Justin Aptaker writes about philosophy, religious studies, sociology, spirituality, culture, psychology, history, and the future.
Where Theology Meets Mental Illness
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Scrupulosity, and Christian Universalism
“…but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” - Mark 3:29 (NIV - Please note that the NIV here gives a mistaken translation of what Jesus actually said in his native language of Aramaic)
My Hell of Blasphemous Thoughts
The last thing I thought before I went to sleep was a short, blasphemous curse directed against the Holy Spirit. That was the last thing I thought every night before going to sleep, and the first thing I thought upon waking up. In fact, I had thought that single phrase, in many different variations, an average of at least four thousand times a day (by my best calculations), every day, for going on three months. It was exhausting. I was exhausted. I didn’t want to think these thoughts. Quite the contrary: I loathed the thoughts. I feared these blasphemous thoughts and phrases more than anything, but I absolutely could not stop thinking them. The more I feared the blasphemous thoughts, and the more I wished to stop thinking them, the more I thought them. Every day, I was terrified that I was guilty of the "unforgivable sin" of blasphemy against the holy spirit, and was condemned to hell for eternity.
The short, catchy blasphemous phrases were just a small part of my situation. Additionally, I would sometimes struggle for hours a day with thoughts that I might be God. Terrified, because I knew that the real God must surely not like people who thought they were God, I would try for hours to convince myself of why I was not God. Then in the shower every now and then, Satan (or some voice presuming to be Satan) would quote Nietzsche to me in an attempt to convince me that the real God respected power, not meekness, and would thus torment Christians in hell for eternity to amuse himself, whilst the strong and ruthless would inherit the kingdom. Thus, the Holy Spirit really was evil, and I was to worship the voice presuming to be Satan, as therein was salvation. One time, these thoughts became so overpowering that, falling, I put my face to the ground as I begged God to deliver me. Then I thought I heard God say to me: “peace, be still”. But His tone of voice was a menacing whisper. Evil. I didn’t know who was God and who was Satan. I blacked out. I don’t remember anything else from that day.
I absolutely can not and will not try to describe the level of suffering I experienced for those four or five months. There’s an interesting thing about great suffering: it produces a new level of loneliness. There you are, the sufferer, and out across an almost infinite chasm, you can barely make out the forms of people around you. People who aren’t suffering. Not like you are. You can not possibly tell anyone what you are going through. You can not cross over to them, and they can not cross over to you, even if they wanted to do so to help you in some way. That is what hell is all about. Even though I no longer suffer as I did during those months, I am still alone. I’ve changed. Who I was before those months died. Who I am now is not who I was: in order to survive, that part of my personality had to die.
A Relatively Unheard of Mental Disease
It’s called scrupulosity. It is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) centered around religious themes, such as blasphemy, unforgivable sin, perdition, the end of the world and the return of Christ, and eternal damnation. In the most extreme cases, such as my own, it can manifest with psychotic delusions (like my thoughts that I was God). John Bunyan, who wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, certainly suffered from it. Carl Jung battled with it. Martin Luther may have suffered from it. I, and many other people like me, have suffered hell from it while the rest of the world goes around completely unaware of our pain. The facts that I lost my job and dropped out of school were trivial. Even the fact that I was almost never able to leave the house or be in public was petty. Nothing mattered to me whatsoever except the hell I was in, and the one forlorn, relatively hopeless longing to be freed from it.
OCD is a horrific disorder, but the religious variation of it (scrupulosity) may be even more complicated in its own way. To illustrate this: if a person’s OCD centers around germs, it is simple enough to repeatedly perform tasks such as hand-washing to alleviate the obsessive thoughts about germs and illness. But if one’s obsessive thoughts are things like, “F*<K the Holy Spirit”, what exactly can one do? One can pray and read the bible obsessively in search of some loophole that might grant them salvation despite their blasphemous thoughts. And that is about all I did during those months.
