Gregory Boyd’s Escaping the Matrix — A Critical Review

Gregory Boyd’s Escaping the Matrix — A Critical Review

Boyd, Gregory A. and Larson, Al, Escaping the Matrix, Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2005. Spiritual Formation; 211 pages.

I must admit that I was a bit intimidated when someone suggested that I read and review this book. Escaping the Matrix is directed to Christians, but it is also related to clinical counseling, and I am not professionally trained in that field. I am a former police officer, a pastor, and an editorial assistant for another Christian ministry. Greg Boyd, on the other hand, is a well-known pastor and theologian. Al Larson is a professionally trained clinical psychologist. My initial thought was that someone more well-known and professionally qualified should review their book.

While I am not a clinical counselor, however, every pastor is called to be a biblical counselor and a theologian. Keeping those two pastoral roles in the forefront, my main emphasis will not be to evaluate the authors’ psychological counseling philosophies or methods. I intend to examine their use of the Scriptures—the theology that formulates their opinions and drives their methods. But before beginning, I want to make a personal appeal to any pastors who might decide to read their book. An ever-widening separation exists between those committed to biblical counseling, and those who insist on mingling Scripture with modern psychology. I stand firmly on the biblical side, and I know that many of you stand with me. But please be warned: Even if Escaping the Matrix is somewhat bizarre in a few places, it is a well-written and intriguing book with literally hundreds of references to Scripture. I am concerned that this last factor alone—the authors’ apparent reliance upon God’s Word—may convince many who will not take a deeper look to conclude that the two schools of thought can indeed be harmonized. But before allowing yourself to be too easily persuaded, take a closer look with me.

Are We Counseling Sheep, or Comforting Goats?

The first major problem that caught my eye when reading Escaping the Matrix was the authors’ complete failure to deal with the reality of false professions of faith in Christ. Absolutely no allowance was made even for the possibility that many of the people who Boyd and Larson say need counseling might actually need conversion. This error became evident on the first page where the reader is introduced to a professing Christian named Mary, a woman who describes herself as being "stuck" in a serious depression. I will address her specific case later, but using her self-description, the authors proceeded to describe other Christians who are "stuck." For example:

You may be stuck in a rage you can’t control . . . You may have a compulsion to shop . . . a superiority complex, a judgmental attitude you can’t shut off . . . or an addiction to pornography.

On page 25, under the heading, "Assessing Our Bondage to the Matrix," the authors ask Christians: "Do you regularly engage in behaviors that are inconsistent with your identity in Christ (e.g., addiction to alcohol, tobacco, drugs, pornography, or gambling)?" They even suggest that a true Christian might continue to exercise "overt animosity" toward people of a certain ethnic group (p. 14).

Despite the author’s use of psychological terms (compulsion, complex, addiction, etc.), "a rage you can’t control" is a pattern of sinful anger or outbursts of wrath (Gal. 5:20; Col. 3:8). An "addiction to pornography" is adultery or fornication (Matt. 5:28). "A compulsion to shop" or "an addiction to gambling" is covetousness or idolatry (Matt. 6:19, 1 Tim. 6:6-8; Col. 3:5; Heb. 13:5). "An addiction to alcohol" is drunkenness (1 Cor. 6:10; Gal. 5:21). A "superiority complex" or "a judgmental attitude you can’t shut off," is pride (Matt. 7:1-5; Luke 18:10-14). And "overt animosity" toward another ethnic group is hatred (cf. Gal. 5:19-21; 1 John 2:9-11; 4:8). These sins can be found in Christians, to be sure. But as ongoing and unchecked patterns of thought or behavior, they characterize unbelievers—those who are "living according to the flesh" and therefore "must die" (Rom. 8:13). And the Bible is clear in saying that those who persist in these sins will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; Luke 18:14; etc.). Note Paul’s warning to the Corinthians:

Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10).1

Continuing in verse 11 Paul writes:

Such were some of you [note the past tense]; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (emphasis added).

