Part of A Book of Blood
Many evangelical Christian organizations tout what they see as the ultimate benefit of their belief system – the chance to have a “personal relationship with God”. This relationship is claimed to be deeper, more intimate and more meaningful than anything offered by other religions, similar to the relationship a person might have with a loved one.
However, a detailed look at the Bible reveals that the God these Christians claim to have a relationship with is not a kind, loving or merciful being. As “A Book of Blood” points out, the God of the Bible is a wrathful, jealous tyrant, swift to send terrible punishment on anyone who does not obey him absolutely and do exactly as he commands. A human being who did the same thing to his loved ones would be considered a domestic abuser, and any competent mental health professional would advise people in a relationship with such a person to get out of it immediately for their own sake.
This article will endeavor to show that, even if taken at face value, the Christian “personal relationship with God” is abusive and unhealthy in the extreme and deserves to be terminated. To do this, it will list the most typical red flags of an abusive human relationship and show how well they fit the theistic version. As will be shown, despite the fact that these warning signs were intended to apply to human relationships, it is striking how well they match God’s behavior as presented in Christian belief and in the Bible.
The following web sites were used to compile this list:
Warning Signs of an Abusive Relationship
One of the fundamental signs of an abusive relationship is the abuser’s desire to have complete control over his victim’s life. The abuser may tell the other person whom she may see or be friends with, how she can dress, how she can act or speak, or may try to control any other aspect of her life. He may believe that the victim “belongs to him” and therefore he has the right to make decisions for her.
Jealousy and possessiveness.
Another key sign of abuse is extreme, obsessive jealousy and persistent mistrust. The abuser may keep a close watch on the victim and interrogate her constantly about where she was, what she did, whom she spoke to, and so on; he may make accusations or fly into a rage for no good reason.
Male abusers often harbor negative feelings toward women in general. They may believe that women are inferior or unintelligent, or that a woman’s “proper” place is to be submissive and obedient.
Mood swings and short temper.
Abusers are often easily angered, prone to becoming enraged over trivial matters. They may have sudden mood swings, violently angry one moment and loving and kind the next, a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” personality. Victims of abuse often change their entire lives in an attempt to avoid making their abuser angry.
Threats, intimidation, and physical violence.
The most certain sign of an abuser is the use of physical force or the threat of such force. Pushing, shoving, slapping, hitting, throwing or smashing objects, making threats to harm, or any other violent behavior or unwanted physical contact all qualify. Most abusers are also violent or cruel toward animals or children.
Emotional abuse and putdowns.
Abuse can be verbal as well as physical. Abusers often insult their victims, call them names, make belittling comments, tell them that they are worthless, and generally attempt to make them feel miserable and inferior.
Blaming the victim.
An abuser claims that the victim is responsible for his emotional state and the abuse he inflicts on her. He will attempt to make the victim feel guilty or tell her that the abuse is “her own fault” for making him angry.
Hypercritical nature/Unrealistic expectations.
Abusers are often extremely critical of their victim’s appearance, lifestyle or preferences, and may explain away their constant criticism as being motivated by loving concern. They may have unrealistically high expectations, demanding that the victim meet all their physical and emotional needs perfectly all the time.
To those Christians who are already seeing uncomfortable parallels, I reiterate that the above items are drawn only from sites offering help to victims of domestic abuse. None of them were put together with any anti-theistic intent. In fact, one of them (source 4) is an explicitly Christian site! Likewise, though I have synthesized and rephrased these items in my own wording due to copyright and fair use concerns, I believe that they accurately reflect the message of the original sites. (If any reader thinks I have invented any of these items or slanted the wording to make them more favorable to my argument, I encourage that reader to visit the sources listed above and compare.) If there are any similarities between these warning signs and the system put forth by Christianity, that can only be considered a problem with Christianity – and, as I will now endeavor to show, the parallels are indeed numerous and strong.
