The “Inner Testimony” of the Holy Spirit

I forget whether I have posted this before. If so, pardon the redundancy.

Having had on two occasions the privilege of debating Prof. William Lane Craig, I found the experiences both exhilarating and frustrating. One point of frustration was that Prof. Craig often appeals to the “inner testimony” of the Holy Spirit as trumping any evidence or argument that could be adduced. Naturally, this made me wonder about the point of our whole exercise. Why argue if “inner testimony” trumps everything? Anyway, here are a few remarks about such an appeal:
I think that Craig needs to be asked something like this: What is the precise nature of the experience that you call the “inner testimony of the Holy Spirit?” Can you articulate in somewhat greater detail what this is like and why you find it so compelling? Is it an elevating feeling of “blessed assurance” when you contemplate particularly moving passages of scripture or hear a particularly uplifting sermon? Is it a “still, small voice” that comes in meditative moments? Is it a sense of forgiveness and acceptance that you get when your soul is troubled and you go the Lord in prayer? Is it a feeling, like the one related by John Wesley, that your heart is “strangely warmed” while participating in worship or prayer? If these are your experiences, or something like them, then it is understandable that you, or anyone, who has such experiences will find them particularly significant. It is even understandable that those who have had such experiences may become psychologically insulated, so that no atheological arguments or evidence can sway them. Still, skeptics have the right to question the epistemological value of such experiences. Should they trump all contrary evidence?
Consider an example from Alvin Plantinga: Six eyewitnesses pick me out of a lineup and say that I was the one who committed the crime. Yet I have a clear memory of being at home reading a particular book the night of the crime. Will I still maintain my own innocence? Yes, I will. But, still there might be so much evidence—fingerprints, a surveillance video, DNA evidence, etc. that I would have to say that, somehow, it was my memory that was wrong. So, strong enough evidence can and should make me doubt even my own apparently clear memories. So, to say that the “inner testimony” of the Holy Spirit trumps ALL evidence is not justifiable.
Perhaps Craig would say that the “inner testimony” is defeasible but that it gives him a great deal of assurance, and places a heavy burden of proof on skeptics to dissuade him. Fair enough, but wouldn’t he have to say the same thing for the personal experiences of, say, the Muslim or the atheist? Surely, Muslims often, upon hearing passages from the Qur’an, are transported by feelings of absolute assurance and conviction and a sublime and compelling sense of rightness—apparently self-authenticating experiences like those experienced by Craig or other Christians. Craig could only say (a) that Muslims do not have such elevated, apparently self-authenticating experiences, or (b) that in their case these experiences are delusional. Both answers seem to be simply arbitrary.
What about the experiences of atheists? Sometimes I am tempted to “backslide” from atheism and I recall the inspiration and comfort I used to get from religion. But then, when I really think about it, I have an overwhelming and undeniable sense of disgust and revulsion when I think about being a Christian again. Reading some C.S. Lewis helps; whatever I believe, I can’t believe that. Christian dogmas just seem to be fantasies, no matter how many apologies for them I hear. At rock bottom, it just does not ring even remotely true. Instead of having my heart strangely warmed, I have my stomach strangely turned. The arguments of theistic philosophers and Christian apologists, even when I do not know at first just how to refute them, sound glib and hollow. Leading Christian philosophers all too often sound to me as though they use all of their formidable intelligence and erudition—and the big guns of philosophy—to defend an idée fixe at all costs. This is how I feel about it undeniably and deep down. Why aren’t my feelings as legitimate as Craig’s? Would he be willing to concede that my feelings and the Muslim’s are as valid as his? I don’t think so.

Religious Experience – Recognizing God
The Seven Deadly Sins of Christianity
Breaking News: William Lane Craig Agrees to Debate Me!
Geisler & Turek Rebuttal, Part 7: Chapter 8
About Keith Parsons
  • Paul

    Interesting post. Though I have to say, and perhaps off topic, on the matter of traditional religions they lose me at the beginning. On the idea of sin.

  • Steven Carr

    What exactly are Craig's experiences?

    According to his personal testimony, he felt a lot better after a good cry and then went outside and saw a lot of stars in the sky.

    Why do these rather banal experiences trump all evidence?

