Don C. Benjamin, PhD

Dean at Kino Institute of Theology
Psychology of Disgust for Heaven and Hell


Richard Beck is Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Abilene Christian University. Beck’s research is diverse stretching from the psychology of profanity to why Christian bookstore art is so bad. He also leads a weekly Bible study for inmates at the maximum security French-Robertson prison. During any given week Richard drives the van, preaches or washes dishes at Freedom Fellowship, a church community feeding and reaching out to those on the margins. On his popular blog Experimental Theology Beck writes about the theology of Johnny Cash, the demonology of Scooby-Doo or and Bible monsters.[1] His Unclean: meditations on purity, hospitality, and mortality (Wipf and Stock, 2011) is a reflection on the theological implications of the psychology of disgust. Beck's organizing metaphor for the way compassion overcomes disgust is the Eucharist, where Christians reverse disgust by swallowing the body and blood of Jesus rather than spitting it out. The cross is also a sign of disgust, which Christians reverse by hanging such a shameful image of execution on the walls of their houses. 

Beyond functioning as a boundary psychology we have also noted that disgust is an expulsive psychology. Not only does disgust create and monitor boundaries, disgust also motivates physical and behavioral responses aimed at pushing away, avoiding, or forcefully expelling an offensive object. We avoid the object. Shove the object away. Spit it out. Vomit. This expulsive aspect of disgust is also worrisome. Whenever disgust regulates our experience of holiness or purity we will find this expulsive element. The clearest biblical example of this is the scapegoating ritual in the Hebrew observance of the Day of Atonement (cf. Leviticus 16).....

 Christianity – like Judaism and Islam – are originally all spiritualities for those whom the majority population considered disgusting. Once, however, Constantine (272-337) endorsed Christianity as the new Roman world view (313); once Muslims conquered peoples in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia (634-750); once Jews proclaimed the state of Israel (1948); many Jews, Christians and Muslims no longer embraced the disgust of suffering with compassion. 


The man stumbled into the Sunday morning service drunk. He was bleeding heavily from his hand and left bloody handprints on the door and then on the pew. [2]


 Just as he arrived, we were gathering at the altar for the Eucharist. Before anyone had time to react, he was standing with us at the altar to receive the sacrament. The man was not a stranger to any of us. He had taken communion in this very spot before. He had delighted us with his wit and warmth. We knew him by name, and we knew he had a drinking problem, but it hadn’t quite manifested itself in this way. As the priest distributed the Eucharist, he said loudly, “I have hepatitis C.” At that moment, we had no time for abstract questions about the nature of the Christian sacrament, of Eucharistic theology or of the significance of the “Body of Christ,” but we did have a sudden need for answers. Should we commune with him or not? What would it mean to reject communion with him? What would it mean to walk away? What would it mean to send him away?

I remembered this scene vividly as I read Richard Beck’s book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality. Beck begins with Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in Matthew 9, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” Jesus gave this direction to those who were scandalized by his presence at the table with “many tax collectors and sinners.” He assumed that the meaning of “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” a quotation from the prophet Hosea, was not self-evident. It would require time and attention on the part of the Pharisees to “go and learn” what it means. Beck aims to follow Jesus’ direction and unravel this puzzle, using both contemporary psychological science and theological reasoning.

Beck sees mercy and sacrifice as “two impulses pulling in opposite directions” and as “intrinsically incompatible.” One reaches outside the boundaries of human societies to be inclusive and welcoming. Mercy is inherently hospitable. The other, sacrifice, withdraws for the sake of maintaining its boundaries. Sacrifices, in the ancient sense, are made to purify the individual or the community making them, and purity can never be a fundamentally welcoming impulse. The implications of this divide are present in every Christian church and at every Eucharistic table. Who is included? Who is excluded? What are the limits of mercy? What are the failings of sacrifice?

