What Should We Make of Spiritual Experiences?

“Sometimes I get powerful spiritual experiences. I sometimes see visions of angels, sometimes I fall to the ground or shake uncontrollably”

I wonder how you would respond if someone said the above statement to you. Within my social circles, people’s views on spiritual experiences vastly range from the celebratory to the ridiculing, and almost everything in between. In the hospital, most of my irreligious medical colleges would see experiences like that above as definitive symptoms of psychosis or acute confusion, which ought to be treated as pathological or ignored as benign eccentricities. My more conservative Christian friends and colleagues would usually view this sort of statement with curiosity or suspicion, and would often jump to concluding social hype and atmospheric manipulation was responsible. Some however, would remain cautiously open to a supernatural explanation. Meanwhile, my friends from more charismatic church backgrounds would often view these sorts of experiences as common place and a reason to celebrate, as God’s Holy Spirit meets someone in a personal and powerful way. And obviously, these brief descriptions are overly simplistic and many people fall somewhere between these reactions.

So what should we make of “spiritual experiences”? Should we ignore them politely, manage them medically, investigate them pastorally, assess them theologically, celebrate them corporately, or something else?

In this blog, I’m going to be attempting to answer 3 questions:

  1. The Spiritual Realm: Fact or Fiction?
  2. What Does the Holy Spirit Do and Not Do?
  3. How Should be Approach Spiritual Experiences?

For the sake of brevity, I am only going to focus on people’s positive experiences of God and the Holy Spirit; I am not going to give any detailed thoughts on dark spiritual experiences, the devil, demonic possession etc. These topics are fascinating and important, and will warrant another blog post another time!

1. The Spiritual Realm: Fact or Fiction?

Many of my friends in science and medicine, and well as in other fields, hold to the worldview of “naturalism”. This is the commonly held belief that the universe is entirely composed of the physical realm; the spiritual or super-natural realms do not exist except in fiction. I have written about the flaws of naturalism in my blog Can One World Religion Be Correct?. However, the relevant point here to note is that naturalism, by definition, cannot be empirically verified. Modern science is the study of the physical world. Therefore to claim that there is nothing more to the universe than the physical is to say that there is nothing that exists outside the realm of empirical testability. This claim however, is unverifiable given that it is impossible, by definition, to test the untestable. And belief in an unverifiable, untestable worldview would, in my opinion, be the definition of blind faith. Therefore, in order to avoid blind faith, one ought to conclude that the existence of the spiritual realm is possible (even if unlikely).

However, I would go one step further and claim there is verifiable evidence for the existence of the spiritual realm.

When I was working in a hospital in rural Zambia, I went to a large church gathering held at the local secondary school with a group of my medical collegues from the UK. Near the start of the meeting, a little African toddler walked past our group from the UK. However, he was clearly startled by the Caucasian foreigners, that after two quick glances at two of my friends, he promptly burst into tears and ran to his mother. What transpired was that the boy had never come across white-skinned people before, and thus walking through our group was a traumatic surprise for him.

Caucasian people played no part in that toddler’s world, up until he was faced with one’s undeniable presence in his personal vicinity. And similarly c.2000 years ago, I believe that the spiritual realm entered into the personal, physical vicinity of mankind.

In the opening verses of the New Testament book of Hebrews, we read:

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:1-3, NIV)

The core Christian claim is that 2000 years ago, the spiritual God became a physical man called Jesus. The bible claims that Jesus walked Earth claiming to be God, teaching, performing miracles, and finally being publically crucified and three days later rising from the dead, vindicating His claim of divinity.

I believe that if one examines the historical evidence surrounding the life, teaching, death and purported resurrection of Jesus, the conclusion points convincingly toward Jesus really being God in human form. I have written extensively on said evidence in my articles Can We Trust the Gospels?, Is There Evidence for the Christmas Story?, Is there Evidence for Easter?, and in chapters 4 and 5 of Evidence for the Existence of God.

Suffice to say here that I believe that there is strong investigable evidence for the existence of the spiritual realm, in the form of the spiritual God becoming a historical human life.

Obviously I am not arguing that all claims of spiritual experience have authentic supernatural explanations. I have interacted with my psychotic patients whose “spiritual experiences” have clearly been delusions due to psychiatric or neurological disorders. So how does one tell the different between psychosis and true spiritual experiences? Well my first and most authoritative point of reference would always be the bible, and what it says (or doesn’t say) about the actions of the Holy Spirit.  This is what the rest of this blog is all about.

2. What Does the Holy Spirit Do?

Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is the 3rd member of the Trinity, with the other members being “God the Father” and “Jesus Christ the Son”. A Trinitarian God is a challenging concept to comprehend, and I discuss the logic of trinitarianism in more detail in my blog Can One World Religion be Correct?. Suffice to say here that throughout the bible, the Holy Spirit has a range of roles and jobs in the world, that are usually (but not always) distinct from the roles of the other members of the Trinity.

