There are inconvenient truths, there are even unwanted truths, but there are no inconsistent truths.
Christians speak of the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit in our lives as evidence that God is real. Often we are asked, “How do you know that your internal sense of God really is from God? Other people have experiences inside their minds and hearts, too. How do you know yours is genuine and theirs isn’t?”
I don’t have access to those others’ experiences, and no non-believer has access to a Christian’s internal experience. These perceptions of God are never put forth as evidence for others to believe; rather they are always presented as assurance and knowledge granted to the follower of Christ. William Lane Craig summarizes it aptly: it is a way that we can know that God is real, but it is not a way we can expect to show that God is real.
The key biblical passages on this are in the Gospel of John and in the first letter of John, along with a few passages sprinkled in some of Paul’s letters. Those in I John will be especially helpful for us to look at here, using the English Standard Version as our source:
2:18-20 — Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge.
(Antichrist here refers primarily not to some future worldwide religious leader but to any person or spirit opposed to Christ. I mention that only in passing; it is not the main point we are looking at.)
2:27 — But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.
3:19-21 — By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God;
4:13 — By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.
5:7-10 —For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son.
So clearly we see here that the Holy Spirit provides teaching, assurance, confidence, testimony for believers. This is that of which we speak when we say that God’s Holy Spirit provides us inward confidence of his truth. In the John’s Gospel we also find reference to the Spirit convicting (convincing) persons regarding sin, righteousness, and judgment; leading Christ-followers into all truth; comforting and coming alongside to help. In Paul’s letters we see the Spirit referred to as a seal, a deposit, or in a sense a down-payment or guarantee of God’s promises.
Now we come to the question, how can we be so sure? What gives us such certainty that it is God’s Spirit moving within us rather than, say, a particularly aesthetic kind of satisfaction, or even a caffeine buzz? What about other religions that make similar claims? I may be correctable on this, but to my knowledge only Mormonism adopts a similar position, that one can know the truth of their teachings by an internal experience. They often call it a “burning in the bosom.” I don’t think that’s how many Christians would describe their experience; more often it seems like a sense of settled, peaceful, joyful assurance, sometimes accompanied by a sensation of very personal closeness to God.
That’s the part of it that’s describable. It is a perception, and perceptions in one mode are not describable in terms of other modes. I cannot explain what I see in terms of what I hear or touch. That doesn’t mean I can’t hear or touch the same object I’m seeing, it is only to say that the seeing itself cannot be explained or described in terms of hearing or touch. A person blind from birth may accept that vision exists, and that what she touches and hears, her seeing friend can perceive in yet another manner, but she will have no conception at all of what sight is. So it is with the perception of God: it is not easily describable in terms of other sensations. This is in itself no strike against the Christian position that direct perception of God is possible. The Bible speaks of new life, a re-generation, coming upon a person who enters a relationship with God. A perceptive faculty that had been dead awakens (1 Corinthians 2:9-12).
So we see that this perception of God, qua perception, is not inherently nonsensical or self-contradictory. I have not yet provided any reason, though, to be sure that it actually exists.
This is where context comes in. Let’s look at some other things John had to say in this letter of his. First, with respect to the passages in 2:18-20 and 2:27 where he says “you have all knowledge,” and “you have no need that anyone should teach you,” these cannot be understood as absolute statements, for John is actually writing to tell them things they need to learn, and he is teaching them. The context of the entire letter (including the purpose for which he wrote it) shows that he means for them to accept teaching and new information. The paragraph context of these verses (1 John 2:18-27) shows that he is specifically referring to false teachers, and he is instructing them to pay attention to what the Spirit of God tells them about these deceivers. It should not be taken further than that.
But this is hardly all we can learn from the full context. Consider how he began the letter:
1:1-3 — That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
He starts with an appeal to physical evidence: what he and others had heard, seen, looked upon, and touched. The inward experience of God is accompanied by experiences in other modes, just as sight may also be accompanied by hearing, touch, or smell, with all senses together confirming each other.
Now in order for this to really be confirmatory, there has to be congruence between all these modes of perception. There are no inconsistent truths. John in this letter appeals to consistency in many ways. It is an epistle of evidences. Over and over he says, “By this we know…” referring not to some inward experience but to outward, visible evidences (1 John 2:3, 5; 1 John 3:14, 16, 19; 1 John 4:2; 1 John 4:13; 1 John 5:2). He also points to inconsistencies and contradictions with respect to the truth being practiced (1 John 1:6-10; 1 John 2:4, 9, 11; 1 John 2:15-16; 1 John 3:9-12; 1 John 3:21, and more).
He assures us (1 John 2:21) that “no lie is of the truth” — a nice compact statement of the law of non-contradiction, or what I have been stating here as “no inconsistent truths.” He acknowledges that there are false spirits, and crucially, he calls on his readers to test the spirits (1 John 4:1-3). The test he suggests there (no spirit is from God that denies Jesus is Lord) is for a particular kind of error, but the whole tenor of the letter is that of multiple kinds of tests.
The answer to the question we started with is becoming clear, I hope. How do we know whether our internal experience of God can be trusted? We test it against other experiences and other knowledge. Is it consistent with what we know from other biblical teachings? Does it accord with what we know of the world through science, history, and our own experiences of life? If it does, is there any reason not to trust it?
Mormons’ experience ought also to be tested in the same way. Mormonism asks us to accept that their experience of God is consistent with other teachings of theirs, such as that Jesus Christ is a created being and Lucifer’s (the devil’s) brother, that Jesus Christ came to America after his time in Palestine and preached to a large civilization here, and that good followers of the Mormon way will become gods. The first and last of these clearly contradict the Bible, even though Mormons claim to follow it along with their Book of Mormon, while the middle one is unbelievable in that it leads us to expect far more archaeological evidence of this civilization than has ever been found or even hinted at.
If other religions make similar claims of testability by internal experience, then I am unaware of them, but they ought to be tested in exactly the same way.
Christianity, I am quite convinced, passes the test of internal consistency and coherence. It is supported by the Scriptures, and it is consistent with a broader view of reality. The strongest accusations against Christianity amount to its being allegedly unprovable or not demonstrable, not that it is internally contradictory. (I am aware of charges of Christianity being self-contradictory, but I’ve never encountered such an objection that stood up to analysis.) The most obvious objection along these lines goes something like this: “You say you’ve experienced God in this way, but you can’t explain what sense organ is involved, and I can’t imagine it at all myself.” But this is not at all difficult to deal with. God, who created us and who has all power, can certainly make his presence known to us with or without an identifiable sense organ. This is not self-contradictory at all.
Let me return once again to comparisons with other perceptions. How do we know that what we are seeing is real and not a hallucination or (more likely) an optical illusion? By comparing it to other sense perceptions and to our background knowledge. In the absence of some other information that undermines our trust in what we see, we generally trust it. We extend that trust even to things we cannot otherwise test, like the existence of stars, for example. (There are independent tests for the existence of stars in today’s science, but we accepted that they existed long before that.)
Similarly for Christians, God impresses himself strongly upon us through a direct experience of himself. With no defeating information for our trust in that impression, there is no rational reason to deny that what we experience is genuine.