Are Experiences Reliable Tests For Truth?

Post Author:  Darrell

Some religious organizations emphasize that knowledge of truth is obtained through an experience.  For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS Church) proclaims to be the only true church of Jesus Christ on the earth today, and they encourage those researching the church to gain a Testimony (belief/knowledge) of the truthfulness of The Book of Mormon and church by praying and receiving a spiritual witness.  Their missionaries typically refer to Moroni 10:4 in The Book of Mormon.

And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.   

Many Mormons say they have followed this teaching and have prayed and received an answer via an experience.  Some claim to have had a burning in the bosom; others a warm feeling in their heart; and still others say they have had visions and/or spiritual manifestations. 

At first glance Moroni’s challenge appears harmless; after all, it is simply encouraging us to ask God.  However, a closer analysis reveals several problems and dangers with this proposition.

First, looking closely at the verse, one notices that it has setup a scenario where the answer can never be no, for it specifically states that if you ask with real intent, a sincere heart, and faith in Christ, you will be told that it is true.  As a result, if you pray and receive no for an answer, the automatic assumption, based upon the verse, is that you do not have a sincere heart, real intent, or faith in Christ.  In fact, while I was LDS, it was not uncommon to hear the missionaries challenge people who had not received a positive answer to “exercise more faith” and “keep praying.” 

Second, the verse completely overlooks the fact that God has warned us that some spirits are evil.  They will masquerade as true spirits from God, but will teach false Christs and false gospels.  1 John 4:1 cautions us about believing every spirit and commands us to test them.

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 

As a result, praying and receiving a spiritual witness is not sufficient to demonstrate that a church or book are in fact true, for the spiritual witness could be from a false spirit. 

Third, using an experience as a test for truth has several philosophical problems. 

  1. No experience as such is either true or false. An experience is something we have; it is a condition of persons. But truth is something we express; it is a characteristic of propositions, e.g., Mormonism is true or not true. Hence, no experience as such is true; only expressions about the experience can be true.
  2. No experience is logically connected with the truth of a worldview or belief. Logical necessity is a characteristic of propositions (as noted above) not of experience. Truth statements can be uttered without the experience and one can have an experience without uttering a truth statement. Therefore, no experience is logically connected with any given truth statement.
  3. An experience cannot be used to prove the truth of that particular experience. To use an experience to prove its own truth is begging the whole question. The only truth established by an experience is the truth that one has had that experience. Therefore, an experience cannot be used to prove the truth of that experience.
  4. Experiences are not self interpreting. Experiences do not come with unchallengeable truth labels on them, and the same experience is capable of different interpretations depending upon the overall framework one gives to it. Therefore, no experience as such is an adequate test for the truth of a worldview or belief.

Spiritual experiences can be and often are wonderful aspects of faith.  They help to bring the abstract knowledge of our faith into reality, provide comfort in times of pain, and bring us closer to God.  However, looking solely to an experience as the ultimate test of truth is very dangerous.  God has warned us that Satan will transform himself into an angel of light in an attempt to deceive us (2 Cor. 11:14).  Consequently, we should not look to experiences alone to discover if something is true.  We should also look to God’s special revelation, the Bible, and use its teachings as a standard by which all proclamations of truth are judged.  2 Timothy 3:16 puts is so well.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…

Praise God that He has preserved His Word for us!

  • Boz

    I agree with the OP that we should not look to individual experiences to discover if something is true.

    I find the OP hypocritical in that it claims Paul of Tarsus’ interpretation of his individual experience as objective fact, with a reference to one of his letters.

    I also find the OP may be hypocritical in that it suggests to use the bible to judge truth claims. How many passages in the bible are written on the basis of an individual experience?

  • Half this battle is in the semantics. One can mention the ‘experience’ of leading someone to the Lord and get a lot of Amens. One can mention the ‘experience’ of speaking in tongues and be chastised simply because of the use of the word experience.

    More to Boz question, experiences as used by Darrell in this post are not to be confused with eyewitness testimony as seen in the Bible. The LDS are not asking us for something objective and tangible, but an “experience” that is purely subjective and personal.

    If I understand Darrell’s point correctly…

  • Bill Pratt

    Boz, I must be dense but I cannot figure out what OP stands for. Could you enlighten me?

  • Steve,

    Yes, I think you are understanding my point correctly.


    What does OP mean?


  • OP I am sure means ‘opening post’ or ‘original post’

    Of course when I was growing up it was the clothing line I wore for all my shirts and shorts as a So Cal youth. OP = Ocean Pacific 🙂

  • Bill Pratt

    I wore Ocean Pacific as well! That is a blast from the past.

  • David W. Voyles

    People seem to come up with all kinds of cooky ideals and blaming God for giving it to them. More like a bad burrito before bedtime. I wrote a book to help people discern false teachings. It is called, A Shepherd’s Trial: Feeding or Fleecing the Flock of God?

  • Matt Pace

    I don’t think that the Book of Mormon verse is necessarily saying that you can only rightly ask for a “yes” answer. You might just as well ask God if the Book of Mormon is false in the name of Jesus Christ, and if Jesus Christ be against the Book of Mormon, then there is your answer. I’m sure many missionaries in their zeal have made the mistake of conveying the opposite.

    Also, if the spirit telling one of the truthfulness of this Book is false, how does the Bible say to discern good spirits from evil ones? Let’s not just stop at the possibility of it being evil. How do you test it?

    Those are my thoughts.

  • Matt,

    Thanks for the comments. How does one test a spirit? In my opinion, we should compare the teachings of the Spirit in question with what God has already revealed to us. God has told us He will never contradict Himself, and He has also told us His Word (both Person and Written) are unchanging. Therefore, we can be assured that anything that a true Spirit delivers to us will be consistent with what has already been delivered to us.

    God Bless!