Could Jesus’ appearances after His Resurrection be explained away as mere hallucinations?

The one event that has most shaped and changed world history, religion, and morality is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The understanding and ramifications of the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead has transformed the lives of billions of people. One of the key factors contributing to belief in the resurrection of Jesus was the witness of his closest disciples seeing his resurrected body. Critics have tried to explain away this key evidence by asserting that all sightings of the resurrected Christ were mere hallucinations. The contention that hallucinations can explain away evidence for seeing the resurrected Jesus by over five hundred individuals can be positively challenged and refuted based on the nature & characteristics of hallucinations, compared to what the disciples of Jesus really experienced.

Witnesses of Resurrection: A Key Factor

Witnesses play a significant role in today’s society. Whether it is at a car accident, a wedding, or a crime scene, a witness is one of the most precious elements. Witnesses legitimize and highlight historical events and facts surrounding them. Before photography and video, probably the most significant sources of historical facts and events were witnesses. When it comes to the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, there are more witnesses to that event than most other events that have occurred in that time period. Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, were the first to witness the resurrected Jesus (Mark 16). Peter, who publicly betrayed Jesus several days prior, saw Jesus. Two former disciples, walking on the way to Emmaus, witnessed a long appearance of Christ. Jesus’ half-brother James, who initially did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah, became a believer when he witnessed the resurrected Christ. Thomas, who refused to believe based on his friends’ testimonies, finally saw Jesus and believed. When it comes to the appearances of Jesus after his death, he appeared to individuals and to groups of people; to family members and to his disciples; to Jews, to Romans and to other gentiles; to those whom followed him and to those who were hostile to him. There was no lack of witnesses to the resurrection to take the claim of the resurrection seriously. 

Hallucinations Hypothesis

Because of the improbability of resurrection, along with a vast number of witnesses to the resurrection and the impending implications if Jesus truly did rise from the dead, much work has been done to look for other explanations. Right after Jesus resurrected from the dead, Herod pushed the idea that Jesus’ disciples came and “stole him away while the guards were asleep.”[1] Others have pushed the idea that Jesus never actually died, but possibly someone else died instead. One Gnostic idea was that it was “Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross, was ignorantly crucified in his place.”[2] Another common explanation used throughout history and has become popular today is the Hallucination Hypothesis. 

The Hallucination Hypothesis is the idea that Jesus did not rise from the dead, but that his followers simply hallucinated his appearance and therefore claimed his resurrection. David Strauss first popularized the theory in 1879, when he published two volumes called, “A New Life of Jesus.”[3] Another scholar who has promoted the Hallucination Hypothesis recently is Gerd Ludemann, a member of the “Jesus Seminar.” In his book, What Really Happened to Jesus, he outlines how all the mentioned witnesses must have had a “chain reaction” of seeing a light or an appearance, with auditory features that produced a “religious intoxication.” Ludemann says these appearances were collective, leading up to a “mass ecstasy.”[4] Writing about Peter, Ludemann says he “was so consumed with guilt that he found psychological release in projecting a vision of Jesus, which led him to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead.”[5] Another scholar, Jack Kent, describes what happened to some of the individuals like Paul and James, the brother of Jesus, as “normal, grief-related hallucinations.”[6] Ludemann, Kent, Stauss and many other scholars like them would describe what happened to the over five hundred individuals who claimed to have seen Jesus after his death as people who received subjective visions, either caused by grief, guilt, or group enthusiasm and experienced a chain reaction of hallucinations. 

Could it be that billions of followers of Christianity are dedicated to a faith whose Messiah actually died and never rose again, and five hundred people were so overcome with grief and hope that they began to see subjective visions of him? Could it be that none of the witnesses never actually saw a resurrected Jesus, rather all just witnessed a hallucination instead? When one seeks for a response to such a hypothesis, they can determine that the hallucinations suggestion is a weak explanation, and built upon wishful and unrealistic suppositions of what is known of hallucinations today. Below is a short overview of five objections to the hallucination theory. 

