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Visionary Experiences & Religious Trauma

Aktualisiert: 23. Okt. 2023

By Florian H. Berndt

After several people sharing their visionary experiences with me recently, I read a post along the same lines on social media the other day that almost made me reply with charges of blasphemy. I refrained from drafting a direct response, in order to avoid getting into some senseless internet debate, and decided to rather write this short reflection.

About one third of the Jewish and Christian scriptures describe dreams and visions, and they seem to be one of Holy Spirit’s favorite ways to communicate (e. g. Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17). Probably because there is something about visiual imagery that often reaches deeper into our hearts than mere language and calls forth an equally deeper response. Also, I always thought that this was the reason that Jesus taught primarily in parables.

Personally, I am no stranger to such experiences, but tend to downplay them (2. Corinthians 12:1-6), also because there can be the danger of creating an atmosphere of super-spirituality, as I’ve seen those gifted in certain areas exploit the insecurities – knowingly or unknowingly – of those gifted in other areas – often for the sake of establishing a “ministry” (Colossians 2:18-19).

Even among those who would otherwise confess the “priesthood of all believers” are some who set themselves up as more spiritual than their siblings. (For example, the claim that while the “average” individual sees “pictures,” they differentiate their more celestial “visions,” thereby subtly creating a hierarchy of divine proximity.)

While each one of us is on their own journey, we can’t use our experiences as a claim to our own superior spirituality. In fact, such an attitude is directly opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and someone who has learned to abide in the Vine (John 15:4-11) will not boast about their revelations, but rather manifest the childlike qualities of utter dependence on Abba’s love (Matthew 11:25-28).

Hence, even the Apostle Paul decided to know nothing among the super-spiritual Corinthian community of faith, but Messiah, and Him crucified (1. Corinthians 2:1-14), Whose Grace manifests in our raw humanity (2. Corinthians 4:7).

Because our spirituality is so intertwined with our general experience of being human - taking the incarnational reality of life in the Spirit seriously - our imagination plays an important part in visionary experiences. And while the majority of Western cultures often dismiss it as something intangible, other cultures – like the one’s in which the biblical writings and many of our faith practices emerged – value it as an integral part of one’s spirituality.

Hence, the Jewish and Christian scriptures include warnings of making proclamations from one’s own imagination (Ezekiel 13:1-8), but equally call us to discern the sources and content of our spiritual experiences in the light of the Gospel – and generally in community (e. g. 1. Corinthians 14:29; 1. Thessalonians 5:20-21; 1. John 4:1-6).

The reason for this is that our imagination is not neutral, but dependent on outside sources, and our beliefs and assumptions undoubtedly influence our interpretation of our experiences. Hence, a lot of people I know that demonstrate a strong “seer” ability, also often employ their gifts in creative pursuits like writing, drawing or painting. These are ideal pathways to express one’s prophetic imagination, and Jesus’ parables very likely emerged from such practices.

Being aware of this, can help us to filter our visionary experiences through the filter of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In contrast, it can be disastrous to attach the authenticity of such an experience to its vividness or the feeling of being “in the zone.” For example, one person who shared their experience with me, was emotionally shaken by the image of Jesus lying on His face in intercession before the divine judge, pleading for mercy.

While on the surface the vison suggested an appreciation of the ministry of Jesus, it created serious problems further down the road, because it was based on the misreading of a certain text (1. John 2:1), projecting - due to the historical influence of folks like Tertullian - legal categories unto it that are at odds with the Abba revealed in Jesus (e.g. Matthew 7:7-11; Luke 15:11-32).

In contrast, the Gospel presents Jesus as the Paracletos (intercessor, consoler, comforter, counselor, helper, advocate, strengthener, standby etc.) with Abba (1. John. 2:1), ministering and mediating Abba’s love to us by His Spirit, not pleading for us before an angry judge (John. 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; 2. Corinthians 5:19).

In the same way I’ve known several people that spiritualized tragic events in their life through the lens of a theological framework that fed into a developing Messiah complex and made God appear not only schizophrenic but outright abusive.

Based on such experiences, I am convinced that visionary encounters that suggest a wrathful, violent, and blood demanding deity, are based on religious trauma that results from spiritually abusive indoctrination, and those who suffer from them need to experience Abba’s compassion in a deeper way, even though they might hide behind a super-spiritual veneer and glee in what their visions convey on the surface.

The aforementioned example I encountered just recently, was the story of someone getting triggered into a visionary experience in church, after the minister had prayed, “Lord, once again hide us behind the cross…” (A notion that is nowhere to be found in the Scriptures or the ancient creeds.)

After inquiring about the meaning of this, a visionary encounter emerged, describing in very vivid imagery the “wrath of God towards sin” and the traumatic suffering of Christ, in which the cross was presented as an “altar of bloody sacrifice” towards God, a place of divine slaughter and punishment, to satisfy an angry judge, rather than an expression of Abba’s love and forgiveness.

Now, while the crucifixion of the Son of God was definitely a gruesome, violent, and bloody event (the bloody part being more the result of the flogging Christ suffered beforehand), the author insisted that the vision made it clear that even though men wounded Him, that the most crushing blow and traumatic impact came from God Himself.

Verses from Isaiah 53 were quoted, leaving out all the parts that say exactly the opposite and favoring a translation that was already doctrinally biased for such a complex text, and already taken out of context, to convey the message that God was personally punishing His Son for our failings.

The darkened sky was interpreted as God’s “wrath swirling in the clouds over the cross,” as Jesus literally “became sin” and God violently unleashed His wrath upon Him, while the biblical reference of Jesus “becoming sin” is in the context of the innocent being scapegoated by His community – humans “made Him to be sin” not God (2. Corinthians 5:21), in accordance with the Jewish Scriptures and the apostolic preaching in the book of Acts.

There is also no reference whatsoever in the biblical account that God poured out His wrath upon His Son, instead we can perceive the grief in Abba’s heart, mostly expressed through the Son (e. g. Matthew 23:37-24:2). While the author also claimed that Jesus was abandoned on the cross, the Scriptures says exactly the opposite (e. g. Psalm 22:24; John 16:32; 2. Corinthians 5:19 etc.).

The post went on to describe the crucifixion in all its gory details, familiar to anyone who has looked into these matters. Again, there is no doubt about what gruesome, violent, and traumatic event the crucifixion was. What is disturbing though is how human violence was being projected unto God, Whose “wrath was felt and discerned,” and needed to be feared.

While the author presented this vision as an almost unique insight, everyone familiar with Christian doctrine knows that this interpretation has been standard doctrine for the majority of Western Christendom – from Roman Catholicism to every Protestant denomination (with a few exceptions).

While not wanting to personally criticize the author, I don’t hesitate to say that such visions are not the result of Holy Spirit, but the fruit of the orphan mind of humanity’s collective trauma of perceived separation, filtered through the language of religious addiction and spiritually abusive teachings.

This might sound serious, but in all my years I’ve never encountered a more harmful lie, that keeps people from trusting in the One Jesus came to reveal, than the doctrine of divine abandonment, as it plays right into the serpent’s original lie. Further, it does not measure up to the narrative of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, and contradicts the faith of the ancient church.

My purpose in writing this is not to ridicule, but for those who have been traumatized by such teachings - and might have had such experiences as a result of them – as well as those who might feel intimidated by someone’s alleged visons, that force them to return to a religion of fear (Romans 8:14-16; Colossians 2; 1. John 5:16-19). In the words of the Apostle John: “Children, Keep yourself from idols!” (John 5:21).

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