Arguments Against Life After Death

Rejection of the Afterlife 

Many philosophers rejecting life after death focus on 3 key ideas

  1. Belief in the afterlife is a product of human wishful thinking
  2. There is no evidence to survive people survive death
  3. A person is a physical entity – this cannot survive death

Arguments Against

  • Antony Flew argues that people are mortal, we are a brain united with a physical body & the body is mortal
  • Bertrand Russell focused on wishful thinking, stating that “All that constitutes a person is a series of experiences connected by memory”
    • Russell argues that humans are their memories & experiences
    • The memories are linked to the person as a river is to its bed
    • If the river were to be destroyed nothing would be left
    • When the brain dies, the rest of the body dies and rots

Religious Views on the Afterlife

Christianity & Resurrectionb40628130b5f08777ac403522aa5f236 

  • Christians do not believe that death marks the end of existence
  • Rather it marks the end to physical life & the beginning of another
  • The New Testament refers to the afterlife as a paradise
  • The belief in resurrection means that God does not abandon us after death
  • “For since we believe that Jesus died & rose again, even so through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died” 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-14
  • The story of the gospels concludes with Jesus rising from the dead & ascending to heaven, several factors are notable in Jesus’ resurrection
    • His followers do not at first recognise him; he had changed & was different
    • Jesus is not described as a ghost or vision; he is risen from the dead physically
  • Christianity traditionally promotes the idea of physical resurrection 
    • I believe in the resurrection of the body” – the Nicene creed
  • However some Christians take a more dualistic approach
    • Believing that the soul is  separated from the body in death
  • Richard Swinburne argued that spiritual resurrection is coherent as we speak dualistically about our bodies; “I have a body” not “I am a body”. It is also logical as we can imagine it

The Particular Judgement 

  • Within Christianity it is common belief that every person is judged at the moment of his or her death
  • This is known as “particular” as each judgement is entirely personal to each individual
  • The good are rewarded with heaven & the bad punished in hell
  • This could suggest dualism as it is the “weight” of one’s soul – the level of guilt or badness which is factored in when the judgement occurs

Heaven and Hell 

  • In Christian tradition the afterlife is described as a state of existence with God in which people can see God face to face
  • This is referred to as the Beatific Vision
  • This stems from the first followers of Jesus who in heaven experienced God in a different way
    • “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face” Paul 1 Corinthians 13: 12
  • Heaven is also seen as a place of fulfillment, the ultimate goal to which all humans are attracted
  • Hell however is traditionally categorised as a place separate from God
  • Hell is a state of suffering after death, the wicked people there lose the chance to behold the Beatific vision & they are aware of what they squandered
  • While hell is a place of evil, it is part of God’s justness
  • To fail to punish those who have acted wrongly in this world would limit God’s omnibenevolence – how does this explain the unjust spread of evil in the world if the people who benefit from it are not then punished in the next?
  • The problem with hell being a place of physical suffering is – where is it?
  • Traditional Christian texts suggest it being beneath the earth or on the other side of the moon – however science allows us to know that this is not the case

