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