In biblical texts there are accounts of different responses to divinity. In this essay the divine is considered a proposition that individuals affirm, or not. The content of the proposition (what or who God is) differs from person to person; for people respond differently to the proposition “God,” because they conceive God differently. In general, we gather our ideas of divinity from our culture, engagement in society, religious gatherings, parents, and our own personal thought.1
I realize that people who believe firmly in God would state the title differently. Some might entitle the essay “Experiences of God found in the Bible.” My title and way of focusing the essay is necessary to maintain objectivity, for if there is no God, then claims to experience God, must arise from within the individuals who make such claims.
In the Bible there are very few personal testimonies about experiencing God made by those individuals who had the experience. A personal testimony is made by the person who claims the experience. In such cases the identity of the claimant must be known, for the claim to be personal testimony. All other claims are secondary or tertiary. A secondary level of testimony is when a given writer claims an experience with the divine on someone else’s behalf. For example, the author of Acts, regarded as Luke by critical New Testament scholarship, records three accounts of Paul’s religious experience (Acts 9:1-19; Acts 22:4-16; 26:9-18) and another of Stephen (Acts 7:55-56). Paul also describes religious experiences on the part of Peter and others (1 Cor 15:5-7). A tertiary level of testimony is when a writer of unknown identity claims a religious experience on someone else’s behalf; for example, Mark makes a claim for Jesus (Mark 1:9-11); the author of the book of Job records the religious experience of Eliphaz (Job 4:12-17); the author of First Kings records a religious experience of Elijah (1 Kgs 19:9-18). There is less chance of accuracy in secondary claims of experience with the divine, since such claims can be made to serve the interests of the writer.2 Tertiary claims of experiencing the divine are reliably open to charges of being fictionalized.
Here are three personal testimonies of experiencing the divine. Isaiah claimed a personal experience with God when he “saw” the Lord “high and lifted up” (Isa 6:1-3). This distant, holy, yet forgiving Lord (6:4-7), called on Isaiah to proclaim a harsh message to the people of Judah (6:8-13). Did Isaiah “see,” these things in the sense that the images were registered on the retina of his eyes (i.e., there was actually something physically there to see), or did he imagine the entire experience (i.e., it only happened in his mind), or did he “create” the account out of his religious faith?
John, the author of the Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse), describes a psychedelic-like3 experience when he was enraptured “in the spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev 1:10). He heard behind him a voice “loud like a trumpet” (1:10). What he “saw” was the resurrected Lord presented in rather bizarre images (Rev 1:12-19). The rest of the book of Revelation constitutes other things John sees: “what is, and what is to take place hereafter” (1:19), which John wrote down in obedience to the command to “write” (1:19). Once again, a reader must decide if this experience was registered on the retina of John’s eyes, or were produced by his imagination, or created out of his system of religious beliefs.
Paul does not describe the actual moment of his encounter with the divine but alludes to aspects of it (Gal 1:11-17; 1 Cor 15:8). The elements of the event were: God revealed God’s son to Paul to preach among the Gentiles (Gal 1:16; 1 Cor 15:8) and Jesus Christ himself revealed to Paul the gospel he preached (Gal 1:11-12).4
None of these experiences with the divine should be regarded as normative for one’s own experience. There is no such thing as a normative religious experience because people have different ideas about God.5 Gods conceived differently, “interact” differently, with those who conceive them.
Missouri State University
1The Bible is not listed here because it is something we learn about and are taught by our parents and the culture in which we live.
2As in the case of Luke’s description of Paul’s experience: see Hedrick, “Paul’s Conversion/Call: A Comparative Analysis of the Three Reports in Acts,” Journal of Biblical Literature 100 (1981): 415-32.
3Imitating the effects of psychedelic drugs such as distorted or bizarre images or sounds.
4It is unclear to me whether Paul’s confidence that God set him apart before he was born and called him through grace was part of the divine encounter or is simply a part of Paul’s personal faith.