top of page

Episode 47 - What are Hallucinations?

In order to thoroughly evaluate the possibility of the disciples hallucinating the risen Christ, we should begin by getting a good definition of what hallucinations are, and how exactly they work. In this episode we take a psychological approach to understanding the nature of hallucinations, so that in future episodes we can see whether this can be applied to the disciples experiencing the resurrection of Jesus.

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


               Hello again and welcome to the Ultimate Questions podcast. I’m your host, Jon Topping. Last time we began our evaluation of the “hallucination theory”. This is a way that non-Christians attempt to explain all the historical data, but also deny that Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead. The main reason for the hallucination theory is to explain why the belief in the resurrection was so early, even among many people who saw Jesus die. Additionally, it also tries to give a reason for why the disciples of Jesus would be willing to be tortured and killed for their belief in the resurrection. Historians pretty well agree that it must be because they really did strongly believe in the resurrection. So, if the belief in the resurrection was early and zealous among even the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ death, how does a non-Christian explain this, if Jesus didn’t actually rise? Their answer? The disciples must have hallucinated the risen Christ. After their hallucinations, they would then passionately believe Jesus had truly risen, and would have started to spread this belief to others.

               Now, the hallucination theory is nothing new, it’s been around about a hundred and fifty years, with it oddly receiving newfound traction in somewhat recent times. During this period many apologists have responded to it. However, it’s typically dealt with a bit quickly, because it’s seen as so nonsensical. One problem is that it doesn’t explain the empty tomb. Even the enemies of Christianity admitted the tomb was empty, and if the disciples were merely hallucinating, it would have been incredibly easy for the Romans or Jewish religious authorities to simply point to Jesus’ corpse within the tomb. Additionally, hallucinations aren’t shared, so dozens, or even hundreds of people, could not have all seen and heard the same things, for weeks on end. That’s just not how hallucinations work. Because of these very obvious points, most apologetics research hasn’t gone too deep into this issue. However, I want to go deeper into it, to hopefully shed more light on this topic, because, despite its failures, the hallucination theory is still quite prevalent among people today.

               As I said, the hallucination theory has been around for a while. Last time we looked at the origins of the theory, and we saw that the advocates of this view have been saying the disciples hallucinated, even before any real academic work had been done into the nature of hallucinations. Basically, there was no evidence whatsoever for the hallucination theory, and yet, they were declaring it to be the best explanation of the data. This is quite an obvious case of bias, where the non-Christian simply doesn’t want Christianity to be true, and has come up with an explanation, with no evidence, in order to justify their bias against miracles in general, and against Christianity specifically. Fast forward to today, and scholars have done some good research into the nature of hallucinations, and we have found that hallucinations simply don’t look like what we find in history regarding the disciples of Jesus. So, it seems like the hallucination theory is fallacious in two ways; it’s ad hoc because it lacks evidence, and is merely a way for the secularist to avoid admitting the resurrection, and it is confirmation bias, because the skeptic is ignoring the actual data we have about hallucinations, in order to attempt to give justification to their presuppositions.

               In order to continue our evaluation of this theory, I think it’s important for us to get a good understanding of what exactly hallucinations are. For today’s episode, we’re going to look at the definition of hallucinations, and we’ll also be looking at the psychological state called dissociation that accompanies most hallucinations. As we’ll see in future episodes, one of the main ways skeptics try to argue for the hallucination theory is by doing a psychological analysis of people like Peter and Paul, and showing that they were primed for having hallucinations. I think there’s quite a few problems with that, which we’ll go over later, but for today’s episode, we will look a little bit at the psychological aspect of hallucinations, so that we can use this as background information for when we dive even deeper.


So first of all, let’s get a good understanding of what exactly hallucinations are. It might seem strange to have to define the word “hallucination”, but this will help us see which sorts of things can count as hallucinations, and we’ll be able to see the pros and cons of each view on the topic. The word comes from the Latin “alucinari”, which means “to wander in mind” or “to talk idly”. The English word “hallucination” was first used in 1572 to refer to seeing ghosts and spirits walking at night time. It’s first emergence in the field of psychology was in 1838 when Jean-Étienne Esquirol used it to mean “ascribing a body and actuality to images”. In other words, to see an image that isn’t really there, but you believe it to be real. The usage of the word implied that to hallucinate was to be “out of touch with reality or to be insane”.

