Are Religious Experiences Evidence for God?

Have you ever had a deep spiritual encounter? One that changed your life?

Some people experience transformative events that can be extraordinary. Upon reflection, we may come to see these incidents as spiritual and intellectual turning points—decisive events with beneficial results.

But can religious experience be evidence for the truth of God and the authenticity of Christianity? I had an unusual experience many years ago that significantly impacted me. I share it as a way to help people think through their own religious experiences with discernment.

A Powerful Dream

I’ve always been a person who wondered about the meaning of life. When I was nineteen years old, I seriously searched for answers to life’s big questions. While I had been baptized Catholic as a young boy, I was never confirmed in the faith and thus I remained only nominally religious. My family and I had also suffered the loss of my older brother Frank through suicide so it was a very difficult and confusing time for me. I sought solace in the music of the Beatles (particularly George Harrison after the band’s breakup) and contemplated their songs about themes in Eastern religion.

One night I had an extraordinary dream that I’ll never ever forget. I dreamed that I was in what looked like a cave. I also appeared to be dressed in a white robe and kneeling on the ground. I saw a hole in the wall of the cave that looked like a window. Then suddenly out of nowhere a man’s face appeared in the window. He startled me. But when I looked intently at the man’s face I thought he was very unattractive. Upon a closer look the man’s face looked bruised, swollen, and disfigured. The man looked very much like one of the Eastern icons I would later see of Jesus Christ. Then the man spoke and his voice sounded like thunder. I was terrified and fell on my face on the ground.

When I awoke in the middle of the night I was sweating and my heart was beating fast. I wasn’t immediately sure whether I was conscious or still dreaming. So I got out of bed and tried to gather myself. I had a sense that this wasn’t merely a dream but that I had experienced a real-life encounter. I remembered the overwhelming details and wondered why I had experienced something so seemingly real and dramatic.

The next day I told a close friend about the dream and he was amazed. As I continued to reflect, I came to think positively about this dream. In the days and weeks following I felt a deep desire to do two things. First, I wanted to read the Bible: something I had never done. Second, I wanted to go to church, which I hadn’t done consistently since I was a young boy.

I went to a bookstore and purchased a Living Bible (a paraphrased version entitled “Good News for Modern Man”) and began reading for hours on end. I couldn’t get enough of reading Scripture and the extraordinary person of Jesus captivated me. I also began attending Holy Family Catholic Church in Artesia, California, where I lived and had gone to church as a young boy. I soon discovered that as a Catholic I could attend mass daily. So for more than two years I attended church every single day at seven in the morning and then would go on to school or work.

My family and friends noticed and commented on the big change in my life. One close friend who I had known since first grade said that the difference was like night and day. My parents took particular notice of the changes going on in my life. I remember my mother saying that she turned the light out in my room after discovering I had fallen asleep in bed reading the Bible.

Applying Discernment

So what am I to say about this dramatic dream? Was it veridical (from the Latin veritas: meaning, corresponding to “truth”)? Did I have an authentic religious experience in which I saw Jesus in some form?1 Or was the dream merely images, ideas, emotions, and sensations arising from my subjective psychological state? Or was the dream some kind of counterfeit religious experience? After all, one might say I had been dabbling in Eastern religions.

I don’t really know the answer to that question definitively. I’m not presently part of the Pentecostal or charismatic traditions within Christianity (though religious experience is certainly not limited to those theological traditions). But I’m not necessarily closed to a biblically based expression of charismatic Christian spirituality. However, rationally speaking, while it seems much more likely that it was just a dramatic yet purely subjective (or natural) dream, I know it impacted me deeply at the time. And it was one key event (of several) that influenced me in the direction of embracing or returning to historic Christianity.

This dream caused me me to seek out Scripture and make Bible reading and study a regular part of my life. The experience also led me to want to pursue a life of prayer along with leading a life that would be pleasing to God. So my dream, whether it was a genuine religious experience or not, clearly moved me in the direction of historic Christian truth.

In this way, I see it as one of God’s mysterious providences in which the fruit of the experience was indeed good.

Reflections: Your Turn

Have you ever had a profound religious experience? If so, how would you describe it?

Resources

For more about discernment and direction in the Christian life, see Kenneth R. Samples, “Making Decisions: Six Criteria for Biblical Guidance.”

Endnotes

  1. For a critical philosophical and theological discussion of the argument from religious experience, see Ed L. Miller, God and Reason: An Invitation to Philosophical Theology, chapter 6.

