Personal Revelation Part 2: A spiritual witness brings us sure knowledge?

A spiritual witness brings us sure knowledge?

Literal Belief:

To a literal believer, there is really no difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing something by the Spirit. The Spirit does not just reveal subjective truth to an individual but it can reveal actual objective facts about our existence and our world. In fact, this type of knowledge is more sure than any other type of knowledge we can obtain. It is “sure” and “true” and “unwavering.”

“His communication to our spirit carries far more certainty than any communication we can receive through our natural senses.“- Topics- The Holy Ghost

“And unto three shall they be shown by the power of God; wherefore they shall know of a surety that these things are true.”Ether 5:3

“Behold, I say unto you they are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know of myself that they are true; for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit; and this is the spirit of revelation which is in me.”Alma 5:46

“Now, my son, I would not that ye should think that I know these things of myself, but it is the Spirit of God which is in me which maketh these things known unto me; for if I had not been born of God I should not have known these things.”Alma 38:6

Yea, they shall know of a surety that these things are true, for from heaven will I declare it unto them.”D&C 5:12

“Behold now, I do not say that these things shall be, of myself, because it is not of myself that I know these things; but behold, I know that these things are true because the Lord God has made them known unto me, therefore I testify that they shall be.”Helaman 7:29

“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. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.”Moroni 10:4-5

“We, in a spirit of candor and meekness, [and] bound by every tie that makes man the friend of man. . .say unto you, Search the Scriptures search the revelations which we publish, and ask your heavenly Father, in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, to manifest the truth unto you, and if you do it with an eye single to his glory, nothing doubting, he will answer you by the power of his Holy Spirit: You will then know for yourselves and not for another: You will not then be dependent on man for the knowledge of God;. . .Then again we say, Search the Scriptures; search the prophets, and learn what portion of them belongs to you, and the people of the nineteenth century… .[Y]ou stand then in these last days, as all have stood before you, agents unto yourselves, to be judged according to your works. Every man lives for himself.”– The Evening and the Morning Star 1, no. 3 (August 1832): 22.

“A testimony of the gospel is a personal witness borne to our souls by the Holy Ghost that certain facts of eternal significance are true and that we know them to be true. Such facts include the nature of the Godhead and our relationship to its three members, the effectiveness of the Atonement, and the reality of the Restoration. What do we mean when we testify and say that we know the gospel is true? Contrast that kind of knowledge with “I know it is cold outside” or “I know I love my wife.” These are three different kinds of knowledge, each learned in a different way. Knowledge of outside temperature can be verified by scientific proof. Knowledge that we love our spouse is personal and subjective. While not capable of scientific proof, it is still important. The idea that all important knowledge is based on scientific evidence is simply untrue… When we know spiritual truths by spiritual means, we can be just as sure of that knowledge as scholars and scientists are of the different kinds of knowledge they have acquired by different methods.Elder Dallin H. Oaks- “Testimony”- April 2008

“I said I would give six reasons for my conviction [i.e., that ‘the theory that God used an evolutionary process to prepare a physical body for the spirit of man … is false’], and I have listed only five. The sixth is personal revelation”- Boyd K. Packer, “The Law and the Light,” in The Book of Mormon: Jacob through Words of Mormon, To Learn with Joy, eds. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr., (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1990), 1–31.

“…the gift of the Holy Ghost is available as a sure guide, as the voice of conscience, and as a moral compass. This guiding compass is personal to each of us. It is unerring. It is unfailing. However, we must listen to it in order to steer clear of the shoals which will cause our lives to sink into unhappiness and self-doubt.”– James E Faust- “The Gift of the Holy Ghost- A Sure Compass”- April 1989

Non-Literal Belief:

Those who take a middle way approach are more inclined to move away from the absolutism of spiritual “knowledge,” and more readily acknowledge that reason and intellect can play just as big if not a bigger role in gaining knowledge. They are also more inclined to embrace ambiguity and question the objective validity of their own subjective spiritual experiences.

“In my view, religious epistemology is rooted in faith and not in certainty, so in my strivings to find answers to tough historical (academic) issues I try to let the evidence speak for itself before I posit theories or hypotheses. Taking this approach has, in most cases, compelled me to ask new questions and readjust my paradigm, not an uncommon consequence in our search for truth. Perhaps in our defenses of the faith we could employ less dogmatism and more openness, less judgment and more forgiveness, less intransigence and more conciliation, less snarky humor and more kindness, less prescription and more pastoral care, less certainty and more faith.“- BYU Professor Brian Hauglid- “Reimagining Apologia with an Uncertain Faith”

