Did the disciples hallucinate Jesus’ resurrection appearances?

The death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the central theme on which Christian theology hinges. Scholars have thoroughly investigated the historicity of the resurrection claims and also the credibility of the testimonies of the post-mortem appearances of Jesus Christ. While the New Testament authors and Christians throughout the ages regarded Jesus’ resurrection as the stamp of God’s approval on Christ (Acts 2:22-24), skeptics have formulated various naturalistic alternative hypotheses in an attempt to prove these reported sightings as a mere hoax, deception or figment. Today’s most popular naturalistic hypothesis attempts to explain away the credibility of the resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ as no more than hallucinations. But, the hallucination hypothesis fails to account for the disciples’ testimony to the risen Jesus.

The term “hallucination” is commonly understood as “a false sensory perception that has the compelling sense of reality despite the absence of an external stimulus.” [1] William Lane Craig describes it as a “nonveridical vision. It is an appearance to its percipient that has no extramental correlate and is a projection of the percipient’s own brain. It is therefore purely subjective and corresponds to no reality.” [2] It is through this lens many critics see and interpret Jesus’ resurrection appearances, and argue that the Christian Church is founded upon a pathological experience of certain persons in the first century.

Arguments in Contemporary Debates

No one argues more fervently for the hallucination hypothesis than Gerd Lüdemann. Lüdemann claims that his proposal can be applied to all the protagonists, both individuals and groups, who claimed to have witnessed the resurrected Christ. He argues that the word ophthe as used by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:3—“and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve”— denotes that Paul and the other apostles had an “active sensual perception” of Jesus’ resurrection, devoid of any physical attributes. [3] Lüdemann argues that this vision generated enthusiasm and stimulus to the point of ecstasy, which was later communicated to the other followers by the way of “an incomparable chain reaction,” resulted in subjective visions among masses. [4]

Similarly, Jack Kent draws two different hypotheses to explain the post-mortem appearances of Jesus. First, he argues that the disciples, including the women, experienced a grief-related hallucination. Second, he points out that Paul might have gone through some kind of conflict or turmoil within himself because of his role in the death of Stephen and in the persecution of the followers of Jesus. This conflict resulted in a “conversion disorder,” and eventually his delusion on the road to Damascus. [5] On a similar tone, New Testament scholar Michael Goulder hypothesizes that Peter, Paul and some of the other disciples had “conversion visions” resulting from great stress, guilt and self-doubt. [6] Having denied and deserted their Master, these visions provided them with solace and also a new perspective to life, a complete turnaround leading them to make commitments even to the point of martyrdom. [7]

Responding to the Critics

One assumption common in the above arguments against the resurrection appearances is that there were certain favorable conditions present for hallucination to occur. However, this assumption is greatly disputed since much of the record in the New Testament does not describe the necessary conditions for hallucinations, rather provide evidences against it. Concerning the mass appearances, psychologists agree that in comparison to individual hallucination the probability of mass hallucination is extremely unlikely. By nature they are highly subjective, private and communicable only in a controlled environment. They are restricted in terms of when and where they occur. [8]

Neither is it possible that one person could somehow induce a hallucination in another person. Since a hallucination exists only in this subjective sense, it is obvious that others cannot witness or share it. [9] What we know from the scripture is that, the post-resurrection appearances were not limited to persons of any specific psychological frame, location or time. Lüdemann fails to explain how these appearances could possibly be subjective while the content of their experiences did not differ from each other in many occasions. The explanatory power of the hallucination theory is limited to individual incidents; it fails to explain the diversity found in the resurrection experiences.

We also find that the “emotional excitement” and “expectation” required for hallucinations were clearly lacking among the disciples. [10] The followers had recently witnessed an unexpected and gruesome death of their Master on whom they had vested their hope. This could only generate opposite emotions like fear, disappointment and despair; qualities that are not conducive for the occurrence of hallucination. On the other hand, contrary to what Kent and Goulder have proposed, there is no indication that Paul was guilt and grief-stricken. His frame of mind does not form any basis for hallucination. Paul’s sudden conversion indeed points us to an encounter that was real and one that made him an apologist for the same Christian faith he had once fought against. During his debate with Dr. Habermas, philosopher Antony Flew admitted that:

