I think it would be right to say that most Christians today believe that God still speaks to people through dreams. There are more than a few believers, however, who deny that He does this. They claim that He stopped speaking in this way in the first century around the time the apostles all died. In their view, all supposed messages from God in dreams today are purely natural experiences, or perhaps even have a demonic origin at times.
I am convinced that God does speak in dreams today, and in what follows I will argue for this position. I am sure that the idea that He no longer speaks in this way fits poorly with Scripture and stems from confused thinking about the role of the Bible in the Christian life.
Before getting into the arguments themselves, I think it will be good to begin by saying a few words about testimony of dreams. I have never been aware of God speaking to me in a dream myself, so unfortunately I can’t give any first-hand testimony. But I have heard or read other Christians say that they have experienced Him speaking in this way, and some of this testimony has struck me as highly likely to be genuine. Here are a few examples I have heard about:
First, something that I have come across repeatedly in recent years is reports of Muslim converts to the Christian faith, who claim that they became Christians because Jesus appeared to them in a dream. I can’t remember all the sources of this information I have seen, but I can remember one of them, the magazine of the Christian relief agency for the persecuted church, Barnabasfund. This is a very serious and sober organisation run by Christians who seem not at all to be the sort of people who are given to baseless stories and hype. I therefore take what they have said about Jesus appearing in dreams very seriously.
Second, I can remember talking to a devout Christian woman a long time ago, who said that Jesus had appeared to her in a dream. She was going through a hard time at that point in her life. I forget exactly what happened in the dream, but I know that she was comforted and encouraged by the experience. It is impossible that this woman lied about what she experienced, and I think it is very doubtful that she was even making an honest mistake about the source of the dream.
Third, I recently spoke to another devout Christian woman, who told me how a dream helped her and her husband to move house. She saw a house in a dream, and then later, when they were aiming to move, a property that happened to be for sale was the one she saw in the dream. They understood this as God’s leading, and then bought that house. Again, it is impossible that this woman was lying, and I think it is highly likely that this dream really was from God.
From what I have seen, one of the main reasons why some Christians deny that God speaks in dreams today is because they think that if He did this, it would threaten the authority and finality of Scripture. That is very confused thinking.
First, as regards the Bible’s authority, it should be obvious that none of the examples I gave above of God speaking in dreams remotely undermines the authority of Scripture. And the same is true of all other dreams God gives in our day. Any revelation that God gives in dreams today always fits perfectly with the Bible.
Second, as regards the Bible’s finality, again, dreams in no way undermine this. No revelation given by God in dreams today is designed to have scriptural authority or to apply to the whole Christian church. Revelation in dreams is on a far lower level than biblical revelation, and just applies to specific and individual situations. This revelation in no way adds to the Bible, which has, of course, been complete for the best part of two millennia.
Those who say that God never speaks in dreams today also often claim that there is no need for dreams now that we have the New Testament. There is another huge mistake here. To begin with, the first example I gave above of Jesus appearing to Muslims in dreams concerns people who would not be intending to read the NT anyway. So in their case, the fact that the NT exists cannot possibly reduce the effectiveness of the dreams.
Secondly, as far as Christians are concerned, the existence of the NT in no way means that dreams are pointless. The NT gives us crucial, general principles about how to live. But it should be obvious that in the course of our Christian lives, we encounter numerous situations, sometimes complex ones, in which only reading the Bible will not give us full insight into how we should act. And when important decisions are involved, we need other direction from God.
For example, take the following situations:
(1) A Christian man is wondering whether to take a job he has been offered or to keep the one he has. Despite praying and asking advice, he finds that the pros and cons are evenly balanced.
(2) A Christian couple are very unsure whether they should move to a different town or continue to live where they are. Again, the pros and cons seem to cancel each other out.
(3) A church is considering doing some evangelism. An opportunity opens up for them to reach out to older people. And another opportunity arises for them to do outreach to teenagers. But they feel that they can’t manage both. So they have to choose.
I could give a multitude of similar examples. For individual Christians, Christian families and churches, situations will often arise where reading the Bible doesn’t give enough insight to know what the will of God is. Scripture is not designed to give us direct and specific information about how to decide in situations like these. Instead, it gives us general principles about how to live and what to do. It should be an undeniable fact, then, that Christians and churches often have to choose between various courses of action that seem to fit equally well with the Bible. And some of these decisions are very big ones. What is more, it makes sense to think that God is almost never neutral about big decisions we make. Almost always He will want us to take one course of action instead of other alternatives. So Christians and churches often find themselves in situations where they need to be able to hear God speaking to them about what He specifically wants them to do.
