I recently went to a Newsboys (w/Family Force 5) concert in Newark, OH at the beautiful Midland Theater on October 23, 2014. Me, my wife, and my father had VIP seating to the show and were able to meet the band members prior to the event! It was genuinely an unforgettable experience.
Lately I’ve been studying the argument from religious experience. While I’ve always felt emotionally and intellectually convicted of the existence of God, I rarely have an experience with the Lord that I would consider strong enough to serve as an argument for his existence. However, my experience at the Newsboys concert was different (in a good way). It’s possible that as I’ve matured in my faith I’ve become more open to loosening the insecurities I’ve placed on my own heart. Throughout the entire night I felt tremendously close with the Lord and I observed people of all ages pouring their hearts out to Him in worship. From what I could observe throughout a packed theater filled with people in devout worship, I could tell that the Lord was with us and that those who were present were not irrational for believing in the existence of God. In fact, without any empirical evidence at all, we all knew that God is real and He was with us.
Differing worldviews from all across the world also make the claim that their religious experiences are genuine and serve as a confirmation of their own religious worldview. Mormons claim to have a ‘burning in the bosom’ and Muslims traditionally claim to have visions provided to them by Allah. Dr. Douglas Groothuis, philosophy professor at Denver Seminary, addresses various religious experiential claims in the following way in his book titled, “Christian Apologetics – A Comprehensive Case for the Biblical Faith” on pages 373-374,
“Numinous experiences are frequently noted in the history of Judaism and Christianity. As such, they provide good prima facie evidence for the existence of their object. Of course, similar experiences are found in Islam and in theistic versions of Hinduism and Buddhism as well. This fact, however, does not imply that (1) Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity worship the same God or (2) that everyone who experiences the numinous is redeemed thereby. A Muslim may experience God and misidentify the object of the experience to some extent. For example, I may identify a hat on a table correctly but falsely claim that the hat is owned by my friend Bill, when it is owned by Tom. My experience of the hat is veridical, but I have given qualities to the hat that are not true”
On religious experience alone, we are justified in believing in a God! If you were at the Newsboys concert with me, my wife, and my father, you would’ve likely seen many individuals having these types of individual religious experiences. People raising their hands in worship, people in prayer, people shouting praises, etc… These are the types of outward expressions of inward experiences which indicate that there is something more at work than what can physically be explained through the scientific method.
Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has been monumental in expanding on the notion of the Christian worldview being ‘properly basic’, meaning that Christians can hold their Christian worldview rationally without any evidence and in the absence of any defeaters (i.e. objections that would prove Christianity false.) Plantinga uses an example of us being rational not to belief that the world was created five minutes ago with built-in memories of the past, food in our stomachs that we never ate, and the physical appearance of age. Obviously, this is an absurd notion but we have NO evidence that this isn’t the case; and we are perfectly rational for not living our life as though that were true. Why? Because until we have a defeater for this properly basic belief, it is perfectly rational to continuing living as though the universe wasn’t created five minutes ago.
Christianity is a properly basic belief in a very similar way. Without a defeater to show that we are irrationally holding onto our Christian faith, we are rational in trusting our religious experiences with the Lord and maintaining our Christian faith. However, this isn’t a license to avoid thinking and learning more about the persuasive reasons for our Christianity. Our intimate religious experiences with the Lord should fuel our fire to learn more about Him. In light of His existence, it’s not surprising that we have personal religious experiences with the Lord.
Like my experience at the Newsboys concert, I was reminded of how our religious experience can be a tremendously powerful argument for the existence of God. In a world where a personal loving God exists, we should expect people to have personal religious experiences. Thankfully, this expectation has been strongly corroborated throughout history.
The argument for religious experience has never traditionally been convincing to a devout unbeliever. Clearly they’ve never had an experience strong enough to convince them of a personal God. If they had, they’d be believers. Most unbelievers oppose the idea that Christianity is properly basic because they feel there are many legitimate defeaters to override the proper basicality of Christianity. As Christians, there is a strong cumulative case for our worldview that can be persuasively made to illustrate how Christianity is a more accurate reflection of reality by comparison to competing worldviews.
Religious experience is the icing on the cake for Christians. It is supported by the facts but the facts don’t necessarily have to be present to hold to Christianity rationally. The one main caveat that should be strongly emphasized is that learning the evidence for the Christian worldview should be a priority nonetheless. The reason is that there are people who haven’t had a religious experience, and hearing powerful evidences for Christianity may open their mind to the possibility of Christianity. God may use us to help open the door for religious experiences in unbelievers. Being intellectually equipped to speak on these Christian evidences can be a vehicle for the unbeliever to have a religious experience. I pray that our efforts as Christian apologists will result in opening the unbeliever’s heart and mind so that they may embrace the Lord and personally experience the love that Christ has to offer.