A Look At Resurrection of Jesus: Why the Hallucination Hypothesis Fails

In his recent book called The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, New Testament historian Mike Licona discusses what is called “The Historical Bedrock.” These three facts about the Historical Jesus are held by many critical scholars and historians.

The three points included as part of The Historical Bedrock are:

1. Jesus’ death by crucifixion

2. Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.

3. Within a few years after Jesus death, Paul became a follower of Jesus after a personal experience that he interpreted as a post resurrection appearance of Jesus to him.

Licona is more than aware that just because there is a list of agreed upon facts that is agreed upon by historians and Biblical scholars will not make it true. If so, that would be what is called a “consensus gentium fallacy” which is the fallacy of arguing that an idea is true because most people believe it. As Licona says, “Something doesn’t become a “fact” just because the majority of scholars believe it.” (pg 279).

However, as Gary Habermas says, “Certainly one of the strongest methodological indications of historicity occurs when a case can be built on accepted data that are recognized as well established by a wide range of otherwise diverse historians.” (see Norman L. Geisler and Paul K. Hoffman, Why I Am A Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks, 2001), 152.

After looking at #2, 3, I find it interesting that many New Testament scholars/historians agree that the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them. I know that many of them won’t say the bodily resurrection of Jesus is what explains the appearances. But I want to mention few quotes here:

“We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that . . . he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.” (Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, pg 230).

“That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.” (E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, pg 280)

“That the experiences did occur, even if they are explained in purely natural terms, is a fact upon which both believer and unbeliever can agree.” (Reginald H. Fuller, Foundations of New Testament Christology, 142)

Now I am not going to argue for Jesus’ existence or that he died by Roman crucifixtion. Even two people who are by no means Orthodox Christians say the following:

Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be. For if no follower of Jesus had written anything for one hundred years after his crucifixion we would still know about him from two authors not among his supporters. Their names are Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus.” – John Dominic Crossan, Co-founder of The Jesus Seminar Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, pg 145

“Jesus death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.”- Atheist Gerd Ludemann-The Resurrection of Christ, Pg 50.

Instead, I want to focus on #2, and #3:

2. Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.

3. Within a few years after Jesus death, Paul became a follower of Jesus after a personal experience that he interpreted as a post resurrection appearance of Jesus to him.

Most skeptics have tried to postulate that the best explanation for the resurrection appearances are hallucinations. I think this has some problems and here is why:

First, I think the hallucination hypothesis has weak explanatory power. It would have to explain the following:

1.The Empty Tomb: If there was an hallucination, you would still have an empty tomb.

2. The birth of the early Messianic Movement/Christianity: Historians can observe the effect- the birth of Christianity pre-70 AD. And given the issues in our previous post,the historical question at hand is the cause for the birth of this new religious movement.In the words of N.T. Wright:

“ If nothing happened to the body of Jesus, I cannot see why any of his explicit or implicit claims should be regarded as true. What is more, I cannot as a historian, see why anyone would have continued to belong to his movement and to regard him as the Messiah. There were several other Messianic or quasi-Messianic movements within a hundred years either side of Jesus. Routinely, they ended with the leader being killed by authorities, or by a rival group. If your Messiah is killed, you conclude that he was not the Messiah. Some of those movements continued to exist; where they did, they took a new leader from the same family (But note: Nobody ever said that James, the brother of Jesus, was the Messiah.) Such groups did not go around saying that their Messiah had been raised from the dead. What is more, I cannot make sense of the whole picture, historically or theologically, unless they were telling the truth.” (John Dominic Crossan and N.T Wright, The Resurrection of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2006), 71.

3. The major shift in the devotional practice of the early Jewish believers: One specialist in the area of early Christianity is Larry Hurtado. Hurtado describes the early devotion to Jesus as a “mutation.” One of the primary factors that Hurtado presents for the cause of this “mutation” in the context of Jewish monotheism is the resurrection itself and the post-resurrection appearances.

4. A very high view of Jesus/his deity very shortly after His death and resurrection: Let’s look at this quote by Greg Boyd/Paul Eddy in The Jesus Legend A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition,

“During the reign of Pilate and Herod, when Caiaphas was high priest, we find a Jewish movement arising that worships a recent contemporary alongside and in a similar manner as Yahweh-God. To call this development “novel” is a significant understatement. In truth, it constitutes nothing less than a massive paradigm shift in the first century Palestinian Jewish religious worldview.” (Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition (Grand Rapids: MI: Baker Books, 2007), 132.

5. Why the Jewish believers insisted on preaching a material resurrection to their Jewish countrymen (they could have preached translation); they also preached a material resurrection to Gentiles/Greeks who did not uphold a resurrection. N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God shows that the Greek word for resurrection which is “anastasis” was used by ancient Jews, pagans, and Christians as bodily in nature, with this being the case until much later(A.D. 200).

Furthermore, the resurrection appearances do not meet three criteria for a collective hallucination:

As Glen Miller points out:

1. Expectation plays the coordinating role in collective hallucinations

2. Emotional excitement is a prerequisite

3. Those involved must be informed beforehand, at least concerning the broad outlines of the phenomenon that will constitute the collective hallucination.

When we examine the resurrection appearances, they fail to meet these three criteria.

Also, the hallucination hypothesis fails the test of plausability:

To try to make the hallucination hypothesis plausible, one must psychoanalyze Peter, Paul, and those that Jesus appeared to. You can try to psychoanalyze someone in front of you, but it is very hard to do it with historical figures.

Futhermore, as Licona points out:

1. Since a hallucination is an event that occurs in the mind of an individual and has no external reality, one person cannot participate in another’s hallucination. In this sense, they are like dreams.

2. If a group hallucination had actually occurred, it would have been more likely that the disciples would have experienced their hallucinations in different modes. Perhaps one would have said, “I see Jesus over by the door,” while another said, “No. I see him floating by the ceiling,” while still another said, “No. I only hear him speaking to me,” while still another said, “I only sense that he’s in the room with us.”

Finally, Licona spoke to Gary A. Sibcy is a licensed clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology who has as interest in the possibility of group hallucinations. He comments:

“I have surveyed the professional literature (peer-reviewed journal articles and books) written by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other relevant healthcare professionals during the past two decades and have yet to find a single documented case of a group hallucination, that is, an event for which more than one person purportedly shared in a visual or other sensory perception where there was clearly no external referent (personal correspondence with this author on 3.10.09).”


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