Beck approaches these questions from a unique direction. He begins by describing a classic psychological experiment on the emotion of disgust. Spit into a cup. Imagine a small cupful of such spit. Would you drink it? For the vast majority of people tested in psychological experiments, the answer is no, even if the cup contains one’s own spit. Once spit is removed from the mouth, it can’t go back in. It has become disgusting. Disgust, Beck says, is a deeply ingrained, but also learned, human response. Small babies put everything in their mouths without distinction. They might not like those things once they get there, but they have no cause to reject anything out of hand. Disgust is universal; all humans express it. But it is also cultural. Different cultures find different things inherently disgusting—too repugnant to put into the mouth. Beck calls disgust that has this biocultural dimension “core disgust.” It focuses primarily on “oral incorporation.”

Although this kind of disgust seems far removed from religious experience, Beck points out its associations with the Eucharist. The Eucharist asks us to incorporate something that might not be disgusting on the surface but that is associated with both body and blood—two things that are indeed disgusting to incorporate. In its most central ritual, Christianity is absorbed in the question of disgust and purity.

As symbolic and metaphorical creatures whose experience of the world is created to a large degree by language, humans extrapolate from the physical aspects of disgust to what Beck calls the sociomoral. Sociomoral disgust involves people whom we perceive to belong inside or outside of our circles.

Just like core disgust, sociomoral disgust has significant Eucharistic associations. At the table, we are called to “welcome each other as Christ has welcomed us.” Christ did not find our human impurity reason to dissociate from us. Instead, he took on the challenge of life in the human body and extended his reach outside the boundaries of his community (the Trinity), welcoming all, regardless of purity, into his fellowship. Thus, in the Eucharist, Christ continues to teach us what it means to welcome one another.

Lofty words. But as a lifetime member of the clergy, Beck knows that churches are often enclaves and cliques, and he is concerned about the importation of “contamination-based” reasoning into the life of the church. We do this importation unconsciously, and doing it is certainly very human, but it also works against the very nature of Christianity, which is founded on hospitality and the willing “contamination” of Jesus.

Beck considers contamination-based reasoning to be a kind of “theological sweet tooth.” It is a natural impulse to like the way purity-based thinking feels. Such thinking is self-justifying and creates feelings of security and connection with others. Beck writes that the church will always be “swimming against the tide of disgust psychology, always tempted to withdraw, separate and quarantine.” But we must fight against this tide through practices like the Eucharist that teach us physically and psychologically to desire mercy, not sacrifice—to overcome our tendency to reject and repel others.

Although Beck understands the modern psychological bent toward “healthy boundaries,” toward creating what phi­losopher Charles Taylor calls the “buf­fered self,” he doesn’t set much store by it theologically. He is concerned that Christians might borrow this language too thoroughly and let this version of the self—always in need of more and better boundaries—distort ancient teaching that the self must be surrendered in the work of love.

The final kind of disgust that Beck ad­dresses is “animal-reminder” disgust. This kind of disgust arises when we encounter ideas, people or realities that remind us of our own deaths—that we are “dust and to dust we shall return.” The scandal of the incarnation is the idea that the divine is linked to the animal. Humans are part animal and part spiritual beings, Beck reasons, and they can consider their condition from either perspective. Many of the things that we often call dirty are things that share this dual nature.

For example, sex is an animalistic activity that is sometimes experienced as a spiritual one. Citing psychological studies, Beck finds that people are most likely to call sex dirty when it reminds them of death, and it frequently does. This anxiety about sex and death is inherent in our speech and in our associations, in what we consider profane and what we call sacred.

Again, the Eucharist, Beck notes, is implicated in this kind of disgust. A key aspect of the Eucharist is the reminder that Jesus died. His body submitted to the fate of all bodies. The Eucharist reminds us of our vulnerability, our humility and our neediness. At the table, all share this vulnerability. All of us are the sinners with whom Jesus shares fellowship. What the Pharisees missed, Beck argues, was an understanding of their own need. They were unwilling to share basic animality with others. When they missed this, they also missed their capacity for love, which is an extension of need.

