Hell And Victims Of Trauma

In my circles growing up there was a belief that was taught to me in Sunday School called The Age of Accountability. To this day, I am not sure why you would indoctrinate a nine year old on matters of hell. Either way, this belief taught that at a certain point in a person’s life, they become accountable for their decisions, and die having not found God, they will burn in hell for eternity (their teachings). For example, my Sunday School teacher taught that accountability started at the age of 13 (how he got to this number I am not sure). If a person died after they were 13, and they had not consciously chosen Christ, they would go to hell. Before then, heaven.

I have some problems with this belief. Psychologically speaking, when someone experiences a traumatic event in their life, their mind stops developing past that age. So how can the victims of abuse, violence, manipulation, and neglect go to hell if they were the victims of these types of crimes before that age that God decided? How can a victim of physical and emotional abuse at age eight, who dies of a drug overdose, or a car accident, or some other tragic event later on, be held accountable for their choices? Their body may be mature but their mind is still trapped in that eight-year-old. They make the choices of an eight-year-old. How can they choose God when victims of things like abuse cannot choose things like trust and love within a relationship? If it’s been ruined by others, how can they do it with God? They wouldn’t know how to. They cannot really conceive God, or anything subjective, because that part of the brain isn’t developed until age eleven. They could never choose a relationship for themselves, all they have is the relationship with God of their parents.

So what do we teach about the childhood victims of sexual abuse (1 in 3 girls, 1 in 4 boys)?

What do we teach about mentally handicapped people, who, even when high functioning ones don’t have the intellectual capacity to enter the mind of a teenager?

What do we teach about the victims of serious emotional and physical neglect who never got their childhood needs of nurture and love met?

Feel free to open up your thoughts on this, or your beliefs on the afterlife as well.


18 thoughts on “Hell And Victims Of Trauma

  1. Eric says:

    I think a lot of modern religious teaching doesn’t take basic psychology into account. Yes, that is perhaps an overgeneralization. Trauma theory has been a big interest of mine as of late (odd, I know) but it’s fascinating what trauma theory can tell us about people. When experiencing a single (let alone multiple) traumatic event, the negative stimuli is coming at us too fast for our brains to process it. The part of our brain that operates as a timestamp can’t do its job effectively.

    For instance, when I ask you what you had for lunch last Friday, you use contextual clues about last Friday to think about where you were, what you were doing and eventually come to the conclusion about what you ate. This process uses the part of your brain that recalls time. But when you undergo a traumatic event, your brain switches to survival mode and only uses the functions necessary for survival. So then after this traumatic event, when you’re trying to deal with it, this traumatic stimuli is not timestamped so it’s free to roam your brain as if it’s happening in the present. There is nothing to tell your brain you are safe.

    So (long story, longer) you are quite correct to talk about how we get stunted at certain points in our lives because we can’t work past abuse and trauma that happen to us when we’re younger. It’s even a difficult task to cognitively name it as trauma.

    Sadly enough, I think millions of people walk around with undiagnosed PTSD and they suffer extremely because of it. So how can we, as a church, possibly think that threatening them (because that’s really what it is) with an eternity in Hell is really helpful in the slightest?

    End rant.

    • Mike Friesen says:

      Just love your thoughts Eric,
      How would you answer your last question, how do we help them without causing fear?

      After all, causing them fear, does the reverse thing that you are trying to do, draw them to God. Fear will cause them to distrust in relationships, which is where we draw our identity from in the first place.

      • Eric says:

        I think we listen. We help create a safe space for people who are experiencing trauma to tell their story, to put words to the violence. By giving them a space to name it, we can help walk alongside them on the way to recovery.

        I know the last thing anyone who has experienced trauma wants to do is talk about it. I think it certainly requires an enormous amount of patience. But creating that safe space and listening above all I think is a foolproof way to start.

    • Mike Friesen says:

      I think what you and I have in common (besides being masochistic Twins fans this year), is a love of Theology and the Church. Being as that we both love Moltmann, Moltmann teaches about the incarnational existential reality of the Cross and how Christ met him as a man forsaken by the world (as Christ was). How do we teach this and incarnate this to the Church and to those who have also been forsaken?

  2. I have always wondered about this myself. Like Jews killed by Hitler in WW2 or Soldiers who are killed while defended their country. I think its best if we as “Christians” Stick to the the great commandment. ” Love God with all our hearts mind and soul and our neighbor as much as ourselves.” And shut up when it comes to who is in hell or not. Let a Holy God be the judge. Not us.

    • Mike Friesen says:

      Good thoughts Trevor, I agree with you, God will judge the fate of eternity. God can let in who God wants to let in.

      What would you say to a survivor of WWII or the Holocaust? How would you integrate matters of life and faith into your conversations?

