Thursday, January 17, 2008

Personal Experience Verses The Bible

Recently my wife bought me a copy a popular South African Christian periodical. I hesitated to crack the cover and see what was on the offing in pop evangelicalism. Sadly, my initial skepticism was amply confirmed as I glanced at the table of contents. From cover to cover, the magazine in question can only be described as a tribute to shallowness as it was filled with candy-coated approaches for living the Christian life and articles saturated in spiritual transfats. I can only conclude that a regular diet of such spiritual junk food will most certainly lead to spiritual malnutrition and rickets.

One article immediately caught my attention “23 Minutes In Hell” about one man’s claim to have visited hell in an out of the body of experience. What is so significant about the article is not what it says about hell, but rather what it illustrates about the state of the church at large. Bill Wiese’s claim to have visited hell for 23 minutes is a perfect example of how many professing believers are more disposed to believe someone’s alleged experience than they are to believe God’s word.

In his own words Wiese explains why he had to visit hell:

“The reason I was shown this place was to bring back a message of warning. My story is not one to condemn, but rather to inform you that hell is a real place … I have since discovered that my story coincides with what scripture details about hell.”

It is certain the doctrine of hell has fallen on hard times in our postmodern world that eschews judgment and authority. But the advancement and recovery of this fundamental doctrine will not be revived by alleged claims to have personally experienced the horrors of the second death. My thesis is simple, God’s word is sufficient apart from any one’s invalidated experience. Our knowledge about hell should be formed by the anvil of God’s holy word, not sensationalistic experiences, regardless of how closely they may “coincide” with scripture.

Some might ask at this point, “What is wrong with Wiese’s claim? After all, people are getting saved and coming to Christ as a result of his testimony!”

Let me answer the question by stating a few of problems with relying on experience above the Bible:

1. First, when those, like Wiese, make such outlandish assertions about their personal experiences the tendency is to replace the word of God with the experience. The experience becomes primary and the Bible is relegated to a role of secondary importance. Whether intentional or unintentional, experience is canonized as supreme, thus detracting from God’s word while placing undue emphasis on someone’s personal claims. Luke 16:29-31 clearly addresses this very issue, "But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.' 30 "But he said, 'No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!' 31 "But he said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.'"

The story is a familiar one. The rich man is in torment and desires that someone return from the grave to warn his relatives about the impending doom that awaits unbelievers. The rich man’s logic is simple, if some one from the dead pays a house call, then his relatives are sure to believe and so avoid the torments of Hades. But note the unmistakable response—they have “Moses and the Prophets”. In other words they have the word of God, the Old Testament at that time. Refusing to believe what God has already declared in His word on the matter leads to the same end as the rich man.

In John 11 another man by the name Lazarus was brought back from the grave, but not everyone was converted (John 11:47-50; 12:10). In fact the Pharisees were even more determined to murder Jesus as a result of this miracle. To think that a quick trip to hell and back will result in a harvest of souls is as na├»ve as it is misinformed. Yet, Wiese explains that he had to experience the horrors of hell in order to come back and “inform” us that hell is a real place. The advice Jesus has for Wiese and all who believe him is “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.” Simply put, we don’t need Wiese’s story to tell us what God’s word has already said for thousands of years.

2. Another problem with an overt reliance on personal experience, as a carriage way for truth, is that salvation is never a result of someone’s experience, but only and always a direct result of the faithful and accurate proclamation of the Bible. Romans 10:17 is a cogent reminder of this principle which is often avoided today, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” God’s word serves as the catalyst for bringing precious souls to saving faith in Jesus Christ. One wonders how Wiese’s road show would fare if he scrapped the sensationalistic story telling and stuck strictly to the Scriptures on Hell? Some how I have to believe his popularity would quickly plummet if he stuck solely to the script God has once delivered unto the saints! This would serve as the ultimate litmus test for his claims.

