Can Religious Experience Show That There Is a God?

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APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot
R. Douglas Geivett is professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University,

The Bible reports many direct experiences of God. As we read in the OT, 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 (Jdg 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 (Gn 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 (Lk 1:5–38); the transfiguration (Mt 17:1–8; Mk 9:2–8; Lk 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.

3:6 If God cannot be seen, why was Moses afraid to look upon Him? The Bible states that God is invisible (1 Tm 1:17; 6:16) and that no one has ever seen Him (Jn 1:18; 1 Jn 4:12, 20). But biblical narrative also makes it clear that God personally visited human beings at various times, and did so in awesome and mysterious ways. The divine disclosure might take the form of a phenomenon of nature—a storm (Job 38:1), a fire (Dt 4:12), a fiery cloud (Ex 13:21), or a burning bush (vv. 2–4)—or the revelation could be human in appearance (Gn 18:1–33). But the Bible suggests that these self-expressions of God were mediated and partial, not the direct appearance of God in His fullness. The Israelites saw the fire of God, but they did not see Him; they heard God’s voice, but they never saw His mouth speaking (Dt 4:12). Moses saw God’s form (Nm 12:8), but never saw His face (Ex 33:20–23). When Moses became aware that the bush was burning because God’s presence was within it, he showed reverent submission by practicing the timeless Asiatic custom of avoiding eye contact with a superior. To have gazed directly upon God would have been to show contemptuous pride, and risk destruction.

3:8 Which people groups did Israel actually conquer? The Bible’s lists of nations that inhabited the land of Canaan differ from one another. Among the seven lists of nations provided in the Torah, only three agree completely (vv. 8, 17; Dt 20:17). The first list (Gn 15:19–21) is the longest, containing the names of 10 people groups. One contains 7 names (Dt 7:1), while the others contain only six (Ex 3:8, 17; Dt 20:17). There are at least two explanations for these differences. First, some of the groups may have been exterminated from the land before the time of Moses. The Kadmonites, Kenizzites, and Rephaim are mentioned only in the list given to Abraham, who lived hundreds of years earlier. According to Dt 2:20–22, the Ammonites destroyed the Rephaim. Perhaps the Kadmonites and Kenizzites were also eliminated before the time of the exodus. Second, the remaining lists may not have been intended as an exhaustive cataloging of all the cultural groups present in the land; they merely listed the major people groups with which Israel would have to deal.

Twisted Scripture

Exodus 3:14

Using the terminology of this verse, many Theosophy-based sects such as the Saint Germain Foundation and the Church Universal and Triumphant teach that through a series of secret disciplines humans can attain I AM consciousness or experience their oneness with God (pantheism). Exodus 3:14 actually teaches a distinction between God and humans. God alone is the eternal, self-existing one. Humans are created beings. While we may have a relationship with God, we never attain godhood ourselves.

3:14–15 Why did God tell Moses to say, “ ‘I AM’ has sent me,” but then later to say, “the Lord has sent me”? The Hebrew words translated “I AM” and “the Lord” are two forms derived from the same Hebrew verb. Though “I AM” is not reused as a name for God in the OT, “the Lord” is used more than 5,000 times. The phrase “the Lord” is a rendering of the Hebrew word YHWH (“Yahweh”) that seems to mean “He [Who] Is” or “He [Who] Causes to Be.” The translation of God’s name into English as a title, rather than a personal name, is a way of showing reverence for Him; it continues a tradition that predates Christianity and is reflected in the NT (see Acts 2:21). Jewish readers, coming to the divine name in the text, substituted the word ʾAdonai, “Lord,” and the Masoretic scribes inserted the vowel signs (“points”) for ʾAdonai in the word YHWH as a reminder. In some older English translations YHWH is rendered “Jehovah,” a form derived from combining the vowel sounds for ʾAdonai with the consonants for YHWH.

3:22 Stealing is a sin (20:15; Lv 19:11; Matt 19:18; Mk 10:19; Lk 18:20) and never condoned by God (see Eph 4:28). On the other hand, receiving reparations for crimes committed against someone is part of God’s law (see Ex 22:1). The Egyptians had stolen the freedom and labor of the Hebrews, and would now be required to pay for their misdeeds. God was not asking the Israelites to steal from the Egyptians. Furthermore, because the Israelites had gained favor in the eyes of the Egyptians they voluntarily gave goods to those they had oppressed.

