Secrets of seeing God: The long, strange history of divine revelation

For millennia, people have claimed to bear witness to divine beings. Their visions come in all shapes and sizes

Published January 17, 2015 9:30PM (EST)

   (<a href=''>Triangle c</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Triangle c via Shutterstock/Salon)

Excerpted from “Aha!: The Moments of Insight that Shape Our World.”

Author C. S. Lewis was an atheist for the first three decades of his life. Then, after much soul searching, he concluded that God exists. This wasn’t, however, the end of his religious transformation. On September 28, 1931, at age 33, he got into the sidecar of his brother’s motorcycle to travel to Whipsnade Zoo near London. “When we set out,” he says, “I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. . . . It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.” As a result of this experience, Lewis became a committed Anglican.

This is only one of many forms a religious aha moment can take. Consider, for example, that of David Brainerd, an eighteenth-century missionary to the American Indians. He had been experiencing what we today would call a meaning-of-life crisis. In an attempt to resolve it, he resorted to prayer, even though he thought the activity was pointless. But then, he writes,

As I was walking in a thick grove, unspeakable glory seemed to open to the apprehension of my soul. I do not mean any external brightness, nor any imagination of a body of light, but it was a new inward apprehension or view that I had of God, such as I never had before, nor anything which had the least resemblance to it. I had no particular apprehension of any one person in the Trinity, either the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost; but it appeared to be Divine glory. My soul rejoiced with joy unspeakable, to see such a God, such a glorious Divine Being. . . . I continued in this state of inward joy, peace, and astonishing, till near dark without any sensible abatement. . . . I felt myself in a new world, and everything about me appeared with a different aspect from what it was wont to do.

In this case, although Brainerd at one point remarks on how joyous it was to “see such a God,” the rest of his account indicates that he did not see or hear anything during his revelation; he instead felt something within his soul. As a result, he regained his conviction that there was a God and thereby found meaning for his life. It was a transformative event.

Psychologist Chana Ullman has investigated religious conversions. One young man she interviewed had attended a prayer meeting at which Christian friends laid hands over his head and prayed that he would receive the Holy Spirit. This ceremony, he said, caused him to feel “flooded with joy,” with “a blissful feeling of being drunk, of being fed.” Later that night, lying in bed, he had an even more profound experience: “All this intensity started hitting me from above, like intense warmth, like a blanket of love. It was almost like it made noise, like it hit me on top of my head, surged all the way down my body and just filled it. I would have been knocked down by the power if I had not been lying down already.”

In other, more dramatic revelations, a person hears or sees something rather than feeling something in his body or soul. Consider, for example, Moses’s first encounter with God:

The angel of the Lord appeared to him in the flame of a burning bush. Moses noticed that, although the bush was on fire, it was not being burnt up; so he said to himself, “I must go across to see this wonderful sight. Why does not the bush burn away?” When the Lord saw that Moses had turned aside to look, he called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses.” And Moses answered, “Yes, I am here.” God said, “Come no nearer; take off your sandals; the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” Moses covered his face, for he was afraid to gaze on God.

Or consider the aha moment experienced by Saint Augustine of Hippo. In the middle of a personal crisis, Augustine sat crying and praying for divine guidance under a fig tree, when he heard a child chanting, “Pick it up and read, pick it up and read.” It was a very strange thing, he thought, for a child to say. He therefore interpreted it to be “a divine command to me to open the [Bible] and read the first chapter I might find.” On doing this, Augustine encountered the following passage: “Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.” The effect of reading this was instant and profound: “With the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart.”

Augustine’s aha moment, it should be noted, was triggered by two mundane events: hearing the sound of a child playing and opening the Bible to a randomly chosen page and reading what was on it. He took the concurrence of these events as a sign from God.

In many cases, those who claim to have seen or heard something supernatural are disappointingly inarticulate when they describe what they saw or heard. Consider, by way of illustration, American revivalist C. G. Finney’s description of his encounter with God. It was early in the morning. He had gone to the meeting house to pray, when “All at once the glory of God shone upon and round about me in a manner almost marvelous. . . . A light perfectly ineffable shone in my soul, that almost prostrated me on the ground. . . . This light seemed like the brightness of the sun in every direction. It was too intense for the eyes. . . . It was surely a light such as I could not have endured long.”

