The Psychology of Apologetics: Rebellion

October 19, 2008 at 1:16 am 20 comments

The concept of rebellion against God plays a central role in Christian theology.  It defines the relationship of Fallen Man to God – i.e., we humans are said to be in a state of rebellion against God.  It characterized Adam’s behavior in the Garden, and the result, human corruption, is now permanently embedded in our spiritual genome, so to speak.  It results in our voluntary choice of eternal separation from God, according to the theology – unless, of course, an individual claims the “redemptive work of Christ” to restore her to a regenerate state.  But this can only happen when the individual makes a free decision to submit her will to God and thus end the rebellion. C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, makes the matter quite plain: “…fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” (p. 59)  Thus, our sinful, prideful self-will, our universal tendency to make the self the center of the self, rather than God – in short, our rebellion – is at the core of who we are, until we become Christians.

Evangelical Christian theologies differ on what exactly happens, and how, when salvation is attained, but they largely agree on at least three main basics: (1) that the proper relationship of creature to Creator is one of submission; what God says, goes. (2) That humans are corrupted through and through, and the ability to love God, choose the Good, and lead moral lives are all entirely lacking. And finally (3) voluntary submission of the will to God is required for salvation.  I will address each of these in turn.

The human-God relationship  

With regards to the first item, it should be pointed out that this particular “model” of relationship – submission –  is almost always assumed, rather than argued.  Doing what God says unquestioningly by submitting one’s will to God’s is considered axiomatically good.  We might presume most Christians feel this to be self-evident, and have probably never even considered questioning it.

Yet if we take the metaphor of “God the Father” seriously, it becomes much less clear that abject submission is so clearly a virtue.  That is, after all, not what we earthly fathers wish for our own children.  We do not want them to do what is right because we tell them to; we want them to internalize the basic values and figure the rest out for themselves.  We want them to be, in other words, ethically and intellectually mature.  For my part I would consider that I had failed, as a father, if my own children forever sought to replace their will with my own.  A Christian could reply, at this point, of course, that obviously I am not God, so the analogy does not hold.  But it should be noted that even in other, nearby traditions, this model of the human-Divine relationship does not necessarily hold.

Liberal Christianity generally posits a “kinder, gentler” God, one less concerned with submission and more concerned with love, ethical growth, human dignity, and doing good for its own sake.  And going back even further, there is a minor but distinct stream of thought within Rabbinic Judaism that suggests that humans have an intrinsic dignity, as beings created imago Dei, so much that we can, at times, call even God to account.  Abraham and Moses both argue with God, Job demands answers from God, and a Talmudic legend even depicts God’s testimony as being dismissed during a rabbinic dispute over a point of Law when God tries to intercede. Delightfully, God is later shown laughing, saying “My children have defeated me!”

My point is not to argue for any particular alternative “model”.  My point, rather, is that it is not at all a given that servile submission to a god is self-evidently the proper stance to take.  It is not obviously crazy to see human beings as having some standing, even before the Almighty.  When evangelicals treat it as obvious that we must simply passively do what God (allegedly) says, the unwary target is not likely to think to take issue with this assumption. 

I suggest that this works by triggering in susceptible individuals a natural impulse to submit. This impulse is an echo of the last time in the individual’s life that such a relationship held – namely, when he was a young child.  Young children (under 4-5) regard their parent’s authority as absolute, and yet, as every parent knows, they do rebel.  This “rebellion” (e.g., the “terrible twos”) are normal and healthy and critical for development, of course.  But it is not easy for them.  Children must struggle for years to be able to manage the difficult feelings – guilt, fear, anxiety, shame, anger  – that come with self-assertion, with saying “no”. Children that age have a poorly developed sense of self and thus cannot distinguish between feeling bad, and being bad.  Eventually they come to make that distinction, but the memory of that relationship dynamic – of anxiously saying “no” to an absolute authority, and feeling bad as the result – becomes embedded in their unconscious. The evangelical apologist taps into this memory, and that is why their assumptions seem so natural. It is easy for us to feel rebellious, and equally easy to feel obedience is proper.

The evangelical thus can say: if God said it, you must obey it, like it or not.  And many people are likely to accept the implicit assumption that God’s authority is indeed beyond question.  But this, as I have shown, is a false assumption, for there are other possible models of relationship.  Calling authority to account is not necessarily “rebellion.”

