Can’t we be overly skeptical about other people’s spiritual experiences?

April 19, 2012

My friend Tom keeps me on my toes in the comment section of my previous blog post. I totally agree that we should greet reports about near-death experiences—or any other unusual spiritual experience—with a healthy amount of skepticism. Isn’t this what the author of 1 John means when he talks about “testing the spirits” to see if they’re from God (1 John 4:1)?

But in the following reply, I worry that we can be overly skeptical.

Tom,

I hear you. Regarding the 4-year-old, the father goes to great lengths in the book to say that he didn’t coach his child, and mostly I believe him. Again, NDEs are commonplace, and what the child says isn’t so different from other reports I’ve heard—including one first-hand report. NDEs happen all the time. Whether there is anything to them or not, I would take on a case-by-case basis. Evidence suggests that in some cases, there is something to them.

If it were my child, and he experienced the NDE reported in that book, I would say that he had a meaningful encounter with God—and I’d probably leave it at that. Since I’m in the business of believing in the afterlife, I probably wouldn’t be as astonished as the father seems to be. And I certainly wouldn’t interpret the boy’s experience in the theologically shallow way that the father does.

But I wonder if you’re not overreacting because of a few outlandish reports you’ve heard. Of course, people misunderstand, misinterpret, or abuse these experiences. While I am hypersensitive, for example, to Pentecostals who tell me that I ought to have these kinds of experiences—like speaking in tongues—if I’m fully Christian, I don’t doubt in many cases that they have them or that they’re genuine.

There is a spiritual realm, and there is a lot of mystery in Creation. Our skepticism can be misplaced, I think, because we are victims of a post-Enlightenment milieu that tells us nothing beyond the physical universe is real.

3 Responses to “Can’t we be overly skeptical about other people’s spiritual experiences?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but I am still more worried about undue gullibility in the Church than I am about undue skepticism. You mention “a few outlandish reports you’ve heard,” but actually they aren’t few at all–I just picked some of them at random. And I know a number of Christians who gave or still give credence to even some of the outlandish ones I mentioned (such as at least a couple of my uncles to the “Angels on Assignment” book).

    I do recognize spiritual realities. However, I recognize them as they may be disclosed in scripture, and they must be consistent with scripture before I am going to acknowledge them as likely. I don’t know anything in the Bible about seeing “bright lights,” or even visions of deceased ancestors. The only times I know of where there were “visions” of those who have passed on are the witch at Endor with Samuel and the Transfiguration (which actually was not a vision, but a real encounter). The first we are to avoid and I strongly suspect the second was a unique event.

    The type of spiritual realities which impress me are not outlandish episodes or LAD experiences, but rather such matters as answers to prayer or changed lives due to confrontation with the Gospel or Christian love.

    I will relate one answer to prayer which is not important in itself, but as an illustration of the type of thing which makes me say, “Well, it does indeed seem likely that God is there and active.” We were having a family reunion at a lake house someone “loaned” to one of my brothers for the occasion. No telephone there. The only way to get there was a complex system of various turns on back roads. Eventually my Mom and Dad arrived. However, there was a problem. One sister, brother-in-law, and another brother had been following them. Only my Dad had a map. All the second car’s occupants knew was the interstate turnoff. After a stop at a Hardee’s for lunch, my Dad happened to glance in his rearview window and noticed the other car was not following them. He waited; they did not catch up. He went back to the Hardee’s. Not there. What to do? They decided to come on down to the lake house and take stock there. So, my Dad and I decided to go back to the Interstate turnoff, and then decide on a plan of action. On the way there, I had to stop for gas. We then went under the interstate underpass and pulled around on the side road. What should we do? Head back down the road and see if they had car trouble? Perhaps head down to my brother’s apartment a little further down the road that they knew how to get to? Finally I said, “Dad, I don’t know of a thing for us to do but for you to pray.” So he did: “God, I am sorry we were so stupid as to not make two maps, but here we are in a jam and we just need your help.” We opened our eyes and here came the other car down the off ramp. (Turns out they did have car trouble when leaving the Hardee’s, went back to a garage to get it fixed, and then headed down.) Now, a non-Christian could easily pass that off as a coincidence, but to me it was a clear example of God taking action on behalf of His children.

    So, nothing spectacular. No visions. No angelic appearances. Just, a prayer in a tough spot, and an apparent answer. (Like Abraham’s servant asking prayer to find a wife for Isaac.) A few of those types of instances have happened for me. And I am sure to other Christians as well. Those are what I like to hear, or sometimes pass on to someone else if it seems appropriate. But not LAD. I don’t see anything of the sort in scripture.


  2. I have trouble putting any weight in near death experiences. When the body dies (or comes to near death) it releases DMT. DMT is a natural substance in the body but can also be taken as an illegal drug which causes hallucinations. Most reports of DMT hallucinations are very similar to what most people descibe in their heavenly encounters from near death experiences.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I don’t know anything about DMT, but I’m aware of these strictly naturalistic kinds of explanations. There isn’t much at stake for me in defending this point, but I’m afraid you might be missing mine. As the previous post indicates, the experience that Habermas and Licona wrote about is one in which the person had access to information to which they shouldn’t have had access—details about what the child’s family was doing at home during the time she wasn’t breathing or unconscious. The authors could verify these details. (They say in the book that they’re not talking about all NDEs; just this particular kind.)

      No drug, not even DMT, can make someone clairvoyant. The fact that atheists like Flew and others concede that they have no naturalistic explanation for these experiences lends weight to the argument. See what I mean?


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