  One thought on “Are Religious Experiences Evidence for God?

  1. September 29, 2020 at 6:09 am

    It’s difficult to know if it were truly a vision, but there must have been some element of reality to have awakened something on you. The part I find truly puzzling, though, is that you are no longer Catholic. You attended Mass and encountered Jesus daily in the Eucharist, which is more real than any dream, yet you gave that up. But we have free will, I guess, and can choose whether or not to heed a genuine call.

    • September 29, 2020 at 9:46 am

      Hetty:

      Yes, I became a Protestant Christian.

      Ken Samples

  2. September 29, 2020 at 7:49 am

    Yes I have. This link refers: https://bcooper.wordpress.com/2016/06/25/lingering-imperfections/. To this day it remains the most amazing realization that I have ever experienced and it helped me comprehend the Holiness of God, how different I was from Him and how much He loves us. Jesus personifies the Father in the flesh. He who has seen Me has seen the Father. I also experienced one vision while sitting on the side of my bed. The colours where extraordinarily brilliant as I seemed to be flying over an orchard. It only lasted for a few seconds and no, I was not under the influence of any drugs etc. I definitely count these experiences as evidence for God. Blessings!

    • September 29, 2020 at 9:44 am

      Thanks, Bruce.

      Ken Samples

  3. September 29, 2020 at 12:38 pm

    I have always loved science and logic. I was told that Christians were against science and logic so I considered them my enemies. The first Christians I met were young earth creationists who fitted that description and hardened me against Christianity. But as an adult I met a Christian who was different; he also enjoyed science and logic, and pointed out flaws in the anti-Christian rhetoric I had learned. So I started reading a Bible to come up with better arguments against it. I read and scoffed my way through Genesis, but partway through Exodus I had a powerful experience that shattered my atheism. I felt the worst vertigo I had ever experienced, like I was standing on the edge of an enormous cliff. I felt the strongest sense of awe in the presence of something beautiful I had ever experienced, even greater than the first time I saw Saturn through a powerful telescope at an observatory. And it seemed that a powerful voice was talking to me, and telling me that I had forgotten about God. Like you, my attitude to reading the Bible totally changed. Instead of looking for errors I loved reading it, and kept reading it into the early morning. That was 30 years ago, and I still love reading and learning about the Bible, which is why I follow your blog! But I’m not sure if my experience would count as evidence for anyone else. William Lane Craig talks about the difference between “knowing” and “showing”. I “know” that something exists beyond my old atheism because of that experience, but I very seldom share it with non-Christians unless they specifically ask about it. Instead I do as my friend did to me; I point out flaws in their arguments against God, and suggest they try to set their prejudices aside and investigate Christianity impartially using the primary sources. So I think apologetics is useful in exposing the flaws in the false arguments, but I’m not sure that apologetics alone will lead to a conversion.

    • September 29, 2020 at 1:44 pm

      Thanks, Darren.

      Ken Samples

  4. Lorri
    September 29, 2020 at 7:45 pm

    I for one have had a few experiences in which the presence of God was quite palpable, most notably my conversion. In 1977, just shy of my 17th birthday, I was invited to a “Christian concert” at a church. I had nothing else going on so I figured why not? After the band finished, a young pastor presented the gospel. I was struck by the message and my need for repentance and forgiveness. Jesus became real to me for the first time in my life and not just a story. After praying, I felt dramatically different having walked in with one mindset and leaving with another. I experienced an almost indescribable release and sense of peace. I am grateful to the Lord for it.

    • September 29, 2020 at 8:38 pm

      Thanks, Lorri.

      Ken Samples

  5. October 2, 2020 at 4:56 pm

    Yes indeed. I saw a hand holding up a contract (with no fine print) and asking “Yes, or no?”. I said yes, and knew It was God. I’ve described this in a book (The Boiler Room Boys), and have discussed this in my blog “www.theboilerroomboys.com”. As others have noted in this series, the experience changed me completely. What do these experiences prove? That there is something going on “out there” that many have no idea of, and that what is going on is dangerous as it can change you. Tim Smith

    • October 2, 2020 at 6:35 pm

      Thanks Tim.

      Ken Samples

  6. ethos6
    October 5, 2020 at 11:25 am

    Ken, thanks for sharing your experience. I found it, along with other experiences shared in this thread, encouraging–with a dash of holy fear.

