|Explaining Away Jesus' Resurrection:
The Recent Revival of Hallucination Theories
Gary R. Habermas
Originally published in the Christian Research Journal / vol. 23, no. 4, 2001.
This is an electronic copy of the entire article.
Table of Contents:
Naturalistic tactics for explaining Jesus' resurrection have presumably existed as long as this event has been proclaimed. Several of these alternative approaches even appear in the Gospels themselves. It would seem that critics, knowing that the resurrection lies at the heart of Christianity, have singled it out for special challenges.
Our approach here will begin by providing some historical perspective to this issue, making some brief comments regarding the heyday of naturalistic theories in Nineteenth Century theology. It was similarly the case that, about 100 years ago, the hallucination hypothesis was also the most popular critical position until it passed out of scholarly favor. Then, based on my recent survey of more than five hundred publications on the subject of Jesus' resurrection published between 1975 and the present, we will document the increased popularity of this hypothesis in the present, chiefly from scholars during the last decade or two. Lastly, we will present a multifaceted critique of these positions, using only those data that can be ascertained by critical means, hence being accepted by the vast majority of scholars. [i]
Publications from the end of the Eighteenth through the Nineteenth Centuries provide the most numerous examples of naturalistic theories regarding Jesus' resurrection. In his classic volume documenting studies of the historical Jesus during this time, Albert Schweitzer chronicles many of these approaches. For example, an early attempt by Hermann Reimarus charged that Jesus' disciples stole his dead body. [ii] Friedrich Schleiermacher favored the swoon theory, taking the view that Jesus never died on the cross. [iii] David Strauss popularized the hallucination theory, [iv] and others like Ernest Renan followed him. [v] Otto Pfleiderer and others thought that legends could explain much of the data. [vi]
An incredible subplot is that many of the liberal scholars provided refutations of competing hypotheses. Schleiermacher and Heinrich Paulus attacked various vision theories. [vii] Strauss is usually thought to have crushed the swoon thesis with his insightful analysis,[viii] so that few scholars supported it after his critique. [ix] Even though he preferred the legend thesis, Pfleiderer even admitted that it could not fully explain the data for Jesus' resurrection! [x]
During most of the Twentieth Century, however, there has been comparatively little interest in naturalistic theories against Jesus' resurrection. Those who rejected the historicity of this event seldom made reference to alternative formulations. After mentioning a lengthy list of critical theories, Raymond Brown indicated a few decades ago: "criticism of today does not follow the paths taken by the criticism of the past. No longer respectable are the crude theories . . . popular in the past century . . . . Serious scholars pay little attention to these fictional reconstructions." [xi]
This lull on the part of critical scholars came for more than one reason. It is no coincidence that interest in many matters regarding the historical Jesus sagged during this same time. But near the top of the list would have to be the failure of naturalistic hypotheses to explain the known data. In other words, the chief reason for rejecting these alternative theses is that each one is refuted by the facts. After looking at some of these theories, James D.G. Dunn concludes: "alternative interpretations of the data fail to provide a more satisfactory explanation." [xii] Philosopher Stephen Davis agrees that critics:
are unable to come up with a coherent and plausible story that accounts for the evidence at hand. All of the alternative hypotheses with which I am familiar are historically weak; some are so weak that they collapse of their own weight once spelled out . . . . the alternative theories that have been proposed are not only weaker but far weaker at explaining the available historical evidence. . . . [xiii]
In spite of these developments, there appears at present to be a limited trend toward returning to some of the older attempts to explain the resurrection on natural grounds. Of these, the most popular choice of late is some form of thesis involving the earliest Christians having hallucinatory or other subjective experiences.
In my recent survey of hundreds of critical publications on the resurrection, it is becoming apparent that more scholars are supporting various naturalistic hypotheses than has been the case in recent decades. This phenomenon is not due to any change in the historical landscape. Rather, it is almost like the old saying that what goes around comes around--as if some scholars simply think that it is time for a change.
