Whether or not we can experience God directly is something Christians have discussed and debated since…I don’t know when. I can’t say from biblical times because it is impossible to read the Bible without seeing that the authors expected to experience God directly and did. But somewhere between now and then, this basic expectation changed.
Dispensationalism, a movement that began in the 1800s, plays some role. This way of interpreting the Bible divides all history into segments or dispensations where God interacts with people according to certain guidelines He sets. Dispensationalists say direct experience of God and miracles ended after the apostles, though they would admit it happened for all of history prior.
Scientific rationalism, which arose in the 1700s and 1800s, also plays a role. Science, at least when done well, rests on evidence we can observe with our senses. This doesn’t necessarily put it at odds with religious perspectives (in which many things are accepted by faith). But there are those in the scientific and religious communities that would make this an either/or proposition: we either know by faith OR by observation but not both.
Christian groups that claim to experience God directly have also shaped the discussion. Direct experience of God and miracles are a feature of many movements in church history. Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism have rich traditions of supernatural manifestations, miracles, and direct experience of God. But other groups, which have since distanced themselves from experience of God and the supernatural, might surprise us. Lutherans, pietists, Methodists, Reformed, and Baptist (yes, even Baptist) traditions record things as outlandish as tongues, fainting in the spirit, and immediate physical healings. Then, of course, are the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements of the 20th century, which are known for their belief in miracles, tangible supernatural acts of God, and signs like tongues, prophecy, or healing.
From the time of the church fathers to the present, then, people have recorded direct experiences of God and supernatural manifestations. But excesses and outright fakery have also been recorded. This contributes much to the debate: those who accept direct experience of God point to the many accounts of it in history while those who reject direct experience of God cite the excesses and fakery.
Other histories and ideas contribute to our current moment; I’ve just listed a few off the top of my head. My point isn’t really to give a history of this debate; it’s to say that throughout my life I’ve experienced God directly many times but don’t often talk about it. In my next post, I’ll share some of the ways I’ve experienced God directly and why I’m not always open about it.
Please comment below if you have any thoughts about experiencing God directly, the miraculous, etc.