John Alan Turner

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach, Facilitator

Religious Experience in the Bible

The Bible tells a number of what we would call "religious experiences".

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.... "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty" (Isaiah 6:1, 5).

Jesus' mother, Mary, had a vision:

In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you" (Luke 1:26-28).

Joseph, had a vision as well:

"An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit'" (Matthew 1:20).

The apostle Paul had a religious experience that knocked him to the ground:

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:3-4).

These pretty well fit the general types of religious experiences people still claim to have. People still claim to experience God in visions and voices, dreams which contain some advice, physical sensations that often cause a person to change their plans or the entire direction of their lives.

There's nothing uniquely Christian about any of this. Religious experiences occur among people of all faiths. There are plenty of non-religious people who claim such experiences.

People who study these kinds of things claim that religious experiences often happen as a result of expectations placed upon a person by the community of faith to whom they belong. In other words, if your church expects these kinds of things to happen, they are more likely to happen. Moreover, they are more likely to happen the way your church expects them to happen. Roman Catholic people are more likely to have visions of saints than non-Roman Catholics. Protestants, Jews and Muslims do not use images in worship, so they're more likely to just hear voices. If your church frequently talks about God as a "King", then you are more likely to see him as such in your vision. Every religious community has its own writings and culture which shape and interpret a person's experience.

Interestingly, as I was composing this post, I was listening to Chuck Swindoll's series on the Book of Revelation. He was talking about the apostle John's vision there, and he admitted that he has never had such an experience. He suggests that most people have not had a legitimate "religious experience", but he talks about several folks he's known who have. The point he makes that I thought was really good was this: You shouldn't try to manufacture something like this.

Certain types of people are more likely to have religious experiences than others. But many people, of all kinds, have them. If nothing else, religious experiences show us that religion is a matter of living faith. It is more than mere intellectual assent. The claim to "know" God is knowledge by acquaintance, not just mental acceptance. It is actually knowing God rather than knowing about God.

I've seen some very interesting things on my journey of faith. I've seen people slain in the Spirit. I've heard people speaking in tongues. I've had people approach me with "a word from the Lord". I've prayed for people who were instantly healed. I can't explain that, but it happened.

I've never really had something that fits the traditional definition of a "religious experience". I've never been knocked over by the Spirit of God. I've not heard any kind of voice that I can say with any confidence was God or an angel of the Lord. As much as I have tried to be, I am no mystic. God communicates to me the "normal" ways: through the Bible, through circumstances, through other people and through a still, small voice -- the inner witness of his Spirit -- and I probably miss it more often than I hear it.

There are two points I want to make here:

First, religious experiences are fairly common, and we shouldn't be overly skeptical of them. When someone claims to have had some encounter with God, we shouldn't think them deluded or possessed by a demon. Well...if they claim God appeared to them and told them to do something illegal, immoral or unethical...there's room for a healthy dose of skepticism.

Second, religious experiences are not a sign of maturity. There are some communities of faith where people are led to believe that if they aren't having visions and dreams and stunning encounters with God then there's something immature about their faith. That's not the case.