Is Christianity an Abusive Relationship with God?

Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by a reader named Gonzo:


I love reading your posts and do find them both comforting and inspiring in my personal life.

As one who’s coming to Christ as of recently, I want your insight on the notion, that I often feel holds some truth, of Christianity being an “abusive relationship” with God, or an abusive relationship with those who speak for God with the absence of a physical God here on Earth. The article below outlines this, and although it’s clear the guy writing it seems to be pushing a different religious agenda, his points do still stand for me:

Christians, Are You in an Abusive Relationship with God? by Dr. Bo Bennett

Much thanks.

Thanks for your kind words, Gonzo, and for your good question and the related link.

As he says on his website Positive Humanism, Dr. Bennett is a secular humanist. He rejects God and religion altogether, believing in human philosophy, reason, and science instead. It is not surprising, then, that he takes a dim view of Christianity. In the introduction to the linked article he writes:

Michelangelo, Creation of the Sun and Moon, face detailThankfully, many organizations exist to help both men and women who find themselves in abusive relationships and people, in general, are becoming more aware of the signs of abuse—at least when it comes to abuse by mortals. But what about the Christian God, or at least the idea of the Christian God? Without question, some interpretations of Christianity and God are more benign than others, but it is those “others” that we need to worry about. I will argue that Christianity is, at its core, a system that promotes this abusive relationship where God is the abuser and his flock is the abused.

I share Dr. Bennett’s thankfulness about our growing understanding of abusive relationships, and about the many organizations that are now helping people to break free from them. For one such organization, see the website of The National Domestic Violence Hotline (USA).

But does Dr. Bennett have a point about Christianity?

Yes and no.

Is Christianity an inherently abusive religion?

Dr. Bennett recognizes that “some interpretations of Christianity and God are more benign than others.” However, he then states his belief that Christianity at its core is a system that promotes an abusive relationship between God and the faithful, or between Christian leaders who claim to speak for God and the faithful. In other words, he believes that even the more “benign” interpretations of Christianity are still based on an inherently abusive paradigm. In Dr. Bennett’s view, all versions of Christianity fall somewhere on the spectrum of abuse, from mild to severe; there is no such thing as a healthy relationship with the Christian God.

Given what passes for “Christianity” today, I sympathize with Dr. Bennett’s feelings about this. The core doctrine of salvation in mainstream Western Christianity does describe a god who requires the suffering and death of his own son in order to forgive human sin. The technical name for this doctrine is the satisfaction theory of atonement. It is adhered to, with some variations, in both the Catholic and Protestant branches of Christianity, but not in the Orthodox branch.

Any god who requires suffering, pain, and death to satisfy his honor, or justice, or wrath, is indeed an abusive god, and is engaged in an abusive relationship with his followers. On that I agree with Dr. Bennett.

But that is not the God that the Bible portrays.

Yes, the Bible speaks of God as being angry and wrathful. About that, see: “What is the Wrath of God? Why was the Old Testament God so Angry, yet Jesus was so Peaceful?

But nowhere does the Bible say that God required the death of his Son to be placated for human sin. What the Bible does say from beginning to end is that God requires us to repent from our evil actions and live a good life of love and kindness to our fellow human beings instead. This, according to the Bible, is how we turn away the wrath of God.

Unfortunately, mainstream Christianity has long since rejected the key message of the Bible, and replaced it with “Christian” doctrine that is contrary to everything the Bible teaches about God and salvation. See: “Today’s Christianity: Vastly Void of Truth.”

So yes, when it comes to mainstream Christianity Dr. Bennett has a very good point. Its god is indeed an abusive tyrant. (However, many individual Christians have a different view of God, and their relationship with God is not necessarily an abusive one.)

But no, when it comes to true Christianity, Dr. Bennett is mistaken. The God that actually exists is a God of pure love, wisdom, and saving power. The Christian God loves everyone, friend and foe alike, and wishes nothing but good to all—even to those who are implacably opposed to God. Jesus said:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43–45)

This is the true God of Christianity. This God is not in an abusive relationship with anyone, but is in a relationship of love and respect with everyone, whether or not it is reciprocated.

Is Christianity an abusive institution?

Dr. Bennett goes on to speak about the nature of abuse, and how it relates to Christianity:

A system can be abusive and make use of an object or a figurehead. There have been many detailed arguments about Christianity being constructed as a system of control, that is, a system to control the behavior of others. . . . Abuse, in this context, is a pattern of behaviors used by one person in a relationship to maintain power and control over another person in an intimate relationship. Intimacy can certainly refer to one’s “personal relationship with Jesus.”

Dr. Bennett is right that many organizations and institutions have used and continue to use religion as a means of asserting power and maintaining control over people.

However, just because an institution claims to speak for God, that doesn’t mean it actually does speak for God. Humans and human institutions are often corrupt, hypocritical, and abusive. Jesus lambasted the religious leaders of his day for precisely this reason:

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them “rabbi.” (Matthew 23:2–7)

In Matthew 23 Jesus mounts an all-out attack on the scribes and Pharisees due to their love of adulation, their hypocrisy, and their abusive behavior.