OCD is often manageable with a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and antidepressants. Scrupulosity, however, may be an especially difficult form of OCD to treat, for the simple reason that its sufferers may be less likely to seek treatment in medicine or psychotherapy. When OCD centers around religious themes, it does so for a reason: religious themes have been a central concern in the life of the affected individual, probably long before OCD symptoms ever appeared. In other words, someone whose parents were atheists and who is herself an atheist will be very unlikely to develop scrupulosity. If such a person does suffer from OCD, it will probably center around germs/illness or something else. People who develop scrupulosity often come from very religious backgrounds. The kinds of backgrounds capable of instilling such potent fears of things like eternal damnation and unforgivable sin. I came from such a background (although it should be noted that my parents never intentionally tried to center my religious experience around fear). People who come from such a background are more likely to see their suffering in purely religious terms, rather than medical terms. The people around them are more likely to see things in such terms as well. The first solutions I looked for (with, not surprisingly, the help of my mother) were religious in nature: meetings with pastors and faith-healers... a few exorcisms.
The Heart of the Matter
OCD is an anxiety disorder. This means that the root of my problem was fear. Religious fear. From early childhood, I grew up believing that there was an all-powerful God who would forcibly send many, many (indeed, most) people to a cosmic torture chamber where they would suffer the most indescribably horrific torments for a literal eternity. That is, forever and ever and ever and ever. If one believes such a scenario to actually be true, we ought to question their emotional soundness if they are not terrified. For me, recovery from my debilitating, soul-crushing mental disorder did not come from medicine or therapy. In my case, I seriously doubt how effective any combination of those treatments might have been.
The Victorious Gospel of Jesus Christ
I began to recover only after I stumbled across the notion of Christian Universalism on the internet. I discovered that from the very dawn of Christianity all the way up until now, many, many eminent and astute leaders in the faith have professed a belief which is heard of by relatively few today, and accepted by even fewer. The belief: God is such that He will send no human being to suffer in eternal torment. Hell exists only to chasten souls until they repent, and thus are fit for reconciliation with God. I was initially extremely wary of this doctrine. I had been programmed my entire life to run in terror from anything that sounded so “heretical”. It seemed that heresy, after all, was one of the surest ways to land yourself in eternal hell. But I studied universalism deeply, for months. I was shocked to find so many scriptures and spiritual teachers which all pointed to the truth of it. Also, I was desperate. My sanity, my very life, depended on the truth of what I was reading: that God truly is good and merciful. I was like a drowning man: when a ship comes along to rescue him, he sees little alternative to climbing aboard.
Thankfully, the ship I climbed onto turned out to be sure and steady. By the grace of God, I am being born safely to land. Today I am completely free from my hell of fear and from all the blasphemous thoughts. This kind of release seemed completely impossible during those months of torture. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of perfect Love. The religious leaders in Christ’s time were willfully blind to this fact, as many of the religious elite are today. Religious leaders in Christ’s time were so blind to this truth that they attributed an act of divine love and mercy to the power of Satan. This, Jesus said, was the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It is the reversal of what is good and what is evil. It is the inability to see that the Spirit of God is the spirit of Love. Love can heal our bodies and our minds. When I began to realize the perfect love of God, I was freed from my hell of religious OCD. And that, dear reader, is a miracle.
This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2010 Justin Aptaker
Cathy on August 13, 2018:
Thank you for your honesty. I also feel that the fear of the unforgiveable sin is closely related to the doctrine of eternal torment. When we have the view in our hearts that God is really not merciful, we worry about Salvation all the time. I don't know how so many Christians can be so happy and peaceful believing in eternal torment. Some web sites and Christians have made my Scrupulosity even worse by implying that some people have no hope even if they repent. My belief in Conditional Immortality has brought me freedom from this fear, however, sometimes I still feel the effects of years of indoctrination.
BrittanyGodschild on December 09, 2017:
i deal with this so badddddddddddd. justin how did you get free :((((((((( i rebuke use GODS WORD. i deal with letters like deeper than words its horrid :( please pray for me