    Does Craig hear voices? Does he see visions?

    What inner experiences does he have?

    Has he ever said?

  • Chris W

    I think Craig's Inner Witness can actually be used against him. He says, well, many Christians say, that those who reject the gospel do so not because of honest disbelief, but a voluntary resistance the the Holy Spirit, senus divintatis or whatever makes them culpable enough that God is justified in sending them to hell. But this is not true, as many nonbelievers know from their own experience–which is like their own inner witness, an atheist's reformed epistomology. The argument would go like this:

    1. If Christianity is true, then I, a self-declared nonbeliever, would actually be resisting the Holy spirit/ evidence provided by my sensus divintatis.

    2. I'm not resisting the Holy Spirit, ect.

    3. So, Christianity is not true.

    I think Craig et al would be commited to the truth of the first premise. And the atheist provides his own inner witness to the truth of the second.

  • Keith Parsons


    I don't know the answer to your questions. I found his "personal testimony" embarrassing to listen to.

    Chris W,

    Yeah. Good point. I think a good atheological argument could be drawn up along these lines:

    1) If God exists, then humans have been implanted with a sensus divinitatis.

    You could adduce Plantinga's arguments from Warranted Christian Belief here. If God is benevolent and wants his creatures to be aware of him, he will make his existence easily knowable by all humans. The best way to do that would be to implant some sort of properly basic and warranted sensus.

    2. It is not the case that humans have been implanted with a sensus divinitatis.

    Here you could draw upon the many recent evolutionary and neurological accounts that give naturalistic explanations of our numinous experiences.

    3. Therefore, God does not exist.

  • Steven Carr

    How can we not know what Craig's inner experiences are?

    He must say what they are. After all, he claims they are very important, so he must have a basic description of them somewhere.

    Does he hear voices saying 'You are right. The others are wrong'?

    If the 'inner witness' is important, sceptics want to know what it is.

    How can you discuss something with somebody who claims he has important evidence, but never describes it?

  • Steven Carr

    Voices in my head is where Craig claims he hears voices, or perhaps just one voice.

    ' We mustn’t so concentrate on the arguments that we fail to bear the inner voice of God to our own hearts. For those who listen, God becomes an immediate reality in their lives.'

    When Craig listens to his voices telling him things, what does he hear?

    Could we get a transcript of this 'inner voice'?

    Or does Craig not hear voices, but simply gets the feeling that he must be right and people who disagree with him must be wrong?

    And then describes his self-belief as 'the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.'?

    How does that differ from the inner witness of people who just know deep inside that white people are superior to black people?

  • David Mabus

    blaspheming bitches…;=13220

  • Keith Parsons


    I try to recall when I was a devout Christian (quite some time ago now) whether I had any experiences that I interpreted as the "inner testimony" of the Holy Spirit. I recall feelings of inspiration, but certainly no different or more intense than I can get now listening to a Bruckner symphony. Some passages from the Bible were moving but no more so than passages from Shakespeare. Some passages were beautiful, but no more so (and generally less so) than the Iliad. I guess the Christian message seemed intuitively true to me then but no more so than it seems intuitively false to me now. So, I am still just not sure what elements of the Christian experience are supposed to confer such indubitability.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Hi Keith,

    You write: “I think that Craig needs to be asked something like this: What is the precise nature of the experience that you call the “inner testimony of the Holy Spirit?”

    I am not William Lane Craig, but perhaps can suggest an answer to this question from my liberal and inclusivist Christian perspective:

    On theism the ground and structure of all existence is God. So, strictly speaking, the ultimate origin of all experience is divine. One calls specifically “religious” those experiences which happen in one’s case to be more conducive to the realization of the presence of God in the foundation of all things. So what makes an experience religious is not the experience alone, but the conjunction of the experience itself and the state of the subject of that experience. Or, perhaps more precisely, an experience is strongly affected by the subject’s personal state. Which effect (i.e. that one’s experience of X may be quite different from another’s) is quite common outside the context of religion. So, for example, a person may watch the stars at night without being aware that she is looking at far away suns. Only a musician perceives the beauty in a sheet of music. Quite dramatically, only a speaker of Chinese perceives the meaning of the experience of spoken Chinese. And so on.

