Monday, August 26, 2013

Substitutionary Atonement: How It Promotes Dissociation and Empowers Abusers

There was a member of the church I grew up in that was addicted to pornography. We'll call him Bob. Bob was around 30 years of age and was constantly meeting with the pastor and other men in the church for support in his struggle with sexual addiction. The church leaders told Bob that he needed to leave his sinful nature and be satisfied with Christ, singularly defining Bob as the cause of the problem and neglecting to explore childhood trauma producing his sexual addiction. Bob presents the problem: unhealthy sexuality producing sexual addiction. Church leaders present the cure: be satisfied with Christ, read Bible, and pray. Sadly, the cure didn't work. Bob raped an underage girl shortly thereafter, spent time in prison, and came back to the same church. The church welcomed Bob with open arms and celebrated that he had justification in Christ, and that Christ had provided restitution for his sins.

The similarities in application between substitutionary atonement and dissociation are startlingly obvious, yet none of the material that I've interacted with in psychology or religion has portrayed this synchronous relationship. In this post I will show the similarities in practice between substitutionary atonement and dissociation, and present arguments that substitutionary atonement promotes dissociation and is inherently harmful (this should've been my thesis for my religion degree).

First, let's start by defining "Substitutionary Atonement," also called "Penal Substitutionary Atonement," "Penal-Substitution Theory," or simply "Atonement."

"Penal substitutionary atonement refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard." (

Substitutionary Atonement is the doctrine used within the mythology of Christianity to "explain" the necessity of the crucifixion. The Importance of Substitutionary Atonement within Christianity cannot be emphasized enough. It's one of the central doctrines/ideas that string Christianity together. Without Substitutionary Atonement, Christianity simply wouldn't exist as we know it today. Later, I'll go more in depth into the effects of Substitutionary Atonement. For now, let's look at the word dissociation, depersonalization disorder (particular dissociative disorder), and the symptoms of dissociative disorders.

"Dissociation: In psychology and psychiatry, a perceived detachment of the mind from the emotional state or even from the body. Dissociation is characterized by a sense of the world as a dreamlike or unreal place and may be accomplished by poor memory of specific events." (

Depersonalization disorder[type of dissociative disorder] is marked by a feeling of detachment or distance from one's own experience, body, or self. These feelings of depersonalization are recurrent. Of the dissociative disorders, depersonalization is the one most easily identified with by the general public; one can easily relate to feeling as they in a dream, or being "spaced out." Feeling out of control of one's actions and movements is something that people describe when intoxicated. An individual with depersonalization disorder has this experience so frequently and so severely that it interrupts his or her functioning and experience. A person's experience with depersonalization can be so severe that he or she believes the external world is unreal or distorted. (

Signs and symptoms common to all types of dissociative disorders include:
  • Memory loss (amnesia) of certain time periods, events and people
  • Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety
  • A sense of being detached from yourself (depersonalization). 
  • A perception of the people and things around you as distorted and unreal (derealization)
  • A blurred sense of identity (

Now that Substitutionary Atonement and dissociation have been defined, consider these quotes from some important Christian figures:

"The really wonderful moments of joy in this world are not the moments of self-satisfaction, but self-forgetfulness. Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and contemplating your own greatness is pathological. At such moments we are made for a magnificent joy that comes from outside ourselves." John Piper, Don't Waste Your Life

"Jesus fights the powers, pays the price, bears the exile, makes the sacrifice, and bears the punishment for us, in our place, on our behalf. In every grammar, Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He accomplishes salvation; we do nothing at all. And therefore the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus is at the heart of everything." Timothy Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church

"My Lord, I have nothing to do in this World, but to seek and serve thee; I have nothing to do with a Heart and its affections, but to breathe after thee. I have nothing to do with my Tongue and Pen, but to speak to thee, and for thee, and to publish thy Glory and thy Will. What have I to do with all my Reputation, and Interest in my Friends, but to increase thy Church, and propagate thy holy Truth and Service? What have I to do with my remaining Time, even these last and languishing hours, but to look up unto thee, and wait for thy Grace, and thy Salvation?" Richard Baxter

"When you come back to God for pardon and salvation, come with all you have to lay all at his feet. Come with your body, to offer it as a living sacrifice upon His altar. Come with your soul and all its powers, and yield them in willing consecration to your God and Saviour. Come, bring them all along—everything, body, soul, intellect, imagination, acquirements—all, without reserve." Charles Finney

 The theory of Substitutionary Atonement is, rationally speaking, bat-shit crazy, so I don't want to address the theory's coherence or plausibility. Rather, I want to point out the "kerygma," or the application of Substitutionary Atonement in the life of believers. The idea of Substitutionary Atonement serves as a remedy for the effects of sinful nature/original sin, taught by Christian doctrine, Christian parents, and the Christian Church. And, it's learned by the children. Children are taught that they possess an evil inside of them that cannot be tamed, that depravity has tainted every faculty of his or her person. The sinful nature produces a sense of helplessness in its subjects. Negative behavior seems immutable, producing anxiety, guilt and fear. Without ever actually engaging in immoral behavior, one is predetermined for condemnation and encouraged to disparage his/her own person. Atonement offers a solution to the inherited sinful nature/original sin. It can wash away the record of being sinful, by placing one's sin on someone else, namely Jesus, the substitute. Sound dissociated?