    My own experience I don’t remember. As my mother tells it, I had somehow wandered away from the house down the block when I was three. It was about ten minutes before she realized I was missing. Frantically, she ran to the front sidewalk and, not seeing me in either direction, called to me both ways. Moments later, she saw me walking placidly back to her at the end of the block. She ran to me, scooped me up, and asked how I found my way back.

    “Oh, Jesus showed me which way to go,” was my unassuming answer.

    ——

    Your musing on whether your experience was authentically spiritual or merely natural reminded me of the scene from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in which Harry asks Dumbledore whether the near-death experience he was having was real or just happening in his head. To which Dumbledore famously replied, “Of course it is happening in your head, Harry. But why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

    That could be taken many ways, but it has always reminded me that any authentically spiritual experience human beings have will necessarily involve natural faculties at some level. It cannot be otherwise. For we are, after all (temporarily, at any rate), of a nature in which the spiritual and natural are intrinsically linked, even amalgamized. So while it does not follow that every claimed spiritual experience is authentic, every authentic spiritual experience is, in a sense, “natural”.

    Thanks again for your thoughts, Ken. Always edifying and a pleasure.

    • October 5, 2020 at 12:05 pm

      Thanks.

      Ken Samples

  7. Jeff
    October 6, 2020 at 8:47 am

    Yes!
    My night vision led me to Christ, it took years, but it left an impact so great that I couldn’t shake it if I tried. An imperishable seed you might say.

    My vision start in a home, where I as with a group of people. Something happened that startled everyone there. I ran outside and to the front to of the home to see what the ruckus was all about. I noticed that we were along the coast, with a road between the home and the beach. I heard a loud crashing or thumping type sound coming from what I perceived as the north and as I looked in that direction, I could see what looked like mushroom clouds in the far distance. At this point, I made the decision to get into my car and head south. I got into my car, which was suddenly full of people yelling to get us out of there. I realized that I had no control of my car and it crashed into something. I remember getting out of the car and running back up to the front of the home. As I looked again to north, I saw that the buildings were falling down, one by one, from the north towards me. The buildings crumbling were making the crashing sound. The sky started to get dark and full of dust from the debris. I looked forward towards the ocean and the sky turned rainbow colors, but was Ali soon covered with the cloud of smoke and debris. At this point, I looked up into the sky and a bright gold object, far in the distance seemed to be descending and at the same time moving towards me. I turned around and the same object was in front of me again. I had a strong sense that no matter where I was this object would be in front of me. Now the debris cloud was making it very dark, but the gold object was descending, now huge, breaking though the cloud of debris. I shielded my eyes to the brightness. As the object broke through I realized that it had writing on it. It said “King of Kings Lord of Lords”. I fell to my knees. As this emblem burst though the darkness, I looked and there was a city or a fortress with high walls below the emblem and as the city settled on earth, I noticed that all the rubble and the debris was gone. Everything was cleaned. It felt clean like a doctors waiting room. Pure you might say. As I as standing in front of this fortress, there was a door that literally stretched into what seemed like infinity. The doos opened and I walked in. I wasn’t alone as now there were many people around me. We were walking single file into the city. As we were walking, lined up on the left side were beings. They sparkled like sun reflecting off water. There was no communication, but their smile was inviting and comforting. As I looked to my right, I saw beautiful fountains with flowing water. I remember feeling thirsty and ran over to drink from the fountain. My cupped hands were full, but when I drank, there wasn’t any water in my hands, but I felt completely quenched. Moving back in line, we again came to a set of double doors that again stretched into infinity. Now there was what send like thousands of people behind me as we stood in front of the doors. The doors started to open and I saw what seemed like billions of people. For a moment I just stood in awe, then I looked to my right. The were two thrones and Three bright lights. As I looked at the lights, there as a flash so bright that it blinded me. At that moment I woke up. My body was literally humming.

    After waking, I remember running into my brothers room, waking him and saying something like “there is a God”. I believe he told me to shut up and get out of his room.

    It was months later that I told a friend of mine about this dream, she told me that her older sister was a Christian and that I should talk I her. The Sister directed me to Calvary Chapel were I shared my story with Pastor Chuck Smith. He prayed for me and give me a New Testament. It wasn’t that easy though, as I was pretty rebellious. I accepted Christ about 10 years later at Calvary.

