Travel in the Spiritual Worlds
Spiritual Travel in Christianity and Judaism
Spiritual Travel in the Christian New Testament
Some of the most important visionary experiences in the Christian New Testament can be understood as spiritual travel. While the number of examples listed below from scriptures are small, they are only samples from a larger set. But even with this limited number, there are enough to show that the concept of spiritual travel has been unjustifiably ignored or devalued by the leaders in these Western traditions. In the author's view, the topic of spiritual travel needs to be revisited by scholars and religious leaders to first document, and then assert the importance of spiritual travel in Western religious scripture and practice. The experience of "being caught up in the spirit" is spoken of a number of times in the New Testament.
For Christians who value the authority of Saint Paul, an important biblical passage is Paul's story of the man who was transported up to the third heaven in Corinthians 12. This experience clearly fits our criteria for spiritual travel (assuming the man did not visit heaven while actually in his physical body). Some scholars believe Saint Paul was the person who experienced heaven but that he described the experience as happening to another man because of his humility.
This story is important because it is a passage from the new testament that describes in literal terms the soul leaving the physical body and traveling to heaven. It does this when Saint Paul questions: "Was the man in his body when he visited heaven or not?" By wondering about these two possibilities, Saint Paul is stating that he believes that the soul of a living person can leave the body, visit heaven, and return to the body to tell the story of what happened. This is precisely what appears to happen in deeper spiritual travel experiences.
The most pronounced and longest spiritual travel experience in the new testament is in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 4, the description of spiritual travel is clear and unambiguous. This following passage from Revelation precedes the famous section where Saint John meets the four heavenly figures with the faces of a human, an eagle, a lion, and an ox. This spiritual travel experience appears to go on almost to the end of the book of Revelation. Saint John never does describe returning from heaven to his physical body, but clearly he had to return to write the Book of Revelation.
... I shall go on to tell of visions and revelations granted by the Lord. I know a Christian man who fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of it, I do not know- God knows) was caught up as far as the third heaven. And I know that this same man was caught up into paradise, and heard words so secret that human lips may not repeat them. About such a man as that I am ready to boast; but I will not boast on my own account, except of my weaknesses. (2 Corinthians 12:1-5)
After this I looked, and there before my eyes was a door opened in heaven; and the voice that I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, "Come up here, and I will show you what must happen in the hereafter." At once I was caught up by the spirit. There in heaven stood a throne, and on the throne sat one whose appearance was like the gleam of jasper and cornelian; and round the throne was a rainbow, bright as an emerald. In the circle about the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and on them sat twenty-four elders, robed in white and wearing crowns of gold. Burning before the throne were seven flaming torches, the seven spirits of God, and in front of it stretched what seemed a sea of glass, like a sheet of ice. (Revelation 4:1-6)
Paul's conversion experience where he had a vision of light on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9) is unclear as to whether it qualifies as spiritual travel since it is unclear whether he left his body. It may or may not have been a spiritual travel experience.
3 As he was nearing Damascus on this mission, a brilliant light from heaven suddenly beamed down upon him! 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?" 5 "Who are you, sir?" Saul asked. And the voice replied, "I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! 6 Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you are to do." 7 The men with Saul stood speechless with surprise, for they heard the sound of someone's voice, but they saw no one! 8 As Saul picked himself up off the ground, he found that he was blind. 9 So his companions led him by the hand to Damascus. He remained there blind for three days. And all that time he went without food and water. (Acts 9:3-9)
This vision which blinded him for three days was a crucial turning point in the history of the early church since Paul, after his conversion, was the primary figure who spread Christianity to the Gentiles. One indication that the vision may qualify as spiritual travel was that Paul lost his ability to see. This might indicate his other senses also failed during the experience. If this were the case, his experience might meet our criteria for spiritual travel since if all of his senses were inoperable, his vision may have occurred during an out-of-body state.
Spiritual Travel in the Hebrew Bible
There are a few examples of spiritual travel in the Hebrew Bible where individuals are transported to heaven while awake rather than in dreams. Ezekiel 8 is one such example:
1 Then on September 17, during the sixth year of King Jehoiachin's captivity, while the leaders of Judah were in my home, the Sovereign LORD took hold of me. 2 I saw a figure that appeared to be a man. From the waist down he looked like a burning flame. From the waist up he looked like gleaming amber. 3 He put out what seemed to be a hand and took me by the hair. Then the Spirit lifted me up into the sky and transported me in a vision of God to Jerusalem. I was taken to the north gate of the inner courtyard of the Temple, where there is a large idol that has made the LORD very angry. 4 Suddenly, the glory of the God of Israel was there, just as I had seen it before in the valley. 5 Then the LORD said to me, "Son of man, look toward the north." So I looked, and there to the north, beside the entrance to the gate of the altar, stood the idol that had made the LORD so angry. 6 "Son of man," he said, "do you see what they are doing? Do you see the great sins the people of Israel are doing to drive me from my Temple? But come, and you will see even greater sins than these!" (Ezekiel 8:1-6)
Jacob's dream-vision of a "stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching heaven, and the angels of God ... ascending and descending on it" in Gen 28-12 presents an image of a gateway to heaven. Jacob concludes in Gen 28-17 "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven."
