The gospel message believed in by many Christians that Jesus died to save you from your sins is based on a victim-persecutor-rescuer psychological complex, commonly known as a trauma (or drama) triangle. Those who buy into this version of the gospel inevitably play out the dysfunctional roles of victim, persecutor, and rescuer in the ways they relate to themselves, other people, and God because these three roles are psychologically inseparable, three points on one gospel trauma triangle. This dysfunctional victim-persecutor-rescuer dynamic is embedded not only within major articulations of the gospel in New Testament biblical writings but also in many other prominent biblical doctrines. It significantly detracts from the mental and interpersonal health of those who believe in these teachings or are recovering from their imprint.
The trauma (or drama) triangle is a model of social interaction developed by Stephen Karpman that asserts that people switch between the roles of victim, persecutor, and rescuer and that each role necessitates the other two.1 To play out any one of the roles is to have all three of them operating inside you psychologically. Victims give up agency and responsibility to avoid facing anxiety and a sense of inadequacy. They recruit rescuers to give them solutions and persecutors to justify their victimhood. Rescuers avoid facing their internal conflicts and boost their egos by enabling victims with solutions that create reliance on the rescuer, in a codependent dynamic. Persecutors evade internal conflicts by establishing themselves as authorities and making others wrong.
Based on major teachings in the Bible, many Christians are taught to play out the three roles of victim, rescuer, and persecutor. They see themselves as powerless victims of a depraved human nature needing a rescuer (Jesus). Once rescued, they are divinely sanctioned to either rescue outsiders by means of conversion or persecute them by means of intolerant judgment and God’s eternal wrath. These Christians also view themselves as persecuted by outsiders (mainly by virtue of the so-called temptation non-Christians inadvertently provoke in Christians to live and think differently), even though most people who are not Christians respect or are largely unconcerned with the free practice of religion by Christians, except for when they seek to intrude upon the freedoms and rights of others. Furthermore, Christians persecute not only others but also themselves psychologically through the frequently harsh, unrealistic, and inhuman standards of divine perfection and self-mortification they hold themselves to, and the self-flagellation they inflict upon themselves for failing to measure up. They are also persecuted by God, who threatens them in the Bible with judgment and eternal wrath if they fall astray.
It could be argued that a victim-persecutor-savior dynamic is inherent to all religions that view divinity as separate from human nature. Notwithstanding, more concretely, the Bible is the main source of the victim mentality that pervades much of Christianity (to the chagrin of many progressive Christians who prefer to pass off the blame onto Christian fundamentalists rather than acknowledge the Bible’s flaws. While this framing of the Christian life and gospel is not the way all Christians view their faith, it is clearly articulated in the Bible all Christians read.) The whole Bible portrays growth in spiritual and psychological health in terms of a dynamic of the disempowered and weak receiving agency, goodness, and rescue by a divine other, from and against spiritual, human, and divine persecutors. The Bible frames life itself as an apocalyptic war between the forces of good and evil, with the people of God as the minority persecuted by Satan’s minions, who are largely in control of world affairs. It is only through the rescuing and judging (persecuting) action of an external, supernatural grace that the otherwise helpless universe has any hope. In the end, according to the Bible’s Book of Revelation, most will perish under the sword of Jesus at the Final Judgment. In such a worldview, persecution is a normative condition for those who believe themselves elect, and victimization of those they view as persecuting themselves is a natural consequence.
Among the teachings of the Bible, the writings of the Apostle Paul advance the victim-persecutor-savior frame most forcefully. Paul was Christianity’s chief theologian and his interpretation of the saving significance of Jesus’s death (the gospel message) became orthodoxy for most Christian groups that exist today. Paul taught that all people are helplessly depraved, utterly incapable sinners doomed to suffer God’s eternal wrath, apart from an act of sheer grace made possible through Jesus’s death. To receive this grace, people must believe the gospel message (as articulated by Paul), admit their depravity, and devote themselves to a life of obedience to God’s commands. Anyone who opposes or simply fails to endorse this perspective, Paul taught, is evil, persecutes God and God’s people, and deserves God’s unrelenting wrath.
