Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs say a vision of Jesus changed their lives and led them to believe in him. Christians and sceptics in the west say they too have had visions of Jesus that profoundly changed them. Is it possible, or were they just hallucinations? What difference does it make?
These questions have been investigated, and the answer may be more complicated than you expect. (This page was significantly updated, February, 2020.)
I present these stories as they are described, without initially making any judgment about whether the visions were ‘real’. A discussion on whether they could be ‘real’ follows.
People in the west see Jesus
In his book Visions of Jesus, Prof Phillip Wiebe reports on his interviews (conducted about 1990) with 30 people who say they had visions of Jesus. Some examples:
Two visions and a conversion
Jim Link had two separate visionary experiences. The first, as an unbeliever, occurred while he was watching TV at home in Ontario Canada one evening, and it seemed like the screen became invisible and a human figure was in the room. The figure didn’t speak, but he beckoned Jim to come to him and Jim immediately thought it was Jesus and remembered his words in the New Testament:
Come to me all you who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. This experience led to him deciding to be a christian. Fifteen years later, while meeting with other christians, he had another vsion, and Jesus questioned him for several hours. The others could hear Jim’s response but saw nothing.
Vision or dream?
Deby Stamm-Loya had an abusive upbringing from her atheist father and as a teenager ended up using drugs (mostly LSD) and a gang leader. But she became interested in religion and read library books and eventually the Bible, and she “surrendered” to the presence she found there. Much later in life, she felt she needed to know God better, and that night a man she instantly recognised as Jesus stood at the end of her bed and spoke to her at length, re-assuring her that he loved her and she should follow him. Deby felt sure she was awake when this experience began, as she could see out through her bedroom doorway where her parents were sitting, although she later ‘lost natural consciousness’. She was equally adamant that this experience was very different to her drug experiences. Deby was, at the time of writing, completing her doctorate degree in ministry and had founded an organisation helping prison inmates.
Guess who’s coming for dinner?
When Maureen Haser was 29 years old, married and living in Ontario, she and her husband went on a marriage enrichment weekend. They were having problems, and she felt she could not offer him unconditional love. Alone in her room, Jesus appeared to her, and though he didn’t speak, he communicated that he loved her and wanted to help her, and she felt she understood forgiveness for the first time. Several years later, while lunching with a friend, Jesus sat down in a vacant chair at their restaurant table, wearing Biblical clothes. Nothing was said, and her friend saw nothing, but after he left, Maureen remarked:
You’d think he’d wear normal clothes if he’s coming out to lunch. Simultaneously, both had the thought:
That is how you recognise me!
Evidence in the snow
This is a very simple story. Henry Hinn was a 19 year old Greek Orthodix christian when he went to pray in a forest close to his home in Ontario. It had only recently snowed. Jesus suddenly appeared to him, and 2.5m away and spoke to him briefly, to encourage him. After he disappeared, Henry noticed that the snow had disappeared where Jesus had stood, and he could stand on the dead grass.
A vision and a healing
Barry Dyck was an 18 year old christian in British Columbia (Canada) in 1974 when he had a skiing accident that broke 3 vertebrae in his neck. In hospital, swelling caused his vision to become blurry, but the night before surgery was planned, he woke up to see Jesus at the foot of his bed. They conversed briefly, Barry touched Jesus’ hands, and Jesus said to him:
Everything is going to be OK. The next morning Barry woke up with full vision and no pain. X-rays confirmed that there was now no fracture where there had been previously, and he was allowed to return home weeks earlier than expected and with no need for a neck brace. You can read Barry’s account of this experience here.
Barry wrote a comment on my blog, almost 40 years after this experience, saying:
The most important part was that when Jesus was there, the love was so beyond anything I have ever experienced by a factor of 777, that my first and only thought was “take me with you.” ….. The love was truly indescribable. The next day I remember thinking of one of the worst humans to have walked this earth, I thought that I too would have died for that person, because that love was not a doctrine, it was a reality. Yes Jesus healing me. But far, far above that was that he loved me, and I FELT IT!
….. The feeling of this love faded over the course of about 3 or 4 weeks ….. Jesus loves me this I know, for his presence told me so. And for those reading this, He loves you too with the same intense, indescribable, never ending love.
Captured on film
Finally, a story that goes beyond any of the others, which I will report as outlined in the book. Kenneth Logie was the pastor of a Pentecostal church in California in 1954, when Jesus appeared at an evening service and, seen by the 50 people present at the time, walked up to the platform and, after Kenneth fell to the ground spoke to him in another language. Following some other extraordinary events, a 8mm movie camera was purchased. And so, in 1959, when Jesus appeared again, he was seen by about 200 people, and the event was captured on movie film. The film was subsequently shown publicly to about 200 people, including Phillip Wiebe, then an undergraduate. He has since interviewed several people who were present at the viewing, and most agree with him that it records an unusual vision, though some do not remember it well and some believe an actor was used. This is important, because the movie film was subsequently stolen from Kenneth’s home.
