Encounter Heading: Skeptic's Guide


The Evidential Value
of Religious Experience

Part 2 of a Debate
Between Paul Doland and Dennis Jensen

Lee Strobel has written four books in a series:
The Case for Christ, The Case for Faith, The Case for a Creator, and The Case for the Real Jesus, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2007 respectively). All four I have found to be very effective in arguing their respective claims. Strobel has interviewed various leading scholars in several different fields to present the strongest arguments available for Christianity. He has taken the time to present opposing arguments and claims within his books, so to a considerable degree he has presented possibly the most important pros and cons one would need to consider. But anyone who is honestly searching and evaluating the various religious and secular claims should look at the more developed critiques of Strobel’s arguments as well. Paul Doland claims to have presented one such critique of Strobel’s The Case for Faith, entitled “The Case Against Faith.”

From 2008 and 2010, Doland and I have carried out a debate following from Doland’s critique. References to Doland’s critique and similar critiques and to Doland’s selections from this debate can be found at the end of this article.
The bulk of the entire debate is now available at this link as a PDF. The following portion of the debate looks at religious experience as evidence for belief in God.

When quoting Doland or myself or any other speaker/writer, I have placed a number following the speaker’s name or the quotation. The number “1” will follow Strobel or one of his interviewees. Number “2” will follow Doland’s name for his first response to Strobel’s book. Number “3” will follow my name for my response to Doland’s last statement, etc. This will help the reader follow the sometimes extended line of dialogue. I have also underlined those portions of my statements to which Doland has selected to respond. Some references and links are in bold print indicating that the link has yet to be constructed.

Doland2: It’s not my place to dismiss the religious experiences of Strobel, Craig, or any other Christian. Lacking their first-hand experiences, it would be presumptuous for me to say anything about what they have experienced. I can only speak for myself, and I seem incapable of “experiencing” God. Many Christians thoughtlessly blame me for this, claiming that I haven’t had enough faith, didn’t try hard enough, or wouldn’t have accepted such experiences even if I had had them. All of these accusations are wide of the mark; they haven’t walked in my shoes. They don’t know how many times I’ve prayed and asked Jesus into my life. Since I don’t go around challenging the validity of Christians’ religious experiences, I would appreciate it if Christians would refrain from passing judgment on my lack thereof.

Jensen3: Doland’s point is well taken. I don’t know his life well enough to say that he did this or that wrong. Of the many religious experiences I’ve heard recounted, it seems as though there can be a wide variety of types. Often the seeker will initially gain only an increased hunger for God which will lead to an experience of an awareness of God, of God’s existence, of Jesus, etc. Some have recounted merely a sense of certainty that a belief is true. I think that as one looks at the epistemology of sense experience, one discovers this also to be the basic grounds for our acceptance of the veridicality of religious experience. Thus someone who has merely a “sense of certainty” type of experience is justified in so believing.

Some have had experiences almost immediately after beginning to seek, some have taken much longer. I know of one person who claims to have heard an audible voice immediately after asking God for the truth.
A friend recounted how she was once at a point of extreme depression and about to cut her wrists. She told God that she had to know if it was real or not. She said she then sensed a presence in her room, nothing more nor less. This was enough to keep her from suicide and to begin, through other evidence, to come to an assurance of God’s existence.

Ann Paulk who is involved in a Christian ministry to homosexuals related that at a point in her life she called out to God for the truth. Later, at a Christian organization on the university she was attending, she said she sensed a presence filling the room. “An incredible being, the Holy Spirit, had enveloped us in gentleness, kindness, authority, reliability, and credibility” and she knew she wanted this more than anything else, including her homosexuality. (Leslie Montgomery, ed.,
Were it Not for Grace [Nashville,Tn: Broadman & Holman Pub, 2005], 170.) She also knew that God had answered her prayer to know the truth.

