Must Be Seeing Things: Grief-induced Hallucination and the Resurrection of Jesus

Chris Price Articles, Parents, Youth 1 Comment

Liberal Scholars & The Resurrection of Jesus

The first disciples were devastated by the death of Jesus and, in their grief, they longed for His return. Out of these longings they projected the appearances of Jesus that led to a belief in the resurrection and the birth of the Christian church. The disciples had a ‘resurrection’ of the heart, or a visionary experience that they communicated to others through the Jewish category of resurrection.

This is one popular attempt, often suggested by various liberal[1] scholars, to explain the transformed lives of the disciples, their claims about Jesus, and the origin of the Christian church. In this short article, I will present a few reasons why the hallucination/visionary hypothesis fails to convincingly explain the Easter origin of the church and its belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.[2]

What About the Empty Tomb?

Hallucinations or visions don’t explain the empty tomb. We can be reasonably certain the tomb was empty for numerous reasons including: the empty tomb narrative is found in the early source material Mark includes in his Gospel, the story is multiply attested to by all the Gospel writers, the placement of the women as the first witnesses to the empty tomb is an unlikely creation of the Evangelists, and so on and so on. If the appearances of Jesus were just hallucinations or visionary experiences, His body would have still been in the tomb and the enemies of the early Christian movement would have just produced his corpse. To quote Dr. William Lane Craig, “Jesus’ body was not to be found. That is the decisive argument against the religious hallucination hypothesis. For it is impossible that Jesus’ followers could have believed that He was raised from the dead if the corpse were there before them in the tomb.”[3]

With a definitive statement like Dr. Craig’s I could almost stop right there. Unfortunately, Liberal theologians may point out that this very thing could, in fact, happen because the word ‘resurrection’ never meant a physical resuscitation of the previously dead Jesus, thereby necessitating an empty tomb. Rather, the resurrection appearances were of a visionary nature, making the location of his body irrelevant. Therefore, in what follows I will point out a few more noteworthy criticisms of the visionary/hallucinatory theory.

Hallucinations Fly Solo

Clinical psychologist, Dr. Gary Collins writes, “Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly are not something which can be seen by a group of people…Since a hallucination exists only in the subjective, personal sense, it is obvious that others cannot witness it.”[4]

Forget for a moment the Gospel narratives that record various resurrection appearances of Jesus. Liberal theologians tend to dismiss them as legendary developments instead of reliable history (for reasons that I find wholly unconvincing, I might add). But, for the sake of argument, let us focus on the earliest strand of tradition regarding the resurrection found in a creed that the Apostle Paul passes on to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Scholars, across the theological spectrum, take this creed very seriously because it was produced shortly after the actual events it recounts. There we find recorded appearances of Jesus where He reveals Himself to groups of people, including 500 individuals at one time.

This indicates that these appearances were publicly accessible to multiple people at one time and, contra scholars like Borg and Crossan, sound very much like an event that a modern day video camera could capture. Hallucinations, however, are not group events; they are individual occurrences. Therefore, a hallucination doesn’t explain the appearances of Jesus to groups of people. People don’t share hallucinations just like people don’t share dreams.[5]

James & Paul

John Shelby Spong in his book, Resurrection: Myth or Reality? engages in a torturous attempt to psychoanalyze Peter after the crucifixion of Jesus. His tentative reconstruction forces us to imagine months of mourning and wrestling and meditating on scripture until, finally, Peter realizes that Jesus could still be the messiah, even though He was crucified, because He had been raised by God in some mystical sense. This revelation transforms Peter’s outlook, the other original disciples eventually catch on and, voilà, Christianity is born!

There are not enough words in the world to describe for you how wholly unconvincing I find this proposal as an explanation for Peter’s transformation and the birth of the church. But it does an even poorer job accounting for the transformation of James and Paul.

The apostle Paul was not predisposed to have a grief-induced vision or some other type of subjective projection of Jesus as the high and exalted Lord over all of creation. After all, Paul was diametrically opposed to the early Church and viewed Jesus as a failed messiah and a false teacher. The same would likely be true for James, the brother of Christ. To quote Dr. Gary Habermas, an expert in these matters:

Although we do not have as much information about James and his frame of mind after Jesus’ death as we do for Paul, there is no indication that James was stricken by grief over his brothers’ death. As discussed earlier, during Jesus’ life, James did not believe that his brother was the Messiah. In fact, it seemed that he was among those who thought that Jesus was deluded. It is unlikely that a pious Jewish unbeliever – who would have viewed his crucified brother as a false messiah who had been cursed by God – was in the frame of mind to experience a life-changing hallucination of the risen Jesus, a hallucination so powerful that it would motivate him to alter his religious beliefs in an area that he believed would cost him his eternal soul if he was mistaken.[6]

In fact, building on the above criticisms, Jesus’ appearances happened to all different types of people, with different psychological make-ups, in all different places, at all different times of the day. The diverse circumstances and environments in which people encountered the risen Christ count strongly against the hallucination hypothesis. And, though this could be a stand-alone objection, it may also be worth mentioning that hallucinations are mental projections resulting from pre-existing beliefs. The first disciples, like all first century Jews, had no pre-existing belief that the Messiah would die, rise from the dead and receive a transformed resurrection body in the middle of history.

A Failure to Communicate

This is the most difficult critique for me to communicate so the reader will have to follow closely. The visionary or hallucinatory theory doesn’t explain why the first disciples (especially Paul) used the language of resurrection to explain the alleged visionary encounters of Jesus. The word resurrection in first century Judaism meant a transformed physical body untouched by sin, disease or decay, given to the righteous redeemed at the end of history; a type of re-embodiment after death (“life after life after death”) as N.T Wright persuasively demonstrates in his over 700-page tome on this topic.

