OCD and the Unpardonable Sin

This was me in church at the start of the year. A few years back this would have been terrifying for me with religious OCD.

When did it start?

It all started August 19th 2011, the day before our wedding. We were expecting around 500 people or more to attend (Kenyan weddings are very large) so understandably I was nervous.

I played ‘bible roulette’ as it’s often called where you pick a page at random and wherever your finger lands is the passage that applies to you. I don’t literally believe this works, but I also spent the day listening to “When the going gets tough” by Billy Ocean on repeat. Clearly I had lost my mind.

Where did my finger land? Of course, you guessed it, on the good old unpardonable sin passage in the book of Mark. I remember it vividly, feeling the metaphorical metal pole get stuck in the brain’s machinery. This would take over my life for much of the next 6 years, including our honeymoon in Zanzibar the day after the wedding where it really took hold.

In the end it nearly killed me. I didn’t want to go on any longer. I hit breaking point and ended up seeking OCD support privately as the intervention I needed was not available locally with public services.

One thing I would say however, if there was anything positive that came out of religious OCD for me, it was that it made me humble when it comes to matters of religion, faith and theology. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:17: “in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me”. I am not saying that God gave me OCD as a messenger from a literal horned devil (Satan translates as accuser) to make sure I didn’t become an arrogant know-it-all. However, this verse definately applied to me in this case.

What is the unpardonable sin?

The “unpardonable sin” is alluded to in several passages of the new testament, but the one I landed on initially was Mark 3: 28-29:

Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.

New International Version

I “studied” this concept of the unpardonable sin for a good 6 years on and off. I have a PhD in unpardonable sinology from OCD University. Thus, as a self proclaimed expert in the field of unpardonable sinology I can give you an idea of what I think this concept means. However, the fact is that no one can be sure about any matters of theology and religion.

Trying to keep the explanation concise, the vast majority of theologians or Christians who have considered the unpardonable sin in any depth would basically argue this to be “final impenitence” as St Augustine called it. An ultimate rejection of the Holy Spirit’s call to Christ. Rather than an isolated act, therefore, the unpardonable sin is actually a kind of state, a hardened position of ultimate refusal to accept the truth of Christianity. The final proof of this position is in John 6:37 where Jesus says: All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.

So in other words, as long as you come to Christ, you will be fine. Great, pretty simple. Enter OCD stage right – spoil alert, this wasnt a cameo appearance.

Trying to reason away the unpardonable sin

OCD can take any thought, topic or belief and turn it into an infinite web of doubt. It’s like being in an inescapable building in some twisted horror film. Just as you think you have made it to the end of the corridor to exit the building, you open the door to find 10 more doors you need to enter and explore to try to find your way out, all of which lead to corridors with 10 more doors. Metaphysical based OCD is truly the worst for this, and it is often difficult to treat because most of the compulsions are mental.

Below are some examples of some of the doors OCD led me to explore. The cruellest part about all this for me is that I love philosophy of religion and I am a Christian, even though some would probably say my beliefs are somewhat “heretical” (everyone has the perfect truth right?), but that’s another story. OCD stole all the enjoyment from me and it became life or death.

I definitely had other compulsions as well such as writing comforting bible verses on bits of paper and having them in my pocket to read throughout the day. I would also ruminate frequently and try to remember times when I might have mistakenly committed the unpardonable sin in thoughts or words. However, by far the worst compulsion was researching and trying to get certainty on an intellectual level.

There were multiple areas I explored compulsively but the main ones were: arguments for and against the existence of God; the reliability of the New Testament; the Resurrection of Jesus, and; what happens when you die? (I know what you’re thinking, nothing like a bit of relaxing bedtime reading!).

Arguments for and against the existence of God

Before knowing for sure this unpardonable sin business was relevant I needed to get certainty on whether or not God exists. And if He does, finding out what implications this has for human beings. Simple right? So many people seem confident of the answer. The only problem is, they all bloody disagree (literally in the past, and sadly in the present still). Thankfully (?) my OCD allowed me to ignore all other Gods and focus on a comfortable false dichotomy between the God of modern western conservative evangelical orthodoxy (the one that burns people eternally in a literal hell for believing the wrong things or failing to believe the right things) and, well no God at all. Afterall, it was only this vindictive and cruel version I needed to find out whether or not existed.

I looked into everything I could find including: arguments for and against design (known as the teleological argument); the ontological argument, which posits the logical necessity of God’s existence as the greatest conceivable being, which must have the property of existence; the cosmological argument (in particular the contigency argument, which I really like) which are those which show how ultimately God is the final reference point for all that is.

