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From a theological standpoint, does Christianity prescribe either of the following:

  1. that one needs to have a religious experience first, and as a consequence one may attain belief in the truth of Christianity, or
  2. that one needs to attain belief in the truth of Christianity first, and as a consequence one may have a religious experience?

The dilemma can also be more succinctly posed as "experience to believe" vs. "believe to experience". Supporting the "experience to believe" view I have in mind conversion stories like that of Saul of Tarsus in Acts 9. But then there are statements in the Bible like "faith that moves mountains" that seem to suggest that belief (faith) must precede experience (the other way around).

Are people expected to convert first (i.e. believe) and then have religious experiences, or are people expected to have religious experiences first and then believe, or are there no expectations either way?

Perceiving in advance that this question might be a bit controversial, I would like a high-level summary of major theological/denominational views on this dilemma.


As a definition of religious experience, here is the introduction from Wikipedia:

A religious experience (sometimes known as a spiritual experience, sacred experience, or mystical experience) is a subjective experience which is interpreted within a religious framework. The concept originated in the 19th century, as a defense against the growing rationalism of Western society. William James popularised the concept. In some religions this may result in unverified personal gnosis.

Many religious and mystical traditions see religious experiences (particularly the knowledge which comes with them) as revelations caused by divine agency rather than ordinary natural processes. They are considered real encounters with God or gods, or real contact with higher-order realities of which humans are not ordinarily aware.

Skeptics may hold that religious experience is an evolved feature of the human brain amenable to normal scientific study. The commonalities and differences between religious experiences across different cultures have enabled scholars to categorize them for academic study.

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    You probably ought to define "religious experience" more precisely. E.g. we know that we cannot believe in God without being told about him (Romans ch10 v14) and we cannot call Christ Lord without the aid of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians ch2 v3). Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 18:14
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    This question delves deeply into a number of subjects, all of which require scoping or we shall have a multitude of replies covering the whole spectrum of self-identifying 'Christianity'. It would require several volumes (to PhD standard) to provide a 'high-level summary of major theological/denominational views on this dilemma.'. Whom he did predestinate, them he also called, and whom he called, them he also justified and whom he justified them he also glorified Romans 8:30. (The question has left Deity out of the process. Neither God nor Christ nor Holy Spirit are mentioned.)
    – Nigel J
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 19:12
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    Re. dramatic conversion events like that of Saul of Tarsus - a problem. Paul, with hindsight, discovered that it had pleased God to separate him from his mother's womb to reveal Christ to him. That was God's calling to him, by his grace. Galatians 1:11-16. God knew Saul from the womb and when He would reveal Christ to him, and in what Holy Spirit inspired way. Few have a Damascus road experience but all must have Christ revealed to them by God & the Holy Spirit before they can become a Christian. There are myriad ways God can do this, including subtle and quiet - not 'a religious experience'.
    – Anne
    Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 15:38
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    Good question, and good to see you, +1. It has been said that we are not mortal beings having a spiritual experience, rather, we are spiritual beings having a mortal experience. Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 3:50

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For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. - Romans 8:14-17

True religious or spiritual experience, that is, actively entering into God's purposes in creation, necessitates a new birth ... a birth from above. It is not a birth of flesh (which begets flesh) but of Spirit (which begets spirit). It is by the grace of God and through faith in the operation of God who raised Christ from the dead.

This begetting spirit is the Holy Spirit which 1) is of truth, 2) proceeds from the Father, 3) is sent by the Son from the Father, 4) is sent by the Father in the Son's name, 5) testifies of the Son, 6) teaches and reminds of all the Son has said, 7) abides with us forever, 8) will be in us (John 14:16-17, 14:26, 15:26)

It is the Spirit that sanctifies the indwelt one enabling both obedience and application of Christ's blood (1 Peter 1:2). It is the promise of the Father and power from on high (Luke 24:49).

This spirit of adoption, this power to become God's children, is given to those who receive Jesus Christ:

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: - John 1:10-12

There is no authentic Christian religious experience apart from believing on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, apart from personally and individually receiving Him as the Son of God who suffered and died for my sin and rose again for my justification.

