Many people claim to have had religious experiences with God—a phenomenon that has been true since time immemorial. How can a person think through this numinous topic? What are the right questions to ask?
In this brief article I’ll answer some basic questions about religious experiences from a historic Christian perspective. I hope my thoughts will be helpful to both Christians and non-Christians as they seek answers to this challenging topic.
Addressing Six Questions about Religious Experiences
- How can one possibly define a religious experience?
This is a good question because the field of discovery is wide and deep. Yet the study of the philosophy of religion can be helpful. Part of the purpose of the philosophy of religion is to define key terms relative to the field of religion. Veteran philosopher and theologian Ed L. Miller, who has studied many religions of the world, offers this definition:
A religious experience is “an immediate, direct, and personal confrontation with the divine.”1
- Don’t the world’s religions recognize different types of encounters with the divine?
I have taught college-level courses on the world’s religions for over thirty years. I think there are three general types of religious experiences within the various religions of the world:
(A) Experiences rooted in revealed religions such as personal encounters with God, as reflected in the religious or the revelatory writings of especially Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Bible, Qur’an).
(B) Mystic religious experiences such as becoming ontologically one with God, as reflected in Hinduism and other Eastern religions. However, Hinduism has various views of the divine as well as various accompanying types of religious experiences.2
(C) The universal sense of a supernatural presence of God reported by people everywhere. Protestant theologian John Calvin described this type as the sensus divinitatis3 (“sense of the divine”), as discussed in the biblical book of Romans (see chapters 1 and 2).
In terms of conflicting religious experiences, the Bible recognizes that not all religious-like experiences are authentically divine. Counterfeit spiritual encounters are also a reality (2 Corinthians 11:13–15; Ephesians 6:10–13; 1 Peter 5:8–9).
- Are there ways to test whether a religious experience is spiritually authentic?
From a historic Christian perspective, religious experiences would be expected to correspond to the biblical revelation about God (theistic, monotheistic, trinitarian), Christ (Lord, God-man, only Savior), and salvation (grace-oriented).
During the First Great Awakening (1740s) when many thousands of people in the American colonies claimed to have had religious experiences within the context of Christian revivalist preaching, philosophical theologian Jonathan Edwards identified several authentic characteristics, including: transformation in holiness, sincerity in seeking God, deep-seated conviction, humility, willingness to forgive, and true faith works.4
- Are there ways to test whether a religious experience is genuinely and objectively true?
Religious experiences are challenging to validate on the basis of reasoning alone (though they can’t be illogical). These alleged encounters are usually, though not exclusively, private, personal, and subjective in nature. Nevertheless, they may fit well within the context of the Christian worldview.5
Some philosophical theologians would describe religious experiences as being analogous to sense experience.6 However, secular scholars look for natural explanations to such experiences—especially in the form of psychological theories.7
- Who are some of the famous biblical and Christian leaders who have claimed profound religious experiences?
The biblical figures would include, among others: Abraham, Moses, and the apostle Paul. Within church history St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Blaise Pascal—to name a few—claimed to have had religious experiences.8
- Can you tell us about your apparent religious experience?
I write about a religious experience I had as a young man that changed my life. See my blog post Are Religious Experiences Evidence for God? and tell me what you think.
Scripture tells us as Christians to test all things because there is much false doctrine that’s often connected to alleged or counterfeit religious experiences (1 Thessalonians 5:19–22; 1 John 4:1–3). In the Western world, spiritual warfare typically comes in the form of false teaching.
Reflections: Your Turn
Have you had a religious experience? If so, how would you describe it? Visit Reflections to comment.
- Ed L. Miller, God and Reason: An Invitation to Philosophical Theology, 2nd. ed (Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995), 107. For more on the topic of religious experience, read Miller’s entire chapter 6.
- Hinduism may be defined as a collection of religions where religious experience reflects henotheism, monolatrism, polytheism, and pantheism. For a discussion of the religious diversity within Hinduism, see my book God among Sages, chapter 5.
- See my discussion of Calvin’s sense of the divine in Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction, chapter 7.
- See Edwards specialist Gerald McDermott’s lectures on Edwards’s attempt to define authentic religious experiences at the time of the Great Awakening: “Jonathan Edwards Lecture 1 of 4,” YouTube, April 16, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWYyMswT8wM.
- See Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004), chapter 13.
- Mark Webb, “Religious Experience,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 edition), Edward N. Zalta ed., https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/religious-experience/.
- Webb, “Religious Experience.”
- For the lives and divine encounters of some of these Christian leaders, I invite you to read my book Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction.