The argument from religious experience: Don’t discount the apologetic value of sharing your “God-encounter”

The Bible is full of people who have had experiences of God. Abraham heard a voice that told him his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. (Genesis 12:1-3) Moses heard God’s voice from a burning bush. (Exodus 3:3-14) Isaiah and Ezekiel both had visions of God. (Isaiah 6:1-8, Ezekiel 8:1-3) Jesus had the Spirit of God descend on him like a dove and heard “you are my beloved Son, with whom I’m well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17) The 120 early Christians experienced the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) And Paul had a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. (Acts 9:3-6)

Not only that, Christians throughout the centuries have testified about these kinds of experiences. In the 5th century, Augustine speaks of having one such experience with his mother. He and his mother Monica “were alone and talking together and very sweet our talk was.” Looking out from a window at their garden, they began to discuss “what the eternal life of the saints could be like.” Following upwards, step by step all the bodily items in the sky, they felt the touch of God “just lightly,” and were suddenly overwhelmed with a spiritual experience. Augustine later wrote that “the greatest possible delights of our bodily sense, radiant as they might be with the brightest of corporeal light, could not be compared with the joys of that life.”

The great 18th-century theologian and revivalist Jonathan Edwards also talked about having an experience of God during his own conversion. While reading 1 Timothy 1:17, he burst into praise. Suddenly he understood redemption through Christ. He described it as, “a calm, sweet abstraction of soul from all concerns of this world; and a kind of vision, or fixed ideas and imaginations, of being alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness, far from mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapt and swallowed up by God. The sense I had of divine things would all of a sudden, as it were, kindle up a sweet burning in my heart and ardor of my soul, that I knew not how to express.”

Given that the Bible and church history is so full of close encounters of the God-kind, it seems strange then that so many Christian apologists are reluctant to use the argument from religious experience. I’ve even heard some of them downplay the evidential value of sharing your testimony with non-believers. While I completely understand some of the concerns for reasons I’ll discuss in this post, I think this could be a big mistake. When it comes to presenting the case for Christianity to the world, sharing testimony and spiritual experience doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. It can be a both/and.

WHAT IS THE ARGUMENT FROM RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE?

Richard Swinburne from Oxford University takes a two-step approach when it comes to the argument from religious experience:

“In the absence of special considerations) if it seems to a subject that x is present (and has some characteristic), then probably x is present (and has that characteristic)”

Swinburne calls this the principle of credulity. To use an example, if I see my cat, can feel her fur as I pet her, and can hear her purr, I’m rational for believing that I’m experiencing my cat. But let’s say I just suffered head trauma and am on some heavy medication. Instead of petting a cat, I’m just making petting motions on some invisible animal and my wife is giving me a funny look and saying “uh…honey, what are you doing?”. Now there are reasons to think I’m not experiencing what I believe to be there.

Swinburne says that just as it’s rational to trust our physical senses, so relying on our religious senses is equally valid. So someone who seems to have an experience of God should believe that he does unless evidence can prove he’s mistaken.

Now the atheist might object and say “well I’ve never experienced God, so according to this principle he must not be real!” But all this does is suggest that just as someone can be color-blind, some people can be blind to certain realities. Or let’s say three people claim to have seen a suspect of a robbery at the pool hall on 33rd street, and three others say they never saw him. Then all things being equal, the court will take it that the three witnesses saw him while the others didn’t notice him. (I’ve addressed arguments from divine hiddenness here). Failure to notice doesn’t mean evidence of absence.

Swinburne’s next move in the argument is the principle of testimony. Here’s Swinburne again:

“(in the absence of special considerations) the experiences of others are (probably) as they report them.”

In other words, a testimony of experience ought to be trusted innocent until proven guilty. He’s not advocating gullibility. Special considerations would be someone is a notorious liar, they have motives to gain from deceiving us, or they have mental problems or are on drugs.

So unless someone is always bragging on their supermodel Canadian girlfriend you’ve never seen, or is on shrooms or thinks the Pentagon wants them to decode a Russian bomb plot by cracking secret codes found in magazines and newspapers, what someone tells you they experienced is likely true. So according to Swinburne, religious experiences that others report ought not to be dismissed unless we have strong reasons to think there is no God.

What about Religious Experiences in other religions?