So what does the bible actually say that the Holy Spirit does?

Using a simple Biblegateway search engine, I went through every mention of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, and compiled all the references into a table that can be found at the bottom of this article (figure 1). This table is meant to be a panoramic sweep of the New Testament’s teaching on the Holy Spirit. However, I do need to add two footnotes. Firstly, obviously I have skipped out the Old Testament which has much to say on the Holy Spirit. And secondly there are many New Testament verses that imply but do not explicitly name the Holy Spirit, which are not included in the table. That being said, there are some key themes that clearly become salient when surveying the whole of the New Testament’s teaching on the Holy Spirit. I managed to group the New Testament references into nine broad headings. The Holy Spirit…

  • Enabled and empowered Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection
  • Is involved in Godly living
  • Works in and around conversion
  • Enables and is involved in evangelism and ministry
  • Is involved in Christian’s relationship with God
  • Gives spiritual gifts
  • Inspired scripture
  • Is opposed
  • Miscellaneous

These summarised headings clearly lack any detail, and many PhDs could be written on any one of these headings. However, the purpose of this table (figure 1) and these headings is to give an quick overview of the Holy Spirit’s role, and to tee-up the next section of this article, in which we unpack what the Holy Spirit does not do in Scripture.

What Does the Holy Spirit NOT Do?

The bible is clear that the Holy Spirit is as powerful and glorious as God the Father or the Son, and therefore it is always theologically dangerous to start putting limits on what the Holy Spirit can do. However, there are many local churches, denominations and conferences/camps that espouse and encourage teaching and ideas about the Holy Spirit’s works and actions, that are simply not found anywhere in the bible. Here are some ideas about the activity of the Holy Spirit that I have frequently come across in UK Christian gatherings, that (from what I can see) do not appear in the Bible.

  • The Holy Spirit does not make people fall over or have convulsions.
  • The Holy Spirit does not give people warm or electric physical sensations.
  • The Holy Spirit does not become more visibly active at scheduled points in church gatherings
  • The Holy Spirit does not become more visibly active in association with music playing.
  • The Holy Spirit does not become more visibly active if people “wait on Him with expectation”
  • Supernatural experiences are not a sign of spiritual maturity or Godliness

I am not arguing that the Holy Spirit is not able to do such acts; He obviously has the power to do so. However, these acts are not found in the bible, and therefore I believe it is wise to approach such experiences with critical scepticism. And to me, it is unsurprising that all of the above experiences could be attributed to psychological arousal secondary to evocative music or preaching, subconscious crowd peer pressure or psychological expectancy.

I personally find churches/ conferences that disseminate such notions somewhat saddening, for they can give people unrealistic, unsustainable, and most importantly, unbiblical expectations of Christian life. Two personal anecdotes come to mind.

A couple of summers back, I was speaking at a Christian youth camp, and one of the trainee leaders was telling the young people about his regular spiritual experiences at church, usually involving powerful emotional episodes or physical sensations of warmth. One of the young people approached me later on that evening feeling unsettled and spiritually inadequate because she had never had such experiences. She described feeling “left out by God” while the “proper” Christians were having enviable experiences of the supernatural.

The other anecdote that comes to mind is of a good friend of mine, whom I met at university a few years ago. She got heavily involved in a London church that espoused almost all of the ideas I listed above, and my friend regularly experienced powerful emotional states, physical sensations, and occasional vivid visions, that were all attributed to the Holy Spirit. However, a few years in, the experiences started to decrease in frequency, and eventually stopped completely. It soon became apparent that her entire relationship with God, and personal faith, had been built solely upon these regular “spiritual experiences”. Without them, Christian life became unsustainable and she completely walked away from Christianity soon after.

These two brief stories highlight my concerns over not having a good biblical basis for a church’s teaching on the Holy Spirit. For congregation members who do not have these sorts of experiences, they can feel inadequate or spiritually immature, despite these never being marks of spiritual maturity in the Bible. And for members who do have such experiences, the risk is that their faith is built on transient, unreliable experiences, rather than the truth claims of Jesus recorded and explained in the Bible.

3. How Should We Approach Spiritual Experiences?

So in light of all that the bible teaches about the Holy Spirit, and with an awareness that many Christians espouse ideas about the Spirit’s works that are not biblical, how should we approach spiritual experiences?

Paul’s closing remarks in 1 Thessalonians are very helpful. 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 (NIV) reads:

19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil.”

