The Hallucination Hypothesis
For several years now, I've been wanting to write a series of blogs where the first half of the series argued that Jesus considered himself to be the Jewish messiah and the second half of the series argued that Jesus was raised from the dead. I read so much on the subject and had so many thoughts on it that my stack of notes became formidable, which made it difficult for me to muster the enthusiasm to finally write it all down. So I've been putting off blogging about little pieces of the puzzle individually because I thought I'd eventually write this whole series. Well, since it's been so many years and I have nothing to show for it, I thought I'd go ahead and start blogging on some of the pieces. For all I know, I may never write the whole series, and I hate for that bee in my bonnet to keep buzzing around.
I'm pretty convinced that the apostles saw what they took to be a living breathing Jesus some time after he had died. I think that is a really good explanation for why they continued to believe that Jesus was the promised messiah even after he had been killed by the Romans. But the question is this: What did they actually see? The other question is this: Why did seeing it cause them to believe Jesus had risen from the dead?
One of the common responses apologists give to the hallucination hypothesis is that hallucinations are, by their nature, subjective experiences. You can no more see somebody else's hallucination than you can see somebody else's dream, and the reason is because hallucinations and dreams only happen in the mind. There's no objective reality outside the mind that more than one person could see. And since the appearances of Jesus happened in groups, it could not have been a hallucination.
There are two responses to that argument I have heard. I came up with one of them myself a few years ago. In my theory, Peter was actually the only one who saw Jesus. The others believed his story and soon began to claim that they had seen Jesus as well even though they didn't. But they each believed each other's testimony, and that strengthened the faith of each of them that Jesus really had risen from the dead.
This theory is basically a denial that the appearances happened in groups. Since there's no group appearances, the hallucination hypothesis remains viable. However; it appears from the gospels and 1 Corinthians that the appearances happened in groups. How do we account for that? Well, it isn't hard to imagine how that might've happened given my theory. Suppose one of the apostles is preaching the gospel in a new town, and he tells them that Jesus was raised from the dead. Somebody says, "Did you see him yourself?" The apostle replies, "Oh yeah. We ALL saw him." That would be consistent with my theory because, in fact, all of them claimed to see Jesus. But the listeners mistakenly infer that the apostles saw him at the same time. So when some of the listeners begin to tell others about the gospel, they portray the appearances as if they were group appearances. It's an easy mistake, and it could've happened early on. You might think that if this misunderstanding was widespread during the lifetime of the apostles they would've corrected it, but I don't know if it would've been worth correcting from their point of view. From their point of view, would it really matter whether they all saw Jesus individually or at the same time? I can't think of a motive for the apostles to go to the trouble of straightening out this detail.
I think the appearances probably did happen in groups, though, for a couple of reasons. In Paul's appearance traditions he quotes in 1 Corinthians 15, he says that Jesus appeared to Peter, then to the twelve. He also says Jesus appeared to James, then to all the apostles. These two traditions seem to be reports of the same appearances but from different sources. And I've read this in some of the scholarly literature. They think the first tradition came from Peter or some of his followers, and the other one came from James or some of his followers. That's why you have Peter at the head of one tradition and James at the head of the other even though "the apostles" and "the twelve" refer to the same group of people. So these appearance traditions come right from the source. They aren't the end product of a long telephone game. Pinchas Lapide went so far as to say that they can be taken as eye-witness testimony from the apostles themselves. These two appearance traditions don't necessarily entail group appearances, but they do strongly imply it. That's one reason I think the appearances happened in groups.
The other reason is because Paul mentions these 500 witnesses. I don't think Paul is quoting an oral tradition at this point because he makes a parenthetical comment about them, that most of them were still living, though some had fallen asleep. That couldn't have been an oral tradition because if it was, it would have to be continually updated as more and more of them died. Apologists often take this as Paul challenging the Corinthians to check out the claim. They could ask these witnesses themselves. The weakness, of course, is that Paul doesn't identify any of these witnesses. Still, the parenthetical comment makes me think that a large number of people must've claimed to have seen Jesus. Paul would have to have been intentionally making things up to claim that some of them had died. It's possible Paul may have been exaggerating the number or just guestimating, but his parenthetical comment makes me believe they really existed. I don't think it's likely that such a large number of people would claim they saw Jesus individually. Given such a large number of people, I think it's likely that at least some of them claimed to see Jesus in groups. After all, how could Paul even come up with an estimate if there were just random individuals here and there claiming to have seen Jesus? I think it's far less likely that a group of people would lie about an appearance than that an individual would lie about an appearance.