I read as much as I could find from non theists also. Most atheistic literature refutes theistic arguments, but there are also affirmative arguments such as the problem of evil (why suffering?) and divine hiddeness (why doesn’t God make it more obvious He exists?). I surely exhausted most of the literature on infidels.org which is a great library of atheistic literature. I have read many atheist and Christian apologetics books over the years.

Not only that, but I soaked up any formal debate or lecture I could find on YouTube. In fairness, there are a good amount of Christian and atheist lay people debating these issues across blogs and social media also. Some really smart people on both sides, who engage with the experts, and in some cases probably understand concepts more than the experts themselves. For example, one of the best atheist communicators and philosophers I have ever seen is a high school drop out American soap actor called Scott Clifton. His understanding and comprehension of philosophy is sickening. His video “…And What If I’m Wrong” is one of the most powerful and succinct arguments pertaining to divine hiddeness and the problem of evil I have ever seen.

Anyway, I digress. The point is that I was following these debates and reading about all this not for enjoyment but because I was seriously unwell with OCD. It all boiled down to whether or not the unpardonable sin was relevant or not. If I am honest with myself it was rarely (if ever) driven by intellectual interest, even if I would still be interested had I not had OCD.

The irony is that now my OCD is largely managed and I have more clarity, my views on all this are actually relatively simple. I agree with the great 20th century theologian Paul Tillich who argued that arguments for the existence of God actually deny God. Why? Because saying that God exists implies that God could not exist. However, God is the ground of being and therefore existence. Saying God exists turns Him into a “thing”. Thus existence is not a relevant descriptor for God. It’s like saying God is God. That’s is why I also agree with the late philosopher John Hick that the universe is religiously ambiguous, which explains why there are so many intellectually viable positions to take on these matters. Ultimately, for me the Taoist assertion that says that which can be named is not the eternal Tao (or God) applies here also. A similar understanding for this view is what the bible calls the peace of God which passes all understanding.

If anyone with any interest in these debates sees what I write in the last paragraph, I can guarantee they have a thousand refutations and different interpretations than me swirling around their minds. This is why it is such a minefield with OCD.

The reliability of the new testament

These are some of the most contentious debates both between Christians and non-Christians, and within Christinaity itself. You have some people who belief that the bible is infallible and inerrant, that everything in the bible is true and must be followed; all the way to those who think the bible is a pile of trash that has no reliability whatever. Most people fall somewhere across that continuum.

I have read vast amounts of literature across the board. I even read some Ken Ham books, who, for those who know him see him as the ultimate personification of biblical literalism. Like I’m talking 6000 year old earth where we roamed with dinosaurs like in the Flintstones.

Most of the time though I tried to stick to academic debates about the new testament, and the gospels in particular. I would frequently read two opposing books concomitantly to ensure I wasn’t allowing confirmation bias to take hold as much. For example, I read Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus became God directly alongside the multi-authored response book predictably entitled How God became Jesus.

I cannot tell you how hard it was with OCD to comprehend that two people, often equally intelligent, presented with the same evidence can interpret that information in vastly different ways.

Once again, there were no conclusive answers to any of this. My best summation of the evidence with regards to the New Testament is that we don’t know who wrote the gospels, and they were likely written 40-70 years after the fact. Some of the information is historical, some of it is midrash (retellings of the old testament) and some is myth. Some of the writings of Paul are almost certainly pseudepigrapha (written by someone else in his name) and some parts of the text from multiple books are argued to be interpolations (added by someone else much later). And although there can be said to be a general academic consensus on the reliability of certain texts i.e. that Jesus was crucified, in terms of theological points, there is widespread disagreement.

Again all this was a minefield for OCD. You have to understand that the frame of mind I was in during these times was like that of a parent looking for their lost child. My brain made this feel like life and death. Any spare 5 minutes I had, whether that be a doctor’s waiting room or on the toilet (okay maybe 10 minutes) I would use to research topics like this. I had dozens of academic PDFs on my phone at any one time. All this with the purpose of finding some ultimate answer about the unpardonable sin.

The resurrection of Jesus

This is the question of Christianity, right? If Jesus didn’t rise, Paul claimed that preaching is in vain. This was therefore another main area my OCD targeted because it also had a very relevant link to the unpardonable sin.

Jesus is said to have been crucified and raised as a form of vicarious redemption (human sacrifice to save others). So finding out whether this happened or not, and what this meant for humanity theologically became a crucial part of the unpardonable sin obsession.

