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The Resurrection: Hallucination or Vision?

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Suppose your ninety-year-old grandmother tells you she sees leprechauns dancing in the butter dish in the cafeteria at her assisted living home. Would you think her perception conforms to objective reality? Or would you think she’s hallucinating? My guess is the latter.

Imagine now your grandmother dies, and then a few days later you see her sitting in a chair in that same cafeteria smiling at you as you go to pick up her belongings. Would you conclude she is raised from the dead? Or would you conclude she is appearing to you to let you know she is happy in heaven? I bet you would opt for the second explanation.

The critics weigh in

Critics of Christianity appeal to these sort of subjective experiences when trying to offer explanations to the resurrection of Jesus. Some argue that the post-mortem appearances of Jesus were hallucinations.[1] Others argue the appearances were merely visions of the dead Jesus[2]—similar to the movie The Sixth Sense, in which a boy, Cole Sear, says, “I see dead people.”

Are these reasonable suggestions? Although these theories could possibly explain the alleged appearances of Jesus, they fall short in accounting for other crucial facts.

The empty tomb

For example, they don’t explain the empty tomb.[3] If the Christians were hallucinating or having visions of Jesus, then the skeptics could have produced the body. Jesus was a popular preacher and was placed in a tomb that belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin (a group of Jewish leaders). This makes it reasonable to conclude that the location of Jesus’ tomb would have been known, thus making it easy to prove the tomb was not empty and falsify the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. But, of course, this didn’t happen.

The diversity of Jesus’ appearances

Moreover, the subjective explanations might be adequate to explain a single appearance of Jesus but they fail to explain the diversity of Jesus’ appearances—the multitude of appearances to different people on different occasions.

For example, we know Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene (see Mark 16:9), the women at the tomb (see Luke 24:10), Peter (see 1 Corinthians 15:5), and James (see 1 Corinthians 15:7). He appeared to the Twelve (see 1 Corinthians 15:5) and did so on many different occasions—in the upper room on the night of the Resurrection (see John 20:19-23), on the seashore (see John 21), for a succession of forty days (see Acts 1:3), and on the Mount of Olives before his ascension (see Matthew 28:18-20). St. Paul writes that Jesus even appeared to 500 brethren at the same time, many of whom were still alive when Paul penned his letter (see 1 Corinthians 15:6).

How can so many different people hallucinate the same thing or have the same vision at different times and in different places and draw from it the same erroneous conclusion? It doesn’t make sense. With respect to hallucinations, clinical psychologist Gary Collins explains:

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. . . . Since a hallucination exists only in this subjective, personal sense, it is obvious that others cannot witness it.[4]

The bodily nature of the resurrected Jesus

The hallucination and vision theories also fail when one considers the bodily nature of the encounters with the resurrected Jesus. For example, he ate with his disciples two times—on the seashore (see John 21:14-15) and in the home of the two disciples traveling on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24:28-30). It’s implied that Mary Magdalene held on to the resurrected Jesus when he told her, “Do not hold me” (John 20:17). Jesus even invited the apostle Thomas to touch his wounds from his crucifixion (see John 20:27). Hallucinations and visions don’t eat food and can’t be touched. Christian apologist William Lane Craig sees this as sufficient evidence against the subjective experience theories:

There is no trace of nonphysical appearances in the sources, a remarkable fact if all the appearances were really visionary, as some critics would have us believe. That strongly suggests that the appearances were not in fact visions, but actual, bodily appearances (The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, 117).

The glorious nature of the resurrected Jesus

These subjective experience theories are also bankrupt when it comes to explaining the unique characteristics of Jesus’ resurrection and the early Christian belief in Jesus as Lord. If these appearances of the resurrected Jesus were hallucinations, then the glorious nature of Jesus’ resurrected body, such as freedom from the limitations of space (see John 20:19) and the ability to appear and disappear (see Luke 24:31), would had to have been a part of the mental framework of the apostles, since hallucinations cannot exceed the content of an individual’s mind.

But such a glorified state would have been foreign to the disciples’ minds, and thus they would have been unable to project it onto reality. They couldn’t have received such an idea from Jewish theology, since the Jewish conception of resurrection was a return to the same kind of bodily life as before death (such as Lazarus in John 11).[5] Paganism also fails as a source for this belief, because pagans at the time didn’t even have a conception of a bodily resurrection.[6] For this reason, the hallucination theory fails.

Furthermore, visions of dead people were common in the first century. Why would something so common lead the apostles to think something so different—namely, that Jesus was the Messiah and Lord raised from the dead in a bodily and glorious state? If anything, they would have thought Jesus was merely a favored prophet of God taken up into heaven, like Enoch (see Genesis 5:24) or Elijah (see 2 Kings 2:11), and was appearing to them from there. But that is not what they preached. They preached the literal resurrection of the God-man, Jesus.