Dr. Bennett is right to say that many people and institutions use Christianity to maintain power and control over people. But this abuse of religion to gain personal wealth and power is condemned by Jesus Christ himself. The so-called “Christians” and “Christian” churches that engage in such behavior are violating the teachings of Jesus Christ, whom they falsely represent to their people.

Does the Christian God want to control us?

Jesus Christ rejected the hierarchical system so common in “Christian” institutions. He said:

You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. (John 15:14–15)

“Aha!” you say, “But Jesus calls us friends only if we do what he commands us! Isn’t that all about power and control?”

It may be about power. But it isn’t necessarily about control.

You see, power can be either positive or negative. It can be either loving or abusive, depending upon the motives and goals of the people wielding the power.

  • When power is wielded to dominate and control others because we love having people serve us and make us wealthy, it is negative and destructive power.
  • When power is wielded to do good for others and to benefit them out of a love and concern for their wellbeing and a respect for them as people, it is good and constructive power.

It is true, as Dr. Bennett says, that there are “kings, presidents, political groups, churches, religious leaders, or individuals who claim to know the will of God or even speak on his behalf.” But if these individuals and institutions make this claim in order to enhance their own wealth and power, they are exercising a negative and destructive type of power that is diametrically opposed to the power of God.

On the other hand, there are individuals and institutions, including some government officials and agencies that are not corrupt (yes, they do exist!), that exercise power in order to protect people from violence and abuse, and to provide for the wellbeing of the people. These individuals and institutions must assert power over others, including arresting and imprisoning criminals. But they do so, not to enhance their own wealth and power, but to provide for the wellbeing of the citizenry as a whole.

There is evil in our world. There are people who will carry out evil plans that harm and destroy other people if they are not restrained by a greater power. Despite the fact that many government agencies and officials are corrupt, the legitimate purpose of government is to protect people from individuals and institutions who would harm and destroy them.

This type of power is not about controlling people except when they engage in evil actions.

For people who do not engage in evil actions, but who act out of love and respect for their fellow human beings, this type of power is their friend. They have nothing to fear from it because it is wielded to protect them from harm at the hands of people with evil intentions.

That is the type of power God wields. God’s commandments are all about doing good rather than evil. God’s power is not about controlling us. It is about guiding us toward a good, healthy, and happy life with our fellow human beings. There is no coercion in this. God leaves it up to us whether we wish to follow a path that leads to the joy of living in mutual love and kindness. Jesus said:

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. (Revelation 3:20)

Even when we choose not to follow God, it is not actually God, but our own evil ways that condemn us and punish us. See: “Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?

The Christian God has no desire to control us. The Christian God loves us and wants us to be happy and healthy, both physically and spiritually. That’s why God gives us many commandments not to do evil and destructive things, and to do good, loving, and constructive things instead. Even so, the Christian God does not force us to follow those commandments, but invites us to do so.

If we choose not to follow God’s loving commandments, we bring the painful consequences of our foolish and destructive actions upon ourselves. As the Psalm says:

Evil shall slay the wicked,
And those who hate the righteous shall be condemned. (Psalm 34:21)

The Christian God weeps to see us act in ways that bring pain and punishment upon ourselves—but respects us enough to let us to make our own choices in life, even if we make bad choices. This is the very opposite of abusive and controlling behavior. The Christian God wields infinite power, not out of a desire for wealth and power, but out of pure love for us, and a desire to do every possible good for us even when we willfully turn our back on God.

Does the Christian God engage in abusive behaviors?

Now let’s take a look at Dr. Bennett’s charge that the Christian God engages in the abusive behaviors covered in a standard domestic abuse chart reproduced on his website. This chart lists eight types of behavior indicating that a relationship is abusive.

The mainstream Christian God does engage in many of these behaviors. That’s why I have much sympathy for Dr. Bennett’s accusations. It is also why I reject the traditional Christian God.

Besides, that god misrepresents the God of the Bible.

Yes, the Bible has many depictions of God as angry and wrathful, and as punishing destroying people who violate God’s commandments. Much of this is due to the low spiritual state of humanity. Fear is often the only way to restrain people who incline toward selfishness, greed, and abuse. That’s why even today, every community and nation must establish laws that prescribe appropriate punishments for various crimes. Without the fear of punishment, society would descend into chaos as criminals ran rampant, preying upon good and innocent people and destroying their lives.

In the Bible, God had to speak to us in terms that we could understand. Sometimes that meant showing a harsh face in order to keep us recalcitrant humans in check. See, “How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads.”

If we take everything in the Bible literally, then yes, in some places the Bible certainly does make God look like an abusive tyrant. But if we understand that these harsh depictions of God are intended to restrain people who are bent upon deceiving and abusing others, a very different picture emerges.

Now let’s take a look at the eight abusive behavior types covered in Dr. Bennett’s article.

1. Using Coercion and Threats

Under this heading, Bennett quotes Jesus’ words in Luke 12:5:

But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

However, Jesus doesn’t say that God is the one who has the authority to throw you into hell. More likely he was referring to Satan.

Still, doesn’t the Bible threaten people who violate God’s commandments with eternal punishment in hell? Isn’t this the “ultimate threat,” to use Dr. Bennett’s words?