People from many religious traditions have “spiritual” experiences–feelings, insights, premonitions, and encounters which they are left to their own conclusions to decipher. It is not unusual for people to conclude from such experiences that God is their God, that He is nearby, or that something associated with that experience is God’s will. Often in the Church we encourage people to look for such feelings and experiences as evidence of God’s hand, or of the truthfulness of the Church’s message. Yet people from many religious backgrounds can have such experiences. How do the goosebumps and tearfulness I experience when someone speaks in a testimony meeting differ from the goosebumps and tearfulness I experience when the 4:00 parade begins at Disneyland? Critics may conclude that there is no real difference, that feelings are not trustworthy or related to the spirit, and that Church members are being misled by missionaries who teach them that such experiences are the Holy Ghost testifying to them of truth. I have seen this argument used to discredit “spiritual” experiences as nothing more than subjectively produced emotions with no supernatural significance. In many cases I might agree. Because I feel certain emotions in response to a film–even a Church film–may say more about the credibility of the actors’ performance or the director’s talent than the presence of God or the historical accuracy of the message, for example. Fortunately, we are not left with emotion alone to discern God’s hand in our lives. Reason, experience, counsel from others, and other forms of revelation may all assist us. In fact, I notice that emotion plays into only some of my spiritual experiences, and often only in a secondary way. More often the spiritual promptings and confirmations I receive come very quietly as something simply occurs to me with a kind of rightness that has no real emotion attached to it at all. Other times my emotions have been running high, but the clear voice of the Spirit is utterly calm and outside of the range of my thoughts or experience. Some of my clearest spiritual experiences have come as a question or statement in my mind that completely surprised me, or that took me a moment to take in and understand. Others have come as a pure love beyond my previous capacity to imagine. I have received impressions to do something that, when acted on, produced an amazing but utterly unpredictable result that was a clear answer to a prayer. And at least a few times God has simply told me something which was later confirmed but that I had no way of knowing by any other means. I expect that people from many religious backgrounds may have such experiences, and I am comfortable imagining God in many of them, but they are not easily explained away as a self-produced warm feeling. I am comfortable with being tentative about what I conclude from such experiences beyond the experience itself.Dr. Wendy Ulrich, PhD “‘Believest thou…?’: Faith, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Psychology of Religious Experience,” Proceedings of the 2005 FAIR Conference (2005) 

“I did not inherit her place in the enchanted otherworld. The world I perceive most immediately does not shimmer with significance; unseen messengers do not whisper to me from trees and streams. The world I inhabit at the most intuitive level is good, but it is not shared with spirits nor does it intimate a spiritual realm before and beyond. This is not to say that these spirits and these lives are not real; the texts and prophets I affirm as holy, not to mention the combined witness of millions, promise that they are. (Let me emphasize: I am not saying that they are not real.) But the most basic spiritual experience — a sense of this life as a window to an ineffable order beyond — is not given to me… Otherworldly spiritual emotion, flashes of intuited spiritual knowledge, deeply sensed connections to spirits and their world, conviction that prayers are heard and answered, euphoric moments of confirmation — these have been rare experiences in what has nevertheless been my deeply meaningful path through Mormonism. It’s not so much that I don’t “feel the Spirit,” to use our typical LDS phrase. Occasionally I do experience the chills, rushing emotion, and overflow of joy that characterize present-day LDS spirituality. For me, however, these sensations do not self-interpret at manifestations of the Spirit. When I recover a lost set of keys, my first thought is “Oh, that was lucky!”; not “I am so grateful that a Father in Heaven is aware of me.” A mountain hike prompts the perception “The world is extravagantly beautiful, and I belong to it”; not “A loving Heavenly Father created this for me.” When I hold my newborn, I feel “There is nothing more precious and exquisite”; not “God gave me this child.” In other words, my immediate perceptions give me a world that is often beautiful, often good, and always home. They do not, however, give me an everyday life into which an otherworld — the realm of God’s intervening presence — is spiritually infused… You might say, inverting the typical formulation, that I am religious but not spiritual: I am drawn to the communal structure of religious tradition and practice, but I lack strong spiritual perception… I am not a disenchanted Mormon; on the contrary, I’m Mormon to the bone and have been shaped by LDS teachings in every particular.” – 


Non-believers tend to discount the possibility of obtaining sure knowledge through spiritual or subjective experiences. There are also many non-believers who remain open to this type of experience, while remaining skeptical about how it applies objectively to others (BYU Professor Stephen Peck refers to this as subjective truth).

One of the difficulties lies in how one defines “spiritual experience,” or how one “feels the spirit.” If you interview ten people you will likely get ten different answers. It is extremely implausible that a loving God would guide his children through a method that is so completely subjective, causing such different interpretations. It is the main reason we have roughly 4200 different religions in the world today, many of whom state they are the one and only true way. For example, what if one individual feels, through much pondering and study, in conjunction with a spiritual/emotional confirmation, that the Book of Mormon is true, what if another individual through study, pondering, and spiritual confirmation concludes that it is false? Who is right? Are they both right? Are they both wrong?

