Science in Christian Perspective



The Road to Damascus
Associate Professor of Psychology, 
Wheaton College

From: JASA 4 (December 1952): 13-15.

The events pertaining to the conversion of Paul the Apostle have persistently been distorted by the mouths of men. The attempt has been made to explain away this supernatural occurrence on a natural basis. However, God has graciously left in His written Word the answers to these naturalistic contentions.

Men have maintained the following erroneous views.

1. Paul had hallucinations so that he saw lights that did not really exist.

2. Paul had auditory hallucinations on the Damascus road so that he heard voices that were not speaking and he interpreted the experience as the voice of God, as do many patients in mental hospitals. Hallucinations are purely private and subjective on the part of those who have them and they cannot be perceived by any others who are present.

3. Paul had an hysterical fit; it was entirely psychological in nature, and not upon any organic nor objective basis, They have claimed that the only psychological basis for such an experience could have been a wounded conscience from having witnessed the stoning of Stephen.

4. For added variety, others would explain Paul's experience on an organic basis. They say that he had a fit of epilepsy, and that the light that he saw was the aura which commonly precedes the attack and which warns the epileptic of his coming convulsion. In such a case the aura would have to be a subjective experience, not experience by others present.

5. Some have said that Paul's poor eyesight during his ministry was due to ophthalmia (eye infection) such as trachoma (granulated eyelids). This view neglects to consider the truly objective events which occurred to Paul's eyesight during his conversion experience. Now objective things of an organic nature do not necessarily happen at the time of conversion, but this is one of those variations which constitute the variety of Christian experience.

6. Since the event occurred at noonday in a hot country, some have said that it was sunstroke. Sunstroke leaves one in a critical condition, in danger of imminent death. Heat exhaustion is milder, but it could not account for the events which transpired on the road to Damascus.

7. There is another persistent notion that Paul continued to have attacks of "epilepecy," which made him contemptible, constituting his thorn in the flesh, and that they were brought on by an addled brain due to his stoning at Lystra. (Acts 14:19.) Here is an obvious anachronism due to ignorance of the text, for the stoning at Lystra transpired years after the conversion on the Damascus Highway.

One may well be warned by the abundance of explanations which are used to explain away Paul's conversion, leaving us with the suspicion that none of them are tenable. Analogously, in the field of medicine, when a disease has many cures, none of them may be expected to be satisfactory.

Could it be that the art and the science of psychiatry might have anything to offer in the solution of this problem of the Damascus Highway? Does psychiatry confirm the Word? Of course, the Bible does not need to be confirmed through the words of men, but if it should confirm the Scriptures, then we know that it is a true psychiatry. The Word tells us that Paul had a heavenly vision, and because he was not disobedient unto it, there was wrought the powerful change in his subsequent life. (Acts 26:19.) A heavenly vision is not a natural event. It is neither an hallucination nor a natural dream and it may occur while one is wide awake. If it was a heavenly vision, it was reality, even though it was a reality of those things which are above, which are more real than what we see.

Paul saw the Lord Jesus on the Road to Damascus. (Acts 22:14.) Paul there saw the greatest of all Reality after His resurrection, an event so unique that those others who likewise saw Him in apostolic times are enumerated in a few words in I Cor. 15:5-8. Paul was perhaps the last to have seen Him with his bodily eyes in apostolic times, but Act 22:17 tells us that he saw Him once again in the temple. In fact, Paul had to see the Lord Jesus, after His resurrection, in order to be eligible for his own apostleship.

But there is additional evidence that Paul did not have any hallucinations. The men who were with him in the Road to Damascus also saw a great Light and were afraid. (Acts 22:9.) Hallucinations are never experienced by any other people than the "patient" himself who perceives them. The writer has seen hundreds of patients who had hallucinations and yet never did anyone else experience those same hallucinations at the same time. If others did perceive these things, then they were objective reality and they could no longer be considered hallucinations. Neither can others experience the aura that precedes the epileptic attack, although the "seeing" of a light is a frequent aura among such patients. This Light is described as greater than the brightness of the sun at noonday. (Acts 26:13.) Perhaps our generation has experienced the brightest of natural light: the white light of the atomic bomb explosion. But this Light of Shechinah glory of Christ was still brighter - incomparably brighter. We know this from the lasting physical effects upon Paul, described later. This is the Light which has slain men in the past and is able to eat out the eyes of men in their sockets, even while standing erect.

This Light was centered upon Paul. It did not blind the eyes of other men; neither did they see the Lord. Likewise the men with him heard the sound of the Voice (Acts 9:7), but they failed to hear the distinct words that Paul heard. (Acts 22:9.)

Paul fell to the earth. (Acts 9:4). People who have fits and convulsions commonly fall to the earth, as Paul did. But in Acts 26:14, we learn that all the men who were with him likewise fell to the earth. People do not have fits in unison, even in an epileptic ward. This could only have been brought about by some force which was external to all of them there on the Road to Damascus. It was a real force; it did violence to all of them. It was not an earthquake because there was a Light and a Voice. It was not a thunderbolt because thunderbolts affect the nervous system and not the external visual apparatus. This force was a real, objective, external Force which was beyond what we find in nature. 

Now we need to consider what happened to Paul's eyesight. Not only was he unable to see momentarily, as when any one of us looks into a less dazzling light, but Paul was completely blinded for three days; then he could see again. The clinical men of the world point -out that hysterical (psychologic) blindness often acts in this way. In fact, sudden recoveries from total blindness are invariably diagnosed as hysteria. Indeed. they point out that Ananias was using strong suggestion, which profoundly affects hysteric conditions.

However, we note in Acts 22:13 that the return of his eyesight was of the Lord. He was miraculously healed; if he had not thus been healed, he would have been blind the rest of his life. Furthermore, the healing was only partial in this case, leaving a lifelong visual defect. Hysterical symptoms are usually healed completely and dramatically. Presumably an hysterical symptom could be healed by a miracle of God. But the text gives us a clue that this was not an hysterical condition, nor any kind of psychologic ailment, but rather the kind of physical condition which we usually designate as organic. Some kind of physical phenomenon occurred when he received his sight, which proves that it was an organic condition. There fell from his eyes "as it had been scales." (Acts 9:18.) In other words,,they were not scales, but something very much like scales. Dr. Luke is apparently describing here something which had not come into his clinical experience. Neither does modern clinical practice have anything to offer in explanation. It was a physical event, unique in nature, as a sign from God. All we know is that it was physical and that it cannot be explained,

Paul's total blindness ceased when God healed him in Damascus, on the street which is called Straight, but God left with Paul a reminder of what had happened to him, He continued to have a visual defect for the rest of his life. That is why the Galatians would have been willing to pluck out their own eyes and give them to him. (Gal. 4:15.) Here was Paul's cross, the burden he had to bear perhaps it was his thorn in the flesh.

To the Galatians, he declared; "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." (Gal. 6:17.) Some have said that these were the marks of the lash which Paul received on five occasions, but this lash left the "marks of men" upon his body. The blindness and visual defect which Paul sustained when the dazzling Light of the Lord Jesus shone unto him can more fittingly be viewed as the marks of the Lord Jesus. Perhaps the plural "marks" indicates that there was still another mark sustained when Paul went up to the third heaven and saw things that were not lawful to utter. That these marks had to do with his preaching is shown in the Williams translation of Gal. 4:13: " . . . it was because of an illness of mine that I preached the good news to you the first time." These marks actually reminded him and gave him the motivation to preach. Thus we see that we do not have to postulate any of the common eye infections in order to explain Paul's visual defect It fits our purpose and understanding better to admit that this was an unique ailment from the hand of God. Indeed Jacob's lameness after wrestling with the Lord all night is a similar "mark." (Gen. 32:3it, 32.)

We know something of the visual defect which Paul continued to suffer. It may be inferred from various passages that it was characterized by faintness or blurring of vision. So far as we know. ft was a general blurring of the visual field, and not the blurring of far vision, nor near vision, as such.

Paul's visual defect was such that he usually had a secretary do the major part of his writing for him, by dictation. Paul, however, signed his letters and wrote the last sentence of salutation. Perhaps the best example of this is in II Thess. 3:17, where this matter is emphasized, because someone had sent the Thessalonians a forged letter. The letter to the Galatians was written entirely by Paul, but it was written in large letters so that he, could see what he was writing. (Gal. 611.)

The dazzling Light of Christ does not usually rend the human body in Salvation as it did in the case of Paul. Most of us "see the Light" less intensely. In Paul's case, however, it put out both his eyes and it was only by miracle that he ever saw again. The god of this world (Satan) is constantly trying to blind the minds of unbelievers so that the Light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ may not shine unto them. Paul, however, in the eternal purposes of God, got an overdose of Light. Yet he spent the remainder of his life dispensing Light to others: "to open their (the Gentile) eyes and turn them from darkness to Light." (Acts 26:18.)

There were eight distinct miracles involved in the conversion of Paul.

1. A changed attitude toward Jesus was seen at once.
2. A total change in the manner of life ensued.
3. It was real, supernatural Light that shone.
4. There was the real, supernatural Voice of God.
5. Blindness came as a direct act of God.
6. There was divine revelation to Ananias about Paul.

