Does the Holy Spirit Exist?
Why this Question?
As a Christian convert who had previously rejected organised religion and doubted God’s existence, I am interested now in the epistemology of faith – how we come to know and believe in the supernatural reality that we do. What basis does our faith have, especially when it is a certain faith? I am interested in the philosophical questions, but also in effective evangelisation. An accurate understanding of supernatural faith, what it is, and how it comes, will help us to share it with others.
One reason I had rejected religion was because I had assumed that no-one really knows if God is real or not. Thus, given all the problems of religion I felt it better to stand outside and be ruled by reason instead. Of course, my life was not totally “ruled by reason”. I found myself as weak as any other person, frequently falling into useless ways. I did not know then what I do know now, and that is, the operations of the Holy Spirit, that lead a person to know the deeper truth. The deeper truth I mean is not foundational physics, nor molecular biology, but rather, knowledge of our Creator who knows us interiorly, intimately, personally.
To ask “Does the Holy Spirit Exist?” is a slightly unusual way of asking if the Creator God exists? It simply focuses upon one aspect of God, the third person of the Holy Trinity (according to Christian theology, at least).
There is no shortage of debate on evidence of God as First Cause or Creator, and no shortage of debate on evidence of God-made-flesh (divine qualities of Jesus). But God as Holy Spirit is even more mysterious than the Father or the Son, and like the wind, He escapes our grasp, almost without trace.
Tradition leaves us with several symbolic clues however, not only as wind, but also as dove, light and fire. Certainly there is something elusive, subtle, and quick about the Spirit, but the Spirit is also power that inflames and ravishes hearts, “circumcising” them in order to know God (Jeremiah, Ezekiel).
In debates between sceptics and Christians, the “Holy Spirit” as a possible reality does not feature highly.
“One can’t assume the Holy Spirit from the outset…that is simply begging the question” some say.
Fair enough, if we are assuming it. But what if we are enquiring about evidence of its existence? Then, I argue, the Holy Spirit has a very central role to play in these debates. This is because it is central to any authentic Christian epistemology of faith. This is made clear in chapter 14 of the Gospel of John, as well as many other places in the New Testament. The key passage is John 14:15–39, but the message is encapsulated in John 16:13.
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth
True Christian faith is not simply a hunch in the midst of uncertainty, nor even a careful analytic judgement, and nor is it a natural trust in a historical person, though it may begin with any of those things. Rather, true Christian faith is a supernatural light that draws the person deeply, who then senses, trusts, and co-operates with it, and finally consciously assents and receives the gift in fullness, confirming abundantly that one was right to trust.
This is the Kerygma message of the Gospel – that we may come to know with certainty, by receiving the promised light from above that enters the heart with intentional power, leading and transformation.
From a more detached perspective, however, we need to ask whether there is reliable evidence of this “light” “dove” or “fire” and its operations, which scripture says so clearly, give rise to certainty. If we have reason to believe the Holy Spirit exists prior to our awareness of it, and reason to believe in its cognitive operations, then we have reason to believe that God can be known with certainty. This may be enough for a person to seek this gift with all their heart and soul.
Evidence of the Holy Spirit
Evidence of the Holy Spirit comes mainly from testimony and the witness of whole lives. That is why the Church urges us to study the lives of the Saints – their lives before conversion, what happened at conversion, and their lives and works after conversion. We don’t need a doctoral-level scientific study to see immediate strong patterns. In case we suspect these testimonies have been fabricated or falsely massaged, then we may compare with contemporary testimonies and examine those witnesses. They show the same pattern. Here are a few brief examples:
“a light from above, serene and pure, was infused into my reconciled heart… a second birth restored me to a new man.” (St Cyprian, 200-258 AD pagan lawyer, convert, martyr)
“you overcame the weakness of my vision, sending forth most strongly the beams of your light…” (St Augustine, 354-430 AD)
“Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain, and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast” (St. Hildegard of Bingen 1098-1179 Monastery Abbess, writer, composer, philosopher)
“Certainty of the forgiveness of all his sins poured in, and the assurance of being revived in grace was given to him. Then he was caught up above himself and totally engulfed in light” (St. Francis of Assisi, 1181-1226, Founder of the Franciscan Order)
St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582 AD), reformer of the Carmelite religious order, wrote of the “dove over my head” “different from doves on earth” after which she noted “the greatest improvement in myself brought about by a more sublime love of God and much stronger virtues”. Interestingly, Teresa received this extra-ordinary grace whilst praying on the eve of Pentecost, in 1563.
“A bright light from the sky fell on me. I shouted ‘Jesus save me!’” From then on he was freed from alcohol addiction, and he attributed this to “the glory of the Lord Jesus.” (Sekar, a contemporary devout Hindu.)