Realization of the Warning Signs of Abuse in the Christian Belief System
The manifestation of this trait of abuse in Christianity is evident – in order to have a relationship with someone, God demands nothing less than total control over every aspect of that person’s life. He orders his followers not to marry or be friends with those who believe differently (2 Corinthians 6:14-17); tells them how to dress (Leviticus 19:19, 1 Timothy 2:9); tells them how to act and speak (Deuteronomy 13:6-10, Leviticus 24:16) – and punishes those who disobey with death! – and otherwise demands that the person completely alter their life to better serve him and obey his desires. In both testaments, he views people as “his” and claims the right to force them to behave as he desires; he does not allow them to go their own way even if that is what they want, but exacts swift retribution on all who do not obey him.
Jealousy and possessiveness
This trait is perhaps the most obvious of all – the God of the Bible says that he is jealous (Exodus 34:14), to such an extent that he claims “Jealous” is his name. In both the Old and New Testaments, he reacts with great anger to any suggestion that a person might not be completely devoted to him alone – an anger without reason, since if he is the one true God, then the other deities people worship do not even exist, much less pose any threat to him. He mistrusts people, accusing them of sinning constantly (Psalms 53:3, Romans 3:10), and pursues them with obsessive jealousy, comparing those who worship other gods to prostitutes (Exodus 34:16). As one of the sites listed above (source 4) says, “Jealousy has nothing to do with love” but rather is “a sign of possessiveness and lack of trust”.
Male abusers often have an irrational hatred of and prejudice against women, and the God of the Bible is no different. He says that women are worth about half as much as men (Leviticus 27:3-7), and that a woman who gives birth to a girl child is ritually unclean for twice as long as if she had given birth to a boy (Leviticus 12:1-7). He allows men to have multiple wives (Solomon had hundreds), but never women to have multiple husbands. He says that men are to rule over women and women are to submit themselves to men (Genesis 3:16, 1 Corinthians 11:3, 1 Peter 3:1); even more so, he says that women are the property of men (Exodus 20:17, which includes wives along with houses, cattle, slaves, and other things that “belong” to one’s neighbor). He forbids women to make promises without the permission of their husband or father (Numbers 30:2-13), a trait that would be very typical of an abusive relationship. He demands that women remain silent in church and says it is a “shame” for them to speak there (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), and says that women may not teach men, but must learn from them in silence (1 Timothy 2:11-12). The consistent message of the Bible is that women are inferior to men in virtually every way. Could a healthy human relationship work like this? Would a loving husband demand his wife remain silent inside his house, or regard her as unclean and refuse to touch her after she had given birth to a daughter?
Mood swings and short temper
The bipolar nature of the Biblical God is evident from the text: though he claims to greatly love and bless those who obey him (Deuteronomy 7:9), even slight provocations cause him to react with sudden fury, and past obedience means little or nothing as soon as a person commits some sin. Never does God let people off with only a warning. He says that, if the Israelites turn away from him, he will destroy them “suddenly” (Deuteronomy 7:4); even David, Israel’s greatest king, was punished for a single act of disobedience – taking a census – with a plague that killed seventy thousand people (2 Samuel 24:15). In Deuteronomy 28, within a single chapter, the emphasis moves abruptly from the many great blessings and rewards God will confer upon the Israelites if they obey him (28:1-14) to the even more numerous and horrible punishments and curses he will send upon them if they stray (28:15-68). This bizarre, Jekyll-and-Hyde conflation of love and wrath would be viewed as mental illness if any human being did it; what emotionally healthy husband would tell his wife that he loved her with all his heart, then in the same breath threaten to kill her if she did not do exactly as he commanded?
Threats and violence
The realization of this defining characteristic of abuse in the Christian system seems too obvious to need comment. Throughout the Old Testament of the Bible, God threatens or commits innumerable violent acts against those who do not obey him exactly as he demands: deadly plagues (2 Samuel 24:15), years of slavery (Judges 3:8), forced cannibalism (Deuteronomy 28:53), violent death in battle (Isaiah 13:15), death by fire and flood (Genesis 19:24; Genesis 7:20-21), and death by stoning (Leviticus 24:16) – to name a few. But even the cruelties of the Old Testament shrink into insignificance before the most terrible threat of the New – the promise of eternal pain, of infinite suffering, in the fires of Hell reserved for those who will not accept its terms. Jesus’ dire warnings that we should fear the God who can consign us to this fate (Luke 12:5) only go to show how the Christian relationship, on its own terms, is built on fear and threats of violence.
