Dreams and Visions

dreamingI have a dream…well, I had a dream…but what does it mean? In the past two weeks, I’ve received precisely the same question from two different friends. Both believe that God has appeared to them and spoken to them in a dream, and both wanted to know if it was God or something else or if they were to attribute special significance to the event. Since then, my Facebook wall has exploded with similar questions and a few mildly heated discussions on the topic. As you’ve come to expect, with this topic and all others, here at CTC we will seek to be Biblical first in all things. As my alma mater frequently emblazoned on their entry marquee, “Think Biblically…about everything.” So, what does the Bible say on this topic? And while we’re at it, why do anything halfway? So, I looked up every single instance in the Bible of God appearing to people in dreams, and this is what I found.

  1. Unless you are a prophet or an apostle, this is highly unusual. From the Fall through Revelation, God communicates to people in dreams many times, but in most cases it is to an apostle or prophet. He appears to Abraham (Genesis 15:1), Jacob (Genesis 28 and 31), Joseph (Genesis 37), Samuel (1 Samuel 3), Gideon (Judges 7), Solomon (1 Kings 3), Daniel (Daniel 2 and 4), Peter (Acts 10), Paul (Acts 16 and 18, 1 Corinthians 12), and John (Revelation). In fact, it appears from Scripture that this is one of the primary means, if not the primary means, that God communicates with His prophets and apostles. Here’s the key – the primary way God communicates with His prophets and apostles is through dreams and visions, but the primary way God communicates with His people is through prophets and apostles. For us, that means through their writings in His Word (the issue of whether there are prophets or apostles around today is something for another blog). So, unless you are a prophet or an apostle – a bold claim with fatal consequences if you’re incorrect – you should not expect God to communicate with you in a dream, rather you should be in the habit of looking for His communication to you through His Word.

Now, there are a few exceptions (Abimelech in Genesis 20, Laban in Genesis 31, Pharaoh in Genesis 40, the Midianite armies in Judges 7, Zecharias in Luke 1, Joseph in Matthew 2, and Cornelius in Luke 10). But these are all highly unique circumstances, and are certainly not of the sort that we normally hear today where God appears in a dream to help make some decision (which house to buy, how many kids to have, or whatever — I don’t see any Biblical reason to believe that God answers these sorts of questions though dreams, but that is a completely separate blog.) In fact, after the appearance of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2), with the exception of Revelation there is not another instance of God appearing in a dream. It appears, Biblically, that once His communication to the prophets and apostles was complete, His appearance in dreams ceased. [Note – if it wasn’t God that appeared to you, beware. If it was Aunt Sally or your grandmother or some dear departed friend, we are dangerously close to the demonic realms here. I cannot find a single example of this in Scripture – every appearance in a dream is God, Jesus, or an angel. Anything else, in my view, is likely demonic and reason to exercise extreme caution.]

  1. You can’t trump Scripture with your experience. Yes, I borrowed this from Greg Koukl at Stand to Reason, but it’s a great point that is entirely valid in this discussion. No matter how many times I have this discussion with people, it always seems to come back to this: I tell them what the Bible teaches, and they tell me about the dream they had. I know these dreams can be powerful and compelling, but you cannot “overrule” what Scripture teaches with your personal experience. If there is any inconsistency or question about what the dream has revealed, reject it.
  1. God can do what He wants. With point #1 above firmly supported by Scripture, we also know that God can do whatever He desires that is consistent with His nature, and there are multiple examples in the post-apostolic age of God appearing in dreams to both believers and unbelievers. He obviously used a vision to reach Paul, and many have heard the amazing story of Nabeel Qureshi (he told the story to Christianity Today here, if you haven’t), who is representative of many Muslims who have reportedly been converted to Christianity through visions and dreams. However, several points are critically important here.
    1. God will not reveal anything in a dream that is inconsistent with Scripture. God cannot lie, and He is perfectly consistent. If anything in the dream challenges the clear teaching of Scripture – such as a dream telling you to divorce your wife or any dream advocating or supporting sin – you can rest assured the dream does not have God as its source.
    2. God will probably not reveal anything in a dream that He has already revealed in Scripture. God is a good Father. When my daughter asks me a question I’ve already answered – usually multiple times – I quell my frustration and simply ask her to remember the answer I gave the last time she asked. When I asked my mother – a professional linguist – the meaning of a word, you know the answer I received. Yep…”Look it up!” Returning to another great point by Koukl, this actually leaves us with relatively little for God to “reveal” in a dream. If it’s contrary to Scripture, it’s unbiblical. If it’s contained within Scripture, it’s unnecessary.

