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.


Rachel Held Evans, Wilson & Wilson, 50 Shades of Grey, God, & Gender Roles

I don’t normally dive into the fray of blog wars, and the blog title I chose to do it with is more complicated than a law firm’s signage, but I found the recent post of Jared Wilson in which he responded to the sexual perversions of 50 Shades of Grey from a complementarian perspective by quoting Douglas Wilson and the strongly negative response to it by commenters and the later egalitarian response to it by Rachel Held Evans worth my two cents.

All egalitarian and complementarian Christians hate rape, but not all of us affirm a husband’s headship and wife’s submission. That is the real issue here.

This has turned into more than your average complementarian and egalitarian exchange, as not only has Evans charged each of them with misogyny (a hatred of women), but, for some, Doug’s quotation has brought images of rape and sexual violence into the discussion. The main issue surrounds two of Doug’s sentences regarding sexual intercourse:

 A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.

I have misgivings about some of these words because of the negative overtones associated with them. “Conquer” particularly stands out to me as where the charge of rape comes from, and the word “colonize” too seems to carry echoes of enslavement. There is a legitimate reason why people cringe at “conquer” (especially women) and “colonize” (especially African Americans), and we shouldn’t be surprised at why they do. When these words are used in reference to sex further nuance is required, and to their credit both Doug and Jared have done so and shown that they are not using those terms in a coercive, violent, or dominating way and the context of Doug’s book and Jared’s post confirms this.

The whole point of Jared’s post is to show how the biblical view of sexuality is antithetical to rape and any sort of masochism in the bedroom (or anywhere else for that matter) like what I am told is depicted in 50 Shades of Grey. In his follow-up post Jared writes,

I thought it a deft point; perhaps what we see in this sort of BDSM fantasy garbage is a perverted overreaction to God’s good design of authority and submission.

That’s how I read the excerpt, and thanks to Douglas Wilson’s clarifications, I am content that I am reading it correctly

Jared and Doug are not misogynists nor are they endorsing rape of any kind. Doug settles this in his post-Evans response here and Jared did so after the commenting onslaught of his initial post here. If you need outside validation for Jared, you can read Jared’s wife’s comment in the comment section of Rachel’s post. You can also read his interview with our mutual friend Justin Holcomb on the horrendous effects of sexual assault and how the gospel brings healing to it. On a personal note, I have had the pleasure of interviewing Jared, following his feed on Facebook, and have read his material off and on for quite some time and he has never endorsed any of the above and in fact has taken his stand against some of those very things.

Feel free to disagree with their complementarianism and feel free to correct Doug for using particularly loaded words, but lets immediately drop the charge of women-hating and associating these men with rape. What Jared and Doug are describing is how sin pollutes God’s design of appropriate male headship and female submission, and how this is corrupted and abused in any act of sexual violence. No biblical complementarian would ever endorse such a heinous thing. All egalitarian and complementarian Christians hate rape, but not all of us affirm a husband’s headship and wife’s submission. That is the real issue here.

While Evans thinks most all this comes down to a complementarian infatuation with power, I think most of this comes down to a disagreement between complementarians and egalitarians about how love itself functions. Egalitarians seem to struggle with how love can be truly and fully loving within a relationship of headship and authority. They believe that headship and authority diminish equality. On the other hand, complementarians believe that loving mutuality and reciprocity can occur within a relationship of headship and submission without diminishing equality or reciprocal love. In fact, complementarians believe that love thrives and relationships are nourished in these very kinds of relationships.

I think we get gender roles wrong because we get the nature of God wrong.

I think we get gender roles wrong because we get the nature of God wrong. God is Triune and because of this love comes first not power. Three of the Gospel Coalition-ers themselves discuss this point in their little talk on the Trinity: listen to the 7ish minute mark to the 11ish minute mark.  The reality of a tri-personal God assumes that love existed between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit throughout all eternity. God didn’t start loving when he made men and women in his image. He loved himself with inter-Trinitarian love from all eternity. But this love does not cancel out headship and submission in the Trinity. For instance the Father loves and is well pleased with the Son (Mt. 3:17), and remains his head (1 Cor. 11:3).  Furthermore, the Son cannot do anything but the will of the Father (Jn. 5:19), seeks the will of the Father above his own (Jn. 5:20, 6:38), and is happy to do so all the way to the cross (Heb. 12:2). The Son gladly submits to the Father who is his head in a mutually reciprocating relationship of divine love of which we cannot plumb its depths.

Similarly, in the relationship of husbands and wives, Paul makes clear that husbands are to love their wives, are the head of their wives, and that wives are to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:21-33). He does not say that husbands are to wield power over their wives but to live in a relationship of self-sacrificial, self-giving love with them. These two themes of submission and headship meet in covenantal love. This should not be surprising because God himself in a much greater way shows how the God who is love demonstrates headship and submission in perfect equality. Love simply works this way.

With this in mind, I don’t believe that complementarians are just on a power trip. Biblical complementarity affirms headship but the kind of headship that doesn’t say to husbands “Go exercise your headship”, but that says “Go die for your wives. Go, nourish and care for them.” Godly authority nurtures growth and self-sacrifices for growth it doesn’t stunt it (or rape it.) The Holy Spirit through the Scriptures calls for men to exercise the kind of authority that Jesus took—one that went straight to the cross.

This goes for the bedroom too. Husbands should give themselves up for their wives with sexual intimacy that is nourishing and caring (Eph. 5:25, 29). This kind of self-giving nourishment and care should characterize the husband’s role in the marriage bed itself. In fact, I much prefer those terms (self-giving, nourishment, care) when it comes to marital sexual intercourse than some of the terms used by Doug.

Sex is not about husbands exercising their authority and wives receiving it by submitting to it. Sex was given by God as a gift for both to enjoy, to have pleasure in, and to fulfill the task of multiplying and filling the earth. Evans is correct in pointing out that the apostle Paul taught mutuality and even showed how each spouse has “authority” over the other spouses body (1 Cor. 7:3-4), as well as, accurately showing how in the Song of Songs the Shulamite lady initiates and does not just receive. But Doug or Jared do not disagree with either of these points as their later posts (and other writings) indicate. What they disagree with are her wider conclusions on the matter and the egalitarian categories that are informing them.

This issue here is not about power. It is about love. Love that is reciprocal and mutual and also has headship and submissiveness embedded into the very fabric of the love relationship. This kind of love honors, respects, and is full of joy.