The Psychology of Visions and Voices in Christianity

“The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. . . He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.” (Albert Einstein)

Although many people regard religion as mostly centrally involving ritual and behavior, as Einstein suggests in this quotation, the foundation of religion often is experience. In fact, very dramatic experiences – visions and voices – play a central role in the origins of the great religious traditions.

For example, in perhaps the most famous of all religious experiences:

“As [Saul] neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’” (Acts 9:3-4)

Saul eventually surrendered his life and became Paul, perhaps the person most responsible for the early spread of Christianity.

As another example, in the height of his personal problems, Augustine writes:

“Suddenly a voice reaches my ears from a nearby house. It is the voice of a boy or girl (I don’t know which) and in a kind of singsong the words are constantly repeated: ‘Take it and read it. Take it and read it.’ At once my face changed. . . I could not remember that I had heard anything like it before.”

Augustine turned to a section of the Acts of the Apostles that then transformed him. He became one of the great intellectual fathers of Christianity.

As one final example, George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, also reported in a moment of despair:

“When all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said: ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition;’ and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy.”

The causes of such visions and voices is the subject of a fascinating book by Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann called “When God Talks Back.” The main thesis of this book is that, though many of us have been taught to try to “listen to God,” there is a significant percentage who actually see or hear something that they attribute to God in return.

Luhrmann argues that individuals who experience religious visions and voices often possess a skill that enables them to see or hear, which comes from a combination of talent and training.

The talent for these experiences may be heavily influenced by the psychological trait of absorption, studied first by a former professor of mine at the University of Minnesota, Auke Tellegen. Tellegen believes that absorption is the primary trait that enables individuals to be “swept up by” sensory experience. It is one of the strongest predictors of hypnotizability.  It largely is influenced by genetic factors and may (or may not be) prone to development.

However, a variety of religious disciplines may shape the skill necessary for these kinds of experiences. In particular, Luhrmann discusses the role of visualization kinds of exercises, such as that emphasized in Ignatius of Loyola. As Luhrmann notes:

“The core of this method is the use of the imagination to draw close to God, to enter into the scriptures and to experience them as if they were alive to you. This is a different way of knowing than knowing through our reason. In this method of prayer, we daydream. . .”

These exercises also are encouraged by Richard Foster in his book, “The Celebration of Discipline:”

“Seek to live the experience [of scripture]. Smell the sea. Hear the lap of the water against the shore. See the crowd. Feel the sun on your head and the hunger in your stomach. Taste the salt in the air. Touch the hem of his garment.”

To test whether these kinds of exercises may increase the likelihood of religious experiences, Luhrmann randomly assigned Christian research participants to regular kataphatic prayer (such as the above visualization exercises), mindfulness-based experiences, or lectures on the Gospels. The results showed that:

“. . . the kataphatic practice seemed to give people more of what the scriptures promise those who turn to Christ: peace and the presence of God. . . Those who did the kataphatic exercises were. . . significantly more likely to say that they had a near-tangible experience of God’s presence during the month; that God had become more of a person in their life; that they had more ‘loud’ thoughts and imagines that seemed different from everyday thoughts and images, even though they were still thoughts and images in their minds. And they said that God had spoken to them (as some of them put it) at last.”

But, one might ask, are these experiences real, or fabrications of the mind?

Clearly, religious visions and voices are experienced as real. In fact, as William James notes in his classic book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” one of the primary characteristics of mystical experience is a noetic quality that feels unquestionable. Often, it seems, those with religious experiences are able to say they are certain that their experience was inspired by a Higher Force and that their religious beliefs are true. As Carl Jung once put it, “I do not believe in God; I know.”

Luhrmann distinguishes “sensory overrides” as she puts them, from psychotic experiences. Most of the time, overrides occur infrequently. At other times, they occur frequently throughout life, as in the case of Joan of Arc. Unlike psychotic hallucinations, however, these religious visions and voices tend not to be distressing. They do not significantly impair functioning; in fact, they often inspire better functioning.

She continues:

“When congregants did confess to hearing a voice, they often hedged their account with language that almost disavowed the experience, or marked it as unusual, not part of their normal experience of self. People who are psychotic do not tend to do this. They seem to lack some capacity to interpret accurately what those around them are thinking. They take fewer pains to ward off the negative conclusions their audience might draw. They don’t laugh, or say that what they’ve experienced is ‘bizarre.’”

On the other hand, it seems clear that some religious visions and voices cannot reflect supernatural communication because some do not agree with each other. If one voice says that “Jesus is Lord,” but another says “Jesus is the devil,” both can’t be accurate. As Greg Boyd notes in his book, “Seeing is Believing:”

“Jeremiah, Ezekial, and other biblical authors spoke against false visionaries in their own time. . . Yet no biblical author concluded from this that we should therefore get rid of all prophecies! Rather, what they did was to distinguish the true from the false. The presence of false visions no more disqualifies the existence of true visions than does the presence of false messiahs disqualify the existence of a true Messiah. When we think in this way and ‘throw the baby out with the bath water,’ we are simply giving into the tactic of the enemy.”

Indeed, what has become paramount to me in discerning true from false visions and voices is the content. A helpful quote comes from C. S. Lewis, writing in his book, “Miracles:”

“In all my life I have only met one person who claims to have seen a ghost. And the interesting thing about the story is that that person disbelieved in the immortal soul before she saw the ghost and still disbelieves after seeing it. She says that what she saw must have been an illusion or trick of the mind. And obviously she may be right. Seeing is not believing. For this reason, the question whether miracles occur can never be answered simply by experience. Every event which might claim to be a miracle is, in the last resort, something presented to our senses, something seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted. And the senses are not infallible. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this always shall be what we say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question.”

What, then, are we to make of the claims made in the Bible that Jesus appeared after dying? Why accept these as true reflections of reality, but not accept competing religious visions and voices, such as that found in Buddhism, Islam, or Native American spirituality?

In general, I think perhaps the most helpful criterion for determining true visions and voices has to do with their repeatability. If there are multiple accounts, there is more reason to believe than if there only is one. In fact, this is one of the primary ways that scientists evaluate the accuracy of measurements (i.e., reliability).

In this context, the appearance of Jesus after death appears to be very empirically supported. That is, there are multiple independent reports of Jesus appearing after his death. Although some of the details of these accounts differ – a point that actually strengthens my belief in their sincerity – they all agree that Jesus was alive. As one important example, consider 1 Corrinthians 15:5-8, where Paul writes:

“. . . he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also.”

There is no reason to believe these people were making this up, as they ultimately died for their convictions. Moreover, entertain the following thought experiment. . . Imagine if a so-called Savior was alive today and claimed to be the son of God. Then, they died. Some said, though, that they rose again, showing their Divinity. As evidence of this, they wrote publicly that over 500 saw this person raised. If this was a hoax, this quickly would be discredited and the movement would be isolated to a small cult. With Christianity, though, the movement spread like wildfire. How could this have happened in this context, unless the claims couldn’t be discredited, because they were true?

Another reason to believe the resurrection accounts comes from their sensitivity to the potential that they are mere hallucinations. Luke 24:37-43 addresses this point head on:

“[The disciples] were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look art my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, ‘Do you have anything to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.”

Finally, Jesus’s appearance did not fit preconceptions or expectations. Jews did not believe the Messiah would return. Furthermore, it seems that some individuals questioned the validity of what was happening. For instance, see John 24-30 for the famous story of the doubting Thomas.

It is difficult to discern the accuracy of modern-day visions and voices, but the above provides some criteria for their veracity: (1) Multiple accounts, (2) inconsistency with expectations, (3) use of multiple sensory modalities, and (4) presence of skepticism.

Yet, the fact that so many people experience religious visions and voices raises a lot of mysteries. Increasingly, I find interest and peace with such mystery. As Luhrmann ends her book:

“In the end, this is the story of the uncertainty of our senses, and the complexity of our minds and world. There is so little we know, so much we take on trust. In a way more fundamental than we dare to appreciate, we each must take our own judgments about what is truly real, and there are no guarantees, for what is, is always cloaked in mystery. On the edge of night, when you can hear the surf crash against the distant shore, and see a white horse upon a silver hill, you reach to touch it, and it is gone.”

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4 Responses to The Psychology of Visions and Voices in Christianity

  1. Danny P says:

    I have yet to share my thoughts in it on my blog, but I just finished reading When God Talks Back and I really enjoyed it. As a member of a Vineyard church, I was particularly curious to read what she had to say.

  2. “If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this always shall be what we say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience.”
    Indeed.
    I wouldn’t have seen it if i hadn’t believed it.

  3. This is an interesting post. I am also a part of a vineyard church which believes all people can “hear” God. But I have met increasingly more people who have believe that God does not speak to people anymore directly. Two extremes. I like the view that it is a gift at time to certain people in certain times. I enjoyed the distinction between those who are psychotic and those who have reported hearing religious voices or visions as it would be helpful in explaining my faith to others in the mental health profession.

  4. Bryan says:

    Superb as always. Your four criteria at the end of this post are extremely helpful, and I could almost picture you talking about absorption with Tellegen over a cup of coffee at Espresso Royale. I finally picked up a copy of When God Talks Back and will be in San Antonio next week, where I hope to read it. Once I get back, i’d really love to schedule a phone call to discuss it.

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