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Why Evangelical Beliefs and Practices are Psychologically Harmful — Part One

born in sin
Cartoon by David Hayward

In light of comments on the post Do Evangelical Beliefs Lead to Psychological Damage?, I thought I would give several reasons why I think Evangelical beliefs and practices are psychologically harmful.

Evangelical Christianity teaches that everyone is born with a sinful nature. People do not become sinners; they are, by nature, sinners. From the moment people come into this world, they are sinners who are at variance with God. This is the lot of the human race, according to Evangelicals. No one, except Jesus, is exempt. We have no choice in the matter.

What is sin? Sin is, according to Evangelicals, transgression of the law of God. (1 John 3:4) God is Holy. He hates sin and those who do it. Yes, God HATES sinners! (Please see Does God Hate? and God Hates the Sin but Love the Sinner.) All of us deserve to be eternally punished in the Lake of Fire for our sins. Because of Adam’s sin in the garden of Eden, we deserve to be tortured in the flame of Hell for eternity. Or so Evangelicals say, anyway.

Jesus came to earth to redeem people from their sins. According to Evangelicals, God demands human sin be atoned for through a blood sacrifice. When Jesus was on the cross, the wrath of God the Father was poured out on Him — wrath that Jesus did not deserve. Taking our sins and punishments upon himself, Jesus died on the cross to satisfy our sin debt.

Justification by faith is central to Evangelical soteriology. Simply put, the term means that God looks at a saved (born again) sinner “just as if they never sinned.” How is this possible? God hasn’t changed! He still hates sin and those who do it. He still throws people in the Lake of Fire to be tormented for eternity. God is God, and this is what God does. It is only through the merit and work of Jesus that born-again sinners are saved from the fury of a wrathful God. Jesus stands between the saved sinner and God, taking on the violence that rightfully belongs to saved and unsaved sinners alike. When God looks at saved sinners, all he sees is his son Jesus.

What I have written above is Evangelicalism 101. It is classic substitutionary atonement, justified-by-faith, Protestant theology. Understanding this will be key to what follows.

How do Evangelicals view themselves?

  • I am a sinner. I sin daily in thought, word, and deed.
  • Even now, I deserve punishment from God.
  • The only difference between me and the worst of sinners is that I have accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. The blood of Jesus covers my sin and I am, by faith, justified before God through the merit and work of Jesus.
  • No matter what suffering and pain comes in my life, I should be grateful that I am saved and that I have escaped eternal punishment in the Lake of Fire.

Most Evangelical pastors spend significant amounts of time preaching about sin. These self-described men of God really can’t be faulted for doing this. As People of the Book, they must preach what the Bible says — and the Good Book certainly has a lot to say about sin, judgment, and chastisement.

In the Old Testament alone there are 613 laws. Then there is the New Testament with all the new laws added by Jesus, Paul, John, and Peter.  Add to these the personal interpretation of these laws, commands, and precepts by Evangelical preachers . . . well, there’s plenty of sin to preach about.

Needless to say, there is a lot of guilt and fear among Evangelical believers. For all their talk about grace, Evangelical preachers spent inordinate amounts of time preaching sermons meant to cause listeners to feel guilty and fearful. Despite being “miraculously” saved, Evangelicals still sin —often more so than the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world. No matter how often pastors preach about this or that sin, preachers and congregants alike continue to sin. Evangelicals commit sexual sins, divorce, felonies, misdemeanors, and have abortions, all at levels similar to those who never darken the doors of Christian churches. And thanks to the Internet, we now know that Evangelical pastors, deacons, Sunday school teachers, worship leaders, youth directors, and run-of-the-mill congregants abuse and sexually assault children and prey on vulnerable teenagers and adults. (Please see the Black Collar Crime series.)

Despite knowing all of this, Evangelicals preachers — ignoring their own secret sins — continue to berate and badger congregants over their sinful behaviors. How DARE you sin!, Evangelicals preachers proclaim. Look at what Jesus did for you! The Bible says, how dare they, who have been freed from sin, continue any longer therein?

