On Visions and Resurrections

by Gary J. Whittenberger
In response to advances in higher biblical criticism, science, philosophy, and skepticism, over the past half century many Christian thinkers have retreated from biblical literalism, arguments from authority, and blind faith in scripture. Instead they have begun to rely more on arguments such as “inference to the best explanation” to defend some of their basic beliefs, including and especially the central dogma that Jesus rose from the dead. According to many modern Christian apologists, there are five “facts” surrounding the death of Jesus which must be explained: Jesus was crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem in 30 –33 CE. It was believed at the time that Jesus had died on the cross. Jesus was placed in a tomb on a Friday afternoon. The tomb was found to be empty by one or more women on the following Sunday morning. 5. It was believed that Jesus met with his followers on several occasions after the tomb was found to be empty. Most modern Christian apologists not only think that the resurrection hypothesis explains these five “facts” bette r than any other hypothesis, but they believe it is true beyond a reasonable doubt. The resurrection story became the cornerstone of the Christian faith early when Paul said “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also va in” (I Corinthians 15:14). By contrast, secularists think that other hypotheses explain the “facts” much better, that the resurrection hypothesis is extremely improbable, and that, at this stage in our knowledge, no rational person should believe it. There are many explantations for the origin of the idea of the Christian resurrection, most notably the idea that it developed from the many earlier pagan traditions of dying and rising gods. But I will focus here on a hypothesis that has recently been the target of renewed Christian attack that can account for the “facts” mentioned 1 1. 2. 3. 4.

Lazarus. his corpse was removed from the tomb by unknown persons who placed it in an unknown location. one or more of the intimate disciples of Jesus had an auditory-visual vision or hallucination of Jesus. A man whose body touches Elisha’s bones (2 Kings 13:20–21). Dorcus. The Widow’s son raised by Jesus (Luke 7:12–17). The son of the Widow of Zarephath raised by Elijah (1 Kings 17:21–24). Eutychus. raised by Paul (Acts 20:9–12).at the outset. which he or they interpreted as the “risen Jesus. The Shunammite’s son raised by Elisha (2 Kings 4:32–35).” which became the basis of the Gospel stories and the spreading resurrection belief. Resurrection in the Bible: (from top left to right) The daughter of Jairus raised by Jesus (Mark 5:39–40). This hypothesis may be simply stated: After Jesus died from crucifixion and was placed in the tomb. Furthermore. after the women discovered the tomb to be empty. dead for four days raised by Jesus (John 11:1–45). 2 . or Tabitha raised by Peter (Acts 9:36–43). A number of people raised around the time of the death and resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 27:51–53). The resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28:5 –7) (Luke 24:1–8) (John 20:1–9).

Jesus told them that what had happened to him was a fulfillment of scripture that a special one should suffer.” According to the second story (much more complex than the first).” Then. In Matthew 28:16–20. Even though some of the disciples had doubts about what was happening (unspecified in the text). for the sake of simplicity. Jesus drew attention to his hands and feet and urged the disciples to touch him. I will address only three of the eight appearance stories —the ones in which Jesus appears to a group of most of the disciples. Jesus supposedly instructed the disciples to go out into the world to preach and baptize. The other five stories are not replicated across all three Gospels. taken from Luke 24:36–53. received it. It is now acknowledged by most New Testament scholars that in the original Gospel of Mark there were no stories of Jesus’ post -crucifixion appearances. he urged them to carry his message to the world. apparently to confirm his corporeality. it is said that Jesus met with 11 of his disciples (apparently excluding Judas) on a mountain in Galilee to which he had directed them. In this essay. starting in Jerusalem. Finally. He supposedly opened by saying “Peace be unto you. The story does not say whether they took him up on the offer. These three stories in three different Gospels appear to refer to the same event. In the third story found in John 20:19–23. Luke. and ate it. either 10 or 11 of them. die. apparently to confirm his identity. Jesus asked for food. Then. and be raised from the dead on the third day. and t o defend it against some of the current criticisms of Christian apologists. It is significant that in this account Jesus mentions the three persons who later came to be called the “Trinity. and John. In the Gospels there are eight stories about appearances of Jesus to his followers after his crucifixion. Jesus met with 10 of the disciples (apparently excluding Judas and Thomas) in a closed 3 . These appear near the ends of three of the Gospels—Matthew. Jesus met with an unspecified number of disciples in Jerusalem and nearby Bethany.The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that the hallucination hypothesis is a plausible explanation of the postcrucifixion “appearances” of Jesus. and then he ascended into the sky.