    So, here is the state of affairs: On the one hand, we have the reality and commonness of religious experiences, with some people testifying that they sometimes perceive God with a clarity and realism which surpasses that of looking at physical objects. On the other hand the physical sciences have proved beyond reasonable doubt the physical closure of the universe, and also the perfect correlation between our experiences (including their qualitative dimensions) and physical processes taking place in our brain. Which implies that the content of religious experiences can be explained, at least in principle, on a purely physical basis. So what can one make of these facts?

    As you do in your post, one possibility is to point out the differences of belief among religious people and argue that therefore religious experiences are probably not veridical. This is a common objection, but I think does not withstand critical examination. After all metaphysics is hard, so it’s no wonder that religious people disagree among themselves. By any objective measure the disagreements among naturalists are even deeper (but no naturalist argues that therefore naturalists are probably imagining things). Moreover I’d argue that many of the apparent differences among religious worldviews are superficial. For example the fact that the Western religions focus on the personal attributes of what’s metaphysically fundamental, while Buddhism (arguably) doesn’t – does not imply that Buddhism contradicts Western theism. Neither does the fact that a musician calls a sheet of music beautiful and a non-musician calls it a random set of scribblings entail a contradiction. People living at the north side of an island may claim that the peak of a mountain is round without contradicting those at the east side who claim that the peak of the mountain is sharp. Like all epistemic tools, so too propositional logic should not be applied blindly.

    [continued in the next post]

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    [continued from above]

    A second possibility is to use these facts to argue that religious experiences must therefore be illusory. This type of argument also fails I think. After all the veridicality of an experience, as the truth of a belief, are independent of their origins (see the so-called genetic fallacy). Indeed, all experiences (both veridical and illusory) and all beliefs (both true and false) can be described as the result of some physical processes in the brain. Therefore the fact that also religious experiences and beliefs can be thus described implies nothing about their veridicality or truth value. We check for the truth of a belief on grounds relevant to that belief. Similarly we should check for the veridicality of an experience on grounds relevant to that experience. So, how do we distinguish between an illusion and the experience of something real, *without* begging the question by making previous metaphysical assumptions? I’d say that an experience is not illusory when it is found to be coherent and consistently useful, and especially when it is self-transforming in a positive way. So, for example, if one finds out that drinking a transparent stuff called “water” quenches one’s thirst then one need not worry about people claiming that water is an illusion. Thus I submit that by any non question begging criteria religious experience should be considered veridical, especially when found to be life enriching.

    A third possibility is to use these facts to argue that religious experiences do not constitute a defeater for naturalism. After all they can be explained on purely naturalistic principles and are thus entirely compatible with a naturalistic worldview. I think that argument not only fails, but can be turned around: All naturalistic worldviews entail that reality is purposeless. So how probable is it that a purposeless reality should be such that physical processes in our brain would cause experiences which are as pragmatically useful as the religious experiences are? In other words, the claim that the physical universe simply happens to be such that religious experiences not only exist but make so much sense and have so much life enriching power – such a claim is on its face extremely implausible. And, by the way, the naturalist cannot explain this problem away using the multiverse hypothesis, or by an appeal to the anthropic principle, or by expressing one’s confidence in future discoveries of the physical sciences.

    Coming back to the main theme of your post, perhaps I wouldn’t agree with Craig that “religious experience trumps everything”. My main point is that unless one has a defeater reason requires one to assume the veridicality of religious experiences when they are coherent and consistently useful. Is there such a defeater? Naturalism, given its many conceptual problems, doesn’t look like as a good candidate. And the fact that there is really zero evidence for naturalism makes it look even worse. Finally, the only serious problem theism suffers from, namely the problem of evil in some of its versions, is being continuously clipped away by theistic philosophers. Given this epistemic state of affairs I think that somebody who has strong religious experiences of a life affirming kind is entirely within her epistemic rights to consider such experiences veridical.

  • Steven Carr

    A lot of words , but all I wanted was a description of this inner witness.

    Do people hear voices?

    If this inner witness is so important, why have Christians taken a vow of silence never to describe it?

