In the wake of recent noise about Mike Pence and his alleged conversations with the Son of God, I though I’d offer an epistemological perspective. How do we evaluate claims like “God spoke to me?”
First, these claims can only be evaluated inductively. That is, we can’t “prove” them true or false. We can only gather reasons and evidence for or against the claim, and then see where these reasons point us. The evidence may point so strongly in one direction as to virtually settle the matter, or it may be closer to 50/50. I’ll discuss what reasons for or against might look like below.
Second, claims about hearing from God can’t be evaluated without first assuming either that God exists or that God does not exist. So which assumption should we make? The far more interesting discussion arises from assuming God exists. If we assume the opposite, then the debate is over — Pence is kidding himself. Given that neither assumption is proven fact, and the vast majority of people in the world affirm some sort of god, it seems better to start with theism. (If you’re an atheist, this may annoy you. Your time might be better spent debating the existence of gods, rather than the veracity of heavenly messages.)
Third, even religious people will disagree about how to evaluate “God spoke to me” claims. Since the Pence discussion revolves around the Christian faith, we should start there. (Again, assuming Christianity is true, what should we make of Pence’s chats with Jesus?) At minimum, Christians should admit that divine communication is clearly possible. Multiple precedents exist in the Bible and in church tradition, after all. The details get sketchy, though. (Also see this web comic: Coffee with Jesus.)
I can’t evaluate Pence’s personal experiences, because I don’t have nearly enough details. All we have is a second-hand account that Pence said that “Jesus tells him to say things.” Such testimonial evidence wouldn’t even be admissible in court. So instead I offer some criteria for evaluating such claims, from a Christian perspective.
Criteria that Increase Likelihood of Veridicality
- Coherence: Is the content of the message consistent with itself and with the consensus* of Christian teaching? (*”Mere Christianity” as C. S. Lewis might say.) If the voice says, “Iggily biggily, gollygoops,” or “Hate thy neighbor,” I don’t think it was Jesus.
- Corroboration: Do other Christians, after discussion and prayer, agree that this was God’s voice? Pence should seek out several wise and knowledgeable believers and share the details with them for evaluation.
- Clarity: Is the message clear or vague? Historically, quintessential instances of God speaking to humans occur in unmistakable fashion. Burning bushes, blinding visions, human-like manifestations, terrifying angelic messengers, etc. God also appears to speak in indirect ways, but those are harder to verify and distinguish from one’s own conscience or thoughts. The clearer the message and medium, the more confidence we can have that it is divine.
- Character: Is the person making the claim generally reliable and truthful? Are they prone to over-interpret their own thoughts? Have they made spurious claims of divine dialogue in the past?
- Better explanations: Assuming Christianity is true, is there a better way to explain the experience? Were you drunk or on drugs? Are you suffering from any diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness? Did someone plant a radio transmitter in your braces? (Here’s a great essay by Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrman explaining how to distinguish religious experience from mental illness.)
The Bottom Line
Whatever the case may be, we should avoid knee-jerk reactions to claims of hearing from God. Leave room for possibility. Investigate and reflect. It never helps anyone to mock or deride others for their beliefs. “The View” host Joy Behar reacted by suggesting that Mike Pence is “mentally ill.” If you think someone’s beliefs are bad, show their error with love and logic, not ridicule. Ridicule is the weapon of those who lack the ability to wield reason.
Perhaps the best argument for taking such claims seriously is this:
If you say that everyone claiming to hear Jesus speak to them is delusional, then you must call Martin Luther King, Jr. delusional.
In a well-known story, King claimed to hear the voice of Jesus telling him to stand up for truth and justice. His neice, Alveda King, relates this in her response to Joy Behar here. And MLK isn’t the only credible or heroic person who claimed to hear from God. Have there also been frauds and crazies? Absolutely. But it seems hasty and unreasonable to dump every sincere “hearer” into the epistemic trash heap.