What is a spiritual or religious experience?

by Matt Slick

A spiritual experience is an encounter with something or someone other than yourself that is not based upon material phenomena. The experience leaves a person with a new and profound sense of awareness or understanding regarding God, a truth, or other religious expressions. The religious experience can be visual, auditory, and/or a sense of the presence of something "other." Examples of this would be the so-called Marion apparitions reported by Catholics where people claim to see and hear things that are obviously not normal to our world. People in the occult have claimed to see manifestations of spirits that appear and disappear, hear voices, see objects move, etc. Other people have claimed religious experiences when they say they have suddenly and inexplicably "known" that something is going to happen, and it does.

Sometimes a spiritual experience can be a heavy feeling of dread as though a person "feels" that something bad is going to happen, or knows that something bad has happened to a loved one only to later find out it has. Sometimes they are described as extreme and overwhelming sensations of peace, love, and hope. It's possible to have experiences that are combinations of the two extremes. It's possible to have a spiritual experience without even knowing it. Biblically speaking, we could encounter angels in the form of people and not know it (Heb. 13:2). God could put a thought in our mind that we might think is ours, or direct our paths without us being aware of it.

I have had spiritual experiences and will describe them. Believe them or not.

Because spiritual experiences are by nature "experiences," they are inherently subjective. Over the years I've spoken with many people who claim to have had various experiences. I've tried to encapsulate general principles in the two paragraphs above. However, let me tell you two experiences I have had. Again, they are subjective, but I hope they will be illustrative.

In my younger days, I was involved in the occult and practicing séances, trying to contact the dead, seeing auras, and trying to astral project. One time a friend of mine and I were trying to contact "the other side" when we both saw a blue light appear to our left. It grew in size and took the form of a man and then disappeared. In place of this figure, a yellow cross materialized and moved from our left to directly in front of us and stopped, hovering in front of us. Needless to say, we were stunned and afraid. We left the room. That was a very strong and negative experience.

After I became a Christian and renounced my occult activity, I desired to serve God. Something happened that I have never experienced before or since. I had been praying intensely for many weeks, begging God to use me in any way he desired. My prayers were constant throughout the day, day after day, week after week  Then, I remember the singular and profound sensation as though God were talking to me, asking me, within myself, what I wanted. I remember being stunned. It was not a voice. It was more like thoughts just entered my mind. It was an awareness, a sensation that there was something "other" than me involved. It was intense. I remember where I was standing in my apartment. I remember looking at the wall and what I saw in the grain of the paneling. I remember "feeling" as though I was in the presence of God, and that his intention was upon me. Then, a thought that wasn't my own asked me a question, "What do you want?" I remember being profoundly aware that something unusual was occurring. I just "knew" it was God. I answered the question, "Lord, I want to be used by you to bring as many people as possible to know you." I immediately sensed a second question, "When? Early in life or late in life?" I said, "Late in life." That was it. The sensation was gone.

Now, the problem with conveying these experiences is that they are subjective and can be very easily dismissed. I do not offer them as proof of anything but only as what they are, spiritual experiences.

How do you know if your spiritual experience is true?

The only way to know if your spiritual experiences are true experiences from God is to compare them with Scripture. The Bible is the final authority in all things spiritual. So, if a religious experience in any way contradicts with the word of God, then it is not from God. However, if it does not contradict the word of God, then we can entertain the possibility it was from God.

But one thing is for sure. Do not live your life by spiritual experiences, and do not judge truth by them. The subjectivity of emotion and the possibility of self-deception are realities that we must put to thoughtful examination according to the word of God. Too many people seek experience for the sake of the experience. Instead, we should be prayerfully praying for the forgiveness of our sins, the working of the Holy Spirit in us, and that all things we do would be according to God's revealed word in the Bible. This way, we can minimize going astray.


About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.