The Problem of Evil 

  • The Irenaean theodicy suggests that without the existence of an afterlife the problem of evil cannot be solved
  • Irenaeus argues that evil in this world is justified not only because it promotes human flourishing, but because all inequalities are solved in the afterlife
  • Many Christians including Irenaeus stress the importance of free will – especially when it comes to evil as Augustine argues, the majority of evil in the world is created by humans
    • Epistemic distance John Hick argues that God gives us the distance & freedom to choose the right path to love him (the King & the pauper girl)
  • God predestines no one to go to hell; for this to happen a willful turning away from God is necessary, and persistence in it until the end” – Catechism of the Catholic church
    • God does not decide that people are destined for evil, he gives us the freedom to choose in moral decision making & some choose wrong
    • “Persistence until the end” signifies God’s forgiving nature – it’s possible to change one’s behavior & obtain forgiveness from God
  • God’s judgement of people is necessary in the afterlife
    • Otherwise free will would become a licence to do whatever you like with no repercussions
    • If people choose through their free will to reject God, then justice demands that God rejects them
  • The significant flaw in this is that many moral, upstanding people choose to reject God – however this is enough of a sin to justify them being sent to hell
  • However the Roman Catholic church has traditionally rejected the idea that “extra ecclesia nulla salus” – outside the church there is no salvation
  • The rejection of this idea came about from Catholic missionaries who were scandalised by the way conquerors of the New World preached their doctrine & threatened native people
    • Theologians stated that if a person preaching Christianity is scandalous in their behavior, it is justified that those listening would not follow or believe him
  • Ultimately Christians cannot decide to convert people or threaten them into faith – it is God who offers a route for people to follow & he who decides whether it has been followed
  • Under Natural Law it is possible to have good morals and be an ethical person & reach heaven without Christianity
  • “To the extent that they are careless about their (non Christians) instruction in the faith, or present its teachings falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the true nature of God & religion.” – Vatican II, 1965

Analysis of Christian Life After Death 

  1. Advantages of physical resurrection 
    – Follows scripture, coherent with the Judaeo Christian God
    – Heaven & the afterlife cannot be properly understood by humans; so  theories of physical resurrection are possible despite our reservations due to the ineffable & omnipotent nature of God
  2. Disadvantages of physical resurrection 
    – Where would a physical heaven & hell be? Above/below the earth which are traditional ideas can be proven incorrect empirically
    Bernard Williams; if you cannot age or change in heaven it would soon become dull, for example if E.M is resurrected as a 42 year old, he would quickly do all it is possible for a 42 year old to do
    – Free will is obstructed in heaven as there’s no evil so sin cannot be committed
    – When would our body be physically resurrected & in what form (similar to problems with Hick’s replicas)?
    However – as argued above it can be said that heaven would overcome all of these weaknesses in ways we can’t imagine due to God’s ineffability, as well as this heaven is not like earth & can’t be compared to it
  3. Advantages of spiritual resurrection 
    – Overcomes all problems of a physical resurrection
    – Seems to comply better with the Particular Judgement (“weighing” one’s soul)
    – The body is described by many, including Plato, as being impure & the cause of deviating from good due to the animalistic desires it requires whereas the soul is pure
  4. Disadvantages of spiritual resurrection
    – Does not follow scripture
    – Creates “a ghost in a machine”
    Swinburne’s ideas on spiritual resurrection are flawed; to say that something is logical as we can imagine it is foolish – George R R Martin’s Westeros is a fully developed continent which logically has few flaws this does not make it real – fantasy can still be logical.

Hinduism and Rebirth 


  • Rebirth or reincarnation is a belief held by many religions such as Hinduism & it contrasts with the Christian belief in resurrection
  • Reincarnation relies upon the belief in an eternal & therefore is dualistic 
  • The status of the soul’s next incarnation depends on the actions of the unified body and soul of the previous incarnation
  • The law of Karma depends what level one is incarnated on next; if one acts morally in this life one can reap the karmic fruits in the next, however someone who is wicked will be reincarnated lower on the hierarchy of life
  • The cycle of birth, life, death & reincarnation is known as Samsara in Hindu belief
  • The essential self or soul is known as the atman  
  • The ultimate goal of the soul is to be reunited with the true reality – the Brahman & escape the cycle of death & reincarnation
  • God manifests himself in every person through the atman
  • Once the atman obtains unity with the divine & this union has been realised, it attains release & leaves the cycle of rebirth
  • The physical body is nothing but a vehicle of the atman
  • The Hindu hierarchy of being is traditionally laid out;
    • Untouchables are at the bottom, ostracized from society
    • Brahmins (priests) are situated at the top
  • Evidence for reincarnation is gathered from examples of people recalling unbelievable things from past lives