Human corruption  

Human beings are fallen creatures, according to Christians.  Not only does that make us unable to live good lives on our own, some thinkers have even argued that sin impairs the very ability to reason.  This borders closely with the concept of total depravity.  In this context it is called the “noetic” effects of sin, noetic meaning “having to do with the intellect.”  It means that our primary duty is to believe and be saved and submit ourselves to “God’s Word”, whatever our reason may tell us, because our reason is corrupt and faulty just like the rest of us. Thus, we cannot reason our way to God, or not reliably.  If our reason does happen to point us to the conclusion that Christianity is true, then so much the better.  But if it does not, we are to believe in the Bible and in Jesus, and ignore the false-god of our reason.  To do otherwise is to make the self, or an aspect of the self (reason, human judgment), one’s “standard of truth”, and thus, one’s god.  This, precisely, is pride, self-will, and therefore sin.  And therefore rebellion.

This is insidious for two reasons.  One, it attacks the very foundation of critical thinking, our autonomous reason.  This is the only tool which might potentially, if allowed to work, enable a believer to examine fairly the claims of his faith system – and, potentially, to reject them.  He is, in effect, instructed that he is morally culpable if he does not short-circuit his rationality if and when it begins to reach conclusions contrary to those of the creed.  It effectively pits guilt (and fear) against rationality —- and since we were emotional creatures for many evolutionary eons before we were reasoning ones, guilt wins every time.

Secondly, claiming that humans make errors in their reasoning because of sin means that those who reject Christianity for allegedly “rational” reasons are really sinning, which is to say that are making willful – i.e., rebellious – decisions to run from God.  Christians teach that man by nature hates God, runs and hides from God (like Adam), and does not want to face his “Judge”.  Calvin taught all humans have a sensus divinitatus, an innate awareness of God, and thus no one has an excuse not to believe. There is no “inculpable nonbelief” for these guys.  There is no rational, objective evaluation of Christianity – there is only submission or rebellion.

But, weirdly, this idea (the noetic effects of sin) has the effect of serving for the Christian as a kind of empirical test of this “God-and-rebellious-Man” theory of the world. For that theory essentially predicts that there will be many people in the world who do not wish to face the “Truth”, even though they “really” recognize it as “Truth” when they hear it (despite their claim to disbelieve).  In effect, it predicts that many people will disagree with the apologist.  Which, of course, they do.  But from the Christian perceptive, this very disagreement is seen to confirm the truth of the theory!  It is, after all, exactly what you would expect to see if it were true.  Thus to disagree with a Christian is, in his eyes, to prove him right.  “Of course you disagree – but that’s only because you are making your puny, flawed ‘reason’ your god.  Isn’t that impudent and prideful?  Are you saying you disagree with God?? You’re not ‘disagreeing’. You’re rebelling!”

Submission of the will

Finally, once the prospective target has accepted the idea that submitting his will to God is the only proper response he can make, and utterly necessary because of his corruption, and he finally sets about to doing it, he straightaway finds another problem.  A paradox, really, but one designed to break the will of the believer by setting him to an impossible task. 

For the goal is to empty oneself of one’s particular will and thus allow God to fill you with His will, and thus bring your soul back into alignment with God.  But how can one choose, and enact by effort, to evacuate one’s own will?  How can one, by force of will, stop willing? In trying to deny the will, one inevitably asserts the will.  This is like pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.  So, of course, the believer must necessarily fail at this.  He cannot succeed in this task upon which, he has become convinced, his eternal life depends. In effect: he cannot, by his own decision, stop rebelling, because to do so he would have to stop wanting anything and want only what God wants. He realizes his helplessness to save himself.

This is, of course, exactly the position the apologist wants him to be in.  For the potential convert is hereby broken.  He now “sees” the truth of the Christian doctrine that you cannot save yourself.  No one can be righteous, of course, because the standard is perfection, and because to do so would involve solving this unsolvable paradox.  The target’s will is broken: he is convinced he is corrupt and that he faces a Judge, his capacity for critical thinking has been undermined, and his guilt has been brought to bear against his autonomy.  And he sees no choice but to submit – indeed, cling to for dear life – to whatever salvation is presented to him.

– Richard

Entry filed under: Richard. Tags: , , , , , , .

If Marty Luther (re)wrote the Bible The Psychology of Apologetics: Sin

20 Comments Add your own

  • 1. exapologist  |  October 19, 2008 at 6:07 am

    Great post, Richard!

  • 2. Ray  |  October 19, 2008 at 9:04 am

    Richard, thank you for your excellent and thoughtful post. The section on ‘Human corruption’ really hits home for me because it is an area I have been trying fairly unsuccessfully to articulate for some time, both to myself and others, as I started to openly question christianity. You described that so well.

    It is enormously frustrating in both regards, being told that to question is to sin, and that the questioning or my opposition itself proves that the bible is true.