Please do not misunderstand. I am not suggesting that all sinful behavior proceeds from an unregenerate nature. True believers can, and do, stumble in these sins, sometimes in the worst ways (consider David). But Boyd and Larson are not describing people who have stumbled (meaning those who have wandered from their normally righteous pattern of living). They are describing people who continue, often for many years, in habitual sin. On pages 13-14 Boyd and Larson make this clear:

The Bible says you’re more than a conqueror in Christ (Rom. 8:37). Yet after twenty years of being a Christian, you still can’t control your lust. Why is that? . . . For a decade you’ve believed the biblical truth that you’ve been given a spirit of power, love, and self-control (2 Timothy 1:7). Yet you still . . . lose control with anger about as often as you did before you were a Christian. What aren’t you getting? . . . For as long as you can remember, you’ve accepted the biblical truth that you are holy and redeemed in Christ (Gal. 3:13-14; Eph. 1:4). Yet you still sin in the same areas and maybe even to the same extent as you did before. . . . What explains this? . . . Where’s the transforming power of the gospel? (emphasis added)

According to Boyd and Larson, these are descriptions of redeemed people even though they continue unabated in their sins. The Bible, however, plainly and repeatedly warns us against coming to that conclusion:

By this we know that we have come to know [Christ], if we keep His commandments. The one who says, "I have come to know Him," and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him (1 John 2:3-4).

No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother (1 John 3:9-10, ESV; cf. John 14:21, 24; Rom. 8:5, 13; Titus 1:16; 1 John 3:2-3; etc.).

Affirming this, Peter instructs professing Christians to look for increasing moral excellence, self-control, godliness, etc., as the way of being assured that they are true Christians (2 Peter 1:5-10). Paul warned the Corinthians, some of whom were continuing in their sinful ways, to examine themselves to see if they were truly believers (2 Cor. 13:5). And the writer of Hebrews exhorted his readers to "Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14, emphasis added). All of these warnings and instructions to professing Christians are based on the words of Christ who said:

Not everyone who says to Me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?" And then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness" (Matt. 7:21-23, emphasis added).

The truth is, God does not merely save His people (Matt. 1:21), He changes them. Regeneration (the new birth spoken of in John 3:3) is a radical re-creation of the nature of fallen man. While unbelievers act according to their depraved, unregenerate nature, "indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind" (Eph. 2:3), Christians have been given a new nature (Eph. 2:4-5). True Christians, therefore, are those who not only say they possess a regenerate nature (the claim of everyone who says he has been "born-again"), but who also exhibit the changed behavior that flows from their new nature. There is no place in heaven for those who are supposedly saved, but who have not been changed (John 3:3). Jonathan Edwards was accurately reflecting this biblical truth when he wrote:

They who are truly converted are new men, new creatures; new, not only within, but without; they are sanctified throughout, in spirit, soul, and body; old things are passed away, all things are become new. They have new hearts, new eyes, new ears, new tongues, new hands, new feet; i.e., a new conversation and practice; they walk in newness of life, and continue to do so to the end of life.2

Boyd and Larson’s error seems to be such a blatant contradiction of basic Christian doctrine that I was disappointed (although not truly surprised) to find it so strongly affirmed in the first few pages of a "Christian" book, one written at least in part by a pastor and theologian. As I read, I hoped I would come across some sort of qualification—at least some warning that in our counseling, we might be dealing with an unbeliever. Every pastor and Christian counselor should have this possibility in the forefront of his thinking so that he can counsel appropriately, perhaps beginning by emphasizing the inseparable connection between saving faith and repentance from sin. For Boyd and Larson, however, such an admonition was deemed unnecessary and never came. Instead, the authors supported their conclusions about the commonality of Christian unholiness by paraphrasing some of the statistical findings in George Barna’s book, Growing True Disciples:

In fact, research shows that there is remarkably little difference between the attitudes and behaviors of Christians and non-Christians. The way we experience ourselves and the world and the way we interact with others is basically the same as non-believers—despite the biblical truths we believe (p. 15).

Needless to say, the Bible gives a much narrower definition of the true Christian than does Barna.

A Faulty Diagnosis

What is wrong with most Christians? The answer to that question, according to Boyd and Larson, is grounded largely on their understanding of modern neurology (the science of the brain) and based loosely on the movie The Matrix. Their thesis is summed up on page 8:

A "god of this age" (2 Cor. 4:4) has seized the world and created a deceptive pattern, a "dream world"—a Matrix—that holds us in bondage. We are to a large degree conformed to "the pattern of this world" instead of to the truth of who we are in Christ (Rom. 12:2). We find ourselves imprisoned in patterns of electrical signals that we interpret as real, but that are not true.

Does this sound biblical? If it does at first, look again—more closely. In 2 Corinthians 4:4, the only people who remain under the bondage of Satan (the "god of this age") are unbelievers—those who cannot see "the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ." That verse says absolutely nothing about Christians or their behavior. Read verses 3-4 for yourself:

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (emphasis added).

Two verses later, Paul informs Christians that in their case, the veil has been removed:

For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).