By the same token, every decent government threatens lifelong imprisonment here on earth to people who violate laws against serious crimes such as murder.

The Bible must threaten serious consequences for evil and destructive behavior in order to restrain people from acting on their worst impulses, and to get people to think about amending their ways and living a decent and honest life instead.

What is evil, anyway, and why does God issue commandments against it?

Evil is anything that harms people and damages our physical and social environment.

God commands us not to do evil, not because God is a control freak, but because evil hurts. The “coercion and threats” in the Bible are there for one and only one purpose: to restrain us from living in a way that damages and destroys each other and ourselves.

In short, God’s commandments exist to prevent abusive behavior, and to protect its victims.

2. Using Intimidation

Bennett quotes Nahum 1:2:

The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The Lord takes vengeance on his foes and vents his wrath against his enemies.

The same principle applies here as in the section just above about coercion and threats. “The Lord’s foes” are not some arbitrary group of people whom God doesn’t happen to like. “The Lord’s enemies” are people who willfully engage in evil, destructive, and abusive behavior.

Yes, the Bible uses strong words to describe the fate of those who do evil things. As covered just above, that is to reach recalcitrant souls who are bent on murder and mayhem and are not restrained by anything other than the fear of serious consequences for their actions.

But there is no intimidation for those who live in love and respect for their fellow human beings:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (1 John 4:16)

People who live a life of love, kindness, and respect for their fellow human beings have no fear of eternal punishment. Even if our human governments and institutions may sometimes be corrupt and arbitrary, in God’s judicial system there are no miscarriages of justice. No one who acts in good faith, out of love for their fellow human beings, has anything to fear. Only people who, out of greed and selfishness, cheat, rob, steal, kill, perpetrate sexual assaults, and harm people in other ways.

In short, the “intimidation” in the Bible is specifically aimed at restraining people from engaging in abusive behaviors.

3. Using Emotional Abuse

Bennett invokes the traditional Christian view that we are all terrible sinners deserving of eternal hell, comparing this to the guilt and obligation induced upon abused people by their abusers. He cites the Christian belief that, in Bennett’s words, “God sacrificed his only son for your sins.”

Truth be told, much of mainstream Christianity does wield guilt and obligation as weapons to browbeat its followers into obedience. For centuries, fire-and-brimstone sermons have pounded into the minds of the faithful the idea that they are miserable, worthless sinners who can be saved from eternal torture in hell only by throwing themselves upon the mercy of God, invoking Jesus’ death in their stead as a reason for God to spare them.

But that’s not what the Bible teaches.

The Bible never says that God killed his son. It was not God, but humans who crucified Jesus. This is presented in the Bible as a terrible injustice perpetrated on God’s beloved Son by human beings.

And nowhere does the Bible say that God required his Son’s death as satisfaction or payment for our sins. That concept didn’t enter into Christian theology until Anselm of Canterbury originated the satisfaction theory of atonement 1,000 years after the last books of the Bible were written. Five hundred years later, the founders of Protestantism built upon this unbiblical error in formulating their theory of penal substitution.

The Bible presents Jesus as willingly dying for us in order to gain complete victory over the power of the Devil, which had held humanity in slavery to evil and sin. Jesus’ death was not to satisfy God, but to defeat death itself, and to defeat the evil power that was holding humanity in a death grip.

For a better idea of what Jesus Christ was really doing here on earth, please see:

Jesus came, not to engage in the emotional abuse of foisting guilt and obligation upon us, but to break the power of evil and sin over us, setting us free from its clutches.

Oh, and about all that “Christian” guilt and fear, please see: “If You Think You’re Going to Hell, Please Read This First.”

4. Using Isolation

Bennett quotes 2 Corinthians 6:14–15:

Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers . . . for what part has a believer with an unbeliever?

And comments:

Abusers control who the victim socializes with and what information they consume by using jealousy to justify his or her actions. The Bible is full of verses and parables establishing a clear rule to stay away from those who don’t believe as you do, with the exception of preaching to non believers for the purpose of conversion.

But he leaves out a critical part of the verses he quotes. Here is the full version:

Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever?

Paul isn’t talking about isolating ourselves from everyone who believes differently than we do. He is talking about avoiding the company of lawless, dark-minded, and wicked people. “Unbelievers” here is a broad term for people who reject God and goodness, and turn toward evil instead.

Bennett goes on to say:

Justification is established by creating a dichotomy of just two kinds of people in the world: good God fearing people and those under the influence of Satan . . . . When the abused are isolated, they are less likely to see how they are being abused.

This black-and-white view is characteristic of the conservative, fundamentalist wing of Christianity. In that segment of Christianity, I’m afraid there is much truth to Dr. Bennett’s words. Some “Christian” churches verge on being cults, inducing a fear of outsiders and of loss of salvation and eternal hell if their members associate with people outside the church or fall away from the church.

Meanwhile, the Bible is full of good, God-fearing people engaging in regular relationships with all sorts of people who do not share their beliefs. The prohibition against mixing with unbelievers was mostly to keep people from backsliding into some of more destructive practices of their former pagan religions, such as sacrificing their children to the gods.