The light he saw, Finney is certain, wasn’t natural; someone hadn’t simply turned on a lamp. He fails to make it clear, though, whether the light in question would have been visible to other people, had they been present. He says that the light he perceived “shone in my soul,” which suggests that it was internal and therefore invisible to others, but he also says that “it was too intense for the eyes,” which suggests that it existed in the external world, where it would have been visible to others. So maybe the light was both external and internal: it could have entered his soul through his eyes. In the end, the event is as mysterious to us as it must have been for Finney.

Finney’s is only one of many reported revelations in which light played an important role. When people have revelations in which they see a divine figure, that figure is often illuminated by a powerful beam of light, or is itself glowing and therefore a source of light. In other revelations, a person sees only a bright light. The most famous of these is probably the revelation experienced by Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus: “A light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.’ ” Saul then went blind until a Christian named Ananias came to heal him. Saul not only converted to Christianity as a result of this experience but became the apostle Paul. This conversion was particularly notable because of Saul’s previous reputation for thoroughness in persecuting Christians.

Before we investigate religious aha moments further, it will be useful to distinguish between moments that involve epiphanies and those that involve revelations. Consider again the moment C. S. Lewis experienced. It wasn’t something Lewis saw or heard during his sidecar ride that changed his mind; instead, his mind simply changed itself, to Lewis’s surprise. What happened to Lewis that day can best be described as an epiphany: he had been harboring doubts with respect to his faith and suddenly discovered, without any seemingly supernatural event taking place, that those doubts had been replaced by a feeling of conviction. The epiphany Lewis experienced was religious in nature, but it is also possible to have a moral or scientific epiphany. Indeed, the realization that one has fallen in love—or out of love, for that matter—would count as an emotional epiphany.

In the other religious aha moments I have described, something seemingly supernatural transpires: a divine being reveals itself, thereby revealing an important religious truth to a person. It is therefore fitting to reserve the term revelation for such events.

Although the revelations I have described above took place when people were awake, they can also take place when a person is asleep. Joseph, the husband of Mary, Jesus’s mother, saw and heard an angel in his dreams. This angel explained to him how it was that Mary, although a virgin, could be pregnant: she was carrying the child of the Holy Spirit. Joseph took this dream seriously. He was convinced that it was God’s vehicle for communicating with him.

Mohammed, founder of Islam, also experienced a dream revelation. Every year, Mohammed would go up Mount Hira to pray in seclusion during the month of Ramadan. During one of these retreats, when he was about forty years old, the angel Gabriel came to him while he lay sleeping. Gabriel carried a coverlet of brocade on which words were written. He commanded Mohammed to read it, and after experiencing both confusion and distress, Mohammed succeeded in doing so. The words in question later became a verse in the Quran.

If this dream had been the only revelation Mohammed experienced, it is unlikely that he would have succeeded in founding a new religion. Others would have likely dismissed this story as nothing more than a strange dream. But this dream revelation turned out to be only the prelude to a grander revelation. Mohammed woke from his sleep and, thinking he was somehow possessed, started climbing Hira with the object of throwing himself from the mountain. During his ascent, however, he had a vision. Turning his eyes toward the heavens, he saw a man apparently floating in mid-air. No matter which way Mohammed directed his vision, the man stayed before him. The man announced that he was Gabriel and that Mohammed had been chosen as the apostle of God. Waking revelations like this one carry far more weight, both among those who experience them and those who are told of them, than dream revelations.

Among waking revelations, we can distinguish between those that are sensory and those that are mental. In a mental revelation, we involuntarily see or hear something in our mind. Thus, if I pause in my writing to call up a mental image of Jesus, I can’t be said to have had a religious revelation: I was clearly the cause of what I saw. But if, without willing it, I see a mental image of Jesus and if I am powerless to make that image go away, I might conclude that I have experienced a religious revelation that was mental rather than sensory.

Mohammed’s second encounter with Gabriel—during which he saw Gabriel floating in front of him—was a sensory revelation. This does not seem to have been the case with the revelations he subsequently had in which Allah dictated the Quran to him. The voice Mohammed heard in those revelations appears to have been in his mind. In saying this, I am not denying the possibility that the voice had a divine origin; I am simply pointing out that other people who were present when he heard the voice heard nothing.

In a religious revelation, a divine being reveals himself to a human being. I had assumed that such events were rare. Then I found out about evangelical Christians who believe that God routinely reveals himself to them. The revelations in question are mental rather than sensory, and they consist not in mentally seeing or hearing God but in simply having a thought. Allow me to explain.

People pray for any number of reasons. Some pray in an attempt to affect events: they might pray for world peace, pray that an ill friend recovers, or pray that they win the lottery. Some pray to offer thanks. Some pray for help in dealing with a difficult situation; they might pray, for example, for strength to resist temptation. There are also prayers in which people ask for divine guidance in making a decision.

