The Devil, No, My Brain Made Me Do It: Neuroscience, Sin, & Personal Responsibility

I came across an article the other day on how neuroscience is playing out in the courtroom. In some cases, if a person is convicted of a crime, say, rape, murder, or child molestation the perpetrators and their legal team are using neuroscience to essentially show that their brain made them commit the crime or at least influenced them in such a way that they bear less of a responsibility for it. The writer states,

It’s the latest example of how neuroscience – the science of the brain and how it works – is taking the stand and beginning to challenge society’s notions of crime and punishment.

The issue has been thrown into the spotlight by new technologies, like structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) scans and DNA analysis, that can help pinpoint the biological basis of mental disorders.

A series of recent studies has established that psychopathic rapists and murderers have distinct brain structures that show up when their heads are scanned using MRI…

The lawyers for American serial killer Brian Dugan, who was facing execution in Illinois after pleading guilty to raping and killing a 10-year-old girl, used scans of his brain activity to argue he had mental malfunctions and should be spared the death penalty. In the event, Illinois abolished capital punishment while he was on death row.

Further breakthroughs in psychiatry and neuroscience are continuing to bring up complicated moral questions. The question of biological and genetic determinism is a classic battle between behavior and identity and brings up all kinds of questions about human responsibility. Courts, families, and churches will all be affected by these scientific breakthroughs and the debate that ensues. After all, if my brain gives me a propensity toward something that is immoral, am I responsible for it? For instance, in legal matters, if murder and/or child molestation is immoral and someone murders or molests someone else but had a “malfunction” in their brain that led to the act, should their punishment be reduced? In biblical studies, If homosexuality is sinful but you were born with a homosexual orientation and disposition, can it be considered sinful? The list can go on. Essentially the excuse “the Devil made me do it” has now been replaced “my brain made me do it.”

There is no doubt that neuroscience is uncovering all kinds of intriguing and important reasons for why we do what we do and feel what we feel as human beings and it should not be ignored by Christians. But not ignoring it does not mean necessarily embracing all the conclusions that judges, therapists, and psychiatrists will give.

From a Christian perspective, every single one of these breakthroughs is subject to the authority of God and the authority of his Word. Most likely we will continue to find biological reasons for human behavior but this will never take the sinfulness out of sin.

We humans love excuses for our sinful and immoral ways. Since the Bible assumes a view of human nature that is already bent toward sin, if neuroscience continues to uncover sins that human beings are bent toward it should not be surprising. An internal biological influencer toward a particular immoral act or crime does not strip us of personal responsibility. The Bible assumes original sin–all of us don’t just commit sins but are born sinners because of our father Adam–and personal responsibility–you are responsible for sinning like your father did. Being prone to a particular sin (whatever that is) is normal and does not exempt us from that particular sins penalties. Dr. David Powlison puts it this way,

Those with the “worry gene,” the “anger gene,” the “addictive pleasure gene,” or the “kleptomania gene” will be prone to the respective sins. Such findings cause no problem for the Faith. They do trouble a Pelagian view that defines sin only as conscious “choice.” But sin is an unsearchable morass of disposition, drift, willful choice, unwitting impulse, obsession, compulsion, seeming happenstance, the devil’s appetite for souls, the world’s shaping influence, and God’s hardening of hard hearts. Of course biological factors are at work: we are embodied sinners and saints. [Quoted by Justin Taylor from his blog post “Powlison on Biological Tendencies, Homosexual and Beyond” (March 6, 2007)]

 

As sinful human beings in a complicated world within and without, we need more than the mending of the malfunctions of our brains. We are not primarily in need of an innovative rehabilitation program, a new antidepressant, or sexual “freedom”, but a great Savior. And God has provided this in sending his Son to die and rise from death for sinners–those who are biologically predisposed to sin and simultaneously actively choose sin in their behaviors–and make them new creations.

Sure, your brain influences all kinds of your sinful behaviors, and for that matter so does the devil, just ask Jesus’ disciple Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:31). Neuroscience will probably give us more biological insight and psychiatry may give more medical ways to alleviate and manipulate certain biological tendencies, but neither one can do what Jesus does and give the freedom he provides. He calls sinners to repent (take personal responsibility for their sins and sinfulness) and believe his good news–that he has taken the penalty of death sinners deserve and alone gives the grace of true freedom and transformation.

 

One thought on “The Devil, No, My Brain Made Me Do It: Neuroscience, Sin, & Personal Responsibility

  1. This isn’t a theological problem at all. Neuroscience has simply testified that humans are, to varying degrees and in different ways, slaves to sin.

    If the Bible is correct that sin (not individual sins, but sin at more of a macro-level) has deeply broken human nature, then wouldn’t we expect to see things like this in human beings?

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