Monday, May 14, 2012

Did the disciples hallucinate the resurrected Jesus?

In the last three posts, we established three things. First, we established that Jesus was crucified, buried, and died. Second, I showed that the disciples claimed that Jesus was raised from the dead and that he had appeared to them. Third, I showed powerful evidences for why the vast majority of NT scholarship rejects the idea that the disciples lied about the resurrection.

The Visions/Hallucinations Theory

In this post, I will address an issue that is more controversial among scholars (indeed, if everything I said was non-controversial, then all scholars would be Christians!). The issue I will address is whether or not the appearances of Jesus are attributable to "visions" or hallucinations that the disciples of Jesus had after his death. After all, lots of people hallucinate dead loved ones during the grieving process. Perhaps this is a good explanation for the "appearances" of the resurrected Jesus? What is more, lots of religious people have "visions" where they see religious things, such as God or angels giving them messages. Perhaps the disciples just had a bunch of visions of Jesus which they mistakenly took to be a living human?

For scholars who reject resurrection, the two dominant trends are a agnosticism about the resurrection and the "visions" hypothesis with respect to the appearances. (1) Outspoken skeptical scholars seem to favor the visions theory.

The visions hypothesis isn't just one theory. Indeed, there are multiple ways of construing the visions/hallucination theory. One way is to say that the disciples experienced a mass hallucination, where the entire group had a hallucination/vision of Jesus on multiple occasions. This is posited because all of the principle texts on the appearances include group appearances. Some scholars, such as atheist historian Gerd L├╝demann, suggest a chain reaction of visionary experiences that were caused by grieving disciples. (1) He proposes that Peter had a hallucination/vision, which caused some of the other disciples to have visions as well. Others propose an "objective vision," where the vision of Jesus originates with God, but is not a physical or tangible person. (7) The evidences below provide good reasons against many of these theories.

1) Unfalsifiability 

Collective hallucinations are unfalsifiable. (1) Allowing for the possibility of collective hallucinations would cause us to question all visual reality, especially if we have less witnesses to something than the disciples had for the resurrected Jesus. (For example, if you and another friend go visit someone you know far away, how do you know that it is really that person and not a hallucination or "vision" of them?) No one actually believes in group hallucinations, except when discussing the resurrection of Jesus or other religious phenomena.

2) Lack of Psychological Evidence 

Collective hallucinations are rare or non-existent in psychological literature. Nevertheless, my friend and I did find a message board where someone reported a group hallucination with their friends while on drugs. However, it was a very simple hallucination (a bubble in the middle of the room) and they recognized it to be a group hallucination, instead of coming to believe the bubble existed.

Mike Licona, leading resurrection scholar, quotes a psychologist at Liberty University who is interested in learning about group hallucinations. He states:

"I have surveyed the professional literature (peer-reviewed journal articles and books) written by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other relevant healthcare professionals during the past two decades and have yet to find a single documented case of a group hallucination, that is, an event for which more than one person purportedly shared in a visual or other sensory perception where there was clearly no external referent ([Mike Licona's] personal correspondence with this author on 3.10.09)." - Gary Sibcy, PhD


Gary Habermas also cited a psychological work by Leonard Zusne and Warren Jones that explored group hallucinations. (1) (5) The notable thing about this study was that the authors did not apply what they learned to Jesus' resurrection, which shows a lack of bias. They used citings of the virgin Mary by crowds as examples of group hallucinations. They determined that "expectation" and "emotional excitement" are "a prerequisite for collective hallucinations." Furthermore, they later stated at the end of their analysis, that group hallucinations have "dubious status" because they weren't even sure that more than one person in the crowd was actually hallucinating. (1)

3) Disciples Not in Right Mindset to Hallucinate

It must be noted that "expectation" and "emotional excitement" are not the state of mind people are when their friend has just died. (1) The disciples would have been grieved at the loss of their best friend and discouraged that he was not the person to restore Israel. The Messiah was supposed to be a worldwide political ruler who defeated Israel's enemies. This is impossible to do if one is dead. Hence, it makes sense that the disciples would have been particularly disappointed after his death. This shows that even if group hallucinations are possible, the disciples are very unlikely candidates due to their lack of emotional expectation for his resurrection.