Evangelicals believe that the third person of the Trinity — the Holy Spirit — lives inside them and is their teacher and guide. The Holy Spirit is a sin-o-meter of sorts. When temptation comes, the sin meter starts saying, NO! NO! Don’t do this! Turn! Run! Leave! Stop!

Yet, even with Jesus saving them, the Holy Spirit living inside of them, the Bible as the Words of God, and thundering preachers reminding them of the dangers of sins, Evangelicals still sin like just like the rest of us. Try as they might, Evangelicals can’t kick their sin habit. This ever-present reality results in a lifetime of guilt and fear.

Evangelical church altars are routinely lined with people “getting right with God.” Churches hold revival services so congregants can wipe their sin slates clean and return to walking the straight and narrow way. Pastors weekly spend hours counseling church members who find themselves ensnared by Satan — caught up in temptation and sin. Preachers themselves are routinely caught up in this or that sin. If a preacher can’t walk the talk, is it realistic to expect lesser Christians to do so?

For all their talk about forgiveness and deliverance, sin is still the number one problem Evangelicals face daily. No matter how much they pray, asking for forgiveness, sin keeps returning, spoiling their attempts to live Godly lives. A lifetime of this kind of living makes people emotional train wrecks. Over time, Evangelicals learn how to “hide” their sin. They learn the right things to say when asked about how things are in their lives. They learn how to play the “I am right with God” game. These bought-by-the-blood Evangelicals learn to erect a façade that masks the reality of their lives.

Sinning Evangelicals know they are frauds and hypocrites, yet they dare not admit this to anyone. Little do they know that EVERYONE, including the pastor, is just like they are. Some Evangelicals, after decades of being on the sin roller coaster, decide to get off. They crave an opportunity to live authentic lives, lives that are free from the emotional weight of guilt, fear, and condemnation.

Getting off the roller coaster is not easy. The emotional baggage weighs people down. Isn’t their walking away the BIGGEST sin of them all? Doesn’t this prove that they never were real followers of Jesus? Their churches, pastors, and fellow Evangelicals will condemn them for throwing in the towel. Their defection will be viewed in light of what the Bible says about them: they went out from us because they were not of us. For if they were of us, they would have continued with us.” (1 John 2:19) Leaving is PROOF that they never were the real deal. No matter how many years they faithfully walked the straight and narrow, the singular act of leaving undoes all the good they did in the name of Jesus.

Once free, an interesting thing happens: guilt and fear begin to recede. Psychological stress starts to fade. For the first time in years, they experience peace. For them, it took leaving the Prince of Peace to experience inner peace.

Instead of lives dominated by thoughts of their sinfulness, these former Evangelicals learn that many (most) of the actions the Bible, along with what their pastors and churches called sin, are not sin at all. As time goes on, their “sin” list becomes smaller and smaller. Perhaps they learn that there isn’t really any such thing as sin. People do good and bad things, and should be judged, not by a moral standard found in an antiquated book, but by a basic humanistic, common morality —  morality that respects the private acts of consenting adults; a morality that recognizes that many of the acts of other human beings are none of their business.

These former Evangelicals now have the freedom to live their lives on their own terms. Evangelical zealots from their past will warn them that they have made themselves their own God and that if they are not careful, they will become reprobates — those whom God has given over to the list of sins recorded in Romans 1 and 2. These types of threats no longer have the desired effect. Why? Because their minds have been freed from the chains of Evangelical Christianity. They now know what it is to have true freedom. Once free, having experienced the peace that passeth all Evangelicalism, they will never return to the garlic and leeks of Evangelical Christianity. To quote an old Southern Gospel song . . .They have gone too far to turn back now!

Part Two

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Daniel Wilcox

    If you had titled this Calvinism Christianity 101, I would agree with you (though we would probably need to leave out universalists and other liberal Calvinists).

    But you wrote, “What I have written above is Evangelicalism 101…”

    That is no more accurate than if I wrote “Modern Atheism 101” and claimed that all modern Atheists were determinists, ethical relativists, etc.

    Many Evangelicals are Calvinists of late, and many Atheists of late are determinists, but that doesn’t mean that all are, or that determinism is central to Atheism. For years, I read and met Atheists who opposed determinism. It was a real shock when I encountered the like of Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, etc.