As I’ve stated in other articles, I can sympathize with skeptics for seeking alternative ways to explain the apostles’ testimony of seeing Jesus after his death. A healthy skepticism is called for when confronted with extraordinary claims—like seeing leprechauns dancing in butter dishes. However, once the alternative theories are shown to fail in explaining the facts, we can reasonably reject them. Therefore, we can rule out the hallucination and vision theories when trying to account for the apostles’ claim that they saw a resurrected Jesus.

By Karlo Broussard


1 comment

  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    We know that many people have visions of recently departed family members and friends, and we’re pretty confident, based on the available evidence that this is a product of the brain, brought about by emotion, etc.
    The first thing we have to note is that there are no eyewitnesses. Paul has no direct human evidence of a resurrected Jesus. His evidence is solely based on his visions and scripture (OT scripture as the NT didn’t exist). Paul’s Jesus was a celestial god. Paul knows nothing of a human Jesus. He knows nothing of his birth, baptism, ministry, miracles, parables, sermons, family or disciples, and he only knows of a celestial crucifixion and resurrection. Note that Paul, the earliest writer of the NT is writing two decades or more after Jesus has supposedly died. We have nothing in the 20 years intervening. Nothing. How many people saw Elvis after he died in the following 20 years?
    Two decades later we get Mark, the first gospel. The author, whoever it might be, does not claim to have personal eye witness testimony, nor do any of the other gospel writers. The author of Mark is the first to describe Jesus as a flesh and blood human, doing so in an elegantly literal style that is based on the literary techniques used for mythical, rather than historical writing. The other gospel writers embellished and modified his work, based on their personal theologies, over the next three or four decades or more. Some say that the “inner circle” of the early church, knew the “mysteries” and knew that Jesus was a celestial god, and that Mark’s gospel was just a way to convey the message to simpler folk. That may or may not be, but there were a number of “mystery religions” in that time, and Christianity has a lot similarities to them. Unless there is some pocket of the Vatican where the select few know the true mystery of a celestial demigod, we must assume this “mystery” if it ever existed, was abandoned by the RCC.
    So what of that empty tomb? Acts does not say anything about it. That’s astounding. Paul and others are charged with various crimes from time to time, but nobody ever gets arrested for preaching in public about a prisoner who escaped the death penalty. Pilate would not have stood for this, and would have done whatever was necessary to find out what happened to that body, including arresting anyone stupid enough to talk about the missing prisoner in public – probably torturing them until they talked. But none of these apostles were ever arrested or investigated, because the crucifixion was a celestial event and there never was an empty tomb. In the same way, Jesus’ family disappears after the first page of Acts, because they didn’t really exist. Can you imagine early Christians not wanting to know more about what happened to the family and disciples? They all just instantly disappear! Isn’t that odd? (Disciples are not Apostles. Disciples had personal knowledge of Jesus – which Paul would have dismissed out of hand as being of less value than his visions and those of other apostles such as Cephas). That there was no outcry and no police action on the part of the Roman authorities over a missing body – an escaped prisoner sentenced to death. That’s beyond absurd. This is a pretty clear indication that there was no empty tomb.
    None of Jesus’ appearances are sworn to by eyewitnesses. We have only hearsay, and Paul’s appearances always refer to visions, either by himself or others. The author asks how these stories could develop, but take a look at the Roswell UFO incident where a weather balloon landing in a pasture, over a period of decades became a crashed UFO with alien bodies on ice – and that in modern times! If Jesus was a real person, which is highly unlikely, then as Bart Ehrman explains, what probably happened is someone had a vision of Jesus, just as many people have visions of dead family members brought on by emotional distress, and he or she told the spouse who told the neighbor who told the butcher who told the shipbuilder, etc. etc. etc. and today we have a book of myths describing this unsupported event. However, I think the author of Mark just made it all up. His writing style makes it clear that he was not a historian.
    There are certainly situations in which one person takes on another’s’ hallucinations, though admittedly they won’t be exactly the same. A spouse living with a paranoid mate, may over time come to experience the same paranoia. It’s called a ‘shared psychiatric disorder.’ The author agrees that exceptional circumstances require skepticism, but he claims, incorrectly and insufficiently that alternative theories are shown to fail. He hasn’t proven that at all. The testimony of Paul alone contradicts the author’s last sentence.
    Let me recommend Richard Carrier’s book about the Historicity of Jesus for those who are truly skeptical and will look at real evidence with a real open mind.

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