Did the various disciples of Jesus merely experience convincing hallucinations of Jesus appearing to them?

  • Our question about these hallucinations

    In c. AD 30-32 Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross. However, within a few days, various followers were saying Jesus appeared to them alive from the dead. Reportedly, witnesses included Mary Magdalene and other women, Peter (individually), and to Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus. Then, Jesus appeared to his inner circle (“the 12” apostles), then James the brother of Jesus, and the so-called “500 brethren.” These reportedly were all taking place within a couple days of his crucifixion, and Acts 1 says Jesus continued to appear across 40 days before ascending. Moreover, in c. AD 32, Paul the zealous church-persecutor also had his life transformed through what he claims was Jesus appearing to him as well. Paul went from knowing Jesus was a false prophet and enemy of God, to suddenly becoming a fully convinced advocate of Jesus as Christ and Lord, and unquely becoming the greatest propagator of Christianity.

    What was going on here with these alleged appearances? Were some or all of these alleged witnesses simply hallucinating Jesus’s appearing to them? Were these original people proclaiming that they saw Jesus alive from the dead in fact fooled by a sufficiently convincing hallucination (or perhaps an unconvincing one that was reinforced by people supporting its authenticity)?

“No, after all…
  • Hallucinations have kinds/etiologies

    Hallucinations aren’t magic; they are symptoms of a relevant priming psychological state which made it possible (usually an underlying psychosis), and which corresponds to a particular hallucination type.

    This is problematic for the hallucination hypothesis given there is no plausible etiology or hallucination type that applies to the apostles. Absent such conditions, it is naturally impossible to experience one.1 (Though, some have posited a supernatural hallucination.) Sure enough, only a negligible portion of the human population is, at any given time, psychologically able hallucinate without the assistance of drugs. Moreover, even among those able to hallucinate, 99.99% of their experiences are veridical, so even then the prior probability of any ostensible percept being a hallucination is very low.

      • Stephen Davis: “The disciples were prepared neither psychologically nor theologically for the idea of the resurrection of the crucified Messiah, and the fact that they arrived at this idea so early and so confidently needs explanation.” [Risen Indeed (Eerdmans, 1993), 184.]
      • William Lane Craig: “the disciples were in no state of mind to hallucinate” [The Resurrection of Jesus, 399.]
      • Pinchas Lapide: “If the defeated and depressed group of disciples overnight could change into a victorious movement of faith, based only on autosuggestion or self-deception—without a fundamental faith experience—then this would be a much greater miracle than the resurrection itself.” [The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (Augsburg, 1983), 126.]
  • They experienced no other apparitions (living or dead)

    The many alleged witnesses of Jesus (e.g. Mary, Peter, apostles, the 500, James) reportedly saw Jesus during the first few days after Jesus's death and then mysteriously, the appearances to them synchronously ceased, with the exception of Paul who claims to have seen Jesus appear to him a couple years later. But like the others, Paul too ceased to see Jesus appearing to him. (He only saw Jesus once.) Moreover, these persons were ostensibly not regularly seeing angels or other theophanies; the appearance of Jesus was taken by them to be radically unique and life-changing.

    This is relevant because if a given etiology can produce an apparition of Jesus, it’s surprising that we hear of no other such apparitions of Jesus or other figures.

  • Apostles etc.: “We saw him as a group!”

    Rather than the alleged appearances being limited to individuals, the reports indicate that full-blown groups of early Christians had experiences that seemed to them like Jesus appearing to them as a collective.

    • The Emmaus disciples were a group saying this.
    • “The 12” were a group saying this1
    • The “500” were a group saying this
    • “All the apostles” (1 Cor 15) were a group saying this
    • Paul and reportedly his Damascus companions were a group saying this.

    This is a devastating challenge to the hallucination hypothesis because hallucinations are like dreams and do not occur synchronously in groups. (If there is any doubt about this, it is plenty problematic to say that groups virtually never experience a hallucinatory appearance like this, and it would be medically inexplicable.)

    1. For example, the very early 1 Corinthians 15 creed reports that Jesus appeared to the group of apostles, namely "the 12." We know it was a group because of the verbiage, which was very carefully crafted--this was a creed after all, and was used to educate Christians. The text reads, "He visited Peter, then the twelve." This is not plausibly read as "to Peter as he appeared to the twelve." That would be awkward and render reference to Peter superfluous. At best, it would sooner read "to Peter and the rest of the 12." But no, as reported in Luke (chapter 24), Jesus was thought by early Christians to appear uniquely to Peter, and within a few hours Jesus then appeared next to the apostles as a whole while Peter was among them. Again, this was a carefully crafted creed, and it would naturally be heard by anyone as affirming that Jesus appeared to Peter, and then to the group that included Peter.
  • All would super-doubt Jesus’s “resurrection”

    Any eventual believers in Jesus’s return to life would need to overcome nearly irrefutable evidence against it. In other words, the apostles and Paul and others had every reason to reject even the remote notion that Jesus appeared to them alive from the dead. In fact, early Christians did some measure of gymnastics to fit what they allegedly experienced to what they believed about God's final judgment and the end of history (i.e. their "eschatological" beliefs).

    Consider four reasons to agree:

    • First, because Jesus literally was crucified, which was considered a curse of God. It doesn't fit with the idea of Jesus being the subject of an approving miracle from God because that would basically make God contradict himself.
    • Second, because Jesus was allegedly a Messsiah, and dying at the hands of Rome (the oppressors) was a particularly forceful refutation of his claim to be God's chosen.
    • Third, despite some arguing that Jesus foreshadowed such an idea, there is little reason to believe that the apostles would consider the possibility of an eschatological "resurrection" prior to the "Last Day"; resurrections as such were not something that happened in the middle of human history.
    • Fourth, resurrections would not be thought to apply to one man; the general resurrection was to be a massive singular event.

    The compelling bias these Jews all had against the idea of Jesus being raised from death factors into the hallucination hypothesis because these persons did not say that they saw an apparition/ghost or hallucination (which ancients all knew about). Instead, they precisely said with extreme confidence that they experienced something different, (i.e. that they witnessed firsthand that “Jesus has eschatologically resurrected from death!”)