  • 3. Monty  |  October 20, 2008 at 2:06 am

    I have never heard a Christian give an adequate explanation of this laughable concept of man the fallen. So God, the almighty and all knowing, has a plan. He creates man, places him in a beautiful garden. There is no death, no disease. No hunger, nor want. What could mess up a deal like that? Well, along comes a talking snake and screws the whole thing up. Darn! Damn snakes. Now we’re in trouble. God in all His wisdom and because He loves us so much, sends His own son to suffer and die for us because we’re so evil, wicked, mean and nasty, and just plain not made very well (by our creator) in the first place, that we can’t get into Heaven without a sacrifice. And if you don’t believe this, why you get to go to Hell and suffer unimaginable agony for all of eternity. And this is our loving father. As “fallen” as we are, what parent among us could even imagine inflicting torment on one of our children? What a thoroughly disgusting concept! But maybe that’s just me using my corrupt reason, which brings me to my final point: Here again, God our creator has gifted us with reason. This trait, more than any other, distinguishes us from the rest of the beasts on this planet. Yet, when our reason runs head on into nonsense, we’re supposed to throw reason out the window and swallow our faith hook, line and sinker.

  • 4. Ben Barnett  |  October 20, 2008 at 2:21 am

    Hi DC Folks,

    Great site! I’d be interested in exchanging permanent links. I run an active, free-thinker blog at and I think our readers would have a lot to offer eachother. Let me know what you think.

    Ben Barnett

  • 5. LeoPardus  |  October 20, 2008 at 10:57 am

    On the submission to God business, I was thinking of it this weekend (while listening to one of those “We are so unworthy. You are so totally awesome. We can’t do anything right. Please help us and don’t squash us like ugly bugs as we deserve.” type of Orthodox prayers).

    It occurs to me that anyone who wanted to always be held up as wonderful, who wouldn’t take the slightest dissent without monstrous retribution, and who expected everyone to grovel around them at all times, would be a sick, sick, sick individual. And this is the loving, father God you want to follow?

  • 6. SnugglyBuffalo  |  October 20, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    Leo, it seems to me that Christians give God a free pass on a lot of behaviors that we would consider absolutely reprehensible from anyone else.

  • 7. LeoPardus  |  October 20, 2008 at 12:13 pm


    Ah cun giv’ yuh uh “AMEN” on dat.

  • 8. Josh  |  October 20, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    What a brilliant essay – thank you so much. It is a wonderful experience to read ones own hunches being expressed so eloquently!

  • 9. Derek  |  October 21, 2008 at 11:33 am

    They used to tell us in Christian High School that “Self Esteem”, thinking of yourself as a person with dignity and self-worth, was very very bad — in fact, it was the epitome of “making yourself your own god”.

    I internalized this to the point where, when I would help lead worship and get a buzz from the attention it got me, I would later withdraw and cry, frustrated that I could not help thinking positively of myself.

    Small wonder I grew up into an adult with almost zero confidence, wracked with guilt at even the most inconsequential of self-assertions: telling off telemarketers.

  • 10. Derek  |  October 21, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    I internalized this to the point where, when I would help lead worship and get a buzz from the attention it got me, I would later withdraw and cry, frustrated that I could not help thinking positively of myself.

    I should add, when I told people of this, they were literally awestruck at my “devotion to Christ”. That made me feel even better, which made me feel even worse. I’m not kidding. I took the whole “I am unholy scum in God’s eyes” very very seriously.

  • 11. Anonymous  |  October 21, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Derek- Yes! That is exactly the sort of thing I am talking about. This is what apologetcis and fundamentalist theology do to you. I find them to be sprinkled with these sorts of paradoxes — e.g., that to avoid “self esteem” (as pride) is a good thing — but dont start feeling pleased with your success! You also, as I mentioned in my post, must assert the will in order to submit it. There is another one coming in my next post.

    Bottom line: fundamentalism tries to dictate what you are supposed to *feel*, what your motives should be. But emotions are not under voluntary control. So we are set up to fail.

    Makes me think of the line from that old movie Wargames: “The only way to win is not to play.”

  • 12. Richard  |  October 21, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    Oops, that last post was me.

  • 13. The Psychology of Apologetics: Sin « de-conversion  |  October 22, 2008 at 11:56 pm

    […] have already laid out in part two of this series the paradox of submission of the will – i.e., that one must assert the will in order to deny it […]

  • 14. The Nerd  |  October 23, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    Well written!

