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Episode 46 - Purpose of the Hallucination Theory

Updated: Oct 14, 2023

One of the main counters against the resurrection of Jesus is the claim that the disciples were merely hallucinating the risen Christ. This explains why they claimed to have seen Jesus after His crucifixion, and it explains why they had such passion. In this episode, we'll go into the reasoning behind this argument, and we'll also look at its origins. This will be the first in a series of episodes dealing with the hallucination theory.

Music from Uppbeat (free for Creators!), "Big Adventure" by Paul Yudin.

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Hello, and welcome to the Ultimate Questions podcast. I’m your host, Jon Topping. We’ve spent a long time going through the details and arguments regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We’ve handled most of the counter arguments so far, with one glaring exception; we have not yet dealt with the hallucination theory, which is one of the more popular theories in this debate. I knew when I began this podcast that I would eventually have to go into this topic, and I knew it would be difficult. Firstly, while I have studied philosophy, theology, and history, I haven’t done much in terms of psychology. Secondly, I knew that the topic of group hallucinations was not really dealt with very well in academia, since group hallucinations don’t happen. I’ve also noticed that many apologists say essentially the same things on this issue, so it would take some extra work to dig beyond what is passed around in apologetics circles. Because of these things, I knew this topic would take me a while, and I would need to do even more research to make sure I was handling the issue appropriately. However, as I’ve looked into this debate, I have found that those people advocating for the hallucination theory haven’t studied psychology either! In fact, a lot of the points they make are attempting to use modern psychology, but actually end up working against it. So, for the next bunch of episodes, we’re going to do a deep dive into the hallucination theory counterargument against the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For this episode, we’re going to look at the purpose of the hallucination theory, and the background of where it comes from. To start, what exactly is the hallucination theory all about? Firstly, it’s an agreed upon historical fact that there were many people who claimed to have seen Jesus resurrected from death, for almost a month and a half after His crucifixion. Secondly, it’s also largely agreed upon in historical circles that these appearances resulted in a very early belief in the resurrection as the foundation for Christianity, and the disciples became passionate about spreading the Gospel because they had seen the risen Christ. So, in order to attempt to explain these facts, without admitting that Jesus literally did rise from the dead, some people try to argue that the disciples of Jesus had hallucinations of Jesus Christ, so they thought they saw Him risen from the dead.

The passionate zeal of the disciples, as well as the early belief in the resurrection, can be seen from various evidences that we’ve gone over before, with a focus on this in episode 25 of the podcast, which was on the crucifixion and the early belief in the resurrection. These facts aren’t really debated in historical circles, because the evidence is so strongly in their favor. We have accounts of Stephen being stoned to death, John’s brother James being killed with the sword, Jesus’ brother James being stoned to death, Peter being crucified upside down, as well as many other martyrdoms of Jesus’ disciples. They went to their executions proclaiming that they had witnessed the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and as I’ve said before, people don’t die for something they know is a lie. In other words, these people, and many others, were willing to be tortured and killed for their passionate belief that Jesus had risen from the dead. Gary Habermas summarized this very well when he wrote that “their sincerity to the point of martyrdom indicates that they were not intentionally lying.” In terms of the people who believed they saw the risen Christ, we have accounts of resurrection appearances to Mary Magdalene, the 11 disciples, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and even to 500 believers at the same time.

Since it’s an agreed upon historical fact that there were many people who passionately believed they had seen the risen Christ, the non-Christian then needs to explain this fact in a naturalistic way. This is where the hallucination theory comes in. If these disciples were hallucinating, then the non-Christian can admit to Jesus’ crucifixion, and still admit to the disciples strongly believing they had seen Jesus alive again. They also use the hallucination theory to explain James’ conversion, and Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus as well. So, the non-Christian can account for all of the historical data, except for the empty tomb. In many cases, the empty tomb is dealt with either by adding another theory, like the stolen body theory, which multiplies the unlikeliness, or in other cases, the empty tomb is simply ignored.

The hallucination theory was largely developed by David Friedrich Strauss, in his famous, or perhaps infamous book titled The Life of Jesus, which was published in 1835, when he was only 27-years-old. Strauss denied the deity of Christ, as well as the resurrection. This was the foundation for his work, as he attempted to come up with critical alternative interpretations of the New Testament and Early Church history. As an example, Strauss writes that Paul had difficulty with his task of destroying the Early Church. Christianity was growing quite fast, and was attractive as a movement, which caused some inner turmoil for Paul. This inner struggle Paul experienced led Paul to have a “Christophany”, or, a vision of Christ, and this powerful experience dramatically changed Paul’s opinion of Christianity in general. This same view is also applied to the disciples, where Strauss believed that the “sublime personality of Jesus” inspired His disciples greatly. This inspiration was so great, in fact, that when they were struggling about how to come to terms with Jesus’ death, they ended up having powerful visions about Jesus being resurrected. In other words, Strauss believed that the doubt and conflict happening within the minds of the disciples and Paul, along with the powerful personality of Jesus, caused them to have hallucinations where they felt that they had actually observed the risen Christ. However, this was all in their heads, which is why these experiences are classed as hallucinations.

