Sometimes it seems we live in a materialistic age, but this isn’t as true as we might think.
People report all sorts of non-materialistic experiences – visions, dreams, strange coincidences, healings, mystical experiences, angels, near death experiences and strange visitations.
Are people making things up? Are they really receiving communications from another dimension or a spiritual being? And if they’re just imagining things, how does this happen to thoughtful and normal people?
Thousands of reports
There are thousands, probably millions, of reports of the sorts of strange and apparently supernatural experiences I discuss here. There have probably been three main attitudes towards them.
- For many people, such experiences are quite possible, maybe even normal, and can generally be accepted without much investigation. This was probably the case for thousands of years in European culture, and likely elsewhere as well. Religious and cultural beliefs provided support for the factuality of these experiences, and for many people they still do today.
- With the Enlightenment and the growth of the scientific method, most of these experiences were considered unenlightened and impossible, along with belief in fairies and Santa Claus – pious fabrications, urban myths or misunderstood. This view is based as much on the assumption that the physical world is all that exists as it is on evidence.
- Slowly, anthropologists, psychologists and other disciplines have begun to gather accounts of many different kinds of events so that evidence is available. Perhaps there is something real here that is worthy of study- with postmodernism, many scientists are less willing to reject something out of hand. And if only subjective, the psychology and sociology of strange experiences is worth studying.
Much of what I discuss here comes out of such studies. The different types of reports are briefly oulined, initially without judgment on whether they are “real”.
Near Death Experiences (NDEs)
A Near Death Experience may occur when people are unconscious during or after a medical incident such as traumatic brain injury, a serious operation, cardiac arrest, drowning or hypothermia. Some of those who survive tell of an experience while apparently uncomscious where they seem to leave their body and travel to a beautiful place, only to return again when they are revived.
Thousands of NDE reports have been collected and analysed. Medical studies have been conducted. It is now generally accepted that these reports are mostly genuine experiences, whether of a true event or a product of the person’s mind.
Conclusions are divided between believers and sceptics, as you’d expect. But it is fair to say that a satisfactory natural medical/scientific explanation of all phenomena hasn’t yet been produced.
The more visionary aspects of such experiences are not really open to scientific testing. However some accounts and some tests seem to suggest that sometimes people’s minds are active even when their brains are demonstrably dormant and even “dead” (i.e. no brain activity at all is occurring).
While we might reasonably be wary of drawing conclusions about the afterlife from NDEs, they suggest that the mind isn’t totally limited by the physical brain.
I have reported on NDEs in more detail, and provided links to databases of accounts and studies of NDEs.
Many people grieving the loss of a close friend or relative experience some “visitation” by them in the days and months after their death. These visitiations can take many forms: a vision or apparition, a tangible presence, a voice, a sense of presence, maybe several of these.
Again, this phenomenon has been studied extensively, and about a half of those surveyed report such an experience, most often soon after the person’s death, but sometimes months afterwards. They occur across a wide range of cultures, to religious and irreligious, occasionally to several people at the same time. Most often the recipients are encouraged by this visitation, which seems to them to be very real. Occasionally the visitation occurs before the recipient knows the person has died. Sometimes the visitation changes a person’s worldview or belief system.
Like NDEs, psychological explanations are readily available that make the visitations subjective only. But also like NDEs, some aspects of some the accounts seem to be more objective (like information that couldn’t be known if the experiecnes were only subjective). And they are certainly not generally the product of abnormal psychology.
I offer no explanation of these experiences nor am I committed to believing them or discrediting them. But they are phenomena that are open to different explanations and if true, challenge materialistic views.
Visions of Jesus
Some people report seeing visions of Jesus. In some cases he just appears, in others he speaks or heals. Occasionally he leaves tangible signs such as a footprint. These visions haven’t been studied extensively, but they seem to take two forms.
- Christians, or people in christian countries, report Jesus appearing to them to encourage, heal them, or resolve their doubts about him. There are several reports of atheists converting because of a vision of Jesus.
- Some Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs say a vision of Jesus changed their lives and led them to believe in him, sometimes at great cost to themselves when they are rejected by family.
It would be easy to reject these visions as objectively real, but psychological and neurological explanations have been found to be inadequate to explain them all. Abnormal psychology isn’t an explanation for most of these appearances. Many of the accounts of conversions from other religions because of visions make it difficult to dismiss them as the result of christian enthusiasm.
Read more about Visions of Jesus, including sources, on this website. You may also be interested that one of those who had a vision of Jesus and was healed of a serious injury at that time wrote to this website confirming the reality of the vision and the healing some 40 years later.
It has been estimated that perhaps 300 million people worldwide believe they have experienced or observed a supernatural healing after prayer to the christian God.
Very few of these have been, and could be, verified via medical documentation, and many may be “urban myths”. But some have been investigated using medical reports, and interviews with doctors and those healed. Some have even been written up in secular medical journals.
Healings differ from most other of the accounts discussed here because they can to some degree be verified via tangible evidence. It can be established that a highly unusual, perhaps medically “impossible”, recovery has occurred after prayer for healing, whatever explanation may be given.
The accounts thus provide evidence, based on probability, that something from outside our normal experience has occurred, possibly the action of a loving God. I have collected and summarised a number of these reports in Healing stories.
