Visions, dreams and voices – who needs them?

People keep popping up who claim they’ve been given “messages from the Lord” through visions, dreams and voices in their heads. But is it really God speaking to them, and how do they know?

It’s a well-known fact, for instance, documented brilliantly in the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ that the human mind can create people and events that seem utterly real that aren’t real at all. A person claiming a hotline to God, then, could in fact be a schizophrenic, whose premonitions, proclamations and prophecies are caused by nothing more than a chemical imbalance in the brain. Can anyone say for certain, then, that his visions are supernatural when the cause could be quite natural, like medication, mental illness, intense stress, or simply eating too much before bed?

The mind is a tricky thing, and it can be easily manipulated. A hypnotist, for instance, can also create visions in a person’s head and make people think all kinds of crazy things, none of which are from God. So there’s an element of doubt, surely, when a person states with absolute authority that his visions are from God, when visions can quite easily be created without God being involved at all.

Fortunately, God himself provided the means for detecting a real message from him. He sent Jesus Christ with all the messages we’d ever need, and then confirmed his choice of messenger personally by bringing him back from the dead. So all we need do when someone says he or she has a vision or a message from God is compare it to the message of the one messenger we know for certain came from God, and if it agrees, great, and if it doesn’t, ignore it.

And to aid us in that quest, God promised us a Spirit helper who would help us understand what Jesus taught (John 14:26). No spooky premonitions or wild prophecies, just a clear guide for detecting if a “message from the Lord” really is of God, or not, so we can tell if a charismatic visionary or a self-proclaimed prophet is talking through his hat.

People will keep popping up, however, who claim they’ve had revelations from God, which is tragic, because look at the fruits of such “revelations” so far. We have a world full of confusing, differing religious cults and self-proclaimed prophets, all of them a law to themselves in deciding what God’s will is. The result is a tragic mess of warring religions, denominational splits, wild speculation, failed prophecies, arrogant know-it-alls, chronic self-deception and all too often, horrible disillusionment.

Surely by the fruits, then, we can ask the question, “Visions, dreams and voices – who needs them?”

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“The Lord spoke to me….”

I’ve had several people tell me the Lord spoke to them with messages meant for me. On one occasion I was told I’d have a dream that night that would change my life, and not knowing any better I believed the man. But the dream didn’t happen. Nor did the predictions by other people that I would rise to a high position in my church denomination, and that my local congregation would grow into many hundreds of people.

All three predictions failed, but the people making them were utterly convinced the Lord was speaking to them, despite the statement in Hebrews 1:1-2 that “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”

God’s not in the habit anymore of speaking direct messages through human prophets like he did in the Old Testament. Instead, he concentrates our attention on what he already revealed to us through his Son, with the help of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26). The Lord has already spoken to us what we need to know through his Word, Jesus, and it’s the Spirit’s job to help us understand it, not give us new messages through more prophets.

Ah but, some might say, I hear things in my head, like an inner voice, that I should talk to someone, or send them a card of encouragement, or offer help of some kind, and on so many occasions a crucial need is met. Like the story of the Christian zooming past a stalled car who suddenly felt the need to go back and help. He was late for an important meeting, however, so on he zoomed. But the thought kept pressing on his mind so strongly that many miles later he turned round, drove back to the stalled car, where he easily pinpointed the car’s problem and everyone was on their way in minutes. “The Lord spoke to me,” the Christian said, and who can deny it when the fruits were so good?

So what’s the difference between saying “The Lord spoke to me” through an inner thought that led to an act of love, and saying “The Lord spoke to me” with a direct message from God about a person’s future? The difference is clear from Scripture, that “in these last days” God isn’t speaking through the voices of human prophets, he’s speaking through his Spirit into our hearts (Galatians 4:6) to create belief in his Son and love for one another (1 John 3:23-24), and it’s when THOSE are happening that we really know the Lord is speaking to us.

Does religion help in tough times?

The answer to the above question is a resounding “No.” No, religion does not help us in tough times. It never has and it never will because religion (not based on the Bible) has no idea why “tough times” exist in the first place. 

Tough times exist, according to the Bible, because we are “in bondage to decay,” Romans 8:21. We are stuck in a world that’s falling apart and we can’t stop it. Why? Because God made it that way, verse 20, “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it.” And our history conclusively proves the truth of that statement. No matter how hard we try to solve our pressing global problems, our efforts always end up in frustration. 

