They Say He Has No Conscience.

We’ve heard stories like the Columbine school shooting or children who torment animals or kill parents all without remorse. Similarly, children labeled with RAD are noted for callousness, lack of compassion, lack of empathy, and lack of remorse. It is not uncommon for them to be spoken of as children without a conscience.

Webster’s 1828 dictionary says that a conscience is “the faculty, power, or principle within us, which decides on the lawfulness or unlawfulness of our own actions and affections, and instantly approves or condemns them.” This states the biblical teaching pretty well. Proverbs 20:27 says that the spirit of a man works like the Lord’s lamp, searching the secret closets and corners of the heart, exposing motives for evaluation to affirm or accuse the person. Affirmation produces peacefulness; accusation produces guilt feelings.

Many psychologists teach that a child labeled RAD not only does not show remorse, he has no ability to feel remorse because he literally has no conscience. Some theorize that the conscience resides in certain neurons in a location of the brain. Furthermore, a baby is born without a conscience. This is why babies have no scruples doing hurtful things (pinching, hitting, poking, pulling hair) that, at older ages, they would not dare to do. At about age two the brain grows and develops the neurons for a conscience, which then further develops during childhood. So if a toddler does not develop those neurons, then his brain has no conscience. Or in some cases, brain damage can destroy the part of the brain where the conscience resides.

It is one thing to refuse to repent or to show remorse. It is quite another to literally possess no conscience due to the structure of one’s brain. There are enormous implications.

One implication is the lack of limits on behavior. By its alarm or the discomfort of guilt feelings, the conscience dissuades us from doing worse than we would. So without a conscience, the person will have no internal alarm to warn him away from wrongdoing. Only the fear of getting caught or not living by his own warped code of ethics will restrain him. It is open season on fulfilling any selfish desire to any extreme. He can treat others any way he wants with no compunction. No wonder we automatically shrink back from the idea of someone having no conscience.

The belief in a lack of conscience excuses people from responsibility. Thus, the insanity plea comes in handy.

The ultimate implication for the person is that he has no path to salvation. First John 1:8-9 says,

“If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Someone unable to sense conviction of sin does not perceive himself as having sinned. Someone who hasn’t sinned doesn’t need the Savior. Without awareness of wrongdoing there is no rationale for repentance and without repentance there is no forgiveness and without forgiveness there is no salvation from wrath or way to peace with God. This belief that a person can possess no conscience robs of hope.

Thanks be to the Lord that His Word holds the truth. As I noted in my book:

Scripture teaches that everyone has a conscience. Romans 1:19-20 says, “That which is known about God is evident within [people] . . . , so that they are without excuse.” Untaught people have an innate knowledge that God exists and that there is a moral standard to which they are accountable. About those unaware of God’s written law, Romans 2:14-15 says, “. . . they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them.” The fact that people who have not been instructed in the Law innately do some right and condemn some wrong shows that possession of a conscience is universal.

The conscience is a moral capacity, not a set of neurons.

The idea that the conscience resides in brain structure is a philosophical position, not a scientifically derived fact. It is based on the belief that the mind resides in and emerges from the brain, a view which is rooted in the theory of evolution. The immaterial depends upon the material. The brain generates the mind. Without the brain, there is no mind or conscience.

The Bible teaches a different view. The in-breathed spirit, not the brain, is the animating force of man (Gen. 2:7; Jas. 2:26). The spirit of a man searches his (immaterial) heart, not his brain (Prov. 20:27). When the body dies, the spirit does not die like an animal’s but returns to God (Eccl. 12:7). The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he preferred “to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). He knew that even without his body he would be conscious of his beloved Lord and able to relate to Him. His mind, being immaterial, would still be functioning without the material brain. The brain both influences the mind and is a means of expressing it, but the mind is not completely dependent upon the brain for its existence or function. Conscience is not just a brain function but a moral capacity. Again from my book:

 But just because infants do not know particular wrongs and do not demonstrate conscience in a way that adults can measure does not mean that they do not have a conscience. Adam did not experience developmental stages and in his innocence did not give evidence that he had a conscience. Yet, as soon as he sinned, he felt shame and hid, demonstrating that he possessed a conscience. It had just not previously been activated to sound an alarm. Every person is born with an innate sense that some sort of right and wrong exists and possesses the capacity for moral self-judgment.

We have all offended God by disobedience. He has kindly given each of us a conscience that convicts of guilt before God so that we can be aware that there is a problem. Unpleasant as it is, conviction of guilt provides essential hope because it motivates us to seek God’s solution. Sinners need a Savior and God provided one. Christ died to pay sin’s penalty so that those who repent by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone will be saved from the power of sin in this life, from the wrath of God in hell, and will live with God for eternity.