he assigned them the authority to remit sins. only the first of which is considered here. All other elements are unique to the three individual stories. This assumption is justified because all three of the stories share three elements: 1. Only one such meeting is mentioned in Matthew and Luke.room somewhere near Jerusalem supposedly on the same day that the women had found the empty tomb. 2.” and he said this a second time during the meeting. or the product of fabrication. the core of a vision.” I am assuming tha t all three of these stories are referring to the same event. whether that event was an actual meeting of the risen Jesus with the disciples. He urged the disciples to go into the world and preach. they see and hear him. Jesus instructs the group to go out into the world and preach. Jesus meets with a large group of disciples (10 or 11). The meeting occurs post-crucifixion. 4 . Any reasonable hallucination hypothesis must provide an adequate account of this basic narrative in which Jesus meets with the large group of disciples. A careful analysis shows that there are only two other elements that are common to two of the three stories (Luke and John)—Jesus says “Peace be unto you. He drew attention to his hands and side (not his feet). 3. and he breathed on them the “Holy Ghost. In this account Jesus also started by saying “Peace be unto you.” and he draws attention to his hands. but two similar meetings are mentioned in John.

Licona cites psychologist Gary A. it is highly likely that one or more of them had something like a “grief hallucination” shortly after his assumed death. finding that 39% of his sample “felt the presence” of the deceased. that is. Perhaps the most common objection to the hallucination hypothesis is that it is impossible or improbable that 10 or 11 disciples would have had the same hallucination of Jesus at the same time. and were greatly bereaved upon learning of his crucifixion. Sibcy. all of the people may be in the frame of mind to hallucinate. loved him deeply. This one hallucination (or two) probably formed the basis of the single appearance story discussed earlier. it must likewise be proposed that when these hallucinations occurred.Given that Jesus’ disciples lived with him for two or three years. an event for which more than one person purportedly shared in a visual or other sensory perception where there was clearly no external referent.”5 To support his position. who writes: “I<have yet to find a single documented case of a group hallucination. He writes: “About 15 percent of the population experience one or more hallucinations during their lifetime” and “senior adults who are in the midst of bereaving the loss of a loved one belong to a group that experiences one of the highest percentages of hallucinations: a whopping 50 percent!” 1 In a study from 1971. 13% heard him/her. 2 In a more recent study from 1993. 14% saw him/her. who dismisses any hallucination hypothesis. Licona says “Moreover. and even 2% felt the touch of the dead loved one. Christian apologist Michael Licona. Grimby found that 50% of her grieving sample “felt the presence” of the deceased. In a group. it would be surprising if one or two of the 10 or 11 (9–20%) did not experience a hallucination of Jesus. nevertheless provides some current data that supports this idea. 26% saw him/her. but each experiences hallucinations on an individual basis. and 30% heard him/her.” 6 5 . A. they just happened to do so simultaneously.”4 Elsewhere he and Gary Habermas note “we know that hallucinations are private occurrences. 3 Given the conditions in which the disciples found themselves. For example. William Rees tallied different types of hallucinations within a bereaved sample. which occur in the mind of an individual. They are not collective experiences. Nor will they experience the same hallucination.

it could. all of the people may be in the frame of mind to hallucinate. 1971.7 Lucia de Jesus dos Santos and her two cousins saw the Blessed Mary several times. Let us suppose for a moment that only one disciple had a grief hallucination of Jesus. Suffice it to say. Sibcy did not find the documented cases discovered by investigative journalist and paranormal researcher Joe Nickell: Eugene Barbadette. assumed to have been dead. 9 The reports of these three cases resemble our target story about Jesus’ meeting with the disciples in the sense that more than one person “saw and heard” another person. Could this happen? Even Habermas and Licona admit. this is also true for the Jesus story. a religious figure. one disciple might have had an auditory/visual hallucination not only of Jesus but of his fellow disciples within the same perceptual frame. Could this account for our target story? Yes.” 10 Different people in a group can hallucinate at the same time! This is more likely if the people share a common psychological context than if they do not. And still. A report of this experience could be easily transformed into the story “The disciples met with the risen Jesus. Portugal. on January 17. “In a group. it is possible for more than one person in a group to have a hallucination with similar content. in Fatima. Spain. Surely. 8 More recently. the rumor which was passed around could have been “The disciples met with the risen Jesus. if the disciples were meeting together and 6 . and others saw the Virgin Mary at Pontmain. Here’s how: While by himself. one disciple might have had the hallucination of Jesus only. on July 2. but this was combined in the same perceptual frame with a sensing of the other disciples actually present.Apparently. 1961. including the sighting on July 13. In the three cases cited by Nickel. his brother Joseph. it can be assumed that there was “no external referent” since there were other persons present at the time who neither saw nor heard the Blessed Mary. Although a “conspiracy of deception” hypothesis might be a plausible alternative to the “shared hallucination” hypothesis for these cases. France.” Now let’s deal with the possibility that two disciples in a group had the same hallucination of Jesus at the same time.” Another plausible alternative is that while in the presence of the other disciples. 1817. Maria Cruz Gonzalez and her three companions also saw the mother of Jesus in the little village of San Sebastian de Garabandal.

