Many accounts are interpreted by Latter-day Saints to mean that their leaders have seen and/or spoken with Jesus.
Reasons to be skeptical
What reasons are there to be skeptical of such an interpretation?
- 5% of the general population (non-schizophrenic) have experienced hallucinations (summary, article)
- Many Church leaders, particularly the Apostles, probably spend significant time ruminating on a potential visit with Jesus. So, if they hallucinate something, Jesus seems like a good candidate.
- Given that the apostle office comes with the charge to see Jesus (see notes at end), the apostles are likely to be highly suggestible. We know from experiments with the Koren helmet that spiritual experience is a highly suggestible phenomenon.
- People in different cultures seem to hallucinate different deities (see quote by Beit-Hallahmi towards the end).
- Apostles are instructed to give vague, re-assuring answers, if they are asked about seeing God (have read this, but need to track this down).
- In LDS thought, strong spiritual feelings (particularly if experienced over many years) may be considered “knowing” something. Similarly, experience with improbable events seems to be enough to give a person “knowledge”. Hence, some experiences may take advantage of ambiguity in language, especially around the word “know”.
- Many people are on record as having seen and spoken with Jesus (1, 2, 3) or God (for example), but most of them do not take that to mean the LDS Church is true. I had a very close friend who was certain that he’d had a personal visitation with Jesus. That person is also just as convinced that the LDS Church is in apostasy.
And here’s an interesting skeptical discussion on apostolic visitations with Jesus by Radio Free Mormon: Have LDS Apostles Seen Jesus?
Why so vague
Why are suggestions by modern leaders that they have seen or been visited by Jesus typically so vague in nature?
By comparison, Paul’s descriptions of his visitations were detailed and bold. Other early accounts of visits with the risen Jesus are rich in detail.
What is it about visits from Jesus that are too sacred to share now but were not too sacred to share then?
Perhaps these men know that their visitation was at least somewhat “in their mind’s eye” and would not withstand a high degree of scrutiny?
If a person actually spoke with an omniscient, omnipotent being, this is hugely important to humankind. Such an experience should be related in great detail so that we may at least begin to evaluate its reliability and objectivity. For all those that claim to have seen God or Jesus, please relate the following detail:
- Did you touch the visitor? What did they feel like? What was the feel of the fabric?
- What kind of clothing did they wear? How was it cut? Was it hemmed? Did it hang loosely or was it tight?
- In what manner did the being enter and exit from your presence?
- With what accent did the being speak? High or low pitch? Raspiness / lisp?
- Any distinctive vocal attributes?
- Was the communication discerned through the ears or in one’s mind?
- Did the being open their mouth while they spoke? In what manner did they enunciate their words? (e.g., Brits hardly open their mouths).
- Were handprint and footprint scars plainly visible? Raised or recessed?
- What was the shade of skin? Was hair visible on the hands, feet, neck? What color of eyes? Slant of eyes? Shape of nose? Size of nose? Size of lips? Color of hair? Hair style? Hair thickness? Any visible veins or arteries? Facial hair? Trimmed beard or flowing beard? Trimmed to what length? Trimmed to exactness? etc., etc.
- Do you think another person in the room would have observed the being?
- Did the being say anything that extended beyond one’s preconceived notion of the kinds of things Jesus/God ought to say? (i.e., love each other)
- In what physical state were you? Waking from sleep?
- What food or other substances had you consumed in the days/hours before the event?
- What was your mental state at the time?
- What activities had you engaged in within the previous 24 hours?
- How well would the details of the various accounts of these visitations match across accounts?
- If Jesus/God merely appears to a person in whatever form they think Jesus/God should appear to them in, how can we distinguish an objectively real visitation from an imagined visitation?
This observation by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, a well-known researcher in the field of religion and psychology, is relevant:
Mystical experiences, considered unique and individual, are totally culture-dependent. We know that the specific content of visions, the most intense and personal of religious acts, is wholly predictable from exposure to certain ideas, which are always learned. Visions of the Holy Virgin occur exclusively among Catholics or those exposed to Catholic ideas. They have never occurred among Orthodox Jews…
Charge to be eye and ear witnesses
These twelve disciples of Christ are supposed to be eye and ear witnesses of the divine mission of Jesus Christ. It is not permissible for them to say, I believe, simply; I have accepted it simply because I believe it. Read the revelation, the Lord informs us they must know, they must get the knowledge for themselves. It must be with them as though they had seen with their eyes and heard with their ears and they know the truth. That is their mission, to testify of Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen from the dead and clothed now with almighty power at the right hand of God, the Savior of the world. That is their mission, and their duty, and that is the doctrine and the truth that it is their duty to preach to the world and see that it is preached to the world). (source, Conference Report, April 1916, pg 6)
Counseled not to speak of most sacred experiences
In addition, while some early apostles and other members of the church have had the sublime spiritual experience of seeing the Savior and some have made a public record of this, in the circumstances of today we are counseled not to speak of our most sacred spiritual experiences, otherwise with modern technology that can broadcast something all over the world, a remark made in a sacred and a private setting can be said abroad in violation of the Savior’s commandment not to cast our pearls before swine. (source 2015 June 13th, special 3 stake fireside in Boise, Idaho “The Boise Rescue”)