Only unbelievers are trapped in "the Matrix." True Christians are certainly not perfect, but neither are they in bondage to sin (cf. Rom. 6:16-23; Eph. 2:1-5; Col. 1:13). Nevertheless, Boyd and Larson consistently portray them as deceived, blinded, bound in sin, conformed to the world, etc., all to justify their repeated references to even the most persistently unholy people as "Christians." Consider yet another gross misapplication of Scripture as the authors’ attempt to drive home this point:

We have been conformed to the Matrix of this world (Rom. 12:2). We have been deceived (2 Cor. 11:3). We have been blinded (2 Cor. 4:4). We are being controlled (1 John 5:19). Though we are in principle set free in Christ, we experience ourselves as slaves (2 Peter 2:19). (p. 42)

Readers who trustingly accept that the authors have correctly interpreted and applied these texts may be convinced by this barrage of unquoted references. On the other hand, anyone willing to read the above-referenced passages in their contexts will note the following errors, several of them glaring:

  • Are Christians truly conformed to this world as Boyd and Larson say they are? Romans 12:2 is an exhortation not to be conformed to the pattern of this world. Paul does give a similar command in Colossians 3:2. But the fact that he gives these commands to Christians does not imply that a true Christian might ultimately disobey them. What I mean is this: Christians are commanded elsewhere to love one another (John 13:34-35), yet there is no such thing as a true Christian who characteristically disobeys this command (cf. 1 John 3:14-19). Christians are commanded to forgive (Col. 3:13), yet there is no such thing as a Christian who is characteristically unforgiving (Matt. 18:35). Christians are commanded to "Flee immorality" (1 Cor. 6:18), but there is no such thing as a characteristically immoral Christian (Gal. 5:19-21; 1 Cor. 6:9-10). In the same way, Christians are commanded not to be worldly (i.e. "conformed to the pattern of this world"). Yet any who remain characteristically worldly are given no biblical assurance that they are truly Christians (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-13; 1 John 2:15-16).

  • In 2 Corinthians 11:3, Paul never says Christians "have been deceived," as Boyd and Larson would have you think. He warned the Corinthians not to be deceived. And if anyone is deceived, it means he has received "another Jesus . . . a different spirit . . . a different gospel" (v. 4). In other words, he has abandoned the true gospel and can no longer be thought of as a Christian.

  • 2 Corinthians 4:4 refers only to unbelievers, as I explained above.

  • Regarding 1 John 5:19, the verse Boyd and Larson take to mean that Christians are "being controlled," read verses 18-19, noting my italics and bracketed notes:

    We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God [i.e. Christ] protects him, and the evil one does not touch him [let alone control him]. We know that we [Christians] are from God and the whole world [the remaining mass of unregenerate humanity (cf. John 15:19)] lies in the power of the evil one (ESV, emphasis added).

    Clearly, the only ones "being controlled" in this passage are unbelievers.

  • 2 Peter 2:19 refers to false teachers, not struggling Christians, as the context makes clear (vv. 17-18). In fact, verse 17 says that they are men "for whom the black darkness [i.e. hell] has been reserved." Obviously, this cannot apply to those who have been "set free in Christ."

By repeatedly insisting that even habitually unrighteous people may be true Christians, and by asserting that many Christians have been set free only "in principle," Boyd and Larson establish an utterly unbiblical foundation for the rest of their book. But this is indeed their professional diagnosis (to use a clinical term) of the disease that plagues much of modern Christianity. And as everyone knows, if the doctor’s diagnosis is wrong, then the prescribed medication (or therapy, as the case may be) will provide, at best, a placebo effect—only an illusion of recovery. What Boyd and Larson have done in this book, as I hope to demonstrate, may be likened to a doctor prescribing pain-killers as the cure for cancer. Patients begin to feel better while their disease continues to spread.

The Insufficiency of Scripture

Following their introduction, Boyd and Larson enter into a lengthy explanation of the neurological process—the physiology of thought. They explain how the electronic impulses in our brains not only control what we think, they are what we think. Lastly, they explain how false information is electronically implanted in our brains through negative experiences, lies, etc. These bits of information, whether positive or negative, are called "neurochips," and they hold great power because even if they are false, our brain becomes convinced that they are true.

I have no argument with the scientific facts presented in this book. I am certain that the authors’ understanding of neurology is quite informed and up-to-date. Even if it were not, I am not prepared to critique their scientific conclusions. But Escaping the Matrix is not ultimately a book about science. It is a book about Christian sanctification. Even the ISBN coding classifies the book under the heading, "Spiritual Formation."

