Left unchecked, experience is the most powerful source of belief in our lives. As the old saying goes, “You can’t argue with someone’s personal experience.” This is true in a limited yet real sense. Once someone has a personal experience, it becomes personal and it is very hard to take it away or argue against it.
I had a guy at the Credo House last year who told me his story. He was a college professor. He grew up as a Christian, but after he went to the university, he began to lose his faith. By the time he was a professor at the university, Christianity was nothing more than a naive folk religion with no basis in fact and very little, if any, evidence to be believed. He spent the majority of his career as an atheist, never giving God a second thought. However, things changed when he turned sixty. What changed? He died. At least this is how he tells the story. He had a heart attack and died. While dead, his experience changed his beliefs. He experienced what is called a NDE (near-death experience). As he described it to me, his view of the afterlife persuaded him that his beliefs about God and Christianity were wrong. God was indeed real and Christ was indeed God. Now he is a committed Christian and a changed professor. I cringed a bit when I heard this story. In fact, there was a part of me that wanted to talk him out of founding his beliefs on the volatility of personal experience.
I believe that my back was (at least temporarily) healed by God. It was a supernatural event. It was direct intervention. It was a very personal experience. It would be hard for any of you to argue against, because you are not me and you do not share my experience. All you have is my word. You can either believe that I am lying, that I am self-deceived, or that God really did heal my back. I think those are the only three options. I lean toward the last, but am open to the first two. But I don’t think you have much of a chance at changing my leanings here. Remember, this is personal.
However, this particular “happening” holds no apologetic or evidential value in my life concerning the truth of Christianity. It may be an act of God’s mercy, but it is not evidence of his existence. At least not to me. As I pour cement into the foundation of my faith, there is only one label on the cement bag. No, it is not NDEs. No, it is not healed backs. No, it is not miracles that I have seen here and there. No, it is not any personal experience. Written on the bag is this: “Jesus Christ rose from the dead.” That is where most of my defense of my faith starts and ends. If Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is true. If he did not, it is false, no matter how many back stories or NDEs I have in my back pocket.
You see, though this back story of mine is very personal, I also realize that stories like it are a dime a dozen. There are lots of “back stories” out there, ranging from healed backs to NDEs to cancer disappearing to UFO encounters. Once we begin to allow our own subjective experience to mix with the cement in the foundation of our faith, the door is open for “back stories” everywhere to have legitimacy. The problem is when these “back stories” conflict and contradict. Yes, one person may die and see Christ, but are we willing to take into account all the others who have died and seen seventy virgins or Joseph Smith? Are we willing to pour the bag of cement of the guy who was healed of cancer through prayer to Allah? All one has to do is study Near Death Experiences to see that, while fascinating, these cannot provide apologetic value to our case for Christianity, even if our own NDE is very personal.
I am not saying we discount personal experiences. I am not saying they do not serve our faith. What I am saying is that we need to be very careful about assigning apologetic value (value in defending our faith) to these types of things. The best they can do is provide illustrative value of a worldview already confirmed. This is why I hold on to my back being healed. It is an illustration of God’s healing mercy to me. But my worldview is already confirmed through the resurrection of Christ. Therefore, my back being healed does not, in any way, provide evidence for the truthfulness of Christianity.
(Behind the pulpit statement): Do not make personal experience the test of your faith. If my back was truly healed by God, it is the first time that this has ever happened. It may be the last. But most of the time, people don’t have healed backs, NDEs, or miracles. I am not trying to take away your personal experience, but the foundation of Christianity is not built on such subjective things. It is built upon the public and historic life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Purify your foundation and see to it that his resurrection is your only rock. Then just decorate your house with your experiences. I will do the same. Deal?