A Critique of Hypnosis in Christian Psychotherapy
|By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2012|
|Many Christian therapists use hypnosis on pragmatic grounds, maintaining that it is useful for helping their clients. It works for them, and they see positive results. Nothing occult happens, and they feel comfortable with the practice.|
A Critique of Hypnosis in Christian Psychotherapy
Many Christian therapists use hypnosis on pragmatic grounds, maintaining that it is useful for helping their clients. It works for them, and they see positive results. Nothing occult happens, and they feel comfortable with the practice.
There are certain reasons why hypnosis would be used by Christian therapists. First, there is a genuine desire to help people. Second, the hypnotic state is therapeutically useful. A standard encyclopedia on psychology written by evangelical Christian psychologists offers the following endorsement:
Hypnosis is also extremely valuable in psychotherapeutic activities. The hypnotically achieved relaxation can often enhance rapport and facilitate conversation. The dissociative aspects of the hypnotic state can facilitate cathartic experience as well as the exploration of material too psychically painful for immediate conscious awareness. The hypernesic effect can permit recall and, on occasion, revivification of past, forgotten material, while the amnesic effect can allow the forgetting of material discovered through hypnosis but too threatening for conscious retention at the moment. Hypnotic imagery can create the situation for projection of psychic material into fantasy or hypnotic dreams either explored or used profitably in ways that will advance therapy.
Hypnosis is very effective and valuable in pediatrics. By their nature children are generally better hypnotic subjects and can use hypnosis very naturally for pain control, to alter symptoms or habits, to imagine and change situations or outcomes, or to adjust physical functioning.
After a brief mention of a possible, though unlikely, spiritistic aspect to hypnosis, an evangelical Christian encyclopedia on ethics concludes, “Perhaps a better view is that hypnosis is in itself a spiritually neutral phenomenon that may be used for good or evil purposes…. Provided it is practiced by a reputable medical practitioner for legitimate therapeutic purposes, hypnosis may be of significant benefit to a patient.” Yet this text also states:
Despite their long history and current popularity, however, remarkably little is known about either hypnosis itself (the hypnotic state) or of the means by which it is induced (hypnotism).
Over the years more than a dozen distinct theories have been advanced to explain the workings of hypnosis, and there is still little consensus in the academic literature on the subject.
If we don’t know what hypnosis is or how it works, can we be assured that it “is in itself a spiritually neutral phenomenon”? It may be, but even so, does this fact by itself answer all the questions raised by an endorsement? For example, it could be argued that all trance states are spiritually neutral. Yet though one could argue this, it is false, as in the case of spiritistic trance channeling!’ As one text on channeling observes, “A trance is a state of consciousness that allows you to connect with a guide.” Not all trance states do this, but clearly many do. So all trance states are not the same. Thus, if all states of hypnosis are not the same, how can anyone know that all hypnotic states in general are ultimately neutral? If deeper hypnotic states are far more prone to occult phenomena, can it still be argued that the hypnotic state per se is spiritually neutral?
Even if hypnosis is a neutral mental state, it is nevertheless a state easily prone to abuse and manipulation. The NBC evening news of April 8, 1995, thought it important to report on stage hypnosis as a growing but dangerous entertainment fad in Britain. What wasn’t so funny was the problems some people encountered as a result of using this “innocent, neutral” technique. One young woman, Sharon Tabam, mysteriously died just five hours after coming out of a hypnotic trance. Others could not be rid of hypnotic suggestions. One man continued to eat up to eight onions a day, thinking they were apples. After almost nine months, no one was able to convince him otherwise, with or without hypnosis. What if a hypnotic suggestion dealt with a more serious mental, physical, or moral area? Just because counselors or entertainers claim to be authorities in hypnosis doesn’t answer all the questions.
A PhD in psychology does not automatically grant one spiritual discernment, wisdom, or biblical commitment. After eight years of secular education in pursuit of their PhDs, one wonders how many Christian therapists have given sufficient attention to the possibility of spiritual harm through hypnosis. As we have seen, it is easy to accept something on pragmatic or personal grounds alone without thinking through other implications. Aren’t there cases of Christian professionals who are authorities in given areas (sociology, biology, psychology), yet who also pursue questionable practices or teach spiritual error? Isn’t it true that many Christian professionals have never been trained theologically or biblically? Don’t others have a preexisting bias or emotional investment in a false practice or belief? Aren’t some Christian professionals in the academic community subject to intimidation by secular colleagues? As a result, even Christian scholars have accepted such false and harmful teachings as universalism, parapsychology, evolution, higher criticism, and so on, simply because their secular learning was never critiqued biblically. To use hypnosis, therefore, merely because it helps people does not necessarily justify it.
Because hypnotherapy is being practiced by many Christian psychologists, the church needs to take a hard look at the issues. This is not something we can do here. But we can say that Christian scholars are divided over the issue. One of the leading Christian authorities on the occult, the late Dr. Walter Martin, accepted the medical practice of hypnosis, while warning against its occult use. Noted psychiatrist Paul Tournier, on the other hand, is opposed to any use of hypnosis.
Perhaps the leading authority on Christian counseling and occultism in this century was Dr. Kurt Koch. His conclusion of a lifetime of study and counseling is: “If asked for my opinion, I would have to admit that I have heard so many ill effects of hypnotism that I am opposed to it.” “For the Christian, it is a good rule not to use any dubious forms of help.” He also observed an interesting phenomenon, that prayer could apparently counteract hypnotic suggestibility.
