What would you say if asked why you believe God is a person and not an impersonal force? This is the question someone asked me on a recent flight. I offered five reasons, four of which I have summarized these past few weeks. This week I conclude this series with the fifth reason I gave: I and billions of others worldwide—and for centuries—have encountered God as a Person.
Encountering God Throughout History and Around The World
Countless people have reported and continue to say they have encountered God as a person. It is difficult to read the annals of history and not learn of people reporting such encounters, including some of leading scholars of each century.
Many in the modern-era have reporting meeting God. Johannes Kepler met Him in the late sixteenth century and Issac Newton in the mid-seventeenth century. William Wilberforce and Jonathan Edwards met him in the eighteenth century, as did Gregor Mendel and James Clerk Maxwell in the nineteenth century. George Washington Carver, C.S. Lewis, Chuck Colson, Billy Graham, Rosalind Picard, and Francis Collins all met him in the twentieth century.
Mary Poplin has written about meeting God personally in Finding Calcutta. An accomplished scholar who was antagonistic, she met Jesus in a dream which she could not explain other than a personal encounter with the God of the Universe.
When William Lane Craig debates atheists worldwide, he offers as his fifth evidence of God’s existence his encounter with the living God in the person of Jesus. Around the world, there are reports daily of many others having distinct and unquestionable encounters with Jesus. Experiencing Christ is becoming such a common phenomenon in the Middle East that it is no longer surprising to hear of a Muslim becoming a follower of Jesus due to a dream or a vision. The underground church in China is growing at an astronomical rate. People are becoming followers of Christ in Africa and South America in unprecedented numbers. Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity provides a scholarly treatment of the growing number of Christians worldwide.
My Personal Encounter
I, too, have encountered Jesus in this way. I was 17, an atheist, and antagonistic to anything having to do with Jesus. However, a year earlier a good friend of mine had become a Christian. Gail was Jewish, and so this surprised me. I could understand why someone who didn’t have a religion might pick one. But Gail already had her Jewish religion—why did she need another one? I remember wondering if she collected religions like some of my friends collected baseball cards. I was confused and amused at the same time.
Soon Gail began inviting me to meet this Jesus she said she now knew personally. I had no interest in doing so. Over the next year, I gave her reason after reason why she was deluded. She graciously listened to me, and offered responses that were surprisingly reasonable. I began to see my intellectual barriers crumble, though I didn’t want to admit it.
At the same time, I was seeing changes in Gail’s life that I couldn’t explain. I had known her long enough to see her try quite a few “self-help” programs to better her life. She would stay at one for about six months, and then move on to something else. She would always tell me how great it was until it wasn’t. So I figured this “Jesus thing” was just her latest self-help binge. I was convinced that in about six months this, too, would pass.
However, six months came and went, and Gail continued to talk about her personal relationship with Jesus. What was even more shocking were the changes I was seeing in her life. I knew her well enough to know these were not external changes she was working hard to make. Rather they were internal changes that were happening to her. She was becoming a person of quiet strength, integrity, compassion, and honor. She was becoming the type of person she had always hoped to be, and that, if honest, I wished to be as well.
Another six months went by. On the outside, I expressed the same hostility and derision toward her Jesus, but inside I was becoming more and more interested, due to her answers to my questions and the unexplainable changes I was seeing in her life. Finally, on April 21, 1980 (the spring of my junior year of high school) I sat down with Gail in the Arby’s restaurant just down from our high school and asked her to tell me exactly what had happened to her.
Her answer was simple, and one I had not wanted to hear until that point: She had personally met Jesus, and he changed her life. I asked her what that even means. I had no categories or concepts to make sense of such an idea. So in a very gentle, clear, and concise way she shared the four-chapter story of God’s work in the world (I summarize The Story here). As she shared this, I had the experience all those I mentioned above have had—a clear sense of Jesus being present and inviting me into a personal relationship with him. I accepted his invitation and became his follower that very evening.
In the days and weeks immediately following, I experienced the type of “inside-out” changes that I had been observing in Gail. Those who knew me couldn’t explain how I was a more gentle, caring, and stable person. However, I knew it was because I had encountered the living God and now knew him in a deeply personal way.
