Prayer is just another kind of friendly conversation, says Uffe Schjodt who did MRIs on 20 devout Christians. This may not prove that devout Christians are not talking to a real spirit, but it does show they are putting their hearts into some sort of “conversation”, some sort of “relationship”.
When my daughter was little, she had two invisible friends (geese, actually) but they are gone now–she has grown up. But she used to talked to them all the time and was always embarrassed when I asked her who she was talking to. Why was she shy — well, I think part of her always knew her friends were imaginary. And likewise, I think this is why many Christians are also shy to talk about their chats with Jesus because they also realize that they are really talking to an imaginary friend.
Jesus certainly qualifies as imaginary when you consider that: you can’t see him, you can’t hear him, you can’t smell him, you can’t feel him. These are all traits shared with my daughter’s imaginary talking geese. Thus, Jesus only exists is in your imagination — OR, in some special invisible spirit realm, but he is not “real” in any normal sense of the word. People may say they can hear Jesus but they are not using the word “hear” in the normal sense either. What they mean by “hear” is that they talk to their imaginary friend and then wait for a nice warm fuzzy feeling and then they call that “the voice of the Lord”. That is what I did when I was a devout Christian.
When Evangelicals ask, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”, they don’t mean “personal relationship” in any normal sense either. We all know what the phrase “personal relationship” means in usual conversation. If I pointed at someone across a room and said, “Do you have a personal relationship with that person?” You would say “No!” if you hadn’t done things with that person like had long personal conversations (using words of course) where you share information with each other. Or if you had not eaten, drank, danced, laughed, played baseball or stuff like that with that person. We never use “personal relationship” in normal conversation to mean that you squint your eyes and talked to yourself and imagined someone was listening — that is called “having an imaginary friend”.
Now, if you do this silly activity along with a group of people who believe the same things, it is less embarrassing. Why do you think few people don’t want to say grace at big gatherings of strangers. Because everyone knows it is a speech contest and has nothing about talking to a real person — so the invisible-friend game feels silly. They feel better doing it at a church where everyone agrees to suspend rationality in the building and allow each other to talk out loud to a common imaginary friend. They make this sacrifice of rationality to gain community, comfort, friends, status and lots of other benefits. But they don’t do it because they really hear someone talking back — come on, admit it. I am an ex-Christian, I know the game.
Jesus is an imaginary friend. This was one of the major self-confessions I made to myself during my Christian years — I realized that I certainly did not have a “personal relationship” with Jesus. This insight was a large part of my deconversion. Later I came to see that some forms of Christianity do not indulge in the “personal, emotional relationship with Jesus” theme — but my Christianity did. Later I explored these other forms, but could not abide by them either — but that will have to wait for other posts.