3. Hallucination Theory

Some critics argue that Jesus did appear to his disciples after death, but he only appeared to appear. They argue that it is more likely that the disciples had a mass hallucination that Jesus had risen from the dead. However, a number of counterarguments can be made regarding this view:

First, we would still have to account for the origin of this hallucinated belief. If the thought of a resurrection did not come from Jewish or Pagan thought, then where did it come from? As N.T. Wright has demonstrated, these people didn’t have a category for a physical resurrection from the dead. If they saw a vision of the risen Jesus, this would not have led them to believe that he was raised from the dead, but rather, that he was a spiritual apparition. In other words, if one of these people saw a vision of a deceased person, this would not have confirmed the view that they were alive; rather, it would have confirmed the view that they were dead. Wright explains,

Everyone in the ancient world took it for granted that people had strange experiences of encountering dead people. They knew at least as much as we do about visions, ghosts, dreams, and the fact that when somebody is grieving over a person who has just died, they sometimes see, briefly, a figure that seems to be like that person appearing to them. This is not a modern invention or discovery; ancient literature is full of it. They had language for that sort of phenomena, and that language was not ‘resurrection.’ They described these situations as a kind of angelic experience.[1]

For instance, in Acts 12, Peter physically appeared to Rhoda, but the disciples believed that this was “his angel” (Acts 12:15). The disciples had the same belief when they saw Jesus walking on water, thinking he was a “ghost” (Mt. 14:26).

Second, this would not account for the empty tomb. What would the religious leaders or the Romans have to do if the disciples were merely hallucinating a resurrected Christ? They would simply have to produce the body, which was interred in the grave. A hallucination would not make the dead body disappear.

Third, the hallucination theory also does not account for the number of hallucinations, which would need to coincide in unison. Paul writes that Christ appeared multiple times to multiple people. At one point, he appeared to 500 all at once (1 Corinthians 15:6). Imagine the improbability of someone taking acid, hallucinating that a giant pink bear was skipping through a meadow and smelling flowers. “That’s not that improbable,” you might say. But now, imagine four people dropping acid and all imagining the same bear and the same meadow and the same flowers. Now imagine 500 people? Such a mass hallucination is said to be medically impossible. Moreland explains four features that always accompany hallucination, and then he writes, “None of these features adequately describe the New Testament experiences.”[2] For these reasons, the hallucination hypothesis does not account for the historical facts.

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[1] Evans, Craig A., N. T. Wright, and Troy A. Miller. Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009. 101.

[2] Moreland, James Porter. Scaling the Secular City: a Defense of Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987. 177.