All three of these kinds of disgust—and their implications—were at play the day the drunk, bleeding, diseased man descended on our church’s Eucharist. In Beck’s theological framework, there was no room for denying him the Eucharist or for withdrawing ourselves. To have done so would have been a “failure of love.” But I am also well aware that our collective choice to do nothing, to proceed with the Eucharist as before, was not so much a choice of love as it was due to a lack of time. Perhaps, as Beck reasons, we had been trained in inclusion and acceptance every time we gathered at the table and heard the words of institution. Perhaps we were all just too stunned to move.

Beck is not, however, advocating a complete ban on purity-based thinking. In religious settings, such thinking has helped humans to access or imagine transcendence. The ritual life of the church—its version of sacrifice—is what makes the church the church. Beck singles out the Eucharist as a way to manage purity-based thinking. The Eucha­rist, Beck argues, “…helps keep purity psychology harnessed to and in tension with the call to hospitality. . . . The Eucharist, properly practiced, regulates how the church experiences otherness and difference.”

There’s the rub, eh? What constitutes the “properly practiced” Eucharist is a matter of contention, and one that is outside the considerable set of concerns Beck has already taken on. I mentioned the bloody man at the Eucharist to a friend of mine who is a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, and, of course, she was horrified. “How could you let a person in that condition take the sacrament?” After all, the Bible tells us that the sacrament is to be practiced in a sober spirit, with self-reflection at its heart. Obviously, the drunk man was in no place to be self-reflective. And yet I argued, and still argue in my head, “Was I in a position to refuse him? Was the love of God unavailable to him? Would depriving him of the Eucharist have indicated an unwillingness to acknowledge our mutual need?” I still don’t quite know.

Unclean is nuanced, well-argued and relevant to the ins and outs of any Christian community. But given Beck’s reasoning and the two dirty feet on the book’s front cover, I was puzzled that he didn’t address another practice that Jesus bids his disciples to engage in: foot washing. Like the Eucharist, foot washing is an exercise in overcoming the impulse for disgust. It is so fundamentally boundary-crossing, intimate and frightening that the vast majority of churches—congregations that otherwise pride themselves on following Jesus closely—simply ignore Jesus’ clear instructions to practice it. Is foot washing more radical than the Eucharist? Does it put our fears and boundaries too vividly on display?

Amy Frykholm is an associate editor of The Christian Century and the author of Rapture CultureJulian of Norwich, and See Me Naked.

In the world of the Bible the connotations of the labels purity/impurity, holiness/unholiness, clean/unclean, and honor/shame were not disgust, as Beck suggests, but economic.[3] Pure, holy, clean households are in good standing financially and can feed and protect their members and contribute to the common good of the village. In contrast impure, unholy, unclean households are financially at risk unable to feed and protect the members of their households or contribute to the common needs of the other households in their villages.

Honor and shame are parallel labels used by anthropologists to describe approved or prohibited behavior. The words are parallel to wise and foolish in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job, and clean, unclean, holiness, purity and impurity in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. Honor and shame defined the status of a household. The la­bels are analogous to credit ratings today. They distinguished households in good social and economic standing from those that were not. The labels do not indicate as much about what a household was actually doing or not doing, as about how other households reacted to what happened to them.

Honorable households were moderate. Their members did not get drunk, worked hard, made good friends, sought advice before acting, held their temper, paid their taxes, and imposed fair legal judgments. They were careful in dealing with one another during menstruation, sexual intercourse, childbirth, and death. They were equally conscientious about what food they ate, what clothes they wore, what animals they herded and what crops they planted in their fields. Honorable households could care for their own members and were prepared to help neighboring households. Their households were in good standing, authorized to make a living in their village and tribes, and entitled to their support. Only honorable households were entitled to buy, sell, trade, arrange marriages, serve in assemblies, and send warriors to the tribe. Only honorable households were entitled to make wills, appoint heirs, and serve as legal guardians to care for households endangered by drought, war, and epidemic. Honorable households were in place and functioning well.

