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:
- 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.
- 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.