               In todays’ psychological use of the term, the APA Dictionary of Psychology defines “hallucination” as a “false sensory perception that has the compelling sense of reality despite the absence of an external stimulus”. Most definitions say roughly the same thing as this. Basically, the person having an hallucination is experiencing sensory data, but that sense data is not coming from anything real in the external world. The person will believe it is real, because they are experiencing sensory data in their five senses, in mostly the same way they would normally experience the world around them. During an hallucinatory experience, the person is thought to “have central nervous system activity in the areas of the brain associated with perception, belief formation, affected states, and so forth – similar to the central nervous system activity present in ordinary perception.” This means that the part of the brain that takes in the sensory data from our eyes and ears, and interprets it into a sensation that we feel, will act the same way for an hallucination, even though there’s no actual sensory data coming into those sense organs. So, the real issue with defining hallucinations, is about whether the origin of the sensory data in the person’s brain are found externally, or internally. When we normally see something, like a tree, it’s because light has bounced off the tree and entered our eyes, which has triggered a signal from our eyes to our brain, which becomes a felt sensation of seeing the tree. The external world is the original starting point of the sensation of seeing the tree. But with hallucinations, the person’s brain is acting as though it is receiving a signal of sensation from a sense organ like the eyes, without anything in the real world actually being the origin of that sensation. So, if a person hallucinates a tree, then the person’s brain is itself the origin of the sensation of the tree, rather than some real tree in the physical world. This helps us clarify the difference between a legitimate hallucination, and merely being mistaken, or as we said in the last episode, misapprehending actual sense data.


               When looking at the psychological aspect of hallucinations, in most cases the person is having an experience that is referred to as “dissociation”. To clarify, it’s not as though dissociation always brings on an hallucination, but instead, it’s that dissociation dramatically increases the odds of hallucinations, and the majority of hallucinations happen while the person is in a dissociated state. To dissociate means that the person feels disconnected from the world, and other people around them. They will often feel as though their body, and the world around them, isn’t really “real”. This also includes an aspect of trying to escape from reality. This is unhealthy for the person, and can cause serious issues in managing everyday life. This sort of dissociation can be endogenous, which means it happens within the person, likely from their own brain chemistry. Or it can be exogenous, which means the source is coming from outside of the person, for example by taking psychedelic mushrooms. This “dissociation” that can happen within a person then allows for them to be able to hallucinate. This doesn’t mean all, or even most cases of dissociation bring on hallucinations, but typically hallucinations do require some type of a dissociated state. It’s actually fairly common to experience dissociation, with many people experiencing it at some point in their life, regardless of whether they have an hallucination or not.


Drug users, and people with more severe cases of mental illness, typically experience a high degree of dissociation, which is why there is a higher number of hallucinations in these groups of people. Psychiatrists then apply this type of dissociation, and the occurrence of hallucinations, to religious experiences. For example, Weston La Barre wrote that he was confident that there was no supernatural event at any time that would not be better explained as simply someone experiencing a dissociated state. This could be a dream or hallucination, or because of some form of bodily deprivation, or by taking psychedelics. He believed that any time someone had a “supernatural” experience, they were in fact tapping into the primitive and instinctive part of their personality, called the “id” in psychology. To him, supernatural claims are actually misunderstood information about the person’s own mind. Anything like revelations or visions are really the person’s subconscious being expressed when the person feels out of touch with reality. Taking all of these ideas together, some will say the disciples were hallucinating, because they were in a dissociative state due to extreme stress and anxiety, brought on by the death of their messiah. This dissociative state then brought on hallucinations, which were really just their own minds trying to grapple with the reality of Jesus’ death, which was so hard for them to accept.

As an interesting example of what’s being discussed here, some religious persons, primarily in Eastern traditions like Buddhism, will deliberately try to put their body’s chemistry into a dissociative state, for the purpose of “enlightenment”. They will deprive their body of needed nutrition, sleep, and deprive themselves of sensory input, for example by being in the dark, humming loudly, and remaining very still, which is more commonly known as meditation. In some cases, religious observances even make use of external means, like psychedelic drugs. Regardless of whether the means is through physical deprivation or drugs, this then brings on a dissociative state, which can then make them feel as though the world, and even their body, is not really real. This unreality of the body and world is even part of the doctrine of some Buddhist beliefs. For example, many Buddhists believe that the external world, and even reality itself, is not actually real, and that all of this is an illusion. At times, because of their dissociative state, they can even hallucinate, which is then interpreted in their religious context as being profoundly meaningful, even though it’s just the natural inclination of a person’s brain chemistry. Because they have had this profound spiritual experience, they then feel as though they are justified in their religious beliefs.