Analysis of Reincarnation 

  1. Advantages of Reincarnation 
    – Logical; the passage of life to death to rebirth does not require any strange commodities such as a physical eternal heaven or hell
    – There is some empirical evidence for reincarnation
    – Holds people morally responsible for their actions by following a structure of reward and punishment but is governed by natural laws not a law giver (removes countless problems with the JCG)
  2. Disadvantages of Reincarnation
    – The empirical evidence can be easily disputed – for example using Hume’s probability claim
    – Taking a Marxists approach when it comes to Hinduist hierarchy & Karma seems more likely. Brahmins in India created the notion of untouchables, & their oppression of the lower classes has been a major problem in the country for decades. This complies with Marx’s theory that many religions are designed to control & use the lower classes, preventing their development & keeping them under the thumb of the more powerful





John Hick on Life After Death

John Hick’s Replica Theory – Alternative Materialism 


  • In his ‘Resurrection of the Person’ John Hick presented an alternative to the traditional Christian thinking on the afterlife
  • Hick rejects dualism but simultaneously presents a defense of bodily resurrection
  • This contrasts with the traditional outlook on life after death; monists rejects the existence of a soul & afterlife & dualists promote it
  • Hick first states that humans are a “psycho-somatic unity” meaning that human bodies & mind/soul are in unity – the two cannot be separated
  • This overcomes the criticism of one Gilbert Ryle who states that the idea of a soul separate from the body is “like a ghost in a machine” 
  • For Hick the soul is not a separate entity to the body, unlike the theory of Plato, therefore he cannot be described as a dualist

The Replica Theory 

  • Paul described resurrection in terms of physical bodies as do other parts of the Bible, Hicks theory is one way of interpreting physical resurrection & the afterlife
    • Hick argues that resurrection is divine intervention creating an exact replica of the deceased person in the kingdom of God
  • The replica is the exact same as us, but its location is not on earth
  • Hick does not describe a replica as a copy of a human – one can make hundreds of thousands of copies, a replica is the real you – what you become after death
  • Hick uses the example of John Smith 
    • John Smith of London vanishes in front of his friends. At the same time an exact replica of John Smith appears in New York – this is John Smith.
      If John died in London & appeared in New York the conclusion would still be the same.
      Therefore it follows that when John Smith dies his resurrection replica appears in a a resurrection world.
  • Hick qualifies that this theory is logically possible – not factually possible

Criticisms of Hick’s Theory 

  1. When is the replica made? 
    – If a person dies in a horrific car accident, is that the form of them which is replicated?
    – If God replicates one in their perfect form – what is this? Which age can be determined as perfect? In which case surely the resurrection replica would not be an actual replica if the age is altered
  2. Logically possible 
    – The theory is only logically possible with a belief in the Judaeo-Christian God
    – JCG has multiple flaws (the problem of evil, arbitrary & partisan etc.) so it follows that a belief in Hick’s theory is automatically flawed


Richard Dawkins on the Soul

Richard Dawkins – Materialism 

The Archbishop of Cantebury Rowan Williams and atheist scholar Richard Dawkins pose for a photograph outside Clarendon House at Oxford University

  • Dawkins does not believe in the soul in the way many religious or Ancient ideas have interpreted it
  • For Richard Dawkins there is no life after death
  • There is no spirit driven life force”
  • “This is human wishful thinking. The universe is indifferent to people” – Bertrand Russel (fellow materialist)


  • Dawkins argues that everything about us is physical
  • “we are just bytes & bytes of digital information”
  • There is no conscious which can be separated from the brain
    • If the brain dies, so does everything encompassing a human
    • We are survival machines” 
  • Humans & other living creatures are the vehicles of genes


  • Richard Dawkins complex theory of memetics generally states that ideas & behaviour can be passed down through generations, much like genes
  • This explains why religion & religious ideas have been so popular for centuries
  • Unlike Marx, Dawkins doesn’t believe that religion & spiritual thinking came about to control people (even if that is what it became)
    • For a long time ideas such as “this suffering will all be worth it in heaven”  were beneficial beliefs to hold for survival
    • Hence why religious ideas regarding the soul spread so far – the meme was beneficial & it thrived
  • Dawkins argues we no longer need these ideas & should seek to root them out of society