This teaching has nothing to do with the common abusive behavior of cutting the victim off from all outside contact in order to exert complete control over her or him. Rather, it is about avoiding people who are a bad influence, and who will drag us down into destructive behaviors. For example, if you are prone to substance abuse, it is a very bad idea to hang around with addicts, alcoholics, and drug pushers, and a very good idea to avoid the bars. You need to get away from their atmosphere and influence so that you have a fighting chance of remaining clean and sober.

Abusers attempt to cut their victims off from good outside influences that would give them the strength to break away from the abuser’s power and control. Real Christianity seeks to break us away from bad influences so that we can become our own best self.

5. Minimizing, Denying, and Blaming

Bennett says:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Abusers attempt to minimize and deny the abuse they dish out, or simply blame the abuse on the victim. Christianity teaches that all the suffering we experience on earth (childhood cancer, natural disasters, horrific deaths, etc.) is nothing compared to the paradise that awaits. Suffering is our punishment by God that we deserve because our ancestors (Adam and Eve) disobeyed God, in other words, this is being sold as “justified abuse.”

Yes, some versions of Christianity teach this sort of thing. But that’s not what the Bible teaches.

The Bible does say that sin entered into the world through Adam and Eve. But it never says that we are guilty because of the actions of Adam and Eve. In fact, the Bible is very clear that we are responsible only for our own sins:

The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die. (Ezekiel 18:1–4)

Likewise, the Bible never teaches the traditional Christian doctrine of original sin. See: “The Faulty Foundations of Faith Alone – Part 2: Original Sin?” The Bible simply does not say that we deserve punishment due to the sins of our ancestors. In fact, the Bible specifically denies it.

Nor does the Bible say that we must suffer here on earth in order to attain to eternal joy in paradise. Rather, suffering and sin is presented as a result of our acting contrary to the commandments of God, which are all about not doing evil and destructive things, but doing good, loving, and constructive things instead. The whole purpose of the Bible is to draw us away from evil, selfish, and destructive behavior, and the pain and suffering it causes us, and lead us toward living out of love and kindness for our fellow human beings.

So yes, some versions of “Christianity” do engage in the sort of rationalization of pain and suffering that Bennett mentions. But they do so only by ignoring and twisting the plain teachings of the Bible.

6. Using Children

Here Bennett cites the Tenth Plague—the death of the firstborn all the Egyptians—as well as several statements about God blessing the righteous with children, but cursing the unrighteous with barrenness. He compares this to abusers using children to maintain power over the abused.

Let’s be honest. Much of the Bible was written in brutal and superstitious times. People commonly believed that the gods had the power to bless and curse people in very literal and physical ways. The Old Testament is full of promises of health, wealth, freedom, and fertility to those who obey God, and threats of sickness, poverty, enslavement, and barrenness to those who disobey God.

To us today, such descriptions of God look both barbaric and petty. But God had to work with human beings as they actually existed, not with some idealized version of humanity.

For people living in economically developed areas today, it is hard to grasp that the people of Bible times were focused almost entirely on the physical necessities of food, clothing, housing, and fertility of crops, herds, and wives, not to mention the fear of conquest and enslavement by foreign powers. In Bible times, most people lived just a step away from starvation, enslavement, and death.

To have any influence on the lives and behavior of the people of these cultures, God had to speak in terms of the practical, physical things that meant something to them.

Did God actually kill the children of the Egyptians and curse the unfaithful with barrenness and poverty? I don’t think so. (See, for example, “Is Hurricane Sandy God’s Punishment on the Wicked?”) The Bible is not literal history as we think of it today. It is cultural history and myth by which these ancient people made sense of the situations and predicaments of their lives. To them, it made sense that God would reward the good and punish the evil. This gave them the motivation to live good lives instead of evil lives.

And the reality is that people who live evil and destructive lives do cause much harm to their children.

The desire to protect their children from harm and provide good lives for them was a major motivator for the ancient Israelites to heed God’s commandments. Even today, many people are motivated to change their lives for the better for the sake of their children. This has nothing to do with abuse. It has everything to do with making life better for parents and children alike.

7. Using Male Privilege

Bennett refers to various statements in the Epistles placing women in a position subservient to men, and compares this to the common pattern of abusive men treating women like servants.

Once again, let’s be honest. The Bible was written in patriarchal times. Only very recently have we made any real progress toward restoring the equality between men and women in which God originally created us in Genesis 1:26–31. On how that original equality quickly broke down, please see:

Gender inequality entered into human society when we opted out of God’s original plan.

In the cultures of the Bible it was considered natural for men to rule and women to serve. This was so deeply ingrained that it was unquestioned by men and women alike. And the Bible is a practical book. It doesn’t tilt at windmills, attempting to change things in the current culture that are too deeply rooted to extirpate.

However, the Bible is nowhere near as misogynistic as people commonly think. It tells the stories of many women of strong character who had a decisive impact upon Judeo-Christian history. And the New Testament offers an arc leading away from patriarchy and toward gender equality, even if it has taken many centuries for that arc to play itself out. For more on this, please see:

Just because the Bible was written during patriarchal times, that doesn’t mean God supports such an arrangement. The gender inequality that has existed throughout recorded history was a result of our departing from God’s original model in creating man and woman. And I rejoice that we are finally moving back toward doing things God’s way.

8. Using Economic Abuse

Bennett writes:

“I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps” (Genesis 32:10). Abusers can control the financial status of those they abuse in order to maintain power over the abused. While there are many examples of both rich and poor Godly characters in the Bible, just like fertility, financial well-being is quite often credited to God by believers.

And just like fertility, the same principle applies. In those days people commonly believed that the gods blessed and cursed people with fertility and wealth, or lack thereof, based on their faithfulness to their gods, or lack thereof. The Bible speaks to the people according to this belief in order to encourage them live good lives instead of evil lives.

What Bennett doesn’t cover is the New Testament reversal of the Old Testament idea that wealth is a blessing from God, whereas poverty is a curse from God. In the Gospels Jesus says:

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)

The idea that God blesses the faithful with material success, while cursing the unfaithful with material failure, is an Old Testament paradigm. In the New Testament, the blessings of God are not material wealth, nor are the curses of God material want. The New Testament looks deeper, promising inner joy and peace of mind to those who are faithful to Jesus Christ and his commandments, but warning of inner turmoil and pain for those who continue in their selfish and greedy ways.

Today, psychologists generally recognize that people who live an honest and caring life commonly have greater peace of mind than people who live a greedy and duplicitous life. The New Testament said the same thing 2,000 years ago.

It’s not a matter of threats and rewards. It’s a matter of explaining the reality of where our choices will lead us. If we choose to live an expansive and inclusive life of loving and serving our fellow human beings, we will experience the peace and joy that comes with this type of life. If we choose to travel along an inward spiral of caring only for ourselves and our own wellbeing, we will experience the isolation fear that comes with this type of life.

In the Bible story, as people move beyond purely physical and material concerns, the focus of the message moves beyond purely physical and material concerns too, leading people toward a higher and more spiritual focus.

The God of the Bible meets us where we are. If we are focused on economic ends, the Bible speaks to us from that mindset. If we are focused on spiritual ends, the Bible speaks to us from that mindset. And it continually encourages us to move higher.

God gives us sovereignty over our own life

The God of the Bible, who is the Christian God, respects our freedom, and leads us only as far and as fast as we are willing to go. This is the exact opposite of an abusive relationship, in which a dominant figure attempts to coerce a submissive figure into behaving according to his or her will.

In the Bible, God presents us with a choice, and explains the consequences of each choice so that we can make an informed decision. And though God strongly encourages us to choose good over evil, and never stops reaching out to us throughout our entire lifetime here on earth, in the end God will honor and respect our choice, and will not override it.

If the choices we make lead to suffering and pain, that is not God’s will. It is simply the reality of what happens when we choose to focus our lives on gaining wealth, power, and pleasure for ourselves at the expense of others.

The Christian God as presented in the Bible is always leading us away from domineering, abusive, and controlling behaviors, and toward a life of mutual love, respect, and service.

This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.

For further reading:


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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22 comments on “Is Christianity an Abusive Relationship with God?
  1. Mark Reuther says:

    Yeah, the God of the Bible is definitely abusive to the extreme. Imagine if a husband treated his wife like God (supposedly) treated his followers in the Old Testament. He would definitely go to prison for life or even be put to death, depending upon where the crimes were committed. It’s pretty clear to me that “The System” (God) is comprised only of love and therefore has only love and support to give to other parts of the system. He/it can’t give anger and wrath because it’s simply not “in there” to give. In other words, you can’t give what you don’t have. Therefore, everything that is not love is not from God – regardless of the source!

    In the case of the Bible, in my view, it clearly contains a bunch of fear-based, twisted old folklore that has noting to so with “God.” So if we just throw out everything in the Bible that is not love we are left with a pristine, spiritually positive, beneficial book for all mankind! In other words, why waste a lifetime trying to make sense out of the senseless, when all we have to do is discard the senseless. Because it’s not logical to think that “God” would be senseless. That wouldn’t make sense. LOL. And how do we know this? Common sense!

    The need for “salvation” is therefore also a fear-based, man-made concept. In a system that only provides love – there is nothing to be “saved” from, in the traditional sense. The system/God provides us with opportunities for growth so we can “save” ourselves from our own selfishness, and turn that into selflessness. (I prefer terms like “The System” or “Source Consciousness” because the term “God” has been so defiled by all the twisted old stories that it has become tainted in my mind.) All the best! Cheers.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Mark,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your thoughtful comment. I agree with much of what you say, though I do have a different view of the Bible.

      Yes, in God there is nothing but Love, and the Wisdom that goes with that Love, and the Power that expresses that Love and Wisdom to everyone and everything in Creation.

      Unfortunately, we humans have fallen far away from that Divine Love and Wisdom. And the Bible must speak to us where we are. Many people don’t understand that life is all about love. They think it is about getting wealth, power, and pleasure for themselves. This can lead people to be very oppressive and abusive to others. God’s predicament is that although God is pure Divine Love and Wisdom, God must speak to people who are focused only on themselves, and who have no respect for what is good, right, and loving. That’s why God often comes across in the Bible as wrathful, angry, and harsh. For people who are in a spiritually low and backwards state, it is the only language they understand, and the only language that might pull them up short and get them to reconsider their life.

