Monday, April 4

Were The Disciples Hallucinating?

It has been claimed by some that the resurrection appearances of Jesus were nothing more than mass hallucinations or mass hysteria. Does this explanation stand up to scrutiny and careful investigation, or does it fall apart at the very foundation? In this entry, we will examine such things. There is one point on which generally, most scholars tend to agree: that the first disciples were utterly convinced they had seen the risen Christ.[1] It is from this that some claim they were nothing more than mere hallucinations. (Photo credit: Nagasawa Family, Britt Gillette)

We need to bear in mind something. As previously established, the death of Jesus is one of the most historically attested facts. In fact, we have more evidence for the life and death of Jesus than we do for any other religious founder. His life and death were radically different than those of Siddhartha Gautama, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, Guru Nanak, and the like. Why are the resurrection appearances so vital? C.S. Lewis, author and apologist (Mere Christianity, Screwtape Letters, Chronicles of Narnia series, etc) notes in his work, Miracles, "In the earliest days of Christianity an 'apostle' was first and foremost a man who claimed to be an eye-witness of the Resurrection. Only a few days after the Crucifixion when two candidates were nominated for the vacancy created by the treachery of Judas, their qualification was that they had known Jesus personally both before and after His death and could offer first0hand evidence of the Resurrection in addressing the outer world (Acts 1:22). A few days later St. Peter, preaching the first Christian sermon, makes the same claim - 'God raised Jesus, of which we all (we Christians) are witnesses' (Acts 2:32). In the first Letter to the Corinthians St. Paul bases his claim to apostleship on the same ground - 'Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen the Lord Jesus?'"[2]

If the appearances of Jesus were nothing more than hallucinations or visions, then Christianity would be based on false grounds, and would be without use or purpose. The veracity of the claims made by those who had seen Christ comes into question when hallucinations are used as an explanation. There are, however, several issues with the Hallucination Theory. So, were the experiences of the disciples mere visions?

Credit to: Nagasawa Family
Hillyer Straton notes, " who are subject to hallucinations never become moral heroes. The effect of the resurrection of Jesus in transformed lives was continuous, and most of these early witnesses went to their deaths for proclaiming this truth."[3] This theory is not plausible, as it contradicts several laws and principles which psychiatrists convey that visions must conform to, such as people who have hallucinations usually being "high-strung," very nervous, or even highly imaginative. The appearances of the risen Jesus, as found in the New Testament, do not make up only one particular kind of person, but many.[4]

In other words, it is highly unlikely that two persons would have the same hallucination, saying the same thing, doing the same thing, at the same time. In 1st Corinthians 15:6 we read, "After that, [Jesus] appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have [died.]" It is highly unlikely for two people to experience or have the same hallucination/vision, how much more unlikely is it that five hundred people had the same hallucination, most of which were still alive when this public document was written, so that the witnesses could attest that fact?

The appearances of Jesus were not limited to these people. These are the appearances of Christ, after His resurrection:
  • First to Mary Magdalene (John 20:14; Mark 16:9)
  • Then to the women returning from the tomb (Matthew 28:9-10)
  • Then to Peter later on that day (Luke 24:34; 1st Corinthians 15:5)
  • To the Emmaus disciples (Luke 24:13-33)
  • To the apostles, without Thomas (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-24)
  • To the apostles, with Thomas (John 20:26-29)
  • To the seven by Lake Tiberius (John 21:1-23)
  • To the 500 plus believers upon a mountain in Galilee (1st Corinthians 15:7)
  • Then to James (1st Corinthians 15:7)
  • Then to the eleven (Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:14-20; Luke 24:33-52; Acts 1:3-12)
  • To Paul (Acts 9:3-6; 1st Corinthians 15:8)
  • To Stephen (Acts 7:55)
  • To Paul in the temple (Acts 22:17-21; 23:11)
  • Lastly, to John on Patmos (Revelation 1:10-19)