The starting point of the gospel message, as taught by Paul and the major Christian historical creeds, is the conviction that you are a sinner–which is to say, a victim. Following the precedent of the writers of the New Testament, Christian evangelists commonly begin their gospel preaching by trying to persuade their would-be converts that they are, by virtue of human nature, helplessly depraved sinners. As sinners, they are totally incapable of changing their condition and hopelessly condemned to a life of moral and psychological defeat and eternity in hell–unless they convert to Christianity. Thus, the gospel is a victimizing message. It seeks to persuade people to view themselves as victims in need of healing through codependency, rather than empower them to access their inner resources and form healthy, interdependent relationships.
To many people, especially those with a healthy self-concept, this view is neither obvious nor sound. However, it appeals to and capitalizes on peoples’ wounded sense of self, negative core beliefs (“I’m incompetent, I’m unlovable, I’m defective”), and frustrations at having psychological struggles to which they have not yet found effective solutions. Moreover, a miraculous waving of the divine magic wand that will take your problems away is appealing to people because it absolves them of the responsibility of having to make changes themselves and grants them permission to relinquish their shame and guilt about their flaws and moral failures. Additionally, for people who have a hard time accepting themselves because of their shortcomings, believing the message that you are a victim needing power from an outside strongman to be acceptable confers immediate psychological benefits, including group acceptance (by other Christians) and, more profoundly, permission to accept yourself. However, this is not real acceptance; it is conditional, based on obedience to group norms, and it is not deep, because it relies on someone else’s acceptance in place of your own. The capacity to deeply accept yourself comes most profoundly from within your own heart, from a place of wise, compassionate awareness.
Once Christians are “saved,” they are taught that they still retain a sinful nature and continue to rely on God’s rescuing grace at every step of the way. And, should they ever leave the religious community or adopt lifestyles and perspectives deemed profane, they will lose God’s rescuing grace and return to a state of helpless depravity and persecution by the once again wrathful God who formerly rescued them. Thus, throughout their lives, many Christians fear God’s persecution (if only unconsciously) that could be renewed against them, which is actively threatened by many biblical passages and ministers who eagerly peach them to retain loyal membership. Moreover, Christians who believe in hell fear God’s persecution of their friends and families whom they believe God will punish in hell. Attempting to prevent this dire fate, Christians actively persecute the ones they love in an attempt to rescue them from their supposed victimhood as sinners by forcefully and judgmentally pushing on them a message that bigotrously condemns their lifestyle and beliefs. If they receive pushback from non-Christians who make objections to these efforts, they view it as persecution (which the Bible teaches them to do), which reinforces their view of themselves as victims.
God as Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer
The God of the Bible sets the precedent of victim-persecutor-rescuer that God’s followers emulate. God repeatedly portrays Godself as the victim of humanity’s sins, evils, and crucifixion of Jesus, even though all these are purportedly of God’s own design. Not once in the biblical record does God acknowledge any serious culpability for evil, even though God ironically claims sole responsibility for the universe’s design and sole credit for everything positive about it. Since God apparently views Godself as a victim of God’s creation instead of a responsible, sovereign creator, God believes God’s cruel and unusual punishments of fire and fury for the mass of humanity and relentless standards of perfection for God’s followers are justified–they, not God, are to blame! People who are obsessed with rigid standards of right, wrong, and punishment often seek to satisfy a deep sense of inner guilt by piling blame onto other people. One wonders whether God’s insatiable cruelty in punishing people eternally reflects the enormity of God’s unconscious guilt for being the author of all sin.
Christians are taught to internalize God’s harsh, wrathful intolerance against human imperfection, sexuality, and nature as a kind of relentless inner critic. In the Bible, wrath is one of God’s primary character traits. Constitutional wrath reflects either a disowned sense of guilt projected outwardly onto others or a sense of being wronged and victimized. Moreover, people who have a high intolerance for imperfection often struggle to acknowledge or accept their own flaws. In the Bible, God does not apply God’s own standards of justice to Godself, because God’s victimhood renders God incapable of taking responsibility. In keeping with this, throughout the whole biblical narrative, God consistently punishes God’s followers for crimes of murder, hypocrisy, and hatred that God Godself commits, even as God denies any likeness to human depravity, “My ways are not your ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8, NIV).
Victimhood naturally pivots to persecution because victimhood entails seeing agency as coming from outside of the self since one believes one lacks it within oneself. If bad things happen to victims, for example, they tend to view other people or fate as the cause, since they tend not to see their own agency. Satan is the epitome of God’s victim complex, for Satan is the ultimate denial of God’s agency. Since the whole universe is, by the definition of God, the manifestation of God’s creative mind, Satan can be nothing other than a reflection of the evil in God’s mind. Where else could he possibly come from? He is God’s disowned shadow self. And God needs Satan desperately to maintain his self-image.