    • October 6, 2020 at 10:10 am

      Thanks, Jeff.

      Ken Samples

  8. Travis
    October 7, 2020 at 5:10 pm

    I had an experience where I was laying in my bed and I felt the unmistakable presence of Jesus within me calling out to the Father, and I felt the Father’s tremendous love as if He were hovering over me. I just knew that I knew within my heart it was God and it was scripturally consistent. But I take it as part of my private worship to God, not an argument to the unbeliever about God’s existence

    • October 7, 2020 at 6:03 pm

      Thanks for sharing, Travis.

      Ken Samples

  9. Linda Ryan
    October 12, 2020 at 9:36 am

    I’ve had several such experiences, starting when I was 12 after my horse was hit by a tractor-trailer and had to be put down. While I was sleeping, I saw a huge book floating overhead with strange lettering & language I couldn’t understand. I would study the 2 pages and when I got to the bottom of the 2nd page, I would glimpse something I thought I could discern and then the page would turn before I could go back and check the rest of it, and I would have to start over. Later, I became a Christian and my 6 year old son was very sick and I was praying for a miracle. It was night and I had him in bed with me so I could keep an eye on him and suddenly this giant, monstrous, angry face appeared at the foot of the bed, scaring me so that all I could think to say was, “in the name of Jesus, be gone!” over and over. Suddenly it roared and disappeared. My son’s fever broke immediately and he was fine the next day. More recently, I had a dream, I guess it was, although it was probably more a lucid dream, as I was aware I was in bed at the time. I was drawn up to a high hilltop that had a number of ancient trees – oaks, perhaps – scattered about and I could hear this wonderful singing that seemed to be coming from everywhere. When I looked up, I saw this giant rainbow overhead like a wide, flowing river across the sky. Within it, I could make out people – lots and lots of them, who seemed to all be singing in the most beautiful harmony I’ve ever heard as they moved by within the rainbow. Still gives me goosebumps when I think of it. I couldn’t understand their words but it sounded like they were praising God. I was so entranced that I found myself reaching towards it but it was outside my reach. I found myself jumping up towards it because I wanted to get closer and to my amazement, I began to float upwards and was just able to place my hand into the “rainbow” when it disappeared.

    I think the book was God’s Word, which I didn’t know at the time, my father being an atheist and my mother a nonpracticing Christian. Even after all this time (that happened in 1966), I still occasionally feel like parts of the Bible are equally undecipherable and that vision comes to mind.

    The angry demon departing from my son seems pretty straightforward, although I’ve never had another such experience. I was a new believer then. It was 1979.

    The “rainbow river” was more recent, when I was having a faith crisis and had nearly renounced Christianity. It was a turning point that brought me back, I believe. The unity I observed was inspiring.

    Of course, we can’t “prove” these experiences were anything, but they had an effect on each of us, so it can’t be discounted that God was speaking to each of us in some way. There is no reason to believe that God no longer communicates with his chosen ones and all of the experiences related in yours and the responders’ stories are not so dissimilar to the ones we find within the pages of the Bible itself. Thank you for sharing and allowing us the opportunity to share as well.

    • October 12, 2020 at 10:44 am

      Thanks, Linda.

      Ken Samples

  10. Daniel McCarthy
    November 14, 2020 at 1:38 pm

    Thanks for sharing Ken not just about your experience but about the tragedy of your your brother. I have lost two siblings so your experience struck me.

    First, we live in a world where God is active not only in our lives but holding our Universe together. His laws of mathematics, logic and cosmological constants impact every quark and molecule in the Universe. So every experience we have is contingent on God. He gives us freedom to choose whether to filter those experiences through his lens of kingship and sovereignty Or through our lens of personal kingship and sovereignty. Adam and Eves choice was between defining good and evil from their perspective or from Gods perspective. It had nothing to do with eating and apple but how to approach Gods creation. Are we the king or do we serve the king.

    So our dreams and experiences are all part of Gods revelation because how we interpret the information is determined by how we view his kingship.

    I had a rather extreme religious experience which God used to bring me to faith. This was pretty vivid and graphic.

    • November 14, 2020 at 3:05 pm

      Thanks for your comments, Daniel.

      All the best.

      Ken Samples

  11. Saved
    December 27, 2020 at 4:02 pm

    Yes I had an amazing experience of Jesus in 2010.

    • December 27, 2020 at 6:33 pm

      Thanks.

      Ken Samples

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