  • 15. gracesong815  |  October 24, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    I’m speechless! you have articulated my feelings so clearly!
    It’s sad that even the brightest and most intelligent among the Fundamentalist movement must resort to these paradoxes. I’m not sure how they’ve managed to live willingly and willfully in cognotive disonance for so long.
    It still amazes me just how many Christians do not have a problem with the doctrine of hell. They talk of it like it’s an uncomfortable topic, but nothing more. Hell has to exist because, as I was told recently by a Christian, “Without Hell there can be no Heaven, and without wrath, there can be no grace.”
    Oh, btw, just the other day, I’d had enough and renounced my belief in the God of the Bible. For moral and intellectual reasons, I can no longer believe that the God portrayed in the Bible is the loving Father who created me.

  • 16. bipolar2  |  October 24, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    ** Becoming-who-you-are requires skepticism and self-assertion **

    The word ‘islam’ means submission. Obviously submission to the will of Allah, as prescribed in the five pillars of faith. The big-3 monotheisms are alike in dismissing an individual’s will — “not my will but thy will done” as we’re shown in the poignant scene at Gethsemane in the NT. (But, the xian god-man is no hero.)

    For the big-3 empire building monotheisms, self-assertion takes on the character not of honest questioning and personal growth, but of insubordination and rebellion. (Can’t be godly cannon fodder unless you obey orders, mister.)

    >> One SicK danish strudel, to go!

    With characteristic, combative verve, Kierkegaard condemns the doubter as insubordinate, a rebel against xian fideism:

    “They would have us believe that objections against Christianity come from doubt. This is always a misunderstanding. Objections against Christianity come from insubordination, unwillingness to obey, rebellion against all authority. Therefore, they have been beating the air against the objectors, because they have fought intellectually [against] doubt, instead of fighting ethically [against] rebellion. . . .So it is not properly doubt but insubordination.” (Lowrie 122)

    Thus, SK. Almost needless to say, but his rhetoric works equally “well” in the mouth of any fideist muslim or jew.

    >> Got guilt? Well, why not, sinner?

    Even attempting to leave a religious culture which demands ’subordination’ or ’submission’ to someone else’s interpretation of an alleged “will of god” adversely affects the psychological well-being of the “apostate.” Irrational anxiety feelings get induced. Guilt is the nonexistent elder brother of nonexistent “sin.”

    Becoming-who-you-are or “individuation” (to use Jung’s terminology) is the goal of personal growth. It cannot occur without self-doubt or without doubting authority and authority figures. When you’ve made a “leap of faith” into hyper-religious space there is no return except by self-assertion, and doubt is just a form of it. You emulate not Jesus, but Odysseus. The hero labors, struggles, succeeds or dies trying; but throughout remains human.

    >> Religious “commitment” is not a choice; it’s a moral cop-out

    Irrational self-assertion characterizes our popular culture. Irrational fideism characterizes fundamentalism. One “commitment” to Christ and you drop into the womb of unknowing. “Rebirth” is a pale substitute for individuation.

    Tolerance is that wide band of humane behavior, including rational self-assertion, lying between inhuman anarchy and inhuman puritanism. Trying to navigate there requires years of training and making a lot of very human mistakes.

    bipolar2 © 2008

  • 17. Delong TSway  |  October 27, 2008 at 1:13 am

    interesting essay. However, not conclusive. Christianity is totally for reason. It just acknowledges that reason itself is not enough to be with God. You talk a lot about the paradoxes of Christianity. I am not an expert but I can tell you that no matter what you believe you are going to face paradoxes. I love my GOd, I submit to him because he loved me enough to help me when I was lonely and honestly fed up with mysel. I was not raised as christian and I relied a lot on my own reason and pride. I was pretty lonely most of the time and though I thought of myself so high I could understand that I had very very low self esteem.

    There is nothing wrong with self esteem, just remember who gave you the ability to have it. “Do not be anxious about anything but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to GOd.” When bad things happen we always ask why. Why not do the same for good things? DO we only pay attention to God when things do not happen the way we want them to? We want to address the cause of suffering. Why not address the cause of happiness? Why seek fault instead of worth? When you do that you will begin to appreciate God and people a lot more.

  • 18. Delong TSway  |  October 27, 2008 at 1:14 am

    The verse is Phillipians 4:5

  • 19. J. J. Ramsey  |  November 3, 2008 at 8:51 pm

    Human beings are fallen creatures, according to Christians. Not only does that make us unable to live good lives on our own, some thinkers have even argued that sin impairs the very ability to reason. This borders closely with the concept of total depravity. In this context it is called the “noetic” effects of sin, noetic meaning “having to do with the intellect.”

    There’s another catch to the whole noetic effects of sin. When atheists use bad arguments, this can get used as an example of sin compromising reason. If you go to, for example,, that’s a common subtext.

  • 20. Richard  |  November 4, 2008 at 12:33 am

    Or even when atheists use good arguments! In fact, if you ever disagree with Christian conclusions, it is often attributed to sin.

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