The transference of guilt from sinners and the assumption of that guilt by Christ during his crucifixion is, at the core, extremely dishonest and encourages an unhealthy behavior toward oneself and other humans. For one to take what is not rightly his/hers is to falsify reality--this is the core of the problem with Substitutionary Atonement. Atonement promotes a dishonest view of humans and a dishonest praxiology (the analysis of human action), empowering abusers and systematically disenfranchising victims--this is a natural result of Substitutionary Atonement.

Who would be interested in something like this? Peaceful individuals and peaceful families have no need for Atonement or Justification. The people that are in need of atonement are naturally the violent, coercive, and abusive, and due to the family-centric nature of Christianity and the natural power disparity between parents and children, the parents often fit the role of the abuser. Neglectful and abusive parents need a way of deflecting responsibilities that they have consummately rejected, and a way to avoid accountability for the genuine wrongs they have inflicted on their children. Atonement provides that way out. Children are encouraged to see abusers just as normal people that share a 'sinful nature' that cannot seem to be modified. Now, let's go back to Bob.

Restitution: A legal action serving to cause restoration of a previous state. (merriam-webster

Restitution is clearly impossible in Bob's situation. Bob can never give back to that girl what he took by force, neither can Christ. That is a factual statement. The church leaders by no means are responsible for what happened; however, they are guilty of being completely void of moral intelligence and human understanding, and are, quite honestly, just pieces of shit. Anyone in leadership that is brought a real problem, gives a completely shamanistic cure, and expects the problem to be resolved is fucking crazy and harmful.

When Bob came back from prison, he talked about how he had been sexually, emotionally, and physically abused as a child. What was Bob's abuser told by Christians? That Christ had provided restitution for his actions, that the abuser was no longer responsible for the abuse, that forgiveness was here. Bob's abuser was never charged with a crime. Bob's abuser was able to dissociate from and justify his actions through the idea of original sin and was able to evade punishment and psychological help by accepting a fictitious restitution through the Substitutionary Atonement of Christ. Substitutionary atonement is a means by which morally abhorrent people can justify their shitty behavior. It systematically empowers abusers through the dissociative nature of original sin, grace/justification, and (false) restitution, and it systematically disenfranchises victims by demanding they forgive their abusers and pointing to original sin as the cause of their abuse.

Bob was sexually abused. 
Bob's abuser received grace and (false) restitution, no punishment. 
Bob raped a girl. 
Bob received a few years in prison, grace, (false) restitution, and church community.
Girl was raped, impregnated, and received a baby. Atonement teaches that she is obligated to forgive her abuser, Bob, without restitution.

"Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to His Father's justice in their behalf.(1) Yet, inasmuch as He was given by the Father for them,(2) and His obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead,(3) and both, freely, not for anything in them, their justification is only of free grace;(4) that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners."
Westminster Confession of Faith, (Chapter 9, section 3)


  1. You make several moral accusations within your argument.

    Before you even worry about substitutionary atonement perhaps you might like to explain exactly where you get an absolute moral law from that is not a moral opinion held by yourself or a group of people who agree with you because moral opinions are just that, opinions and as such worthless, holding no inherent value because you cannot get value from time + matter + chance, and your opinion would be just that, Chance.

    Unless you can define the moral law from which it can be said that substitutionary atonement is a "bad" thing to believe your argument holds no water because without this moral law, there is no Good, there is No Bad there just is, Feelings just are merely neurons firing in the brain, rape is merely one chemical taking advantage of another chemical.

    This is why within your argument you prove that which you are trying to disprove so what is it you are trying to prove?

    1. Tyrone, thanks for the comment.

      If morality is no more than opinion, wouldn't it be useless to critically look at others' morality--like your criticism of my moral assertions. From the standpoint of a relativist morality, my moral assertions are as valid as anyone's. Even statements about absolute morality would be acceptable, because opinion doesn't have to be qualified.

      Also, saying there is no "Good" or "Bad" is making a moral assertion. You are promoting a particular morality. Telling someone else that his or her morality is incorrect or wrong, implicitly states that there is a correct or right morality. Do you realize this?

      Do your friends know your view on rape? How does that make them feel? I'm not being unkind. I'm genuinely being curious. I haven't heard anyone take the stance that rape isn't morally bad. Tell me about that. Does that mean that you're indifferent to being raped because of its neutral nature?

      I ask these questions to better understand the information you're working with. Also, if you're working under the assumption that rape isn't "bad" I don't know that I'll be able to have a marginally rational conversation with you. If that's what you believe, you are telling me that you have an intense prejudice toward very clear information. So, more information wouldn't really be of any assistance.

  2. really, your 'thesis' of a synchronous relationship between the two ideas was not sufficient imo. you try to bring two separate and distinct paradigms and mash them into some type of sacrilegious psychobabble. your quote from john piper was pitiful at best when using it prove your theory. go back and try again my friend. or better yet, focus your energies on edification and not outright morbid hatefulness.