The Premonition Trap

Posted by on Feb 13, 2013 in Brain Science, Doctrine | Comments Off on The Premonition Trap

The Premonition Trap

There have been times in my life when I seem extra vulnerable to the weird, bizarre or extraordinary—dare I say paranormal? Notice I’m not saying supernatural. At least not yet. That remains to be seen. But that’s what I mean. I’ve always relied heavily on something called “instinct” or “gut feeling” when making decisions. That’s part of it. But I have something else in mind.

I’m referring to the sense that I know what’s going to happen ahead of time. The term “premonition” is often used. The times I’m most susceptible are times of anxiety and confusion. From a neurological point of view, it makes sense that I would be vulnerable to relying on alternative forms of knowledge during such times. I’ve learned in recent years that it’s the function of my Hippocampus to connect the “dots” of experience into some kind of meaningful order. From a strictly biological perspective, I suppose you could say that’s what is going on: that a “premonition” is simply a “perception” with a bizarre twist.

But the paranormalists are not so easily dissuaded. And I must admit that, even though I can explain them away, they still hold enormous power. In my life, dreams—especially nightmares—are one area. When my son was in combat for months in Afghanistan I had no end of anxiety and concern for his safety. Not surprisingly, he showed up in my dreams as well. One night I dreamed the doorbell rang and I got up out of bed and went to answer it. I didn’t even get that far, because I saw that it was two Marines in dress uniform, and I knew exactly why they were at my door. I awoke with a start, got up and went to the bathroom, glad that it was only (another) bad dream. But then I lay back down, intending to shake it off and go back to sleep. It was then that this idea about premonitions became more haunting than the dream. Sure, it was a dream. But maybe it was a warning. Maybe there really would be a visit from the “Casualty Assistance Officer” later? By that time I couldn’t shake it off. And I found myself in a heated argument about the possibility of premonitions, salted with management strategies for what I would do if it really happened. As an evangelical Christian, a conservative, reformed theologian and a psychologist, I bring a unique perspective to this debate. Part of me wants to laud anything supernatural—especially in our materialistic age. Certainly I would be the first to admit that God speaks—didn’t Francis Schaeffer my hero write, “He is There and He is Not Silent?” If I were to argue against premonitions on strictly on the basis of an anti- supernatural argument, I would pull the rug out from under every other belief in my arsenal.

So, why not? Why couldn’t it be a premonition? I remember when I was a kid in school we had to watch some dorky, New Age type movie about Native Americans called, “I Heard the Owl Call My Name.” I don’t remember the details but it seems like the title is some Indian legend that before your death you hear the owl call your name. I guess you could call that a type of foresight or premonition. Notwithstanding the Indian religious themes, I still have to ask, “why not?” Even from my staunchly biblical point of view, is it impossible that God could orchestrate such things—like intersections between the natural and supernatural world?

No. It’s not impossible. And there are way too many examples both in Scripture and history of people who have had such experiences to rule them out entirely.

But, let me hasten to add, there have been far too many more who have totally misinterpreted the owl’s call! And this is what makes me wonder about them—all of them—and if God is really the one behind them. I don’t doubt that God could or that he has. But I’m doubting that he usually does.

For one thing, if my own life is any example, it’s almost inevitable that I’m going to interpret any kind of strange episode incorrectly. Take my nightmare, for example. Was it some kind of premonition about events that would unfold later? Obviously it was not. My son was released from active duty months later without injury. Was it some other kind of warning—perhaps for a later date? Perhaps but that gets pretty murky. There’s always the Freudian interpretation—that it reflects my anxieties and uncertainties about his safety.

So, what is it? Warning about the past or the future? That’s really what it boils down to. If it’s a premonition, it’s about the future. If it’s simply a histrionic nightmare, it’s a kind of warning about the past—unresolved fears and worries.

As I think about this issue of premonitions or foresight, I’m reminded of a curious story from Scripture. It’s detailed in the Book of Acts.

10 After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea my response. 11 Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’”

12 When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.” Acts 21

This guy Agabus shows up earlier in the text as a prophet, warning about an impending famine—though history suggests it didn’t occur for several years. Here he again makes a prophetic announcement, dramatically taking Paul’s belt and issuing the warning that Paul would be bound and handed over to the Gentiles.

There is no censure of Agabus here. Nor is there any indication that he was making this up or speaking by some kind of demonic power. The curiosity is the way the others respond to it. Notice what Agabus does and does not say. He doesn’t warn Paul against going to Jerusalem. Though it has often been interpreted that way, Agabus simply warns what is likely to happen. It’s the onlookers who interpret the message as a warning for Paul not to go.

I believe this illustrates the problem with relying too much on mystical insights or premonitions for any kind of information. Even if we grant that God gives them, the chances are, we’ll totally misunderstand and misinterpret them. Paul was not dissuaded from his decision to go to Jerusalem. It had been part of his plan all along. The insight/premonition was merely a diversion—perhaps a test for the congregation more than for him.

I’m not trying to equate my bad dream with Agabus word from the Lord! I realize there’s a huge difference. But I’m trying to see the larger function of such unconventional bits of information. And it seems to me that their main purpose is more reflective than anything else. By that I mean, they function to show us things about ourselves more than about the future. I’m not ruling out the possibility that they do contain information about the future—especially if God is in it. But I’m suggesting that, in cases like this at least, God’s purpose is not merely to satisfy our curiosity.

And as I take this a step further, I have to think about the larger scope of biblical prophecy—take the Book of Revelation for example. How many Christians and churches have split over their different interpretations? But I’ve long thought that the purpose of the Revelation is not simply to give us information about the future: to satisfy our curiosity for what’s coming next. No! The purpose is to overwhelm us with the otherness and mystery of God and therefore to worship him—because we are in the presence of things much too difficult for us to comprehend.

And couldn’t this be said about my nightmares and premonitions too? God’s purpose is not simply to pull back the curtain and let me peek at what’s coming up in Act II. His purpose is to knock me off my feet long enough by the mystery so I see him more clearly than I did before.

Now, as I think about it, this is generally what prophecies and foresight have been for. Think about those haunting scenes from Isaiah 6:

1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

A prophecy—a premonition, a “word of knowledge”—whatever you want to call it—has really one overarching purpose in God’s plan: to get our attention.

There are other purposes and plans at work in these mysterious phenomena. I don’t doubt but what there are other powers and influences that love to capitalize on them. I am not for a minute ruling out that the powers of darkness have no interest in using them to advantage. But God’s purpose is still supreme—and even if there are more nefarious strategies afoot, it’s God’s I want to focus on most. The content of my bizarre experiences is not nearly so important as their effect. And how I react to them—more than how I interpret them–makes all the difference.