Dawkins Souls 

Soul One 

  • Richard Dawkins was involved in a debate with Steven Pinker discussing “is science killing the soul?” & from this he developed his theory on soul
  • Soul one relates to the first and oldest meaning of soul
    – “The principle of life in animals or man”
    – “The spiritual part of man regarded as surviving death” OED
  • Science is killing this type of soul
  • However this is a good thing; we no longer need these ideas to comfort us or to answer questions we can’t fathom

Soul Two 

  • “Intellectual or spiritual power, high development of the mental faculties” OED
  • Artistic sensibility, emotion, soulfulness
  • Science is not killing this soul, rather by elevating our knowledge through science & education we are building on this soul
  • “The only sense that humans survive death is through the memories of them in other people’s minds

Aristotle’s View on Soul

Aristotle – A Weak Dualist 


  • Aristotle when describing the soul gave the example of the wax tablet 
    • A wax tablet which has been stamped cannot be separated from the impression of the stamp – just as the soul cannot be separated from the body
  • Aristotle suggested that the soul is the Form of the body, by this he meant that
    • The soul gives shape to the matter which is the body
    • The soul is the principle of life or activity of the body
  • Aristotle distinguished different types of souls which possessed different faculties

Types of Soul 

  1. Plants – a vegetative soul 
    – Plants can nourish themselves
    – Can ensure reproduction
  2. Animals – perceptive souls 
    – Animals can interpret the world around them & react to it
    – Animals possess locomotion & have some intelligence
  3. Humans – intellectual soul 
    – Have a higher degree soul
    – Can interpret right from wrong
  • Aristotle makes the distinction that just because humans possess the intellectual soul does not mean they use it in the rationalistic way it can be used
    • For example a man can learn Greek, but he can also then choose never to speak it or utilise that knowledge

Does the Soul Survive Death? 

  • Aristotle’s unity of the form to the body’s matter suggests that it does not survive death as the soul is inseparable from the body
  • Aristotle’s thoughts had great influence over Christian thought; including the idea of humans being higher degree beings to animals

Plato’s View on the Soul

Plato – A Dualist View



  • Dualism – Plato was a dualist, meaning he believed in two separate entities when it came to body & soul
  • Plato suggested that the soul is immortal while the body is mortal, at the end of life the soul is set free from the body
  • The soul’s destination is the World of the Forms, which for Plato is only accessible indirectly in this world for those capable of higher thinking (philosophers)
  • Plato argues that real knowledge of the forms in the world of the forms comes from our soul, and therefore is evidence of the existence both of an immortal soul & of an afterlife (this is explained in his evidence for the soul)
  • Plato has quite a negative view of the body, arguing that it distracts the soul from reaching the world of the forms; “the body is the source of endless trouble to us” 
  • He suggests that it is only philosophers who can obtain knowledge form the world of the forms as it is only them who can ignore the distractions of the body
  • The analogy of the charioteer explains this;
    • Plato compares the soul to a chariot driver trying to direct the two horses of the chariot, one horse is the mind & the other is the body. The soul attempts to govern both of these

Plato’s Description of the Soul 

  • In the Republic Plato describes the soul as being “simple” & “without parts
  • This means that the soul is indivisible
  • However it is simultaneously complex 
  • A way of thinking of this is by comparing the soul to a diamond; a diamond is a simple & extremely hard rock which cannot be broken – however it is also extremely complex with many different sides & aspects
  • Plato also identified three different aspects of the soul;
    • Reason – searches for truth & rules the soul
    • Spirit – includes aspects which can be trained & controlled such as emotion, aggression
    • Desire – linked to the idea of seeking pleasure for oneself, including desire for what is necessary (food) & what isn’t (luxury)
  • Plato argues that harmony in the soul is a virtue – that being harmony amongst all of its aspects
  • This enables the soul to work more effectively, eg. reason can govern desire & spirit and the soul can obtain knowledge from the world of the forms
  • Injustice comes from disharmony in the soul – many crimes are committed due to desire overcoming reason for example
  • This means that Plato argued for doing good things & having a harmonious soul as it allowed one to reach the world of the forms – not for material gain such as for money or gratitude