It is difficult to reconcile the myriad of different personalities, characteristics, and mental health of the many individuals and explain it all as a mass hallucination. Theodore Christlieb conveys, "We do not deny that science can tell us cases in which visions were seen by whole assemblies at once; but where this is the case, it has always been accompanied by a morbid excitement of the mental life, as well as by a morbid bodily condition, especially by nervous affections. Now, even if one or several of the disciples had been in this morbid state, we should by no means by justified in concluding that all were so. They were surely men [and women] of most varied temperament and constitution."[5]

Dr. Luke, both in Luke and Acts, is careful in what he tells us. In fact, from Luke we are able to determine that the disciples saw, heard, and touched the risen Christ. This is certainly not easily explained away by mass hallucinations. The auditory and visual experience the women at the tomb had on hearing the angels is another example of this. There were two women, both having experienced this and heard the same thing.

Gary R. Collins, Ph.D., notes that "Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly aren't something which can be seen by a group of people. Neither is it possible that one person could somehow induce a hallucination in somebody else. Since a hallucination exists only in this subjective, personal sense, it is obvious that others cannot witness it."[6]

The disciples were afraid, devastated, doubtful, and in despair after the death of Jesus. People who hallucinate need a mind full of expectancy or anticipation. From a clear reading of the Gospel accounts, it is evident that the disciples did not expect to see Jesus again. James, who was skeptical even while Jesus was alive, was also not a good candidate to hallucinate something he never would have expected.

In Lee Strobel's The Case For Christ, Gary Habermas, Ph.D, D.D., points out, "...hallucinations are comparably rare. They're usually caused by drugs or bodily deprivation. Chances are, you don't know anybody who's ever had a hallucination not caused by one of those two things. Yet we're supposed to believe that over a course of many weeks, people from all sorts of backgrounds, all kinds of temperaments, in various places, all experienced hallucinations?"[7]

The disciples were not expectant at all that they would see Jesus. In fact, when He appeared to them, Dr. Luke records, "They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost." (Luke 24:37) It is evident that the disciples were not expecting or high-strung. They did not expect to see Christ, instead, they were "startled and frightened" at His appearing to them. Another thing that adds to continuous hallucinations is that they usually tend to occur over a long period of time with noticeable regularity.[8]

In other words, "They either recur more frequently until a point of crisis is reached, or they occur less frequently until they fade away."[9] C.S. Lewis said, "All the accounts suggest that the appearances of the Risen body came to an end; some describe an abrupt end six weeks after the death... a phantom can just fade away, but an objective entity must go somewhere - something must happen to it... If it were a vision then it was the most systematically deceptive and lying vision on record. But if it were real, then something happened to it after it ceased to appear. You cannot take away the Ascension without putting something else in its place."[10]

If more than five hundred people had been brought under the sway of a vision or hallucination, then there should have been no reason for an abrupt end, people would have continued experienced the coveted vision. Some point out that perhaps the "risen Jesus" was actually a case of mistaken identity. That cannot be the case; the disciples lived and worked with Jesus for three years, they would know who He was, what He sounded like, etc. The only reason they were kept from this at certain points was to show that, yes, He was God, and could appear and disappear, conceal and reveal Himself at will.[11] Dr. Pinchas Lapide, has written, “When this frightened band of apostles suddenly could be changed overnight into a confident mission society… Then no vision or hallucination is sufficient to explain such a revolutionary transformation.” Keep in mind that Dr. Lapide is an Orthodox Jew, not a Christian, but concedes that the evidence points more toward the actual bodily resurrection of Jesus than anywhere else.[12]

Were the disciples hallucinating when they saw the risen Jesus? The answer appears to be no. These disciples were "slow to believe," and not susceptible to hallucinations, given their state of mind and miraculous change of confidence. Odd visions or hallucinations would not satisfy them, they based their ministries on hard facts of verifiable experiences, or as Dr. Luke puts it, "many convincing proofs." (Acts 1:3)