Kevin Harris in conversation with William Lane Craig relates the story of a friend who grew up as a Muslim in Indonesia. At age fifteen he cried out to God, “I want to know you!” He said he clearly heard a voice saying “Get a Bible and embrace my Son, Jesus.” (Reasonable Faith Podcast, 1Oc08.) Will Anderson (late husband of writer Ann Kiemel) took a Bible out to the woods and told God he would not come back until he was given the truth. He came back believing in Jesus. These are just a few examples I’ve run into. For a few more, go through the experiences recounted under “Life Experiences” under
sample topics on the Hot Topics Page. [Last two paragraphs added 23Fb09.]

An important point I want to make is that if someone tells me that they have an experience like this, this should count as evidence for their claim.

But what of Doland’s claimed inability to have a religious experience? Jesus claimed that anyone who would will to do God’s will would know that his teaching is true (John 7:17). However, he didn’t claim a time limit to attaining this knowledge, though most of the people whom I have heard sharing their experiences have claimed that it has not taken years and years. So Paul, I would encourage you to keep seeking. God may not give you an experience at all. God might give you simply new evidence, a new way of looking at arguments that have bothered you, new arguments.

But Christianity is deeply experiential. St. Paul talked about God giving us “an earnest” or “foretaste of our inheritance.” Even if one does not receive an experience that would provide justification for belief, one should at least experience a more non-noetic type of experience such as comfort or peace or awe or exultation or joy. I hope It’s clear that I am not saying that the seeker may not find justification for belief. Even though a non-noetic experience does not justify belief, one will definitely will find good grounds for belief whether it be through religious experience or exposure to evidence/arguments. [Minor alteration for clarification 3Mr15.]

One final point. I know of a Jewish lady who asked for the truth from God and happened to come across the Christian claims. She had never been exposed to this before and asked some friends what they knew about Christianity. The friends very strongly discouraged her from even considering such a thing. She did as they suggested and nothing more came of her religious search until years later when she cried out to God again.

A friend of mine (he calls himself a gay, punk rock, zombie) held to, I believe he said, something of a neopagan or New Age belief and he appeared to have experienced some unusual phenomena that seemed to support his beliefs.
I asked him if he ever simply asked God for the truth. He said he did but he didn’t like the kind of new information that started coming his way.

My point is that we cannot be assured that the search will be successful unless we honestly evaluate whatever comes and unless we persevere in seeking. The John Lennons and the Ingmar Bergmans who expect God to answer immediately or don’t really want to find God when they ask, likely will never find God, or perhaps will find but then rationalize away what they had found. And I’m not saying this is you, Paul. I’m just saying, be patient and do begin again to seek. But don’t stop seeking.

The Christian view typically expressed is that if someone dies without believing in Jesus, they will be eternally lost. And I know we will get into this topic again soon, but I need to point out that this is an oversimplification.
I do think the biblical view is pretty clear that anyone who knows that Christianity is true and rejects it is lost (John 3:18), but it also indicates that anyone who rejects Jesus and is unwilling to even seek the truth from God will also be lost. On the other hand, anyone who does seek God, as the passage mentioned earlier, John 7:17, points out, will not be lost. But is this so even if they do not come to believe in Jesus in this life? Jesus says here that they will come to know that it is true and the implication is that they will believe. (If one wills God’s will and then knows God’s will, will they not do what they have discovered God’s will to be?) But the problem is that it is not clearly stated how long it will take before one finds and believes. We generally think it will be within one’s lifetime and this is probably the general sense of the passage, but this is not definite. We cannot exclude the possibility that one may seek and never discover Christianity to be true in this life and yet they will not be lost. They will find it is true in the next life. Other passages that say that those who seek will find would therefore make this same point.

I make this long commentary here instead of later where it more logically belongs because I want to make a somewhat more personal point. I do this because you could not help but begin this topic with some personal comments about yourself, Paul. My point is that if you seek and continue to seek God, even if you never do come to believe in Christianity or even mere theism in this life, according to the Christian view (as I have argued), you will not be lost. I for one will never be the one who tells you that because you don’t believe in Jesus you will be lost, not if you do earnestly seek God and seek the truth from God. And of course, this is not merely a personal comment for you alone. There may be others who consider themselves in this same condition. I will refer back to these comments in our later discussion.