  • Erik

    I once had an experience I believe was from God. I was alone reading a book, about to go get lunch, when I had this overwhelming joy and desire to praise God come over me. I literally felt "drunk." It stayed for about 20 minutes. The whole time I couldn't stop praising God. Never happened before, never happened since (20 years ago). I am not prone to emotional outbursts of any kind and still do not entirely understand it all. I do not go to a crazy charismatic church or anything like that. I was alone reading a book.
    I have no idea what Craig's experience was, but if it was like mine, it was very convincing. BTW, no voices or anything other than intense joy and a desire to praise God. I am sure you can argue that euphoric experiences happen in other religions, maybe even when someone isn't in a service or something like that, but I understand Craig when he says that he has an inner testimony to the truth of God's reality. I sure do.

  • Steven Carr

    So you felt intense joy.

    How is that evidence of anything?

    How does it differ from the inner conviction of the Yorkshire Ripper that God wanted him to butcher prostitutes?

    I notice that this god seems to be unable to communicate in English, as there are no voices.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis


    Religious people sometimes use the expression “inner witness” in order to convey that religious experiences are experiences of perception. The way one on the outside perceives the presence of a physical universe, so one on the inside perceives the presence of God, or, perhaps more generally, the presence of a spiritual order which is primary and deeply meaningful.

    Now I understand you want a description of that experience of perception, i.e. of how it is like to perceive God. Please note that it is virtually impossible to describe an experience of perception to someone who has not had it. For example, how would you describe to a colorblind person your experience of the color red, or indeed to a blind person your experience of light? Or to a deaf person your experience of music? How would you describe to a morally handicapped person your moral sense, for example that to help a child in need is better than to torture it for fun?

    Erik in his previous post describes his religious experience, but please observe that what he is describing is not what he perceived, but rather how what he perceived impacted him, namely by bringing about feelings of great joy and of appreciation. In the same vein he describes how his experience was deemed to be very convincing. Actually, some people describe some of their religious experiences as having a clarity and realism which is greater than their everyday experience of the physical universe around them.

    Incidentally, religious experiences are of many different kinds, which is not at all surprising considering that through them one perceives an entire dimension of reality. What is rather striking though is how common religious experiences are and how similarly they are spoken of in all places and in all religions and at all times in history. Incidentally, the classic book about this topic is William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience”.

    You ask: “Do people hear voices?

    I understand this is almost never the case.

    So [Erik] felt intense joy. How is that evidence of anything?

    It is evidence that perceiving God sometimes (actually quite often) causes feelings of intense joy. Which in turn is evidence about a major consequence of having a relationship with God.

    How does it differ from the inner conviction of the Yorkshire Ripper that God wanted him to butcher prostitutes?

    Given the facts of the case, the Yorkshire Ripper may well be a mentally ill person, or else may have lied in order to improve his chances with the courts. So the analogy you raise is not at all relevant. I have no actual statistics but there are probably billions of people in the world who have had religious experiences, and in the vast majority of cases these experiences have been a positive force in their lives, both subjectively (i.e. from their own point of view) and objectively (i.e. from the point of view of those around them). To pick one aberrant case out of a huge population in order to make a point is to commit the so-called fallacy of “hasty generalization”.

    In conclusion, religious experiences is a major reality of the human condition, which religious people, reasonably enough, call upon as one justification for their religious belief.

  • Steven Carr

    Lots of words , but no answers ,except to claim that people who have experiences of a god that turn stomachs must be mentally ill rather than really experiencing a god.

    This is really begging the question, especially as there is no reason at all why this alleged god should not talk to mentally ill people.

    Jesus spoke to lepers, but this god does not talk to mentally ill people.

    He has some limits….

    So far, all I have found out is that these religious experiences are simply the banal, everyday occurrence of euphoria – a Greek word, invented before Christianity even existed.

    Nothing to see there – just some people claiming they know they are right, because they felt really good.

    Which is just plain arrogance.

    And as valid as claiming that I just know my dog understands every word I say…..

    'Actually, some people describe some of their religious experiences as having a clarity and realism which is greater than their everyday experience of the physical universe around them.'

    In other words, their god still can't master basic English enough to talk to them, and all they can do is boast about a religious experience which is no more valid than the endorphin high a masochist gets after being whipped.