T.J. Thorburn conveys that hallucinations have never "stimulated people to undertake a work of enormous magnitude, and, while carrying it out, to lead lives of the most rigid and consistent self-denial, and even suffering. In a word,... we are constrained to agree with Dr. Sanday, who says, 'No apparition, no mere hallucination of the senses, ever yet moved the world."[13] Even as Paul says in 1st Corinthians 15:14, "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." One last point: consider a husband and wife lying in bed at night. The husband turns to his wife and says, "wasn't that a wonderful dream I just had?" The wife would not know, because she cannot have the same dream, likewise, two people experiencing the same hallucination is just as radically postulated - it is an unfounded claim. Claiming that the risen appearances of Jesus were hallucinations, even though He was seen by over 513 people, can be likened unto two people lying in a bed and expecting one to know of the others dream.

Thank you for taking the time to read this entry of "The Truth." Feel free to comment below (but remain civil in your comments), email or the ministry team at, visit our facebook, or visit our ministry website. Take care, dear reader, and may God bless! Troy Hillman

[1] John Shelby Spong, Resurrection: Myth or Reality? (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994), p. 26. Print.
[2] Lewis, C.S. Miracles, A Preliminary Study. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947. Print.
[3] Straton, Hillyer H. "I Believe: Our Lord's Resurrection." Christianity Today. March 31, 1968. Print.
[4] Ibid, Straton.
[5] Christlieb, Theodore. Modern Doubt and Christian Belief. Print. pp. 493-494.
[6] Cited in Gary Habermas and and J.P. Moreland, Immortality: The Other Side of Death. Nashville, Tennesse: Nelson, 1992. p. 60. Print.
[7] Strobel, Lee. The Case For Christ. 1st ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998. 239. Print.
[8] McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands A Verdict. 1st ed. Arrowhead Springs, San Bernardino, CA: Campus Crusade for Christ International, 1972. 264. Print.
[9] Ibid, McDowell.
[10] Ibid, [2]
[11] Jensen, Rev. Gary W. "Were the witnesses hallucinating?." Christian Answers Network. Christian Answers Network, 1998. Web. 29 Mar 2011. .
[12] Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (Fortress Press, 1988), p. 125. Print.
[13] Thorburn, Thomas James. The Resurrection Narratives and Modern Criticism. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Lt.d, 1867. Print.

1 comment:

  1. In the Gospel of Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph twice, once to tell him that he should go ahead and marry Mary, even though she is pregnant (not by him), and then again a couple of years later to warn him of Herod's plan to kill Jesus and that he should take the family to Egypt. The author of Matthew tells us that both of these "appearances" occurred in dreams.

    The question is: Did Joseph believe that God had sent a real angel to him to give him real messages?

    If first century Jews were truly able to distinguish dreams/visions from reality, why would Joseph marry a woman who had been impregnated by someone else just because an angel "appeared" to him in a dream? If first century Jews knew that dreams are not reality, Joseph would have ignored the imaginary angel and his imaginary message. For Joseph to go through with his marriage to a pregnant Mary was a very rare exception to the behavior of people in an Honor-Shame society. His act of obeying an angel in a dream is solid proof that he believed that the angel was real and the message was real.

    And if Joseph understood that dreams are not reality, why would he move his family to a foreign country based only on a dream?

    And how about Paul's dream/vision? Paul saw and heard a talking bright light in a dream. Paul saw the men accompanying him to Damascus collapse to the ground with a dream. Paul reported that these men also saw the light but didn't hear the voice...or heard some kind of noise but didn't see the a dream....depending which passage of Acts you read.

    So it is obvious that first century Jews were just as likely to believe that a dream is reality as some people do today! People have been seeing angels, bright lights and dead people for thousands of their dreams...and have believed that these events are reality.

    So the fact that four, anonymous, first century books contain stories of people "seeing" dead people and even "seeing" large groups of people "seeing" dead people, should come as no surprise.

    They were vivid dreams. Visions. Nothing more.