The Psychological Harms of The Gospel Trauma Triangle
Christianity’s salvation from sin can come at a hefty price to mental and interpersonal health. The gospel, in its most prominent biblical articulation, is a model of spiritual and psychological living that fosters victimhood and slavish dependency on a source of power outside of oneself and persecution of others. It creates a fundamentally disempowered state of being that can only function through codependent means. People who live in this way are trained to rely on the religious community and its representations (God, the Bible, prayer, etc.) for their needs instead of learning to find real, effective solutions to problems. Instead of going to therapy, for example, people are taught to cast out demons or pray that God will cure their depression. Instead of learning to love and accept themselves, they are taught that only God’s love can fill the hole in their heart, and this love can only be granted by means of obedience to the Church’s teachings. The impulse for meeting one’s needs is always to go outside of oneself because this perspective is one of lack and inner poverty. It also results in control by authorities and unnecessary interpersonal strife with people who differ in ways that the Christian might otherwise appreciate as divinely beautiful.
The gospel impacts mental health by reducing agency, self-efficacy, and self-acceptance, and cultivating codependency, intolerance towards others, and paranoid anxiety. People who experience the abuse of the gospel trauma triangle and are recovering from religious trauma often report suffering from a damaged sense of self. They struggle to make decisions, trust themselves, love themselves, and feel okay and safe in the world. They strive to find relief from deepfelt shame about being human and a hypercritical inner voice that anxiously and obsessively searches their minds for perceived slights and imperfections. They feel lost and devoid of purpose without the grandiose call to be the rescuers of the world.
Much more could be said about the psychological harms of playing out the gospel message’s victim, persecutor, and rescuer dynamics. Several antidotes to the drama triangle of victim, persecutor, and rescuer have been suggested, including the roles of creator, challenger, and coach. When we find ourselves in the role of victim, of feeling powerless, lost, or depraved, we can reframe our struggle to empowerment, “What can I do to create a different situation, how can I resource myself in my experience of lack?” Instead of persecuting others or ourselves, we can challenge them assertively, in ways that speak truth compassionately and create opportunities for growth. Instead of rescuing people so they depend on us, we can coach them, viewing them as capable and empowering them to access their resources and agency to make changes.
Healing from the gospel trauma triangle is as simple, and complex, as coming into yourself and sharing this beautiful self with a world full of other gloriously sovereign, interconnected beings. People who go through the process of deconstructing Christian fundamentalism and reclaiming their sovereignty may take comfort in gaining the gift of insight to see that many other worldviews, structures, and ways in which we are accustomed to viewing ourselves are based on similar dynamics of disempowerment and outsourcing. The lifelong journey of becoming more expressed in who we already, inherently are–sovereign, whole, loving human beings–with its inevitable joys and sorrows, beckons those who choose their freedom.
- Karpman, Stephen. A Game Free Life. Self-published, 2014.
- Emerald, David. The Power of TED*(3rd ed.). Polaris Publishing, 2016.
Do you feel psychologically traumatized by religion, isolated and disempowered by trauma, emotional and spiritual distress in your life? If you would like to talk with me for coaching support, schedule an Inner Freedom Breakthrough Session. In this session, my intention is to help you feel deeply heard and supported, gain clarity, learn a few expert tips, and if it seems like I can support you further, see whether one of my Coaching Programs is a good fit for you.
I’m Andrew Jasko, Master of Divinity (M.Div.), MA Counseling Psychology In Progress, and I work to help you transform your trauma into the place of your power and connect to a healthy, authentic spirituality that works for you (whether that’s as a spiritual not religious, atheist, religious, transitioning, or agnostic identifying person). I was born into a minister’s family and became a preacher and missionary to India, after studying theology at Wheaton College and Princeton Seminary. As a Christian, my relationship with God was my passion, but unhealthy religious teachings caused me an anxiety disorder, sexual repression, and spiritual disillusionment. I felt alone, traumatized, and abandoned by the divine. After an agonizing crisis of faith, I rejected religion and spirituality. Then, I reintegrated a healthy spirituality through mystical, humanist, and holistic practices. My passion is to help you to heal and connect with your authentic sense of spirituality or purpose.