It is impossible for us to know without doubt the truth or otherwise of these stories, but Phillip Wiebe says that he feels sure the people he interviewed genuinely believed they had seen what they reported. I suppose some may not be true accounts, but it is clear something happened in most of the cases which had a profound influence on the people concerned.
Wiebe goes on to examine the possible explanations, which fall into three categories:
- Supernatural explanations,
- Natural psychological explanations, and
- Natural neurophysiological explanations.
It is easy to simpy say these experiences were merely hallucinations or dreams, but Wiebe finds that none of these three classes can satisfactorily explain these events.
There doesn’t seem to be any particular type of person that is prone to have visions of Jesus, and Wiebe believes that
“Christic visions are evidentially more common than is ordinarily believed”. None of the naturalistic explanations seems capable of fully explaining them, though that may perhaps change with further research.
Wiebe therefore concludes that
‘they may well represent genuine religious experiences of a mystical character’. He suggests that a ‘transcendent’ explanation for these contemporary visions of Jesus should be investigated empirically as a supplement to more naturalistic explanations. (This conclusion is based on the views of some scientists that scientific explanations alone cannot account for many phenomena, such as religious experience, apparent survival after death, mystical experiences and the findings of psychical research.)
I examine psychological and neurological explanations of visionary experiences in more detail later on this page.
Non-christians see Jesus
The following stories have been collected from around the web. I have discarded many because they were from sources that I judged as less factually reliable, and have chosen ones that seemed to have a greater ring of truth. But these stories are just a small sample of a large number of similar reports.
I don’t reference these stories to be triumphalistic or cause an argument, but simply to report on what appears to be happening and is evidence that God may be communicating.
- Wikipedia once told the story of Gulshan Esther, a wealthy Pakistani Muslim who was crippled by typhoid from the age of 6 months. Despite treatment by the best doctors in Britain, she was not cured. When she was 19, she had a vision of Jesus and was cured of her illness. She remained a Muslim, but eventually converted to christianity, was deprived of her family inheritance (which was considerable) and went to live in Britain. Parts of her story can be found elsewhere on the internet.
- In A young Muslim intellectual changes course, I tell the story of Nabeel, a smart young US Muslim who converted to christianity after a vision and three dreams, all of which confirmed in him the conclusion that Christianity had better answers and evidence than Islam. Sadly, Nabeel has since died.
- This website tells the stories, dramatised in videos, of 5 Muslims in 5 different countries who saw Jesus in a vision or a dream, which led to them choosing to follow Jesus, or Isa, as he is called in the Koran;
- Don Richardson is a Canadian christian who has researched world missions. In his book Eternity in their hearts he tells many stories of people believing in Jesus because of dreams, visions and other experiences. In one case, more a vision from Jesus than of Jesus, a man in an Ethiopian tribe saw a vision of two men coming to his village to tell them about God. Years later, missionaries came to his tribe, the Ethiopian man listened, believed, and is now one of thousands of christians from his tribe.
- A Sikh woman and her husband used to read their scriptures and prayed very day. One night while she was praying, she had a vision of Jesus. This led to her conversion, and after some study and questioning, her husband also.
- In 1987 Nasir Siddiki was admitted to Toronto Hospital with a bad case of shingles and such a high temperature he was not expected to survive overnight. In the night a light entered his room and he saw the outline of a person, who told him he was the christian God. When the doctors checked in the morning, he was healed, and he subsequently became a christian.
- A Muslim teenager who God spoke to in a dream, and who subsequently saw a vision of Jesus, chose to follow Jesus as a result. On the same site are many other similar stories, including this one of a number of Filipino Muslims who saw visions of Jesus after fasting and prayer during Ramadan.
- More stories of Muslims seeing visions of Jesus and choosing to follow him as a result – this time a documentary on video.
- The Jesus Visions website has stories of dreams, healings and other supernatural events in the Muslim world, leading people to believe in Jesus.
- More sources for stories about Muslims receiving visions of Jesus are listed in references at the end of this page.
A quick assessment
There are many such stories on many such websites, and some of them don’t necessarily give you confidence. There is no perfect way to test the reality of these stories. Sceptics can simply disbelieve them, or (more likely) believe they have natural explanations, and there is no way that I know of to refute or confirm their conclusion absolutely. Believers are in the same position of being unable to confirm or disprove.
So are we left with each “side” sticking to their prejudices? I think there is a little more we can do.
In the end, many people’s lives have changed dramatically, often at significant personal cost, because of these experiences. These people can be questioned and observed, and the external realities confirmed. That much can be verified, and has been verified in many cases.