they would be sharing a common psychological context. pedagogical. and it would not be particularly surprising if more than one of them hallucinated Jesus within the same short period of time. The two disciples might have simply agreed afterwards that they saw/heard Jesus. they would likely show variation in details such as what Jesus was wearing. But would their hallucinations be identical? Of course not! But might they be similar? Yes. The empty tomb is explained by a different hypothesis — unknown 7 . how injured he looked. primarily designed for theological. and ascended into the sky. of course they don’t! They aren’t supposed to.grieving the death of their beloved Jesus. if the reports of these experiences had been carefully compared in some kind of debriefing. Habermas and Licona contend “hallucinations do not account for the empty tomb. Particularly striking is the alleged statement of Jesus “Peace be unto you” which appears once in the Luke version and twice in the John version of the post-crucifixion story. what gestures he used.” This hallucination either included the other disciples in the perceptual frame or was experienced in their presence. Any rumor that subsequently led to our targeted Gospel story might have been based on only a single report from one of the two simultaneously hallucinating disciples or on a melding of two reports. My hypothesis is that during the week after the crucifixion of Jesus one influential disciple (perhaps two) had an auditory-visual grief hallucination of Jesus who said “Peace be unto you.”11 Well. In their critique of the hallucination hypotheses. Because it is short and pithy and it is the type of thing that Jesus might have said to his disciples over and over again when he was alive —as a greeting or as a good-bye—it is a good candidate for inclusion in a grief hallucination. or apologetic purposes. they might. Two disciples might have had simultaneous hallucinations of Jesus which. and what he said and did. My hypothesis ac counts for the “facts” of our case and is far more likely to be true than the hypothesis that Jesus died. came back to life. met with his disciples. I suspect that a report of this hallucination formed the core of our target story and that the other details of the three Gospel versions of the story are embellishments. but never compared their individual experiences in any detail.

Habermas and Licona fail to connect the right hypothesis to the right “fact” to be explained. But the disciples after Jesus’ crucifixion were utterly crushed and in no frame of mind to hallucinate. the prominent Christian apologist William Lane Craig has commented: “The disciples were not psychologically disposed to produce hallucinations. Craig has asserted that a hallucination hypothesis cannot account for several facts. there are good reasons to believe that grief hallucinations about Jesus would be more likely to occur if the tomb were found to be empty than if it were found to still contain the body of Jesus. Visions require either a special state of mind or artificial stimulus through medicines in order to occur. On the other hand. for example.persons removed the corpse from the tomb and placed it in an unknown location.”12 In point of fact.” Setting aside cases of extreme mental illness and substance intoxication. it is because the disciples were “utterly crushed” they were in a “special state of mind” which made them highly “disposed to produce hallucinations. He writes. On this matter. in the grief hallucination hypothesis. The knowledge of the empty tomb would set the stage for one part of the mind of a bereaved disciple to subconsciously create a hallucination of Jesus and interpret it as support for the “risen Jesus” idea. but he appears to be mistaken in all respects. “it cannot explain how in so short a time hallucinatory experiences could be completely transformed 8 . profound grief may be the special state of mind most often associated with the experience of hallucinations.

