How do you determine if a religious experience is genuine?

There are good spirits and bad spirits. After death experiences, near death experiences, visions of angels, visits from deceased loved ones, knowledge of things a person had no way of knowing, predictions, premonitions, prognostications, supernatural voices, dreams, revelations, miracles – we hear of them so regularly these days that the paranormal is almost normal.

I had been passionately seeking meaning in life for years when suddenly my room filled with light. I didn’t open any drawers, but it was almost as if had I opened aa drawer, light would have radiated out. An other-worldly feeling of intense peace washed over me and a voice not my own spoke from within me assuring me of Divine Love. I was a junior in high school. The experience radically changed my life and set me on a trajectory that continues today.

While in college, I worked as a psychiatric aide in a top-rated very exclusive (and expensive) psychiatric hospital. I was assigned to an all-male locked ward where I met a young man of keen intellect who heard what he was convinced was the voice of God. He heard the voice audibly. It froze him so that he could not move and told him frightening things about the future.

A megachurch pastor said he had visions of hell – people screaming in torment, burning but not consumed.

A classmate of mine at Johns Hopkins was convinced that when he dropped acid, he “saw the man,” by which he meant God.

A woman at a prayer meeting told us she felt cob-webs all over her face when the Holy Spirit came upon her. 

A man at another praise and prayer meeting interrupted the service with loud shouts and insisted he “could not help it” because, “the Holy Ghost is on me.” 

The televangelist commands angels to fly in from Africa to assist a politician in getting elected. 

A pastor says he has discovered a secret code to unlock apocalyptic writings.

The dying patient describes to me a conversation she is having with deceased loved ones that I can never see nor hear. She insists they are in the room with us. 

A deployed soldier appears at his mother’s bedside to tell her all is well. He does so at precisely the time an IED takes his life. His mother receives notice of his death three days later.

How are we to discern what is real and what isn’t?

There are genuine religious experiences; there are phony religious experiences; there are emotional experiences people confuse with the genuine; and, there are psychotic experiences. 

How do you tell the difference?

In 1902, William James identified what he thought were three evidences of genuine religious experiences:

  1. Immediate luminousness, an experience of light 
  2. Philosophical reasonableness (i.e., the experience is in harmony with oneself)
  3. Moral helpfulness

James may or may not have been correct – there’s no way to objectively test his assertions, but they are nevertheless based on rather extensive observation. At least, that’s what I’ve been told. 

Apparently, the experience of light, which James calls luminousness, is a common factor. That seems right. God is light.

Reasonableness is questionable if by reasonableness we mean that it makes logical sense. I doubt that many encounters with God can be explained logically or scientifically. But, if by reasonable, we mean in harmony with a person’s authentic self, then I can concur. 

Moral helpfulness is interesting. It implies that every genuine encounter with the divine will bear the fruit of ethical, moral, Spirit-inspired service. That makes sense. The fruit of the Spirit is love, and love in scripture is something you do.

Assuming James was on to something (which seems likely, all things considered), we may have a partial criterion for discerning true from false from mentally ill. 

When someone reports a divine encounter, I don’t dismiss it. In fact, I’m inclined to believe them. Still, so as not to be naïve, I seek discernment.

  • Was this encounter one of light or darkness?
  • Does it come from a place of authenticity void of any personal gain or manipulation?
  • Is it congruent with scripture?
  • Is it harmonious with the nature and person of Jesus?
  • Do others bear witness to its authenticity? 
  • Most importantly, does it lead to more love, more compassion, more concern for broken humanity? Does it produce greater joy and peace in others? Is it making the recipient of the experience more patient, gentler, more faithful, humbler, more Christ-like?

You shall know them by their fruits.

About Dr. Larry Taylor

Radical Anabaptist, Jesus Freak, Red Letter Christian, sailor, thinker, spiritual director, life coach, pastor, teacher, chaplain, counselor, writer, husband, father, grandfather, dog-sitter

Posted on December 3, 2022, in Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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