Sense of certainty type religious experience

Jensen3: [First underlined sentence in Jensen3 above.] Thus someone who has merely a “sense of certainty” type of experience is justified in so believing.

Doland4: The 9/11 hijackers had a “sense of certainty” that they would be rewarded by Allah. Sure, I know that using 9/11 is a cliché, but, it still happens to be a valid one. The point is “sense of certainty” by itself, is meaningless. People have “sense of certainty” about all sorts of things. Just ask any alleged alien abductee.

Jensen5: I’m talking about the same kind of sense of certainty that accompanies sense experience, not the mere socially engrained beliefs the 9/11 conspirators held to. People grow up with beliefs that become lithified because they don’t want to think to question them. These are just unquestioned beliefs, not beliefs that come with a distinct sense of certainty. Those who have this kind of socialized belief don’t have any distinct experience by which they could say, “I have an awareness that this is certain and true.” [This paragraph revised for clarity19Oc08.]

The problem for the secularist is that the only reason we can trust our senses is by means of the accompanying sense of certainty. Doland said he has absolute certainty that his wife exists. The only reason he can feel certain is because he trusts in is his sense of certainty. He has no more (or less) reason to believe his wife exists than I do that my religious experience tells me that God is really there and that Jesus is Lord and Messiah. How does he know that his sense experience isn’t caused by Descartes’ evil demon? Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu asked (paraphrased), “If when I sleep I should dream I am a butterfly, how do I know when I am awake that I’m not really a butterfly dreaming I’m a man?” The veridicality of sense experience is obvious only to those who have not considered such problems. Those who have not thought through the major issues in the history of philosophy, glibly ignore such problems. Yet even today, movies like
The Matrix trilogy bring them home again. Doland’s absolute certainty is nothing more than the sense of certainty that accompanies his sense experience.

Certainly some of our religious experiences can be falsified just as can some of our sense experiences. That does not mean we have no reason to trust our religious experience or our sense experience. Until they are falsified, we should accept them.

Doland should put himself in the shoes of those who claim they were abducted by aliens. If they have a sense of certainty that they were really abducted and can remember the actual experience, how is this any less certain than Doland’s memory of seeing his wife yesterday? We have to trust our experiences. If someone has just taken a drug that they have heard sometimes produces an unusual visual or mental experience, they should then have reason to question the veridicality of their experience. That might be one means of falsification. (Though another hypothesis is that they may have opened the “doors of perception” to another world. So it is not obviously falsified.) [Sentences added 15Fb09.] Or if someone who claims an alien abduction has someone tell them they had been observed to be sleeping during the time in question, this too could be considered relative falsifying evidence. But we cannot reject experience claims simply because we don’t think they are possible. Now there is some scientific evidence that aliens
cannot visit the earth, simply because of physical limitation given the distances involved and the speeds that can be traveled. This too might be considered good falsifying evidence. But barring any falsifying evidence, we need to trust our religious experience just as we trust our sense experience.

Religious experience, continued

Jensen3: [Second underlined sentence group in first Jensen3 under “God can be immediately experienced” above.] A friend recounted how she was once at a point of extreme depression and about to cut her wrists. She told God that she had to know if it was real or not. She said she then sensed a presence in her room, nothing more nor less.

Doland4: And this doesn’t just scream psychosomatic to you? Part of her didn’t want to live, part of her did. So the part of her that did invented a reason to live. At least, that is very reasonable conclusion. Can I prove it absolutely? No. I can’t prove I don’t have an invisible alligator in my pants either. I go by reasonable conclusions.

