When Does Experience Justify Belief?

“You ask me how I know He lives… He lives within my heart.”

Can someone else’s, or even my own, religious experience justify my belief or assurance in a particular religion? Can I trust an experience?

The question is a very difficult and sensitive one. It is sensitive because, who wants to be told that a personal experience they had, that they feel was very genuine, is in fact not worth forming a religious belief around?

Just think of how many religions rely upon religious experiences. Just to mention “the big three” monotheistic religions: Islam began with a vision from an angel; Judaism has many accounts of religious experiences, such as the burning bush, and any other time God spoke to people; and Christianity adds onto these with Christ’s miracles and resurrection, and the account of Paul’s ministry beginning with the “quintessential religious experience” of a bright light and a voice from heaven.

And recently now there has been an insane amount of talk surrounding the experiences of people who claim to have died and went to heaven (some even to hell), and are writing about it and making movies about it and drawing a ridiculously large following – even reinterpreting certain Scripture to conform to their experience because – well come on, they were there, they know what is true! But even in 2 Corinthians 12 and 1 Peter 1, the apostles say that they do not even base their own authority on their (very genuine) supernatural experiences.

I don’t know if you’ve heard of the “principle of credulity,” but basically, the principle of credulity says that we should assume the experience to be real unless shown otherwise. This may sound absurd to some, but it seems that this is the only alternative to constantly wanting to check or test religious experiences to see whether or not they are genuine. I suppose it depends then on one’s presupposition, whether they want to assume the experience was genuine unless proven otherwise, or they want to assume there is something shady about the experience, unless proven otherwise (i.e. validating the experience).

In my own reading on this subject in the past, it seems that the problem with religious experiences is that there are so many extenuating circumstances surrounding them. For example, in near death experiences, the person is surely under a lot of stress a majority of the time, and often has undergone some sort of trauma. These two circumstances alone seem to undermine the reliability of the person’s story.

Or take the Native American tribes who, as a rite of passage, would send young men out into the forest for weeks, during which the young brave would eat nothing except peyote. The brave would stay out in the forest until a spirit visited him who would tell him he was ready to be a man. Now, the exhaustion and starvation alone would count as circumstances in which the integrity of that religious experience was compromised. Add in the peyote, and you have a good case for saying those experiences do not justify religious belief.

Another reason one could question the validity of an experience is fanaticism. In other words, people tend to hear what they want to hear, and see what they want to see. Even if the experience itself is not what a person expected, the fact that they were zealously wanting and believing in an experience could bring about such an experience.

Now all this to say – I am not sure what I think about this issue. I of course believe in many supernatural experiences recorded in the Bible, and have no doubt that there are many experiences today that are of a genuinely divine (or demonic) nature. The problem is that these experiences are often contradictory to Scripture, or call into question the sufficiency of Scripture. But beyond that, as far as how to tell which are genuine, or which justify belief – I would love to study this issue further, and hear others’ thoughts as well…

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About Tweed Tavern

We exist to exhort passionate followers of Christ to think more deeply about their faith, and to challenge deep thinkers to become more passionate followers of Christ. Throughout history, taverns have provided a venue for theological and political debate. Hoping to honor that tradition, welcome to the Tavern!
This entry was posted in Christianity Today, Theology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to When Does Experience Justify Belief?

  1. Pingback: Heaven Is for Real [sure, but what about the movie?] | Cross-Current

  2. Pingback: Heaven Is for Real [sure, but what about the movie?] | The Cross-Current

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