We’ve all heard of hallucinations; maybe even experienced one ourselves. We wake from a bad dream, and for an instant a shadowy figure seems to be in our room. Maybe a chronic migraine caused you to see intense colors or hear strange noises. Perhaps in your deep despair over the sudden loss of a loved one, for a moment, you think you see him sitting in his favorite easy chair. Generally, these hallucinations eventually fade away, and life resumes. This kind of illusion, however, was not the case for a group of people who saw something that not only changed their lives, but also changed the world.
The Christian faith depends on the testimony of the disciples who say they saw Jesus alive after being crucified. To explain these testimonies, some skeptics often try to justify the resurrection in naturalistic terms, calling it a mere hallucination. In this paper, I will show that the Hallucination Theory fails to account for relevant facts, and that the best explanation for Jesus’ resurrection is that his physical body was actually raised from the dead.
What exactly is a hallucination?
The U.S. National Library of Medicine states hallucinations involve sensing things while awake that appear to be real, but instead have been created by the mind. According to the National Institute of Health, common causes of these experiences vary from being drunk or high on drugs, delirium or dementia, epilepsy, having a high fever, or some other psychiatric disorder.
Perhaps the disciples, along with hundreds of other witnesses recorded in the New Testament, were simply hallucinating the appearances of the risen Christ. This Hallucination Theory at least recognizes that people did see an appearance of some type. Instead of flat-out denying these accounts, skeptics like Dr. Richard Carrier, will grant that yes, these witnesses conceivably “saw” something. “I believe the best explanation, consistent with both scientific findings and the surviving evidence (particular to Christianity and the general cultural milieu in which it rose), is that the first Christians experienced hallucinations of the risen Christ, of one form or another.”
Deeply troubled and very depressed that the one they believed was going to save them died, maybe the followers of Christ got drunk, as nonbelievers have suggested, and hallucinated the resurrection. Except there’s a hitch to this theory: this isn’t an isolated hallucination. Not only did the eleven disciples see Jesus on at least one occasion, but hundreds of witnesses say they saw him (I Cor. 15:5) at various times and places. People don’t usually hallucinate the same thing. Clinical Psychologist Gary Collins says it’s generally very personal:
By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly are not something which can be seen by a group of people. Neither is it possible that one person could somehow induce a hallucination in somebody else. Since a hallucination exists only in this subjective, personal sense, it is obvious that others cannot witness it.
The New Testament documents say that plenty of others claimed to see Jesus alive in separate events. Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene, to the disciples minus Thomas, to the disciples including Thomas, to the two disciples at Emmaus, to the fishermen on the shore, to James, and even to five hundred people at once, as Paul wrote, “most of whom are still alive.”
Paul wanted the Corinthians, who doubted bodily resurrection, to check out his claim—meaning, he wanted them to verify his account with some of those hundreds who saw Jesus alive—stressing the trustworthiness of the appearance. The witnesses were available for cross-examination by those who wanted to stop this new movement in its tracks. To try and find another event like this in history, where there are groups of people seeing the same thing, there are just no credible examples. Five hundred separate “Elvis sightings may be dismissed, but if five hundred simple fishermen in Maine saw, touched and talked with him at once, in the same town, that would be a different matter,” the Handbook of Christian Apologetics mentions.
Arguing against these points, skeptic Chris Hallquist of Patheos.com, claims that there are examples of mass hallucinations that could account for the appearances of Christ:
First of all, we know that hallucinations, false memories, and so on seem to be an important source of religious and paranormal beliefs. This is something I pointed out in my first book, focusing on the example of ‘alien abductees.’ The short of it is that there are many people in the US today who, as far as anyone can tell, sincerely believe they have been abducted by space aliens. They aren’t all lone psychiatric patients; there are organizations for these people.
Those who claim to have been abducted by aliens experienced unique, personal events specific to the individual. This doesn’t rival the appearance of Christ to several hundred people over a period of forty days. As far as we know, there is no bona fide record of five hundred people being abducted by aliens all at once. Also, it seems that alien abduction records would be similar from person to person due to the expectations of aliens our culture has, but this can’t compare to the disciples who had no expectation of Jesus’ physical, bodily resurrection—this was out of their paradigm.
Still, German New Testament Scholar, Gerd Ludemann, justifies his belief in the Hallucination Theory by using Carl Jung’s collective unconscious hypothesis, an analytical-psychological term which is based on Jung’s experiences with schizophrenic persons while working at a psychiatric hospital. It’s what you might call a contagious vision, a theory that claims part of the unconscious mind is shared by a people, a product of ancestral experience, and contains ideas in science, religion, and morality.
“Surely a historical study of the resurrection of Jesus or the belief of individual Christians that they ‘saw’ Jesus after his death has to be supplemented by the enhanced understanding of the human mind and personality that modern psychology has afforded us,” Ludemann said. “This is nothing but an application of new knowledge.”
This “new knowledge” would have us believe that these particular Jews experienced a hallucination so powerful that they rejected their ancient belief system, something this collective unconscious experience is supposed to strengthen. Even if you thought all the disciples suffered from some mental illness that caused them to see the exact same thing, there is insufficient data to psychoanalyze key witnesses to these events. That is why this kind of psycho-biography is rejected by historians.
Other skeptics continue to insist the resurrection was a mass hallucination by using examples like the Salem Witch Trials, where more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft by paranoid citizens, or the audience’s reaction to the 1938 War of the Worlds radio show.
This broadcast was a hoax, but not everyone heard the introduction to the radio show explaining this fact. Tuning in later, some believed the story was true, and a few started hallucinating sounds or objects in the sky. However, historians claim that newspaper accounts over the following week greatly exaggerated the hysteria.
