What Was Paul’s Damascus Road Experience and its Significance?

The Damascus Road experience is arguably the most important event in the life of the Apostle Paul. Theologian Donald Hagner explains this experience as,

“The greatest impact on this remarkable man… was an encounter with the risen Christ that took place as Paul was on his way to persecute the Jewish Christians in Damascus. It is hardly possible to overemphasize the significance of this encounter not only in the life of Saul [Paul’s former name] the Pharisee but also for the theology he was to develop, and even for the Christian church of future centuries, which would come to treasure his letters as divinely inspired Scripture alongside what later came to be called “the Old Testament” [1]

The Damascus Road experience was indeed an unusual encounter Paul, while still a Pharisee persecuting the early Church, had on the road to Damascus. This story is so important to early Christianity that it is repeated several times in Acts (9:1-9; 22:6-11; 26:12-18) and in Paul’s own letters (1 Cor. 15:3-8; Gal. 1:11–16) making this hardly an obscure event. Paul’s experience would have been known across early Christian communities, including the audience of Acts (various Christians in the Greco-Roman world) and the churches in Corinth (Greece) and Galatia (Turkey). In one passage the author of Acts describes Paul’s encounter as follows (speaking from the first-person perspective of Paul),

“About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ “‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me. “‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked. ‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me.” (22:6-13)

In this encounter, Paul seems to have had intuitive knowledge that this was a divine encounter; he asks the question, “Who are you, Lord?” This divine presence was none other than Jesus (“I am Jesus”) who informs Paul that by persecuting the Christians he is actually persecuting Jesus the Lord. 

This experience does rest in some objective encounter. Acts states that those around Paul also witnessed it: “The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone” and it also had an effect on Paul himself: Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything” (9:7-9).

This encounter also greatly influenced Paul’s theology and Christology. Hagner articulates,

“Saul’s encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus Road obviously provides the initial impetus for Paul’s christology. It seems probable that Paul’s reference to Christ as the “image [eikōn] of God” in 2 Corinthians 4:4 (“the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God”) and Colossians 1:15 (“he is the image of the invisible God”) draws on the Damascus Road experience. Other expressions, such as Christ as the “power of God” (1 Cor. 1:24) and “the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8), point in the same direction. It is possible to trace even more of Paul’s theology back to the Damascus Road experience. If there Paul experienced forgiveness, reconciliation, and renewal, then this could serve as the foundation for his doctrine of salvation and even his eschatology. Thus Paul’s very gospel in nuce depends to a considerable extent on the revelation that he experienced at that time” [2].

Skepticism Over Paul’s Damascus Road Experience

Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus has inspired some to explain it away on naturalistic grounds.

One explanation is that he was plagued with guilt, doubt, and frustration making him psychologically fit for such a conversion experience [3]. The counter was perhaps stimulated by sunstroke in Paul to produce the conviction that he had seen a vision of Jesus. But such an objection faces insurmountable difficulties in light of the testimony and what we know of Paul. Paul was most certainly a confident individual devout in his commitment to his Pharisaic disposition (Phil. 3:6). There is no sense of guilt and doubt in him. He was convinced he was in the right and this motivated him to stamp out early Christianity from the historical record. Moreover, although there is a discrepancy between Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9 about what those accompanying Paul experienced (9:7 says that others heard a voice whereas 22:9 says that they did not, but saw a light), the testimony does seem to imply some objective experience involved suggesting it was not a subjective vision or hallucination on Paul’s part.

Paul’s Damascus Road conversion from persecuting Pharisee to Jesus follower has typically enjoyed Christian apologetic value. Many apologists appeal to Paul’s experience as one strand in a cumulative case for affirming the historicity of the resurrection. They maintain that without an actual encounter with Jesus, Paul’s conversion cannot be adequately explained or accounted for. Paul also sees apologetic value in his experience. Although he claims to have had other revelatory experiences (2 Cor. 12:1-10; 1 Cor. 2:9-10), the Damascus Road encounter is his most significant and he often appeals to it when defending his gospel/teachings. Consider his appeal in Galatians: “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11-12).

References

  1. Hagner, Donald. 2012. The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction. Baker Books. p. 595.
  2. Hagner, Donald. 2012. Ibid. p. 597.
  3. Hagner, Donald. 2012. Ibid. p. 596.

2 comments

  1. The way of Paulus is a parable. It led to the city of the sun god Samas and thus takes up the story of Orion, who, blinded, regained his sight on his way to the sun.

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