The evidence of Paul is certainly important, and strong, precisely because he was a convert. He was not a prior believer, he was not an apostle, and the evidence that he hadn’t been previously a believer is about as clear as it could have been because he had been an active opponent. I think this has to be accepted as one of the most powerful bits of evidence that there is, precisely because he was converted by his vision. The nature of which I think is obscure. But still, he was effectively converted by this from being an active opponent of the Christian movement. [11]

But, alleging that the apostles encountered some sort of disorder is nothing more than ignoring the facts as presented in the Gospels. There is no explanation among skeptics on how so many different factors, both physical and psychological, can be the result of a hallucination. Basing the hypothesis on imaginative conjectures about the disciples’ psychological state only shows that this theory lacks plausibility.

Empty Tomb: The Achilles’ Heel of Hallucination Hypothesis

The hallucination hypothesis has one more problem to explain—the empty tomb. [12] If Jesus was not resurrected bodily, it would have been reasonable to present his body to disprove the disciples’ testimony. Lüdemann, considers the claim of empty tomb to be “an apologetic legend,” [13] and bases his skepticism on pure assumptions. First, he speculates that the only primary source for the empty tomb is found in Mark’s gospel, which according to him points to a later invention. Here Lüdemann is wrong as he fails to acknowledge the independent attestations found in Matthew and John and also in the Acts of the Apostles. [14]

Second, Lüdemann assumes that after Jesus was arrested, the disciples fled back to Galilee and made up the story of women discovering the empty tomb. [15] If it is true, then why could not they account the discovery of the empty tomb by male disciples, who according to their contemporary Jewish culture would be recognized as the only valid witnesses.

Third, he assumes that the Jewish authorities might have disposed Jesus’ corpse and later suffered a collective amnesia not knowing what they have done with the body. [16] This assumption that they forgot about the whereabouts of Jesus’ body is less than convincing, instead it begs the question –what would result in such a collective amnesia? The reasons presented by Lüdemann for denying the empty tomb are based on pure assumptions which are utterly dubious.

The disciples preached the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and if they were fabricating the story it would have been much easier for them to accept the visionary appearances of the dead instead of claiming the bodily appearances. The body of the risen Christ could be touched and seen, but in some indescribable way it was different. C.S. Lewis states that if the whole story was an invention, it is the oddest invention that ever entered the mind of man, that on three occasions (Lk 24:13-31; Jn 20:15; 21:4) this hallucination was not immediately recognized as Jesus. [17]

John Warwick Montgomery points out that “[h]ad anything, even a deluded state of mind, caused the disciples to distort Jesus’ biography, the hostile witnesses would surely have used that against them.” [18] He points out that no “evidence exists to support a picture of psychologically aberrant disciples, while tremendously powerful testimonial evidence exists to the effect that Jesus physically rose from the dead.” [19] The explanatory scope of the hallucination hypothesis is too narrow; it fails to address the historical argument for the bodily resurrection; instead begs for another naturalistic hypothesis to explain it.

The Mind’s Framework

One of the strongest arguments in support of the resurrection appearances is that, if Jesus’ appearances were mere hallucinations, they would not contain anything that was not already in the followers’ minds; for hallucinations are mere projections of the mind. [20] On the contrary, what we see is that all the post-mortem appearances differed from the Jewish framework of beliefs in the afterlife. They had a concept of general resurrection taking place at the end of the world, outside the space-time universe; whereas, Jesus’ resurrection involved the resurrection of an individual within history.

Given these Jewish categories of thinking, if the disciples hallucinated the appearances of Jesus, they probably would have transported Jesus into Abraham’s bosom (Paradise), where Jews believed the soul of the departed righteous went until the general resurrection. God in His wisdom raised Jesus up against the theological construct of the Jewish people and left the critics without any argument to explain the presence of the incongruity between the vision and the established belief system. Thus, hallucination does not qualify as the best hypothesis as it fails to accord with accepted beliefs and forces us to abandon them.

One thing we need to notice is that the disciples were all educated and informed in their customs and traditions. [21] Regarding Luke, Wilbur Smith writes that he was a man accustomed to scientifically considering any subject that he is studying. Luke specifies in the Acts of the Apostles, that the Lord showed Himself alive after His Passion “by many infallible proofs,” or more literally, “in many proofs.” [22] Had there been any deception it would not likely escape Luke’s investigative mind.