Evidence for the Soul 

  1. The Argument from Recollection 
    – Plato argued that learning is actually a matter of recalling what our souls perceived in the world of the forms
    – He argues that the reason we can recognise, for example, a dog as a dog is because if participates in the form of the dog in the world of the forms
    The particular participates in the ideal 
    – He used this to argue that our ability to recall the ideals shows that we have memories of the world of the forms
    – This therefore points to the existence of an immortal soul which travels to & from the world of the forms
  2. The Argument from Opposites 
    – Plato argued that the physical world consists of opposites such as big & small, light & dark, sleeping & waking
    – He suggested that the opposite of living is death
    – For death to be “something” rather than “nothing” the soul must exist
    – This advocates not only for the soul but for some kind of reincarnation, which Plato suggested in Phaedo

Problems with Plato’s Soul 

  1. Reliance on empirical evidence
    – Plato himself rejects empiricism, as a rationalist & believer in a priori knowledge, Plato states that we cannot trust our senses
    – And yet both of his arguments for the existence of souls rely on empirical evidence to support them
  2. Recollection 
    – The argument from recollection is flawed as learning is based purely on socialisation & discovery
    – The subjectivity we have in our world shows us how recollection seems unlikely, for example Keira Knightley isn’t beautiful by definition – in fact many people wouldn’t find her attractive
  3. The theory of the forms 
    – Plato’s argument relies on the world of the forms which has been challenged many times

Challenges to Religious Experience

Physiological Challenges 

  • One example against religious experiences is the suggestion that they have a physiological cause
  • For example, did Paul have epilepsy? This would explain the appearance of a bright light
  • The weakness of this challenge is that there is obviously no evidence to support every person who’s had a religious experience having had a physiological disorder
  • However this does seem to account for certain religious experiences

Psychological Challenges 


  • Sigmund Freud began to link religion and worship because he noted that several patients at a mental hospital who suffered from severe mental illness exhibited obsessive compulsions – some of which were reminiscent of religious practises
  • Freud argued that religion is an illusion – it expresses peoples desires, what they want to believe is true for their own comfort
  • Religion meets people’s psychological needs, making religion quite similar to wishful thinking
  • Freud suggested that God was a mirror of a childlike desire for a father figure, making religious experiences & God’s acts of love culminations of this

Sociological Challenges 

  • Many sociologists have suggested that religious experiences reflect one’s upbringing & the society one lives in
  • This relates to the idea that it is mostly religious believers who have such faith experiences


  • Karl Marx referred to religion as “the opium of the people” – an alienation from one’s true self which distracted people from reaching their true potentials
  • Marx saw religion as a form of oppression & control over society which prevented people from being truly human, making their own decisions & formulating their own ideas
  • Marx criticised the powers of the clergy, & noted that many aspects of religion – such as the Calvinist Protestant work ethic which advocated for working for next to no wages & donating great amounts of money back into the church – served to benefit those high up in the clergy & used the proletariat
  • The Christian Church kept the working people poor & subservient – their only hope of reaching a better life was to enslave themselves to the church
  • Marx argued that the Christian teachings of heaven & hell were like opium – it gave people comfort & helped them to cope with the situation they were in
  • If people were judged after death, it gave them the promise of reward for leading a life of poverty & struggle – if people disobeyed the church they would go to hell
  • Marx argued that people would be better off without religion, like drug addicts without opium

Responses to Marx: 