Jensen5: We can’t just invent experiences like this. Well, maybe some of us can. But those who can and do usually have some incoherence or inconsistencies in their experiences that suggest non-veridicality. That’s how we know when some mental illness or abnormality is involved. If you can’t trust an experience that has no incoherence or inconsistency, you have no justification for claiming you should trust your sense experiences. You suggested a psychological explanation that fits well under a naturalistic world view. Her explanation fits well under a theistic world view. Neither explanation exhibits any incoherence that would suggest non-veridicality for the appropriate scenario or model. So what we are left with is that both explanations are each as likely as the other except for one deciding factor: my friend sensed that there was truly a presence next to her; she had a sense of certainty of the same kind that justifies our normal sense experiences. The same sense of certainty that allows you to believe beyond any doubt that your wife actually exists is also the same sense of certainty that allowed my friend to believe that there truly was a person, a presence next to her. We have to accept what our experience tells us until or unless we find an incoherence in the experiences that would lead us to another explanation for the experience. [Minor revision 17Ap10.]

Honestly now Paul, can you tell me that if you were in her shoes, you would not believe that the presence of some unseen person was actually there standing next to you? Not just because it would save your life, but because we have no choice but to trust our experiences unless we know that they are untrustworthy. You’re about to cut your wrists and you tell God you have to know if God is really there or you’re going to do it. Then you sense this presence. Isn’t that one way God could show you it is real?

How else could God do it? Maybe God could find some other way. Maybe God could bring to mind the cosmological argument and you see a connection or a feature of the argument you had never seen before and you are finally aware that you were wrong before and that the argument really does work after all. Well, maybe something like that happens for some people who are looking for God but are not in quite such dire straights. But I doubt that someone in a near suicidal state would be in the state of mind to think about the intricacies of the cosmological argument. It just seems to me that my friend’s experience is the kind of thing one would expect for those who are crying out to know this God and who recognize that suicide is the only alternative. At least, for such a person, it is the kind of thing that would be expected from a God who is concerned about us personally, a God who seeks relationship with us, a God who wants us to know not by mere abstract reasoning but by relationship.

I talked with this person again recently about her experience. She said she just cannot believe this experience was an hallucination because she is just too rational of a person. She recently received her doctorate in physics at a major American university and is now starting postdoctoral work. Yes, I know, I’ve seen
A Beautiful Mind too. I know that the most rational person can also have psychological illness, hallucinations, etc. But my point from my previous discussion still follows: we have to accept what our experience tells us until that experience claim is falsified. Otherwise we cannot trust any of our experiences. Trusting our coherent and consistent sense and religious experiences is the most reasonable conclusion.

What I find most disturbing about the common atheistic reactions to religious experience arguments is their inconsistency. Doland does not question that his wife exists because he sees her. He says he is absolutely certain that she is there. Yet a religious experience he will consign to the same category as other commonly accepted non-veridical experiences (e.g., alien abductions) without providing any argument. Both the sense and the religious experience have the same evidential credentials, Paul. Show me that they do not. [21Mr09.]

Jensen3: [Third underlined sentence group in first Jensen3 under “God can be immediately experienced” above.] I asked [a friend] if he ever simply asked God for the truth. He said he did but he didn’t like the kind of new information that started coming his way.

Doland4:You can’t do any better than lame anecdotes? Go to an alien abductee web site, and you’ll get all the anecdotes you could stand. Same for Elvis-is-alive sites, etc. You’ve got to do better than anecdotes. Too bad you can’t do any better, for you have nothing else to offer.

Jensen5: But anecdotes make up testimonial evidence and are very powerful. You can’t just wash away testimonial evidence by calling them anecdotes. Otherwise you will undermine the largest part of the evidential foundation of our legal system. As for the Elvis-is-alive experience claims, isn’t this something that should be expected? Should some people see someone who looks like Elvis walk out of a 7-11 at 2 in the morning, and they’ve heard about other people making these claims, wouldn’t they claim to have seen Elvis too? In a country as large as ours, it should not be at all surprising to find people who look very much like any given individual. So those experiences are very understandable and indeed veridical as to the appearance of the person experienced. They usually actually do see someone who looks very much like Elvis. And of course, the Elvis sighters cannot claim anything more than this. The religious experience “anecdotes” are quite sufficient to establish the truth of Christianity. Just look through my list of “life experiences” on this website (look at the sample topics at the Hot Topics page). [Minor additions 3Mr15.]

