Can the rise of Christianity be explained by the occurrence of hallucinations? Were the disciples only seeing things that weren’t really there?
Perhaps no other objection to the Resurrection has been more thoroughly examined than the Hallucination Theory. The knockout blows to this thesis have been delivered more eloquently and thoroughly than I ever could by those credentialed in the field of psychology. We’ll touch on a few of those points for the sake of being comprehensive but for this post, I’d like to take a simpler approach.
The only two points we need to effectively denounce this theory are the witnesses at the tomb and Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples. Why are these important? They completely rewrite the groundwork this theory needs to have a sturdy leg to stand upon. The major problem with the theroy is that it takes the religious mentality of those in the 21st century and in very recent history and projects them onto those of the 1st with no real justification for doing so. Additionally, it shows an appalling disregard to the social and religious context (this mentality we have already touched on in this post and the same principle applies here) of which we aim to correct here.
The witnesses of the empty tomb is an important piece of evidence because it has not one or two but potentially five or six different eyewitnesses coming from different backgrounds, providing a broad and varied spectrum of “superstition.” These eyewitnesses are:
- Joanna (wife of Chuza) (Luke 24:10)
- Mary Magdaline (Mark 16:1, John 20:1)
- Mary, the mother of James and Joses/Joseph (Mark 15:47)
- Mary, wife of Clopas (John 19:25)
- Salome, Jesus’ aunt and the mother of James and John the elder (Mark 15:40, 16:1)
- Potentially other women who we do not know about (Luke 23:55)
- Those who find the tomb empty later.
Joanna was the wife of Herod’s “steward.” As such, she was an upper-class member and most likely lived in a palace in Galilee. She probably wasn’t someone given to superstition nor was she lacking in anything that would cause her to become mentally ill.
Mary Magdalene we know almost nothing about so she’s difficult to asses either way. Was she a madwoman who gave herself easily to delusion or superstition? Probably not, but we have no real way of finding out.
Although they were not present at the tomb when the women arrived, we also have Nicodemus the Pharisee who, along with Joseph of Arimathea, helped bury the body of Jesus in the tomb. These two were members of the distinguished, educated, and, we must add, very skeptical Sanhedrin. These two weren’t likely to give in to superstition and sudden mental illness.
This is half of the groundwork laid. We have a vast array of characters present at the burial and the empty tomb giving us a wide spectrum of superstition, from the highly educated upper-class citizens Nicodemus and Joseph, the wealthy and well-travelled Joanna, the relatives of Jesus, and the lower-class citizen Mary Magdalene, in addition to potentially more. We do not have one unified personality profile, which is precisely what the Hallucination Theory needs if it’s to get off the ground: people of a similar mentality, from similar backgrounds (as in all experiencing things that wore on their mental health), and suffering and/or presently desiring the same thing. This latter point brings us to the second part of our foundation.
For the Hallucination Theory to work it needs the appropriate conditions for a collective hallucination. These are:
- Emotional Excitement
- Prior Information
Do these fit the picture of the disciples we see in Acts and the Gospels?
The disciples believed Jesus was going to conquer Rome and free Israel. They did not believe He would suffer the horrific act of crucifixion at the hands of their enemies. The disciples’ lack of faith and understanding that he would rise from the dead has been an embarrassment to the church ever since.
From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. (Matthew 16:21-22)
The disciples had no expectation of a resurrection.
Once again, we have a very broad range of personalities here. The disciples, during this time, were filled with despair, grief, dejection, apathy and skepticism (John 20:25, Matthew 28.17; Luke 24:37-43), and fear (John 20:19). Even when they saw Jesus they still didn’t believe, for they thought they were seeing a spirit (Luke 24:97). There was no emotional excitement, even when they were looking into the empty tomb themselves (!) (John 20:9-10).
Be Informed In Ways That Would Precondition Them To Believe In The Hallucination:
No one expected or looked forward to a resurrection from the dead. Even when they were confronted with the appearances they remained bewildered and uncertain. The disciples were afraid when Jesus appeared to them (Matthew 28:10), the women at the tomb were confused by the sudden disappearance of the body (Luke 24:4), when they told the news to the disciples they still didn’t believe it (Luke 24:11), and even when they saw and knew it was Jesus some still doubted what it meant (Matthew 28:17). No one was waiting for a Resurrection, and if they did hallucinate a living Jesus, they would have interpreted it as they expected it: as a spirit who had ascended like Elijah and not as a physical, risen, glorified body (Acts 12:13-15), which is something that has only ever been applied to Jesus. No one was prepared to witness a resurrection nor did they know that such a thing could ever happen (Mark 9:9-10; John 20:9; Luke 18:34).
With our groundwork laid it becomes clear that the Hallucination Theory severely lacks appropriateness and relevancy to the situation. And we aren’t finished just yet.
Further Problems With The Theory
Let’s briefly touch on a few of the relevant points in objection to the Hallucination Theory already offered by many Christian apologists.
(1) The mass hallucination was said to have happened to over five-hundred people, of whom the majority were still alive at the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:6). A mass hallucination involving over five-hundred people, who all saw the same thing with no variation (Jesus wasn’t reported to have been 50 feet tall on one instance, have orange and blue hair on another, or grew wings and flew like a bird on another, etc.), at roughly the same time and proximity is an extraordinary claim that flies in the face of all we know about psychology.
(2) This hallucination lasted forty days (Acts 1:3). A hallucination will last a few minutes, maybe an hour or two, but not for days on end.
(3) The things this hallucination did were often completely unexpected and caught the disciples by surprise. (Luke 24:25-27; Acts 1:4,9).
(4) Only a real person could do and say the things Jesus did. Hallucinations do not eat real, tangible food (Luke 24:42-43; John 21:1-14) and no one saw anything different.
(5) The Hallucination Theory quickly ends up refuting what it set out to accomplish. In order for a mass hallucination about one person to be possible, this must imply that Jesus was far, far more than a humble moral teacher from Bethleham. A simple teacher who did nothing but teach from the Old Testament wouldn’t have created a devotion in His followers so great that they would all start hallucinating His resurrection and Lordship in the face of His death.
(6) The Christians understood what visions were and always interpreted them as such (Luke 1:5-23; Matthew 1:20; Acts 9:10-16; 10:3-6; 10:9-17; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10). Not a single person saw Jesus’ resurrection as anything other than physical and objective (see our series on Defining The Resurrection).
(7) The Hallucination Theory also cannot account for the empty tomb, and the answers we raised there still need to be addressed.
(8) Finally, how does a mere hallucination revolutionize an entire theology, (i.e. where religion and salvation turned from works and faith to faith alone through grace) (Ephesians 2:8-9)?
None of this brings this study to a complete close but for what we set out to accomplish, I believe this is more than an adequate answer to this widely popular objection. Critics who see the Hallucination Theory as probable and reasonable in light of the historical evidence might just be seeing something that isn’t really there.