Now here’s the most common objection I hear from my fellow apologists: People in other religions experience religious experiences all the time. 49% of Americans have claimed to have had a religious or mystical experience, and it’s doubtful 49% of America is born again. Members of the Latter Day Saints claim to have sensed something spiritual when reading the Book of Mormon, Buddhists claim to have spiritual experiences, Muhammed and many Muslims claim experiences. Do all these experiences cancel each other out?

2009 Pew survey in the USA

For this reason, religious experience ought to be part of a cumulative case. Private and individual experience can contradict someone else’s experiences. And by itself, religious experience can lead us into mysticism, religious pluralism or even something cultic. If God wished to address human beings as a group, an open and public revelation would be more practical to keep us on the right track and from getting well…flaky and weird.

We can confirm whatever experience we’d have in light of this revelation. For this reason, the life and resurrection of Jesus was an open and public revelation. Jesus’ resurrection is what separates Christianity over any other private revelation. His followers then wrote down his teachings and their own teachings as a witness.

The Bible encourages us to examine prophetic utterances carefully and to test the spirits and see whether they’re of God. (1 Thess 5:19-21, 1 John 4:1) So for example, many Mormons will offer personal testimony of a religious experience that serves as confirmation that the Book of Mormon is true. But if there could be offered strong historical evidence that Mormonism is false, then the Mormon should begin to question the genuineness of their experience. Mormonism has continued to be falsified by historical research. Christianity on the other hand over and over proves to pass the tests of history.

Sharing testimony and spiritual experiences: it’s a both/and thing

Think about it like this – wouldn’t it be odd if we could argue that the Bible is historically accurate but that none of the spiritual experiences that happened in the Bible didn’t continue today?

So when we’re making the case for our faith, sharing our personal experience with God coupled with publicly available facts go hand-in-hand. Using one or the other should help tip the scales for the skeptic. We can certainly mention that many people throughout the centuries have experienced God and how that has evidential force, but I like to keep it personal if I can.

I’ll relate a personal experience here. Several years back, I had a friend named Michael. He was an agnostic leaning towards Buddhism. We normally talked sports, but somehow we got into the subject of spiritual things. I gave him the moral argument, and I shared CS Lewis’ trilemma. It made him think, but he always came back with objections. So I shared with him a personal experience with God that I had, which I’ll briefly relate here:

Back about 20 years ago, during a time of prayer, I had a strong sense that there was something wrong with my mom. I sensed that she was going to get in a car wreck on her way to work. I didn’t have a cellphone at the time and lived in a different state. So I asked God that he would somehow cause her to be distracted so that she would avoid the accident.

A few weeks later, I asked her if there was a car accident on the way to work. She related that there was a pileup on the highway and she was running late for work (which wasn’t like her), but it had to have happened just a few minutes as she was driving and she realized she just missed it. At the time, she was not a believer and thought my newfound faith was just a phase, so when I told her what happened and she was shocked. It served as a sign to her. She later became a believer.

Because my friend knew I wasn’t crazy, this helped somewhat in tipping the scales for him. He knew of the rational reasons that I related to him, but he also saw that God was a living reality to me as well. I’ve noticed in my discussions with skeptics that apologetics can turn into a chess match – it becomes a mental game to them. But when I’m able to share an experience of guidance or his love, it seems like the tone of the conversation changes. Things leave the abstract realm and become more personal.

A spiritual aspect: God himself will bear witness to your testimony

Acts 1:8 says “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…” Don’t let this verse get by you. A witness is someone who gives testimony to what they’ve experienced. This verse indicates that sharing what we’ve witnessed of God in our own lives is the evidence that the Spirit of God himself will involve himself directly.

As believers we know we need His intervention in winning others. (John 16:7-9) We know from Acts that the apostles used arguments from prophecy when speaking to Jews. And Paul appealed to the order of creation when preaching to the Gentiles. They were not averse to using evidence. But they also proclaimed what they have seen and heard. (Acts 4:20) Paul repeatedly told his testimony to others even though his experience with the resurrected Jesus was visionary. (Acts 26:12-19, for one example)

So don’t discount your testimony as evidence for Christianity, but at the same time do the study that is needed to be able to give a defense for the Christian faith.

Every believer has had some experience of God to some degree, whether from his peace, (John 14:27 guidance or the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 8:14-16) Both are equally valid and keeping these two strong proofs of arguments and sharing experience in proper balance can be crucial in reaching the lost around us.

For more:

Here’s the testimony of the late Nabeel Qureshi, who had both studied the historical evidence and had experiences of God and how it played a role in his conversion.

Here’s William Lane Craig on the question if we can trust religious experiences:

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