Evangelical teachings on repentance and forgiveness

Libby Anne talks about the way evangelical concern with “forgiveness” makes things harder for victims and a lot easier for perps.

Evangelical teachings on repentance and forgiveness create a tremendous problem when it comes to rape or other forms of abuse. If you commit a sin and repent of it, God forgives you. I remember hearing Psalm 103:12 quoted constantly: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” Of course, this was always said in a positive way—isn’t it awesome that God forgives us no matter what? But it doesn’t must mean God forgives us. It also means God forgives rapists, child molesters, and so on—fully and completely.

I was taught that bringing up sins that someone had already repented for was wrong. If the transgressor had repented, after all, God had forgiven him, and had had removed those transgressions “as far as the east is from the west.” Those sins were gone, totally and completely, and should not be mentioned again. The slate was clean. Now this may make sense when applied to more petty offenses—it’s never fun to have your mistakes constantly brought up, even when you’ve tried to make good—it also applies to rapists, child molesters, and so on.

That’s a form of morality that’s very useful to rapists.

This is also in line with a piece I quoted from earlier this week. In that piece, blogger Maureen writes about what it was like to learn, suddenly and unexpectedly, that her husband was a child molester—and what it was like to deal with the aftermath:

Through this whole process, I learned that much is required of those victimized, while little is asked of sex offenders. When my husband began to spin his story, it was received with affirmations of how courageous he was. He was even placed on the worship team within a few months of his confessions.

In contrast, I was expected to never be angry, bitter, or wrestle with forgiveness. I needed to heal quickly and quietly. And, of course, I couldn’t ever question his “recovery.” His was a wondrous redemption story, and to question his trustworthiness was to question God’s work in his life.

This is, quite simply, the natural result of evangelical teachings about repentance and forgiveness—or at least, with the evangelical teachings I was taught growing up. (If there are evangelicals who find different ways to understand these passages, I’d be interested in hearing more, because these passages are in sorry need of reinterpretation!)

The offender need only repent. That’s it. If he repents, his slate is wiped clean. The victim must forgive, and that means never being angry, never being bitter, and getting over what happened post haste.

It’s a disturbing idea. It seems more unforgiving toward victims than toward their victimizers. I wonder if it helps for the victims to just say “Sorry” every now and then – does that make it ok for them to keep on feeling angry?


  1. brucemartin says

    When Stalin was young, he was in a Christian Orthodox seminary, studying. Then he did some stuff. After he died, Moon’s Church told the world that they had posthumously converted him, etc, and he’s now in heaven.

    So, have all of America’s right-wing Christians forgiven him yet? If they think bad things about Stalin, that means they’re not True Christians. This is a fun game.

  2. Martin Cohen says

    For everything I have done or will do, I apologize.

    Now, can I go kill some people without worrying about retribution?

    Too bad I’m not a corporation.

  3. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    “Dieu me pardonnera. C’est son metier.”

    “God will forgive me. That’s his job.” Last words of Heinrich Heine, who had rather less to forgive than many people.

  4. Jeremy Shaffer says

    Sadly, this idea seems to infect people who are not only outside of evangelical circles, but not even Christian. I know many “spiritual but not religious” types who are all too willing to overlook a person’s continued bad acting so long as they’ve repented in some mystical way (asking a god for forgiveness or Great Mother Earth or what not). It never seems to matter if they ever truly bothered to seek redemption from the person they wronged in any way; so long as they make the most facile of effort, it’s all good.

  5. Shatterface says

    You can’t forgive on behalf of someone else any more than you can apologise on behalf of someone else.

  6. Latverian Diplomat says

    I find that this foregiveness principle often has a strand of privilege running through it.

    Men are forgiven more quickly and easily than women, clergy more quickly and easily than parishioners, etc.

  7. says

    The insidious thing about the Christian insistence on ‘forgiveness’, to me, is that it always puts the focus on the victim, always makes it all about the progress of the ‘sinner’. When does it become important that the victim was the person who was hurt? Where is the compassion for the person who did nothing but be the receptor of someone else’s bad behaviour?

    I don’t think this is at all unrelated to the idea Latverian Diplomat expressed in #6. People with privilege tend to do a lot more things that might require being forgiven; that’s kind of the nature of being privileged. You get to do things that other people couldn’t get away with, by virtue of being ‘forgiven’ for it. The degree of coercion implicit in the requirement for the victim of the act to perform the reparative act of ‘forgiveness’ is objectionable in itself.

    All in all, it’s one of the most repulsive aspects of the religion.

    And mind, I speak as someone who wrote a letter to a judge urging that the man responsible for killing my father – through his negligence in leaving power running into a recreational dock/lagoon area – not be convicted, or that if he were, that he not receive any custodial time for what was an avoidable but simply stupid accident. I can behave in a way that looks like forgiveness, without having to use the toxic concept in itself. It’s not forgiveness. It’s pragmatics; I don’t see how society is improved by jailing a man for an idiotic mistake, despite that it cost someone their life (and nearly, my sister and I too). I was 15 at the time, and was raised atheist, so there was no Christianity in my choice, just belief that society’s interests weren’t served by paying to jail someone, take away his family’s support system, because of that idiotic mistake.