Whenever anyone claims to have had a spiritual experience, Paul implores the church to “test them all”, to discern what to “hold on to” and what to “reject”. From my reading of scripture and church experience, I think there are three key questions to ask, in order to test spiritual experiences:

  1. Does it contradict the bible?
  2. Is it affirmed by the bible?
  3. Does it fit with reality?
1. Does it Contradict the Bible?

Clearly God cannot contradict Himself. And so God’s words and works in the church today are never going to contradict the teaching of the bible. An unsubtle example is given in Revelation 2:20, where Jesus condemns the church in Thyatira for they “tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols”. The false prophet could be identified because her teaching contradicted the bible, and therefore should be rejected.

Most people agree with this first test- God cannot give a new revelation that contradicts the bible. However, we must not simply stop there, for illegitimate spiritual experiences are not usually so brazenly heretical.

2. Is it Affirmed by the Bible?

As well as asking if a spiritual experience, contradicts the bible, we must also ask if it is positively affirmed by the bible. In Jeremiah 23, God gives a long speech about the destruction of false prophets. Jeremiah 23:16 (NIV) reads:

16 This is what the Lord Almighty says:

“Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you;
they fill you with false hopes.
They speak visions from their own minds,
not from the mouth of the Lord.”

The warning here is that there are false prophets whose teaching comes from “their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord”. As we have already looked at, the New Testament spills a vast amount of ink teaching the church about the work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, if we study the New Testament, we should have a good idea what sorts of activities and works we should expect from the Holy Spirit. And thus if someone puts forward a purported spiritual experience that is not mentioned in Scripture, we should be always be aware that these ideas may come from “their own minds”. And if they are from the Holy Spirit, we should certainly not view them as expected or normal for Christians, for we are told what is expected and normal in Scripture.

3. Does it Fit with Reality?

The third question that is worth asking of all spiritual experiences, especially prophesies, is whether it actually comes true. In Ezekiel 13:1-6, God rails against Israel’s false prophets:

“The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are now prophesying… Their visions are false and their divinations a lie. Even though the Lord has not sent them, they say, “The Lord declares,” and expect him to fulfill their words.”

Put simply, the false prophets predicted many things, but God gave no guarantee of them coming true. This may seem really obvious; if a “prophet” makes a prediction and it turns out to be false, one can be pretty sure the prophecy was not from God. However, for a prophesy to be tested against reality, this presupposes that the prophecy is framed in a way that is realistically testable. I have heard many so-called prophesies along the lines of “I have a sense that someone in this congregation is feeling scared” or “I have a feeling that someone here needs to know that God is about to do something great in their life”. If you think about these statements, it becomes apparent that there is no way to tell if these subsequently came true or not- they are not specific enough to be testable. I think this is very important for the church to remember: we can only test things (1 Thess 5:21) that are feasibly testable, and therefore ought to reject prophesies that are not.

Conclusion

I hope in this article I have not been unfair on any specific church or denomination. However, I hope I have given a legitimate defence of the ontological reality of the spiritual realms, and shown that the bible gives us a very big and comprehensive framework to base our understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit.

John Stott summarised the theology of the Holy Spirit well when, in his 2006 book “Baptism and Fullness: The Work of the Holy Spirit Today”, he wrote:

“The Christian life is life in the Spirit. It would be impossible to be a Christian, let alone to live and grow as a Christian, without the ministry of the gracious Spirit of God. All we have and are as Christians we owe to him.” 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1: The New Testament references to the Holy Spirit

Enabled and empowered Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ministry

Matt 1:18-20
Luke 1:34-35
Conceived Jesus in the Virgin Mary Matt 12:18-28
Luke 1:15-17
Luke 4:14-18
Acts 1:1-2
Empowers Jesus to minister
Luke 2:27
Matt 4:1
Mark 1:12
Luke 4:1
Leads Jesus Acts 5:32
1 Timothy 3:16
1 John 5:6-8
Witnesses to/vindicates Jesus
Matt 3:11
Mark 1:8
Luke 3:16
John 1:22
Acts 1:5
Acts 11:16
Jesus baptises with fire and the Holy Spirit Romans 1:4
1 Peter 3:18
Raises Jesus from the dead
Matt 3:16
Luke 3:22
John 1:32
Acts 10:38
Romans 1:4
Anoints Jesus Hebrews 9:14 Empowered Christ to atone for humanity’s sins
 