So, unlike the War of the Worlds incident or the Salem Witch Trials, the resurrection sightings were not due to mass hysteria-caused hallucinations. Most medical professionals note that when there is a perceived public safety threat, panic can break out and an episode of psychogenic illness can affect people where they see strange things.
Mass hysteria is primarily fear-based, but seeing the resurrected Jesus wasn’t. If anything, it was more doubt-based.Hallucinations often occur out of a deep desire of the bereaved to see someone again, but this was not the case for the disciples. The disciples certainly didn’t think a bodily resurrection was possible. They didn’t understand what Jesus was trying to tell them about his death and resurrection. “The last thing they imagined was that this Kingdom bringer, this Jesus they were coming to believe might be God’s Messiah, would actually die at the hands of the pagan occupying forces,” states Anglican bishop and a leading New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright.
Wright explains that the Jewish belief system did not account for a bodily resurrection of anyone before the end of the age (or the world). Jesus’ death dashed all the disciple’ hopes, and they were feeling lucky to have escaped with their lives. The furthest thing from their minds was that they’d see Jesus alive again, and actually sit down and eat with him.
As mentioned above, the furthest thing from Paul’s mind was that he’d see the resurrected Christ. Before his conversion, Paul, then known as Saul the Pharisee who participated in the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:58), hated Christians, thought they were heretics, and was bent on destroying them. Jesus would have been the last person Paul would have wanted to see. (Hallucinations typically are produced from a yearning to see someone again.
A transformation also occurred in James, the brother of Jesus, who previously thought Jesus was simply confused about being the Messiah. Yet both of these men were radically converted into believers upon seeing Jesus resurrected to the point they were both martyred for their belief. In fact, historians wrote that eventually ten apostles were killed for preaching the risen Christ. If these men had hallucinated the physical resurrection of Jesus’ body, knowing the difference between a vision and a real person, and faced with death, wouldn’t they have recanted to save their own lives?
Skeptics say Osama Bin Laden trained terrorists to die on 9/11 for a cause they believed in, so perhaps the disciples were of the same mindset. However, these extremists were trained from childhood in a culture that promoted such sacrifice. The disciples were converted to Christianity as adults, and they weren’t indoctrinated to be martyrs for Jesus. As Paul Little wrote, “Men will die for what they believe to be true, though it may actually be false. They do not, however, die for what they know is a lie.”
Jesus’ disciples witnessed the resurrection events directly and genuinely believed that their leader was alive. Bin Laden’s terrorists rode on faith alone, not knowing if what they believed was true or not. The apostles had their beliefs in faith and by experience—they witnessed it, and knew it was not a lie.
When these evidences are established, skeptics resort to denying the credibility of the biblical texts themselves. Because of perceived inconsistencies in the gospel accounts, they aren’t convinced that every appearance of Jesus took place. “It is perfectly reasonable for skeptics to regard all the appearance stories as legendary accretions, but if we do concede that some of the disciples experienced an ‘appearance,’ there is no reason they could not have been hallucinations or visions,” states skeptic Keith M. Parsons.
However, there were plenty of people then who would have tried to refute these appearance claims. “The New Testament accounts of the resurrection were being circulated within the lifetimes of men and women alive at the time of the resurrection,” Josh McDowell asserts. “Those people could certainly have confirmed or denied the accuracy of such accounts.”
Regarding the accuracy of the gospels, the New Testament documents are the best attested documents of ancient history, as there are historical methods for assessing the reliability of classical texts by which the Bible has been reviewed.
The Empty Tomb and Missing Corpse
Lastly, there is the empty tomb and missing corpse that the Hallucination Theory can’t adequately explain. Jesus had plenty of enemies with huge incentives who would have loved nothing better than to have produced his corpse, stopping all claims of his resurrection. But the tomb was discovered empty, and there is no record of his corpse ever being found.
The fact that history remains silent on this speaks volumes. It’s assumed if such a find did happen, there certainly would have been records of it. Having Jesus’ bones would have been customary in ancient Israel, as explained in the burial practices of a particular Jewish tradition:
First, you carefully wrapped up the body with spices and linen and placed it on a shelf in a cave. Then, when the flesh had decomposed–hence the spices because of the smell, since the cave would be used for more than one corpse–you would collect the bones, fold them up reverently, and store them in a bone box (an ossuary). If Jesus had not been raised, then sooner or later someone would have had to go and collect his bones, fold them up, and store them. If anyone suggested that he had been raised from the dead, the bones in the tomb would be enough to disprove the suggestion.
Wright explained that the disciples knew the difference between seeing a ghost (a hallucination) and a real body, and without an empty tomb, they would have used different language; they would not have used the term “resurrected” in their testimonies.
Legal scholar John Warwick Montgomery asserts: “It passes the bounds of credibility that the early Christians could have manufactured such a tale and then preached it among those who might easily have refuted it simply by producing the body of Jesus.”
From this small band of fishermen, Pharisees and women, came the start of the Christian Church which today has more followers than any religion on the planet, and continues to grow. Considering the facts, it’s unconvincing to think the resurrection, the event foundational to this thriving religion, is based on a figment of the imagination. A hallucination simply does not give an adequate explanation for how so many people saw Jesus alive after his death on the cross, how the appearances lasted forty days and then suddenly stopped, the empty tomb and missing corpse, how this event transformed the apostles’ lives to the point of martyrdom, and lastly, how a church movement started that changed the world. Even Jesus himself said in Luke 24:39, “See My hands and My feet, that it is I myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
If you dismiss the assumption that miracles don’t happen, after careful examination of the facts, you’re left with only one reasonable conclusion: a supernatural event occurred over two thousand years ago when God raised Jesus from the dead—a phenomenon that radically transformed what we know about life and death.
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