Desire for/against belief

Jensen3: [From the fourth underlined sentence group in first Jensen3 under “God can be immediately experienced” above.] I do think the biblical view is pretty clear that anyone who knows that Christianity is true and rejects it is lost.

Doland4: Anybody that thinks Christianity is true should be a Christian! Who could possibly say, “Eternal bliss? Nah, no thanks”?

Jensen5: C.S. Lewis once asked, Do you really think Stalin or Hitler would actually desire the God of the Bible to be there? To give up some illicit pleasure now for the sake of doing what is right or doing what God desires one to do: that can be very difficult for some people even if they really believe Christians will have eternal life in heaven. I think Doland knows this is a very real feature of our human experience. He thinks religious people can ignore or suppress strong evidence for atheism and yet he won’t admit that atheists can do the same for religious belief.

Some who seek will find in the next life

Jensen3: [Fifth underlined sentence group in first Jensen3 under “God can be immediately experienced” above.] We cannot exclude the possibility that one may seek and never discover Christianity to be true in this life and yet they will not be lost. They will find it is true in the next life.

Doland4: You can claim that the Bible doesn’t specifically rule this out. Maybe true, but, there are an infinite number of things the Bible doesn’t specifically rule out. The point is, does it specifically state so? No. Besides, if your speculation is correct, you’ve obviated any need for this life. I believe most theologians would agree with me on this point, by they way. Most theologians say you get this life to decide what path to take and that’s that. That’s the whole purpose of this life. Your speculation is required simply because you realize that can’t be fair, so you have to speculate an “out.”

Jensen5: But I do agree that everyone will only “get this life to decide what path to take and that’s that” (unless they die too young). The distinction I’m making is between choice and knowledge. If one chooses to do God’s will and to seek God, one will find the knowledge that Christianity is true. For the few, that knowledge may come in the next life. And there is still a need to have this life since it is here that one decides which path to take.

The Bible does not preclude the possibility that some who do not believe in Jesus in this life and yet who seek God will not be lost. But if this fact is coupled with the passages I’ve cited that state that those who seek will find, it is a necessary conclusion that they will find in the next life. If you can show me an earnest seeker who on their deathbed still does not trust in Jesus, then we should assume that they will discover the truth of Christianity after death or perhaps at some twilight point between life and death (if the Bible is true). Of course we don’t really know any person’s mind and so we will never be sure this is a sincere seeker. But at least hypothetically, if there is truly someone in this situation, we know they will not discover Christianity is true in this life. I would say that my claim is the clearest implication of the biblical teaching.

It is of course possible that every earnest seeker will discover Christianity is true before death. This claim I cannot definitely disprove because, as I’ve said, we cannot with certainty know the minds of all who claim to be sincere seekers of God. But it simply seems unlikely that of the millions of people who profess other religions and non-religions, many with no access to even a knowledge of the Christian claims, that we should expect God to reveal the truth to every seeker among these groups before death.

(For more discussion see
The Evidential Value of Religious Experience in the Tooley/Craig debate in Encounter, part 4, issue 7.

Cat Stevens’ religious experience

Doland2: Zacharias recounts the story of a Muslim woman who, without understanding why, called out to Jesus, then later converted to Christianity (161). I take it that Zacharias counts this rather atypical occurrence as evidence that God transcends religious and cultural barriers. Of course, one can find similar examples preceding conversions to other religions: Cat Stevens, for instance, claims to have heard Allah before converting to Islam. Such anecdotes hardly constitute evidence of divine action, however; people convert from one religion to another (or to or from atheism) all of the time.

