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Can a Religious Experience Show that There Is a God?

By R. Douglas Geivett, Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Philosophy, Biola University

The Bible reports many direct experiences of God. As we read in the Old Testament, for example, Moses came across a burning bush in the desert, and God commanded him to return to Egypt to free his people (Ex. 3–4). The Angel of the Lord promised Gideon divine deliverance from Israel’s enemy the Midianites (Judg. 6:11–8:32). In Abraham’s old age, and despite his having no children, the Lord promised Abraham that he and his aged wife, Sarah, would have a son through whom Abraham would become the father of a great nation (Gen. 12 and 28). In 1 and 2 Kings God appears to kings and prophets with numerous warnings and promises.

In the New Testament we read of the experiences surrounding the birth announcements of Jesus and John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-38); the transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36); Paul’s conversion while on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians (Acts 9:1-19); and Peter’s decision, motivated by a vision, to take the gospel to the household of Cornelius (Acts 10). There are many other reports of this kind in the Bible—but the record does not end there. Every generation of believers has testified to the immediate presence of God in various ways.

Admittedly, in most cases, these religious experiences occurred in people who already believed in God. The experiences often were intended to impart reliable information or divine guidance and were frequently accompanied by miraculous confirming events. On the other hand, these experiences confirmed the participants in their belief in God, led them to testify to the existence and supremacy of the Lord, and emboldened them to act on the information and guidance they received.

This raises an important question: does religious experience provide grounds for believing that God exists?

It is reasonable to think so, and here’s why. A basic principle of rationality is that how things appear in our experience is good grounds for believing that that is how things are, unless there is a good a reason to think that how things appear to us is actually mistaken. If I seem to see an orange tree in my garden, then, in general, I have good grounds for believing there is an orange tree there. But suppose that, during the past 10 years, I’ve never seen an orange tree there, I did not arrange for an orange tree to be planted there, my wife now looks and says she does not see an orange tree there, and I’ve recently been prescribed medication known for its hallucinogenic side-effects. These considerations now make it very unlikely that I am seeing what I seem to be seeing. And thus I have no good grounds for believing an orange tree is in the garden.

While alleged religious experiences do not involve the five senses, they do correspond to perceptual experiences of things like orange trees. An entity (an object or a person) is present to the consciousness of some person. So if I seem to be directly aware of God’s presence, and if there are no overriding reasons why things are not as they seem, then I have good grounds for believing that God is present and hence for believing that God exists (since God would not be present if God did not exist).

But now we must ask, would my experience be evidence for others if I reported my experience to them? Is testimony about an experience of God good grounds for believing that God exists? A basic principle is that the testimony of an experience should be trusted unless there is at least as good a reason to think that it is mistaken. If I report to others that I saw a particular orange tree, then, in general, recipients of my testimony have good grounds for believing that I saw it and hence that that particular orange tree exists. But if I have a reputation for clowning around or telling lies, or if I have no idea what an orange tree looks like, or if recipients of my testimony have strong independent reasons for denying that there is an orange tree in the garden, then it would not be so reasonable for them to accept my testimony.

Similarly, if I report a personal experience of God, then this will be grounds for others to believe that God exists if what I report is plausible, if it is likely that my faculties are adequate for such an experience, and if I have a reputation for honesty.

In general it seems rational that, for those who have had the experience, belief in God may be grounded in an experience of God. Also, testimony about the experience may even provide grounds for belief in God for those who do not have such experiences themselves. In combination with other evidences for God’s existence, direct religious experience and testimony about such an experience may provide strong motivation for believing in God. It should at least provide motivation for exploring other evidence for God’s existence.

This article is taken from The Apologetics Study Bible. Learn more about the Apologetics Study Bible at http://www.apologeticsbible.com/.