      This, I believe, is why there is so much harsh and barbaric language in the Bible: not because God is harsh and barbaric, but because we are.

      And yes, the “salvation” that we need is precisely salvation from our own selfishness. There is no danger that God will send us to hell. God is always in the endeavor to bring us up to heaven. But we may send ourselves to hell by choosing a selfish, greedy, and hellish life. That is the real meaning of salvation in the Bible. And that’s why the Bible is always telling us to “repent,” which means to turn away from that hellish life and begin a new, heavenly life of loving God and our fellow human beings.

      Once again, thanks for your thoughts!

    • Ray says:

      Hi Lee. Something I never mentioned (cause I forgot) was I went through a crisis in faith when reading the bible cause it didn’t make any sense.

      On one hand, God was portrayed as this loving benevolent force for good, but on the other hand, we was this raging deity, who would grant you an immortal body and throw you into a pit of fire for all eternity if you just had the wrong beliefs.

      That didn’t add up and I went so far as to say the bible was tampered with. Jesus speaks of forgiveness and love, but some passages had Jesus warning of a fate worse than death from the very being that love and forgiveness came from.

      When taking into Swedenborg’s context, it all fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. Some people need their own Justice to be satisfied because not all evil is punished on this plane of existence, so they need to believe in a place where that evil is punished for all eternity. That’s my take on it anyways.

      • Lee says:

        Hi Ray,

        Yes, Swedenborg clears up that whole layer of confusion about the Bible. Realizing that it is not all meant to be taken literally, and that it is written to reach even people at a very low and dark spiritual level, suddenly causes it all to make much more sense.

        And yes, some people need to believe in an angry God. I once had a fundamentalist Christian pastor get angry at me because I said that God is not really angry. She could not believe in a God who didn’t punish murderers, rapists, and child molesters with eternal physical torture in hell. Just the other day I heard from a Swedenborgian friend who had the very same experience in talking to an acquaintance of hers. So . . . different strokes for different folks.

        Mind you, I don’t believe that “everyone has their own truth.” Rather, people see the truth more or less accurately depending upon the clarity of their own vision. And they see what they need to see to move forward with their own life, wherever they may be. Or, on the negative side, to justify their own behavior, no matter how bad it might be.

        Meanwhile, having a deeper and broader view of the Bible is a great blessing for those who have eyes to see it.

        • Ray says:

          That’s why it makes more sense for us to, in a way, punish ourselves. God’s hands are clean. There is no contradiction. He is still a loving father and part of that love is leaving the creations that doesn’t desire him alone. He doesn’t take them, grab them, and throw them into an eternal fire, and say “I physically threw you in lot this fire, but you wanted this by not loving me”. He sounds like one of those overbearing parents that demands their children’s love.

          Instead, he lets them go away from him and do what they want. He only steps in to make sure his children aren’t playing too rough because he can never fully turn his back on them even if they could on him.

          That is pure unconditional love that a lot of human parents can show their children, but the very essence of love itself where all that parental love stems from can’t feel the same according to tradition.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Ray,

          Well said. Traditional “Christian” theology both shortens God’s arm and shrinks God’s heart. But God is far greater, wiser, and more loving than our human theology.

      • Ray says:

        Incidentally, I read on another site that the purpose of God’s punishments is to eventually force the citizens of Hell to stop harming each other and instead indulge in their phantasies alone that they get through spiritual food given to them through their labours. Is that correct or do you have a different take?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Ray,

          Swedenborg does say that through continual punishments for their evil actions, the evil spirits in hell are deterred from harming one another. In some places it seems as though they eventually stop their evil behavior altogether. In other places it seems as though the deterrence is only temporary.

          This is a tricky one to sort out. In the first few years after his spiritual eyes were opened, Swedenborg thought hell was temporary, and its residents would eventually reform and get out. This is even reflected in statements he made in some of the earlier chapters of his first published theological work, Arcana Coelestia Volume 1. Before long, though, he decisively rejected this idea, stating explicitly that people who go to hell stay there forever because our ruling love cannot change after death. I suspect that some of the statements about evil spirits finally ceasing their evil behavior were influenced by Swedenborg’s earlier belief that hell is not eternal.

          Personally, I find it hard to believe that evil spirits will ever be permanently deterred from engaging in their favorite evil behaviors. This would effectively take away all of their pleasure, and their life along with it. And though a miser may be able to engage in his love of money alone, someone who loves to beat people up really can’t get his jollies by beating himself up. It would be like someone who lives to fly being permanently grounded. I don’t think God would be that cruel, even to the denizens of hell. Still, it’s an interesting question. Yet another thing to inquire about once I reach the other side.

          About getting food, evil spirits in hell get food and clothing only when they do useful work. They hate to do anything for anyone else, but they are forced to when they get hungry or their clothes are in tatters from the latest round of brawling.

        • Ray says:

          Well, I took it to mean they could visualize other people as if they were, maybe those they abused in their life. I don’t think all people who believe what Swedenborg wrote agree on how it was.