After referring to Romans 12:2, 1 Corinthians 10:5, Ephesians 4:22-23, and several other passages, the authors conclude: "The whole business of sanctification is contained in these commands" (p. 78). Having correctly established that the Bible commands Christians to be sanctified, however, Boyd and Larson promptly depart from Scripture as they advance their psychological methodology. They completely ignore the fact that the same Word of God that commands Christians to be sanctified is also said to be the fully sufficient means of sanctifying them.

Jesus prayed to the Father, saying, "Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth" (John 17:17). Paul said that Christ "loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word" (Eph. 5:25-26). He assured Timothy that all Scripture is not only inspired by God, but is also "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17 NKJV, emphasis added).

In the Old Testament, the psalmist assures us that "The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul" (Ps. 19:7). It is noteworthy that the Hebrew word used here for "soul" refers to a man’s inner self—his mind, heart, spirit, etc. It is also interesting that in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) the word for "soul" in Psalm 19:7 is "psuche," from which we get the English word "psyche," and from which comes every form of the word "psychology." According to Psalm 19:7, therefore, the law of the Lord is perfectly sufficient for restoring that which many believe only modern psychology can restore—the inner man. And when it comes to correcting or preventing sinful behavior, as Boyd and Larson say they are trying to do, Psalm 119 offers the answer:

How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word. . . . Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I might not sin against You. . . . Establish my footsteps in Your word, and do not let any iniquity have dominion over me (Ps. 119:9, 11, 133).

Despite all of these unmistakable references to God’s Word as the means of Christian sanctification, and despite the fact that Escaping the Matrix is all about sanctification, the only one of the above passages Boyd and Larson ever mention is Ephesians 5:25-32, and that in a totally unrelated context (referring to marital intimacy, not sanctification). The authors’ neglect of these passages is not an unintentional oversight either. Despite hundreds of Scripture references, the authors actually seem to belittle the idea that the Word of God is able to sanctify God’s people. On pages 58-59 we read:

Most of us haven’t paid attention to Aristotle’s insight that "the soul never thinks without images." Most people just assume that they think with conceptual information—which perhaps explains why we tend to trust conceptual information so much to transform us, despite our uniform experience that this trust doesn’t usually pay off. We just haven’t known there was anything else to go on.

In other words (as I would re-word the authors’ statement): We have been foolish to trust in the Word of God ("conceptual information") to transform us. It just doesn’t usually work like that. But before now, we didn’t know that science was able to help us.

Is my re-wording of the authors’ statement off the mark? Decide for yourself. But the general tenor of the book affirms that this is indeed what they were saying, however subtle their language. And on the next page, they make the point once again:

If we are going to take every thought captive [in reference to 2 Cor. 10:5], we’re going to have to do it according to the rules that govern thought [i.e. the science of neurology]. . . . You can’t fight experiential cancer with a Band-Aid of conceptual information [i.e. with the Word of God].

In reference to 2 Corinthians 10:5, the authors failed to notice that Paul not only spoke of "taking every thought captive," he also identified the only weapon that is equal to the task. That "divinely powerful" weapon, according to Paul, is the gospel. Paul put no confidence in weapons "of the flesh," such as the human will, psychology, or neuroscience (cf. 2 Cor. 10:3-4). The Word of God was the divinely powerful weapon he used for "the destruction of fortresses," "destroying speculations," and "taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:3-5; cf. Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18; 2:1-5; Heb. 4:12; Is. 55:10-11).

After presenting their understanding of the problem with so many Christians, Boyd and Larson included a section entitled, "A Couple Common—But Wrong—Answers" (p. 15). Here the authors openly declared their skepticism regarding the effectiveness of Bible reading, meditation, and memory:

Speaking biblical truths to ourselves helps a certain percentage of people if practiced persistently. We’re all for it. But we’re also aware that multitudes have earnestly practiced this and found that it produced little change in their lives.

In stark contrast, Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, thanking God that they had received the gospel, "not as the word of men, but as it really is, the word of God, which performs its work in you who believe" (1 Thess. 2:13, emphasis added). And when he left the Ephesian elders to go to Jerusalem, he commended them "to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among those who are sanctified" (Acts 20:32, emphasis added; also see 2 Peter 1:2-3). These are powerful statements affirming the sufficiency of God’s Word for sanctification. Needless to say, however, they are nowhere to be found in Escaping the Matrix.