Craig presents no evidence to support his assumption that they “had absolutely no control on the development. the actual time gap between hallucination and gospel narrative would not have been “so short a time.14 But even if they were alive. a person 9 . the probability that a person would have been this old in the first century would have been less than . Second. there would be a very good reason why they might have lost control over their initial reports — they were probably dead by the time the Gospel narratives were written! A disciple only 20 years old in 30 CE—roughly when Jesus was crucified—would have to have been between 60 and 90 years old when the three Gospels were written.into the gospel appearance stories. However. especially if they repeated the report of their hallucinatory experience. has noted. the experiences would not have been completely transformed into the gospel narratives. Finally. the most prolific of the hallucination critics. Further.” which will be discussed in greater detail below. and this conclusion is supported by the words in Matthew “but some doubted.” They pr obably had some control. “The theory cannot account for the early believers’ distinguishing precisely between a mere vision and an actual appearance of Jesus. but some do not—they sincerely believe that their loved one was present. Craig proclaims.”15 Surely some who experience grief hallucinations conclude afterwards that they were hallucinating. Craig. the disciples were probably too far removed in terms of geographical distance and competence in the Greek language from the actual Gospel writers to have significant influence after rumors had spread. but would have formed the core of the narratives and been embellished.02. According to a life expectancy table presented by historian Richard Carrier. Craig asserts that the hallucination hypothesis cannot explain “why the eyewitnesses to those experiences should have had absolutely no control on the development of the accounts of what had really happened. There probably was a mixture of opinion about the appearance of Jesus among the disciples.” 13 In this case we must assume that the “eyewitnesses to those experiences” are identical to the hallucinating persons.” but would have been 40–70 years! As well. “Hallucinations would never have led to the conclusion that Jesus had been raised from the dead<in a hallucination.”13 First.

Craig thinks that because the disciples were Jews they would never have come to this conclusion because their religion required them to believe that no resurrections would occur before all persons were raised from the dead at the end of times. But as we shall see.” it is probable that at least one or two of the disciples would have concluded that Jesus had been raised from the dead. on close examination. Didn’t they know that some Jews thought that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead (Mark 6:14)? Didn’t they have the example of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1 –46)? Didn’t they hear the stories of individual resurrections described in their scriptures? Didn’t Jesus repeatedly tell them that he wou ld come back to life in roughly three days (Mark 8:31. The disciples already believed in the possibility—or even the reality—of individual resurrections.” there is nothing new or “utterly foreign” here to the disciples’ minds. and then “saw and heard” Jesus in a grief hallucination which he thought was “real. 18:33. Craig seems to be confusing the raw hallucination experience “That is my Lord standing there!” with the conclusion “Jesus must have come back to life. John 2:19)? Another possibility is that the disciples might have believed that Jesus was the first to be resurrected at the end of times about to commence. Luke 9:22. a person can experience something new in the sense that he/she may creatively combine snippets of past perceptions into a unique combination. 20:19. 16:21. In this process the hallucination does not “exceed the content of the person’s mind. If a disciple believed that Jesus had died during the crucifixion.17 However. 17:23. 10:34. That is because the hallucination cannot exceed the content of the person’s mind. even though they are related. and to an intense grief hallucination taken as “real. Adding these familiar ideas of individual and final-days’ resurrections to their knowledge of the crucifixion and the empty tomb. this makes little sense. given the content of a hallucination in which Jesus is seen and heard to say to his assembled disciples “Peace be unto you.experiences nothing new.” The two are not the same.” then it would be easy or natural for him to conclude that Jesus had come back to life.” However. Had these 10 .”16 In a hallucination. the resurrection of Jesus involved ideas utterly foreign to the disciples’ minds. knew that the tomb was empty. Matthew 12:40. as well as in a dream.

group loyalty. In Luke. Jesus discusses the fulfillment of scripture in Luke. but not in Luke and John. but this does not happen in the other two versions. most of the others would have gone along with them. The specification of places. we would expect that the Gospel writers would have done careful research and gotten the major details correct. The stories are written in the third-person rather than in the first-person. Jesus specifically mentions the three components of the Trinity. pressures to conform. which would have been the likely reporting mode of an actual eyewitness or hallucinating subject. Jesus gives his disciples the authority to forgive sins and breathes the Holy Spirit onto them. it is not likely that we would see the differences in major details that we actually see in the three versions of the story from the different Gospels. such as Peter or John. yielding a more consistent story from Gospel to Gospel. If a risen Jesus actually met with his disciples. Jesus ate food in Luke’s account. but not in the other two versions. In John. There are no good reasons to conclude that these stories were written by any of the disciples or actual contemporaries of Jesus. and times is unreliable. The authors clearly identify neither themselves nor any sources they might have used. Jesus allegedly meets with the disciples in Galilee. The different details point to competing theologies. Heightened emotion.disciples been leaders. These differences are not about piddling details. dates. but in Luke and John. in John he focuses on his hands and side. but not in Matthew’s and John’s. Unfortunately. Jesus draws attention to his hands and feet. In Matthew. they are about major points! If a risen Jesus had actually met with his disciples. If all 10 or 11 disciples had written (or even dictated) clear and comprehensive independent first-hand 11 . and/or to efforts to answer or silence critics. attempts to fill in gaps. he supposedly meets with them in or near Jerusalem. the Gospel stories about the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus constitute poor evidence for approaching a confirmation or a disconfirmation of either the hallucination hypothesis or the resurrection hypothesis. In Matthew. but in Matthew he mentions none of these. and wishful thinking would have facilitated the adoption of the resurrection belief by most of the group. Why? These stories were written 40–70 years after the crucifixion.