Jews believe that the place of Jacob's dream which became Beth El (an early Jewish ritual center that was in competition with Jerusalem) where people can contact God through prayer and sacrifice but mainstream Jews did not normally do spiritual travel to enter through this "gate of heaven". However the existence of such a gate implies that the mystically inclined might be able to use this and other such gates to enter heaven via spiritual travel.
Ezekiel 40 is another example of spiritual travel in the Hebrew Bible where a vision transports the prophet to what appears to be a physical location (the land of Israel).
Dreams are also a very important element in the Hebrew Bible. Numerous prophets such as Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Amos have visionary and prophetic dreams.1 On April 28, during the twenty-fifth year of our captivity fourteen years after the fall of Jerusalem the LORD took hold of me. 2 In a vision of God he took me to the land of Israel and set me down on a very high mountain. From there I could see what appeared to be a city across from me toward the south. 3 As he brought me nearer, I saw a man whose face shone like bronze standing beside a gateway entrance. He was holding in his hand a measuring tape and a measuring rod. 4 He said to me, "Son of man, watch and listen. Pay close attention to everything I show you. You have been brought here so I can show you many things. Then you will return to the people of Israel and tell them everything you have seen." (Ezekiel 40:1-4)
The following passage from the Song of Solomon actually describes Solomon waking up in a dream which is something that happens often in spiritual travel.
2 "One night as I was sleeping, my heart awakened in a dream. I heard the voice of my lover. He was knocking at my bedroom door. 'Open to me, my darling, my treasure, my lovely dove,' he said, 'for I have been out in the night. My head is soaked with dew, my hair with the wetness of the night.' 3 "But I said, 'I have taken off my robe. Should I get dressed again? I have washed my feet. Should I get them soiled?' 4 "My lover tried to unlatch the door, and my heart thrilled within me. 5 I jumped up to open it. My hands dripped with perfume, my fingers with lovely myrrh, as I pulled back the bolt. 6 I opened to my lover, but he was gone. I yearned for even his voice! I searched for him, but I couldn't find him anywhere. I called to him, but there was no reply. 7 The watchmen found me as they were making their rounds; they struck and wounded me. The watchman on the wall tore off my veil. 8 "Make this promise to me, O women of Jerusalem! If you find my beloved one, tell him that I am sick with love." (Song of Solomon 5:2-8)
In the following famous passage from Joel, the importance of dreams for the believer is emphasized. Implied in this statement is that spiritual dreaming is an important part of life, and that the ideal world or the "end times" would contain many individuals who had spiritual and visionary dreams. Since many visions and dreams in the Hebrew Bible appear to involve spiritual travel, it would seem that the Bible recommends this practice. If it is good for the prophets, it may be just as valuable for ordinary men and women.
In the next passage from Daniel, the concepts of visions and dreams is equated. In the Hebrew Bible, the two are very close and sometimes confused, or spoken of using the same terminology.
28 "Then after I have poured out my rains again, I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams. Your young men will see visions. 29 In those days, I will pour out my Spirit even on servants, men and women alike. 30 "I will cause wonders in the heavens and on the earth blood and fire and pillars of smoke. 31 The sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon will turn blood red before that great and terrible day of the LORD arrives. 32 And anyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved. There will be people on Mount Zion in Jerusalem who escape, just as the LORD has said. These will be among the survivors whom the LORD has called. (Joel 2:28-32)
1 Earlier, during the first year of King Belshazzar's reign in Babylon, Daniel had a dream and saw visions as he lay in his bed. He wrote the dream down, and this is what he saw. 2 In my vision that night, I, Daniel, saw a great storm churning the surface of a great sea, with strong winds blowing from every direction. 3 Then four huge beasts came up out of the water, each different from the others... (Daniel 7:1-3)
In addition to the above examples of spiritual travel in the Hebrew Bible, there are prophets who enter heaven while alive and sometimes appear to take their body with them. Elijah saw a "chariot of fire" and "went up by a whirlwind into heaven" apparently never to be seen again by those who witnessed this event.
