Imagine your friend Tom announces he has just initiated a personal relationship with actress Jodie Foster. You congratulate him, then ask for a juicy anecdote. “You don’t believe me?” Tom asks. You explain that you are more than willing to believe him, but would like some inside information about Jodie. Tom says “Jodie’s birthday is November 19th.” “Yes”, you respond, “But that info is publicly available. What do you know about Jodie that is not publicly known?” Tom says “I feel her love for me when I close my eyes and speak to her.” “But Tom”, you say, “many feelings can be conjured up at will, and don’t reflect a two-way relationship.” Tom scowls. “It is between the two of us. How dare you suggest I don’t really have a relationship with Jodie! Sure, we have never met face-to-face, but we speak to each other in a special way.” You apologize, and again congratulate him on his new relationship. But would you claim to have a relationship with someone you have never personally met, and for whom you have no knowledge other than what you have found in public records? Would not an actual personal relationship with Jesus include personal information he has communicated privately to each of his personal friends?
There are several possible ways that an actual personal relationship with Jesus might be demonstrated.
- Information about the location of an artifact from the life of Jesus could be communicated, and recorded prior to a search for that artifact. If the search uncovers the artifact described, that would be excellent evidence that this person does have access to information that may have been truly personally communicated by Jesus. This would not be conclusive evidence, but would be a great start to convincing the skeptical that there is truly something to the claims of a personal relationship with Jesus.
- Presumably, Jesus would relate the same pieces of information about himself to two or more individuals claiming to have a personal relationship with Jesus. For example, these individuals might all claim, having neither the means nor occasion to conspire to fabricate the story, that Jesus once turned wine into water to prank his friends. The consistency between the accounts of the story would constitute evidence that the story did, in fact, happen.
- A much more robust form of evidence would be for more than one individual claiming to have a personal relationship with Jesus to provide nonpublic and nontrivial details about an unexpected future event. The fulfillment of this prediction would constitute strong evidence that these individuals had access to some omniscient source of knowledge, possibly the Jesus with whom they are claiming to have a personal relationship.
- Another great way to provide strong evidence for an actual personal relationship with Jesus would be for one or more Christians to ask Jesus for the means to eradicate malaria, which still kills more than 400,000 children each year. Imagine those untrained in medicine handing the experts the detailed description of a potent vaccine against malaria. There would not only be many lives saved, but this would also make the claim of a personal relationship with Jesus far less dubious.
The powerful sensation of Jesus’ presence Christians experience, absent nonpublic details about Jesus, is unlikely to convince rational non-Christians that Christians truly have a personal relationship with Jesus.
Not all Christians make the claim a personal relationship with Jesus is possible. This notion of a personal relationship with Jesus seems to be strongest among Evangelicals. Other denominations do tend to suggest a personal relationship with God is possible to some degree, but suggest this relationship is limited in respect to the quantity and quality of the two-way communication. Many claims of “communication” with God, after scrutiny, end up being not much more than the presence of positive emotions during times of prayer or worship, lacking sufficient details found in normal communication that would be testable.
It would indeed seem odd if a God who could have a personal relationship with humans and who wanted to have a personal relationship with humans would not establish an actual personal relationship with humans. Wouldn’t an actual God not be able to effortlessly and clearly communicate nonpublic knowledge directly to humans who are honestly seeking his will for their lives?