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About Linda

Wifing, Singing, Studying, Counseling. I counsel at Gateway Biblical Counseling and Training Center. M.A. in Biblical Counseling. Certified by Association of Certified Biblical Counselors
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5 Responses to They Say He Has No Conscience.

  1. Thank you for taking the time to address these often overlooked issues from a biblical perspective. My husband is a pastor and we have watched the devastating effect of these beliefs played out among people dear to our hearts. Your writing may well help us to to discern more clearly and perhaps better serve fellow believers in the future!

  2. Mary says:

    My husband has no conscience. He feels no empathy and never feels guilt. He has recently turned his life over to The Lord and is praying that God develops conscience, a moral compass, in him. Is there anything else he should do?

    • Linda says:

      Mary,

      You have an important question which deserves more space than this venue allows. This response will be a rock-skip over the surface of the topic.

      There is good news in that inherent in true salvation is repentance and confession of sin, which means the conscience is involved. The ministry of the Holy Spirit to the unsaved is conviction of sin, the sin of unbelief at the least (John 16:8-11). No one is saved without conviction of sin. So if he is saved, then the Holy Spirit is at work and for salvation his conscience functioned correctly.

      Prayer is a great start. Don’t quit, but don’t stop there. While salvation and justification are all of God, God’s plan for our growth includes hard work on our part. We are not given permission to pray and then sit back. I suggest being aggressive about retraining the conscience.

      More good news: The conscience is trainable. Hebrews 5:14 says that the spiritually mature are so because through the practice of heeding their consciences they have trained their consciences to rightly discern right and wrong.

      1. Study the Bible. A diligent study (not just reading) of God’s Word is essential to learning the right standard. If the conscience is not aligned with the correct standard, then of course it will not sound warning as it should.

      2. Obedience is essential. The pride that lead to the hardened conscience will resist submission to God’s Word. Disobedience desensitizes the conscience. Obedience sensitizes it.

      3. Put off feeling orientation; put on command orientation. Since selfishness is the core of human nature, we can’t expect that feelings of empathy and compassion for others comes naturally. It is pride, the desire to satisfy one’s own feelings above consideration for others, that baits us all into resisting the conscience in the first place. Feelings of a new believer still function according to pre-salvation habits. Feelings mislead; they can’t be trusted.

      4. Put off self and put on love. Pride and self (“I want what I want and I don’t care who I hurt to get it”) are at the heart of a hardened conscience. Bible study, such as in Ephesians or the gospels, will confront the selfish heart. But to more aggressively combat a hardened conscience, I’d suggest following Jesus’ counsel to the Pharisees, reputed for their hardened consciences. Jesus repeatedly told them to learn compassion. That means that compassion must be learnable. (More good news!)

      The real problem with what we call lack of empathy is lack of compassion. Putting on compassion is not an option for the believer (Col. 3:12), so it must be possible. So rather than dwell on one’s lack of empathy, aggressively practice compassion, or love. It will require putting off self and putting on love for others. I recommend a study of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. Practice each characteristic it lists regardless of feelings. The good news here is, loving actions will usually, eventually, creating feelings of affection. Even if they don’t, the person who loves by the power of the Spirit in obedience to God by His Word can rejoice in knowing that he/she has glorified God.

      Resources:
      1. John MacArthur has an excellent series of posts on the conscience: http://www.gty.org/blog/B120706
      2. Read The Vanishing Conscience, by John MacArthur.
      3. Selfishness: From Loving Yourself to Loving Your Neighbor, by Lou Priolo, is a great resource to help you practically put off self and put on love for others.
      4. Seek a biblical counselor, preferably in your church, to walk alongside and help.

      May the Lord, through the power of His Word, develop in you both great skill at loving others.

  3. miriam says:

    I adopted my daughter from infancy. Her bio mom did substance abuse. My daughter lacks conscience, empathy and feels no remorse. She lies constantly and deceives, I am heartbroken.She is now 37 years old.

    • Linda says:

      Miriam,

      Our hearts do indeed ache over our children who so harden their hearts. The Lord understands your pain more than anyone. We all have treated Him the same, and worse. He is trustworthy because He is faithful, loving, wise and sovereign over all that happens. Cast all your cares upon Him. Desire His will above your own. Then, while you may feel hurt, joy in the Lord will be greater. (Matthew 6:33)

      We must interpret our children through Scripture, not vice versa.

      We can pray for your daughter, that God would convict her conscience of sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11) in a way that He would use to draw her to repentance from herself, by grace alone to trust in Christ alone for salvation from the wrath of God. It is not we who can persuade but He who draws people to Himself. You can trust Him with His choice.

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