Sadly, while Boyd and Larson were unwilling to unreservedly commend the Bible, they were eager to commend the R-rated movie upon which their book is based. In the introduction they wrote: "Much has been said about the ingenious way in which the Wachowski brothers weave together Christian, Gnostic, Buddhist, and ancient Greek ideas, myths, and symbols." They even went so far as to recommend that the reader see The Matrix before reading further, despite their admission that it contains "foul language and a lot of violence." They justified their recommendation by saying, "In our opinion, the benefits of the movie outweigh these deterrents" (endnotes, p. 213). Apparently, they believe the reader will find more profit in absorbing Gnostic and Buddhist concepts along with foul language and images of violence, than in absorbing the "conceptual information" found in the Bible.

Sanctify Them by Fiction; Fiction is Truth

I mentioned in my introduction that Escaping the Matrix, is somewhat bizarre in a few places. One such place is pages 111-113 where Boyd and Larson recommend something called "cataphatic spirituality." The authors tell us that this "traditional form of spirituality" involves praying with "mental and physical images." Claiming that the practice is "fundamentally rooted" in 2 Corinthians 3:16-4:6, the authors lead the reader through a 5-step exercise which involves creating or altering memories (something the authors tactfully call "re-presenting" a memory). They even instruct the reader to insert Jesus into their memory in such a way that He can be seen, heard, felt, and embraced.

At the end of this exercise, the authors admit that it may seem to some as though "You’re making this up," or, "You know this can’t be true." Then, admitting that the mental images they’ve asked the reader to create are indeed fictional, they write: "In subsequent chapters we’ll talk about how to bring these parts into alignment with truth. For right now, simply say to yourself, "On God’s authority, I receive this as true," and allow Jesus to speak to you again and embrace you" (emphasis added).

Greg Boyd and Al Larson actually encourage the reader to be sanctified by fiction. And in case you wonder if I am unfairly representing an isolated portion of their book, consider a woman named Doreen, one whose story trails throughout the book as an ongoing case study.

When Doreen was nine years old, her brother stuffed a handful of grasshoppers down the back of her shirt. What was intended as a harmless prank turned into a horrifying event for Doreen. Not knowing what was squirming and scratching under her shirt, her creative imagination overreacted. "A few grasshoppers turned into hundreds of flesh-eating, slimy, ugly little monsters crawling all over her body" (p. 60). As a result, Doreen developed a paralyzing fear of insects that prevented her from even walking on grass because she knew there were insects in the grass.

Applying some of the principles of cataphatic spirituality in a later counseling session (p. 167), and referring to the technique as "a neurological restructuring event" (p. 168), Larson said to Doreen, "Your brain is going to physiologically change. We’re going to alter the way the meaning of the traumatic event is stored . . ." After hearing more about the exercise, Doreen responded perceptively, "But we’re talking about a memory. You can’t just decide to change a memory!" Larson replied, "We can’t change what happened, but we can change the meaning of what happened" (p. 168). He was saying that while we can’t change the event itself, we can change the way it appears in our mind. In other words, we can correct our behavior and/or find emotional relief by actually changing our memory. Before Larson led Doreen through this memory-altering experience, he prayed:

"Holy Spirit, you are called the Counselor for good reason. We are asking you to counsel Doreen during this exercise. Open her eyes to see and hear truth. Help her to learn what she needs to learn to bring every thought captive to Christ. Help her to know the truth and to be set free by the truth. Heal her and set her free, in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. (pp. 169-170, emphasis added)

I added italics to Larson’s prayer in order to emphasize his obvious reference to John 8:32—"and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free." My reason for doing so will become evident as you read more about Doreen’s counseling session.

Larson first prompted Doreen to remember a pleasant event that occurred before the traumatic one. Doreen recalled a time when she was six, going fishing with her father (pp. 171-172). Then he instructed her to go back to the memory of the bugs. He said: "I want you as a thirty-nine-year-old to watch this event sitting next to the six-year-old little girl and alongside Jesus. Watch your brother put the grasshoppers down her back." As she recalled the terrifying memory (the one targeted for reconstruction) Larson said, "How about the six-year-old, Jesus, and you, the thirty-nine-year-old, go and get those grasshoppers off of her. I will be praying for you as you do that. [Doreen closes her eyes and takes a few minutes to do this exercise. She is radiant when she opens her tear-filled eyes.]"

