Born June 19, 1623, Blaise Pascal is widely remembered as one of the greatest mathematicians of the early modern era. His contributions to science, math, and philosophy earn his name fame and prestige comparable to the likes of René Descartes, Pierre de Fermat, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and other French Enlightenment thinkers. Pascal also earned notoriety for his theological works. He was a strong proponent of Jansenism and defended Antoine Arnauld in a series of letters in 1656 sent to the theological faculty at the College of Sorbonne who wanted to expel Arnauld and Jansenism from their school. One of Pascal’s best known works focuses on his famous wager, which served as a very simple justification for the belief in God.
What is less known about Blaise Pascal is his radical encounter with God on November 23, at the age of 31. Few knew of this ecstatic experience until after his death in 1662, when someone found a handwritten note sewn into the liner of his coat. All of Pascal’s theological works were written after this experience, a single moment that transformed his faith and changed his life forever. This is what he wrote:
“The year of grace 1654
Monday, 23 November, feast of Saint Clement, Pope and Martyr, and of others in the Martyrology.
Eve of Saint Chrysogonus, Martyr and others.
From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight.
‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,’ not of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
God of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
‘Thy God shall be my God.’
The world forgotten, and everything except God.
He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels.
Greatness of the human soul.
‘O righteous Father, the world had not known thee, but I have known thee.’
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have cut myself off from him.
They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters.
‘My God wilt thou forsake me?’
Let me not be cut off from him for ever!
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.’
I have cut myself off from him, shunned him, denied him, crucified him.
Let me never be cut off from him!
He can only be kept by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Sweet and total renunciation.
Total submission to Jesus Christ and my director.
Everlasting joy in return for one day’s effort on earth.
I will not forget thy word. Amen.”
I can feel the weight and heat of Pascal’s night of fire even 350 years later. I have no idea what that night actually looked like. But I know what it feels like. It’s an intensity that every believer has felt in some way. Rudolf Otto provides some helpful language to define the experience, but even the most precise technical definitions can’t hold a candle to actually encountering God—the moment the Holy Spirit gives us eyes to see and ears to hear His glory. Scripture is full of examples: Abraham seeing the smoking pot in Genesis 15; Moses finding the burning bush in Exodus 3, or witnessing God’s glory as he hid behind a rock in Exodus 33-34; Isaiah standing in the throne room in Isaiah 6; Peter, James, and John beholding Jesus’ transfiguration in Mark 9; Paul on the Road to Damascus in Acts 9; John’s vision of Christ in power in Revelation. I’m struck by the diversity of ways God reveals Himself—as Aslan tells Lucy in Prince Caspian, “Things never happen the same way twice”—and yet there’s a fierce continuity in the experience. There’s always the same intensity. The same weight. The same fire.
One of my favorite examples is Simeon’s encounter with Jesus in Luke 2. Read the passage and pour yourself into the story. Chew on it a bit. Watch it unfold like a Netflix show. Put yourself in the scene as a passerby. Think about and answer these two questions, either by writing the response or discussing it with a friend. In what ways did God encounter Simeon? What was Simeon’s relationship with God like?
And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
Simeon is remembered as a devout and righteous man. He must have longed for the day when God’s people would be redeemed since he was young. Decades he likely spent waiting and longing and praying and living. We don’t know exactly how old Simeon was when he saw Jesus, but it is fair to assume he was well along in years by his comment in verse 29. At some point in Simeon’s life the Holy Spirit revealed to him that he would live to see the Messiah. We don’t know how this was revealed; it could have been as revelatory as a vision or as subtle as a feeling like an unshakable hunch. We don’t know when Simeon received this message. Can you imagine how hard it would be to receive this message as a young man or a child? Simeon could have waited half a century or more with eager expectation. Consider Simeon’s faith. He must have endured decades of ridicule from those he shared his message with. I’m sure at times he wanted to doubt the message himself, but no matter how hard times got and how long he waited, Simeon could not deny the message: he would live to see the Christ.
Imagine Simeon’s relationship with God. The Lord had given him the greatest news any devout Jew could ever dream of. The long-expected savior would arrive in his life time; not only that, but Simeon himself would see the Lord’s Christ. Does this personal, intimate, one-on-one relationship surprise you? Does that sound like a Bible story and not reality? If you are a Christian, you have this same relationship. That is the nature of every living Christian’s relationship with God through the Holy Spirit.
Christianity is a relationship with God through the Holy Spirit by Christ’s authority. Adapting one’s morality and adhering to Christian doctrine is not what Christ died for you to do. As we remember Advent, let us remember what God did and why He did it because the Nativity is the whole reason we exist. The birth of Jesus is the center of time for a reason; it lies as the midpoint between Eden and New Heaven, New Earth. The incarnation restores man’s relationship with God as it was in Eden. God walked the earth with humans, though now as a man Himself. As John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1,14). Yet, the incarnation was not the end, for now we anticipate the second coming of Christ when He shall declare, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4). The birth of Jesus lies at the center of this narrative. It is the turning point.