7. This revelation featured predictions of Paul's career.

8. Paul's total blindness was healed by miracle.

In summary, here are some of the things that are to be learned from the story of the Road to Damascus,

1. This experience was real and it was external to Paul.

2. He was neither insane nor imagining things.

3. Conversion is a real event and an experience with God.

4. It makes a lifelong change of character and of behavior.

5. Such change comes not by the efforts of men, but often in spite of them.

6. In Paul's case, it left its physical marks in his body as proof of its reality.

7. His conversion is confirmed by internal evidence in the Scripture, where every word is found to be true. God leaves in the written Word convincing evidence of the truth of its contents. His Word is absolutely true, but men treat it as tholigh it were the word of men. Since we have seen here how literally true is the Word, we should take heed of the warning (John 3:3) that except a man be born again into a new kind of life, he cannot see the Kingdom of Heaven.


Dr. J. 0. Buswell: I have been wanting for a long time to ask a medical man about Ramsey's view of Paul's malaria. Ramsey, the archeologist, thinks that he finds that Paul always avoided malaria areas and that he went up to the city in Antioch to get away from the swamp coastlands where malaria was prevalent. Not to in any way contradict Dr. Marquart's other suggestion, but I would like to get your opinion on that - Paul and malaria.

Dr. P. Marquart: I don't know that I can add anything on that particular feature about malaria. Perhaps we can get Dr. Maxwell and Leslie Holland to add something on that. As to malaria, of course, we didn't know the possible area in those days and had no idea of the plasmodium vivax which causes it or that it was carried by mosquitoes. In fact the word malaria in ancient times meant "bad air" and for that reason Paul and others might easily have avoided the areas which had the tradition of giving bad air which finally culminated every once and awhile in a paroxysm of fever. That, at least, they could observe, and I think that would be a very good reason for Paul or any other person at the time avoiding certain malarious regions, without knowing exactly the scientific background of the situation. Malaria, of course, is an infection, and it doesn't necessarily affect the eyes unless due to some secondary infection or something that may happen in the course of it which has weakening effects which may affect the whole body, and so I don't think that it would necessarily have anything to do with his conversion experience.

Dr. U. Saarnivara: I agree with most things that Mr. Marquart said, but there is one or two things on which I disagree. It is the rather general conception that Paul's thorn in the flesh was a physical ache but we have no basis in the New Testament for that conception for when we read the fourth chapter of II Con, Paul does not speak in the context of any physical ailments, but he speaks immediately after his works, of persecutions and other afflictions for the sake of Christ. Some of the Christian Church explain on the basis of the simple context that the thorn in the flesh was for the persecutions and sufferings that Paul had in his missionary work. For example, Martin Luther explains it that way, and it seems to me that we have no reasonable basis for the assumption that Paul had visional defects as a result of the appearance of Christ on the Damascus Road. The main basis for that assumption is that Paul used large letters in writing and I think that is a very great basis for that assumption. We know that the hand style of different people is different, some use large letters and some use small letters and if a person uses large letters, it is no proof that he has poor eyesight. The physical weakness or illness that Paul had in Galatia when he preached the Gospel there did not need to be any trouble in his eyes . . . Now we do not seem to know what was the trouble with Paul in Galatia and the view that he had lots of visual defects has no basis in what the New Testament says.

Dr. J. Maxwell: This question, would I comment on Paul's thorn in the flesh, asked by Dr. Peterson, I would just comment that Dr. Marquart's explanation is the one that I like the best and I believe it has been purposely by the Holy Spirit concealed from us. There's nothing that I find in the study of the words in the Scripture that would suggest anything. Any other questions?

Dr. B. Sutherland: Dr. Marquart mentioned the scriptural significance of the heart. We commonly hear about a distinction between believing with the head and with the heart. I wonder if you would care to comment on that from the scriptural point of view.

Dr. P. Marquart: There is such a distinction even in the scriptural use of the word "heart." The heart, by the way, is the core and center of all that you are. It includes not only emotion but intellect and will . . . all three of these things that Aristotle has given us to think about down through the ages. So that we can speak of the heart, and, as the ancients did, speak of the intellect as centered in the head region. I only know of two places in the Bible where it mentions the heart being the organ of the body. One of those places is the death of Absalom where the spear went through his heart. But those ancients of classical times knew that the heart was reacted to in emotional stimuli and began beating fast when they were seared and other things like that and so they began to use the heart in that sense, of being the seat of the emotions and then the belly as being the seat of the will. That was the classical use, not necessarily the Bible usage but the Bible and its use of the word "heart" means the core and center of all these things . . . everything that goes on, in fact. A good way of expressing it is that everything in the personality converges to form the heart, comes to focus in the heart. It's the core and center then of things, and in that sense includes more than just the intellect and I think that is a good reason for the distinction that you mentioned.