This cannot be classified as spiritual travel since the prophet never returned but it has some clear similarities.
Despite these examples, there are those that strongly object to seeking spiritual travel experience in a Christian context. Here are some objections offered by such traditionalists.
The "Not-in-the-Bible" Objection
Some have made the argument that since the Bible does not explicitly recommend seeking out-of-body experience, it must be wrong or evil. This claim about it not being recommended may or may not be true. However, assuming it is true, there are many things and ideas in the modern world that the Bible never anticipated and therefore could not sanction. Modern interpretations that justify such doctrines and practices as inerrancy, fundamentalism, charismatic activities, dominionism and Christian nationalism (Christ rejected earthly power when Satan offered it), the "Great Commission" (why is the command to spread the "good news" considered primary and superior to other biblical commandments?), Trinitarianism, Catholic sacraments, intercession, and Christian Science (and its version of faith healing) could all be claimed to "not be in the Bible".
Similarly, the prohibition against abortion is certainly not in the Bible but this does not stop biblically-focused Christians from having strong ethical objections to the practice. They base such objections on questionable interpretations of abortion being against "Christian values" or God loving children in the Bible before they were born. This love seems ambiguous at best when almost 20 percent of pregnancies do not come to term for medical reasons. These abortions or stillbirths appear to be natural, or spontaneous, or perhaps the result of God's will. They are not caused by doctors or the woman, and no one argues that they are caused by Satan.
These abortions are many times more common than those induced by doctors or other human interventions but Christians understandably find it difficult to find fault with God the same way they do with abortion doctors or women who choose to have abortions. However the overall result is to make the "God has a special love for the unborn" argument weaker. Many Christians who have great love for their children are understandably protective towards the unborn.
They therefore wish to fiercely defend them but it appears that God gives their innocence no special or unique status. The lack of scriptural or divine support for their position on abortion might allow them to take a less extreme view as to what kinds of actions are required by God to defend these unborn individuals, and give them more sympathy with women who find themselves in impossible situations, and choose abortion as a response.
Some Christian groups make arguments about religious practices not being biblical to justify their own interpretations and denigrate the interpretations of other Christian groups.
The "not in the Bible" argument if interpreted narrowly could lead the practices and beliefs of many mainstream Christian sects being classified as un-Christian or heretical. In addition, the modern world and technological progress could be easily rejected based on this same argument. If the Bible does not say it is good, then it must be evil. However, I will note that few Christians are railing against the evils of antibiotics to heal the sick, or the evils of the high speed video networks by which mega-churches distribute their messages to believers.
We can see from these examples how problematic and slippery such an argument is and how easily it could be applied to reject any new (or old but forgotten) religious or secular idea, object, or activity. Based on this notion, perhaps only the Amish are true Christians.
The "Un-Christian Motivations and Methods" Objection
Another objection frequently seen to out-of-body experience is that those who seek out-of-body experience are doing it for the wrong reasons. Christians seek faith in God through miracles, scriptures, prayer, ritual practice, ethical activities, etc. However, as an example, both prayer and out-of-body experience can be done for selfish (i.e., "O Lord, make me rich") or harmful (i.e., "O Lord, curse or destroy my enemies") purposes. These improper motivations do not make prayer into an evil practice just as improper motivations do not make all OBEs evil.
Moreover, Christian critics of OBEs will often admit that people seek out-of-body experience for spiritual reasons. If a person seeks an OBE for spiritual reasons such as to increase faith or the knowledge of God and the supernatural world, we might ask, "How is this an un-Christian activity?" The answer is likely to be that these seekers are using the "wrong methods".
Direct experience of God and the supernatural world may well be the most direct path to a strong and lasting faith. Objecting to it as being un-Christian is refusing to take "yes, I believe" for an answer. It reminds one of the mathematics teachers that object to students who get the correct answer to a math question but arrive at it using the wrong method. For some Christians, spiritual travel is the wrong method even if it leads to the correct answer (Christian faith).
Given the lack of authentic religious faith in both the secular and the Christian religious world, the author's approach would be that church leaders should not be too picky about how people arrive at their faith but rather focus on the goal of having faith in the first place.
The "OBEs are Occult Experience" Objection
There is a tendency in some Christian writers to lump all practices that are not clearly mainstream Christian practices into the categories of pagan or occult. To these writers, mediumship, Tarot reading, OBEs, and dowsing are part of the same category of occult experience.
In Deuteronomy 18:10-12, we see the statement,10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritualist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord...