The Spirit of God is in the world convincing all of sin, righteousness and judgement (John 16:7-14). Whether God sends a vision, a preacher, a cup of water given in Jesus' name or any combination thereof; whether intellect drives one to experience or experience awakens understanding (The spirit goes where and how it will), there remains just one critical decision:

Will a sinner confess sin (say the same thing about sin that God has said), repent (turn away, not from what he has done, but from what he is), and receive Christ Jesus as both Savior and Lord?

The one who has received Jesus has received God's testimony of Truth and has that testimony in himself (1 John 5:7-12). Apart from this there is no authentic Christian religious experience. Without the new birth, without being born from above, born of the Spirit, there is nothing but blinded minds, man-made religion, and doomed flesh.

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. - 2 Corinthians 5:17-21

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The Christian religion requires faith in God - belief in him. Now, so do most other religions. That is why Christians go far further back in discovering the realities of their faith than only from when Jesus Christ was on Earth. While it is understandable that a question such as this would prompt answers based solely on the Christian Greek scriptures, the more ancient Hebrew scriptures are equally as necessary to provide an answer, for God was dealing favourably with people of faith prior to the time of Christ. Indeed, the Christian Greek scriptures has one book entitled "Hebrews" which lists many of those people who experienced God - sometimes in dramatic ways. Chapter 11 shows this. Therefore, it is reasonable to compare their belief / experience accounts, for by so doing, that will be seen to accord with the belief / experience accounts of Christians.

That preamble is my rationale for giving the following as an answer. These are the words of the prophet Jeremiah, reflecting on God's dealings with his chosen people, the nation of Israel, and applying the principles to himself.

"After I strayed, I repented; after I came to understand, I beat my breast. I was ashamed and humiliated because I bore the disgrace of my youth." Jeremiah 31:19 NIV

The whole of the Bible shows the circuitous nature of fallen, sinful humanity, as individuals and as groups. It truly is like the logo of the serpent looped round in a circle, its mouth holding fast its tail.

God alone can deal with the serpent of sin. God alone can break the circle, and he has already done so by fulfilling the prophecy of Genesis 3:15. Christ broke through into our corrupting world, entering it without sin, and being the only perfect sacrifice for sin there has ever been, or ever will be. But it takes revelation from God for us to see that and to bend our knees in Jesus' name. How he chooses to do that with each individual he saves is his prerogative. Yet the principles of saving belief, and experience of being saved remain the same over the centuries.

The trouble is, we are not qualified to declare whether one, or another aspect happens to others first. The two are intertwined, according to God's good pleasure. For sure, the quicker we stop thinking in terms of what happens to us, and seek to learn from God how he determines outcomes, the better. The one thing Christians do know, is that until we receive Spirit of new life from God, as in the vision of the valley of dry bones, we will just be rattling and clattering uselessly around. A look at the prophet Ezekiel's vision in chapter 37 shows the self-same principles of God taking the initiative to bring spiritual life to the spiritually dead. Christians should know how those principles apply from the time of Christ till this day.

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    Yes, agreed. For the majority, there is an evident preparation, often in moderate religion of some kind. But some are extracted right out of the world. Yet they have received preparation of a different kind : bereavement and affliction and internal disquietude. None can be excluded, for we know not the depths of every heart.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 14:33
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The New Testament gives accounts of both, people who had a religious experience prior to conversion and those who didn't, so it's clear to me that a religious experience is not necessary to believe, but it can happen. I will give the examples that come to my mind:

Religious experience prior to conversion

  • The Apostle Paul, as you mentioned (Jesus appeared to him before his conversion)
  • Cornelius and his household (Acts 10)

No religious experience prior to conversion

  • The Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-29)
  • The Roman jailor (Acts 16:23)
  • Lydia (Acts 16:14+15)
  • The 3000 on Pentecost (Acts 2), they were converted trough the preaching of Peter, but it has to be said, that they saw the apostles speaking in foreign languages prior to that
  • disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7)

These are a few accounts listed in the NT and looking at what we have, it seems more common to believe through the preaching of the gospel only, without a religious experience prior to that.