    Think about it, Bruce, I worked, taught, and participated in Evangelical churches for many years. Many, maybe most of the members, didn’t believe in the doctrines that you describe.

    No doubt your own experience n Calvinistic Evangelical churches–as well as my own in NON-Calvinistic Evangelical churches–color our perceptions.

    I was a youth minister, elder, Bible teacher, camp counselor, etc.
    but never believed in Original Sin, etc.

    Our childhood Baptist church specifically rejected Original Sin as malicious and untrue.

    None of the Baptist churches, Brethren in Christ churches, etc. believed in Original Sin.

    Even our views of such terms as “substituionary atonement” was very different from the way you describe it.

    It had nothing to do with the wrath of God, but everything to do with each human being being of infinite worth and God being infinite love.

    I realize that you can’t cover all the nuances in religion in your short articles. But in this one, I think you erred on major doctrines.

    • Avatar

      I’m curious about your church’s take on Christianity, Daniel Wilcox. If every human being is already of infinite worth and not stained with original sin, then what is there to be “saved” from? Or if you church doesn’t use the term saved, then to put it another way, what are they being baptized into?

      • Avatar
        Daniel Wilcox

        Well, it was more than our church–our many Baptist churches and many other Evangelicals totally rejected Augustine and his horrific theology.

        When I first encountered Calvinist Evangelicals at 17 years of age, I was shocked and deeply troubled. I knew that I was a complete atheist to that version of Christianity.

        Following Jesus “saved” us from some of the wrong choices we made (sin-“missing the mark”). Sometime we chose rightly, sometimes we chose to be selfish or violate what was good. For instance, sometimes I teased my sister even though I knew it was wrong, etc.

        Jesus helped us to live toward becoming our true selves.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      You are using your personal, anecdotal experiences to establish what Evangelicals believe. I, on the other hand, use official doctrinal statements to determine what Evangelicals believe. If I must, I will gladly take the time to cut and paste the doctrinal statements of every major Evangelical denomination to show you that what I detail in this post is normative Evangelical (and some mainline sects) beliefs.

      For example, you use the Brethren in Christ as an example that “proves” I am wrong about Evangelical beliefs. Yet, when I go to their website and read their OFFICIAL doctrinal statement, I find that you are the one who is mistaken about their beliefs:

      Source of Sin

      Man and woman were created sinless and innocent, living in harmony with God and creation. But evil entered the human family when Adam and Eve yielded to Satan’s temptation. As they chose to disobey God, their nature became sinful. This sinful nature has been transmitted to all their descendants. Thus sin, moral depravity, and death became an inherent part of the human experience.

      Satan, also called the devil, is the personal embodiment of evil and the original source of sin. His evil rule constantly rebels against the authority of God. We live in the arena of the resulting conflict, and must choose between the rule of Satan and the reign of God.
      Effects of Sin

      Corrupted by a sinful nature, humans are unholy, self-centered, self-willed, and rebellious toward God. In character and conduct, all humanity stands guilty before God. On our own, we cannot achieve any righteousness acceptable to God. Humanity’s inclination toward evil is universal, and the accompanying guilt or shame is common to all people.

      Through the fallen human family, sin permeates the social order, alienating persons from God, from one another, from themselves, and from the rest of creation. Sinfulness is evident in the breakdown of human relationships and family structures, in social and economic systems that violate God’s order and ignore human dignity, in philosophical systems that deny God and deify humans, and in religious systems that distort truth and create illusions of reality.

      In a world system permeated by satanic influence, sin is spread by human wickedness and the powers of evil. At the personal level, sin arises from the inner inclination toward disobedience and rebellion.

      Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ

      Christ’s work of redemption was accomplished in His death and resurrection. God purposed in Christ to redeem us from the guilt and power of sin and to free us from the rule of Satan, so that all who believe would be restored to divine favor and fellowship.

      By His suffering and sacrificial death for us, Jesus Christ provided complete atonement for sin. His death and resurrection opened the only way for reconciliation between a holy, just God and sinful humanity. His life-blood freely given on the cross provided pardon and ratified the New Covenant.

