine isn’t doing the work here alone, but rather the way it functions alongside everything else.
All this to say, widespread experience of adverse psychological effects associated with a doctrine can definitely alert us of a problem we need to address. But it’s not immediately clear the solution is doctrinal revision. Often it is a call to greater pastoral discernment about the uses of doctrine, not the doctrines themselves. As the old maxim has it, “improper use does not nullify proper use“, but we can’t be so busy defending good doctrine we never stop to think about how to use it properly.
Avoiding Projection. To sort of round things out, I suppose one worry at the back of my mind is that an instinct to rewrite, or to tweak, Christian teachings in order to make sure it’s always psychologically affirming in some direct way, can turn our theology into a species of projection. Atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said all theology was basically our anthropology magnified to the Nth degree and then projected up onto the screen of heaven. Freud makes a version of the same argument: God as wish-fulfillment. Believing in God is the comfort of having an ideal earthly father, simply projected into eternity.
And the thing is—when it comes to a lot of theology—they have a point. Much modern theology explicitly buys the premise that we’re basically just coming up with revisable metaphors for God that work for us and contributing to “flourishing”—however Late Moderns have come to define the term. In other words, my worry is conceptual idolatry, despite the admirable motive of concerns for those in pain.
All of this comes around to how do theology for the Church. It’s an obvious truism that all theology is done by humans, from particular perspectives, who inevitably have their favored theological paradigms informed by their experiences. But are we at least trying to give priority to God’s self-revelation, his self-testimony in the Gospel and recorded in Scripture? Are we at least attempting to let God’s Word beyond our experiences speak a word of comfort about God into our experiences? Or do we explicitly make our variable, subjective, and relative experiences, cultures, and intuitions function as a normative authority or criterion?
Again, I’m not saying we never rethink doctrine, or how we’re teaching in light of people’s adverse psychological experiences. What I am saying is that we must make sure that these realities drive us to humble ourselves before Christ’s voice in Scripture—to hear what we may have missed, to have him clarify what we have muddled, or to have him reaffirm what we might be tempted to dispense with in our haste and pain. For ultimately it is his words–even those which initially confuse and confound us–which heal our deepest wounds.
Soli Deo Gloria