AN ENCOURAGING THOUGHT_01

4:3–8 Could a stick actually become a serpent, or a hand suddenly become leprous and then instantly healthy again? Yes, if God transforms them. According to vv. 5 and 8, God made these things happen to convince doubters that He had really appeared to Moses. An “impossible” act—that is, one occurring outside of the natural order—would be more convincing than an ordinary action. As Creator of the universe, God is not limited to actions in accordance with the laws of nature; the occurrence of these miracles would convince all but the most determined doubters that God had come to His prophet.

4:11 Would a God who claims to be love (see 2 Co 13:11–13; 1 Jn 4:8, 16) make people mute, deaf, or blind? According to the Bible, God’s ways are always righteous (Ps 145:17) and good (Ps 25:8; 34:8; 100:5). Yet God also performs acts of judgment against sinners, including removing a person’s ability to speak or see (2 Kg 6:18; Lk 1:18–22; Acts 9:3–8). God may also allow physical problems in peoples’ lives for redemptive purposes, in order to provide a witness to Jesus’ healing power (see Jn 9:2–3) or to demonstrate God’s sustaining grace (2 Co 12:9).

4:21 The Bible teaches that human beings are free to make choices (Gn 2:19; 4:7; Ezk 18:2–32). God is good (Ps 25:8; 34:8; 100:5) and always acts consistently with His nature. Yet people can choose to rebel against God’s goodness, and consistent rebellion can lead to their hearts being “hardened.” As the saying goes, “The same sun that melts butter also hardens clay.” Egyptian pharaohs believed they were divine, and Pharaoh would never have been inclined to submit to the Israelites’ God. Each time God placed a demand on him, he became more determined to resist. Thus it was both God’s demands and Pharaoh’s own pride-motivated stubbornness (Ex 8:15, 32; 9:34) that led to his hardened heart. God would use Pharaoh’s stubbornness for a good end, to demonstrate His power and extend His reputation (9:16).

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS

4:24 Why did the Lord try to kill Moses? To answer this question, it is necessary to examine how Moses’ life was spared; the situation was reversed only when Moses’ wife circumcised his son. Since the days of Abraham God had required His people to circumcise their sons as a sign of their relationship with Him (Gn 17:10–14). As a leader of God’s people, Moses was expected to set the proper example before the Israelites. When he failed to have his son circumcised before returning to Egypt he incurred the Lord’s displeasure. Failure to meet God’s requirement had imperiled both his life and ministry.

5:1 When Moses and Aaron asked Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt to “hold a festival” in the wilderness, they were not lying. The proper worship of the Lord had been denied the Israelites in Egypt, yet it was more fundamental to their calling as the people of God than freedom from slavery. Pharaoh had the opportunity to accommodate Israel’s desire, but his denial of the request made it clear that the only way Israel could worship the Lord as He required was to leave Egypt for good (see 6:11).

DEFENDING OLD TESTAMENT AUTHORSHIP Agabus Cover BIBLICAL CRITICISM

5:7 Archaeology reveals that bricks made with straw were a common building material in Egypt during the OT era. Such evidence from archaeology gives the biblical narrative greater credibility.

6:3 People began calling on the name of Yahweh during Seth’s lifetime (Gn 4:26), and Abraham and Sarah (Gn 14:22; 16:2), Isaac (Gn 26:22), and Jacob (Gn 27:20) explicitly used the name. Yet here the Lord seems to suggest that he had not previously been known by that name. Two possible reasons may exist for this. First, God may be saying that He is revealing Himself to Moses more fully than to anyone before him. Thus Moses and the generations to follow would have a more complete knowledge of who Yahweh is. Second, the Lord’s statement may be translated from the Hebrew as a rhetorical question: “And did I not make My name Yahweh known to them?” In this case, the Lord was affirming the continuity of relationship that had existed between Himself and His people over a period of time.

6:16–20 In accordance with the promise given to Abraham (Gn 15:16) and the genealogy listed in 1 Ch (6:3, 18), four generations of Israelites lived in Egypt. The Israelites had entered Egypt as permanent residents during the days of Levi (Gn 46:5–11). The majority of Levi’s life was spent in Egypt, and he, his son and his grandson all died in that land. But during the eightieth year of his great grandson Moses, Israel left Egypt.

THE CREATION DAYS OF GENESIS gift of prophecy

A careful reading of the Bible makes it clear that the four successive generations of tribal leaders are listed here. Even though Moses’ sons Gershom and Eliezer were alive at the time of the exodus (Ex 18:1–5), they were not considered in the reckoning of four generations because they had not yet achieved patriarchal status.