  8. says

    Apologies for taking something so personal and sensitive and comparing it with something so general, but I often find valise in getting a general best explanation for terrible things like this. It helps me think about measured and effective responses.

    I’ve been reading some papers on hypotheses into the evolution of religious behavior in a papers PZ posted a little while ago, and there are some interesting ideas in there and another I read after that.
    Some of the ideas were arranged around explaining how the beliefs that contradict reality and impel members to take on such individually heavy costs could be successfully propagated and the explanations were interesting. The general idea is that the selective advantage being manipulated here is based on the longevity of the community, and these costly acts were credibility enhancing displays that went along with moral lessons to encourage certain behaviors.

    Now that is indirectly relevant to this because while that hypothesis involves general ideals of modeling social behavior, this involves people being treated a certain way by authorities and peers in a community. But if you take the underlying general selective ideas you can see why this may be happening (explanations are not excuses, they are strategic and do not absolve anyone of guilt from behavior). If the advantage is survival of the community, then these actions are meant to keep as many people in the group for as long as possible. One means of doing this is squashing conflict as fast as possible. Conflicts arise because of many reasons but they tend to either be accidents, or deliberate acts that harm another of their resources. For a bunch of people kept in the dark about sex and power this could be either. But no matter what the failure of perception or morals, someone was violated and harmed and that has social effects. After this is only speculation, but I like to do that.

    There are a limited number of emotional targets to manipulate. The sense of responsibility, the sense of violation and harm, the sense of violated boundaries, the sense of threat from a person who can cause harm. The behaviors make sense and somehow that sensibility will suggest the best ways of attacking them. The whole “forgiveness from sin” being a get-out-of-responsibility-free card creates a spectral daddy to create limits on how hard people can demand real justice and all the conflict it creates. It conveniently lets authorities solve the problem of successfully dealing with powerful people harming others and fighting justice. The victim must prove that they forgive the offender and it is expected that they show it socially, so their behavior is closely monitored. But the community has to prove it too so they go out of their way to prove their trust of the offender and actively give them attention, and sometimes power.

    Unfortunately the community also has to make themselves believe this stuff so while they give the offender all this attention and forgiveness, their emotions have to work at negating the feeling that the offender might be a threat. If he is to be made into an non-threat emotionally either he needs to be emotionally altered, or the victim has to be emotionally altered. So you get denials that the offender could have done such a thing, “they are a good person” we hear, “they’ve done so much good in this community” we hear. “They did not know it was wrong”, anything to remove choice, agency or emotional connections that the offender causes harm.

    And you also get victim blaming because they have to associate negative emotion with the victim to balance the negative emotion and false positive emotions associated with the offender. They have to believe the victim did something to either deserve it, or actively caused it to happen. Or they have to believe that their nature is flawed (individually or universally) in a way that makes men do bad things. “They enjoyed it” they convince themselves. The victims are “choosing to feel bad” because the “forgiveness spell” has to work for the social bullshit story to hang together. “Well, there’s always a sin under other sin. There’s a root sin…We have to find the sin in your life that caused your rape.” But of course it’s just “sin” all the way down until everyone and the victim is stained with what is only the offender’s.
    Sometimes any random bad emotion will do, but the really complicated bullshit comes from the people with their heads full of complicated symbols that may be more or less consistent with reality (maybe this explains the sexism I hear about in philosophy).

    Even children. I don’t assume that any community is immune to this garbage. The fairy tales just make it easier to move the emotions around.

  9. swbarnes2 says


    Yup. It’s about judging every thing that happens 100% from the vantage point of the privileged person, and the feelings of everyone else are immaterial. A woman suffers under a hostile work environment? You aren’t supposed to look at her experience, or her feelings, you just ask the man if he intended harm. If not, then there’s no problem.

    If a man rapes a woman, it doesn’t matter if she wasn’t intending to inflame him with lust by wearing a sleeveless shirt, what matters is that he felt that way.

  10. Al Dente says

    Mano Singham considered another aspect of Christian victim blaming, original sin. According to the propaganda Adam and Eve disobeyed God and were punished. This punishment was passed on to all humans. We are all “sinful” and deserve whatever shit happens to us.

    Original sin is an important part of the Christian tradition: not only does it exonerate God from responsibility for the existence of evil, it also claims that sin is universal and so that everyone needs salvation. The doctrine of original sin does a lot of theological work. However there’s a massive problem with it. Why should someone who had nothing to do with Adam and Eve’s sin inherit it? If my several-greats-grandfather committed a crime before I was born and was found guilty at a trial, I shouldn’t receive punishment for his crime. Likewise if some distant ancestors “sinned” then I’m blameless for their sin.

    Original sin shows yet again how Christianity is anti-human.

  11. John Morales says


    Al Dente @12,

    Original sin shows yet again how Christianity is anti-human.

    Hey, what use is a cure (“salvation”) without an ailment to be cured?

    As for this Original Sin, I note Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the Serpent:

    And He said: ‘Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?’
    And the man said: ‘The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.’
    And the LORD God said unto the woman: ‘What is this thou hast done?’
    And the woman said: ‘The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.’

    For that, He grievously punishes each them and their descendants in perpetuity.

    (This God, of course, is the Old Testament god — not so much into forgiveness)

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