  1. Religion is a comfort 
    For many people, religion is more of a comfort rather than a drug. Religious people would argue that their belief is more like a relationship with God, who is real & communicative
  2. Religion as a force for change 
    In many situations religion has been a force for good rather than a force for controlling the masses, MLK Jr fought for black people’s civil rights in the USA & his belief in equality came from the Christian faith
    – Morals & ethics can be separated from faith and really depend more on the person. If one is to say that religion is good as MLK used it to form his beliefs on equality, one is forced to accept that religion is bad due to countless mass murderers, terrorists or racists who also base their beliefs in religion

Lack of Evidence 

  • While religious experiences may have an effect on a person’s lifestyle & decisions, this is the only evidence they offer empirically & it can hardly be directly linked to the existence & involvement of God
  • At most, this evidence supports William James’ conclusion that religious experiences provide evidence of something else outside of this world

Conflicting Claims 

  • Across the world many different religions provide accounts of religious experiences, many of them have several similarities & seem to be based on the same experiences, but describe different prophets or gods
  • This can be explained in several ways;
  1. Religious experiences are Ineffable 
    If Hindus & Christians give slightly different accounts of the same experience, this is because such experiences are impossible to put into words or be completely understood by humans, therefore naturally slightly different accounts & perceptions arise
  2. Result of human psychology 
    Religious experiences are also affected by the prior beliefs & experiences of the mystic

Are Religious Experiences Veridical?

The issue for many philosophers & theists is – are religious experiences veridical? Are they what they claim to be – a revelation from God – or are they caused by some other factor or force?

Richard Swinburne 


  • Richard Swinburne suggested two principles which can be used to assess claims about religious experience, his principles of credulity and testimony
  • Credulity argues that “we ought to believe that things are as they seem to be, unless and until we have evidence that they are mistaken
  • Swinburne gives three reasons why we would have grounds to disbelieve evidence;
    – There may be reason to believe the person was mistaken, such as they were under the influence of drugs
    – If we have “strong” reasons to believe God does not exist that goes against religious experiences
    – Thirdly, there may be evidence that the event was not caused by God
  • Swinburne also presents the principle of testimony, & argues that one should generally believe what a person tells you unless there is special consideration
  • In response to the argument that it is only religious believers who have religious experiences, Swinburne presents his analogy of the telephone
    – If someone grew up without ever being taught what a telephone was, then they would not recognise one & not do anything when it rings
    – However if someone had been taught about telephones at a young age, knew how they worked & had seen others using them, they would be able to recognise a telephone & correctly interpret the ring
  • Religious experiences happen to people in all walks of life – it is mostly religious believers however who recognise them for what they are as they know what to look out for
  • Swinburne also suggests that, taken with other evidence & the multiple accounts of religious experiences, these suggest that God exists
    – However Antony Flew counters this by stating that accumulating many weak arguments don’t make a strong one, giving the example of collecting ten leaky buckets rather than one

William Alston


  • William Alston explored the fact that many people had religious experiences & believed that they were completely veridical
  • Alston argued that rejecting religious experiences on their basis in faith was hypocritical
  • He compared religious experiences to other empirical ones, such as “today I saw a red car”
  • We do not automatically reject such statements, but accept them as truth
  • Alston argued that there was a “double standard” as religious experiences are also sense perceptions, but are treated  very differently
  • This is a flawed argument, if a friend came to you saying that they had seen a unicorn on their way to work, this would not be merely accepted as a sense experience, it would be critiqued, evidence would be required to support such a claim
  • There is no “double standard” – religious experiences are in their very nature outside of the norm – in much the same way as one would interrogate a friend over their account of the unicorn, people claiming to have witnessed miracles or heard God’s voice are required to expand upon their claims which seemingly defy the laws of nature