An important point to note with Strauss’ work is that it came about before any meaningful work in psychology and the science behind hallucinations. Strauss wasn’t basing his hallucination theory upon evidences he had observed or studied; he was coming up with this idea purely to satisfy his own anti-Christian beliefs. In essence, he was creating an ad hoc argument, without any evidence whatsoever, as a means to satisfy his own personal bias against Christianity. This is the origin of the hallucination theory.

This hallucination theory was probably the most popular way to disagree with the resurrection back a hundred years ago, but it eventually passed out of scholarly favor. We’ll spend a lot of time in the podcast going over why it lost popularity, but interestingly, other critical non-Christian scholars criticized it, since hallucinations are personal experiences, and don’t happen to groups. It was only somewhat recently that the theory started to have a resurgence in academia, through people like Gerd Lüdemann, Jack Kent, and Michael Goulder. Gerd Lüdemann is probably the biggest name in the academic work surrounding the hallucination theory. In future episodes we’ll go into more detail about Lüdemann’s thoughts, but to briefly state his view, he admitted that in 1 Corinthians 15, when Paul writes that the risen Christ was “seen” by many people, that Paul intended this to be understood literally and historically, that these people really did claim to have seen Jesus. So, for Lüdemann, he didn’t think that the appearances of Christ could be explained away by spiritualizing the experiences, or making them metaphors, or anything else that would delegitimize the fact that these people had real experiences. He stated this view quite clearly when he said, "It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus' death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ." So, for him to make sense of this fact, the disciples must have been hallucinating. For Lüdemann, he believed Peter had a genuine hallucination of Jesus, and then by telling the other disciples about it, there was “an incomparable chain reaction”, which caused the other disciples to have similar hallucinations, but in a collective type of hallucination he describes as “mass ecstasy”. In other words, Peter telling the others about his hallucination caused everyone else to have the exact same hallucination as him, collectively, where they all hallucinated the same thing.

Jack Kent, however, took a different approach, because he realized how ridiculous the concept of a collective hallucination is, since hallucinations are private individual experiences, and cannot be shared. So, in order to explain the historical data, Kent wrote that each follower of Jesus had their own individual hallucinatory experience. For some, it was a “normal, grief-related hallucination”. Paul, however, was experiencing intense emotions of guilt and confusion over persecuting the Christians, and these feelings then manifested themselves in the form of physical and mental problems, like his blindness, and seeing an hallucination of Jesus. In psychology, this is referred to as a “conversion disorder”, where a person’s extreme mental states can cause physical issues. While his view does escape the problem of collective hallucination, it becomes hard to believe that it’s possible that each person individually had an hallucination, and that all of these hallucinations lined up perfectly with each other.

Then we have Michael Goulder, who believed similar things to Lüdemann and Kent, with a slight nuance. He believed that Peter and Paul had hallucinations brought on by stress and guilt, which then caused a shift in their attitudes. This then created a scenario where all the other disciples had “collective delusions”, which is different from collective hallucinations. For Goulder, Peter and Paul did have actual hallucinations, but the other disciples did not, and instead, they were simply misapprehending actual physical sense data. In other words, the other disciples had normal sight and sound sense data, and then misunderstood that data, because of the influence of Peter’s hallucination, into thinking that they were actually seeing Jesus. If this still sounds confusing, think about a group of sailors out in the ocean during a storm. Someone looks out into the pitch-black waves, and he thinks he sees a mermaid. Because one person creates the thought in the others’ heads, the others start to “see” the mermaid as well. Even though they feel like they’ve seen a mermaid, it was not an hallucination, and was merely them misapprehending their sense data. We’ll go further into this, and how it’s different from hallucinations, but for now, this view remains very problematic, because the disciples weren’t seeing a shadowy figure off in the distance, but instead, a person only a few feet away from them, for days on end, in broad daylight, and they all carried on conversations with Him, which doesn’t at all fit what Goulder wrote about.