Again, most Christian therapists seem to use hypnosis merely because it is a powerful and effective method; the hard questions that might temper its acceptance seem to be raised too infrequently. But are good motives or practical results sufficient justification for endorsing a practice that involves numerous unanswered questions and historic and contemporary associations with the occult? When so little is actually known about what hypnosis really is, and when it has strong associations with occultism, we believe that everyone should seriously question the advisability of using the technique. We provide the following questions for people who want to think through the issue more fully.
1. Does the hypnotic trance state differ within the 1) medical, 2) psychotherapeutic, or 3) occult use of hypnosis?
2. Why is it that as evangelicals we can easily reject cultivating occult trance states but just as easily accept them in medicine or psychology? How has the church viewed hypnosis, and Christian participation in it, historically? For example, how did the church view Christian participation in hypnotism in the nineteenth century, when it was termed “mesmerism”?
3. If hypnosis can induce psychic sensitivity, what percent of the hundreds of thousands who are being treated with hypnosis in psychotherapy are becoming more psychically active? If repeated hypnosis increases one’s sensitivity to hypnosis, does repeated hypnosis also increase one’s sensitivity to psychic experiences? Does it really help people to induce their openness to the psychic realm or to produce psychic experiences in them? Is the depth of the hypnotic trance proportional to the degree of susceptibility to the psychic realm? If so, can that depth be carefully regulated?
4. How do we distinguish the possible spiritual or psychic impact of hypnosis on different populations: a) the “average” person; b) occultists; c) people marginally interested in the psychic realm; or dabblers; d) people with an occult or psychic family history; e) Christians who have had psychic involvement prior to conversion; f) among Christians who are backslidden? In other words, does a person’s previous “exposure” to the occult, or does his spiritual health, affect the outcome of hypnosis?
5. If hypnosis is a neutral tool, with either scientific or occult application or potential, how do we determine the conditions under which it actually becomes one or the other?
6. If we accept the trance state of hypnosis for solely therapeutic reasons, where do we draw the line in accepting similar methods, such as other altered states of consciousness, for therapeutic reasons, or the questionable techniques of Jungian and other potentially occult psychologies?
7. Does the worldview and lifestyle of the therapist affect the outcome of hypnosis in his patients? Would a qualified psychotherapist or hypnotherapist who is an occultist have a different effect on the same person than a Christian therapist would? Why or why not? For example, would more power be exerted over the patient in terms of susceptibility in trance by an occult hypnotherapist or by a Christian one? Or would there be no difference?
8. Does the worldview or lifestyle of the client affect the outcome of hypnosis? Would a Christian counselee have a different experience under deep hypnosis than an occult practitioner would?
9. Are there any dubious interests or practices in the background or training of many therapists who use hypnosis?
10. Why do so many Christian practitioners of hypnotherapy recommend that it be performed only by a Christian, if it is really a scientific and neutral practice? If it is not a scientific and neutral practice, then what is it?
11. If “occult hypnosis” leaves one open to the influence of the demonic, what is there about the medical and scientific use of hypnosis that may prevent this influence? Could it be context, environment, motive, prayer, or other factors? Is the occult use of hypnosis really a different form of hypnosis than the medical and therapeutic varieties? If not, does this mean its scientific use is automatically void of occult potential? Doesn’t the parapsychologist attempt to use hypnosis in a scientific manner? We know that most parapsychologists study mediums and occult phenomena in a scientific context and with good motives; but does this really alter the nature or potential consequences of such activity? So, is it true that whatever hypnosis is, it is by virtue of its nature, regardless of context or motive?
12. What about the long-term impact of hypnosis? Are there negative effects spiritually or emotionally? Are the alleged benefits of hypnosis long-term or short-term benefits? How often does it merely treat symptoms, leaving the person to deal with the root problems later on?
Clearly, these are tough questions to answer, but they need answering.
- Vance L. Shepperson, “Hypnotherapy” in David G. Benner ed., Psychotherapy in Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), pp. 169-70.
- B. Van Dragt “Psychic Healing,” in David G. Brenner, ed., Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985), pp. 547-48; e.g., “Viewed phenomenologically, the ability to heal psychically is just another human capacity, on a par with sensation, locomotion, and thought. It is not, therefore, the paranormal phenomena themselves [i.e., psychic healing] but rather the healer’s philosophy that a Christian evaluation would address…. Both Christianity and psychic healing view human beings as related to a transcendent source, from which comes the power for healing. However, whereas a particular healer may equate this source with the personal God of the Bible, she may also see it as, among other things, a “loving energy field” or even some aspect of her own self. While this may seem problematic theologically, from an experiential standpoint the process is the same for both Christian and psychic healer alike. What is essential is that one surrender to some higher power than one’s own ego or conscious self” (p. 889).
- R. K. Harrison, gen. ed., Encyclopedia of Biblical and Christian Ethics (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1987), p. 193.
- Ibid., p. 192.
- Sanaya Roman and Duane Packer, Opening to Channel: How to Connect with Your Guide (Tiburon, CA: H. J. Kramer, Inc. 1987), p. 25.
- Walter Martin, “Hypnotism: Medical and Occultic,” cassette tape, El Toro, CA: Christian Research Institute, 1985.
- Kurt Koch, Occult ABC (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1980, retitled Satan’s Devices), p. 95.
- Ibid., p. 95.
- Ibid., p. 100.
- Clifford Wilson, John Weldon, Psychic Forces and Occult Shock (Chattanooga, TN: Global Publishers, 1987), pp. 331-40.