Shamed households placed their resources in jeopardy. Their members ate too much, drank too much, were lazy, quarrelsome, selfish, and thought nothing about lying to the village assembly. They were thoughtless in their sexual relationships, and disrespectful of the new born and the dead. Their herds were mangy, and their farms run down. Shamed households did not fulfill their responsibilities to their villages and tribes. They were out-of-place and not functioning properly. Consequently, both their contributions to their villages and tribes as well as their eligibility for their support were suspended. The label downgraded the status of households until they demonstrated that they were once again providing for and protecting their human and natural resources.

Cultures create taxonomies—systems of classification—to organize their environment.[4] The Hebrews used YHWH’s strategy of creating by separating or organizing: cosmos from chaos, light from darkness, land from sea—to organize their environment (Gen 1:1—2:4). Creatures that conformed to divine order were clean and edible; those out of place or taboo—often translated abhorrent, abominable, perverted or unclean—were inedible.[5] Hybrids in nature or as the result of human engineering threatened divine order. Cooking a kid goat in its own mother’s milk, for example, violated boundaries created by YHWH where mother’s milk was to sustain life, not destroy it.

 The instructions consider animals with split hooves, and which ruminate—re-chew food already swallowed—like domestic oxen, sheep, goats, wild deer, gazelles, roebucks and wild goats, ibex, antelopes and mountain sheep—to conform to divine order and were therefore edible. Fish or seafood with both fins and scales and domestic birds with wings were also edible. In contrast, the instructions consider wild eagles, vultures, ospreys, buzzards, kites, ravens, ostriches, nighthawks, seagulls, hawks, little owls, great owls, water hens, desert owls, vultures, cormorants, storks, herons, hoopoes, bats and insects with wings to be out of order—they are not in the place YHWH assigned them at their creation—and are therefore inedible.[6]

Leviticus teaches fathers of households to choose two goats for a Day of Atonement ritual (Lev 6:6-26).  They are to butcher one goat as an offering for the sins of the household.  They are load the sins of the household on the other and drive it into the desert (Hebrew: Azazel).[7] This is not a ritual of disgust as Beck would label it, but a ritual of renewal like bankruptcy or the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation.

Humans who continue to gunnysack their guilt are eventually paralyzed by their guilt just like individuals with immense debt.  They can no longer contribute to their cultures, and, instead, drain its resources.  These rituals of renewal them to put their past in a sack and drop it off the bridge, and get on with rebuilding productive lives.  

Jesus taught little about heaven and hell, but Medieval Catholics and no small amount of Christian preaching today make it the centerpiece of Christian teaching. Beck’s psychology of disgust, sometimes treated with aversion or revulsion therapy, may have played a major role in the development of these Medieval Catholic teachings on heaven and hell.

 Aversion therapy pairs a dislikeable or disgusting stimulus with an undesirable behavior in order to reduce or eliminate that behavior.[8] Some loved ones, for example, who are negatively affected by an addictive relative or friend, will try the psychology of disgust to get addicts to stop using or drinking by describing to them in gross detail what how they act under the influence, and how their addicted behavior affects those around them.  Some parents use revulsion therapy to get their teenagers to stop smoking by forcing them to smoke the entire pack of cigarettes at one time, which they hope will make them sick, and not want to smoke again. 

During the Medieval period, Catholic Christians could not understand how anyone would not embrace Christianity, and similarly tried to use disgust in describing the disgusting experiences of hell -- like the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) or the Paradise Lost of John Milton (1608-1674) – to elicit conversion. 

Many of Jesus’ teachings on hell are misread and misused today by preachers addressing boundary audiences whom they challenge to convert or face burning in hell for eternity.[9] Jesus’ teachings heaven and hell teachings were not threatening, they were apocalyptic – aimed at consoling households threated by the wolves of Rome at their doors. Fear not, Jesus teaches, God knows you are in danger, and it will not go well with the wolves.