  3. Jacqui says:

    Mike, these are really great questions. I work in state-level homelessness policy, so I spend a lot of time with social workers and others who deal with issues of trauma and recovery from it on a daily basis. They’ve (relatively) recently been talking a lot about trauma informed care which, though not necessarily spiritual in focus, addresses some ways in which we can be more sensitive to those who still struggle with being constantly in fear. It could potentially create a safer place in which they might be able to more lucidly consider an offer of healing. http://www.samhsa.gov/nctic/trauma.asp

    • Mike Friesen says:

      That’s great stuff Jacqui,
      How have you developed relationships with these people, or told you should?

      • Jacqui says:

        The only way that I know how to answer that is to say that it requires grace and humility. Doing urban ministry has really taught me the most about it, in a place where most have experienced trauma of some sort.

        It takes Spirit-gifted discernment and an understanding that it’s not even remotely about me. And prayer … a lot of prayer. But being fully and consistently present in their lives, no matter how many times they push you away or run themselves is the key. It means speaking the truth and not shying away from being a bit harsh with it at times, but always, always doing it in love and compassion.

        I’m no expert. Some of the teenagers I’ve been working with are barely speaking to me right now, but that’s part of the gig, I think (or at least hope).

  4. Pat says:

    Follow you on Twitter. Been wanting to join in your discussions for a while. My “theology” seems to change from spiritual season to season. But, right now, Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” resonates with me. There’s no better news than Jesus died on the cross for the whole world’s sins, once and for all, period. Yeah, there’s evil in the world but I’m leaning toward God’ not abandoning anyone, no matter what. That’s love that surpasses all understanding.

    • Mike Friesen says:

      Thanks for joinging. You’re not alone in that theology, or the curiousity of it. His book opened a lot of doors for people to question that was pretty closed. Some people return to old beliefs while some find new ones. What does this belief of heaven/hell do for you and the world?

  5. Karen says:

    Wonderful, grace-filled responses so far to a vitally important subject.

    There’s no way these people would end up going to ‘hell’. Upon their death, they will meet with Jesus face to face, and he will envelope them in such love that all their previous pain will melt away. He’s not going to let go of them.

    I work closely with a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. It’s not easy. Definitely she is trapped in terms of brain development and conditioning that began to go wrong at the age of six when the abuse began. I’m convinced that the compassion of Christ will prevail in the end.

    • Mike Friesen says:

      How do you reveal God to the person you are walking along side?

      • Karen says:

        I reveal God to her mainly through loving her, listening to her, and accepting her, and I have utilised many resources to help, including bible study, prayer and some resources found online, some of which are Christian and some secular.
        http://www.self-injury.org (the Lysamena Project, from a Christian – this includes a great page of affirmations derived from the bible particularly helpful for survivors of sexual abuse)
        ‘Mirror Mirror – Discover your true identity in Christ’ by Graham Beynon – a great book.
        ‘Surviving Childhood Sexual Abuse’ workbook by Carolyn Ainscough & Kay Toon. we worked through this together with much prayer and time and listening.

        Practical help and advise, listening, connecting the person with professional help and going with them to appointments – and telling her that God loves her and weeps for her and wants to heal her.

        Its really hard, listening to their pain and its ongoing, even so many decades later, and each person is different; but just loving them and accepting them – that isn’t really hard at all. It’s a privilege.

  6. Sara says:

    This is one of the first times that I’ve seen such deep kindness and respect in the comments section of any blog.

    I think that the questions that Mike brings up matter deeply. I am a law student and I hope to spend my life working to help bring freedom and justice to victims of human trafficking.

    I find that scripture is full of wonderful promises of freedom for prisoners, of a good, loving, and just God.

    And I find myself believing less and less in a religion that says that people who don’t believe the right things automatically suffer eternally in hell.

    I’m not saying that I’m correct. I miss feeling at home in the evangelical church. I don’t feel that I made a conscious choice to walk away from that basic element of the faith I had years ago. But something in me has changed and I no longer seem to fit.

    I haven’t read Francis Chan’s response to “Love Wins,” but Rob Bell’s book gave me enormous comfort and hope. While I am no longer capable of believing in the hell that critics of Bell, like John MacArthur, espouse, I cling to the picture of God’s kingdom, and of Jesus, that is woven throughout the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the Epistles. I believe that God is just and merciful.

    Karen, what you said about there being no way that God would allow victims of trauma to end up in hell, but would instead envelop them in this love moved me to tears. I agree with you and am grateful to hear that you do the important work that you do.

    “Love Wins” gave me hope because it laid out a Christianity that I can believe in.

  7. to me there’s just too many “what ifs” like this one that chips away from the idea of hell being rational

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