Is Involved in Godly Living
Romans 7:6
Romans 8:1-23
1 Corinthians 3:1
Galatians 5:13-26
Galatians 6:1-8
Philippians 3:3
2 Thessalonians 2:13
1 Peter 1:2
Enables righteous obedience to God  and/or sanctification Ephesians 4:3-3
Philippians 1:27
Philippians 2:2
Colossians 1:8
Brings unity or love to the church
1 Corinthians 3:16
1 Corinthians 6:19
Ephesians 2:19-22
Christians are a temple of the Holy Spirit Colossians 1:9 Gives wisdom and understanding
2 Corinthians 3:17 Glorifies Christians 1 Thessalonians 1:6
1 Peter 4:14
Sustains Christians through suffering
2 Corinthians 13:14 Gives fellowship 2 Timothy 1:7 Gives power, love and self-discipline
Galatians 5:5 Enables hope of future righteousness 2 Timothy 1:14 Helps Christians guard the gospel
Ephesians 3:16 Gives Christians strength
 
Works in and around conversion
John 3:1:15
John 6:63
Romans 8:1-2, 10-13
Titus 3:5
Hebrews 6:4-6
Gives new birth/ life Romans 2:29 Produces inner circumcision of the heart
Luke 11:13
Acts 8:15-19
Acts 9:17
Acts 10:44-47
Acts 11:15
Acts 15:8
Acts 19:2-6
2 Corinthians 11:4
Galatians 3:1-14
Received by new converts 2 Corinthians 1:22
2 Corinthians 5:5
Ephesians 1:13-14
Ephesians 4:30
Deposit guaranteeing redemption
John 7:37-39 Quenches spiritual thirst Jude 1:19 Ungodly identified as not having the Holy Spirit
Acts 6:3
Acts 7:5-55
Acts 11:24
Acts 13:52
1 Thessalonians 4:8
Revelation 1:4
Revelation 4:2
Specific Christians identified as having been filled with the Spirit 1 Corinthians 6:11
Ephesians 2:18
Enables justification and/or reconciliation with God
 
Enables and is Involved in Evangelism and Ministry
John 20:21-23 Empowers the disciples to continue Jesus’ ministry Acts 8:39 Takes Philip away
Matt 28:19 Go make disciples… baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit Acts 9:31 Encourages the disciples
Acts 1:8-2:1-38 Holy Spirit comes onto the disciples at Pentecost Acts 15:8 Guides the decisions of the Jerusalem council
Matt 10:20
Mark 13:11
Luke 12:11-12
Acts 4:8-31
Acts 13:9
1 Peter 1:12
Empowers preaching/ evangelism Acts 16:6-7
Acts 20:22-23
Acts 21:4
Guides Paul’s missionary journeys
Acts 10:19
Acts 11:12
Acts 13:4
Instructs Christians on whom to evangelise Acts 20:28 Appoints church leaders
 
Is Involved in Christians’ relationship with God
Luke 1:41
Luke 10:21
Ephesians 5:18-19
Colossians 3:16
Inspires or enables praise of God 1 Corinthians 12:3 Enables Christians to declare Jesus as Lord
John 4:23-24 True worshippers worship in the Spirit and in truth Galatians 4:6 Calls out “Abba Father” to God from within Christians
Romans 8:26-27
Ephesians 6:18
Jude 1:20
Intercedes for Christians in prayer Ephesians 1:17
1 John 3:24
1 John 4:13
Enables Christians to know God
Romans 8:14-17 Testifies that Christians are God’s children
Gives Spiritual Gifts
Luke 1:67
Luke 2:25-26
Matt 22:41-45
Mark 12:36
Acts 1:16
Acts 4:25
Acts 11:28
Acts 19:6
Acts 28:25
1 Peter 1:11
1 John 4:1-6
Revelation 14:13
Revelation 17:3, 21:10
Revelation 19:10
Revelation 22:17
Enables prophesy 1 Corinthians 12:1
Hebrews 2:4
Gives spiritual gifts
Acts 19:6 Enables glossolalia
Inspired Scripture
Ephesians 6:17
1 Timothy 4:1
Ephesians 3:5
Hebrews 3:7-11
Hebrews 10:15-17
2 Peter 1:21
Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6, 13, 22
Inspired scripture Romans 9:1
1 Corinthians 7:40
2 Corinthians 3:1-6
2 Corinthians 6:6
2 Corinthians 12:18
1 Thessalonians 1:5
Vindicates Paul’s ministry and teaching
John 15:26-16:15 Remind the disciples of Jesus’ teaching and reveal all truth to them 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 Revealed the wisdom and words of God to humanity
Is Opposed
Matt 12: 31-45
Mark 3:29
Luke 12:10
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit Acts 7:51
Ephesians 4:30
1 Thessalonians 5:19
Hebrews 10:29
Is grieved/ resisted/ insulted
Acts 5:3-9 Ananias lies to and tests the Holy Spirit
Miscellaneous
Galatians 4:29 Enabled conception of Isaac Hebrews 9:8 Spoke to humanity through the temple
Philippians 1:19 Gave Paul assurance of deliverance Romans 5:5 The vessel of God’s love to mankind

 

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