William James

William James’ Argument from Religious Experience


  • William James conducted investigations into many different religious experiences in order to ascertain what qualities they possessed, what similarities & differences ran through them
  • James did not set out to prove if religious experiences were true or false
  • He also attempted to approach the matter entirely neutrally, with no preconceived ideas about whether or not religious experience can be considered truthful
  • James noted four common characteristics among religious experiences;
    Passive – mystical experiences were not under the control of the mystic, but are rather events which happen to that person – it is from God
    Ineffable – the direct experience of God goes beyond human powers of description
    Noetic – the experience reveals something about the divine which is not otherwise available
    Transient – religious experiences are not permanent, although the effects of the experience are long lasting & can often have a fundamental change on a person
  • When analysing religious experiences, James concluded that the only suggestion such experiences are from God is a “good disposition” which remains as a result of the experience
  • James stated the experiences have authority because of the meaning they hold for the person who experiences them
  • James ultimately concluded that religious experiences are “psychological phenomena” (however this does not mean they aren’t linked to God)
  • He stated that while religious experiences alone could not point to God’s existence, they did suggest something larger – and this could be God
  • James therefore takes a more anti – real approach to religious experiences – they are significant because of the impact & importance they have on the person

Responses to James’ Ideas

  1. Hallucinations 
    Some people have suggested religious experiences are similar to the hallucinations caused by drugs such as LSD – while this is true, there is no evidence to say that every person claiming to have had a religious experience had taken LSD
  2. Rarely Conversions
    While James claims religious experiences are a primary source of religious belief, most religious experiences happen to those who already have faith or a strong belief in God. While it is true that conversions have & do happen, this is usually in times of extreme stress – a mid life crisis, puberty, terminal illness – which explains the sudden change of heart as well as God’s existence
  3. Experiences aren’t Authoritative 
    J L Mackie argued that if, following James, mystical experiences can be explained psychologically, then they have no authority even for the person having the experience.

Visions & Voices

Vision Experiences 

  • A vision experience is one in which the divine is “seen” or physically observed
  • In the vision information about God may be revealed
  • Vision experiences can be described as;
    Noetic – something which gives knowledge, such as a revelation from God
    Revelatory – revealing something which was previously unknown
  • There are three types of vision experiences; intellectual, corporeal & imaginative
  • Vision experiences can happen when someone is awake or while they’re dreaming
  • The example of Teresa of Avila;
    – Teresa: “saw Christ at my side – or to put it better I was conscious of Him.” she explains that she did not physically see Jesus
  • Teresa stated that while she couldn’t see Jesus’ physical form, she was aware of his presence
  • This is an example of an intellectual vision – what is seen is an experience rather than just being observed
  • Another example of a vision can be provided by the account of St Bernadette of Lourdes 
    – Bernadette had a number of visions of Jesus’ mother Mary, during one vision she was instructed to dig at Mary’s feet, uncovering a mountain spring
  • This is known as a corporeal vision – as Bernadette saw Mary’s physical form, much like seeing a person
  • The third type of vision experience is known as imaginative, which refers to visions which occur in dreams
  • For example Joseph’s dream in the Bible
    – Joseph had a dream that an angel came to him & told him not to be afraid of marrying Mary even though she is pregnant with the son of God
  • This gives the example of a message from God being received through a vision in a dream


  • In the Christian tradition the idea of “hearing” is well associated with religious experiences
  • Hearing often means more than just listening to an audible voice, but relates to the communication of knowledge
  • Three features are notable when experiencing a voice from God;
    Disembodied; the voice does not come from a person speaking, this strangeness communicates the incomprehensible abilities of God
    Revelatory; the voice is noetic & reveals information about the divine
    Authoritative; the voice communicates or passes on God’s authority
  • For example; Jesus’ baptism 
    The voice of God says; “You are my Son, the Beloved”
  • The problem with this type of religious experience is that there is no real way of telling if the voice is from God
  • There are a number of cases of manic schizophrenics who have killed people because they were instructed by “the voice of God”
  • Teresa of Avila considered this & suggested the criteria should be;
    1. Does the voice fit with the Christian church teaching?
    2. Does the voice leave the person feeling at peace with the world or distressed?
  • Teresa suggested that the “voices” instructing people to do awful things come instead from the devil pretending to be God