The incarnation is the encounter with God. Isaiah prophesied Jesus would be called Immanuel. I wonder if Isaiah knew what God meant. Jesus is truly, physically God with us. The Messiah was born. Jesus came to earth as any other human: weak, dependent, crying, naked. We are reminded that the God of the universe, the King of kings chooses to meet us through a whisper after we have endured wind, earthquake, and fire as he did with Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-18). Christ, at the midpoint of all time, arrives without glory. He is born to ordinary—albeit dishonored, since Mary was found pregnant before married—parents in a small village. He is of an oppressed, conquered people. Who first receives Jesus? Shepherds. By all accounts Christ was a lowly man of humble origins. This is how our God chose to encounter us.
Our God is not distant from us. He does not stay far off. I hope you’ve had experiences in your life that you can point to as real encounters with God. Such encounters for me are the true root of my faith. I believe whole heartedly in scripture because I know the One who breathed it. I know my God loves me and protects me because He’s told me so. I know that no matter what I do, God will use it for good. Nothing I do is outside of my Lord’s plan—He’s proven it to be so.
Can you recall a time when you encountered God? It does not have to be as dramatic as the transfiguration, or as poetic as Pascal’s night of fire. Take time to reflect on that encounter in whatever way you feel appropriate—write a poem, chronicle a narrative, create a timeline, write down a prayer, etc. Think back to a time God was close to you. Perhaps you remember the moment you became a Christian. It could be a time of peace and quiet and solitude. It could be a time God answered a prayer. Whatever it may be, write something down.
If you’ve never felt close to God, or you can’t think of anything you would consider to be an encounter with Him, take this time to think and pray. I’d encourage you to write down a prayer inviting God to meet you where you are. Try asking for an encounter. I wouldn’t be surprised if God takes you up on your request. Take all the time you want.
The most immediate and profound way God encounters His people is through His word. Again, I haven’t the slightest clue what Pascal’s night of fire actually looked like, but I have a hunch. I would be willing to bet there was no blinding light nor burning bush, no smoking pot nor grand throne room. Most likely, Pascal’s night was spent alone in a quiet room reading the Bible by candlelight. Our glorious God delights to reveal Himself in the humblest of ways. Give your Lord a chance to meet you with fire today as He met Pascal some 350 years ago. Go ahead and pick one (or two, or several) of the passages listed below to read, study, and pray over them on your own. Each one is an account of a person radically encountering God. I suggest picking one you’re unfamiliar with. As you read and process, answer these questions.
Who are the characters involved in this encounter?
How does God reveal Himself in this encounter?
How do the characters react to the encounter?
What was the purpose of the encounter? What did God say?
How did the encounter change the character moving forward?
- Jacob’s dream at Bethel (Genesis 28:10-22)
- Jacob wrestles with God (Genesis 32:22-31; verses 3-21 give context)
- Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-22)
- Moses sees the glory of the LORD (Exodus 33:7-34:9, 29-35)
- God appears to Gideon (Judges 6:1-24)
- God calls Samuel (1 Samuel 3)
- The Lord appears to Elijah at Horeb (1 Kings 19:1-18; chapter 18 for context)
- Job responds to God (Job 42:1-6; chapters 40 and 41 for context)
- Isaiah stands before God (Isaiah 6:1-8)
- Ezekiel’s calling (Ezekiel 1-3)
- Ezekiel sees God return to the temple (Ezekiel 43:1-9)
- Daniel’s last vision (Daniel 10) *this may not be the angel of the LORD, but just a regular angel; scholars still debate this—either way, the imagery is remarkable*
- Jesus calms the storm (Matthew 8:23-27)
- The transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13)
- Peter’s realization (Mark 8:1-21, 27-30)
- The transfiguration (Mark 9:1-13)
- Peter’s calling (Luke 5:1-11)
- The transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36)
- The road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)
- Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:1-22)
- Jesus appears to John (Revelation 1:9-20)
- Christ’s throne in heaven (Revelation 4)
- The Rider on the white horse (Revelation 19:11-16)
Questions for these:
- Who are the characters involved in this encounter?
- How does God reveal Himself in this encounter?
- How do the characters react to the encounter?
- What was the purpose of the encounter? What did God say?
- How did the encounter change the character moving forward?
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal%27s_Wager (yeah, I know it’s wikipedia, but this isn’t a scholarly journal, and wikipedia’s explanation is actually really good for this)
Pascal’s “Night of Fire”
Rudolf Otto’s Concept of the “Numinous”