In Doreen’s own words, the bad memory had been reconstructed as follows. As you read, please keep in mind that in Doreen’s new memory, three of the four characters are Doreen herself at the ages of six, nine, and thirty-nine, appearing and communicating together, as well as with Jesus:

At first the nine-year-old was screaming, crying, and frantically flapping her arms because the grasshoppers were all over her back and she couldn’t get them off. I heard the six-year-old say to her, "Look, there aren’t very many, and they are only grasshoppers!" She said it like a six-year-old would. It was very matter-of-fact, no big deal. When I looked closely, I could see she was right! There were only about eight or nine grasshoppers on her. Then I held the six-year-old’s hand and Jesus took my other hand. Together we got the nine-year-old’s attention, and I kept telling her that there were only eight of them. I told her she was going to be okay. Right away she started to calm down. I realized that it was the fact that she didn’t know what was on her that made her startled imagination go wild. Then the six-year-old picked up one of the grasshoppers off of her and showed it to the nine-year-old. And—this just floors me!—the nine year old took one of them off, looked at it, and let it go!

Doreen began sobbing and Larson asked her what was happening. Doreen replied, "I’m just so relieved." Larson then said, "Praise God! You’re free" (p. 181).

Bizarre? I would certainly say so. But I was not surprised to learn that a clinical psychologist would lead a troubled person through such an exercise. Nor am I surprised that Doreen experienced some apparent relief. What stunned me was Larson’s conclusion that this event represented truth. He actually went on to say that after having her memory altered to portray the event in a way that was totally unlike reality, "Her life was more congruent with truth . . . " (p. 181; emphasis added). And his allusion back to John 8:32 is undeniable. But read John 8:32 again, in its context following verse 31, where Jesus says:

If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free (emphasis added).

The truth Jesus referred to was clearly His Word, the gospel. According to Larson, however, Doreen’s fictional memory was the "truth" that set her free! Pastors and Christian counselors, please do not be fooled by the plethora of Scripture references in Escaping the Matrix. The counseling philosophy and methodology in this book has absolutely nothing to do with the Word of God.

God in the Hands of an Angry Sinner

I said earlier that I would relate more about a woman named Mary. The authors began and ended the book with her case, which, along with the case of Doreen, seems to be a sort of advertisement for the "success" of their theology, philosophy, and methodology.

The authors describe Mary, on page 189, as "a committed Christian since she was a young girl." But Mary suffered from severe depression most of her life. During one counseling session, Al Larson learned that at the age of ten, Mary had watched a documentary about the Holocaust. What she saw (piles of dead bodies, children being yanked from their mothers, mass graves, etc.) had deeply affected her. Most of all, it had affected her view of God. In the counseling sessions that followed, some of Mary’s statements plainly revealed how she viewed God. For example: "How could God let all that evil happen?" (p. 192). "We’re in hell! Where is God? Why didn’t He stop this? I thought he was supposed to watch over us, protect us, and love us. It’s not true. It’s not true! We’ve been lied to" (p. 193). "If these innocent people were not protected by God, we won’t be either" (p. 193).

At one point, the following interchange took place: Larson asked, "With God, all things are possible, aren’t they, Mary!" Then, for the benefit of the reader, he described Mary’s physical and verbal response: "Mary started to respond, but then caught herself. She paused for a moment, and then a tense, angry look came over her face." Larson quickly diagnosed Mary’s physical response, saying, "I’m thinking we just triggered a neurochip." Mary replied, "Call it what you want. But if everything is possible for God, tell me why he let six million Jews get massacred? Over a million were children and babies!" Interjecting, Larson said, "We have triggered a neurochip. Okay, let’s deal with it." Mary continued, apparently oblivious to Larson’s interruption, saying, "And how am I supposed to trust that he’ll help change me when mothers can’t trust him to protect their kids?" (p. 195).

Later Mary said, "Honestly, I guess I don’t think God really cares." She went on to describe God as "a sort of W. C. Fields character" . . . "You know, the one who hated kids. I see him looking irritated, folding his arms, and saying in a W. C. Fields sort of voice, ‘Go away you little buggers, you’re bugging me. Go play in traffic.’ It’s like he’s got more important things to do."

Needless to say, Mary did not hold God in very high esteem. It would be more accurate to say that she disliked Him as intensely as she mistrusted Him. The truth is, Mary stood in judgment of God, and her judgment was not favorable. Granted, much of her view of God was distorted. It is not as though she held a fully biblical understanding of God and yet rejected Him. But according to the way she did understand Him, she had no affection for Him. And given the way she expressed her emotions when thinking and speaking of Him, one would be hard-pressed to justify considering her a believer at all, let alone "a committed Christian" as the authors describe her.

