Don’t People from All Religions Experience God?

Here is an excerpt from When God Goes to Starbucks by Paul Copan (pp 74-75). It can be purchased through Baker Books. This is a summary of his chapter entitled, “Don’t People from All Religions Experience God?” People can have genuine spiritual experiences and they can encounter God without being saved through faith in Christ. These encounters can never replace the need for Jesus but are intended to move us toward him.

  • People can experience God, even if not savingly (e.g., having a profound sense of God’s presence, holiness, transcendence). This phenomenon can contribute to a broader case for God’s existence.
  • Many people across religious lines have claimed to have mystical or numinous encounters with God; people have experienced God’s nearness or transcendence. They can feel dread, awe, impurity, fascination. Religious experience can point us beyond – to a transcendent God.
  • The Christian has come to know God through Christ; by God’s Spirit the Christian is made aware of God’s loving presence and fatherly acceptance (Rom. 5:5; 8:15; Gal. 4:6). Such genuinely saving experiences are life transforming and self-authenticating – not officially requiring evidence or argument (1 John 2:20, 27).
  • Thoughtful Christians, though, must recognize the need to offer public reasons for belief to the questioning outsider. An argument from religious experience is only part of the broader explanatory case for our examinable faith.
  • If something seems quite apparent to me, then I should take it seriously rather than dismiss it, unless there are very good reasons for doing so (the principle of credulity).
  • People may misinterpret a religious experience, but this doesn’t necessarily cancel out a legitimate aspect of that experience – or that the Christian’s saving experience isn’t genuine. (Remember the example of color-blindness.)
  • People may and do “overreport” their religious experiences, but again, this need not negate their experience in its totality. The mystic (e.g. Meister Eckhart) may go too far in talking about absolute union with God. (Here God’s nearness may be overemphasized.) Or she may “filter out” an aspect of God, such as God’s infinity or power.
  • Overreporting doesn’t imply or favor a secularist viewpoint – and both immanence and transcendence characterize the God of Scripture.
  • Yes, delusional people may make religious-experience claims that are simply false. However, if the whole earth is full of God’s glory, we shouldn’t be surprised by people’s encounters with God, however veiled.
  • Genuine religious experiences (a) won’t serve as the basis for an immoral lifestyle, (b) will be on the whole beneficial to the person, (c) will encourage love and self-sacrifice toward others, (d) won’t be self-refuting (e.g., the Buddhist non-self doctrine), (e) will, if the Christian faith is true, match up with Scripture.
  • Calvin’s point about the sensus divinitatis (the sense of the divine) suggests that an encounter with God is properly basic. Proper basicality doesn’t imply infallibility. Such a basic belief is warranted if (a) conditions or circumstances are right, (b) my faculties – rational, emotional, spiritual – are properly functioning in the way they‘ve been designed, and (c) these beliefs are successfully directed toward the truth.
  • Religious experience isn’t reducible to brain activity. Rather, heightened brain activity during a religious experience isn’t surprising if we’ve been made for the capacity to connect with a transcendent God. Evidence suggests that we are intuitive theists. Furthermore, apart from such activity, there are independent reasons (through general and special revelation) to believe in a personal God.
  • Atheism, it appears, takes more effort to sustain since the evidence suggests we are naturally wired to connect with the divine.
  • In the midst of various religious claimants, Jesus of Nazareth offers us guidance in this matter (John 6:68: “Lord, to whom shall we go?”).