Can You Imagine?

Why imagination is crucial to the Christian life
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Faith is an act of the imagination. And a healthy, vibrant imagination is crucial to the Christian life.

You will likely disagree with these statements if you associate the imagination with delusion, fancy, and/or make believe. Christian belief is quite concerned with facts. After all, we follow the One whose name is Truth, so we must be committed completely and unwaveringly to the truth, not led astray by fantasy and illusion. I couldn't agree more. The trustworthiness of the Christian message is grounded in historical fact—the very real event of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. The whole of Christianity hangs on whether or not there truly was a first Easter morning. "If Christ has not been raised," Paul explained, "… we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Cor. 15:17-19). Fortunately, we have solid historical reasons to trust the testimony of the Gospel writers that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead. That means our faith is reasonable, grounded firmly in fact and reality.

The reasonableness of our faith has been a major preoccupation for many Christians, especially in America, for the last few generations. Apologists and theologians have worked hard to amass scientific and historical evidence that supports Christian claims to truth. We've developed complex and compelling arguments in defense of the faith. This research is geared to provide intellectual support for Christian belief. And it is important work. Unfortunately, this vigilant war for the truth can have—and has had—collateral damage. Christians dedicated to shoring up the intellect often do not think too highly of the imagination. If we let the imagination run wild, they fear, we risk sacrificing the truth.

But imagination is not the opposite of reality or the enemy of truth. In fact, we do ourselves an enormous disservice when we ignore the imagination (whether intentionally or accidentally) and only develop the intellect. For the intellect is only half the equation. Imagination is the partner of the intellect. One is not more important than the other; they do different things. But because we have neglected the imagination, it deserves our special attention.

Imagination and the Bible

The dictionary defines imagination as "the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses." We are accustomed to trusting our senses to tell us what is true. It is true, for example, that rocks break windows. How do I know? Because I've seen a rock break a window. Or at least I have seen something hard (like a rock) break something fragile (like a window), and I can apply the principle. For many people, especially nonreligious people, the arbiter of truth is experience—only what I have perceived and can perceive with my senses can be trusted. This rules out things like Creation, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection. Imagination offers a broader perspective on truth. If imagination is the capacity to visualize, to be confident in or hopeful of a reality that contradicts our experience, then it refuses to let our senses determine the limits of what is possible. This is why faith is an act of the imagination. Faith requires us to envision and inhabit a world that we cannot perceive with our senses—a world where an invisible God lovingly maintains his creation, where the Son of God became a human child, died on a cross to save sinners, and is seated at the right hand of God in glory.

From beginning to end, the Bible calls us to adopt a sanctified imagination that helps us look beyond our own experience. Experience tells us prayers go unanswered, as the singer cries out in Psalm 22: "My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer" (v. 2). Experience tells us sinful, rebellious people get their way in the end, that the values of the world are profitable and preferable. As the psalmist says, "In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak … he blesses the greedy and reviles the Lord … in all his thoughts there is no room for God. His ways are always prosperous" (Ps. 10:2-5).

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