A Balinese funeral pyre
One of the arguments that appeals most to the religious is the claim that we have a relationship with God. "You may tell me the Bible is contradictory and even erroneous. It may be obvious that the Evangelist St Matthew cooked up the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem just to fit the Zechariah prophecy. But I know God exists and I know Jesus is Lord because I have a relationship with him. There are experiences of mine that confirm the truth of God. These experiences are so real to me that no matter what the evidence may be against God and the Bible, I'm prepared to discount everything and submit to God with whom I have a relationship and of whom I have experienced deeply."
It's futile to examine each of these experiences because they are numerous, varied and personal. Obviously, to the believer, these experiences are weighty proof of the existence of God and his love. But how reliable are such experiences as proof? Never mind the fact that non-believers too have the same experiences or that there's such a thing as coincidence. Just how reliable are these personal experiences?
For the experiences to be reliable, there must be the possibility for some other experiences to bring about a different conclusion. In other words, if I say that my experience of X must be interpreted to mean proof of the existence of Y, there must be a possibility for there to be some other experiences that should prove the non-existence of Y. It does not help if ALL conceivable experiences are interpreted to prove the existence of Y and there can be no experiences that disprove Y's existence.
If the believer's experiences serve to confirm God's existence, can we think of a single experience that will confirm God's non-existence? The truth is we can't. Why? That's because we have been conditioned to interpret EVERY experience as a confirmation of God's love and existence.
Let me give an example. Tom (a believer) is driving his car. He gets into an accident. There's only a small dent on his car. Tom immediately thanks God for his mercy and for having averted a more serious accident that could have resulted in a greater loss to him. The dent was so tiny, no repair was necessary.
Let's imagine that the accident was more serious. Tom's car was a total wreck. But he was uninjured. Again, this experience is totally confirmatory of God's miracle and power. Tom could have been injured. Just look at his car! It's absolutely smashed up. The whole church would probably talk about God's miraculous act of mercy to Tom.
Let's now imagine that Tom was injured in the accident and was sent to ICU but he recovered after a month. Again, that is confirmation of God's mercy and miraculous healing. The whole church had been praying for Tom throughout the ordeal when he was in ICU. How can anyone be so faithless as to doubt God's mercy? It's clear that God's hand saved Tom's life and put him on the road to recovery.
Let's now say that Tom died after spending a month in ICU. The church has been praying for him throughout that month. Will anybody lose faith? Of course not! God is sovereign and who are we, mere mortals, to assume the role that is reserved for Almighty God alone? Tom has gone to be with the Lord. The Lord gives life and he takes it away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. God always has a plan that we mortals can't comprehend. All things work for the good of those who love the Lord. For one thing, the church has become more cohesive after the incident. People who have been on the verge of leaving the church have in fact returned to the faith and are now serving in every way they can.
How reliable are experiences that can only lead to one conclusion? How reliable can they be when we can't even think of a scenario where an experience points to God's non-existence? Is such "proof" of God's existence and mercy enough for us? Should we bring in our experiences when we're talking to non-believers or will it be very obvious to them that we're talking rubbish? Should we leave personal experiences out because they don't mean a thing at all except whatever it is we want them to mean?
These are valid questions that every thinking believer should not sweep under the carpet.