N.T. Wright makes another good point. If people were individually claiming to see the risen Jesus, it's inexplicable that these appearances seem to have suddenly stopped. From all our sources, it appears that Paul's appearance is odd in the fact that it happened much later than everybody else's, and nobody after Paul ever claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. If people were going about claiming to have seen Jesus just to be cool, we shouldn't expect those claims to all of a sudden stop.
So I think there probably were group appearances. But I don't think that necessarily undermines the hallucination hypothesis, which brings me to my second response to the claim that hallucinations don't happen in groups. The most common counter-example is Marian apparitions, which involve groups of people claiming to see Mary. Now let's face it. People often do claim to see things in groups even though there's nothing really there to see. You see this kind of stuff all the time. If I saw a face in a cloud that nobody else saw, but then I pointed it out to other people, pretty soon, they'd see the face, too. They'd see it because they were looking for it. They expected to see it. That's the only reason anybody ever saw Mother Theresa in a cinnamon roll. Maybe the apostles saw something or somebody who resembled Jesus, and they believed it was him.
One problem with this line of reasoning is that the apostles likely were not expecting to see Jesus. One reason, as Bill Craig often points out, is that Jews who believed in resurrection all seemed to think of resurrection as an eschatological event. It was something that happened on the last day, not in the middle of history. And the resurrection was supposed to be general, not individual. I went into detail about this point in November and December 2005 in my series on the resurrection in parts 1-5, so I won't repeat the arguments here. The other reason the apostles probably weren't expecting the resurrection is because resurrection wasn't an obvious part of what the messiah was supposed to do. The messiah was supposed to sit on the throne of David, reestablish national sovereignty, and usher in an era of peace and prosperity. Instead of running the Romans out, Jesus was crucified by them and subjected to publish humiliation. To any Jew, that would've signified that he was a failure. And, in fact, no messianic movement other than Jesus' survived the death of its leader, and there were quite a few of them in the first and second centuries. Given common Jewish expectations about the messiah, we should expect the apostles to have given up hope after Jesus was arrested and crucified. And, as it turns out, that's exactly what the gospels report.
On the other hand, the gospels also report that Jesus predicted his resurrection. It says the apostles couldn't really wrap their heads around what he was saying, but if Jesus really did predict his resurrection, then maybe they were holding out some remote hope that he might rise from the dead. If so, then maybe they were looking for him. If so, then maybe they saw him just like people see faces in clouds or Mother Theresa in a cinnamon roll.
C.S. Lewis pointed something out in his book on Miracles that seems to count against the idea that the apostles were expecting to see Jesus. He pointed out that on a few occasions where Jesus appeared to the apostles, they did not immediate recognize him. Assuming that really did happen, I agree with him that it counts against the notion that the apostles saw Jesus because they were expecting to see him or because they were looking for him. It would seem odd not to recognize the object of your own mental projection. The only difficulty is trying to establish that particular detail of the narrative. It's one thing to say Jesus appeared to the apostles; it's another thing to say he appeared in a particular way at a particular place and had a particular conversation, etc. I haven't thought about it that much, but it seems to me you'd have to come up with some possible motives for why the authors would include that detail if it didn't happen. Does it serve some apologetic or rhetorical purpose?