Biblically, unless you are a prophet or an apostle, you should not expect God to appear to you in dreams, nor should you seek answers in your dreams. So, what do you do if you think God has appeared to you in a dream? First, test it (1 Thess 5). Is what the dream revealed entirely consistent with Scripture? If so, hold onto it…if not, then reject it. Similarly, if you are following a teacher who claims to be receiving revelations from God through dreams or visions, be extraordinarily careful, as this is rare.  Test every statement in light of Scripture.  Second, share it. Talk to other mature Christians, and have them help you understand it. Finally, obey it. If God truly has given you guidance in a dream, then it becomes an obligatory command upon the believer. You do not have the option to obey or not, such a revelation would carry weight equal to His revelation in Scripture.

So, does God appear to us in dreams today? I think He does, but I think it is highly unusual, largely unnecessary, and often misused. That’s all for now…go back to sleep.

What If You Woke Up in Hell?

Hell   Earlier this week, a good friend of mine was challenged by a co-worker who claimed to be an atheist.  The challenge — “What would you think if you died and ended up in hell?”  This is an interesting challenge, especially from an atheist, and is normally a pointed way of asking, “What if you’re wrong?”  However, when we consider the challenge with careful thinking, we’ll find that the atheist has actually gained little ground here.  In fact, he may have actually lost ground.
   First, I believe in Jesus Christ — so if I died and woke up in Hell, I’d know that I was wrong.  But what was I wrong about?  Specifically, I was wrong in what I thought was necessary for salvation.  I believe all that is required is a belief in the saving work of Jesus Christ…if I’m wrong about that, then I’ll likely wake up in Hell.  That is, belief in the saving grace of Jesus Christ is NOT all that is required for salvation.  But that’s about it.  I think somehow the challenger thinks that if we concede this point, then they’ve “won.”  However, if I die and wake up in Hell, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist.  It doesn’t even mean that Jesus is not God.  It just means that I — and many other evangelical Christians — got salvation wrong.  Going further, if Hell exists, then the Hindus are wrong too.  And so are the Buddhists, as neither Hinduism nor Buddhism believe in the existence of Hell.  In fact, the atheists are wrong too — they also deny the existence of Hell.  And so do Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are annihilationists.  And the Mormons are also wrong, as their lowest level of Heaven (Terrestrial) is just a perfect Earth, and the “outer darkness” where evil people go is just ethereal existence, it is not the eternal conscious punishment of Hell.  Naturalists are also wrong, as Hell is clearly a supernatural place (unless he suggests it’s purely natural, just on another planet or in another universe we haven’t discovered yet).  Unitarians are wrong (all religions lead to God), universalists are wrong (everyone gets saved)…when it comes down to it, if I die and go to Hell, nearly everyone (including me) is wrong.
   Second, when faced with this challenge, if the challenger thinks he’s somehow “got you” or made points with this question, he’s mistaken.  Even if I grant the conditions of the question (me going to Hell), he still hasn’t made much progress in his argument.  He has provided no positive argument for atheism, or any evidence or argument against theism.  At best, all it means is that a central doctrine of Christianity is wrong.  If I die and go to Hell, it means I was wrong about what it takes to be saved.  That’s all.  It doesn’t mean naturalism is true.  It doesn’t affirm atheism.  In hindsight, a fun way to respond would have been, “Well, if I die and wake up in Hell, I’ll know with a high degree of certainty that atheism and naturalism are false.”  Stated simply, if Christianity’s salvation doctrine is false but Hell exists, then nearly every other religious view — including Hinduism, Buddhism, Universalism, Unitarianism, atheism, and naturalism — is also false.
   Fortunately, Christians can rest comfortably in the doctrine of eternal salvation.  Few things are stated more clearly in Scripture.  Unfortunately, the doctrine of Hell is equally clear — so the real task at hand is how to take this question and turn it into an opportunity to minister or witness to the atheist.  Now, THAT’s a challenge!

Creation Concerns Part 2

When examining the creation-evolution debate, there are two issues which are often erroneously conflated — the age of the Earth and the length of the creation period.  Within the Christian community, we generally agree that this creative act took place, but disagree on two subsequent questions:  How long ago did this creative act occur, and how long did it take?  In my last blog, I discussed in some detail the age of the Earth, coming down on the side of the “progressive” or “old-Earth” view.  In this blog, we’ll tackle the other half of the issue — how long did it take?  Again, I remind readers that this is a completely secondary issue, a good topic for internal discussion and debate, but not a topic that should divide Christians.