      For the sake of my writing, should I accept your anecdotal, personal experiences with a handful of churches as what is doctrinally normative, or should I use official doctrinal statements?

      It goes without saying, that when I write about Evangelicals and their beliefs, I cannot account for every church and every belief. All I can do is use what Evangelicals generally believe as the standard from which I work. I would think, by now, having read my writing for years, that you would understand this.

  2. Avatar

    Spot on, Bruce. I can’t believe anyone would think that hearing that one is a vile sinner from the time they exit the womb would NOT be damaging. Some toddlers are catechized with a book showing a black page to represent the ugly contents of their heart and soul in sin and then shown the red blood of Jesus that washes away the blackness and makes them white as snow. That has got to confuse a child who hasn’t got the developmental ability to figure out the concepts on but who can certainly absorb the message of “I’m bad”.

  3. Avatar

    It’s abusive when all is said and done. Taught you are completely worthless in and of yourself and only have worth through the grace of a God who deserves eternal praise in return.

    I don’t miss the guilt and am still shaking it of half of the time. Religion taught me to feel guilty about everything! About gossip, about reading a non-christian book, about drinking, about living and breathing really. Even your every breath is God’s grace after all….

  4. Avatar
    Daniel Wilcox

    Bruce, As you surely know, what many church leaders and members believe versus what is officially on the doctrinal books is very different.

    And I wasn’t speaking of a “handful of churches.” There are millions of Evangelicals who reject Original Sin.

    Here’s a couple of quick examples:

    Do I need to list all of the many Baptist leaders, churches and other Evangelical leaders who have rejected Original Sin?

    It would take pages.

    As for the official Brethren in Christ doctrine,
    #1 Please quote the whole thing beginning with:
    Freedom of Choice
    The image of God in each person includes the capacity to make moral choices. We can choose good or evil, to obey or disobey God. The freedom to choose makes us responsible for our decisions and liable for their consequences.

    We understand from Scripture that while God grants humanity this freedom of choice, God also knows the end from the beginning and in His wisdom and grace is working out His eternal purposes within human history.

    #2 As an elder, mission leader, Bible teacher in two BIC churches, and aware of the other leaders, I don’t know of a single leader or member who believed in Original Sin.

    #3 The official doctrine of the BIC strongly rejects your O.S. statement: “We deserve, because of Adam’s sin in the garden of Eden, to be tortured in the flame of Hell for eternity.”


    It is simply not true that all, or even most Evangelicals, believe in the doctrine of Original Sin.

    HOWEVER, I no have a god in this fight, since I no longer think Christianity is true.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I am not going to debate this issue with you, Daniel. I know what I know and I can prove it. I showed you why you were wrong about the Brethren in Christ, yet you reject what I posted. Not much more I can do for you, friend. Your hatred of Calvinism is getting in the way of you understanding what Evangelicals, in the main, believe. Your objection to what I wrote about original sin is mere semantics. Evangelicals who don’t believe in original sin, DO believe humans are sinners. Instead of born a sinner,they believe people become sinners. How many people? All of them. Churches that believe this do so because of their objection to Calvinism and its teaching on total depravity.

      Midway Bible Baptist? Poor choice for you to use to proof text your errant understanding of Evangelical theology. I know the pastor, having visited the church for their camp meeting in the 1980s. Don Hardman, a man that I have mentioned several times before, is an evangelist who calls Midway his church home.

      Well enough…..there’s nothing more I can say on this issue.

  5. Avatar
    Daniel Wilcox

    Maybe this is mostly a semantic problem.

    Because I also know what I know and can prove it. We Evangelicals, not just a few, totally rejected Original Sin.

    I wasn’t wrong about the BIC as I demonstrated and showed by quoting another section of their doctrine.

    Please read my other comment to Melanie. I am not denying that Evangelicals think we humans sin.

    I am denying that it is a fact that Evangelicals believe in Original Sin.

    As for Midway Bible Baptist, are you saying that the pastor does believe in Original Sin?!

    Then why did he write on his website: “The tone of this article may seem rather harsh at times, but I feel that it needs to be. Be it known that I am not attacking people, but I am attacking what I believe with all my heart to be a false doctrine.”

