Hallucination Theory: Who’s Imagining Things?

Some skeptics have used the hallucination theory to explain the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus – i.e. the records of Jesus speaking with and eating with groups of his disciples beginning the third day after his public execution. After I briefly review the basic reasons why hallucination theory is implausible in the case of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, I’ll raise some questions about the tenability of the grief-hallucination argument in the broader historical and religious settings.

When we speak of grief hallucinations, it is likely that we may know someone who has had a grief hallucination. I have had people tell me about their own grief hallucinations. But how did they come to know it was a hallucination? People discover their own mistakes because grief hallucinations do not stand the test of close contact, the test of repeated occurrence, and the test of cross-validation by other people at the same time and place. It is not enough to claim that grief hallucinations are common. In order to explain Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in this way, it is also necessary to maintain that the people all had the same grief-hallucinations and further that they never recognized the unreality of it. In the case of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, we have close contact, repeated occurrence, and cross-validation by other people at the same time and place. One of the distinguishing marks of either hallucination or vision is that other people present do not see and hear the same thing. In the case of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the disciples, other people present did see and hear the same thing; therefore it was neither vision nor hallucination. Hallucinations have never been especially plausible for explaining close and extended contacts (conversations, meals) with people personally well-known, and in company of other close companions. The hallucination theory is implausible for the kinds of appearances described by the early followers of Jesus in the early Christian records.

Some other quick points about the hallucination theory of post-resurrection appearances in a more generalized context:

  1. If grief-hallucinations of that type are common, then there should be other records like that of Jesus, records in which all of the close companions of a person who died were recorded to have spoken with and eaten meals with the person who had died, and done this in the company of other close companions. There should be other records of resurrections where the witnesses stood by their accounts seriously enough to cause the writing of a number of same-century accounts. Given the supposedly uncritical approach of peoples’ minds throughout most of human history, and the supposed prevalence of mere superstitious bias, it should be no problem for the skeptic to produce a number of bogus resurrections from the historical record with just as solid evidence as that of Jesus – witnesses of death, witnesses of an empty tomb, multiple attestation to post-resurrection appearances to close companions with details of meals eaten and conversations, names of witnesses, dates of events.
  2. Given the importance of the topic of whether there is life after death and the importance of religion in most peoples’ minds, if supposed hallucinations of this extent, detail, and duration had in fact ever happened before, we might expect to find that would have given rise to another major religion which had the same kind of attestations to post-resurrection appearances of their founder.

Lacking that same kind of evidence for other resurrections, we are left with this conclusion: When Jesus’ disciples said they had spoken with him and eaten with him after his execution, they were not hallucinating.


Peter Kirby said…
You're imagining that the disciples were eating when they had these theorized hallucinations. You don't reference any particular skeptic, but I don't know of a single one who holds to a "hallucination hypothesis" and thinks that the stories of Jesus eating fish and bread with the disciples after the resurrection are accurate. So when you write "i.e." in your first sentence, you are defining the appearances by your own beliefs, not according to the theory you purport to describe. A stronger argument would either show that the theory includes that Jesus ate (or appeared to eat) with the disciples, or, short of that, demonstrate that in fact the accounts are accurate. This argument has done neither.

As far as "conversations," while the exact dialogues portrayed in the NT and noncanonical resurrection appearances may be implausible in the context of a hallucination, verbal exchanges [b]are[/b] a very common characteristic of hallucination. Yes, the mind can generate both halves of the exchange, not unlike it does in sleep.

best wishes,
Peter Kirby
Weekend Fisher said…
Hi Peter

When you commented, "You're imagining that the disciples were eating when they had these theorized hallucinations" -- um, no, actually when I said that Jesus had eaten with them, the records in Luke show that the disciples gave Jesus fish, and in John likewise. I wasn't 100% sure if you were trying to take the ancient Christian records and sweep them under the rug of "your belief", but that's not a move that I find especially plausible either.

Sure, in a short blog we leave ground uncovered -- but mostly due to overfamiliarity! The fact remains that the hallucination theory remains a poor explanation for the records that we have, and that the typical arguments supporting them shoot themselves in the foot as I was discussing.

* For all the "commonness" of grief hallucinations, they're also typically self-correcting.

* If "common grief hallucinations" were an adequate explanation, we should find many other examples of "resurrections" in the major religions; we don't.

* If "common grief halluciations" were an adequate explanation, we should find many other claims of resurrections and empty tombs, possibly spawning other religions; we don't.

"Grief hallucination" just doesn't fly as an explanation for what we see in the NT narratives.

Take care & God bless
Gary said…
Were Jesus' disciples capable of differentiating between a vivid dream and reality?

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 him...in 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 light...in 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 years...in 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.

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