Without going in to it too much, the vast majority of Christians believe in some form of physical bodily resurrection of Christ. Although most, outside of conservative Christian believers, will accept at least a degree of uncertainty or admit this is at least partly a faith based belief. In fact some Christians argue that dragging the resurrection into a typical historical format actually takes away from the transcendence of the event.

Most conservative Christians claim this event to be proven beyond reasonable doubt as an actual historical event. In their view skeptics are either misinformed or have what is often referred to as “supernatural bias”. In other words miracles are disregarded immediately out of hand and therefore they ignore the evidence.

As minority positions you have Christians who don’t take the resurrection as literal, but see it as more metaphorically. You also have people who empathise with both sides of the debate who can see and understand the case from various angles, but simply conclude there isn’t enough data to conclude either way (at least from a historical point of view anyway).

I would fall into this last description (I don’t think it can be proved historically). It would be intellectually dishonest of me to assert that this event can be proven. I happen also to believe that most non Christians who look into these claims and find them unconvincing are sincere in their unbelief (also known philosophically as “non resistant non belief”). I do not believe in a God who would punish people based on this. If ultimate salvation was solely dependent on a single historical claim (which is pretty much what many fundamentalists assert) but that the majority of people in the world don’t think the evidence is sufficient, what kind of loving God would do that? (This is a topic I would ruminate on regularly).

What happens when you die?

Finally, I will discuss briefly the concept of what happens when you die under the Christian worldview. This was my insurance obsession so to speak. Basically, if I had somehow, or might in future commit the unpardonable sin then my OCD demanded to know what hell is.

I have already probably put a few people to sleep with some of this theology and philosophy so far, unless like me you find it interesting, so if you have made it this far well done. I’m about to turn the heat up.

When it comes to the concept of hell or rather Christian eschatology (what happens when you die) for unbelievers there are basically 3 main common beliefs:

The first is known as eternal conscious torment and is popular amongst conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics. In a nutshell this doctrine says that those who do not believe the right things about Christianity will burn eternally in a fiery hell, forever languishing in pain. Thomas Aquinas once said that one of hell’s purposes was for the saved to watch and gain pleasure from the torment of the damned.If you want a vivid description of this look no further than Bill Wiese’s alleged “vision” when he went to hell for 28 minutes (he has a book and multiple videos). I actually used these type of books and videos as exposure therapy – seriously despise that side of Christianity I’m not going to lie.

The second is conditional immortality (often referred to as annihilationism) which is becoming a lot more common amongst Christians who do not believe in a literal hell, but who also don’t believe God will save all people. Simply put, when unbelievers die they disappear forever.

The third main view is known as universalism which asserts that all people will be made one with God in the end. This doesn’t necessarily mean people will not face punishment after death, or suffer for a significant time, but eventually God will be “all in all”.

In terms of OCD I focused mainly on reading about eternal conscious torment and whether or not this was a possible reality. This was fully led by OCD from a place of fear. Deep down I have never intellectually or morally believed this position could be true. Not because I don’t want to to be true (I do hope it isn’t true however) but because it is illogical and inherently contradictory on multiple fronts. I won’t give my arguments here, but if you are interested David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved and Thomas Talbott’s the Inescapable Love of God are great reads.

Was there a conclusion?

Ocd wise, definitely not. Clarity around what I actually believe came long after therapy and with lots of setbacks along the way. This episode was so traumatic for me that I doubt I will ever have a “normal” relationship with Christianity, but maybe O just need more time. I still watch videos and read books about philosophy and religion, but now for the vast majority of time this is purely from a place of interest.

I still class myself as a Christian, some of my beliefs of which I have referred to in the above writings. I don’t blame Christianity for OCD at all, if it didn’t exist OCD would have just found a different theme. But as Joseph Ciarrochi argues in his terrific book the Doubting Disease a large problem with scrupulousity is the type of theology underlying it. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for those suffering from religious OCD that have been brought up with conversative Christian beliefs. Many hide in fear and are unable to get the help they need. In my opinion, there is a serious lack of awareness in the OCD community and amongst many experts with regards to this subset of OCD. Yes, OCD is OCD, but when it comes to religion it’s not as simple as that. You are talking about people’s identity and deepest beliefs. This requires a very specific, understanding and empathic approach.


The subject of my next post on the unpardonable sin is about how I got better from this cruel obsession. Not only that, but how OCD attacked me about the therapy itself and how I then overcame that. I will also discuss what I consider to be misunderstandings about religious OCD in the literature, especially when it comes to ERP. I truly feel like this is a massive gap amongst OCD experts that we need more discussion about.


Thank you for reading. Feel free to message me if you have any feedback or would like me to clarify anything.

Richard

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