          Swedenborg never got to see all of the afterlife did he? All of the Heavens and all of the Hells? In some ways, it is hard to believe that despite all the agonizing pain they may endure at each other’s hands or the hands of the angels that they will never stop!

        • Lee says:

          Hi Ray,

          It wouldn’t have been possible for Swedenborg to see all of the afterlife. It’s far too big for that.

          What he saw most of was the part of the spiritual world inhabited by the people from his own times and cultures, plus some famous people from earlier history that he knew about, such as Aristotle, Paul, and Luther. He said he was limited to seeing and meeting people he knew or could form some conception of. This was probably a protection, as long as he was still living on earth, against revealing anything about the material world and its people that he couldn’t possibly have known except by supernatural means.

          Ironically, the one experience that really pushed the boundaries on this—meeting people from other planets—became the poster child for skeptics who want a basis for rejecting the reality of his spiritual experiences. Even in this instance, his understanding of the universe from his life in the material world colored what he saw in the spiritual world.

          One thing I should have said in response to your previous comment is that what goes on in hell is not “God’s punishments.” According to Swedenborg, God never punishes anyone. Rather, in hell, the evil spirits punish each other. What God does is put limits on how much punishment they are allowed to dish out to one another.

          Even when angels exert their power in hell to disperse mobs and so on, any pain the evil spirits may experience is not punishment. When riot police fire tear gas into a mob that has gotten out of control, it is not punishment. If subsequently some of the rioters are arrested and fined or incarcerated, that is punishment. But using force to stop people from wreaking evil on other people is not punishment.

          As for evil spirits enduring agonizing pain at each other’s hands, this doesn’t necessarily work the way gentle liberals might think. Here on earth, many cultures that glory in fighting and warfare also glory in the amount of abuse they can take, and still keep going for more. Various traditional cultures throughout history in many different parts of the world have had rites of passage to adulthood in which the adolescent boy must endure great pain and privation to prove his masculinity before he is accepted as a man by his culture.

          I suspect that after they have suffered agonizing tortures at the hands of their enemies, the evil spirits in the combative and warlike parts of hell brag about all the abuse they took, and point to their scars and disfigurements as proof that they are superior human beings. Then they go out on a war party to do the same thing to the people who did it to them. And so the cycle continues.

        • Lee says:

          Oh, and no, Swedenborgians don’t always agree with one another about what Swedenborg meant by this or that statement.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Ray,

          For some scholarly backing and references on Swedenborg’s shift from apparently thinking people will eventually get out of hell to saying that people who go to hell stay there forever, see the footnote on Secrets of Heaven #967, linked here. (Full disclosure: I was one of the authors of the note. The initials at the end stand for Richard Smoley and Lee S. Woofenden.)

  2. Daniel says:

    Yes, the Bible god is an abuser. The problem is that you’re just making excuses for him, which is what all abuse victims do.

    The idea that we send ourselves to Hell is absolute horseshit. According to that logic, the people in Nazi Germany sent themselves to Auschwitz when they chose to disobey Hitler.

  3. AJ749 says:

    Hi lee , dont know if it was on here or another swedenborg website that said that Swedenborg predicted the rise of atheism after the second coming,

    My question is did he say anything about what comes after that ??

    Because i feel as science is proving by the constant failure to show a materialistic answer for the NDE that more people are coming to see the spirit world as real but there are so many different and misguided views about it , did swedenborg say that people would evantually come to see his truths as the truth ?

    • Lee says:

      Hi AJ749,

      It wasn’t that Swedenborg predicted a rise of atheism after the Second Coming, but rather that he said that existing (traditional) Christian doctrine would lead to atheism. And this, I believe, has proven true. When you read atheist literature, much of it is attacking traditional Christian doctrine. Many thinking people cannot accept that doctrine, and they throw the baby (God and spirit) out with the bathwater (false Christian doctrine about God and spirit).

      Yes, this did happen mostly after the Second Coming because of the new freedom of mind that the Second Coming brought about. However, it was the falsity and irrationality of traditional Christian doctrines that caused the rejection of God and spirit. The Second Coming simply created the atmosphere in which such rejection could more easily take place and not be hidden from public view. Swedenborg also spoke of people, including Christian clergy, who were already inwardly atheists even in his day, but who outwardly pretended to believe in God because that’s what you had to do in those days.

      About the failure of science to come up with a really satisfying materialistic explanation for NDEs, that doesn’t stop atheists from sticking with the standard explanation of NDEs being hallucinations of an oxygen-deprived brain. The human mind easily accepts evidence and explanations for things it wants to believe, even if that evidence and those explanations can’t withstand deeper scrutiny. In general, atheists don’t engage in that sort of deeper scrutiny of their favorite ways of explaining away NDEs, just as religious people don’t engage in deeper scrutiny of their favorite evidence and explanations for their religious beliefs. Many fundamentalist Christians believe that we have found the remains of Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat, despite the fact that no verified evidence has ever actually been found (see: Wikipedia -> Searches for Noah’s Ark). Most people put their energy into debunking other people’s beliefs, and into confirming their own, regardless of the truth or falsity of either one.

