Visions are revelatory experiences that manifest before the visionary God’s will, plans, and/or perspective.
Alongside dreams and theophanies, visions are a means by which God has occasionally chosen to reveal his will to certain individuals for the purpose of guiding, warning, comforting, encouraging, or even pronouncing judgment on his people (or the enemies of God’s people). Visions differ from dreams in that the visionary need not be asleep, though neither need they be awake—Daniel “saw a dream and visions” as he “lay in his bed” (Dan 7:1).
In the Old Testament, visions can serve as a context for an encounter with God (Gen 15, Isa 6), a means of obscuring the full force of divine revelation (ostensibly for the purpose of preserving its mystery; see Num 12:6–8), or as an apocalyptic portrayal of the future (often involving strange imagery and the interpretive presence of angels; see Daniel 8).
In the New Testament, visions are given at times of great redemptive historical significance (the birth of John the Baptist in Luke 1:22; the revelation of Gentile inclusion in Acts 7:9–16), for the sake of encouragement (Stephen’s vision during his martyrdom in Acts 7:54–56; the Revelation of John), or perhaps even inexplicably (Paul’s vision of the third heaven in 2 Cor 12).
Unlike most ancient forms of mysticism, the import of biblical visions is not the ecstatic state itself, as perhaps a sign of spiritual maturity or authority, but rather the accompanying message which the visionary must now steward on the Lord’s behalf. With the coming of the Spirit, as foretold in Joel 2:28–29 and fulfilled in Acts 2, the possibility of visions was democratised to include not just special individuals or prophets, but the whole people of God (including, significantly, the Gentiles).
Augustine famously categorized visions into three categories: corporeal (a vision seen with the physical eyes), imaginative (a vision seen with the eyes of the mind), and intellectual (a vision given of something that is properly incomprehensible to the human mind). An example of a corporeal vision might be Abraham’s revelation of the covenant in Genesis 15, an imaginative vision might be Daniel’s vision of the ram and the goat in Daniel 8, and an intellectual vision might be Paul’s experience of the third heaven in 2 Corinthians 12. Augustine’s typology has been particularly influential in the mystical tradition of Western theology. Many Protestants would contend that purported contemporary visions must conform to the rule of faith and not challenge, supplement, or contradict the Holy Scriptures.
Ge 15:1–11; Nu 12:6–8; 1 Ki 22:17–23; Is 6:1–4; Je 1:11–14; Da 7; Lk 1:21–22; Ac 7:55; 2 Co 12:1–4; Re 1:9–19
Eze 1:1; Ac 2:17
Stratis, J. (2018). Special Revelation through Visions. In M. Ward, J. Parks, B. Ellis, & T. Hains (Eds.), Lexham Survey of Theology. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.