Which Revelation is True?: Is Religious Experience a Test For Truth?

For the follower of Jesus, there is the call to “make disciples of the nations” (Matt.28:19). Any attempt to reach out to a lost and needy world will result in several encounters with people from a variety of spiritual backgrounds. Many Christians can be surprised to find out that many people from non-Christian backgrounds are incredibly sincere about their faith. Unfortunately, sincerity is not a test for truth. Many people have been sincerely wrong about many things. What about the question, “How do you know your faith is true?” In other words, if a Mormon and a Christian ask each other this question, they both may assert that the test for the truthfulness of their faith is a religious experience. In this case, the confirmation of the Mormon faith happens through the heart confirming through what is already true in the mind. In other words, the Mormon appeal to a religious experience sounds a bit like the Christian appeal to the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. Religious experience should not be taken lightly. After all, biblical faith is not simply about adhering to a set of objective, historical, propositions. Biblical faith involves a commitment of the whole person.

However, the issue of religious experience brings up an interesting point in apologetic dialogue. Which revelation is true? What god is the individual encountering? Mormonism claims to be founded on divine revelation. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, claimed to have received personal revelation from God on the basis of two visions, (the first allegedly given to him in 1820, the second one in 1823). The Bible asserts that Jesus is that He is uncreated (John 1:1-3; Col. 1:16-17) while the Mormon claim is that Jesus is a created being.

The apostle Paul uses the Greek word “plerophoria” which means “complete confidence, full assurance,” to indicate that the believer has obtained the knowledge of the truth as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work (2 Cor. 2:2; 1Thess. 1; Rom. 4:21; 14;5, Col. 4:12). (1) But what epistemological rights does the Christian have in saying their faith is true? While we do not want to discount the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, critics object that several other religions that are not compatible with Christianity lay claim to a self-authenticating witness of God’s Spirit. Do not all existential experiences need an external test for truth? In appealing to the Book of Mormon the Mormon says:

” And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” (2)

And so we see with the Mormon, all that is required for truth is the subjective testimony of the Holy Spirit. How does the Christian explain the Mormon’s confidence that the burning in their bosom is really not an authentic experience with the Holy Spirit? Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, claimed an angel appeared to him and directed him to what are called the golden plates. Smith then showed them to eleven others. Smith is supposed to be responsible for translating these plates into The Book of Mormon. Like the apostles of Jesus, Smith suffered and died for his beliefs. However, there is a major difference between the eleven witnesses to the gold plates and the apostles of Jesus. (3) While six of the eleven witnesses left the Mormon Church, we have no record of the apostles of Jesus (Paul, James and John, others) even leaving the early Christian movement. (4)

Atheistic philosopher Michael Martin has argued that religious experience cannot qualify as a test for truth. After all, the testimonies of Muhammad, as well as the founders of several religious movements such as Joseph Smith, Sun Myung Moon and Jim Jones all attest to having a testimony that God gave them a revelation from heaven. (5) While Martin makes the mistake of depending on religious testimony as the only source for testing the truthfulness of a religious claim within a historical context, his points are valid for the Christian. How could the Christian argue sincere people of other faiths do not experience God as some sort of Being or loving Father, in which they depend upon? Fortunately, Jesus has left his people with an external test to demonstrate He is the Son of God. One of the external evidences (and I emphasize one!) that the subjective experience that the Christian experiences is truly from God’s Spirit is Jesus’ resurrection.

The issue of religious experience demonstrates that there needs to be the willingness to implement critical thinking. There also needs to be a call to intellectual honesty. It is evident that it is impossible to not use the law of non-contradiction which states that two opposite views cannot be true at the same time. Without the law of non-contradiction, we could not say God is not non-God (G is not non-G). To assert that it is not possible to use the law of non contradiction in evaluating religious claims is to exercise the use of the law of non-contradiction itself. While there are some similarities in faiths such as truth, a God, a right and wrong, spiritual purpose in life, and communion with God, they all also have some glaring differences such as the nature of God, the afterlife, the nature of man, sin, salvation, and creation.. In evaluating any religious claim, here are a few guidelines: 1. What does it claim to know? 2. How does it claim to know it? 3. What is the evidence for it?

I would conclude with the following: In their book, Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective: Norman L. Geisler and and Paul D. Feinberg show the relationship between reason and revelation.They say the following:

There is some truth in all of the basic views on reason and revelation: (1) “Reason is over revelation” is correct in that reason is epistemologically prior to revelation. The alleged revelation must be tested by reason. (2) “Revelation is over reason” is right in the ontological sense. God created reason and it must be His servant, not His master. (3) “Revelation only” is correct in the sense that ultimately and ontologically all truth comes from God. (4) “Reason only” has some truth, since reason must judge epistemologically whether the alleged revelation is from God. (5) “Revelation and reason” is correct because it properly assigns a role to each and shows their interrelationship. One should reason about and for revelation, otherwise he has an unreasonable faith. Likewise, reason has no guide without a revelation and flounders in error.

1. Craig, W.L. Reasonable Faith. Wheaten, ILL: Crossway Books. 1984, 32
2. Habermas. G.R. and Licona, M. L. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.
Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004, 27.
3. Ibid, 185-188.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 282.
6. Clark, D.J. Dialogical Apologetics: A Person Centered Approach to Christian Defense. Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books. 1993, 14.

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