What are spiritual experiences?
We Christians believe that authentic spiritual experiences are experiences of God and/or other elements of the supernatural realm (such as angels or demons). We also believe that counterfeit spiritual experiences are possible, however, when people mistakenly attribute to a supernatural cause an event with a natural explanation. Knowing whether a spiritual experience is counterfeit or authentic, and if authentic whether divine or demonic, calls for discernment (1 John 4:1).
Acts 2:1-4 narrates the spiritual experience of the early Christians (speaking in tongues) and attributes it to a supernatural source (the Holy Spirit). But Acts 2:5-13 also notes that critics of the early Christians had an alternative, naturalistic explanation of the experience. Let’s take a closer look at the latter passage:
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs — we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
On the one hand, the Holy Spirit; on the other hand, alcoholic spirits.
Which is the better explanation for what happened on the Day of Pentecost?
First, what exactly is the experience? In this case, it is speaking in tongues, which is the miraculous ability to speak a human or angelic language you have not learned through normal means.
Second, is the experience publicly verifiable? It is one thing for believers to claim that they have spoken in tongues. The important thing to know is whether there is public confirmation of the experience. In this case, nonbelievers confirmed that they heard their native languages being spoken by the disciples. If the case was a miraculous healing, we would expect before and after doctor reports as public confirmation of the miracle.
Third, is a supernatural or natural explanation more probable? Two natural explanations of what happened on the Day of Pentecost arise from within the text itself: (1) The disciples had learned these languages by normal means. (2) They were drunk. Against (1), even the nonbelievers were “amazed and perplexed” at the disciples’ speech; they assumed that Galileans in general and Christ’s Galilean disciples in particular were uneducated (cf. Acts 4:13). Against (2), religious Jews didn’t drink alcohol so early in the morning (Acts 2:14); and anyway, the disciples speech was coherent praise, not incoherent babbling, which is what you would expect from drunks.
On balance, then, a supernatural explanation of publicly verifiable tongues-speech is more probable than a naturalistic one. Notice, I have not approached this issue dogmatically, but empirically, using common-sense questions to make my case. In our skeptical day and age, this is a good apologetic strategy when engaging in dialogue with nonbelievers.