Referring to our same target story. then it is very likely that some would doubt. Matthew 28:17 states “And when they saw him they worshiped him. then we’d be able to compare the reports and come much closer to the truth. the alleged appearance of Jesus.” This means that at the same time in which the disciples saw and worshiped Jesus. it is very unlikely that some would doubt. A detail cited earlier tips the balance of evidence in favor of the hallucination hypothesis and against the resurrection hypothesis. However. On the other hand. If we had this kind of evidence. and it certainly has a much greater a priori probability than does the resurrection hypothesis.reports about their experience of. but some doubted. 12 . some in the group doubted! But how many doubted and who were they? What did they doubt? Did they doubt that Jesus was actually present? Did they not have a hallucination that others had? Did they have a hallucination that others had but concluded that it did not represent the real presence of Jesus? Did they think that a man in front of them was not actually Jesus but somebody else? We can’t answer these questions. if one or two disciples experienced a hallucination of Jesus and the others did not. if the resurrection hypothesis were true and Jesus was really standing among his disciples. or connection to. What we can firmly conclude with the evidence we have is that the hallucination hypothesis cannot be ruled out. then we’d have some good evidence to work with.

It is not uncommon for people to be willing to become martyrs on account of their sincerely held religious beliefs.). Rees. or have already been. W. The hallucination hypothesis was applied here to only one alleged post-crucifixion appearance of Jesus summarized in three Gospel stories.Christian apologists often say that most of the disciples were eventually killed because they refused to recant their belief in the resurrection of Jesus and that this would not have occurred if they knew their belief had come from their own or someone else’s fabrication. 177. Licona.” British Medical Journal 4. History. Secular or naturalistic hypotheses easily account for the data we have. William Dembski and Michael R. 1971. For the most part. and Science . “The Hallucinations of Widowhood. Although it does seem unlikely that they would die for a lie. 13 . The 9-11 terrorist attacks are ample evidence of this. D. Licona (Eds. the resurrection hypothesis is “superimprobable. 2. it appears that a hallucination hypothesis is far superior to a resurrection hypothesis in accounting for the “facts” of the post-crucifixion story.37: 37–41. Michael R. attacks on hallucination hypotheses by Christian apologists have been ill conceived and uninformed by modern psychology. “Were the Resurrection Appearances of Jesus Hallucinations?” Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible. Secular or naturalistic hypotheses must be.18 It is not clear from the record that all those disciples who were executed were killed specifically because of their belief in the resurrection. Grand Rapids: Baker Books. developed to account for them. it seems plausible or even likely that they would die because of a hallucination which they were unable to distinguish from reality. Philosophy. It may or may not apply to the other five appearance stories.”19 and thus at this state of our knowledge we should be skeptical of it. References 1. but let’s suppose that some of them were. 2010. Based on careful examination of the Gospels and our current knowledge of the human mind.

2011.1: 72–80. Joe. Gary J.. 10. Stigmata. Post-bereavement Hallucinations and Quality of Life. Craig. 98. 107.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandanavica 87. 16. Gary R. New York: Brunner-Routledge. Grand Rapids: Kregel. 19. 174. Habermas.3. 2010. Relics. 18.” Accessed September 7. 119. 2004. Richard C. 14 .richardcarrier. 14. Cited in Archer. 2004. 176–177. Nickell. 2000. 59. 13. 1999. 9. Craig. Licona. 129. 8. 5. The Nature of Grief: The Evolution and Psychology of Reactions to Loss. 12. Nickell. God Wants You to be an Atheist: The Startling Conclusion from a Rational Analysis . Licona. “Bereavement Among Elderly People: Grief Reactions. and Michael R. New York: Prometheus. Nickell. Habermas and Licona. 120. 11. William Lane. Eugene. 121. Craig. Craig. Licona. The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus.1993. Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons. 120. A. 181–182. 6. http://www. Habermas and Licona. 79. Habermas and Licona. John. “Reply to McFall on Jesus as a Philosopher. Amherst. Carrier. 106. Craig.info/McFallRebuttal1. 177. Denver: Outskirts Press. 106. 4. Grimby. 17. Visions & Healing Cures. 1998. Whittenberger. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.html#s9 15. 7. 178. Oregon: Wipf and Stock.

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