With the varying views of how the hallucination theory can work, it’s important to note the methodology that is happening in these men’s minds regarding their explanations. As I pointed out, Strauss began his theory without any evidence, merely as a way to satisfy his bias. For these thinkers, even though the odds of these types of extreme hallucination stories are highly improbable, they would say it’s still more probable than a literal resurrection. They make the argument that we do have cases of hallucinations, but we have no cases of resurrections, so this makes hallucinations, no matter how unlikely, still more likely than a resurrection. However, I think they have made a few mistakes here. Firstly, we’re not talking about regular hallucinations; we’re talking about group hallucinations, which agree with each other, and result in life transforming zeal in the experiencers. We have exactly zero cases of this ever happening, in all of human history. To use “we have examples of hallucinations” as evidence is actually quite dishonest, because the “type” of hallucinations we have examples of look nothing like the resurrection appearances.

As a second point against the likelihood argument, I also think that their attitude misunderstands the sort of things miracles are. We dealt with the bias against miracles in episode 31 of this podcast, and then continued the topic of miracles through to episode 35, so check out those for more on this issue. For this situation, though, the important aspect is that miracles are actions that are chosen by a supernatural person, like God, or angels. We cannot apply physical laws to this, treating miracles as though they are capable of being predictable and repeatable; that’s just not the kind of thing miracles are. So to argue that resurrections are less “likely” because we have no examples of resurrections seems to misunderstand the nature of miracles, because miracles don’t follow any type of “likelihood” in the first place.

A third point against this idea that a group hallucination is more likely than a resurrection is that we do have many cases of miracles happening, so it’s not as though the resurrection would be without precedent. It’s not as though we’re evaluating the odds of some person “randomly happening to resurrect”, but instead, we’re asking whether God can choose to perform a miracle, by resurrecting someone. Basically, what we do is we take the historical data, and we ask the question, “what’s the best explanation of the data?” Does the data itself point to a miracle, or is a naturalistic explanation able to handle all the evidence? However, and this brings us to our fourth point, the people critiquing the resurrection in this way almost always start with the presumption that miracles are not possible. When looking at the methodology of many of these thinkers, they begin with their bias against the supernatural in general, and against Christianity specifically, and then work from there to try and justify their bias with whatever ideas they can formulate. The evidence isn’t actually the important aspect here to them, but instead, their naturalistic methodology is what is foundational to them. I would argue against this way of evaluating the resurrection, and say that the evidence is of primary importance, and we should then try and find explanations that handle all of the data, regardless of our own personal biases.

For a final point against this “likelihood” argument in favor of hallucinations over the resurrection, we can look at the fact that God’s action of a resurrection here is unprecedented. Again, it’s the action of a person who is choosing to do something, and since it’s unprecedented, we should expect it to fall outside of our normal experiences and observations. Of course we’re not going to have examples of something when it’s a miracle that God has never done before. Being unprecedented doesn’t mean it’s impossible, and talking about the “likelihood” of unprecedented actions doesn’t seem appropriate.

To elaborate the point, here’s an analogy that’s hopefully helpful. Suppose we take the likelihood of a person getting struck by lightning on two separate occasions, and living to tell the tale. Then we take the likelihood of me choosing to go on vacation to Australia this winter. We can talk about the likelihood of getting struck by lightning, even twice, because it’s a natural phenomenon. However, when we talk about “likelihood” for a human action, it becomes more difficult. I’ve never been to Australia, and I don’t really care much for travelling in general, but just because it’s unprecedented doesn’t mean that it’s less likely than getting struck by lightning twice, simply because we have examples of that, but we don’t have an example of me going to Australia. The thought that we have examples of hallucinations but not resurrections misses the point in the same way, because the resurrection isn’t a natural event that we could attach a probability to; it’s a supernatural event that cannot be predicted, that is brought on by the decision of a person.

For this episode we have begun our evaluation by gaining an understanding of the purpose behind the hallucination theory, and what it’s trying to accomplish. We’ve also gone into the origins of it, by taking a look at how Strauss originally came up with the idea, and then how Lüdemann, Kent, and Goulder attempted to advance the hallucination theory in more modern times. We then critiqued their methodology in general, by showing their views largely come from an anti-supernatural bias, that they’re misunderstanding the nature of miracles, and that they’re committing ad hoc reasoning in favor of hallucinations, among other problems.

In order to continue our investigation about the hallucination theory as an attempt to discredit the resurrection, it will be helpful to get a good handle on the nature of hallucinations. So, for the next episode, we’re going to define exactly what hallucinations are. We will also look a psychological phenomenon referred to as the “dissociative state”, and how this contributes to hallucinations in general. By doing this, we’ll be able to better examine whether it’s possible that the disciples hallucinated seeing Jesus resurrected. So, I hope you’ll join me next time as we explain the nature of hallucinations, here on the Ultimate Questions podcast, with Jon Topping.


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