Objection One: Length of Time

According to the witnesses who saw the resurrected Jesus, He appeared often during a period of 40 days, sometimes just for couple minutes, other times for hours at a time. However, according to Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, “Hallucinations usually last a few seconds or minutes; rarely hours.”[7] But Jesus would appear for much longer periods of time, during a span of 40 days. For example, in one episode, Jesus came alongside two disciples who were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and walked with them for up to 7 miles. While walking, he talked with them, taught them, and explained Old Testament scriptures to them (Luke 24:13-35). This probably lasted up to two or three hours, which is contrary to how long a typical hallucination lasts. 

At another time, Jesus appeared to the disciples in the morning while they were finishing up fishing, and encouraged them to go back fishing, promising them that they would have better luck, for they had fished all night and did not catch anything. They tried again, were successful, and pulled in lots of fish. While the disciples were in their second fishing attempt, Jesus prepared breakfast for them, and they ate together. Afterwards, Jesus had a private, one on one conversation with Peter about his dedication to His mission (John 21:15). Based on everything we know that happened that morning, this appearance of Jesus lasted at least several hours.

In all likelihood, these several examples of Jesus appearing for a prolonged periods of time were not all extraordinary, rare hallucinations, all seeming to be happening at the same time to the same individuals. These episodes paint a picture that Jesus’ appearances were real and authentic, and not sporadic bursts of subjective visions. These appearances did not last a few seconds or only minutes, as what normal hallucinations are like.  Therefore, based on the length of the appearances, one can safely assume the appearances of Jesus were real, not hallucinated. 

Objection Two: Group Hallucinations

The second objection to the hallucination theory is the fact that hallucinations, by their nature, happen to an individual, while Jesus’ appearances most often happened to at least several people together, including up to 500 people at once. Dr. Gary Collins teaches: 

Hallucinations are individual occurrences. 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.[8]

According to witnesses, during one of Jesus’ appearances, he appeared to his disciples, approached Thomas and asked Thomas to put his hands in Jesus’ wounds. If this was something that was hallucinated, Thomas would have had to have that hallucination, as well as all the other disciples present, and their hallucinations would have had to been exactly the same. That is not the nature of hallucinations. The appearance of Jesus to Thomas and the disciples was real, and by all accounts, not hallucinated. 

In another similar episode, Jesus appeared to 500 witnesses at once (1 Corinthians 15:6), and shared a very distinct message and memorable last words. For all 500 people to hallucinate the same appearance and hear the same verbiage at the same time is not feasible, and not characteristics of hallucinations. Either 500 witnesses lied, or it was not a hallucination. It would be more impossible to try to prove that 500 individuals saw a hallucination at the same time at the same place, than 500 individuals seeing it at different times and at different locations. 

Authors Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli compare it to the probability of Elvis Presley appearing after his death to one neighborhood. “Five hundred 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.”[9] The fact that 500 individuals saw an appearance of Jesus and heard him should automatically put in serious doubt the hallucination hypothesis. 

Apostle Paul, who was a fierce critic of those who believed in the resurrection of Jesus, after his conversion, wrote a letter to the Corinthian church. In it, he states that most of the five hundred witnesses are “still alive today,”[10] inviting any reader to check the truth of the story of the appearance of Jesus by questioning the eyewitnesses. Paul certainly had many former friends, active Pharisees and skeptics who could easily have followed up on Paul’s offer, and question the witnesses. But as authors Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli put it, “even three different witnesses are enough for a kind of psychological trigonometry”[11] to know that the hallucination explanation would not stand, if challenged. Jesus appeared to too many groups of people at once, therefore eliminating the notion that these appearances were hallucinated, since hallucinations only happen to individuals, not groups of people. 

Objection Three: The Mental Status of Witnesses

The third objection to the hallucination theory centers around the type of people who witnessed an appearance of Christ. According the National Health Service (NHS) of England, people who experience hallucinations are most often individuals with schizophrenia, or can occur to people as a result of taking drugs or alcohol, having a mental illness, or having a progressive neurological condition (such as Alzheimers).[12] But when one looks at the known and documented individuals who witnessed an appearance of Jesus, there is no evidence that any of them were taking drugs or were a group of people with schizophrenia, or having other common traits of individuals who experience hallucinations. The five hundred witnesses included women and men, people of different economic status, people of different ethnic backgrounds and many other types of people. 