The major problem I have with the hallucination hypothesis is that it doesn't really explain why the apostles came to believe Jesus had risen from the dead. Think about this for a minute. Think of somebody you know to have died, like a relative or something. Maybe your parents. What would you honestly think if you saw that person standing right in front of you right now? It seems like you'd have a few options:
1. You're dreaming.
2. You're hallucinating.
3. You're seeing a ghost.
4. The person never died to begin with.
5. The person has risen from the dead.
I put this question to my daughter a while back when I first thought of it. She has a cousin who died three years ago, so I asked Grace what she would think if she saw Madeline standing right in front of her, and I gave her some of these options. I left out the dreaming one because I didn't think of it at the time, but Grace said she'd think she was dreaming. That wasn't what I expected her to say. I expected her to say it was a ghost because that's probably what I would think. Plus, Grace's mother used to be a ghost hunter, and Grace was kind of interested in the subject. I don't think I'd assume I was dreaming. I might entertain the thought at first, but it wouldn't take much to convince me that I was awake. I'd probably rub my eyes a lot and look really carefully. My mind would be reeling, trying to make sense out of it. I've seen weird stuff before, so I know this is probably how I'd react. The very last thing I would think was that she had risen from the dead. The second to last thing I'd think was that she had never died. The first thing I'd probably think once I came to my senses was that I was hallucinating. But after rubbing my eyes for a while, walking around and looking at different angles, and maybe even talking to her, I'd probably come to the conclusion that I was seeing a ghost. I suspect that's what most people would think in a similar situation.
And, it turns out that's exactly what the gospels report that the apostles thought (Luke 24:37). They thought they were seeing a spirit. Luke goes on to say that Jesus corrected their misunderstanding by pointing to the scars on his hands and feet and then eating in front of them. John's gospels reports that Thomas wanted to actually touch Jesus before he'd believe. 1 John begins with "what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands..." Why all this emphasis on the physicality of Jesus? Why the emphasis on touching and eating to prove that Jesus really had risen from the dead? Well, I think it's only natural because nobody would conclude that a dead person was physically alive, walking and talking, just because they saw a vision or hallucination. It would take a lot more than that. Seeing Elvis made people think he never died, not that he had risen from the dead. Seeing Mary was only consistent with what Catholics already believed--that Mary never died, not that she had risen from the dead. If I saw my niece alive who I know to be dead, it would take a lot to convince me she was really alive. I'd have to touch her with my own hands and see that she was tangible, and it would help to see her eat something. And that's probably what I'd say to people if I were telling them about it. I'd say, "Holy cow, I didn't believe it myself until I actually touched her. I mean I felt her with my own hands, and she was as tangible as anything! She sat right here and ate a veggie burger." Madeline was a vegetarian, by the way.
I want to point out a weakness in relying on the appearance traditions that Paul quoted in 1 Corinthians 15. I wanted to stick this somewhere in the body of my blog here, but I couldn't find a place for it that didn't destroy the flow. So I'm just sticking it right here at the end. The Mormons have, at the beginning of The Book of Mormon, a testimony signed by several people saying that they saw the golden plates from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. Mormons believe these testimonies provide evidence that the golden plates really existed even though we no longer have them because the angel, Moroni, took them away once Joseph Smith finished the translation. If all we had was this written testimony, it might seem persuasive. After all, these people signed it. They endorsed it. But that isn't all the information we have. It turns out that a few of them wrote about their experiences later on. When you read their individual accounts, it becomes ambiguous whether anybody actually saw the plates at all. The three witnesses didn't see the plates. They went out in the woods and prayed to be able to see them and ended up only seeing a vision of the plates, not the plates themselves. A few of the other witnesses said they only got to feel the plates which were hidden under some cloth or something. They didn't actually see them. If all we had was the appearance traditions quoted by Paul, then even if these appearances came from Peter and James themselves, we'd be justified in questioning what it is they actually saw. Maybe they DID just see a hallucination or something like Mother Theresa in a cinnamon roll. Of course I already explained why I don't buy that.
I haven't said anything about the appearance to Paul. I'm really hungry, though, so I'm not going to talk about the appearance to Paul. I don't have much to say about it anyway. There is the argument that since the appearance to Paul was visionary, and since Paul thinks his appearance was just like the appearance to the other apostles, that Paul must've understood their appearances to be visionary as well. That's an argument worth responding to. Maybe I'll do that some other time.