Religion, however, does not accept that we are incapable of solving our problems. Buddhism is a classic example. It recognizes we have a serious problem as humans, that we have these cravings for things that can never satisfy, and all our suffering can be traced back to that – BUT, Buddhism tells us – we have the power within ourselves to solve it, by subduing our cravings. How? By having a right mind, right speech, right intentions, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right meditation. In other words, we can solve our problems and stop all suffering by making ourselves into better people. We have the ability within ourselves to do this. Buddhism would never admit we are helpless. 

Nor would Islam. Tough times in Islam are interpreted as a means of cleaning up sin, or making us into better people – but never as proof of our helplessness. Never would Islam or Buddhism accept that we have minds controlled by a sinful nature so powerful that only the Spirit of Christ living in us can control it. Instead, religions think human nature can be controlled and improved by laws, techniques, energy forces (like karma) and suffering. How, then, can these religions be of any help in tough times, when they have no clue that tough times are meant to illustrate our helplessness, not to make us better?

But it’s recognizing our helplessness that leads us to God’s solution. When Paul cried out in frustration, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death (7:24)?” that’s when he discovered there’s a Spirit who “helps us in our weakness (8:26).” It was when he accepted his helplessness that he realized God had provided him with power that he didn’t have naturally. It wasn’t religion that helped Paul in tough times – it was the Spirit.

Hello reality; goodbye religion

God said we’d die, and there hasn’t been a human yet who hasn’t died. Hello reality, therefore; we’re all going to die – either in the natural ageing process, often advanced by disease and poverty, or we’re killed by accident, war or a natural disaster. And even if scientists discover how to reverse the ageing gene, imagine what billions of ageless humans would do to each other in the fight for survival.

But religion jumps in with a soothing solution: Death happens to us all, yes, but not to worry, there’s another life after death, based on some vision of the afterlife a man had. And being a very charismatic chap millions of people in his region of the world believed him.

And isn’t that how Christianity got started too? Jesus arrived on the scene, also claiming he had special insight into life after death. He even claimed he’d come from God and been sent by God to solve the problem of human death in himself, and humans would no longer have to worry about death if they believed and followed him. And many people in his region of the world believed and followed him too.

But Jesus’ credibility took a nosedive when he died. So now what proof was there of life after death when Jesus, just like all the other charismatic visionaries in human history, died, and with their death the proof of whether they were right or not about their version of the afterlife died with them?

But Jesus came back to life again. And the most shocked people of all were his followers, who thought he’d been talking through his hat when he predicted he would rise from the dead. But now he’d gone and done it, forcing that rag tag bunch of shattered, despondent men and women to face reality, that what he said about life being possible after death was true.

And face it they did. It’s what started them on the road to believing in this man. It wasn’t for any religious reason or superstition based on vague, unprovable visions; it was based on evidence, the pure, raw evidence that a human being had defeated death, and he was standing there and talking to them – and eating food – as proof of it.

So hello reality, goodbye religion, because who needs the superstition and vague visions of religion when the proof of life after death has already happened, and a human has defeated death? But religion breezes over that as if it never happened, resulting in all sorts of weird ideas about the afterlife that have no proof whatsoever to back them up.

How is Christianity different to other religions?

Christianity isn’t different to other religions, in that it too, like all the major religions, has symbols, rituals, special commemorative days, named gods, and belief in an afterlife. It too erects impressive buildings, lays out strict rules for how to behave, and attempts to moderate behaviour by the promise of eternal rewards for good people and the threat of something awful for the wicked. And like all typical religions Christianity claims it too is the only true path to spirituality and eternity.

Christianity has also shared the same embarrassing faults with other religions, of divisions and conflicts within, of splinter groups breaking away to carve a purer path, of dealing extremely harshly with heretics, and even justifying the killing of other humans as a godly duty. Christians are also just as vulnerable as members of other religions to judging and condemning anyone who doesn’t agree with them. And like members of all religions, Christians also believe we must escape these horrible bodies of ours and this horrible world into some ethereal bliss that is totally out of touch with why this creation came into existence in the first place.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that many people wonder why we have religions at all, especially when religion has been the cause of so many conflicts, crusades, inquisitions, massacres, burnings, stonings, mutilations, land-grabbings, and the worship of human power and personality. And no religion, including Christianity, can be excused for its stupidity and cruelty by dragging out a list of the good things it has done, because none of the good done has erased evil completely or permanently in the world, or in any religious community either.

Would the world be better off without religion, therefore? Of course it would. No more killings in the name of one’s god, no more holier than thou attitudes, no more barbaric practices in the name of religious purity, no more chucking rocks at each other over doctrinal differences, no more fear of eternal torture, no more philosophical rubbish that offers no solution to death or evil, no more worshipping fallible human beings, no more wildly different ideas as to what happens to us after we die, no more wanting to escape this beautiful earth and our wonderful bodies for something fuzzy and meaningless for eternity, and no more self-centred play acting to get oneself saved.