The decision in question might be whether to marry someone, whether to have children, or whether to join a certain religion. The decision might also be something mundane, such as whether to paint a table or wear a certain outfit.

God can, of course, give us guidance by causing us to hear his voice, either with our ears or in our mind. According to some evangelicals, though, God can also guide us simply by causing us to have a thought. As a result of having it, we will know what we should do. And thanks to our belief that God is responsible for this thought, we will have a high degree of confidence that we have made the right decision. Indeed, if someone questions the wisdom of our decision—“Do you really think it is a good idea to marry George?”—we will have a ready response: “It’s what God wants me to do.”

According to this line of thinking, God reveals himself to us by causing us to have thoughts that we wouldn’t otherwise have had. This belief, however, raises obvious questions. We humans are prone to spontaneous thoughts; indeed, ideas “come to us” throughout the day. The source of these thoughts is our unconscious mind. How can we be sure, then, that the thoughts we have after praying for guidance aren’t also the product of our unconscious mind, in which case they might represent wishful thinking on our part rather than revelations of the will of God? And even if we are confident that thoughts were planted in us by a supernatural source, how can we be certain the source is God rather than, say, Satan?

To be sure, those in the evangelical community admit that it is possible for us to mistakenly attribute our thoughts to God. According to Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist who has studied members of the evangelical Vineyard Movement, newcomers “soon learn that God is understood to speak to congregants inside their own minds. They learn that someone who worships God at the Vineyard must develop the ability to recognize thoughts in their own mind that are not in fact their thoughts, but God’s. They learn that this is a skill they should master.” She adds that “at the beginning, they usually find both the skill and the very idea of the skill perplexing."

It would be difficult for someone to establish a new religion solely on the basis of mental revelations. Although the person who experienced them might be supremely confident about his interpretation of these revelations, other people would likely be skeptical. They would assume that he, not God, was responsible for the images, voices, or thoughts he had. Likewise, it would be difficult to establish a new religion solely on the basis of a dream; people would be likely to dismiss it as “ just a dream,” the kind we have every night. Indeed, the world’s great religions all seem to have been founded on the basis of sensory revelations in which someone saw or heard God, or some other divine being, and the seeing and hearing was done not within his mind but with his eyes and ears. Let us, therefore, take a closer look at sensory revelations.

We have examined sensory revelations in which people see or hear a divine being, but what about the other senses? We can certainly imagine them being involved. We can, for example, imagine someone telling us that she not only saw God standing before her but that when God held out his hand to be kissed, she also touched, smelled, and tasted him: “The skin of his hand was smoother than silk. It had an aroma more intoxicating than the finest perfume, and when I kissed that hand, it tasted sweeter than honey.” But when we look at revelations people have reported, we rarely find mention of the senses of touch, smell, and taste; instead, sight and hearing dominate. It is not clear why this should be the case.

Although it is quite unusual for a person experiencing a revelation to feel a divine being externally—for example, by touching it with his fingertips—it is not at all unusual for a revelation to consist of feeling the presence of a divine being internally. This is what happened to David Brainerd: he felt joy.

This is also what happened to the young man whose friends laid hands over his head and prayed for him. His revelation consisted of a feeling of “intense warmth.” I should add that the warmth people experience during a religious revelation is different from the warmth they experience when a sunbeam hits their cheek, when they have a fever, or when they down a shot of whiskey. The warmth of a religious revelation is felt not on their skin or in their body, but in their soul.

Most sensory revelations involve not direct but indirect encounters with a divine being. In these encounters, a person doesn’t see or hear a divine being—or touch, smell, or taste one, either. Instead, he sees or hears something natural—the way Saint Augustine heard the children and saw the line in the Bible—and concludes that a divine being is causally responsible for what he sees or hears. He concludes, in other words, that a divine being has revealed itself to him by means of “a sign.”

Sometimes when people experience a sign, they themselves bring the sign into existence. This is presumably what happens when people speak in tongues. What they hear is not the voice of God but something perfectly natural—their own voice. They believe, however, that it is God who is making them speak. What makes the event remarkable is the fact that they aren’t choosing what words they speak and don’t know the language those words are in. It is evidence, they argue, of the presence of the Holy Spirit within them, and it therefore constitutes a revelation.