In early and medieval christiantiy, mysticism referred to forms of spirituality (visions, ecstatic states, etc) that were believed to make a deep connection with God. There are mystical traditions in most major religions. More recently the word may describe “new age” spiritualities where people feel at one with the universe or the divine.
It turns out that many people (not all of them religious) have felt some type of deep mystical experience at some time in their lives. This experience may include a sense of a presence of something holy or numinous, a new sense of understanding and/or being in union with the cosmos, heightened perceptions and a feeling of peace and joy.
Thousands of these experiences have been studied and categorised by psychologists. In general, people who have mystical experiences are more likely to feel self actualised and be psychologically healthy, and have a greater sense of meaning and purpose in life. The experience are not associated with abnormal psychology or drug use. They can occur to people of all religious traditions, or none.
These experiences tend to leave people in a better and more positive state of mind than beforehand, and are often associated with significant positive changes in their lives.
Do mystical experiences point to a spiritual reality beyond ourselves? Check out the evidence in my page on Mystical experiences.
Tibetan religious masters and rainbow body
There are many reports of Tibetan, and other, Buddhist monks and adepts achieving things that seem strange and impossible to us in the west. For example: controlling breathing and body temperature, balancing upside down for long periods, resisting sharp objects like power drills with their skin, and throwing a needle through glass. All these seem to be natural abilities achieved through extreme training and self control.
But perhaps the strangest, reported by eye witnsses, relatives and no less a person than the Dalai Lama, occurs when a religious master dies and their unburied body diminishes in size and fades away over about a week, indicating that they have achieved “rainbow body”, a high level of attainment and knowledge.
It is natural to be highly sceptical of such claims, but they have been reported by many eyewitnesses, and some aspects have reportedly been recorded by medical science. I don’t know enough to make any assessment of any of this, but at the very least it shows that many people believe and claim to have experienced things that challenge our worldviews.
Other christian appearances
It is worth mentioning without providing much detail that there are many reports of appearances of angels and the virgin Mary. I suspect many angel stories are urban myths, but they are very widespread and some of them have been documented (see references below). It would surely be foolish to say confidently that all the reports are mythical.
Appearances of Mary are much more well documented and sometimes not easy to explain. Appearances at Guadalupe (1531), Lourdes (1858) and Fatima (1917) are generally well known. But one of the best attested are appearances of a white figure said to be Mary (the figure never spoke) over a church at Zeitoun in Egypt in 1968-71. The appearance occurred on numerous nights and was seen by thousands and even photographed. Eyewitnesses say the figure was easily recognised as a woman. However the photos I have seen are quite indistinct, little more than bright light in a human-like shape – only those that have been “enhanced” are recognisably human. It is hard to explain how such a bright light occurred in that location, but an unexplained light is a long way from a personal appearance.
Many other reports
There are many, many reports of strange events that I haven’t mentioned here. But enough is enough! These are simply the ones I have read about, investigated or find most interesting and challenging.
What are we to make of these reports?
It seems to me that there are 4 possible ways to explain any of these accounts.
Many accounts of apparently supernatural events are undoubtedly deliberate inventions or stories which grew out of nothing – urban myths, misunderstandings or stories invented for fun or for profit.
2. Hallucination or imagination
Some mentally healthy people do have hallucinations, or strong imaginations. After bereavement, or under stress or religious emotion, their brains may produce visions or voices which they take to be real in the external world, even when they are only subjective.
3. Natural occurrence but misunderstood
Natural occurrences in the external world can be misunderstood and misinterpreted. A light can appear to be a person. A dream can seem to be real. An unexpected recovery from a medical condition can seem like divine healing. Perhaps religious fervour in an excited crowd leads to imaginative interpretations.
It could even be that some human beings have natural powers that we are not yet fully aware of.
4. Supernatural occurrence
Perhaps a supernatural being has interacted with us and with the world. We may then question the nature of this being. Is it the God of a religion? Could it be an angel, or a spirit? Is it evil or good? Could it be a ghost?
What should we think?
I think we can all agree that many apparently supernatural occurrences fall into categories 1-3. But all of them, every last one??
Most of us will assess these accounts based on our current worldview. Religious believers will likely accept accounts which fit in with their beliefs whole rejecting others. Materialistic non-believers will probably deny that any of these events have a supernatural explanation, but other non-believers may be open to one type of experience or another being more than natural.
But could we learn more by being a little more open to possibilities?
My approach as a christian
As a christian, I am obviously open to the possibility of supernatural experiences. And as an analytical person, I like to see evidence, reputable, documented and repeated.
Where I have written about apparently supernatural experiences, I have researched them extensively. I believe, based on extensive evidence, that some visions, some healings, and some deep experiences do happen and are initiated by God. I believe they are an expression of God’s love towards us.
But I believe many of the experiences I’ve briefly outlined merit considerable doubt. They may not be as well documented, or they seem less plausible. Or perhaps they have occurred but are not understood and interpreted accurately. The photos of the Zeitoun Mary are not very convincing. Most angel stories provide little evidence.
But whether you draw similar conclusions or not, I think all these accounts challenge a materialistic viewpoint. Can all the accounts be explained naturally?
Or do some of them give us a hint of a different reality?
I will examine some of these matters in more detail in the future, and also give a more detailed assessment of what I believe can be considered to be based on good evidence.
Photo by Anastasia Shuraeva