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. Others argue the appearances were merely visions of the dead Jesus—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. 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.
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). Paganism also fails as a source for this belief, because pagans at the time didn’t even have a conception of a bodily resurrection. 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.