4) Hallucinations are by Definition Subjective

Since hallucinations are subjective, there are no true "group hallucinations," but only each person in a group coincidentally having the same subjective experience. (1)

"Hallucinations are individual occurrences.  By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time.  They certainly aren't something which can be seen by a group of people.  Neither is it possible that one person could somehow induce an hallucination in somebody else.  Since an hallucination exists only in this subjective, personal sense, it is obvious that others cannot witness it."

-Gary Collins, PhD Psychology. (8)

5) Demographics and Types of Hallucinations

Grief hallucinations occur in 50% of grieving senior adults. 39% of this 50% (which is 20% of all grieving seniors) only experience a feeling that the other person is in the room with them. 14% of the original 50% have visual hallucinations. Since its 14% of the original 50%, only 7% of the total population of grieving seniors has had a visual hallucination. (3) (cf. 9)

Furthermore, hallucinations are most likely to occur in women and senior citizens. However, the disciples were all younger males, further decreasing the probability of them experiencing hallucinations. (3) (cf. 9)


6) Grief hallucinations do not cause belief in resurrection.

Visual hallucinations do not cause grieving seniors to come to believe that their loved one has been raised from the dead! This is even true in cultures like the U.S. where the acceptance of the possibility of resurrection is common (given their belief in a raised Jesus). Visual hallucinations of dead loved ones may reinforce a persons belief in afterlife, but it does not cause a person to believe they have been raised from the dead. (6)

7) Hallucinations and Afterlife Visions

NT Wright argues that without the empty tomb, just seeing Jesus alive would not have convinced the disciples of Jesus that he had been raised. (4) Jewish beliefs about afterlife allowed for the possibility of having a vision of them in the afterlife prior to their resurrection of the dead at the end of time. This point is illustrated very strongly by the passage in Acts about Peter's miraculous escape from prison. When he arrived at the house church, the members of the prayer group did not even believe it was Peter at the door, but only "his angel." This shows quite poignantly that the idea of seeing someone in a vision in the afterlife was quite possible.

8) Differentiating Visions and Physical Experiences

People who have religious visions usually realize they are having a vision, and can differentiate these kinds of experiences from physical ones. The founders of certain religions, such as Islam and Mormonism, claim to have had visions and realize they are visions. The members of the early church (including Peter and Paul) were able to differentiate visionary experiences from physical ones. However, the disciples and Paul always treated the appearances as unique physical experiences and never referred to them as visions. (10)

9) The Gospel and the Risen Lord

The disciples of Jesus and Paul had strong agreement that the gospel was that Christ died for their sins and rose from the dead. Belief in this message was what one had to do in order to obtain salvation. However, the only place in the gospels where we find this message is the risen Lord comissioning the disciples to say something very similar at the end of Luke. If one were to read the synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke), this message doesn't at all seem to feature strongly in Jesus' preaching before his death.  Since the disciples all agreed on the early proclamation very early on, it is likely they "heard" it from Jesus. If they all "heard" it from Jesus, it would make the risen Lord a collective, visual and auditory hallucination with the same content.

10) Hallucinations Unlikely for James

Over 90% of New Testament historians accept that skeptical family member of Jesus (James) converted to Christianity due to what he believed was an appearance of the risen Lord. As an unbeliever, James would not be susceptible to a conversion caused by hallucinations, nor would he be in the frame of mind to hallucinate his dead brother as resurrected. (7)

11) Hallucinations Unlikely for Paul

Over 95% of New Testament historians accept that Paul, who previously persecuted Christians, had an experience which he believed to be an appearance of Jesus. He differentiates this experience from visions he has. In this resurrection appearance, the glorified Jesus blinds Paul, causing him to fall to the ground, and scaring the group he was with. Paul is an unlikely candidate for hallucinations of this nature, due to his persecuting the church. (7)

