The Resurrection: A Hallucination?

Where would Christianity be without the resurrection of Jesus?  Absolutely nowhere.

After the death of Jesus, his followers probably would have just faded away from the scene, hoping to avoid arrest; eventually they would have gone back to their jobs and tried to survive the infamy of the man with whom they had been whom associated. Yet because of the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples became different men, willing to die for a message they were compelled to spread.  The resurrection of Jesus is the lynchpin of two thousand years’ worth of the Christian worldview. Even in Christianity’s infancy, the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 15:16-19,

For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied (NIV).

Many people have tried to present theories disproving the resurrection of Jesus. One popular theory recently is the hallucination theory. According to this theory, Peter, James, John, the 500, and anyone else who claimed to have seen Jesus were experiencing a hallucination of him. However, the hallucination theory doesn’t account for the evidence. In this post, I will outline several reasons why the hallucination theory is flawed.

Group Hallucinations Are Not Possible

Richard Carrier, a prominent and articulate atheist philosopher, sums up the hallucination theory best:

I believe the best explanation, consistent with both scientific findings and the surviving evidence…is that the first Christians experienced hallucinations of the risen Christ, of one form or another…

To get a better idea of what Mr. Carrier is claiming, let us define what a hallucination is. Psychologists define a hallucination as

the perception of an object or event (in any of the 5 senses) in the absence of an external stimulus.

Atheists like Carrier have argued that group hallucinations are possible due to the power of suggestion. A commonly cited example of a group hallucination is the 70,000 people who went to see the Virgin Mary at Fatima. For this pilgrimage, as well as for many others, Gary Habermas points out, that these

…pilgrims expressly traveled long distances, exuberantly gathering with the explicit desire to see something special.

They already had in mind what they hoped to see, and they were zealous enough to travel long distances to have a chance at such an experience. However, there is no way to prove that they all saw the same thing or that what they saw was of supernatural origin. As Habermas says,

Even if it could be established that groups of people witnessed hallucinations, it is critical to note that it does not at all follow that these experiences were therefore collective.

Gary Collins, a clinical psychologist, explains:

Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see any 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.

So the example of this collective experience at Fatima is actually a poor example of a group hallucination, since we have established that group hallucinations are not possible.

We know, though, from the Gospel accounts, as well as extra-biblical sources that people saw Jesus, not just individually, but in group situations as well. Compare the disciples with the expectant pilgrims mentioned above. The disciples were in a state of shock and grief. They were not hopeful. They were not expecting to see anything because they had just seen Jesus cruelly beaten and crucified. They watched him draw his last breath, and some of them had witnessed Jesus’ body being put in the tomb. There would be absolutely no reason then, to seek out or experience a living Jesus. His appearance to them came unexpectedly.

Citing examples from the Gospels,

  • Jesus appeared to the disciples in a locked room (Jn 20:19-31),
  • to the two men on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24: 13-35),
  • and to a group of them fishing (Jn 21).

Paul later writes that Jesus

…appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living… (1 Cor. 15:6).

It would seem that instead of people making pilgrimages to a holy place hoping to see something or experience something that they already had in mind, Jesus was appearing to people in unexpected places and at unexpected times. They were of different genders, occupations, and in different frames of mind. This doesn’t meet the criteria for the possibility of a hallucination.

Hallucinations Do Not Have External Stimuli

Another flaw in the hallucination theory is the physicality of Jesus’ appearances to the disciples after the resurrection. The established definition of a hallucination requires the absence of external stimuli. According to several eyewitness accounts, Jesus apparently occupied time and space. Take the disciple, Thomas, who seemed to think the others were all seeing things as he said,

Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it. (Jn 20:25).

Soon thereafter, Jesus did appear to him and invited Thomas to touch him. Thomas believed because he could touch the nail holes in Jesus’ hands. Jesus also appeared to the disciples when they were fishing. He was on the shore, built a fire and made them breakfast (Jn 21). It should be obvious that a perception of your mind cannot make you and several friends breakfast.

Even if, for the sake of the argument, we take the gospels to be unreliable, and look only at Paul’s conversion experience, the hallucination theory can easily be ruled out due to the external stimuli involved in his event. In their haste to use the example of Paul’s conversion as a hallucination, skeptics forget about the people who were with Paul during this dramatic occurrence.

Acts 9:7 says,

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone”.

In Acts 22:9, Paul recounts,

My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me”.

