Like most everything else in religion it depends on who you ask. People have remarkably different ideas about what God does and does not do. In contemporary Christian belief, to judge by the popular religious media on the internet, God does communicate through dreams. Such a view is supported by the common view of early and late antiquity, which attests that all Gods communicate through dreams. For example, Homer (Greek, early 8th century BC) describes the Gods appearing in disguise in dreams offering guidance (Odyssey 4.795-847). The Greek God Asclepius encouraged the practice of "incubating" in his temples; that is, seeking cures from the God during dreams. Plutarch (1st century AD Greek writer) said, "In popular belief it is only in sleep that people receive inspiration from on high" (Moralia 589D). Cicero (1st century BC Roman) thought that it was "an ancient belief handed down from mythical times" that the Gods gave people the "foresight and knowledge of future events" through dreams and other means (Divination, 1-2). Artemidorus (2nd century AD Greek), who wrote an extensive study on dreams (Oneirocritica), thought that the soul alone produced dreams, although the Gods may play a role in configuring them. Aristotle (4th century BC Greek) in contrast to the common view of antiquity argued that dreams are latent remnants of sense perceptions and not prophetic messages from the Gods. In sleep our sense perceptions emerge in the mind as dreams (On Dreams; On Prophecy in Sleep).In the Hebrew tradition God appeared in dreams either in person or through a messenger ("angels") to give guidance ( Genesis 20:3-7; Genesis 31:11-13, 24; 1 Kings 5-15; Numbers 12:4-8; 1 Samuel 28:6). In the New Testament dreams only play a role in the Gospel of Matthew, specifically in Matthew's Birth Narrative (Matthew 1:18-2:23). In Matthew's narrative Joseph is the main protagonist and all the significant elements of plot turn on God's guidance in dreams (1:20-24; 2:12-13, 2:19-20, 2:22). The contrast between Luke's story (Luke 1:5-2:22) and Matthew's is dramatic. Joseph is not the protagonist in Luke; he appears in the narrative only incidentally and only three times by name (Luke 1:27; 2:4, 16, 33, 43), and no elements of plot in Luke turn on dreams, which are not even mentioned. Matthew also describes a troubling dream by Pilate's wife, who warns him to "have nothing to do with Jesus, a righteous man" (27:19). There is no other indication that God communicates through dreams in the New Testament! There is only one other reference to dreams in the New Testament: Acts 2:17 quotes Joel 2:28 ("your old men shall dream dreams," while "young men see visions"), but no indication that God invades anyone's dreams. Orthodox Christianity after the New Testament period distrusted the popular idea that gods communicated through dreams and were inclined to regard these phenomena among the pagans as the work of demons; leaders discouraged the thinking among Christians that God communicated in dreams.
Dreams occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep, between unconsciousness and beginning consciousness. The modern understanding of dreams derives from the work of Sigmund Freud. According to Freud dreams derive from our deepest desires or anxieties originating from our personal unconscious (whether id or preconscious ego). In short, we are the source of what we dream; dreams do not come from a foreign initiative outside an individual, but arise from within, from things we have repressed and what is latent within us. Modern theories, what little I understand of them, begin with Freud and agree that dream works derive from within us.
So it appears that ancient and modern thought clash. Are dream-works only the product of an individual's id and repressed ego, or are dreams subject to outside influence—that is, do Gods invade dreams for the purposes of divine communication? The problem is more complex for someone who wants to champion what might be called the "Biblical view" (that God communicates through dreams), because Matthew's description of Joseph's dreams appears to be only Matthew's idea (or that of the author of the Birth Narrative), since Luke does not corroborate Joseph's dream works in his different story of the birth. Matthew's birth narrative, as far as dreams are concerned, appears to be based on the common view of antiquity that Gods communicate through dreams. The New Testament as a whole neither confirms nor denies that God communicates through dreams.
The only evidence that God has communicated something in a dream is the dreamer's claim to be able to sort out the divine presence from the repressed desires and anxieties issuing from the id and ego. I wouldn't bet my lifestyle on the prophetic guidance and oracular utterances a dreamer claims come from God. And if God can't, or doesn't, get into our heads during sleep, what do we say about those who claim to have conversations with God during prayer?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University