Like many abusers, God is also cruel to animals and children. He once drowned all the world’s wildlife in the great flood, and instructed the Israelites to kill even the cattle of the heathen people whose land he had given them (1 Samuel 15:3). Children do not escape his wrath either. Not only did he order his marauding Israelites to kill even the young and newborn of the Canaanite cities (Joshua 10:40), not only did he drown them en masse in the deluge, he swore bloody vengeance against the unborn children of Samaria (Hosea 13:16), sent wild bears to maul the youths who mocked Elisha (2 Kings 2:24), and promised happiness to those who smashed children against stones (Psalms 137:9).
Only an abuser is physically violent against those he claims to love, and a sound, healthy relationship can never be built on the underlying threat of bodily harm. Violent behavior can coerce obedience, but never create love. On the contrary, it only provokes fear and resentment. Did it ever occur to the OT God that the Israelites strayed so often precisely because their relationship with him was so marked by abuse and unsatisfactory? Did it occur to him that his constant barrage of threats is what kept causing them to turn away?
In addition to physical violence, the Christian relationship with God is marked by emotional abuse and putdowns. After all, the foundational principle of this relationship, which we are told we must realize and accept before entering into it, is that we are wretches – depraved sinners who are incapable of pleasing God by our own efforts and who rightfully deserve eternal damnation in a place of suffering and despair too horrible to imagine (Romans 3:23, among others). This theme of humanity’s inferiority, of the worthlessness of our endeavors, of the fundamentally evil nature of our hearts, and of our total lack of importance in the face of the greatness of God, pervades the evangelical mindset, and is the epitome of insult and emotional abuse. One well-known Christian writer succinctly summed up what Christianity taught him about his own self-worth when he said, “The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, book III, chapter 8, “The Great Sin”). And, an atheist might say in rejoinder, the real test of being in the presence of someone who truly loves you is that you know you are a valuable individual accepted for who you are.
Blaming the victim
True to form, the Biblical God does not accept that his own hair-trigger temper is the main reason for the cruelties he inflicts on humans. Instead, he claims that humans themselves are to blame for the punishments they suffer, that they force his hand by their sin and deserve what they get (Romans 6:23) – although by definition, no finite sin can merit an infinite punishment, and most of the so-called sins God punishes with death and slaughter do not even seem to be crimes at all, such as taking a census, or catching a holy relic to prevent it from falling off a cart (2 Samuel 24:1-15; 2 Samuel 6:6-7). God even claims that infants and unborn children deserve the horrifying fate he wreaks upon them (Hosea 13:16). In the midst of this blaming everyone but himself, there is one rare moment of candor – God admits that he destroyed an innocent man for no reason at all (Job 2:3) – but since this confession was made only to Satan, with no human standing witness, it should hardly be counted.
Hypercritical nature/unrealistic expectations
To hear the Christians tell it, God deliberately created humans imperfect, not just susceptible to sin but helpless to avoid it, and then demands moral perfection from us anyway – knowing full well it is a standard we cannot possibly meet. He then proceeds to criticize us constantly for not living up to this impossible standard, in one case comparing all people’s good deeds to filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Rather than give us any credit for trying even when we fall short, it seems, nothing we can do is ever good enough for him.
In light of these traits of God, not denied even by Christians – his demand for complete control over his followers’ lives, his pervasive jealousy, his regarding men as superior to women, his short temper, his use of both emotional putdowns and physical violence, his blaming the targets of his wrath for making him angry, his constant criticism, and his impossibly high expectations – all the characteristic signs of an abusive relationship – why do Christians continue to worship him? Why do they not only excuse this behavior, not only defend it, but in many cases refuse to recognize that there is anything wrong with it at all? Why, indeed, do they continue to regard this deity as loving, kind, compassionate and merciful, despite this clear evidence to the contrary?
As it happens, there is a parallel in history for this.