From these verses we learn that the men with Paul experienced Jesus’ appearance to some degree by sight and sound even though they did not understand the words. This did not just happen in Paul’s mind.

Hallucinations Do Not Account for Paul’s Conversion

Yet another flaw in the hallucination theory is the dramatic change in the life of Paul after his encounter with the Risen Jesus. From the information we have of Saul (which was Paul’s name before his conversion experience), it would seem he was not in the frame of mind to see Jesus in a hallucination as he did not think that Jesus had risen from the dead.

In fact, he was zealously tracking down those who did believe in Jesus’ resurrection as Jewish heretics and Gentile troublemakers. He had a position of authority as a Pharisee, and not only was he Jewish, a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” but was born a Roman citizen as well. He had confidence in who he was, and he had meaning and purpose. Why would a hallucination, even a traumatic one, cause him to abandon the good life? If this experience was just a product of his mind on a long desert road, why would he spend the rest of his life enduring beatings, whippings, stoning, shipwrecks, starvation, imprisonment and ultimately execution based on that hallucination?

Nicholas Covington, in his article “Jesus’ Resurrection and Mass Hallucinations”, suggests that maybe Paul’s conversion was due to the fact that he was possibly epileptic. He says:

According to Dr. D. Landsborough, there is a personality type which occurs more frequently in epileptic individuals: “This personality structure includes increased concern with philosophical, moral and religious issues; increased and extensive writing on religious or philosophical themes, lengthy letters, diaries, poetry; diminution of sexual activity; aggressiveness. Paul’s personality would seem to bear some resemblance to this description.”

There are two immediate problems with this argument. The first is that the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Covington’s argument is that

(1) There is a personality type “E” that occurs in some epileptic individuals;
(2) Paul’s personality resembled type E;
(3) Therefore, Paul was an epileptic.

An argument with a similar structure might be:

(1) Apples are fruits;
(2) Oranges are fruits;
(3) Therefore, oranges are apples.

In both examples, the conclusion does not follow from the premises.From the limited information in Scripture, Paul’s personality traits could be interpreted in multiple ways.

The second problem with the above argument is that it in no way establishes that Paul saw a hallucination. Covington seems to be insinuating that if Paul had epilepsy, his conversion experience must have been a hallucination; and again, that logic is fallacious.
Others such as Gerd Ludemann claim that Paul had a guilt complex due to his persecuting the Christians. Mr. Ludemann, however, is committing the ad hoc fallacy here. There is just no actual indication that was the case. One can only conjecture what Paul might have felt like after putting oneself in his situation. In order to determine Paul’s state of mind, psychoanalysis would have to be done. But, as William Lane Craig puts it,

psychoanalysis is difficult enough to carry out even with patients on the psychoanalyst’s couch, so to speak, but it is next to impossible with historical figures. It is for that reason that the genre of psychobiography is rejected today.

The Empty Tomb

Even if the above arguments could account for Paul’s experience being a hallucination, it does not account for the empty tomb. Paul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus happened several months to years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. We know this because the Church had grown enough that Paul had to travel to carry out his persecution of this growing phenomenon. All someone had to do was go to the tomb at any time and produce the rotting bones of Jesus to prove that the disciples and/or Paul were hallucinating. Most scholars today agree that the tomb was empty, but they have various ideas to explain how that came to be. My point here is that the hallucination theory cannot be plausible because it cannot account for the empty tomb.

Conclusion

In summary then, though the hallucination theory is a popular argument given to explain the resurrection of Jesus, it is maybe not the most sound. We learned that hallucinations, by nature, are individual experiences that happen in the mind and there is a lack of external stimuli. However, the people who saw Jesus, for the most part, were in groups and experienced the same event. They also interacted with him by touching him, eating food that he had prepared for them and warming themselves by a fire he had built. Later, after the ascension of Jesus, Paul was with people when he saw Jesus, and they experienced a bright light and loud undecipherable sound. All of these external stimuli would seem to disqualify these experiences from being hallucinations.

Also, we learned that Paul’s life was completely and radically changed by his experience of Jesus appearing to him, and he dedicated his entire life to telling people about something he had previously zealously tried to destroy. One of the attempts at explaining his Damascus Road experience was that maybe he had epilepsy, or a guilt complex; both arguments were shown to be lacking in evidence. And finally, there is that empty tomb to account for. If all these people were hallucinating, Jesus’ body would still have been in the grave decomposing. All in all, the hallucination theory seems to be a flawed attempt at explaining the resurrection of Jesus Christ.