Essential therefore is the spreading and "hearing" of the gospel, as Paul points out:

Romans 10:13-15 KJV

13 For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. 14 How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!

Believing on the Lord Jesus Christ is what matters. Religious experiences will not save us:

John 3:14-18 KJV

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: 15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. 17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. 18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

At the end of Mark we see that signs and wonders follow them which believe but not usually the other way around:

Mark 16:15-18 KJV

15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. 17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; 18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

I hope this answers some of your questions! Cheers

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    I was going to give an answer, but can't beat yours! So I'll just add a quip from a former pastor of mine. "The Bible does say that signs and wonders shall follow after those that believe [Mark 16:17]. It doesn't say that those who believe shall follow after signs and wonders."
    – Maverick
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 13:38
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    Your research is faulty. The Ethiopian was reading the bible in his chariot. Lydia was praying by the river. The 3,000 were Jews. The disciples of John had received his baptism of repentance (as well as the outward baptism). The jailor feared, and trembled - he was not an irreligious and hard-hearted man. No, no of these people had 'no religious experience prior to conversion'. You are quite wrong. Down-voted -1.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 14:30
  • @NigelJ I wasn't talking about "normal" religious experiences as you seem to imply. I believe the question's intent was regarding to special experiences (like the one Paul had, which was mentioned). Of course anyone can pray, and yes the Jews were religious, no doubt. See e.g. Cornelius, he prayed and feared God, but he had a special religious experience when the holy spirit fell on them and they spoke in tongues.
    – Reto
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 20:34
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The answer depends on denominational doctrine as well as individual experience. Most denominations practice infant baptism, which means that a person becomes a member of the faith community shortly after birth. The child is then educated in the faith and may or may not have a religious experience later on. Unless one considers baptism itself as a religious experience, this would translate into "belief in the truth of Christianity first" and represents the doctrine of the majority of churches.

On the other hand, denominations that practice adult baptism (Baptists, Pentecostals and some others) often teach that a new member must not only be convinced of Christian doctrine but also that they should have an experience with the Holy Spirit that "convicts" them of sin and the need for salvation. One such ministry puts it this way:

When Holy Spirit brings our rebellion to the forefront of our minds with startling clarity, this is called "conviction of sin" (John 16:8). No one can accept salvation without first experiencing the Holy Spirit's conviction. Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). Part of that “draw” to Jesus is the conviction of sin.

Summary: there are two basic denominational approaches to this question. The majority practice infant baptism and educate children into the faith with no requirement of religious experience. Those that practice adult baptism sometimes expect an experience of the Holy Spirit prior to being accepted into the church. However, this does not preclude that a person could be a believer in Christian doctrine prior to the experience of the Holy Spirit.

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I also will ask you a question, and if you answer it, I will tell you if experience precedes faith or vice versa.

"Which comes first: the chicken, or the egg?"

For faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:17)

Remember the things I have done in the past.

For I alone am God!

I am God, and there is none like me. (Isaiah 46:9)

It is quite clear that God is here before anyone else ("in the beginning" was certainly before man's apperance on the scene); so it is impossible that anyone should have faith except that God made it possible (for it is God who works in you both the willing and the working according to [his] good pleasure --Phil 2:13). However, "religious experience" sounds very dry. Perhaps it is; the phrase puts me in mind of prayer wheels and repetitive chants.

It is worth noting that the quoted wikipedia article is not entirely accurate. At the risk of sounding pedantic, the last section should read:

Skeptics may hold that religious experience is an evolved feature of the human brain amenable to normal scientific study. To the extent that this is true, the commonalities and differences between religious experiences across different cultures have enabled scholars to categorize them for academic study.

All that a true skeptic can say is that "Some do, some don't" (attributed to E. Rutherford), and "Whatever is driving him or her, isn't driving me".

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    +1 for pointing out that the quoted Wikipedia article is not entirely acurate.
    – Lesley
    Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 8:25

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