In the 38 years since that fateful evening, I have continued to experience God as a person in deep and profound ways. For instance, in the summer of 1984, I taught high school in a segregated school in South Africa (during Apartheid). One Sunday I had a severe headache but went to church anyway. God, in his concern for me, somehow communicated this to the pastor. As the pastor concluded his sermon and prayed, imagine how shocked I was when I heard him say, “And I pray for the young man with the severe headache—please take his pain away.” I had not told anyone of my headache, the pastor did not know me or anything about me, and the pastor couldn’t see me (it was a big church and I was sitting in the far back). So how did he know of my headache? I was even more shocked when, at that very instant, my headache was gone! I had suffered from similar headaches every two or three weeks for years, and they never went away suddenly. All I could think was, “Lord, you are good. Thank you!” Such are the actions of a personal God concerned with His children.
But Might I (And Everyone Else) Be Wrong?
Isn’t it possible that I am wrong about experiencing God as a person? I might be deluded. These experiences may seem very real to me, but they are nonetheless the result of psychological or neurological causes. How can I be sure?
This is a good objection and one that deserves a response. In reply, I would say three things. First, yes it is possible that I am wrong about my experiences of a personal God. Yet the mere possibility that I’m wrong doesn’t mean I am wrong. I would want to know what evidence there is to make it more probable that these are not actual or true experiences of a personal God. In other words, first I’d want the objector to bear the burden of proof to give me reasons why I should think these experiences are illusory.
When I’ve asked skeptics this question, the reasons given are always grounded in naturalistic assumptions—“God doesn’t exist” or “supernatural things can’t happen.” But this just begs the question in the skeptics’ favor. What good reasons does he have support his naturalistic assumptions? The vast majority of the time I find that he doesn’t have good reasons. This is just what he’s heard on TV or read on Facebook posts. The fact is naturalistic assumptions are hard to validate (I’ve provided some of the critiques of naturalism in many of my other posts.) Therefore the mere possibility of me being wrong, united with unjustified naturalistic assumptions, is not a good argument that I am deluded.
Secondly, I want to also bear an equal burden of proof to justify taking my experiences of a personal God as “veridical” (as true, accurate, and trustworthy experiences). The reason I believe I am justified in taking these as veridical is the similarity of these experiences to experiences of sense perception. When I look out the window and have a sense perception of a tree, I form the belief that I am seeing (experiencing) a tree. I am justified in believing this for a number of reasons. My eyes seem to be working properly. Others who come over to my house see the same tree out the window. There do not seem to be any mirrors or other things that would distort my perception. So I am justified to believe I see a tree. Of course, I could still be wrong (for instance, there may be a projector and mirrors that I am not aware of). But until and unless it can be shown that such “defeaters” to my belief exist (that there is a projector and mirrors), I am justified to believe I really am experiencing a tree.
In the same way, I seem to have experiences of a personal God interacting with me (in this case phenomenological [“inner”] experiences). From this interaction I form the belief that I am experiencing God as a person. I am justified in forming this belief for the same reasons as my belief about experiencing a tree. My faculties for such perceptions seem to be working properly (in other words, I have no reason to think my phenomenological faculties are malfunctioning). Others have had the same phenomenological experiences (all those cited above, and billions more). And there do not seem to be any “defeaters” that should make me think this experience is not veridical. Therefore I am justified in believing I have encountered the living, personal God.
Of course, as with sense perception, I may still be wrong. But until and unless such defeaters are shown to exist, I am justified in believing that I am experiencing the personal God. And to date I have not seen adequate reasons to believe my experience is not veridical. Therefore it is most probable that I have truly experienced God as a person. (This argument has been developed by the late William Alston, professor of philosophy at Syracuse University, in his Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience [Cornell University Press, 1993]).
Third, note this is my fifth and final reason to believe God is a person. This reason stands “on the shoulders of” the other four reasons. They each gave compelling evidence that God is a person. This fifth evidence adds to that, compounding the evidence and even more strongly proving that God is a person. For the same reason, William Lane Craig offers this as his fifth proof of God’s existence in his debates, part of his cumulative case argument after he has provided four other proofs. Therefore, taken with the other four reasons to believe God is personal, this fifth reason has context, is consistent with, and builds on the other four reasons.
For these three reasons this objection fails.
Others’ and my experiences of God as a person are therefore a fifth reason to believe that God is not an impersonal force, but personal. It is another reason to believe Christianity is true and Buddhism is false. It is the fifth reason I gave to the Tibetan Buddhist next to me on the plane who asked me why I think God is a person.
Until next week, grace and peace.
To read more I suggest William Alston, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience