What this page is about
I don’t know about you, but when I hear a story of someone seeing a vision – of God, or Jesus or angels, or whatever – my first thought is to think hallucination, imagination or even invention. Likely as fake as the above graphic. We live in a day when we have learned to be suspicious of things that are beyond our own experience, and not verified by science.
But what if psychological explanations don’t fit so well? What if a person’s experience meets certain requirements we might set to weed out the obviously fanciful? What if the person reporting such an experience seems normal, truthful and not prone to such imaginations?
What if it was you, how sceptical would you be then?
In this page you can read some reports for yourself to see what we are talking about, look at the effects of these experiences, examine how they might be explained and consider whether these experiences are evidence for the reality of God.
Some example stories
A lasting impact
A skiing accident in 1974 put Barry Dyck, an 18 year old christian in British Columbia (Canada), into hospital with 3 broken vertebrae and a herniated disc in his neck. The pain was excruciating. He was immobilised with a neck brace, but swelling in his head caused his vision to become blurry. Surgery was planned to relieve the swelling.
Eight days after the accident, and before the surgery was scheduled, Barry woke up to see Jesus at the foot of his bed. He said he had no doubt who it was. Barry sat up, touched Jesus’ hands, and felt an indescribable feeling of love. Jesus indicated to him that everything was going to be fine. Barry went back to sleep, but later that night he took off his neck brace, with no ill effects.
The next morning Barry woke up with full vision, no swelling and no pain. He was allowed to return home immediately, weeks earlier than expected and with no further need for the neck brace. X-rays subsequently confirmed that there was now no fracture where previous X-Rays had indicated a fracture. Barry resumed running four days later and had no ill effects.
Barry wrote a comment on my blog in 2012, almost 40 years after this experience, affirming the story and its impact on him.
A conversion and a conversation
Jim Link has had not one but two visions of Jesus. In 1972, when he was 27, he was watching TV when a human figure wearing robes and sandals appeared at the end of the room and beckoned him three times to come to him. Jim was not a believer, but had been thinking about the purpose of life, and had been attending church at his wife’s request. He immediately thought it was Jesus calling him to follow him. He decided it was real and he converted.
Fifteen years later Jim was attending a Bible study group at his brother-in-law’s house when he found himself unable to move. Right in front of him was a bearded face he again understood to be Jesus. For about three hours this appearance questioned him about his life while he couldn’t move. The others in the room couldn’t see or hear the appearance, but they could hear Jim’s responses.
For Jim, this second experience was a confirmation of his earlier choice to believe and follow Jesus.
These two stories are among thirty contemporary accounts of visions of Jesus to people in Canada, collected by Professor Phillip Wiebe and published in his book Visions of Jesus (Oxford University Press). Other accounts in the book include:
- a small time crim who saw Jesus while he was in gaol, and was told his slate had been wiped clean and he should start all over again (which he did);
- Jesus appearing to one of two women having lunch together,
- an appearance of Jesus to 200 people in a church, the appearance was filmed, and the film subsequently viewed by Phillip Wiebe, and
- a reassuring appearance to a former drug user and gang leader, that led to her completing her doctorate degree in ministry and founding an organisation helping prison inmates.
You can read all 30 accounts online at Visions of Jesus.
A life changed in every way
Gulshan Esther, a wealthy Pakistani Muslim, was crippled by typhoid from the age of 6 months. When she was 14, she travelled to a specialist in Britain, who told her she could not be cured, and recommended prayer. She immediately went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, but was not cured.
After her father died when she was 16, she had several visions of Jesus, leading up to a visitation when she was 19 in which she was fully and instantly healed. She remained a Muslim, but began to read more about Jesus from within the Islamic faith. Eventually she converted to Christianity, was convicted under apostasy laws, forfeited her considerable inheritance, and went to live in England. You can check out her book or see her story on YouTube.
This is one of many stories of Muslims seeing visions of Jesus.
When you examine all these accounts, perhaps 50 or more, a few interesting features stand out.
There is enormous variety. Different types of people, different situations, different cultures. And different experiences. Some saw a vision but heard nothing, others had a conversation. Some even felt touch.
Not always alone. Several of the apparent visions occurred in the presence of other people who could at least verify that something unusual happened, and in a few cases more than one person experienced the “visitation”.
In the real world. For some people, the world around them faded when they saw the vision, but for others their surroundings were still quite clear and they saw Jesus in that environment.
They seem like normal people. This is reassuring. They generally don’t seem like “strange” people who you might expect to experience something weird and unreal. Phillip Wiebe says he feels sure they were honestly recalling what they believed they had experienced.
Lives changed in positive ways. Many of them were healed. Many of them were formerly not christians, but converted.In quite a few cases, the vision started them on a different, and better, course in their lives.
Jesus looked like you’d expect. This is interesting. Many of these people saw Jesus as a tall, long haired, white-robed figure wearing sandals. Trouble is, this almost certainly not what the real Jesus looked like. In one appearance to a woman having lunch with a friend, the woman said “You’d think he’d wear normal clothes if he’s coming out to lunch” Simultaneously, the both had the thought: “That is how you recognise me”!
There are two questions here:
- Are these visions pathological (i.e. caused by a disease) and are they psychotic (i.e. caused by abnormal brain functioning that blurs reality)? The two are not the same (e.g. psychosis can be caused by sleep deprivation rather than a mental illness).
- What are the mechanisms that lead to these visions? Could there be an external cause, or is it “all in the mind”?
These questions are made more difficult (especially for a layperson like me) because scientific understanding seems to be changing. Apparently visions were once seen as both psychotic and pathological. But the definition of “psychosis” assumes we know what is “normal” and what is real and unreal. As it has become evident that visionary experiences occur more commonly than was once thought, they are now seen as “normal religious experience” by many psychologists. So it seems “psychosis” can be used in two ways – a severe and probably pathological condition, and an abnormal but non pathological condition that may have beneficial outcomes. The first seems to be less commonly applied to visionary experiences these days, but the second may still be used.
Phillip Wiebe’s conclusions
Phillip Wiebe examined a range of possible natural (psychological and neurological) explanations such as imagination, dreams and hallucinations brought on by stress, wish fulfilment, schizophrenia or hallucinogens, and more. He concludes that no single hypothesis is able to explain all aspects of all the experiences he reported. Either several explanations are required, or a new theory is needed, he concludes.
Mental disorders typically have certain characteristics that distinguish them from normative, strictly religious beliefs and experience. They tend to be:
- more intense than normative religious experiences in their religious community;
- often terrifying;
- often preoccupying;
- associated with deterioration of social skills and personal hygiene;
- often leading to negative outcomes, including homicidal or suicidal behaviour, whereas normative religious experiences tend to have positive outcomes; and
- often involving special messages from religious figures.
Only the last of these seems to apply to Phillip Wiebe’s accounts.
Thus it is clear that mental disorders are almost certainly not the source of most, if not all, of these experiences. None of the people reporting visions to Phillip Wiebe had a mental illness nor had they exhibited any of the negative behaviours – in fact, most of them had positive responses.
Dehydration, drug intoxication, brain tumours, sleep paralysis, and medication side effects have all been known to produce hallucinations. But none of these seem to be applicable to the accounts we are discussing here.
Temporal lobe epilepsy?
Perhaps the most common suggested explanation for religious experiences, including visions, is temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). Stimulate this part of the brain, some say, and you’ll likely have religious experiences. But the evidence for this isn’t so clear.
- One study concluded that the connection between TLE and religiosity was uncertain, and didn’t find any evidence of visionary experiences resulting from TLE. It says “nurses should afford the possibility of a genuinely transcendent experience”.
- This paper also could not confirm “a specific role of epilepsy in spirituality”.
- A non-religious Jew, during and operation on his temporal lobe, reported experiencing God speaking to him. After the operation he believed God had sent him to bring salvation to Israel. The doctors later described it as a psychotic episode with “grandiose religious delusion of revelation and missionary zeal”.
- Dr Andrew Newberg dismisses TLE as a cause of religious experiences because only a small percentage of those with TLE have unusual experiences, and there are many people who have only one unusual experience in their life whereas most people suffering a brain disorder have repeated episodes.
- According to this paper, only a small percentage of TLE sufferers have unusual religious experiences. The only examples of visionary experiences in the paper are extremely negative and anti-social, including one man who tragically believed Jesus told him to murder his wife (which he did!).
It seems then, that the belief that epilepsy may be the cause of religious visions is an old idea, based on the view that visionary experiences were pathological. This conclusion is still found in some more popular treatments of the topic, but seems to be less accepted among neuroscientists.
There is no doubt that TLE can cause religious experiences, but this is rare and the experiences appear mostly to be negative. Thus TLE appears to be a poor explanation of the experiences related by Wiebe, which were uniformly positive, and included only one person who had suffered epileptic seizures.
Stanford University anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann (see TED Talk and book review) has spent years observing people in Pentecostal churches in the US, and believes that “hearing from God” is a learned experience of discerning thoughts which are clearly our own and others which are surprising and seem to come from somewhere else.
She says these experiences meet several criteria that show they are not pathological, but very positive, and that they illustrate that what we focus our minds on changes our brains. The practice of consciously seeking God, she says, makes people more aware of God. But she doesn’t think that these experiences prove or disprove God.
However Tanya is considering a wider range of experiences than visionary ones, and that means some of her conclusions are less applicable to the visionary experiences we are examining here, for her idea of a learned experience doesn’t seem at all applicable to most of the experiences Phillip Wiebe has examined. In most of his accounts, people were not in churches that taught people to hear from God, and some were not believers at all. Likewise, it is hard to see how Muslims could learn to see a vision of Jesus.
Psychiatrist and anthropologist Simon Dein agrees that hearing from God is not pathological and that it is a learned experience. But his paper examines only “hearing” God’s voice, not visions.
This paper says that: “It is only in the past two decades that psychiatrists and psychologists have considered that religious visions and voices may be culturally normative and are not necessarily pathological”, and suggests that religious visions derive from “religious imagination”.
But it is hard to see how these accounts could be explained this way. There is no evidence that these people were actively developing their religious imagination nor that this was what they were doing at the time they had these experiences. And it is especially difficult to see how religious imagination would explain how non-religious people see a vision and convert.
A special case of mystical experiences
In #8 in this series, I discussed the occurrence of “mystical” experiences that didn’t typically involve visions. Visionary experiences would be a subset of these.
There I outlined the evidence that these religious experiences occur to normal (not mentally ill or drug-affected) people, have generally positive outcomes, and satisfy requirements to be considered as likely to be “real”.
It seems to me that the same conclusions could therefore be generally drawn for visionary experiences.
Visions in other religions
I have read some reports of both Muslims and non-Muslims seeing visions of Muhammed (e.g. this YouTube interview). Are these visionary experiences are also true, and what do they say about God?
I haven’t seen any in-depth investigation of these experiences, so it is hard to draw conclusions. But they generally seem to be dreams rather than visions and they seem therefore to be much more explicable as natural events.
But even if such experiences have the same reality as the visions of Jesus I have been discussing, I don’t feel this is problematic because I don’t believe God’s activity is necessarily limited to the christian religion.
How likely are these natural explanation?
I have to agree with Phillip Wiebe – none of these explanations seems, on its own, to satisfactorily explain all the visionary experiences we are considering.
Considering the two questions we asked, we can say:
- Very few of the reported experiences are pathological, a conclusion endorsed by almost all the experts. Few of them are psychotic in the severe sense of that word, although they are unusual and they do challenge our understanding of what is real. The recipients are almost all “normal” and the effects were positive.
- None of the supposed mechanisms seems able to explain (i) the fact that in some cases several people saw the vision, (ii) the positive outcomes, including healing and renewed purpose, and (iii) the fact that so many recipients were not believers until they had this experience.
So do these experiences point to God, or not?
We can answer this question from several viewpoints.
Those who received these visionary experiences, and those close to them, are naturally very likely to believe they were real and that God had communicated to them. As Tanya Luhrmann says, most people believe or disbelieve because of experience, not science.
But how should those of us who haven’t had a vision of Jesus assess these accounts?
I think we should start by acknowledging that these accounts are not just urban myths, but recorded accounts by named people who are healthy and sane. They don’t just involve some feeling of a presence, but the visual appearance of a person recognised as Jesus, accompanied in many cases by a voice or even a conversation, touch, and/or healing from a medical condition. In many cases they led to significant changes for good in the recipients’ lives. These are not minor experiences.
Nevertheless, I don’t think these accounts demonstrate the existence of God beyond reasonable doubt. There are too many variables to make such a definite statement. But because the natural explanations appear to be inadequate, I do think these accounts merit two conclusions:
- These visionary experiences surely open up the possibility that God exists, that these communications are real for they come from him. Depending on how we see things, this revelatory reality may seem more or less likely than natural explanations. But we surely should at least keep an open mind.
- These accounts build on what has gone before in this 12 reasons to believe in God series. (I left it to near the end for this reason.) If the preceding 9 reasons have made any sense to you, these visions may well confirm or add to the conclusion that God’s existence seems likely, perhaps much more likely than the contrary.
I think God has left us with evidential, philosophical, historical and personal reasons to believe in him.
The final two posts will look at some practical reasons.