Supernatural experiences?

June 22nd, 2023 in Life. Tags: , , , , ,
Dale Allison - Encountering Mystery

Are you interested in the supernatural? Fascinated by mysteries? Wonder what is the truth about the paranormal?

Then read on!

Most people have an interest in the bizarre, the unusual. Stories of angels or of people experiencing life after death or of appearances of dead relatives intrigue us and perhaps worry us a little too.

But only a few of us research the topic. So I was interested to read a book by a respected academic that covers all this, and more. I think you’ll be interested too.

Encountering Mystery – Dale Allison

Dale Allison is an eminent Biblical scholar and New Testament historian. I reviewed his book, The Resurrection of Jesus a couple of months back, and found it an invigorating read, featuring a cautious and even sceptical approach to the subject.

So I was intrigued by his latest book, Encountering Mystery: Religious Experience in a Secular Age.

Encountering Mystery is a surprise. It exhibits the same careful, even-handed analysis, but the subject is way outside what you’d expect from a Biblical scholar. But Allison is no ordinary scholar. He has a wide range of interests – he’s even written a book about George Harrison.

His interest in religious and supernatural experiences stems from a few of his own experiences which have shaped his life in many ways. Allison is a Christian, but a very open-minded and non-dogmatic believer, so he approaches these matters in a non-partisan manner.

A wide range of experiences

In the book Allison examines (with many references, as you’d expect) a number of different religious or supernatural experiences which people claim to have had:

  • Numinous or mystical experiences which give a person a sense of awe, a feeling of peace and of somehow being at one with the universe. These experiences often change their lives forever.
  • Religious experiences that fill a person with love, but also less common experiences that generate horror and dread.
  • Answers to prayer.
  • Encounters with angels.
  • Strange and joyful experiences as people approach death.
  • So-called Near Death Experiences (NDEs) where people who have been revived from clinical death report seeing and hearing real world events while they were “dead’, and going on a journey to a new blissful world.

Analysis and reflection

He follows these chapters with analysis of the arguments for and against the genuineness of these experiences (as opposed to psychological or neurological explanations), and argues there is enough evidence here to cause any reasonable person to stop and consider. Of course he knows that many of these accounts must inevitably be coincidences, mistaken interpretations or urban myths, but he argues there are enough well documented accounts to combat total scepticism.

Then follows some theological reflection. He notes the Biblical accounts of angels, dreams and visions, and an ancient Jewish tradition that angels accompany righteous people in their passage through death into the age to come. He suggests that some of the experiences he has discussed may have been catalysts for Christian doctrines on angels, heaven and hell.

He finishes with a most interesting pastoral reflection. He has lectured on these topics, and has often found people who have had similar experiences quietly and tentatively sharing them with him, often the first time they have told anyone. Accordingly he recommends sensitive treatment for those who share strange experiences, listening carefully and being slow to make judgments or theological or theological pronouncements.

My reaction

I enjoyed the book. I appreciated his careful and open-hearted honesty. I think all these phenomena are interesting from an apologetic, philosophical, theological and personal perspective. I’m glad I have learnt a lot about other people’s experiences. (I have never experienced anything like this myself.)

What to make of all this?

There are many reasons to reject that these mysterious encounters were what they may seem:

  • Most of these occurrences cannot be independently verified. By their very nature, they are not easily recorded or independently confirmed.
  • Many stories sound somehow contrived and many no doubt are misleading, inaccurate or even invented.Some have been convincingly debunked. Couldn’t all be the same?
  • There would be natural explanations for each of the phenomena Allison addresses. People under stress can imagine things. Humans are prone to see human agency in unusual events. And so on.
  • In a scientific age, it is easy to be sceptical of events that cannot be scientifically explained or verifed. It doesn’t make sense to believe in angels, or religion, any longer, they are leftovers from a bygone age.

But equally there are good reasons to think the sceptics may be wrong and these experiences are “real”:

  • The fact that some experiences have been debunked says little about the remainder, some of which can be verified up to a point (for example, there are sometimes more than one witness).
  • If natural occurrences, it is hard to see an evolutionary reason why our brain would evolve to imagine these things.
  • People don’t always report experiences consistent with their religious beliefs (or lack of belief), which you’d expect if they were the imaginings of a religious brain.
  • Many of these events have been well-documented and occur to people of quite normal psychology.
  • Although sceptics believe there is a natural explanation for them all, such explanations aren’t clear, don’t apply to all experiences, and haven’t really been verified.
  • Thus many of these encounters meet the sort of criteria we use to judge reality – common shared experiences of the world around us.

I conclude it is best to keep an open mind.

What do you think?

Read more on unusual spiritual experiences

Main graphic: Book cover, Baker Publishing Group and Pedro Figueras.


  1. Hi Eric

    I’ll have to get that book at some point. I already have a long list of books I need to catch up on.

    I’ve personally never had anything even close to an experience of the spiritual nature. I sometimes wonder if I’d even know it if I did or if I’d just try to hand wave it away. When it comes to these kinds of experience I personally try not to put too much stock in them while also maintaining an open mind. NDE are interesting but my gut tells me not to put to much faith in them as a means of trying to discover either or not mind is more than brain.

    I’m on the fence about wither or not I’d want a spiritual experience…..I suppose I’m somewhat frightened about how it would change me ?

    Will have to give the book a read.

    Wishing you well


  2. Hi Aaron,

    I think your reaction is similar to mine. I am naturally a litle sceptical, but interested. I think too that most of us are a little wary of God, because of how it might change us. But in the end, I’d rather take a step than die wondering.

    All the best to you too.

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