One of the key followers of Jesus’ teaching was a doctor by the name of Luke. He made a careful investigation of the life of Christ (Luke 1:2-3) and documented it in what is known today as the Gospel of Luke. If there were any medical abnormalities in the individuals whom witnessed Christ, he would have indicated it in his detailed writings. Doctor Luke got to know, interview, and even do life together with individuals who had witnessed the resurrection. His writings again lead away from any evidence that the individuals who witnessed the resurrection did so as hallucinations.

Objections Four & Five: Unexplained Evidence

The fourth objection to the hallucination theory is that if one were to believe that all the witnesses hallucinated Jesus’ appearances, it would still leave many major gaps & unanswered questions. As pointed out by Kreeft and Tacelli in the Handbook of Catholic Apologetics, hallucinations “do not not explain the empty tomb, rolled away stone, or the inability to present the corpse.”[13] In other words, if the body of Jesus was still in the tomb while his followers were seeing his appearances, there would definite doubts and clear questions to their authenticity. But, the body is still missing to this day and the tomb is still empty.  

The fifth objection, people who experience a hallucination do not typically give the rest of their lives defending their experience as though it was physically real, and not just inside their mind. The disciples of Jesus knew it could not be explained away as a hallucination. According to NHS, hallucinations “are where someone sees, hears, smells, tastes or feels things that don’t exist outside their mind.”[14] And when the hallucinations end, the individuals can then able to be “talked out of them when they are presented with contrary evidence.”[15] 

History shows many attempts were made by Pharisees, the Romans, and other groups to convince Jesus’ disciples that they were wrong. Many of the attempts included bribes, threats, persecution, deaths by hanging or being devoured by lions, and other intimidation and bullying tactics. But none of the witnesses could be talked out of the idea that their experience might have just happened only in their mind. These disciples gave the rest of their life witnessing and proclaiming what they saw, changing their careers, and even moving to different regions of the known world so that they can proclaim the news that Jesus was alive. 

Conclusion

With advancements in medicine and our understanding of the human body, what scientists know today of hallucinations is much richer and fuller than ever before. Hallucinations are not prolonged for several hours or days; hallucinations are individual in nature, and not experienced as a group. Hallucinations are typically experienced by individuals with signs of schizophrenia or are related to drug and alcohol use. And post hallucination, with proper care, an individual can easily recognize that what they heard or saw was not natural, and only happened in their mind. In light of what is known today of hallucinations, one can attest that what the disciples of Jesus and five hundred other individuals witnessed was not merely hallucinations, but real appearances of Jesus who had come back from the dead and was alive. These appearances and message of Jesus changed their life to such a degree, that they believed He was the Messiah & God, and they gave they rest of their life to follow His teaching and way of life. Explaining “away” the appearances of Jesus as mere hallucinations and subjective visions is ineffectual. 

References


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 28:13). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[2]   Ferguson, Everett. Church History, Volume One: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation: 1 (p. 95). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.

[3] “Compelling Truth. The Hallucination Theory – What is it?” Retrieved from https://www.compellingtruth.org/hallucination-theory.html (accessed September 25th, 2020).

[4] Ludemann, The Resurrection of Jesus, 50, 37; cf. What Really Happened to Jesus, 106-107, 174-175.

[5] Craig, William Lane. “Visions of Jesus: A Critical Assessment of Gerd Lüdemann’s Hallucination Hypothesis.” Reasonable Faith with William Lane Craig. Retrieved from https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/scholarly-writings/historical-jesus/visions-of-jesus-a-critical-assessment-of-gerd-ludemanns-hallucination-hypo/ (accessed September 25th, 2020).

[6] Jack Kent, The Psychological Origins of the Resurrection Myth (London: Open Gate, 1999). 

[7] Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 186

[8] Prepared Defense 2.2, s.v. “Hallucinations” (Clay Jones, 2014), quoted from Gary Habermas, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 50.

[9]  Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 187

[10] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Co 15:6). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[11] Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 186

[12] “Hallucinations and Hearing Voices.” National Health Service, 5 February 2019, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hallucinations/ (accessed September 25th, 2020).

[13] Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 186

[14] “Hallucinations and Hearing Voices.” National Health Service, 5 February 2019, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/hallucinations/ (accessed September 25th, 2020).

[15] Prepared Defense 2.2, s.v. “Hallucinations” (Clay Jones, 2014), quoted in Gary Habermas, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 50.

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