“The Holy Spirit is not merely making me a visit; it is no mere dazzling apparition which may from one moment to another spread its wings and leave me in my night, it is a permanent habitation…It is not a juxtaposition, it is a penetration, a profound modification of my nature, a new manner of my being.” (Quoted by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience)
Lastly, a most extraordinary account by St Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022 AD), a Byzantine Christian monk:
And as under the appearance of a cloud
Luminously it swooped down on me;
Completely on my head
I saw it settle…
…Then suddenly, completely
It was in me in a conscious manner,
In the center of my heart…
…Like a truly heavenly body,
I saw it like a solar disc.
When it was thus revealed,
When it had shown itself in a conscious manner…
I have concentrated on testimonies of light, re-birth, victory over sin, but in the same accounts you will find the other key features too:
- Light – visible and invisible, descending upon the person
- Re-birth – new creation, new heart, new Spirit, new life
- Victory over sin – complete forgiveness, release from chains, aversion to sin
- Joy & Peace – inexpressible, unsurpassed in value
- Revelation – veil lifted, eyes opened to the Kingdom
- Presence of God within – indwelling Spirit, helper, guide
- Ability – love, virtue, chastity, prayer, worship, understanding of scripture
This is the core experiential phenomenology across testimonies for 2000 years, since Pentecost. People often say it is the same in other religions, but I challenge you to find such clear, specific and numerous testimony that compares with this consistent body of Christian witness.
These are not mentally ill men and women. Many are exceptional theologians, preachers, leaders, and strong pillars of the Church (e.g. Cyprian, Augustine, Francis, Hildegard, Teresa).
What is this mysterious “light” of “exceeding brilliance” like a “solar disc” or a “dove” that “swoops” down upon the person, releasing them from bonds of sin, giving complete forgiveness, enhancing virtues and love, bringing a “second birth” and becoming a “permanent habitation”?
When the witness is so clear from people of manifest intelligence, sanity, wisdom, who have left good fruits of enormous and lasting value, we must enquire most seriously, and not dismiss the accounts too easily.
What is the cause?
Was this Phenomenon Foretold?
Prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel both foretold a supernatural spiritual outpouring of a new, profoundly transformed heart, a new spirit that dwells within, complete forgiveness of sins, new ability to walk in God’s ways, God’s laws written on the heart and new ability to know God.
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ezekiel 36:26–27)
Prophet Isaiah speaks of the same promise, calling it the “everlasting covenant” (Isa 55:1-5) that comes via a Spirit-anointed Saviour with “great light” shining upon those in darkness (Isa 9:2), releasing them from bonds (Isa 42:6-7). Jesus foretold the same after his own baptism in the Holy Spirit, which descended “like a dove”. Jesus refers to this Spirit as the “Advocate” the “Spirit of truth” who will abide “with you” and “be in you” and “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13), Jesus echoes the words of Isaiah that they will be “taught by the Lord” (Isa 54:13).
Jesus said to his disciples “you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:5,8). A few days later Pentecost happened, as foretold:
suddenly from heaven…Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:1–4)
These brief passages from both the Old and New Testaments clearly foretell an extraordinary phenomenon, of light descending “like a dove” upon a person, releasing them from bonds, transforming their hearts, giving ability to know God and teaching them. The parallels with 2000 years of witness testimony, right up to the present day, here and now, is precise and unique. If you wish to meet a living witness of this phenomenon, they exist, and are not that hard to find.
Does the Holy Spirit Exist?
I invite curiosity, seeking, research and reflection. The matter is too important to dismiss, for it concerns salvation, mercy, healing and knowledge of God. Who is willing to engage with this body of witness?
- What does it mean for our debates concerning God’s existence?
- What does it mean for the epistemology of faith?
- What does it mean for the way to know the truth?
- What are the cognitive operations of this “swooping”, “luminous” “dove”?
Thank you for giving this your time.
Blessings to you all.
+ Andrew +
Further Reading & References (Please check back for update):
- Geivett & Moser 2017. The Testimony of the Spirit
- Kinghorn & Walls 2017. Apologetics and the Holy Spirit, in Testimony of the Spirit (Geivett & Moser 2017)
- Healy & Parry 2007. The Bible and Epistemology
- Father Donald Haggerty (2017) Conversion: Spiritual Insights into an Essential Encounter with God, Ignatius Press
- Joshua Iyadurai (2015) Transformative Religious Experience: A Phenomenological Understanding of Religious Conversion, Pickwick Publications.
- Emmanuel Kaniyamparampil OCD The Holy Spirit: In the Experience of the St Teresa of Avila: https://www.academia.edu/19553497/St_Teresa_of_Avila_on_the_holy_Spirit
- deCatanzaro, C. J.; Maloney S. J., George (1980). Symeon the New Theologian: The Discourses. Paulist Press.