Along with Mary’s obviously unbiblical notions of God, it is important to note one place where she seemed to understand Him rightly. It was her partially correct apprehension of God, in fact, that prompted most of her anger toward Him. In response to Mary’s expressions of mistrust and animosity toward God, Larson said to her, "Mary, share with me a little bit about what you believe regarding free will." Mary responded like this:

I think people are free. But God is supposed to be more powerful than our will. So He can stop us whenever he wants. Why didn’t he stop the Nazis? (p. 195)

Certainly even here Mary did not see God according to a fully biblical picture. But she at least recognized that He is all-powerful, sovereign, and able to direct the affairs of mankind. Yet she was angry at God because He had not directed human affairs according to the way she thought He should have. She was angry at Him for allowing the Holocaust, because she understood that He could have prevented it. To that degree, Mary saw God biblically. Yet her small glimpse into biblical reality did not prompt her to love God. It only prompted her anger and condemning judgment of Him.

Boyd and Larson have no room in their theology or methodology for a God who is truly sovereign and who providentially "works all things according to the counsel of His will" (Eph. 1:11). They operate under the unbiblical assumption that while God is infinitely wise and all-powerful, He has confined His involvement in human affairs to that which is permitted of Him by the human will. It is a theology where ultimately, man holds the scepter. Therefore, regarding events like the Holocaust, God has no choice but to look on helplessly, hoping that someone will change their mind.

In the case of Mary, this view of God directed the course of Larson’s treatment. Under the heading, "Christianizing Mary’s View of God," Larson proceeded to "heal" her by adjusting the way she understood God. He began by asking her the above question about "free will." Then he proceeded to explain God using language consistent with his theological viewpoint: "If God stopped people from choosing evil, would they be free? (p. 195). . . . it can’t be that God wanted these adults and children to suffer at the hands of evil people. You wouldn’t want this for your children, and God loves his children far more perfectly than you or I" (p. 196). Maybe there’s a reason why God can’t guarantee that people are always protected (p. 197).

Interestingly, it was Larson’s suggestion that God couldn’t do anything about the Holocaust that seemed to win Mary’s affection. The pivotal change in her attitude seemed to occur immediately after Larson explained that "God can’t guarantee that people are always protected." It was at that point that Mary finally understood (and clearly agreed with Larson) that since God was confined to the limits of the Nazis’ free will, she should stop judging Him so harshly.

After having "Christianized" Mary’s view of God, Larson proceeded to give his professional diagnosis as to the cause of her depression:

Viewing the Holocaust horror created questions that your ten-year-old mind couldn’t effectively answer. . . . It therefore drew some terrifying conclusions about God and about life that are inconsistent with the truth that God is revealed in Christ (p. 197).

Mary’s new understanding of God was rooted in Larson’s man-centered theological viewpoint and not in Scripture. Nothing would suggest that Al Larson ever opened, or even quoted from the Bible in "Christianizing" her understanding (pp. 194-199). He merely recited the commonly accepted slogans of Arminian (or semi-Pelagian) theology. Nevertheless, his explanation satisfied Mary. It appealed to her because the God Larson described met her set of qualifications. She now understood God as one with whom she could be pleased, without having to deal with any of the "terrifying conclusions" she had drawn about Him. In Larson’s words, "Mary ended up embracing a representation of God whose character could be trusted . . . She brought her renegade thought about God captive to Christ" (pp. 199-200).

Larson later explained to Mary that "Faith is letting God’s Word have more credibility to you than your own brain." He encouraged her to "Trust God’s Word above every picture your brain might produce" (p. 202-203). It seems safe to conclude from this that he would approve of Mary actually reading the Bible—from cover to cover if she chose. But what if Mary were to come across a clear representation of God in His Word that is contrary to the one Larson had convinced her to embrace? What if she were to discover that in some ways, the Bible does reveal the true God as "terrifying"?

Consider the Holocaust along with the multitude of other calamities that have brought destruction, agony, and death throughout world history. What if Mary were to read some of the passages in the Bible where God is said to have not merely allowed them, but to have caused them in a mysterious, providential sense (something Boyd and Larson expressly deny on page 37)? For example:

I am the Lord, and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these (Is. 45:6-7).

Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that woe and well-being proceed? (Lam. 3:38).

If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it? (Amos 3:6).