For a discussion of how much time the Israelites spent in Egypt, see note on 12:40. As to whether or not the Israelites could have achieved a population of more than 600,000 adult males in the time from Jacob until the exodus, see note on 12:37.

is-the-quran-the-word-of-god UNDERSTANDING ISLAM AND TERRORISM THE GUIDE TO ANSWERING ISLAM.png

Some scholars are unable to reconcile the four generations mentioned here and in Gn 15:16 with the traditional Hebrew (Masoretic) Text of Ex 12:40, which states that the time the Israelites spent in Egypt amounted to 430 years. They suggest that the genealogy of Gn 46 omits several generations. In other words it is “telescoped,” several generations being omitted in order to create the impression that only 4 generations of Israelites resided in Egypt. It is true that some of the genealogy lists in the Bible omit names (see the article Are the Genealogies Reliable?). But since the generations presented here exactly match those presented in 1 Ch 6, it is reasonable to conclude that what is presented here is a complete genealogy.

6:18 This list of Kohath’s sons does not necessarily contradict the one given in 1 Ch 6:22. This list agrees exactly with the ones found in 1 Ch 6:2 and 6:18. Amminadab, mentioned as a son of Kohath in 1 Ch 6:22, may be an otherwise unmentioned fourth son of Kohath, or the name may be a secondary designation for Izhar. (For a discussion of individuals known by more than one name, see note on 3:1.)

7:3 For a discussion of the Lord’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart, see note on 4:21.

7:9–10 Did the Egyptians really turn their rods into serpents (see v. 12)? Another translation of the Hebrew word rendered “by their occult practices” (v. 11) is “by their flames.” The Egyptian sorcerers, like modern magicians, seem to have used a bright distraction to conceal their substitution of serpents for the sticks. (The NT, in 2 Tm 3:8, gives their names as Jannes and Jambres.) The activities of these sorcerers foreshadow those of a “lawless one” who will come at the end of the age and perform pseudo-miracles (2 Th 2:9).

7:20 Did the Nile River actually turn to blood? The OT uses the Hebrew word translated “blood” in two different senses—in the literal sense, to refer to the life-giving fluid in the circulatory system of human beings and animals (Gn 4:11); and in the figurative sense, to refer to the color of blood (see Jl 2:31). Either interpretation is possible here: the Nile could have become literal blood, or it could have turned the color of blood due to the presence of some toxin within it. In either case, the Bible is describing a true miracle. God produced the results He said He would, and He did it when He said He would.

7:20–21 Were the ten plagues natural occurrences, not miracles? According to the Bible they were true miracles—signs and wonders performed by God (6:6; 7:3–4; 8:19).

Theologically, a miracle can be defined as God’s working at just the right time, in just the right place, in just the right degree to produce a redemptive outcome. Miracles are acts of God, but God can make them happen in various ways. As Creator of the universe He can work miracles through nature, or outside the natural order when it suits His purposes. The events of Jos 3:16 may be an example of a miracle occurring when God worked through natural forces. But God is not bound by nature; He is Spirit (Jn 4:24) and exists outside the material order. Thus He can act in ways that differ from the patterns we call “scientific laws.” Christ’s resurrection from the dead is the greatest miracle of this type.

The biblical description of the events associated with the ten plagues allows for the possibility that God used natural processes to bring judgments on Egypt’s gods (Ex 12:12) and set His people free from Egyptian captivity. Some have suggested that bacteria turned the waters red, and the poisoned waters killed the fish and forced the frogs to seek cool, moist places away from the Nile. When the frogs died their corpses were a breeding ground for two types of small insects. These, in turn, spread communicable diseases among both animals and humans, resulting in death to the livestock and boils upon the people. A well-timed locust plague followed by a spring hailstorm devastated Egypt’s crops. Shortly thereafter a desert sandstorm or dust cloud darkened most of Egypt. Finally a devastating plague, perhaps one caused by the insects, killed both humans and beasts among the non-Israelites. God was at work in the entire sequence of events, making them occur in the appropriate location, at the designated time, and at the prescribed intensity level.

If God chose to work outside the natural order, it is reasonable to assume that the waters of the Nile were transformed for a time into actual blood. No causal chain would be needed to link the events of the first plague with those that followed up through the sixth, and possibly the tenth, as described above. God could bring small insects into existence directly from the dust of the earth (8:16–17) without resorting to natural causes. He made these ten events take place in response to Pharaoh’s stubbornness. Though this second option may be less intellectually satisfying to Americans and Europeans, it is within God’s power to have brought about the plagues in this way.

Which of these methods did God employ to create the ten plagues? Since both account for all the biblical facts, either is a viable possibility. It is enough to affirm that God did them and that they fully accomplished His purposes.

The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007).

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