Friday, January 28, 2011

Damascus Road

I was asked:
Let’s suppose you were to have a dramatic experience as you were getting into your car. Blinded by light from heaven, you hear an earth shaking voice that says, “B-E-L-I-E-V-E!” You turn to your neighbor’s house and they run out the door exclaiming, WHAT WAS THAT? Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that this really did happen to you. Would you believe? I mean, would you believe that God is real? Would you believe that God really can communicate? Would you believe that supernatural miracles are really possible and that you actually experienced this first hand? Or would you dismiss it as dishonest or at least not to be trusted?
This comes up occasionally—what would the atheist do if Jesus appeared to them? A common response, “I would have a full mental examination!” or “I would check myself into a hospital!”…but would you?

I’ve had the rare opportunity to work with mentally challenged people. It is not as if one part of the brain acts rationally, and the other side is acting irrationally. And the rational part keeps telling the irrational part, “Be quiet! I know I am not actually hearing voices” and the two are bickering children in the back seat.

The mental difficulty interweaves within the rationale. It becomes part of the person’s entire experience. It is part and parcel of who they are. They really, truly believe the government is utilizing dentists to monitor people by filings. They can drive, order movies, work—but part of the wiring tells them it is equally rationale to believe this fantasy. It is as real as our belief the police will come if you call “911.”

If I had a vision of Jesus, it is very possible I wouldn’t get a mental examination because I wouldn’t see the need to do so. Just like the schizophrenic who hears voices—they will not get one either, because the voices (to them) are real. It is not as if my rational brain could “trump” my irrational brain.

More importantly, though, what about the same question to Christians? What if God appeared and told you to kill a dog? Or kill your own children? If the person holds to the Tanakh God, he has ordered children killed before. Numbers 31:17; 1 Samuel 15:3. Indeed if the same Christian insists in absolute objective morality, it would be perfectly moral for God to ask again. Nothing whatsoever preventing it.

This is demonstrated as a useless question. If we are in control of our mental facilities, we (both the Christian and the non-theist) will dismiss such apparitions. We both would dismiss (or greatly question at the least) a vision of God outside our perceived notion. What if the Christian saw Shiva? Or YHWH? Again—the Christian expects the appearance to conform to their notion of what God is—they most likely would dismiss it.

So I ask the same question back, “Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, God really did appear to you and told you to kill your children. Would you believe that is what God wants you to do? Would you believe God adequately communicated his desires? Would you believe you experienced this first hand? Or would you dismiss it as dishonest or at least not to be trusted?

“What if God told you to kill your neighbor’s children?”


  1. I guess the question is asking if you would be willing to believe something if you saw it. Which I am willing to remain agnostic towards, because I haven't had a Damascus road vision. If I did I would be willing to examine it on its own merits.

    I've always thought the killing one's children in the bible is ridiculous. Only the insane follow Abraham's example. Sure, he might just be an archetype in a story to show what faithfulness means, but he's an archetype then of dangerous delusion as well.

    Though it might be worth having a predisposition against the supernatural, just as a safeguard against mis-interpreting warnings of mental illness. Really, we do that kind of thing too. If I feel myself angry at my wife because I can't find my car keys, I remind myself that it is my own fault that are not hanging on the door, even though it I *feel* very strongly that someone else is to blame.

  2. Thank you for this post. Now I know how to respond if this is asked of me.

    I had a vision in my sleep last night. An ex-pastor come to call me home to the church. I think my last billboard sign (posted yesterday) was on my mind and I was trying to write a post in my sleep. Dreams are great aren't they? *grin* A former pastor of mine trying to get me to take a U-turn.

  3. Sometimes you do know, though, that "you're not really hearing voices." I've had friends who were struggling with schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. In my friends' cases, they knew that the voices they were hearing weren't real, and sought help (and, thanks to medication, no longer hear and see things that aren't based in reality). Of course, many other sufferers of these disorders need plenty of convincing, if even that works.

    In addition to the friends I just mentioned, I have also known people who deeply believe they've literally seen Jesus, met with him, talked and joked with him. Face to face. Unfortunately, one of these is close family, so I can't just "write him off." I haven't even tried to talk to him about it, because honestly what could I say that would be any help, until he himself finds some reason to doubt his own mind?

    In his book The Demon-Haunted World (a favorite of mine), Carl Sagan points out that even mentally and physiologically "normal" people sometimes see or hear things that aren't real. It's easy to see how people who aren't in their right minds (apart from hallucinations) will react. It's harder to predict how people who still have their faculties will react to personal, and nearly incontrovertible (if only to them) evidence of the supernatural (a "Damascus" experience).

    To be honest, I'm not certain how I myself would react if I actually saw and conversed with Jesus. It'd probably be difficult even to find professional help if I sought it, since so many people believe that experiences like these genuinely do happen. It may not be a mainstream experience, but it's not exactly far from acceptable norms, either (not the experience itself perhaps, but the widespread belief that such experiences are fairly common occurrences).

    It's very, very difficult to be rational enough to realize that failures in one's own senses are the most reasonable explanation for an experience, especially if it seemed very realistic. I honestly don't know how one gets around that without... training, basically. Without both a habit of skepticism, and a very objective ability to self-analyze. Not many people have that. I'm just thankful not to be in that situation.

  4. “What if God told you to kill your neighbor’s children?”

    I imagine you'd have trouble finding any Christians who would follow through. They would tell you that if they heard a voice telling them to kill somebody, it couldn't be God. On the other hand, they're perfectly willing to believe that God really, really told somebody else to do things like that thousands of years ago.

  5. DagoodS,
    You may have seen this NonStampCollector video about how a Christian would react if God told him to kill his child, but if not, here it is:

  6. “Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, God really did appear to you and told you to kill your children. Would you believe that is what God wants you to do?

    This does on occasion happen today. When it does happen we think the person is crazy, we don't for one second believe that God appears to people to tell them to kill their children. When reports of this kind of thing occur we assume the person to be insane. Google Dena Schlosser for an example. These are horrible atrocities. Yet DagoodS is right. By the time a person gets to the point of seeing a "vision" of this sort their insanity has permeated their whole thought process and it is part of their reality. You'd be hard pressed to convince them that it isn't real.

    Take, for example, a soldier who has experienced hand to hand combat or has had to either kill or witness the killing of people, especially innocents. It's a traumatic experience and they commonly have PTSD. They have flashbacks and "visions" of things that aren't real, yet in that moment it is their reality.

  7. Or what if God didn't even have to go so far as to magically appear to you, what if you just believed God told/tells you to kill and abortion doctor?

    Many Christians think themselves a bit better because they "believe... having not seen," and are acting out on belief and some actually are killing (and many more don't disagree with those killings).

  8. Having worked with schizophrenics, if god appeared to me and told me to kill anyone, I'd rush off to my Shrink and request another Haldol shot.