Please watch this short video about how people from a variety of different religious backgrounds, including Mormonism (see 8:10 mark), testify about receiving a witness of the truth.

Religious feelings of truth and euphoria are more logically explained by biological and physiological processes. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes an emotional response he terms “Elevation,” that occurs during religious experiences as well as when helping others. He states:

“Elevated participants were more likely to report physical feelings in their chests—especially warm, pleas­ant, or “tingling” feelings—and they were more likely to report wanting to help others, become better people themselves, and affiliate with others.”-

The term “Frisson” has been defined as a chill down the spine, a fluttering in the stomach, a racing heart, something striking you as a bolt of lightning. This is experienced not only in a religious context but when watching an inspiring movie (someone I know described “feeling the spirit,” at the end of “American Sniper”), or listening to uplifting music such as a classical symphony.

Interestingly, there have been numerous studies on how these feelings are elicited and they can invariably be traced to certain areas of the brain and the release of certain hormones like Dopamine.-

“Researchers Dr. Julie Korenberg and Dr. Jeffrey Anderson are conducting this first part of what they hope will be a wider ranging project. Twenty Mormon test subjects slid (one at a time!) into an MRI. For more than an hour they were bombarded with spiritual sayings and videos. The idea was to trigger a “spiritual” experience. All the participants said they had one or more and they all reportedly left crying, overcome with emotion. All the while the brain scans followed the action. By data crunching the scans and self-reported feeling of spirituality, along with blood work (taken right before and after to track hormones connected to positive feelings) these researchers believe that they’ve pinpointed the areas in the brain that are connected to the religious feelings of euphoria. Their goal, as stated to us, is modest. They wanted to prove that the experience of faithful bliss could be tracked.” 

Obviously, if some individuals do not have “spiritual experiences” like those reported by others, and there are numerous, varying stimuli that can trigger a “spiritual experience,” and those varying stimuli include opposing religious “truths,” not much can be said about the objective validity of these experiences. These religious experiences in many cases are beneficial to the recipient and provide tangible and perhaps lasting benefits, but necessarily they have limited applicability to the lives of other people. We should be cautious about applying a formulaic approach when dealing with religious experience and the possibility of those experiences pointing to objective truth.

I have talked to numerous individuals who have applied Moroni’s promise to the Book of Mormon and report no confirmation whatsoever. No matter how hard they tried, no matter how many hours they spent on their knees, nothing came. No emotion, no clarity of thought, nothing. Invariably these individuals compare themselves to others who report either modest or dramatic confirmatory results when applying Moroni’s promise. They feel less worthy, and that perhaps they did not ask with “a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ.” They scrutinize their own lives for any “sin” they may have committed that is preventing them from receiving a confirmation of the truthfulness of The Book of Mormon. If one believes in spiritual witnesses, could this not be seen as a confirmation that the Book of Mormon is not true? It would be helpful if these individuals realize there is nothing wrong with them, that it is their physiological makeup that is preventing them from accessing this confirmation, and that the inherent truthfulness or veracity of the Book of Mormon cannot be determined by this method alone, if at all.

Lastly, personal revelation is not an adequate means to establish objective facts.

“…and it’s through that revelation that we know the significance of this place [Adam-Ondi-Ahman]…I then briefly explained that through revelation we learned that Adam-Ondi-Ahman is a place where Adam blessed his righteous posterity three years before he died and where he’ll come before the time of Christ’s second coming.”- Elder Renlund- Washington Conference Feb 2016 (3/7/16- The YouTube video was pulled but I transcribed the above before it was made unavailable. Here is another link where this is discussed: 

“I said I would give six reasons for my conviction [i.e., that ‘the theory that God used an evolutionary process to prepare a physical body for the spirit of man … is false’], and I have listed only five. The sixth is personal revelation”- Boyd K. Packer, “The Law and the Light,” in The Book of Mormon: Jacob through Words of Mormon, To Learn with Joy, eds. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr., (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1990), 1–31.

There are MANY more examples but suffice it to say that we have abundant scientific evidence that the beginning of the human race did not begin 6000 years ago in the state of Missouri, in a valley called Adam-Ondi-Ahman, with two literary characters named Adam and Eve. We know that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old and life has been evolving since that time. Humans today have evolved over millions of years. This is not debated, it is taught as scientific reality, even at Brigham Young University. Revelation cannot give us an accurate accounting of objectively provable facts.

<–Back to Part 1: The Gift of the Holy Ghost- How important is it?

–>Continue to Part 3: What is revelation and how do we know it is from God?


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