Not finding any convincing response against the above arguments some critics dismiss the resurrection simply because it is miraculous, thus throwing the whole issue back to whether miracles are possible. They argue as Hume did, that any other explanation is always more probable than a miracle. [23] While it is true that the resurrection of Christ was a miraculous event, it was also a historical event supported by impressive evidences, which cannot be ignored or escaped from. We cannot put the resurrection merely in the category of a miracle and not consider its historicity; if we do then we are left with no explanation to support the various events that followed it, including the post-mortem appearances. This makes the hallucination hypothesis increasingly ad hoc in proportion to the number of additional assumptions it requires us to adopt. [24]

Further, these appearances were the reasons behind the disciples’ transformation and their commitment to the point of giving their lives. “That the disciples actually saw the risen Jesus bases their convictions of heaven on their foretaste of that reality, which they had personally witnessed.” [25] The strong reasons for supporting the disciples’ experiences of seeing Jesus in conjunction with the failure of alternative theses indicates that the only scenario possible is that the disciples actually saw the risen Jesus. It can be said confidently that the hallucination hypothesis has not demonstrated its clear superiority to rival theories.

We can conclude that the hallucination hypothesis does not do well when tested by any of the applied criteria. It is limited in its scope and power to provide plausible reasons against resurrection. We have to intentionally ignore and go against many of the accepted beliefs of the time to recognize it as a valid argument. Hallucination hypothesis also remains ad hoc and lacks credibility in confronting rival positions. William Lane Craig points out that, the only hope remaining for the proponents of hallucination hypothesis is that the resurrection hypothesis will fail even more miserably in meeting the same criteria; [26] which in my opinion cannot be accepted by someone who depends on rational analyses of historical facts. The disciples did indeed see the risen Christ.

[1] William Dembski and Michael Licona, Evidence for God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 177.

[2] Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli, Jesus’ Resurrection Fact or Fiction: A Debate Between William Lane Craig & Gerd Ludemann (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 188.

[3] Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 50.

[4] ibid, 106–7, 174–75.

[5] Jack Kent, The Psychological Origins of the Resurrection Myth (London: Open Gate, 1999) 6-11, 49-61,85-90.

[6] Michael Goulder, “The Baseless Fabric of a Vision,” 48-61, a briefer version was published as part of a debate with James Dunn in Resurrection, G. N. Stanton and S. Barton, eds. (London: SPCK, 1994), 58-68.

[7] ibid, 48-52.

[8] J. N. D. Anderson, “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ” in Christianity Today, March 29 1968, 4-9.

[9] Gary Habermas, Did Jesus Rise from the dead (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 50.

[10] Gary R. Habermas, “Explaining away Jesus’ Resurrection: Hallucination” in Christian Research Journal, Volume 23 / Number 4 / 2001 at http://www.equip.org/articles/explaining-away-jesus-resurrection-hallucination.

[11] Gary Habermas, Antony Flew debate in 2003 at Cal Poly http://www.veritas.org/media/talks/464 1:25:12.

[12] Dembski & Licona, Evidence for God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2010), 178.

[13] Gerd Lüdemann The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994),118

[14] Copan, Paul and Tacelli, K. Ronald Jesus’ Resurrection Fact or Fiction: A Debate Between William Lane Craig & Gerd Lüdemann (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 48

[15] Ibid, 175

[16] Ibid, 175

[17] C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 241.

[18] John Warwick Montgomery, Human Rights and Human Dignity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), 149.

[19] ibid, 152.

[20] Paul Copan, Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up? A Debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 62-63.

[21] Peter Kreeft, Evidence for the Resurrection of Christ at http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/resurrection-evidence.htm, accessed on 02/16/2012.

[22] Wilbur Smith, Therefore Stand: Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965), 400.

[23] Peter Kreeft & Ronald K. Tacelli Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 88.

[24] Paul Copan, Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up? A Debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 198.

[25] Francis J. Beckwith, William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, To Everyone An Answer: A Case For Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004),198.

[26] Paul Copan (2000), 199-200.