The above moral statement from Deuteronomy can be considered moot since most Christians do not follow Levitical and Deuteronomic moral law in the first place. For instance, Christians do not keep a Kosher diet but instead follows the moral law of the ten commandments which can be condensed into Christ's statement: "Love God, Love thy neighbor as thyself". To argue that good Christians should keep laws from the Hebrew Bible that they ignore or continually violate is to radically redefine what it means to be a Christian, which is not something Christian conservative writers generally want to do. But let us ignore this problem for the moment and address the objection to occult experience mentioned in the above biblical quote.
The interesting fact is that of the numerous spiritual travel experiences mentioned on the pages of this site, none of them fits into any of the above-mentioned specific categories (with the possible exception of near-death experience where the person on occasion involuntarily meets with dead relatives or friends). Spiritual travel as described at this site does not include divination, mediumship, spiritualism, spells, speaking with the dead, human sacrifice, or omens. Spiritual travel is simply not on the list of "detestable" practices. This leaves us to discuss the categories of sorcery, witchcraft, and the occult.
The interwoven concepts of the occult, sorcery, and witchcraft can be interpreted so broadly as to be meaningless since they can include any religious activity that mainstream Christians do not approve of, practice, or understand. Because the definition of witchcraft is so vague, we can see how many thousands of Christians were burned as heretics based on their being judged to be witches. The medieval church courts proved conclusively that there is no way to defend oneself against the amorphous charge of witchcraft. The Salem witch trials reaffirmed the meaninglessness of the "charge" of witchcraft in a more modern context.
So the "occult" objection to spiritual travel rests on the term's vagueness and imprecision. The terms "occult practice" or "sorcery" simply come to mean un-Christian practice, and the objection becomes a tautology since any un-Christian religious practice would certainly be considered "detestable" to a Christian God. Occult experience is objectionable to Christians because it is un-Christian which does not define what the term "occult" actually means. Such an objection, based on undefined terms as it is, has no merit from a philosophical point of view and therefore represents a meaningless objection.
The "OBEs in the Bible were Controlled by God" Objection
The last objection we see to OBEs is that they were only given to prophets to glorify God and communicate something important to believers on earth.
The first problem with this approach is there is no way to know that this is true. Even if some or most of the OBEs in the Bible occurred to prophets or saints, those are the vast majority of the people spoken of in the Bible. Ordinary people who had such experiences would not be included in an extraordinary text like the Bible.
Another problem is that such experiences "glorified God" and had no other purpose that prophesy. This is certainly untrue since the learning that occurred during these heavenly experiences had many other results such as increasing faith and giving knowledge of God and his heaven to individuals. Many individuals were given knowledge that they were forbidden to share with others. How is hidden knowledge supposed to glorify God and increase faith in others?
In Mark 10, for instance, we see Jesus saying that the disciples are receiving secret knowledge:10 When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. 11 He told them, "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables..."
In 2 Corinthians 3-4, again we see someone given secret knowledge:3 And I know that this man--whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows-- 4 was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.
Here, we clearly see that OBEs had a teaching function for the individual and not just the prophetic function to transmit messages to believers.
Once we accept that individual knowledge of God is important apart from educating the group which is the function of prophets, spiritual travel can be accepted as a Christian religious practice beside numerous other Christian practices.
Finally, we must deal with the claim that the OBEs in the Bible were controlled by God whereas the ones that occur to people today are not. Such claims cannot be verified. Who can claim to know that a person's spiritual experience is not "controlled by God". The individual would need to be a prophet in his or her own right to be able to make such a claim. There is certainly a vanity to such claims that seems to be very uncharacteristic of Christian commentators.
Jesus, the prophets, and the desert fathers were not passive waiting for revelations from God. They fasted, prayed, spent time in the wilderness, and generally sought direct contact with God. Just because they prepared themselves to receive revelations does not mean that such revelations were not "controlled by God". Seeking spiritual travel experience is perhaps a different mode or flavor of seeking but that does not make the experiences that may arise a product of human effort. God can still be the primary actor who grants such revelations.
Implicit in this claim is the belief that the "time of the prophets is over" and God does not give transcendent spiritual experiences to people today. To this statement the author can only respond, "O, ye of little faith ...".
Introduction | The Geography of Spiritual Travel | The "Travel" Analogy | Leaving the Body in Spiritual Travel | Spiritual Travel Versus Dreams | Sacred Light | Sacred Sound | Psychic States | Spiritual Travel in Western Religious Scripture | The Self in Spiritual Travel | Returning to the Physical Body | Near-Death Experience | Navigation During Spiritual Travel | Spiritual Matter | Method and Techniques To Induce Spiritual Travel | Shamanism and Spiritual Travel | After-Death Experience | Spiritual Travel as a Rehearsal for Physical Death | Beyond Spiritual Travel | Conclusion
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