Like Isaiah (61:1-3), Jesus teaches (Luke 4:16-21): The spirit of YHWH, our divine patron is upon me, because YHWH has anointed me. YHWH has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of YHWH’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our divine patron; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. Jesus promises to deliver his followers. Follow my light, I am with you. No wonder so many who heard his call, dropped everything and followed him. The threat of hell plays no part in Jesus call to discipleship, because hell is what his followers are leaving behind.


Baker, John W. Personal Communication 2015.

Benjamin, Don C. The Social World of Deuteronomy: A New Feminist Commentary. Wisdom Commentary Series. Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015.

Blair, Judit M. De-Demonising the Old Testament: An Investigation of Azazel, Lilith, Deber, Qeteb and Reshef in the Hebrew Bible. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger; an Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Praeger, 1966.

Hagedorn, Anselm C. "Deut 17,8-13: Procedure for Cases of Pollution?" Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 115, no. 4 (01/01, 2003): 538-556.

Matthews, Victor H. and Don C. Benjamin. Social World of Ancient Israel, 1250-587 BCE. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993.

Matthews, Victor H. and Don C. Benjamin. "Social Sciences and Biblical Studies." In Honor and Shame in the World of the Bible, edited by Matthews, Victor H. and Don C. Benjamin. Vol. 68, 7-21. Atlanta: Scholars, 1996.

Nash, Tom. "Devils, Demons, and Disease: Folklore in Ancient Near Eastern Rites of Atonement." In , 57-88. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1990.

Orlov, Andrei A. Dark Mirrors: Azazel and Satanael in Early Jewish Demonology. Albany, NY: SUNY Pr, 2011.

Pinker, Aron. "A Goat to Go to Azazel." The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 7, (2007, 2007).

Roo, Jacqueline C. R. de. "Was the Goat for Azazel Destined for the Wrath of God." Biblica 81, no. 2 (2000, 2000): 233-242.

Rudman, Dominic. "A Note on the Azazel-Goat Ritual." Zeitschrift für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 116, no. 3 (2004, 2004): 396-401.

Tawil, Hayim. "Azazel, the Prince of the Steepe: A Comparative Study." Zeitschrift für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 92, no. 1 (1980, 1980): 43-59.

[2] Richard Beck, Unclean: meditations on purity, hospitality, and mortality (Wipf and Stock, 2011). Reviewed by Amy Frykholm on Christian Century Jun 27, 2012

[3] Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Social World of Ancient Israel, 1250-587 BCE (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993). Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, "Social Sciences and Biblical Studies," in Honor and Shame in the World of the Bible, eds. Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Vol. 68 (Atlanta: Scholars, 1996), 7-21.”


[5] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger; an Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York: Praeger, 1966), 40. Anselm C. Hagedorn, "Deut 17,8-13: Procedure for Cases of Pollution?" Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 115, no. 4 (01/01, 2003), 539.

[6] Don C. Benjamin, The Social World of Deuteronomy: A New Feminist Commentary (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015), 147.

[7] Further Reading (Azazel): Judit M. Blair, De-Demonising the Old Testament: An Investigation of Azazel, Lilith, Deber, Qeteb and Reshef in the Hebrew Bible (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009). Tom Nash, "Devils, Demons, and Disease: Folklore in Ancient Near Eastern Rites of Atonement," in (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1990), 57-88. Andrei A. Orlov, Dark Mirrors: Azazel and Satanael in Early Jewish Demonology (Albany, NY: SUNY Pr, 2011). Aron Pinker, "A Goat to Go to Azazel," The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 7 (2007, 2007). Jacqueline C. R. de Roo, "Was the Goat for Azazel Destined for the Wrath of God," Biblica 81, no. 2 (2000, 2000), 233-242. Dominic Rudman, "A Note on the Azazel-Goat Ritual," Zeitschrift für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 116, no. 3 (2004, 2004), 396-401. Hayim Tawil, "Azazel, the Prince of the Steepe: A Comparative Study," Zeitschrift für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 92, no. 1 (1980, 1980), 43-59.

[9] John W. Baker, personal communication, 2015.