Hallucination or Revelation?

A review of the book God: An Autobiography by Jerry Martin. Caladium Publishing Company, Doylestown PA, 2016. ISBN 978-0-9967253-1-6. 362 pages.

 Jerry Martin was raised as a Christian but he had been an agnostic ever since college. Then one day God spoke to him.

He was in the throes of new love with the woman who is now his second wife and he was so ecstatically happy he suddenly felt the need to give thanks in prayer. When he prayed for the third time and asked for guidance, a fountain appeared. Then a voice spoke. It sounded like his own voice. His wife was sitting next to him at the time but she heard nothing and saw nothing. In other words, he experienced visual and auditory hallucinations.

He kept hearing the voice. At first it gave him trivial commands like “Don’t eat yet” or “Sit in a different chair.” This progressed to an ongoing dialog in which the voice identified itself as God, directed him to read books about philosophy and religion, answered his questions, explained away apparent contradictions in the Bible and between different religions, and asked him to write God’s autobiography. He questioned whether the voice was divine, but he thought of Pascal’s wager and made the conscious choice to believe.

Eventually he also talked to Jesus. Jesus first appeared to him as a nebulous image through the windshield of his car when he was stopped at a traffic light. At one point he asked Jesus if the crucifixion hurt. Jesus answered, “Of course.” One day Jesus appeared to him and kissed him on the lips; it was erotic, as if Jesus were making love to him. He worried about whether to tell his Jewish wife about his experiences with Jesus, but the voice said not to worry: “Abigail is a special friend of mine. She understands me as few do.” How very flattering! He is special because God talks to him, and he has a wife who is special too.

At one point he decided to contact Jesus’ mother Mary to ask her advice about what present to give his wife for Valentine’s Day. He prayed, and she spoke to him. Her presence was accompanied by fragrances and soft pastel lights and an intense feeling of love and joy. They had a conversation, but in his excitement he forgot to ask her about the present. He doesn’t say whether he ever tried praying to her again. He ended up getting his gift advice from a terrestrial friend.

The voice consistently comes to him whenever he prays, and he converses with it without speaking out loud. The voice explains that God is not exactly omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, or unchanging. It describes how God felt as he created (and was himself created by) the Big Bang; he had no plans at that point. God is still primitive and undeveloped today (after 14 billion years?) and he is still trying to learn “how to be effective in bringing man forward.” God is slowly evolving and he suffers and needs people for companionship. He needs to be worshipped. Why? Because “that is the appropriate response to Me.”

Reincarnation is true, but it’s not what we think it is. Each of the different religions has part of the truth; each has insight into an aspect of God’s nature. The voice has him read about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, polytheism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, ancient Egyptian beliefs, ancient Chinese beliefs, and the Tao, as well as the works of many philosophers; and they have long, involved discussions about the details of what he has read. The voice tells him that there is to be a new project to develop a holistic world theology, fitting all the separate religious traditions together in a meaningful way. And guess who has been chosen to start on that project as soon as he finishes writing God’s autobiography?

The voice tells him that his doubts about the voice’s identity are only natural but that he mustn’t let doubts interfere with faith. He is confused by a number of apparently irreconcilable discrepancies; for instance, one time the voice tells him God loves all humans and another time it tells him God only loves sinners. When he asks for clarification, the voice tells him not to get hung up on details, to stop thinking and stop asking rational questions. It reminds him that he already believes in things he can’t see. He believes that other people have minds, so he argues it is just as reasonable to believe that God exists.

It struck me as strange that his interactions with the voice were interrupted at least twice. He stopped praying for a year when he was ill, and again for 6 months when some of the voice’s ideas began to distress him. I also found it interesting that the voice was not politically correct; it used “man” in the older sense inclusive of men and women.

The language often sounds vague, mystical, Deepak-Chopra-ish and New Agey, and sometimes even incoherent. Just a few examples:

  • “Being facing Being, not necessarily speaking but simply facing, is what personhood is.”
  • Gravity is a kind of love.
  • The universe is one great act of love.
  • Subjectivity desires to objectify itself.

He says some diseases have a spiritual cause, and virtually all diseases have a mental or spiritual component that can be healed with the right relation to God. Miracles happen all the time. They are dismissed because they are outside the scientific paradigm, even when there are reputable witnesses. They happen within the laws of nature; we just don’t yet understand those laws. The voice tells him it’s possible to talk to the dead, and he is impressed when his dead brother appears to him in a dream to apologize for the suffering his death caused. I’m not clear on when the dead stay around to talk to the living rather than being immediately recycled into reincarnations.

Martin’s story can help us better understand the psychology of religious prophets throughout history. What it can’t do is establish that God is real or that Martin actually had a conversation with him. He admits to a fear that he is just somehow making all this up, but he chooses to ignore that possibility and just believe.

The book is just what you might expect from a highly intelligent believer who was raised as a Christian and trained to argue as a philosopher. It is a tour de force of imagination and rationalization. It requires no supernatural explanations; we know enough about neurology and psychology to have at least a general understanding of how a person can hallucinate, deceive himself, and succumb to an elaborate delusion. There is no reason to attribute to God the words that could very well have come from Martin’s own brain.

Hallucinations are not necessarily a sign of mental illness. Oliver Sacks wrote a whole book about that. Hallucinations can be very convincing and very powerful. They have led people to commit crimes and even kill their own children.

How could anyone ever know for sure that they were hearing a true message from God rather than a hallucination produced by their own brain? I don’t think the individual has any reliable way to tell. But others can use critical thinking skills to reject stories like Martin’s for lack of evidence. The human brain is inexhaustibly inventive, and there have always been people able to fool themselves into believing six impossible things before breakfast like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen in Through the Looking Glass.

Hallucination or divine revelation? I think hallucination is much more likely. And I don’t think there is any evidence that would prove me wrong.

 

This article was originally published in Skeptical Inquirer..

 

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.