Dreams, interpretations and scientific evidence

  • Question 204, from Ben

    What was the ancient Jewish viewpoint of dreams and their interpretations? How ought we read Biblical passages referencing dreams in light of this and in light of Modern Scientific Understanding?

    There are several accounts in both the Old and New Testament of people receiving premonitions and warnings ‘in dreams’, with the idea that God revealed truth to people through their dreams. Some examples include Joseph of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame, the prophet Samuel, Daniel, Joseph the adoptive father of Jesus, and even people like the unnamed wife of Pilate (Matthew chapter 27).

    In the Bible, dreams are regarded as a way that God communicates. For example,they are part of the prophetic vision of the fully consummated world in the book of Joel – where young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams of God (Joel chapter 2, verse 28).

    The accounts of interpreting dreams in both Genesis (with Joseph) and the book of Daniel show dreams being explained symbolically. The objects of the dream mean something in the real world and foretell events. This use of dreams was common in other cultures of the time as well. It is interesting that in both those stories it is non-Israelites who request Joseph and the prophet Daniel to interpret their dreams. In both cases, God is said to have given the gift of interpretation to Joseph and Daniel.

    There is no hard scientific evidence to support ideas of premonition or being able to predict the future based on interpreting dreams. There is some neurological and psychological evidence to suggest that the way human brains work while people are asleep can help filter experiences of the day and enable people to draw conclusions based on what they subconsciously know. This filtering may take place through the constructed mental realities of dreams.

    Dreams are still regarded as a means of divine revelation in modern Christian mysticism and other traditions that emphasise direct revelation to individuals from God. This is at odds with a totally materialistic worldview that would discount the notion of there being a God to communicate with people in the first place.

    However, for Christians trying to balance scientific discoveries about the brain and consciousness with the idea that God reveals truth through dreams, the idea that in dreams subconscious knowledge comes to the surface is a way of God communicating. Christian theology maintains that Christians possess the Holy Spirit, which regenerates Christians into perfect humans and thus restoring the image of God that had been affected by sin. Dreams, then, could be a channel for both the Spirit and the latent image of God to communicate, away from the distracted busyness of the conscious mind. Upon waking, this ‘new’ knowledge would feel like a revelation.

    However, there are other vessels for divine revelation. Many Christian denominations look to the three-fold authority of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Any revelation received in a dream would need to be tested against those three elements to ascertain whether it was truly of God.

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