What if Mary were to read 1 Samuel 15:3, where the Lord commanded Saul and his armies to utterly destroy the Amalekites—to "put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox, sheep, camel and donkey"? What if she were to read Jeremiah 19 where God says, "Behold I am about to bring a calamity upon [Jerusalem], at which the ears of everyone that hears of it will tingle. . . . I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh in the siege" (vv. 3, 9). Then, what if she were to read Jeremiah’s account of the horrors that came when God brought this calamity upon His own people?

The tongue of the infant cleaves to the roof of its mouth because of thirst; the little ones ask for bread, but no one breaks it for them. . . . The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; they became food for them because of the destruction of the daughter of My people. The Lord has accomplished His wrath, He has poured out His fierce anger (Lam. 4:4, 10-11).

No one enjoys hearing about the God-ordained slaughter of infants or about the horrors involved in the siege and subsequent famine that God brought upon Jerusalem. These passages do indeed reveal what I would call a "terrifying conclusion" about the God of the Bible—a conclusion that even my well-informed 41-year-old mind has trouble dealing with. But it is just as certain that they do reveal something about the God of the Bible. Those who ignore them or deny their truthfulness are ignoring or denying aspects of God’s character that He deemed necessary for us to know.

Al Larson had attempted to solve Mary’s problem by focusing on God as He is revealed in the "all-loving" Jesus, while neglecting the fact that Jesus is the God of these disturbing Old Testament passages. As Jesus said Himself, "Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM" (John 8:58, NKJV, cf. Ex. 3:14). And what if Mary were to later learn something about Jesus that she found objectionable, or even "terrifying"? For example, what if she were to read Revelation 19 where Christ is described treading "the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty"? Or what if she were to learn that the following prophecy, recorded in Isaiah 63:2-6, is a picture of Jesus Christ?

Why is Your apparel red, and your garments like the one who treads in the wine press? "I have trodden the wine trough alone, and from the peoples there was no man with Me. I also trod them in My anger and trampled them in My wrath; and their lifeblood is sprinkled on My garments, and I stained all My raiment. For the day of vengeance was in My heart, and My year of redemption has come. . . . I trod down the peoples in My anger and made them drunk in My wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth."

The point I am making is this: If it is true that Mary did not love God before Al Larson "re-presented" Him, it is just as true that she only loves Him now because of the way Al Larson "re-presented" Him. In other words, we have no reason to believe that her heart toward God was changed. But Larson apparently gave no thought to the possibility that it was Mary’s heart that needed to be changed in order for her enmity toward God to cease. In some ways, his counseling philosophy is similar to a parent feeding green marshmallows to a five-year-old while assuring him that they are Brussels sprouts. The child may come to think he loves Brussels sprouts, but his taste-preferences remain immature and unchanged. If he were later fed real Brussels sprouts, he would despise them as he did when he was five. Likewise, we can only wonder how Mary would respond if she were later presented with a balanced, biblical understanding of God rather than Al Larson’s easy-to-swallow version. The truth is, people like Mary are happy with God only as long as He does not offend any of their sensitivities—only if they are the potter and He is the clay. True believers, on the other hand, love and trust God even though they cannot fully understand or explain Him (cf. Rom. 11:33).

In the final analysis, I believe Al Larson gave Mary a pain-killer without addressing her disease. He wanted Mary to understand God as He is represented in Jesus. That is admirable in the sense that God cannot be understood apart from His revelation in Christ. But God’s revelation of Himself in Christ should never be thought to entail a change in His nature or character as He is revealed throughout the whole of Scripture. The Old Testament is about the God who is revealed in Christ just as much as the New Testament. Larson’s error in treating Mary was that he portrayed God "in Christ," as if that meant something different than certain "terrifying" passages reveal about Him.


If Greg Boyd and Al Larson understood that God (not man) is the ultimate designer and determiner of every event, including the salvation and sanctification of His people, they might come to understand that He will use His chosen instrument—His powerful Word—in accomplishing His purpose (cf. Is. 55:10-11). Rather than concluding that the Word of God is usually ineffective, they would encourage people to learn the Word, memorize the Word, meditate on the Word, and apply the Word in ethical, non-manipulative ways, trusting God to do His work of sanctification through it. As it is, however, they remain skeptics. Escaping the Matrix is the sad result of their skepticism, promoting a counseling philosophy and method that relies on the persuasive words (and even the self-deceiving tactics) of human wisdom, and not on the demonstration of the Spirit and His Sword of power.

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside."

(1 Corinthians 1:18-19)


1 Unless otherwise noted, all of my Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB).

2 Jonathan Edwards, On Religious Affections, quoted from The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1, (Peabody, Massachussetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 316.