What is speaking in tongues?

The speaker utters incoherent sounds whilst in an ecstatic state, often encouraged by emotional repetitious music and chanting. Usually this is believed to be an expression of a Holy Spirit gift. “Glossolalia”, as this is called, has also been experienced by people who have no claim to be Christian, both in modern and ancient times. So clearly the tongue-speaking is not evidence itself that it is a Holy Spirit gift. Are there other reasons to believe that speaking in tongues is a miraculous gift from God? If the speaker-in-tongues was “interpreted”, and the interpretation made unlikely predictions that were fulfilled, that could establish them. Until reliable evidence is given of this, then belief should be suspended.

But if the Bible has promised that we should be able to speak in tongues, then is that proof that glossolalia is from God? There are problems with this logic:

(a)   Even in the 1st century not all Christians received the gift of speaking in tongues, whatever that was. Only some received the gift of speaking in tongue.

1 Corinthians 12:7-10  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  (8)  For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,  (9)  to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,  (10)  to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

(b)   In at least some cases “speaking in tongues” was not an ecstatic utterance without obvious meaning, but was the miraculous ability to be heard and understood by someone in a different language

Acts 2:4  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Acts 2:7-8  And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  (8)  And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?

(c)   It was predicted that some at least of the gifts would pass away

1 Corinthians 13:8  Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.

The Holy Spirit will be re-established at the time of the coming of Christ’s kingdom

Joel 2:28-31  “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  (29)  Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.  (30)  “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.  (31)  The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.


It would be presumptuous of us to imagine a claim to such gifts before God actually gives them out, however sincere such imaginings might be.

Can “tongue-speakers” understand what they are saying? Linguists who have studied the utterances have concluded that there is no relationship between the “goo”s and “gah”s and any discernible meaning. Most tongue speakers don’t have any idea of any meaning in what they are saying. And the interpreter, if there is one, leaves no way of checking the veracity of the interpretation.

A common thread in many of the answers I give on this site is that we should not leave our brain in the car-park when we go to church. Religion that is not sensible needs to be fixed.

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