Of those who now prefer hallucination explanations, however, only a few scholars have pursued this approach in detail. We will look at a few of these attempts, while several other scholars simply mention the possibility of, or preference for, the hallucination thesis. [xiv]
Gerd Ludemann has, in recent volumes, outlined a case that is quite reminiscent of Nineteenth Century attempts, holding that this explanation can be applied to all of the chief participants in the earliest church: the disciples, Paul, the 500, and James, the brother of Jesus. [xv] Ludemann holds that it is clear from Paul's language that the term ophthe in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff. means that he was speaking of actual sight, of "his own active sensual perception . . . . ," as well as that of the other apostles. So Paul "must have expected the Corinthians to understand the term historically." [xvi] Ludemann concludes that hallucinatory visions are required, along with "auditory features" that produced a "stimulus," "enthusiasm," "religious intoxication," and "ecstasy" for Peter. This spread to the other disciples by "an incomparable chain reaction." Paul, the other apostles, 500 persons, and James all similarly experienced these subjective visions. The appearances were collective, amounting to a "mass ecstasy." [xvii]
Although his approach is quite different at points, Jack Kent also thinks that hallucinations explain the claims of both the disciples, Paul, and James. [xviii] Kent combines two naturalistic theories to explain the resurrection appearances of Jesus. The disciples and women experienced "normal, grief-related hallucinations." Paul, on the other hand, experienced inward conflict and turbulence over participating in the death of Stephen and his persecution of Christians. As a result, he underwent a "conversion disorder," a recognized psychiatric malady that accounts for his conversion on the road to Damascus, including his stumbling and blindness, in particular. [xix] Unlike Ludemann, Kent wishes to avoid collective hallucinations. [xx]
Closer to Kent, Michael Goulder applies a related explanation to the experiences of Peter, Paul, and some of the others. [xxi] Goulder thinks that Peter and Paul experienced what he calls "conversion visions," hallucinations of various sorts that are produced during times of great stress, guilt, and self-doubt. The result for these apostles, one of whom had denied his Lord and another who had persecuted Christians, was a new orientation to life--a transformation leading to "subsequent heroism and martyrdom." [xxii]
One other approach that I have dubbed the illumination theory should perhaps also be mentioned briefly. Several recent scholars prefer a strategy that, while seemingly close to the hallucination thesis, is not quite the same. In general, the idea is that Peter was the first to have some sort of subjective experience or conviction that Jesus was alive. This was later communicated in some sense to Jesus' other followers, who concluded that Jesus was risen. They hold that we cannot now speak about the historical nature of this incident. It is the faith of the early believers that is really of chief importance here, not the nature of the experiences. [xxiii] It is often remarked that these experiences were not hallucinations, [xxiv] but many of our critiques below will still apply to this thesis.
While the recent surge of hallucination theses reveal some differences, there are more similarities. We need to weigh the hypothesis as a whole. But we will begin by evaluating two important side issues: the possibility of group hallucinations and the status of the conversion disorder thesis proposed by Kent and Goulder.
Collective Hallucinations. One of the central issues in this entire discussion concerns whether a group of people can witness the same hallucination. Most psychologists dispute the reality of such occurrences, as pointed out below. A rare attempt suggesting that collective hallucinations are possible, without any application to Jesus' resurrection, is made by Leonard Zusne and Warren Jones. They point to phenomena such as claimed sightings of the virgin Mary and other accompanying reports from groups of people. In cases like these, "expectation" and "emotional excitement" are "a prerequisite for collective hallucinations." In such groups we see the "emotional contagion that so often takes place in crowds moved by strong emotions . . . ." [xxv]
But favoring collective hallucinations is highly problematic, and on several grounds. (1) To begin, the chief examples of "collective hallucinations" provided by Zusne and Jones were group religious experiences such as Marion apparitions. But these citations simply beg the question regarding whether such experiences could possibly be objective, or even supernatural, at least in some sense. In other words, why must a naturalistic, subjective explanation be assumed? [xxvi] This seems to rule them out in an a priori manner, before the data are considered.
(2) Further, the collective hallucination thesis is unfalsifiable. It could be applied to purely natural, group sightings, simply calling them group hallucinations, too. On this thesis, crucial epistemic criteria seem to be missing. How do we determine normal occurrences from group hallucinations?
(3) 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. If, as most psychologists assert, hallucinations are private, individual events, then how could groups share exactly the same subjective visual perception? Rather, it is much more likely that the phenomena in question are either illusions--perceptual misinterpretations of actual realities [xxvii] -- or individual hallucinations.
