Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Miracles and other Religious Experience

My article from this week's newspapers about Miracles and other types of Religious Experience:

Q:  If I feel something supernatural in worship or experience an extraordinary spiritual event, how can I know whether it was from the True God or some other source?  What about miracles – are they always from God, or can they come from another source?

During the life of Jesus, the Gospels record numerous miracles performed by Jesus, and even after He ascended into heaven, we read about a few miracles associated with the Apostles in the book of Acts.  The Old Testament also has its share of miraculous events pointing forward to Jesus.  Christians believe these miracles to be authentic, because their history and source were recorded by the eyewitnesses to the events, and there is no record that opponents argued against them. 

The most significant and extraordinary of these miracles is the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after His death.  This is the central event of Scripture, and the foundation of Christianity.  If we inquire about the possibility of modern miracles, it is fairly simple to conclude that God is capable of doing them – after all, being all-powerful is part of the very definition of being God.  However, we also have to admit that there is no promise guaranteeing miracles to Christians of all generations. 

This makes it necessary to closely examine any claims to present-day miracles.  One important assumption that must be challenged is that because a miracle was helpful, it must be divine.  In contrast to this assumption, we see that the Bible describes several occasions of false miracles.  From Pharaoh’s magicians in Exodus to the sorcerers and fortune-tellers in the book of Acts, we see miraculous acts which do not have their source in the True God, and whether these acts were merely illusions or were done by the power of demonic forces, they force us to admit that what we observe may be from another source, which is why both Jesus and Paul warn Christians about false miracles that will be done to deceive Christians.

Religious experiences are much the same.  There is simply no promise in Scripture that Christians will experience ecstatic feelings or have sensory confirmation – whether natural or supernatural – of God’s presence.  Instead, it seems that the lives of the Apostles, as recorded in the New Testament, are characterized by suffering and trouble more often than victory and emotional highs.  Even Paul, to whom Jesus appeared personally, prefers to point His readers to the eyewitness reports of Jesus’ resurrection rather than to His own personal experience of Christ on the Damascus road. 

Some spiritual experiences can easily be ruled out as fraudulent because they contradict known facts of Scripture and Christian doctrine.  Other experiences might turn out to be natural emotional responses without spiritual origins, while still others are less clear because, even though they are not demonstrably false, they also cannot be verified as true. 

Experience is a tricky thing, because the spiritual world is not all good.  Instead, there is both good and evil in the spiritual world, and the difference is not always apparent, because evil does not always declare itself as such, but instead prefers to disguise itself as good. 

So, it is entirely conceivable that an evil spirit or force might give a person an emotional high, grant earthly desires, or even perform miraculous signs.  This could be merely for the purpose of distracting a Christian toward the experience or miracle instead of Jesus, or the assault may be less direct.  Perhaps Satan and His forces might create a series of positive experiences or miracles, and even allow the Christian to give God credit for them, so that at an opportune time, they could then disappoint their victim and give the appearance that God had failed them. 

This is why Christianity has traditionally approached experience with skepticism, preferring instead to focus on the verifiable historical events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the sure and certain promises of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation dispensed through God’s Word and the Sacraments – because they provide a solid foundation that cannot be mistaken for an evil deception disguised under the veil of positive feelings or earthly blessings.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Did the Lord Really Tell You That? - How Can You Be Sure?

My article from this week's newspapers about things "The Lord Told Me..." and other such claims to direct revelation:

Q:  If I feel like God has spoken a message to me personally, is that possible?  How can I know if that message is genuine and whether or not to trust it?

Extraordinary revelations, personal experiences, and spiritual perceptions have been a topic of debate among Christians for centuries.  Some of these are more extraordinary than others, varying from reports of an audible voice from heaven complete with bleeding or crying statues to the simple feeling within the Christian that God desires them to take a certain course of action or beware of certain dangers. 

Some of these instances have been heeded while others have been ignored, and some have been understood as accurate while others have failed to play out.  With this sort of inconsistency, direct, personal revelation is a topic to be handled with great care. 

To begin with, we have to ask whether it is possible.  Since God has directly revealed Himself to people, such as Peter, Paul, and numerous Old Testament prophets, we would have to conclude that God is capable of revealing Himself directly to individuals.  At the same time, we also have to note that He has never promised that He will reveal Himself directly to all believers, nor did He ever instruct us in the New Testament writings to seek such revelations.

On some instances, we can rule such revelations as certainly inauthentic because they contradict a known fact about Christian doctrine or God’s character – for example, if a revelation encouraged murder or directed one to trust in other gods.  Even for those that do not fail on those grounds, we still lack positive verification of their origin.  So, for any particular instance of suspected direct revelation, the most positive answer we could possibly give is, “Maybe.”

Another question that must arise from this is what warrant is there for anyone else to believe the revelation or act according to it.  In this case also, unless there can be positive verification of the revelation, others would be unwise to accept its validity, lest they be deceived.  So here it would be limited, at best, to only the person who received it. 

Even if such revelations prove to be accurate, their accuracy does not necessarily equate to authenticity.  For example, since the demonic world possesses great knowledge (although not perfect knowledge, like God) of events in the world, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that a personal revelation, even when accurate, is a deception intended to distract a person from God’s promised means of revelation or to open the door for them to later accept a deceptions which threaten to undermine faith. 

In contrast to these uncertainties, we do have promises that God will reveal Himself in certain ways and instruction on where to seek Him.  The most explicit and detailed of these is the Bible.  God has promised that the words we find there will prove authentic, and directed us there to seek Him. 

Even the authors of the New Testament directed their readers back to the Old Testament, and not to their own experiences, to authenticate their claims about Jesus.  And even the Holy Spirit, who often receives credit in cases of direct revelation is inseparably connected to the written Word of Scripture, as in the Gospel of John, where Jesus most detailed teaching on the Spirit describes the Spirit’s work as reminding the Apostles of the things that Jesus has already said – and not in revealing anything new. 

God also reveals Himself as He washes away sin through Holy Baptism and feeds believers with His Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins and to sustain faith in the Lord’s Supper.  When we seek Him where He has promised to be, we can have confidence that it is Him we have found and His gifts we have received, rather than being left to wonder about feelings and intuitions which we have no assurance are authentic.