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The question of whether religious experience can show that there is a God is an important one that has been debated among philosophers and theologians for centuries. Some argue that religious experience is evidence of God’s existence, while others contend that religious experience can be explained in naturalistic terms. In this essay, we will explore the arguments of conservative Christian apologists who argue that religious experience can provide evidence for the existence of God.
The Bible contains numerous accounts of individuals who have had religious experiences that are commonly interpreted as evidence of God’s existence. For example, in Exodus 3, Moses encounters God in the burning bush, and in Isaiah 6, Isaiah has a vision of God in the temple. These experiences are often seen as evidence of God’s existence and involvement in the world.
One of the key arguments that conservative Christian apologists would make is that religious experience is a form of evidence that is just as valid as empirical evidence. While scientific and empirical evidence is often seen as the gold standard for establishing truth, conservative Christian apologists would argue that religious experience can provide a different kind of evidence, one that is based on personal testimony and subjective experience. They would argue that just because something cannot be empirically measured or observed does not mean it does not exist.
Conservative Christian apologists would also point to the fact that religious experiences are often shared by multiple individuals, suggesting that they have some basis in reality. For example, in the New Testament, the disciples have experiences of the risen Jesus that are shared by multiple individuals, including Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). These shared experiences suggest that there is something objective and real that is being experienced.
Another argument that conservative Christian apologists would make is that religious experience is often transformative and life-changing. People who have had religious experiences often report feeling a sense of awe, wonder, and transcendence that can be difficult to explain in purely naturalistic terms. They often report feeling a sense of connection to something greater than themselves, which they interpret as evidence of God’s existence.
In addition, conservative Christian apologists would point to the fact that religious experience is often accompanied by a sense of moral conviction and purpose. People who have had religious experiences often report feeling called to live a life of greater moral responsibility and service to others. This sense of moral conviction and purpose is often interpreted as evidence of God’s existence and involvement in the world.
Conservative Christian apologists would also argue that religious experience is consistent with the biblical teachings about God’s presence in the world. The Bible teaches that God is present and active in the world and that he desires to reveal himself to human beings. Religious experience, in this view, is seen as a manifestation of God’s desire to reveal himself to us and to draw us into relationship with him.
Finally, conservative Christian apologists would argue that religious experience is only one piece of a larger body of evidence that points to God’s existence. They would argue that religious experience should be considered in the context of other evidence, such as the complexity of the natural world, the moral law, and the historical evidence for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
On this, R. Douglas Geivett writes,
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.
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.—R. Douglas Geivett, “Can Religious Experience Show That There Is a God?,” in The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 88–89.
In conclusion, conservative Christian apologists argue that religious experience can provide evidence for the existence of God. They would argue that religious experience is valid evidence based on personal testimony and subjective experience. They would also point to the fact that religious experience is often transformative, accompanied by a sense of moral conviction and purpose, and consistent with the biblical teachings about God’s presence in the world. While religious experience is not the only piece of evidence that points to God’s existence, conservative Christian apologists would argue that it should be considered alongside other forms of evidence in a comprehensive case for the existence of God.