But true Christianity was never about any of those things anyway. It’s about a man who said he was sent by God to give us eternal life, and came back from the dead to prove it. It was all about solving the problem of humans who die. Nothing religious about it; just raw reality.

Is Christianity relevant in a world like ours?

It isn’t Christianity that’s relevant, it’s Christ-likeness, because without Christ-likeness Christianity is just another religion that’s totally irrelevant to those who are aren’t Christians, just as Buddhism is totally irrelevant to non-Buddhists.

Without Christ-likeness Christianity would more appropriately be called ‘Christianism’ and be lumped in with all the other “isms” like Hinduism, Confucianism, Sikhism, Taoism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism, all of which differ wildly in their beliefs and rituals and what happens after we die, which make them all totally irrelevant and meaningless to anyone who doesn’t agree with those beliefs. And then there are serious differences and divisions within religions too, like the vicious conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in Islam, and between Catholics and Protestants in Christianity, that totally disqualify all those involved as being relevant.

What would be relevant is everyone being Christ-like. If the whole world did what Christ taught there’d be no need for any religion in the first place, or any strange rituals, or any competing denominations, because we’d all be getting along, loving our neighbours as ourselves, treating others as we ourselves would love to be treated, and correcting ourselves rather than judging and condemning others.

And from what I’ve heard and read, most people have no trouble accepting what Jesus taught. It makes total sense. If we all loved our enemies, for instance, as Jesus taught, we wouldn’t have bullies, tyrants, war, racism, conflicts between neighbours, suicidal teenagers, character assassinating gossips, an upper class despising the lower classes, and vice versa. Christ-likeness would change the world, if only we could all be Christ-like.

But therein lies the problem, because being Christ-like is next to impossible in a world where to survive financially, and not be trodden on emotionally and socially, you’ve got to be better, sharper, more cunning and more ruthless than the competition. To be nice, honest, thoughtful, sensitive and truthful is asking for trouble and opening oneself up to being taken to the cleaners by salesmen, scam artists and bullies. And how can a youngster be Christ-like in school when it makes him so vulnerable to being picked on and isolated?

But this is where Christianity can be hugely relevant, because it provides a place for those who wish to be Christ-like, so that some people, at least, get the chance to see and taste the difference Christ-likeness makes. And equipped with that knowledge they can live in a world like ours with courage and the desire to share and practice what they’ve learnt, making them extremely relevant in a world that is desperately seeking solutions to its problems and hasn’t cottoned on yet that Christ-likeness is the solution.

Is it what we GET that makes Christianity attractive?

So much of Christianity nowadays seems to be about the things you get for being Christian, like you get salvation if you repent and believe, you get rewards if you do good works, you get a closer walk with God if you fast and pray, and you get all kinds of blessings if you’re kind and generous. It’s all “get, get, get.”

But isn’t that the appeal of the Christian message, though? It’s what we “get” for being Christians, isn’t it? We all get to go to heaven because we’re Christians, not go to hell like all those non-Christians. And when we become Christians we get miracles, we get healing, we get angelic protection, we get answers to prayer, we get all our needs met, we get life in abundance, we get peace beyond understanding, we get joy inexpressible, and on an on it goes. And isn’t that a huge part of Christian preaching to make Christianity attractive to others? It’s like selling a product by advertising all the things it can do to make life easier, happier and more exciting.

But the attraction of Christianity isn’t what we can get when we’re Christian, it’s realizing what we’ve already got. According to 2 Peter 1:3, “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness.” HAS given, take note, meaning it’s already ours. And according to Paul in Ephesians 3:20, it’s even beyond our imagination what we’ve already got.

And that’s what people need to hear. It’s not “if you become Christian you get all these goodies,” it’s “Christ died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:15) so that our greatest needs as humans have already been taken care of. And if only we believed it we would then begin to experience it. What we’ve denied ourselves as humans, then, is experiencing what we’ve already got.

We were all dead in our transgressions, for instance, but God made us alive with Christ and “seated us with Christ in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 2:5-6), so that we could join Christ in all that’s he’s doing, filling this world with everything he is, all of which God planned in advance for us to do (verse 10) before the world was even created (Ephesians 1:4). All that’s left for us to do is participate in what is already ours (2 Peter 1:4).

When Christ ascended that’s when the Holy Spirit was given to us so that Christ himself in all his divine and perfect nature can actually live what his Father has already given to us IN us (Colossians 3:4). Christianity, therefore, is never about getting; it’s all about God’s giving, every step of the way. And that’s what makes Christianity so attractive.