It turns out that your tongue isn’t the only thing that can give rise to a sign from God; your fingers can as well. Along these lines, consider the indirect revelations experienced by Ron Lafferty, a Mormon who, in the 1980s, thought his church needed radical reform. The Mormon Church not only rejected his reforms but excommunicated him. Lafferty thereafter started receiving “high-tech revelations” from God: he would sit at a computer keyboard with eyes closed and wait for his fingertips to be moved by the spirit of the Lord. “It’s like a blanket falls over you,” he said, “and you can feel the Lord’s thoughts, and you write them down.” It was in this manner that Lafferty, early in 1984, received a revelation in which God commanded him to kill various people. In response to it, he brutally murdered his brother’s wife and her fifteen-month-old baby.

As we have seen, sensory revelations can take many forms. The ones that are most persuasive and therefore most likely to give rise to a new religion are those in which you see God or some other divine being with your eyes. I will henceforth reserve the word vision for this kind of revelation. And among visions, the most persuasive are those in which you not only see a divine being with your eyes, but hear it speak as well. Allow me to explain why.

Suppose you try to start a new religion on the basis of a being appearing silently before you. Although you will likely be impressed by this event, potential converts will be skeptical: “Well, who was it, and what did it want?” they will ask. If the being was mute, the most you will be able to do in response to such questions is tell them who you think it was and what you think it wants. Even if you feel confident that these thoughts were planted in your mind by the speechless being, many people will understandably be skeptical. If, however, you can tell people that the being introduced itself (the way God introduced himself to Moses) and issued direct commands to you, people will probably pay attention and might even be inclined to join the new religion that this being told you to start.

Having said this, though, I hasten to add that even “audible visions,” in which you both see and hear a divine being, raise many important questions about the identity and objectives of that being.

Suppose someone is instructed, in a vision, to start a new religion, but that this is the end of divine contact: the being never makes another appearance and never even sends an angel to deliver messages. It would be very difficult, under these circumstances, for the prophet to succeed. This is because the process of starting a new religion raises a number of questions. What should the leadership structure be, and who should fill the leadership roles? How should the church be financed? How should people pray? Where should the followers live? What should the rules of conduct be? How should internal disputes be settled?

Thus, when he was leading the Jews, Moses was faced with the question of where to store the tablets of stone on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. Here is the answer he came up with:

Make an ark of acacia wood—two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold molding around it. Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry it. The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed. Then put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law, which I will give you.

The instructions go on to specify how to make a cover for the ark, where to keep the ark, and so forth.

In 1841, Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the Mormon religion, was faced with the question of how to build a boarding house in Nauvoo, Illinois. Here is part of his answer:

Behold, verily I say unto you, let my servant George Miller, and my servant Lyman Wight, and my servant John Snider, and my servant Peter Haws, organize themselves, and appoint one of them to be a president over their quorum for the purpose of building that house. And they shall form a constitution, whereby they may receive stock for the building of that house. And they shall not receive less than fifty dollars for a share of stock in that house, and they shall be permitted to receive fifteen thousand dollars from any one man for stock in that house.

It is important to realize that in these cases, Moses and Smith weren’t telling their followers what they wanted done, what they thought would be a good idea to do. Had they done so, their followers might have responded by coming up with ideas of their own, and there might have been a debate over how best to do things. Moses and Smith avoided such debates by informing followers that in giving these directives, they were speaking for God. Moses was simply quoting what God had told him on Mount Sinai, and Smith was simply passing on instructions he had been given in a revelation.

By having these ongoing revelations, the prophet not only maintains control over the direction the church takes but provides followers with evidence that he remains God’s chosen prophet. After a founding prophet dies, whoever takes his place sometimes inherits his prophetic ability. This is the case in the Mormon Church, for example: whoever gains the position of president thereby becomes the church’s official prophet, seer, and revelator.

Gordon B. Hinckley was the fifteenth person to hold the position of president. In a 1997 interview, he described the role revelations played in his own administrative efforts: “Let me say first that we have a great body of revelation, the vast majority of which came from the prophet Joseph Smith. We don’t need much revelation. We need to pay more attention to the revelation we’ve already received.” He went on to describe his own experience with revelations: “If a problem should arise on which we don’t have an answer, we pray about it, we may fast about it, and it comes. Quietly. Usually no voice of any kind, but just a perception in the mind.” He called it “a still, small voice,” like the one heard by the Old Testament prophet Elijah.

Excerpted from “Aha!: The Moments of Insight that Shape Our World” by William B. Irvine. Copyright © 2015 by William B. Irvine. Reprinted by arrangement with Oxford University Press, a division of Oxford University. All rights reserved.

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