What about psychopaths?

While the near universality of a moral law is one of the fundamental reasons to believe in a God, psychopaths lack any moral law.
No conscience at all! They seem oblivious to anything but direct consequences (getting caught).
What do theologians say about these unfortunate humans?

Welcome to the forum! The nature/nurture debate in psychology will never be resolved, but I think both sides speak to the issue. In one way, some people are born with brains and personalities that do not function normally, and they are an exception to any “rule” that you can derive from the Bible or general observations about the human heart. In one way people who are raised in sick and twisted environments by other damaged people can have irreparable damage done to their souls by the sinful world they inhabit and the broken relationships they experience.

I think most Bible scholars now say that the “image of God” as it is presented in the Bible is a vocation given to humanity as a corporate entity, not some moral capacity each individual human intrinsically possesses as an individual.


It is my understanding that Moral Law is one of the most important arguments for the existence of God that Francis Collins argued persuasively in his books “The Language of God” in particular.
Psychopaths are not environmentally created or cued and can sometimes be detected as children torturing animals. So do they have a soul?

I personally think the idea of “souls” is a human construct that is useful for talking about the spiritual dimension of existence and the fact that human life is more than biology and chemicals. But I think we are holistic beings that aren’t actually divisible into separate physical and spiritual components. Psychopaths have a spiritual dimension to their existence, sure. It’s just atypical.

Arguments from moral law depend on generalizations about human beings, not actual “laws of nature” that apply indiscriminately to every single homo sapien sapien ever born. Moral law is not physics or math.

I think it is more of a subject for psychology and evolution than theology. I don’t believe human beings are a product of design but a product of the self-organizing processes of learning and evolution.

I personally think that the psychopath is the product of a switch in human psychology which generally gets flipped when children are exposed to too much inhumanity and violence enabling them to turn into killing machines. It is largely a survival mechanism. But of course, all such evolved features don’t always work properly and sometimes the switch is thrown even when it isn’t appropriate and might even be voluntary in some cases. It also explains why this might happen more frequently in some races/ancestries than others.

Well I guess there is a theological question regarding the salvation of psychopaths. To that my answer is that only God can judge human beings properly. Even if that particular switch isn’t a choice in all cases, it doesn’t mean that they are devoid of any choices which matter when it comes to salvation.

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This a tough topic. Most feel that true psychopaths cannot b e rehabilitated, so where does that leave us? As Mitchell said, it is in God’s hands.


I think we, as Westerners, really value the idea that rules apply equally to all people. Our view of God’s fairness is very tied to our views of equality. But even though in some ways, God does not show favoritism, (and we like that), in lots of other ways, he really does. He makes exceptions to the rules all the time. Which I agree is frustrating when we are trying to come up with neat theological assessments of how the world works.

I put this question in the same box as “Does God create some people with Down syndrome? Does God create some people gay? Does God create some people bipolar?” To the degree that “psychopathic” is how some people are created, I believe that God’s grace is sufficient for them. But it may not be that the same “rules” apply or that the normal “rules” apply in the same way.


And I personally, Christian though I am, think the usual moral argument is the worst of the lot, founded upon an authoritarian basis for morality which is only appropriate for two year olds and utterly inadequate for mature responsible adults in a changing world. C.S. Lewis’s argument from morality (in Mere Christianity) is a little better but invalid because evolution does provide adequate explanation for morality despite what many may think.


While not in the psychopath range (I hope), I think that idea of God meeting us where we are, even though it may be a bit different place for some, is reassuring for me as well. At Thanksgiving there was a time where the rest of my family seemed spiritually connected on an emotional level that I did not feel, and I get spiritually connected through more intellectual discussions which most of my family have little interest in. Or perhaps my feeling emotionally distant was a bit of holiday blues.


Not to mention their unfortunate victims.

Whether you regard it as an event, or a statement of the human condition, the fall involves a great and uneven disparity between a just and benevolent paradise, and the world as we find it. Separation from God is the defining human experience and Christ himself had to be forsaken by the Father to be fully incarnate.

Like many apologetics, a measure of faith is involved in the argument from moral compass. Individuals and societies have done great evil, seemingly without being much troubled. Worse are instances where the church itself has been co-opted to indefensible atrocities. Despite all that, the dominant trait in people at large has been demonstrated to be empathy and cooperation. As Christians, by faith we may attribute that to the image of God in man.


I find that reassuring as well. It does make it harder to make judgments and pronouncements about other people’s relationships with God though, when we can’t apply a one-size-fits-all analysis to it. Maybe that’s a good thing!


Psychopaths and narcissist have no chance to repent before they die, so how can they ever find God?

Children born to alcoholic moms can have fetal alcohol syndrome – a frequent if not universal symptom is the lack of any moral sense, any conscience. It is a disability, not a sin. Likewise, some (again – if not all) sociopaths. I trust that Father’s justice is well aware and ‘fair’.

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Of course, sociopaths can be successfully rehabilitated into politicians!


My wife’s line is that backbone transplants should be commonly available – there are plenty not being used in D.C. :grin:

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I should preface my remarks by saying that I am not a psychiatrist or psychologist. From my time at juvenile detention, I do have a great deal of experience working with sociopaths/psychopaths and discussing their cases with trained professionals. Formally, it’s called Antisocial Personality Disorder, and it shares quite a few traits with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, mainly due to the lack of empathy in both types.

The two most reliable indicators of future juvenile delinquency are cruelty to animals and setting fires.

Do they have a soul? I think this confuses a soul with a conscience. Psychopaths lack a conscience. Whether they have a soul … God knows.

Never knew you felt this way. I agree.

That’s the right box to put it in. The human prefrontal cortex is incredibly complex, which makes the system more susceptible to “errors,” if that’s the right word. For example, autism and schizophrenia have been correlated to abnormal PFC development. Injury to the PFC can cause the same effects. Emotional disinhibition syndrome leaves a patient with “impaired tolerance for delayed gratification, very diminished impulse control, and no evidence of foresight or concern about the consequences of one’s actions.”

Actually, in my experience they are more likely to lack impulse control. They may not be able to control the impulse to punch you in the face if you make them angry, but they will feel bad (maybe) about it afterward.


Sorry to double up, but I wanted to add a couple more thoughts. First, the notion that God implants a conscience (universal moral law) in a person’s mind before birth is clearly wrong. Second, notice the connection between empathy and morality. No empathy = no morality.

If the moral law of the Bible can be summed up as “Love God and love people as you love yourself” and you lack the capacity to love people as you love yourself, (since it is empathy that allows you figure out what is indeed the “loving” thing to do in a given situation) that would make it hard to be moral, for sure.

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Good thought. I’ll write that one down. :wink:

As do I. Whenever I read “soul” I always think “that which is most essential to a person’s identity”. While we have choice over many things I think there are aspects of our individual being which rightfully ought to guide our choices. When we act counter to this we feel inauthentic.

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