When does hearing God constitute insanity?

I just finished Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven , an often flawed but consistently fascinating account of the Fundamentalist (aka polygamous) subcultures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (which is, as almost everybody familiar knows, a group in no way affiliated with the mainstream LDS church).

The following is not a spoiler because it’s located in the foreward to the book: In July 1984, brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty brutally murdered Brenda Lafferty, the wife of their youngest brother, as well as her 15 month old daughter. They considered the murders a “removal” based on a direct order from God. (Ron blamed Brenda and several other people for the break-up of his marriage and received, via computer, not just permission from God but a direct order to kill 4 people, including the baby, that he considered enemies to his cause.) There is almost no doubt that the Lafferty brothers truly believed they were executing God’s will when they slaughtered Brenda and her baby.

There are parallels between the Laffertys and Andrea Yates, who murdered her children because she also heard voices from God. (Then there’s the movie FRAILTY, but we’ll let that one pass since it’s fiction…)

Attorneys for the Lafferty brothers and attorneys for Andrea Yates all tried to have their clients declared insane for trial. All failed because they were told that merely hearing the voice of God is not synonymous with insanity. A direct and personal relationship with God, including talking to and receiving answers from Him, is a keystone of Judeo-Christian dogma as practiced by the vast majority of Americans. As for the violence, there are certainly precedents in the Bible and the Book of Mormon for God ordering people killed.

So- in your opinion, when, if ever, should a person hearing the literal audible (or in the case of Lafferty, legible) word of God constitute insanity?

When it causes clinically significant impairment in social emotional or occupational functioning.

Killing people -definitely an impairment in social functioning.

Abolutionists often faced serious problems with social function in the 19th century. Clearly, a desire to abolish slavery was a symptom of mental illness.

When the voice tells you something contrary to what the majority of the population believes, it is insanity. When the voice tells you something that agrees with what the majority of the population believes, it is divine revelation.

If, however, society later comes to believe what the person hearing voices claimed to have heard, he or she will retroactively be declared a saint. Similarly, if society later comes to find out that their previous beliefs were just plain wrong, anybody who claimed that God told them something in accordance with those now defunct beliefs will retroactively be declared insane.

Repeat as necessary…


Fortunately for me, I have no such problems. Anyone actually acting under Divine Influence will likely never reveal that fact to the world. Ergo, no problem.

Unless there was a trick involved, like Polonius whispering behind the arras, then yes, it’s insanity. Sanity is connection to the real world.
Now, whether there is enough insanity depends how hard you push it. We all have some amount of insanity- often it’s simply disconnects from our past in the form of selective memory.

Well, that’s certainly the viewpoint of the atheists, since God does not exist and is therefore not part of the “real world.”

A more interesting question, I think, would be to ask of somebody who does believe in God how does one tell the difference between receiving a message from God and simply hearing voices. The best answer I have ever heard is “By their fruits shall you know them.” In other words, if the alleged revelation leads men to do good works, it is from God. If it leads them to do bad things, it is either of the Devil or a product of the person’s own fevered imagination.

This is, of course, a completely circular way of analyzing things, since you first have to define what is “good” in order to know whether the alleged communication supports that good or not. It also lends itself to revisionsim, as I mentioned in my previous post, since the notions of “good” and “right” tend to evolve over time.

Welcome to the Straight Dope, by the way!


I’m an atheist, but from my many conversations with Christians, I have gathered that speaking with God never involves actually hearing a voice. It’s all about feeling that you know what God wants of you, or having a revelation of some sort (kind of like when the answer to a difficult problem suddenly becomes obvious).

So I’d say that if you’re actually hearing a voice, then you’re either hallucinating due to medication or lack of sleep, or you’re showing signs of mental illness.

not nearly the same thing. Abolitionists faced social problems in these instances because their views were unpopular, their society consisted of other abolitionists and they (the sane ones) were able to participate fully in it.