In the 1st century, Jewish beliefs about the afterlife were far from monolithic. Instead, there is evidence of a wide variety of theological positions pertaining to the life after death. Still, the above description of the resurrection represents the well-documented Pharisaical view, and Paul was a proud Pharisee (Philippians 3:1-6), passionately devoted to towing the theological party line. As a result, it is not surprising that he believed in the general resurrection of the dead.

The mutation that occurred in Paul’s thought was not from a material (physical) resurrection to an immaterial (non-physical/spiritual) resurrection but, rather, from the resurrection as a one-time event at the end of history (Daniel 12:1,2), which was the standard belief of the Pharisees, to a two-stage event with Jesus as the first fruits of the general resurrection (1st Corinthians 15:20).

All this to say that, if Paul’s belief in the general resurrection included a transformed physicality that was bodily but not subject to death, why would he use the same descriptive term to communicate a visionary encounter with Jesus in the middle of history as well as drawing a corresponding link between the two events? Not only do visions of dead people just reinforce the fact that the person is no longer living, rather than leading to a belief that they have conquered the grave, using the phrase resurrection to describe to Jewish or Greek people what happened to Jesus is simply a failure to communicate on Paul’s part.

But it gets even worse than that and to see why you will have to bear with me a little while longer. I will admit that there is an initial plausibility to the suggestion that the ‘resurrection’ appearances were of a visionary nature because if one assumes that Paul’s encounter on the Damascus road (Acts 9) is the same one he is describing in 1 Corinthians 15, there are well-documented visionary elements involved in the Acts narrative, like a blinding light and a voice. Of course, it is worth pointing out that there was an objectivity to his confrontation with Christ that allowed the other people in his group to hear a voice (Acts 9:7), meaning that a subjective vision or hallucination would not be an adequate explanation of Paul’s experience.

But still, when Paul placed his encounter with the risen Christ alongside the disciples in 1st Corinthians 15, scholars like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan argue that Paul was indicating that all of the appearances of Jesus to the original disciples were similar to his own Damascus road epiphany. This implies that Jesus did not actually rise bodily from the dead. Instead the later Gospel writers physicalized the visionary appearances of Christ for reasons unknown, making it seem as though Jesus appeared in a transformed resurrection body to His disciples.

In the end the plausibility of this whole proposal crumbled to dust when I reinvestigated 1 Corinthians 15 within the context of the whole letter to the church in Corinth. When reading verses 12 to 25 of chapter 15 it is clear that Paul is trying to convince some doubters in the Corinthian congregation to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. He writes, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection from the dead?” (1st Corinthians 15:12)

Some individuals in the congregation are claiming that the resurrection never happened or, possibly, could never happen! Paul attempts to convince them otherwise. But, if all the resurrection meant for Paul was a visionary experience of, or mystical encounter with, Jesus, why in the world would he have to convince the Corinthians that such a ‘resurrection’ was possible/actual?[7] Remember, this was a church that was enjoying heightened amounts of mystical encounters and powerful spiritual experiences, including visions, miracles, healings, prophecies and ecstatic utterances (1 Corinthians 12,13). In such a religiously charged environment the Corinthians didn’t need to be convinced that visions of Jesus occur, or that Christ could be spiritually encountered. That is a ridiculous assumption to make yet Borg and Crossan’s definition of the ‘resurrection’ would force us to believe that Paul was simply wasting words attempting to convince the Corinthians of something that they would have had no trouble believing.[8] The truth is this proposal makes little sense exegetically or culturally.


To draw this article to a merciful conclusion, once one considers how poorly a job the hallucination/visionary hypothesis does at explaining the relevant facts of Easter, why not opt for the miracle of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, which explains all the data perfectly?


[1] I am not using this term in a derisive sense, but just as a descriptive term for scholars who approach the Gospels as a normal historical text and usually with a naturalistic presupposition that filters out the possibility of the miracles recorded in the New Testament actually occurring as described.

[2] In doing so I am going to treat hallucinations and various visionary phenomena as basically equivalent because the main thrust of this explanatory approach is to imply that the disciples witnessed something that was not objectively real or publicly accessible. Hallucinations, in all of their various types, whether auditory, tactile, or visionary, are false perceptions of something that is not truly there.

[3] William Lane Craig, The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1981), 35.

[4] Josh McDowell & Dave Sterrett, Did the Resurrection Happen…Really? (Chica- go, Ill: Moody Publishers, 2011),125.

[5] Gary R. Habermas & Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004), 106.

[6] Ibid., 107-108.

[7] Borg and Crossan show some awareness of this potential problem inherent in their theological scheme. For example, they attempt to address it in, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon, page 150, by suggesting that some of the Corinthians were confusing the resurrection with the immortality of the soul (an idea far more friendly to the Greek way of thinking). In their proposal Paul is seeking to distinguish the two. However, this still doesn’t come close to circumventing the exegetical problem I have described above.

[8] It is far more likely that the Corinthian Christians had been influenced by Platonic dualism and its overly negative assessment of the physical body, even leading some of the Corinthians to the abstaining from sexual relations in marriage (1 Corinthians 7). As a result, some of the Corinthians found it very difficult to imagine Jesus, or themselves, being re-embodied after death. To reiterate, a spiritual resurrection would have been no problem for the Corinthians, but Paul is writing to convince them that Jesus actually appeared in a transformed resurrection body in the middle of history, a foretaste of what is to come at the end of history (Daniel 12:1, 2, 1 Cor. 15:2-24). Even when Paul calls the resurrection body a spiritual body he is speaking of spiritual in the same way he does earlier in the letter when referencing the spiritual man (1 Corinthians 2:15), who is still physical but enlightened by the Spirit. In a similar way, the spiritual body means a body fully animated and directed by the spirit, not an immaterial body.


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