      Swedenborg did not make any detailed predictions or give any particular timeline for people accepting the teachings in his theological writings as truth. He said that no one, not even the angels, knows the future in matters like this; that only God knows. In Swedenborg’s most specific “prediction” of what would happen after the Last Judgment and the Second Coming (The Last Judgment #7374) he says that outwardly, things would remain the same, but inwardly, people would have more freedom of thought. That seems true enough based on subsequent events up to today. But it doesn’t give us a lot to go on as to if and when there will be a major shift toward believing what Swedenborg taught.

      In the 19th century, many Swedenborgians believed that widespread acceptance of Swedenborg’s teachings was just around the corner. When that didn’t happen, and instead the organized New Church (Swedenborgian) went into decline in the 20th century, it caused a lot of cognitive dissonance among church members and believers. Now, for most of them there is more hope than conviction about any future groundswell of belief in Swedenborg’s teachings.

      However, it is possible to see a more subtle shift toward the general population believing many of the things Swedenborg taught, usually without any awareness that a guy named Emanuel Swedenborg taught them back in the 18th century. For example, many people today believe that people become angels after death, even though traditional Christianity taught, and still teaches, that angels are a separate creation, and that people do not become angels. And many people today believe that we go to the spiritual world immediately after death, not in some future Last Judgment—which once again is contrary to traditional Christian doctrine, but is exactly what Swedenborg said in Heaven and Hell and elsewhere in his theological writings. These shifts in belief most likely did originate in Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell, even though your average person today doesn’t know that. See: “What is the Source of the Belief that the Deceased become Angels?

      Meanwhile, in recent decades the Internet has made it much easier to disseminate ideas and information, and it does seem to be having some effect in reaching people with more explicit knowledge of what Swedenborg taught. This website has gotten over 2.5 million hits since it first started in 2012, and the Swedenborg Foundation’s offTheLeftEye YouTube channel currently has 82,000 followers, while the Facebook page currently has 438,000 followers. Although this has not translated into masses of people joining the organized New Church, it at least provides some evidence that many more people today do have an explicit knowledge of, and at least some acceptance of, some of the things Swedenborg taught.

      My own belief is that it is important to “evangelize” these beliefs for those people who will be helped by them, but that the future course of widespread belief in them is in God’s hands, and will come when the time is right.

      Though the power of the existing institutional Christian church has waned greatly since the Second Coming, just as Swedenborg implicitly predicted, the doctrines it holds to and promulgates as “Christianity” are still what the bulk of the population thinks of as “Christian belief,” despite the fact that few to none of them are actually taught in the Bible (see: “Christian Beliefs” that the Bible Doesn’t Teach). As long as that is what people think of as “Christianity,” it will be hard for anything else presenting itself as Christian belief to make much headway in the popular mind. So I also tend to believe that the existing Christian institutions will have to go much farther on their current path of decline and popular rejection before Swedenborg’s teachings will gain widespread recognition and acceptance. And that could take centuries rather than decades.

      This, however, is why the current rise in atheism does not trouble me as a believer. Atheism involves a rejection of current religious thought, and a cleansing of that thought from the minds of atheists. This emptying of the mind of old falsities is, I believe, a necessary first step toward a future acceptance of new truths, whether it happens in today’s atheists themselves or in their children and grandchildren. The old must be swept out before the new can move in.

      Meanwhile, we keep on putting these ideas and beliefs out there for those whose minds and hearts are open to them.

      • AJ749 says:

        Thought provoking reply lee i liked it, i remember reading a critique of theosophy and they said “so if theosophy is universal truth why isnt it more well known” and that got me thinking about why swedenboeg isnt as well know as i wished he would be because then i think there would be alot more peace in the world

        • Lee says:

          Hi AJ749,

          Yes, there would certainly be a lot more peace in the world if people believed and practiced what Swedenborg (and Jesus) taught. However, it is precisely because so many people are not peacemakers that they don’t pay attention to what Jesus taught, and they don’t know about, or care, what Swedenborg taught.

          Jesus said, “Seek and you will find” (Matthew 7:7). These days, anyone who searches for the things that Swedenborg taught can find it. It’s all over the Web. Most of the visitors to this site come as a result of searches they do on Google and other search engines. So if people really want the spiritual understanding that Swedenborg’s writings provide, they can find it. Unfortunately, a whole lot of people aren’t all that interested. They’re too busy with other things, including just getting by in this world.

          However, as people get older, and especially as they approach death, “ultimate” questions start getting more important to them, and they’re more likely to both seek and find answers to life’s biggest questions.

  4. Derelict says:

    > But nowhere does the Bible say that God required the death of his Son to be placated for human sin.

    I’m curious what you think the meaning of John 3:16 is in that case. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

    • Lee says:

      Hi Derelict,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and question. Neither this verse nor the entire chapter in which it appears says anything about God being placated by the death of his Son. For a very detailed explanation of what these verses do mean, please see this article:

      Does John 3:18 Mean that All Non-Christians Go to Hell?

      Once you’ve had a chance to read it, feel free to continue the conversation in the comment section to that article. Meanwhile, Godspeed on your spiritual journey.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

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