               As an example of these sorts of practices and beliefs, and how they can actually be quite harmful and lead to severe mental illness, I was made aware of a Buddhist woman who was going through some of what we’ve discussed. Because of trauma in her past, she didn’t want to have deep connections with other people, because she feared having another terrible experience. She also didn’t value truth or facts, which is another element of some Eastern religious traditions like Buddhism. For her, acknowledging truth and the facts of reality was too difficult, because of her trauma. She didn’t want her trauma to be real. She found her Buddhist beliefs and practices to be quite comforting in the midst of this, because while she was meditating, she was able to feel disconnected from the real world, as though the external physical world was not actually real. As we’ve discussed, this is deliberately bringing on a dissociative state, and it is being interpreted in a religious light. However, as mentioned, this is quite problematic because it is an escape from reality in a way that is not healthy. This can cause severe issues in managing everyday life, which is exactly what happened with this Buddhist woman. Because of her dissociation, she would feel justified in her beliefs that reality wasn’t real, and that nothing was true, and this led her to believe she couldn’t trust her own thoughts or feelings, which began a vicious cycle, leading to her having panic attacks, and not being able to handle real life in some situations. It got to the point where she wasn’t even able to leave her house. In situations like hers, the person feels as though their dissociative experience justifies their religious beliefs, and at times, it will even induce hallucinations, which are treated as further evidence to the religious person.

For secular psychologists, they then take this view of religion, and apply it across the board, where any religious experiences should be understood in this way. They reject the possibility that there ever even could be any sort of legitimate religious experience, or supernatural event, because they are able to explain some religious experiences through this psychological phenomenon. Coming back to Weston La Barre, in these cases of dissociated states, the person is interpreting their experience as a divine revelation, but it’s really the brain misunderstanding what’s happening within itself. He even said that any person who understands a supernatural event to be real must be naïve, since it is better explained as being an hallucination brought on by one of these dissociated states. However, as we’ll see in future episodes, I don’t think we have any reason to believe that the disciples of Jesus were in dissociated states, and I think we do have good reason to think they were not in dissociated states. Just as a quick example, dissociation is a private matter, occurring within the person’s own brain, and cannot be shared, and is not contagious. For many disciples to all “hallucinate” the same thing would then necessarily imply that all of them had this very extreme psychological experience happening, all at the same time, and in the same place, and expressing itself in the same way. Also, the sightings of Jesus after His death were very well integrated, rather than dissociative, meaning, the events and experiences were very much grounded in reality, rather than feeling disconnected from the real world.


When professionals have a patient that experiences moments of dissociation, they will try to help them with a strategy called “grounding”. What this means is that the person tries to force themselves to focus on tangible things in the real world. By doing this, they’re able to leave behind the thoughts and feelings that aren’t connected with reality. This exercise helps the person integrate themselves with the real world, which brings them out of their dissociative state. When we look at the disciples seeing Jesus after the resurrection, these experiences were very well integrated and grounded in tangible reality. The disciples were in a group setting, discussing the events they were experiencing with each other, eating food, and collectively reflecting on what Jesus had said. All of this looks like they were not trapped in their own dissociative mental states, but instead, that they were interacting with and experiencing the real world while they were also experiencing Jesus. This then likely removes the possibility that they were all in dissociative states. Further, these experiences did not then lead them to devaluing truth in the world, or feeling disconnected from tangible reality, but instead, they formed a new society of people, and gained many converts from outside of their experiences. It’s also worth noting that people in a dissociative state typically come across as mentally unstable, and would not be capable of convincing thousands of people that their delusions are actually real. Modern day advocates of the hallucination theory don’t have any real evidence to show that the disciples were hallucinating, or even that they were in dissociative states. Instead, they merely present the possibility, and then, because of their bias against miracles, feel as though they have adequately explained the experiences of the disciples. This is a fallacious way to argue, called the “possible therefore probable” fallacy. Also, as we’ll see in future episodes, this explanation doesn’t actually deal with much of the historical data, especially the empty tomb, and there’s good reason to think that this sort of hallucination is nearly impossible because of the nature of hallucinations.


               At this point we’ve only scratched the surface of the hallucination counter against the resurrection of Jesus. We’ve tried to get an understanding as to how the argument works, and also defined exactly what hallucinations are. We’ve also looked at the concept of dissociative states, where a person can feel out of touch with reality, and how this can lead to hallucinations. Then, we saw how some will use these ideas to say the disciples were merely struggling with the death of Jesus, which brought on a dissociative state, and when their brains tried to handle the conflict, it brought on hallucinations where they thought they saw Jesus risen from the dead. This is a good foundation for us to move forward, and dig into more material regarding the topic. For the next episode, we’re going to look at a few cases of bad understandings of hallucinations, in order to fine tune our approach to see whether hallucinations can explain the resurrection appearances. We’ll do that by looking at ancient approaches to hallucinatory experiences, as well as modern day cases like UFOs, big foot, Elvis sightings, and also when people claim to have seen the virgin Mary. So I hope you’ll join me next time as we look at the bad examples of hallucinations, here on the Ultimate Questions Podcast, with Jon Topping.


bottom of page