There are some who will readily accept this, but who still argue against dreams today. They say that God is able to speak to us in other ways than by dreams, so He wouldn’t choose to speak in dreams.
This argument is completely misguided. Of course God can and does give specific insight to Christians other than through dreams. But it is a big mistake to think in terms of either-or here. It should be both-and. Speaking in dreams is one way in which God sometimes gives insight to Christians. And this should be allowed to take its place alongside other ways He speaks. It is absolutely wrong to basically tell God that He mustn’t speak to us in a certain way. That is an arrogant attitude indeed!
The idea that God doesn’t speak in dreams today not only involves confused thinking, but it also fits poorly with Scripture. The most important passage on this topic is Acts 2:16-18. Here Peter, referring to the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given, quotes the prophet Joel: “16 But this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 ‘And it will be in the last days,’ says God, ‘that I will pour out my Spirit on all people. And your sons and daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they will prophesy.’”
Peter is saying that the events of the day of Pentecost are the beginning of the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy in Joel 2:28-32. Joel prophesied that God would pour out His Spirit, says Peter, and this has now come into effect. And the text makes it clear that pouring out the Spirit involves dreaming dreams, and these are certainly dreams in which God speaks to His people. The prophecy explicitly says that “old men will dream dreams.” However, it would be wrong to think that this means that only old men will dream dreams. Rather, what we have here is a piece of rhetoric, in which each spiritual activity in v. 17 applies to each of the groups of people mentioned in this verse. Sons and daughters, young men and old men will all prophesy, see visions and dream dreams.
Next, we must note the time reference in this passage. It says that God will pour out His Spirit, and that Christians will have dreams etc., “in the last days.” The last days here is the period of time that began with the crucifixion-resurrection-giving of the Spirit and will end with the return of Christ. But if God stopped speaking in prophecies, visions and dreams in the first century, this would mean that in fact it was only in the very first part of the last days that God poured out His Spirit as Joel and Peter describe. And this does seem a rather awkward interpretation of the text. Acts 2:16-18 therefore fits more naturally with God speaking in dreams throughout the Christian era.
To think that God no longer speaks in the prophecies, visions and dreams referred to in this passage also fits poorly with what we know as “salvation history.” This is a term that refers to how God’s overall plan for human beings has unfolded in various ways in different periods of history. For example, the calling of Abraham and the giving of the Law at Sinai involved radical new departures from what had come before. Later, the ministry of John the Baptist brought something radically new, as did the earthly ministry of Jesus. The day of Pentecost was also a huge change from what had come before. On this day the Spirit was given, in fulfilment of the Old Testament promises of the New Covenant.
Crucially, however, since Pentecost there has been no critical point in salvation history. We are still in the same New Covenant era that began on that day. In view of this, it would be unexpected, to say the least, if God no longer spoke through prophecies, visions and dreams. After the Spirit had descended on the day of Pentecost, this would be like Him deciding to partially re-ascend to heaven for no apparent reason. There really seems to be no good reason, then, for thinking that God no longer speaks in dreams today. This idea appears to be result of confused thinking about the role of the Bible in the Christian life. And it fits poorly with Acts 2:16-18. It also runs up against very plausible Christian testimony that God is using dreams in our day to advance His work.
If we accept, as we should do, that God speaks through dreams today, we will nevertheless need to exercise great care in this area. It is surely true that the vast majority of dreams that Christians have are not ones through which God is aiming to communicate. Sadly, some Christians show much too little caution in their attitude to dreams they have had. Rushing to assume that an unusual dream must be a message from God can have disastrous consequences, if an important decision is based on the dream alone.
Instead, those Christians who think that God may have spoken in this way should humbly, cautiously and prayerfully do their best to listen for the confirming voice of the Holy Spirit.
By Max Aplin
Max has a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. His popular blog posts include some analysis of biblical passages. However, readers without any technical knowledge should easily be able to follow what he says. He is a British national who lives in the south of Scotland. Max has been a Christian for more than 30 years. You may follow his blog here: http://maxaplin.blogspot.com/