    Indeed, Christians used to whip themselves to get exactly those feelings.

    Or starve themselves. Or mortify the flesh in other ways.

    Anything to get the endorphins and opiates that some people get through drugs, some through floggings, some through religious experiences,some through davening and some through whirling in a dervish manner.

    If only this god could master English and communicate through words.

    All these 'religious experiences' are worth nothing, no more than the endorphin high of a masochist is proof that people should get whipped on a regular basis.

  • Erik

    I attempted to give an account of an experience I had, that has meaning to me when I contemplate the existence of God. I attempted to communicate that I was not trying to "whip" myself up into some masochist endorphin frenzy. Previous posts asked for what Craig's experience might be like. I don't know his experience, but just told you what happened to me.
    I do not think that every time someone claims to have had an experience with God, it therefore must have happened nor must be exactly what the person interpreted the experience to be.
    But I know what happened to me, and my perception is that it was real (from God) – in large part because it was so unexpected, did not involve group think, drugs, frenzied singing or anything like that. Nor am I someone prone to such things.
    I agree with you that many "experiences" people claim to have are not real, especially given man's ability to fool himself, and great skepticism and caution should be the first response to any such claims. I respect that you would treat my account with caution then, but I think you extend beyond both courtesy and reason when you then make the claim that all such experiences are "worth nothing." You clearly cannot know that unless you believe yourself up to the task of proving a universal negative.

  • Steven Carr

    Your experience was worth nothing.

    No god communicated with you. No voices. No visions. No transfer of any information.


    At least people who claim to have been abducted by aliens are able to describe their encounters, and don't resort to vague claims of feeling euphoria as proof that aliens exist.

    ' Previous posts asked for what Craig's experience might be like. I don't know his experience, but just told you what happened to me.'

    According to Craig's testimony, he felt a lot better after a good cry and then went outside and noticed that there were a lot of stars in the sky.

    It is sheer arrogance to claim that these mundane experiences are the creator of the universe manifesting himself to you.

    All the boasting in the world about the astonishing nature of such experiences and how only a god can account for the amazing nature of your personal feelings means nothing.

    Human beings who boast that their personal feelings are so intense that they must come from a god do nothing more than reveal how egocentric they are.

  • Shane

    The nub of the issue isn't how best to describe these subjective happenings or their origin or meaning or usefulness.

    The question is, to what extent would you trust my religious experiences are a source of knowledge about our world?

    Why would you trust them any more than my dreams?

  • Erik

    The question you raise is a good one. Why should we trust other people's experiences (or dreams) that we cannot put under a microscope and recreate?
    As I said before, I think we ought to treat all claims about religious experiences (which may be dreams) with a certain degree of skepticism. We know that people can fool themselves. People can misinterpret some chemical or hormonal process in a way that is not reflective of reality. I think this is why Craig doesn't lead with this argument.
    But because it is difficult to verify, it does not logically follow that the experience wasn't a true experience with God. He had an experience that he feels was real, but knows that others, who cannot share in it or verify it, will not find it as significant a piece of evidence as it does to him. But does that mean he should not mention it? Of course not.
    I see this coming back to, in large part, the nature of evidence and testimony. One thing you can do is examine the speaker and learn some things about him just as you would examine the credibility of a witness in a courtroom. Is he prone to lying? Is he a drug user? What is his personal character like and how is that exemplified in his relationships? Is he trustworthy? Does his/her approach to religion include weird mental exercises or meditations?
    Secondly, you can examine motive. Does Craig, or me, have financial gains associated with telling what happened to us? Why do it? I cannot speak for Craig, but I feel awkward telling people what happened to me and so almost never tell people. (As I said, that kind of thing has never happened before or since and I don't go to church seeking experiences like that.)
    Lastly, I think it is important, in these situations, to examine the facts about the incident to see if it is possible that the otherwise reliable person has made an innocent mistake. For example, if it was probable that someone slipped LSD into my morning coffee that day, I might have had an experience that I could not explain by reason and might have come to a wrong conclusion about what happened. So an otherwise reasonable and normal person could have been wrong because he licked some frog.
    I think those are all fair ways to investigate any claim.