Moreover, the largest series of problems results from comparing this thesis to the New Testament accounts of Jesus' resurrection appearances. And here, the explanatory power of this hypothesis is severely challenged, since much of the data not only differs from, but actually contradicts, the necessary conditions for "collective hallucinations." One of these issues will be mentioned here, with others following below.
(4) For instance, Zusne and Jones argue that "expectation" and "emotional excitement" are "prerequisites" before such group experiences will occur. In fact, expectation "plays the coordinating role." [xxviii] But this scenario contradicts the emotional state of the early witnesses of Jesus' resurrection appearances. Even psychologically, the early believers were confronted face-to-face with the utter realism of the recent and unexpected death of their best friend, whom they had hoped would rescue Israel. As those recent events unfolded in a whirlwind of Jesus' physical beatings, crucifixion, and seeming abandonment, the normal response would be fear, disillusionment, and depression. To suppose that these believers would exhibit "expectation" and "emotional excitement" in the face of these stark circumstances would require of them responses that would scarcely be exhibited at a funeral! All indications are that Jesus' disciples would exhibition the very opposite emotions from what Zusne and Jones convey as the necessary requirement.
By comparison, the disciples' experience is totally unlike those in the other cases above where pilgrims expressly traveled long distances, exuberantly gathering with the explicit desire to see something special. There would seem to be very meager grounds of comparison here with Jesus' disciples. [xxix]
Many other crucial problems also plague the thesis of group hallucinations, and we will pursue several more below. But for now we will repeat that Zusne and Jones never attempt to apply their approach to Jesus' resurrection. Rather, they even rather incredibly close their examination with the admission that group hallucinations have a "dubious status" because it is not possible to ascertain whether these individuals were actually even hallucinating! [xxx]
Conversion Disorder. Kent has suggested that Paul experienced a conversion disorder, a psychological condition characterized by physical symptoms like blindness or paralysis in the absence of specific neurological or medical causes. Such was brought about by his inner turbulance, conflict, doubt, and guilt. Goulder agrees about Paul, but adds that Peter and others, say perhaps James, were also suffering from the same problem.
But again, we must align our hypotheses with the facts, and multiple problems oppose this interpretation, as well. (1) Initially, only Paul is known to have manifested any such symptoms, so Goulder's inclusion of the others is not factually grounded.
(2) Simply a huge problem is that, from what we know about Paul and James in particular, there were no mitigating grounds to suppose such a disorder. We have no indication that there was the slightest inner conflict, doubt, or guilt concerning their previous rejection of Jesus' teachings. Critics agree that James was an unbeliever during Jesus' earthly ministry (John 7:5; cf. Mark 3:21). Paul's skepticism is even better known, since he persecuted early Christians (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13, 23). But we do not know of any guilt on Paul's part, for he considered his actions to have been both zealous and faultless (Phil. 3:4-6). In short, there is no indication of any desire for conversion by either of these men. To suppose otherwise is groundless. In short, these men are exceptionally poor candidates for this disorder.
(3) Further, the psychological profile strongly opposes an application to any of these three apostles. Conversion disorder most frequently occurs to women (up to five times more often), adolescents and young adults, less-educated persons, those with low IQ's, low socioeconomic status, or combat personnel. [xxxi] Not a single characteristic applies to Peter, Paul, or James.
(4-5) Further, holding that victims of conversion disorder are strong candidates for both visual and auditory hallucinations is stretching the case a bit. These are uncommon characteristics. [xxxii] Not only are these apostles poor candidates for the disorder in the first place, but even apart from this malady, they were additionally not predisposed to experience hallucinations. And here we even have two separate critiques, due to very different sets of circumstances. There is no indication that either James or Paul, in particular, longed to see Jesus. Their unbelief is a poor basis for producing hallucinations! James the skeptic and Paul the persecutor are exceptionally tough obstacles for the hallucination thesis! Once again, to say otherwise is mere conjecture apart from historical data.
(6) Neither does this hypothesis account for what would otherwise be considered delusions of grandeur--in this case the apostles' belief that God had imparted to them a message for the entire world that others must accept. But it is unlikely that there are other delusions involved here, even occurring at precisely the same time, so the case is further weakened.