12) Hallucinations and the Empty Tomb

75% of scholars accept the historicity of the empty tomb, largely because of its discovery by women and the meaning of the word "resurrection" as a physical event in that cultural context. If one concedes the empty tomb, then hallucinations would not explain the resurrection. In that case, hallucinations would not be a very encompassing theory because it would not explain the empty tomb. (7)

13) Hallucinations Usually Occur in One Mode

There are different types of hallucinations. People have hallucinations relating to sight, sound, hearing, taste, touch, and being in motion. People who have hallucinations usually only have them in one mode, unless they are taking drugs. However, all of the sources on the appearances provide visual hallucinations. Furthermore, all 3 gospel sources for the appearances provide visual and auditory hallucinations, making them much more unlikely. In the book of Acts, Luke quotes Peter talking about having had a meal with Jesus. People who have meals together usually talk, so this is also further evidence that it is both visual and auditory. (3) (cf. 9)

14) Repeated Hallucinations

On top of the issue with the modes, demographics, and likelihood of hallucinations, the early material report multiple group hallucination of Jesus, making hallucinations even more an unlikely hypothesis. (1)

15) The Desire to Touch

If you saw your friend walking around after he had died, you would most certainly try and touch him to make sure it was really him, before concluding that he had raised from the dead. Many of the sources report doubting on the part of the disciples. This further supports the idea that the disciples would have tried to touch Jesus. (1) In fact, in some of the gospel sources, the disciples either touch Jesus or are given a strong invitation to touch him.

16) Variations in People and Environments

In Gary Habermas' and Mike Licona's book "The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus," they point out that there are several personal variations among those who saw the appearances of Jesus and the situations they were in. The reported appearances are both indoors and outdoors, apply to men (the disciples) and women. Furthermore, each of these people probably varies in age and disposition to doubt. The number of personal variations decreases the probability that every single one of them had a hallucination of Jesus at the same time. (7)

17) People Are "Talked Out Of" Hallucinations

Gary Habermas cites unpublished research which showed that it is easy to get talked out of hallucinations. For example, if a person thinks they are seeing a dead loved one, all it takes is for another person to tell them that the deceased person is not present, and the hallucinator usually realizes it. (1)

A Helpful Comparison

No one actually believes in group hallucinations of a persons bodily presence. This is especially the case if a skeptic were invited to see the resurrected Jesus for themselves. This is one of the "thousand concessions" that inspired this blog. As critical as some opponents of Christianity may become, one would think there isn't much evidence at all for our position. However, believe it or not, most historians who actively oppose belief in the resurrection propose that the disciples actually "saw" Jesus after his death!

An example will illustrate the force of this point. Imagine if the evidence against a defendant in court was so strong that the defending attorney proposed hallucinations as the most likely possibility for why the defendant did not commit the crime. Imagine if they even became dogmatic about this. If I was the prosecution, I would feel perfectly safe in my position. So, the fact that the visions/hallucination theory is the leading theory against the resurrection of Jesus among scholars just reinforces my confidence in the resurrection and the historical evidence used to support it.

Furthermore, one should realize that every one of these hallucination theories could be used to disprove the theory that someone had met me on several occasions. We can devise extremely creative theories of how someone could have possibly hallucinated me. Nevertheless, this certainly doesn't prove that they did and its still extremely likely that they didn't.

But perhaps the disciples meant something altogether different when discussing the resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps by the word "resurrection" they really were only referring to a vision of Jesus exalted in heaven. Or, perhaps they only meant it to mean they had a warm religious experience of Jesus which provided them closure after his death? Or worse, perhaps they intended the entire message as allegorical? To these options we now turn in the final post on the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

Interesting Appendix and Update: I had a visual hallucination!!

I have come back to update this post because I had a visual hallucination the other day when I was at work. I was very sleep deprived. I write parking tickets and was walking near a car. I though two girls were going to get out of the car and go to class. Then I realized that no one was there.

I don't know what kinds of visual hallucinations other people have, and I'm not going to discount there experience if it is different form mine.

However, the hallucination I had was quite unconvincing!!!! 

I did believe the people were there but it only took a couple seconds to realize they were not there.










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