On August 23rd, 1973 two machine-gun carrying criminals entered a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. Blasting their guns, one prison escapee named Jan-Erik Olsson announced to the terrified bank employees “The party has just begun!” The two bank robbers held four hostages, three women and one man, for the next 131 hours. The hostages were strapped with dynamite and held in a bank vault until finally rescued on August 28th.
After their rescue, the hostages exhibited a shocking attitude considering they were threatened, abused, and feared for their lives for over five days. In their media interviews, it was clear that they supported their captors and actually feared law enforcement personnel who came to their rescue. The hostages had begun to feel the captors were actually protecting them from the police. One woman later became engaged to one of the criminals and another developed a legal defense fund to aid in their criminal defense fees. Clearly, the hostages had “bonded” emotionally with their captors.
This incident and its consequences led to the coining of the term “Stockholm syndrome”, used to describe a psychological state in which kidnap victims, prisoners or hostages come to identify emotionally with their captors, often to the point where they will defend or even actively assist them. (Another famous case of Stockholm syndrome was that of Patty Hearst, a wealthy heiress who in 1974 was kidnapped by a terrorist group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army, then resurfaced several weeks later as an active member of the group, helping them to commit a bank robbery.)
Though this phenomenon may seem very strange, the causes of Stockholm syndrome are actually quite simple: when victims see themselves as helpless, unable to escape, they begin to believe that their only chance for survival is the good will of their captor. Even small kindnesses shown to them become, in their minds, evidence that the captor is “not so bad”, and for their own sake they begin to make an effort to keep the captor happy and fulfill his desires. Over time, this can grow into an actual emotional bond that ultimately leads to the captive taking their captor’s side. Stockholm syndrome frequently appears among prisoners of war, members of cults, and other, similar situations – but most significantly, it is very common in abusive relationships. The website cited above mentions how police officers called to incidences of domestic violence often find that the abused partner will take the side of the person who was abusing or beating her just moments prior, sometimes even to the point of physically assaulting the officer attempting to arrest the abuser.
What is most relevant is that all the necessary conditions for the onset of Stockholm syndrome are present in the Christian relationship with God. The theist feels threatened – God may unleash earthly disaster upon him at any time, or wait until he dies and then condemn him to Hell. He feels unable to escape – after all, God is omnipotent and his will is supreme. He feels that his only chance to escape this fate is to obey God absolutely and do exactly as he directs. And any fortuitous coincidence, no matter how minor, is viewed as a “small kindness”, since God could have done something much worse to them but chose not to. Over time, these conditions may lead to the development of Stockholm syndrome, and in the end these theists not only accept God’s right to do as he wishes, but actually fervently defend his abuses, and see nothing wrong with his behavior.
How can this insidious condition be cured? The most important thing to keep in mind is that getting angry at the victim of an abusive relationship, demanding that they recognize the wrongs being done to them and “snap out of it”, does no good. As maddening as it may seem to watch a fellow human being live in thrall to an abuser, even to turn against people who try to help, it must be remembered that it is not their fault; they are only doing what they believe they must do to survive. Even if it would be for their own good, concerned outsiders are simply not capable of “saving” them against their will, and to try would only drive the person deeper into the abuser’s clutches. As in so many things, the initial decision to walk away must be the victim’s; only once they have made this choice for themselves can others help, by providing safe harbor and a place for them to go where they will be accepted. All of this is just as true for victims of the unhealthy theistic “relationship” as for those trapped in an abusive human relationship.
Happily, atheists and freethinkers attempting to reach theists have one advantage in this respect. While human abusers are unfortunately all too capable of carrying out their threats of violence, the believer is in thrall to nothing more than a phantom – a shadow of their own mind. There is absolutely no evidence that there exists a deity that will make those who disobey him suffer, or that the dreadful threats in the Christian holy book are anything more than words on paper. All we need to do is show them this, through gentle persuasion and through the evidence of our own lives, lives that are free of fear and slavish obedience. All abusive relationships deserve to be terminated, and even if the Christian deity does not exist, that does not detract from the psychologically harmful repercussions believing in him can have on the minds of his followers. Ask this atheist why he spends the time on pursuits such as this website, and my answer is simple – because I want to help.