So, how do we view the week of creation?  Reading Genesis 1:1 – 2:3, we immediately see a clear pattern of “On the first day…on the second day…on the third day…”.  The traditional/historic Christian view has been that these are literal, 24-hour solar days. Unfortunately, few who believe that have actually read closely the account in Genesis 1. Open to it. If you read the whole first chapter, carefully and critically, you should notice some problems. First and foremost, the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day, so it is unlikely that the first three days are solar days. Even worse, if the sun and the lights in the sky weren’t created until day four, where did the light come from on the first day? Furthermore, the plants and vegetation were all created on day three…how could photosynthesis occur without the sun? Sure, plants could probably survive for a day without the sun…but why would God create plants that require sunlight to survive, but not create the sun yet? These are just a few problems, you could probably ferret out a few more if you read closely.  Young-Earth creationists have worked hard to develop coherent answers to these questions, and some do address the concerns intelligently.

But if the days in Genesis 1 and 2 don’t refer to literal 24-hour days, what do they mean? Well, taking into account both a critical reading and the old-Earth/progressive view discussed in my prior blog, they certainly don’t mean 24-hour days.  It turns out that in this case the Hebrew language is not a whole lot different from how we use language. At times, we use “day” to refer to the period of daylight (“during the day” versus “during the night,” a period of about 8 – 10 hours). Other times we use it to refer to an entire 24-hour period (as in “the day before yesterday”), or an entire indefinite period (“back in my grandfather’s day”). In English, that one word can refer to 8 – 10 hours, 24 hours, or an entire epoch/age/generation. Not surprisingly, it’s the same in Hebrew. The Hebrew word “yom” is the word translated “day” in Genesis 1 and 2. Does it have to mean 24 hours, as most if not all young-Earth creationists would support? The answer is no.  Even in the first few cases of Genesis 1, it specifically states, “…and there was morning, and there was evening, the first day.” From morning to evening may actually be closer to our use of the word to refer to dayLIGHT — the 8 – 10 hour period — not a 24-hour day. To make matters worse, look ahead to Chapter 2 of Genesis, specifically 2:4. Depending on the version of your Bible, it might say, “This is the account of the heavens and the Earth in the day they were created.” Other translations say, “in the time” or “when” they were created. Point is the same, and you may have guessed it — the Hebrew word used in Genesis 2:4 is the same word “yom,” used here to mean the entire creative period. Advance to Genesis 4:3, and it says (again depending on the version of the Bible you use), “In that day, Cain brought forth…” or perhaps “In the course of time, Cain brought…” At this point, you can probably guess. Genesis 4:3 is also the same Hebrew word, “yom,” here used to mean an entire indefinite period.

While there are other factors (such as the use of the ordinals “first,” “second,” “third,” and so forth before the word yom), the point is that there is nothing in context, in language, or in interpretation that requires the days in Genesis 1 to be literal, 24-hour days. That doesn’t mean they aren’t, it just means the text doesn’t require it.  In fact, the context and the chapters that follow seem to indicate precisely the opposite, that these are NOT 24-hour days. As we’ve seen, “day” in Genesis is variously used to mean the period of daylight (Genesis 1:5, 8, elsewhere), the entire creative “week” (Genesis 2:4), or an indefinite period of time (Genesis 4:3). Add to this the previously-discussed fact that the first four days are likely not solar days (since the sun didn’t exist yet), and the seventh day — God’s creative or Sabbath rest — is still ongoing (Hebrews 4), and the argument that Genesis 1 refers to seven literal, 24-hour days starts to quickly break down. I know that’s a lot to wrap your arms around — so let’s put it all together.

1. The text in Genesis does not mandate a literal, 24-hour day or a 7-day creation. In fact, such an interpretation causes significant problems with the Genesis 1 text, and makes other areas of Genesis (chapters 2 and 4) problematic.

2. The genealogies in Genesis and Leviticus contain significant gaps and overlaps (see my previous blog).

3. The ages of the individuals in the Old Testament may be symbolic, not literal.

4. Nearly all of the evidence we see today, in nearly every field of natural study (science), indicates that the Earth is far older than the 6000+ years presented by many young-Earth creationists.

I could go on, but you get the point. In my view, the earth is many millions, perhaps billions, of years old, the creative “days” refer to vast periods of time, animals and other living creatures (Genesis 1:20 – 24) were created well before mankind, and many had become extinct (including the dinosaurs) before mankind was created. We did not live simultaneously with the dinosaurs. Please understand, this view is entirely consistent with both scripture and our current understanding of science. Though some will object, there is nothing wrong with using science or natural observation to inform our reading of scripture. Twice before the church has made this error, at one time believing the Earth to be the center of the solar system (some said the universe), and later concluding based on scripture that the Earth is flat.  Both of these views — like young-Earth creationism, the traditional and historic Christian perspective — were eventually abandoned in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.  Perhaps young-Earth creationism is next or perhaps it will endure, I don’t know.  One last note — please don’t make the mistake of thinking that believing in an old Earth equates to supporting Darwinian evolution. That’s a completely separate matter.