In sum, charging that these apostles were victims of conversion disorder simply does not fit the facts. It is clearly an over-reliance on a hypothesis apart from the data, a theory not anchored to reality. For all of the necessary factors to converge simultaneously is just highly improbable. And like the charge of mass hallucinations, it also falls prey to still other difficulties.
Additional Problems. Many other issues remain regarding the hallucination hypothesis. (1) Even individual hallucinations are questionable for any believers who felt despair at the unexpected death of Jesus just hours before. Their hopes and dreams had suddenly been dashed. Extreme grief, not exuberance, would be the normal response.
(2) The wide variety of times and places when Jesus appeared, along with the differing mindsets of the witnesses, is simply a huge obstacle. Men and women, hard-headed and soft-hearted alike, all believing that they saw Jesus, both indoors and outdoors, by itself provides an insurmountable barrier for hallucinations. The odds that each person would be in precisely the proper frame of mind to experience a hallucination, even individually, decrease exponentially. [xxxiii]
(3) Generally, hallucinations do not transform lives. Studies have argued that even those who hallucinate often (or perhaps usually) disavow the experiences when others present have not seen the same thing. [xxxiv] Critics acknowledge that Jesus' disciples were transformed even to the point of being quite willing to die for their faith. No early text reports that any of them ever recanted. To believe that this quality of conviction came about through false sensory perceptions without anyone rejecting it later is highly problematic.
(4) Of course, if the appearances were hallucinations, then Jesus' body should have been located safely and securely in its grave just outside the city of Jerusalem! That body would undoubtedly be a rather large disclaimer to the disciples' efforts to preach that Jesus was raised! But hallucinations do not even address this, so another naturalistic thesis is required.
Still other issues also impede the hallucination hypothesis. While these are perhaps not as weighty, they still count: (5) Why did the hallucinations stop after 40 days? Why didn't they continue to spread to other believers, just as the others had? (6) The resurrection was the disciples' central teaching, and we usually take extra care with what is closest to our hearts. This is what drove Paul to check out the nature of the gospel data with other key disciples on at least two occasions, to make sure he was preaching the truth (Gal. 1:18-19; 2:1-10). He found that they were also speaking of Jesus' appearances to them (1 Cor. 15:11). (7) What about the natural human tendency to touch? Would no one ever discover, even in a single instance, that their best friend, seemingly standing perhaps just a few feet away, was not really there?
(8) The resurrection of an individual contradicted general Jewish theology, which held to a corporate event at the end of time. So Jesus' resurrection did not fit normal Jewish expectations. (9) Lastly, hallucinations of the extended sort required by this naturalistic theory are fairly rare phenomena, chiefly occurring in certain circumstances that militate against Jesus' disciples being the recipients. [xxxv]
After a century hiatus, it appears that we recently have been observing a limited trend toward the reformulation of naturalistic approaches to Jesus' resurrection. The hallucination and related subjective hypotheses are again the most popular, as they were at the close of the last century. But we have argued that these strategies have failed to explain the known, critically-ascertained data on several fronts. For almost twenty reasons, we have concluded that they fall short in their attempt to provide an alternative to the New Testament proclamation. Clinical psychologist Gary Collins summarizes a few of the issues here:
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 an hallucination exists only in this subjective, personal sense, it is obvious that others cannot witness it. [xxxvi]
In fact, the problems with this thesis are so serious that these critics "would have to go against much of the current psychiatric and psychological data about the nature of hallucinations." [xxxvii] This would seem to place these approaches at odds with current scientific knowledge on this subject. We conclude that applying the hallucination and similar subjective theses to Jesus' resurrection appearances is severely mistaken across several disciplines and at many points.
[i]. This is what I have
termed the minimal facts method, which argues chiefly from
data that have the
twofold characteristics of being individually and multiply
attested on strongly
evidential grounds, hence being accepted by almost all
scholars who research
this subject. For an outline of this method, see Gary
R. Habermas, "Evidential
Apologetics" in Five Views on Apologetics, Steven
Cowan, ed. (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 99-120, 186-190.
Gary R. Habermas is Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University. He has authored several books related to this articles' topic including The Historical Jesus and Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate (with Antony Flew).