So we can know that many of these stories are not urban myths, and therefore they require an explanation. Simply saying it is all psychological or emotional won’t be enough. Those hypotheses have to be tested. Fortunately, that has been done for the Canadian reports discussed above, where the obvious simplistic explanations (e.g. hallucination) don’t always stand up to scrutiny. I am not aware of any study of these Middle Eastern and Asian events, but I imagine analysis of them would lead to similar conclusions.
But one aspect requires extra explanation. If these experiences are “merely” psychological, we might expect people in nominally christian countries to have visions of Jesus, but it is hard to explain why Muslims with very limited knowledge of Jesus would have visions of him.
The interesting thing is that there are thousands of such reports, especially of Muslims seeing visions of Jesus and converting, often semi-secretly. So while it is easy to dismiss some reports, it is difficult to dismiss them all. It is impossible to know how many stories are true accounts, but the sheer weight of numbers and the personal testimonies on video indicate that something is happening.
I have evaluated scientific assessments of visions generally in the following section.
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.” Make of this what you will!
Psychological and neurological explanations
There are several 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.
It has become evident in many studies that:
- Visionary experiences occur more commonly than was once thought, perhaps experienced by as many as 40% of people.
- Delusions and hallucinations can be psychoses indicating a serious underlying disorder, but they can also represent one end of a continuum of normal consciousness.
Visionary experiences are therefore 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.
Distinguishing pathological and spiritual experiences remains a vexed question, but it may be that “normal” experiences have these characteristics:
- the recipient feels the experience is good;
- the experiences lead to action;
- such experiences are considered normal in the recipient’s close community; and
- they are accepterd in the wider community.
Phillip Wiebe’s conclusions
Wiebe’s analysis is now more than two decades old, but is still worth reviewing briefly.
Possibly the most immediately obvious explanation for these visions, in the public mind at any rate, is that they arise from some mental state, such as a hallucination or dreams. Wiebe considers explanations from psychical research (the idea of a disembodied ‘soul’ which lives on after death; or a ‘persona’), plus more recognised psychological explanations (Jungian archetypes; mental events such as hallucinations and apparitions brought on by stress, wish-fulfilment, loneliness, etc; or psychoanalytic, often Freudian, explanations).
In the end, Wiebe finds that none of these explanations can explain all the events he has recorded. The conditions or causes supposed in each explanation are simply not present in each case. Wiebe concludes that to make any of these explanations’work’, a physical (neurophysiological) process must constitute a ‘deeper’ cause.
Neurophysiological mechanisms relate to the physical (electro-chemical) events in the brain, and would probably be the type of explanation most favoured by scientists today. No-one doubts that neurological processes are involved in visionary experiences (or any other thought processes for that matter), the question is whether they provide sufficient explanation on their own. A hallucination in this category is defined as an apparent perception when no external object is present – i.e. it’s all in the brain.
Wiebe examined several mechanisms proposed to explain how the brain might produce hallucinations: the Perpetual Release Theory (genuine sensory perceptions are stored in the brain and released at some other time when the object is no longer present), the Information Processing Theory (a development of the previous theory), the Overactive Reticular System Theory (abnormal events in a part of the brain which cause hallucinations, as may occur with schizophrenia) and Pharmacology (hallucinations caused by natural hallucinogens). Again, Wiebe concludes that none of these theories has yet been developed enough to be considered an adequate explanation of the visions he recounts, especially those involving more than one sense, repeated appearances, or events observed by more than one person.
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 any of the experiences discussed here, 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 discussed here. In most of these accounts, people were not in churches that taught people to hear from God, and many were not believers at all. 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 Mystical experiences, 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.
So it seems ….
So it seems that contemporary psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience are less like to classify visions of Jesus as psychotic and pathological than we might have thought. The experiences aren’t easily explained or classified, they occur to a large number of people who don’t appear to be suffering from a mental disorder, and they have generally positive outcomes.
In particular, temporal lobe epilepsy, often suggested as a cause, appears to be an unlikely explanation in most cases.
Does all this tell us anything about God?
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 generally 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.
These visions of Jesus are so diverse that they present a challenge to all viewpoints. But it seems clear that current science hasn’t in any way ruled them out as possible genuine experiences of God.
There is enough evidence here that cannot easily be explained scientifically to refute the oft-made claim that
there’s no evidence for God. If evidence is (as the dictionary says)
“reasons for believing that something is or is not true”, then these experiences are evidence of some sort. Nevertheless, I don’t think these accounts can be said to 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 experiences 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.
Philip Wiebe’s book, Visions of Jesus.
Muslim visions of Jesus
I don’t reference these stories to be triumphalistic or cause an argument, but simply to report on what appears to be happening and is evidence that God may be communicating. I am unable to verify these accounts, and some Muslims dispute them, so I offer them as examples of what appears to be a widespread phenomenon.
Psychological and neurological explanations
Graphics are from the cover of Philip Wiebe’s book, Visions of Jesus.