    Also, take a look at this:
    “The Dutch Mennonites of the present time do not hold the doctrine of original sin. This is not a consequence of predominant Liberalism, but of Mennonite aversion to this doctrine from the earliest period of Anabaptism. “
    “Their denial of the effects of original sin was one of the principal themes during the great disputations held with Calvinists (Frankenthal 1571, Emden 1578, Leeuwarden 1596). Calvinist theologians writing against the Mennonites in the 16th-18th centuries regularly charged them with the heresy of not accepting the doctrine of original sin.”

    As one can see from GAMEO, the term “Original Sin” has many different meanings.

    So maybe this is also a semantic disagreement between your view of Evangelicalism and Original Sin and my contrary view.

    Aren’t you thankful that you didn’t know me or any of the other Evangelicals who didn’t believe in O.S. back when you and your churches did? (Just a little ribbing, Bruce.)

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      You are getting hung up on my use of the term original sin — a Catholic term that means all humans are sinners. Evangelicals believe humans are born with a sin nature inherited from Adam. Many mainline sects also believe this. Evangelicals who don’t believe human are born with a sin nature do believe that all humans are sinners. ALL HUMANS.

      My point about Midway is that they believe all humans are sinners. They are quite legalistic, spending significant time preaching against sin.

  6. Avatar
    Daniel Wilcox

    Well, here’s my last word.

    Your views surely show that I (and many other Evangelicals) were atheists of this Evangelical God and the horrific theology long before you:-)

    Since I never accepted such a religion that you describe, I guess I was an atheist beginning in 1957 or so.

    I realize that I am only a partial atheist, only against religions that you describe.

    And I know that you believe in one god fewer than me;-)

    Thanks for the dialog.

  7. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    We Catholics (I was one growing up) had it easy. Sure, everyone sins. Hard to escape sinning. So you go confess them to a priest once a week and get absolution from God, which happens when you’ve done whatever the priest tells you to do. (For minor, run-of-the-mill sins, that’s usually praying some specific prayers). So I never thought I’d burn for all eternity unless I was an extremely bad kid and didn’t get right with God about it. it is a much, much kinder dogma applied to young people, and doesn’t terrify the little ones.

    It also didn’t keep my from throwing up my hands as an adult, and declaring the whole business of Christianity (Catholic and Protestant) a bunch of hogwash.

    • Avatar

      In the Catholic Church, was confession for little children obligatory? I remember some people saying that when they were children, it made them angry to be considered sinners and forced to go to confession, especially since their greatest sin was making up a fake sin the week before—lying during confession—because they couldn’t think of a real sin to confess. Some of them decided to tell whoppers because they thought it was expected of them, others felt obligated to go shoplift or vandalize something so as to have something to confess. (That probably wasn’t the goal of confession).

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  9. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    There are many ways to go about avoiding the pernicious nature of Christianity. One is to say, “We don’t believe that,” and therefore our Christianity is acceptable and worthwhile. The doctrine of orginal sin is foundational in the book whether or not some people practice their delusional belief without accepting that foundation. The whole rotten stew still stinks to high heaven.

  10. Avatar

    I am the daughter of a Southern Baptist, Evangelical preacher. I was subject to religious abuse throughout my entire childhood. My parents used the belt to instill the fear of god in us, and the Bible to back that belt up. They always reminded us that it was the Bible that taught them not to spare the rod, and that if they did not use it, we would never learn to fear and obey God. Well, it didn’t teach me to obey God, it taught me to hate him. To hate religion. To hate Christianity. To hate the church. To this day, I get shaky and uncomfortable, and bordering on angry when people try to defend Christianity, and I typically just choose not to even participate in the conversation. Fortunately, I got out from under religion fairly early in life, and by the time I had reached my mid to late 20s, I was a pretty sound atheist/agnostic. I did a lot of study throughout my earIy 20s that opened my eyes to the lies I had tried so hard to believe all my life, even though my gut instinct had always told me it was all wrong. I had never felt so free in all of my life. Like you said, you have to get away from the prince of peace to really find true inner peace.

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Bruce Gerencser