3. Beyond the above, the promotion of experience above God’s word leads to the very real danger of elevating the one who claims to have had the experience. Christ becomes an addendum to the story rather than the central theme. There are two classic examples of this warning and concern uttered by both Paul and Peter. In 2 Corinthians 12:1-9 Paul discusses his inexplicable trip into heaven, but he qualifies it with the fact that God gave him a thorn in the flesh to keep him from thinking more highly of himself than he ought. In addition, Paul, unlike Wiese, is at a complete loss to explain what even happened to him. What is of interest is that God gave Paul a glimpse of heaven, not hell.

The Apostle Peter also had some experiences worth recounting. One such incident was the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13). Yet, Peter didn’t emphasize that incident. On the contrary he distanced himself from that remarkable experience. In 2 Peter 1:19-21 he clearly downplayed that event (2 Peter 1:16-18). He concludes :

19 And so we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. 20 But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, 21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

Peter clearly ranks the importance of scripture over and above personal experiences. As John MacArthur notes, Peter views God’s word as more complete, more authoritative, and more certain than experience. Why? Because the Bible finds its point of origin in God not man (1:20), so it is externally objective as opposed to the subjective embellishments resident in experience. God’s word is supremely reliable (“more sure”) and should always serve as the port of call for our Christian walk.

4. A fourth problem encountered when placing too much emphasis on experience is that it is extremely difficult to exegete some one else’s experience. There is no way to verify or validate the claims made. I constantly challenge my congregation to check out what I preach. When it is God’s word that is preached, this is a relatively simple enterprise as they can contrast what I said with God’s word to see if what I said was true to the Bible. This is impossible when someone has had an experience on the scale of Wiese. We only have his word on the matter.

At this juncture some might be asking how we explain what really happened to Wiese. There are really only three possibilities:

  • He could be fabricating the story. I don’t know this to be the case in his instance. But it must be considered as a viable possibility.
  • It is also possible that he had a dream that seemed real. How many times do we wake up after a dream that was so vivid that it seemed real? Is it possible he had read or heard a message on hell at some stage that was relived in a dream?
  • The third option is that his dream or vision was demonically inspired and influenced by the agents of hell who are more intimately acquainted with the reality and compounded horrors of their ultimate destination than man is. As Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 11:1-13 Satan comes as an angel of light to deceive.

I don’t pretend to know which of the above categories Wiese falls into. He may be completely sincere in his claims to have been to hell and back, but he is sincerely wrong. Again, God’s word is the authority, not Wiese and his experience. Even if Wiese came back with a PowerPoint presentation of his journey, I would still defer to the Bible as the ultimate authority.

5. Another dangerous precedent set by those who rely on experience is that it becomes the grid by which they interpret the Bible. The experience becomes the imperious governor that determines the meaning of the passage. The result is that the real meaning of the text in question is sacrificed on the altar of experience. Rather, our experiences must be subordinated to the real meaning of the text, even when there is no satisfying explanation for what we experienced. It has become too common place in our postmodern culture to start with where we are and then to interpret the Bible on that basis. Instead, we must start with God’s word and work to where we are at once we reach the application of the text!

6. Finally, Wiese’s claim to have briefly gone to hell is biblically irrational. If true, then Wiese tasted the second death—eternal death (Revelation 20:13-14). There is not one instance in the Bible where some saint went into the bowels of hell and returned with an eyewitness account. Isaiah saw God high and lifted up. Paul caught a glimpse of heaven, but not one person in scripture is ever said to have visited hell and then returned. The only one to have ever tasted the torments of hell and live to tell about it was Jesus Christ when He was agonizingly nailed to the cruel cross! For a few brief moments, as the Father turned His face away, Christ suffered the full weight of God’s eternal wrath for sin-- past, present, and future. I am not implying the Christ went to hell, but rather that He tasted of the torments of hell while on the cross. Through His resurrection He triumphed over death to include the second death.

The conclusion of this debate is inescapable, God’s word is supremely sufficient and authoritative for the task of godly living (2 Timothy 3;16-17). Regardless of the issue we face, the Bible must serve as the primary point of departure lest we set sail on the sea of sensationalistic experiences. God’s word is ultimate. Therefore, let the word of Christ richly dwell in you (Colossians 3:16)!