Religious Experience


  • Question from JF, USA

    If you had a vision of Krishna that said you were going to be reincarnated would you believe it to be real or hallucination? If you had a vision of God where he told you that you were definitely destined to go to Hell would you believe it to be real or hallucination? If you had a vision of God where he tells you that Jesus is the true saviour and to put your faith in Christ would you believe it to be real or hallucination? How can someone differentiate between which religious visions are real, and which are hallucinations?

    A ‘religious experience’, by virtue of its very nature, remains subjective. Without going into too much detail, there are some obvious tests relating to a person’s psychological state, whether the experience matches up to previous claimed phenomena and enquiries from an objective point of view.

    If a person claimed to have had all three experiences listed in the question, or similarly a series of experiences that contradicted each other, then it would be legitimate to critique the experiences and the individual claiming them. Simple questioning would uncover whether the individual was telling the truth, in that they had really experienced something they believed to be true, or whether the person was psychologically unbalanced.

    In terms of Christian theology, several ‘supernatural’ phenomenon are recorded in the Bible and Christian history. These include encounters with God (theophany), visions, interpretation of visions, prophecy, fore-knowledge or revelatory knowledge with no other means of verification, manifestations of God’s power (revivalism), personality changes, instantaneous transportation, healing through prayer, coincidental occurrences, the resurrection of dead people and changes in the physical world and the nature of things. The disturbing thing for some Christians is that most, if not all, these phenomena have been recorded in other religious systems as well. It seems arrogant, and a touch disingenuous, to dismiss the things experienced in other religions as being false, while ‘Christian’ experiences are true.

    It is common now, within Christian theology, for many of these things to be explained in a scientific manner. Frequently the stories found in the Bible, or early Christian literature, are regarded as parabolic stories. So, for example, when Jesus heals a man who was blind from birth in John chapter 9, the author deliberately contrasts the restoration of physical sight with the ‘spiritual blindness’ of the religious leaders of the day (verse 30). Most of the miraculous stories found in the Bible may have this intent of revealing a certain truth and can be interpreted this way.

    However, it must be noted that this modern way of interpreting supernatural phenomena is a product of the Enlightenment scientific rationale and deciding to interpret religious experiences using that outlook is a value judgment made by the individual. But the advantage of doing this is that it discounts phenomena experienced in all religions, leaving Christians arguing for the truth of their worldview on the basis of reason and historical accuracy. The only question that then remains is how true can a religion be, if it relies on manufactured stories of miracles to convey truth?

    Accepting that religious experiences may happen, it is worth analysing those experiences from a critical standpoint. It is a noted fact that those undergoing ‘religious’ experiences are usually people who go looking for them. To illustrate this, the likelihood of a person ‘speaking in tongues’ (glossolalia) increases greatly if they belong to a church that actively encourages it, perhaps even claiming that it is a hallmark of genuine salvation. Precedent causes phenomena – whether that is visions of the Blessed Virgin at a Catholic shrine, or people falling down under the influence of ‘the Spirit’ in a Bible-belt tent meeting. Even people who would claim that they were not looking for a religious experience, may have been subconsciously desiring one. Unfortunately there is no way of analysing those subconscious desires after the event, because they will have been met and eradicated through the experience, so the thesis that there is a subconscious desire can never be proved.

    Real problems start when individuals believe that they have received ‘new’ revelations about the nature of God. It is hard to contradict somebody who believes that God has ‘told’ them something – it is self-authoritisation of the worst kind. Perhaps the solution to the problem is to recognise that ‘religious’ experiences are valid, because the person who experienced them believes they had a religious experience. As it is a totally subjective event, it leaves other people free to accept or reject it, based on any means of judgement they choose. The safeguards for Christians remain 1) weighing experiences against Biblical accounts, 2) Christian precedent and 3) God-given reason.

    Assessing experiences has been a problem for Christians since the earliest Christian communities formed (see Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, chapter 5, verses 19-21 and the first epistle of John, chapter 4, verse 1) and, in all honesty, as long as there are people looking for a religious experience, this will probably always be a problematic area for the Christian community.

    Thanks for your question, JF.

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