Dream a Little Dream of Me

Barry Leventhal thinks that Jesus appears to people in dreams. (www.christianpost.com/news/jesus-still-appears-to-people-in-dreams-even-god-haters-christian-apologist-says-170855/)

His claim isn’t that people have dreams in which Jesus figures as part of the dream, but rather that Jesus, himself, appears in the dream. I suspect that Leventhal does not think that every dream involving Jesus counts as an appearance of him, though. If I were to dream that Jesus and Sherlock Holmes both showed up at my door asking to help carve Halloween pumpkins, it is likely that Leventhal would not think this was a miraculous appearance of Jesus, but merely a dream.

Leventhal claims that there have been cases where people have converted to Christianity as a result of dreaming of Jesus. This may be true (though one story he tells of such a conversion has the ring of legend, I think), but it is not clear why Leventhal thinks these are cases of genuine appearance. Presumably, he believes that such dream-inspired conversions would be less likely to have taken place if they did not involve genuine appearances. But why is that plausible? Many people have had dreams that have affected them very powerfully. There is no plausibility in the suggestion that such dreams always, or even usually involve appearances. People have read life-changing books, or seen life-changing movies where there is no question that these were works of fiction.

It is an interesting question why some dreams have this extremely compelling potentially life-changing character to them, just as it is an interesting question why other experiences can have this feature. But there is no good reason to make the inferential claim that if an experience has such a character, it must therefore be veridical. At the very least, evidence would be needed showing that as a matter of fact, a statistically significant majority of such experiences are demonstrably veridical.

There is also something very strange about the whole idea of someone appearing in a dream. The whole notion treats dreams as having a real space within which actual existing things and people come and go. “I saw Jesus in a dream” is treated like, “I saw Elton John in Las Vegas.” Someone with a stronger background in historical anthropology than I have could probably provide details about how the boundaries between dreams and reality have frequently been blurred in different times and places in human history, even to the point where people have been considered culpable for what “they” did in other people’s dreams.

The most charitable take on the idea of dream appearance is probably something along the lines of the person who appears causing the dreamer to dream particular things. So if Jesus were to appear to me in a dream and say “You shall carve exactly six pumpkins on Halloween!” what would make this a dream appearance would be that Jesus, himself, caused me to dream it and for the dream to contain the content that it did. One wonders how much of the content would be reasonable to attribute to the person appearing. Suppose that in the dream, Jesus appeared in my living room, but unlike my real living room, which has no coffee table, in the dream Jesus appeared to me standing (for dramatic effect, one supposes) upon a solid 2’ x 5’ block of clear lucite. Also, suppose that in the dream there was a window in the south wall of the room (whereas in reality there is no window there). Should I infer that these odd artifactual details, typical of dreams, were significant? Why would they be caused to be there if they didn’t mean anything? There is also the question of how I would know that the person appearing was, in fact, Jesus. It won’t do to say, “well, it obviously was Jesus – after all, it looked like him.” Am I to think that Jesus didn’t appear to me as he likely would have looked in life, but rather as he is depicted in popular iconography (with strongly Caucasian features – perhaps with blue eyes? (www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35120965)

Then there is the question of why, if someone wanted to communicate with me, they would choose to attempt doing so in a dream, especially if we have reason to think they could do so in other, much less ambiguous ways. It is too easy to chalk a dream up to imagination. By analogy, if I were to find a note taped to my door that read: “You shall carve exactly six pumpkins this Halloween. Sincerely, Jesus” I would surmise that it had been written by a prankster. If it was really important that I carve a certain number of pumpkins, a live in-person appearance would be better than a note, or a dream appearance. Of course, I would want supporting evidence, and this brings me to my final observation. It is true that if I opened my door to an unfamiliar person who said, “Hi, I’m Jesus” I would not take them at their word. I would require some sort of compelling evidence. Perhaps the individual could reveal both the nature and location of the object I buried in childhood (you should know the one I mean, if you’re reading this, Jesus!). Yet Leventhal appears to think that dream appearances are somehow even more compelling that such an in-person appearance would be. I am unconvinced.