Desire really doesn’t factor that much into mental illness by the way, sometimes it’s part of a criteria set, but it’s so subjective it has to be checked somehow in the diagnostic process.

Still not the same level of social functioning though. To meet criteria for mental illness it would be more like the inability to carry a conversation, having a logical discussion about slavery without veering wildly off topic because God keeps interrupting or changing the topic to shoes or trees or the beauty of the ocean.

Whenever it happens.

Are there other possible sources for voices? How does a voice prove that it is God? Why couldn’t God do His own killing?

Dal Timgar

I’m not sure about insanity (I presume it has legal and medical definitions), but when a voice says anything that advises you to obstruct goodness, it is not the voice of God Who, after all, is the perfect facilitator of goodness.

John Brown, if I’m not mistaken, claimed to hear the audible voice of God. Certainly he was hailed as a prophet by no less an audience than Emerson, Thoreau, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Unfortunately, the people that God specifically ordered him to kill rarely had anything to do with the crimes he was punishing (e.g. his raid on Lawrence resulted in the deaths of randomly chosen people who weren’t slaveholders).
I wonder why John Brown is hailed in many books as a hero while Charles Guiteau, whose delusions caused him to kill Garfield, or John Wilkes Booth (who claimed to be an instrument of the divine though to my knowledge never claimed to have heard voices or been miraculously moved) are seen as mere nutcases. For that matter, the suicides at Jonestown and the zealots who held the Branch Davidian compound rather than surrendering are looked upon as textbook cases of mind control/mass insanity while those who held Masada prior to mass suicide are cultural icons as are the defenders/martyrs of the Alamo.

I would think that hearing God in your head would be considered Insanaity pretty much everytime except for 2 conditions

a) Other people Heard God the same way you did and heard the exact same message.

b) The actions you undertake under God’s behalf is substantiated by divine signs or miracles.

When it isn’t God. :smiley:

Then by this logic it would seem that if hearing god speak to you is insanity, then believing in a god is also insane. Believers would point to the biblical stories of god speaking to all manner of folks throughout the ages, which would lead one to believe that it’s not all that uncommon.

Never say “never” when describing large groups of people with disparate beliefs. I was raised in a Christian faith and I can tell you absolutely that many Christians believe that God spoke to them personally. Yes, sometimes it was more of a “presence,” and sometimes it was in a dream, but many also claim that God put words into their mind.

The difference is that if the voice/presence says, “Be at peace. Know that I Am and that all is well,” society is willing to believe that the person received a message from God, whereas if the voice/presence says, “Your neighbor is the antichrist and needs to be killed” we tend to assume the person is bonkers.

In other words, it’s not the way the message was received that determines whether we think somebody is insane or not; it’s whether we agree with that message.


Not quite. The definition of insanity as used as a defense to criminal charges is very different from the clinical definitions of insanity. In most states, the defendant has to prove that he did not have the mental capacity to understand know his actions were wrongful.

“Wrongful,” by the way, refers to social standards, not the word of god. The Laffertys knew what they were doing was wrong in the eyes of the law and society at large, and that’s why they weren’t acquitted on the basis of insanity.

On the question posed by the OP, I am certainly no expert in psychiatric disorders, but I personally regard hearing messages from god as pretty good evidence of mental illness.

Well, that’s kind of tricky. If God tells you to do something, it would be presumptious to say “No, that would obstruct goodness.” What do you do if God asks you to kill someone. If we look to Genesis 22, that’s exactly what God asked Abraham to do – not just kill someone, his very own son, Isaac. Now, the angel of the Lord stopped him just in the nick of time, but it appears that God was pleased with Abraham for being willing to kill his own son, and, from my reading, God would have not been pleased if Abraham had declined.


There are verses in the Bible where God orders the Israelites to commit large scale slaughters of Canaanites, including women children and infants (see 1 Samuel 15:2,3).

So were those people insane or did God really order it? It doesn’t sound like it was facillitaing any goodness to me.

Also if God could order it before, why can’t he order it again? How would we know if it was really him?