Jensen3: Why shouldn’t the story of the Muslim woman count as evidence? Stevens’ experience might count as evidence as well, so we should examine it to see if it does. There are important factors we need to consider when we make such an evaluation. What exactly did the voice say to him? Did he have any predisposition to believe in Islam or was he neutral or opposed? Did he call upon God, a God who deserves to be sought after, for the truth? Now none of these factors determine an experience to be veridical or nonveridical but they are important to consider.

After I wrote the above paragraph I took some time to see if I could find Steven’s (now Yusuf or Yosof Islam’s) account of the experience. I found that he became a Muslim after reading the Qur’an and coming to believe that it made sense and did not fit the prejudices he grew up believing about it.
He did mention an incident before his conversion in which he was swimming in the ocean and found himself being swept out to sea by the current. He cried out to God saying he would work for God if God would save him. Just then a wave caught him and pushed him back enough for him to swim back to shore. If Stevens had heard a voice, he didn’t recount it in the particular autobiographical sketches I have found. Because he included enough detail in this account to cover the most important aspects of his experiences, I tend to think that he never did claim to hear God speak to him. Of course it is possible that I did not dig deeply enough and Doland or one of our readers may be able to direct me to this story. But for the moment I think this is likely just another rumor that has circulated enough to become accepted.

Merely because people convert to different religions or atheism is certainly no evidence for those beliefs, but if they had experienced something that had caused this conversion, that might constitute evidence.

Doland4: This was the incident I had heard about and was referring to. I may have misspoke when I said that Cat Stephens claims to have heard Allah. But I think we are splitting hairs here. He clearly recounts this story as part of his reasoning to accept Islam, whether he claims to have heard a voice or merely got a small miracle of a wave pushing him back to shore.

Jensen5: This is hardly hair-splitting. I find that atheistic argumentation very often must rest upon such ambiguity to come up with its conclusions. Like Doland’s argument against free will, with a little clear thinking and closer analysis, their arguments turn to mist. Notice that a voice could have directed Stevens to Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or any of a number of different theistic views. Recall Doland’s original statement: “Cat Stevens, for instance, claims to have heard Allah before converting to Islam.” When it is claimed that someone hears Allah’s voice before converting to Islam, one will assume that some kind of direction toward Islam is given by this experience. In fact, merely being saved from drowning in the context given will provide one reason to believe God has answered one’s prayer, but it does not give one reason to accept one theistic belief over another. If there is any reason for believing in Islam, the only reason Yusuf gives is his reading of the Qu’ran and realizing that it did not fit his past misconceptions of it. The near drowning experience may have motivated him to seek spiritual truth more seriously, but it did not, as given, provide him evidence for Islam over any other theistic beliefs. Yet Doland originally claimed that Steven’s experience pointed him to Islam over any other religion. Doland did also claim that hearing God speak does not constitute evidence for divine action. He did not show how this does not constitute evidence for divine action, for it very obviously does.

The above can be found in the complete PDF on pages, 202-213, 362-364.


Revisions and alterations were added and noted in brackets within or at the ends of the some of my paragraphs. These were added primarily to add clarification. Any new material Doland has not seen should not be seen as part of the debate proper. They are added merely to give new information relevant to the debate.


Paul Doland’s critique of Strobel’s
The Case for Faith, is entitled “The Case Against Faith.” See also J. P. Holding’s critique of Doland’s article. Paul also has gone under the pseudonym Paul Jacobsen and is addressed in Holding’s critique by that name. At his web site, Doland has other critiques of Strobel’s series the reader might wish to look at. One may also look at Doland’s articles containing portions of this debate (obscenities and all).

Doland’s reporting of the debate

The reader may find it interesting how feasible some of Doland’s arguments appear at first sight when he makes sure most of my responses are not included. Even without my responses, the plausibility of some of his statements will easily be lost once the reader takes the time to think carefully about them. In the reproduction of the full debate, I have edited out some of the excessive repetition found in the original, but I have included all of the arguments. No points Doland had considered important have been omitted.


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