Sunday, October 2, 2011

Resurrection Sundays: How strong is the Hallucination hypothosis?

Now that we've briefly discussed the Hallucination hypothesis, it's time to apply it to the visions of Jesus. According to 1 Corinthians 15:

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 Than lastly, he appeared to me

So, according to the formula, Jesus made 6 appearances. 3 of these appearances where to groups of people. Also, if we accept the empty tomb as historical, it is possible that Mary had a vision of Jesus as well (William Lane Craig argues for that here). The argument that is put forth is usually that this appearance is multiply attested, and would have been omitted from the creed due to her being a woman. I agree, although I am still pretty agnostic about about the visions. For one thing- Our earliest resurrection narrative doesn't mention Mary witnessing the risen Jesus- she only observes the empty tomb. According to Mark: 
1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”  4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.  6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”  8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.[a]   

So as we can see, if Mary saw Jesus, the first gospel writer was silent about it. And this problem becomes even bigger if Markan priority is correct- since the later Gospel writers could have easily fabricated the appearance. Anyways, now to explain the appearances away. Now, if you recall my in my earlier post Mike Liconas demon haunted world, I argued that sometimes naturalistic explanations can make more sense than supernatural explanations. Well, with the Resurrection appearances, supernatural explanations do make a lot of sense. For one thing, we know what God's  motive would be for raising Jesus. However, that doesn't mean the hypothesis is perfect. For in this post I would like to specifically address one oddity about the resurrection appearances, and that is the strangely short nature of the appearances. If we alone follow the creedal formula in 1 Cor 15, it becomes apparent that the appearances are in someway disconnected. After all, why else would the formula treat vision as a separate event? If Jesus were to have actually stuck around for forty days, why wouldn't the creed mention it?

Now, the Hallucination hypothesis is unique in that it actually fits in with this data rather well. As a matter of fact, if we were to just ignore the group appearances, it would fit like a glove! We have good reason to think that the "appearances" were short and simplistic in nature, which is what we'd expect if they Hallucinated. We also know that the disciples doubted their own visions, which is also what we'd expect if they  Hallucinated. Also, if one were to believe that Jesus actually predicted his own death and vindication, than that would give the disciples a great reason to assume that their visions were veridical. And finally, if he were to have predicted that he'd be bodily vindicated, in a quasi apocalyptic way, that would also explain why the disciples would later interpret their visions in a bodily manner. Plus, if we believe that Mary had the first vision of Jesus, that would only strengthen the Hallucination hypothesis. You see, while we have no information of use regarding Peter's psychiatric health, we do have some for Mary's- for according to Luke 8:2, Mary had seven demons pulled from her.

2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out;

As we all know, James, brother of Jesus and Paul of Tarsus were skeptics. They did not believe that Jesus was divine- and therefore, wouldn't have hallucinated Jesus. Well, when it comes down to James, we really don't know how skeptical he was of Jesus- plus, we don't know how how antagonistic he was to the movement. However, even if we assumed, for the sake of argument, that James loathed Jesus and his cult, I think I might have a good explanation for why they had the vision. Influential scholar Gerd Ludemann contends that Paul was a secret Christian, who persecuted Christians due to a secret desire to join them. This seems silly to me, but I can see another avenue for this type of argumentation. What if, and this is purely speculation, these two men actually found the evidence for Christianity persuasive?

Many ex-Christians will talk about the intense stress that occurs when they started to doubt their faith. They will describe in detail how they desperately clinged onto whatever they could to maintain their beliefs. The same is true of people switching Religions to/from Christiany. Now, we have to keep in mind that James converted after the vision to Peter, the twelve and the 500. So now imagine being James, trying to figure out how they could proclaim these wonderful things. Imagine adding possible biblical prophecies, Jesus' pre-crucifixion predictions and even an empty tomb to the mix. Finally, lets add a wee bit of gilt over the harsh treatment of his brother and voila! I think it may very well solve this mystery, if not shed some light over it. And of course with Paul's case, we can add all these appearances plus the appearance to James and the rest of the disciples, for his vision came last.

Now, I am not claiming to have solved the case once and for all. Quite the contrary, I am not even certain if what I have produced is accurate. I certainly haven't done as much research on James or Paul as a real scholar. All I am trying to do is consider other possibilities; and by extension, make the case for skepticism just a bit stronger.


  1. Here are a few rough ideas I've been batting around in my head for a while:

    1. Must we take everything in this passage at face value? Is there no possiblity there is an evolving tradition behind the list of appearances? Take the appearance to 500+. It seems to completely disappear after this passage. Would it not be the ultimate Christian apologetic if it really happened? Would not Matthew, who spins the fantastic tale about the saint coming out of the grave after Jesus' resurrection, at least mention it if he even had passing knowleldge of it? Wouldn't Luke-Acts mention it? If the silence of the evangelists is a clue that it didn't happen, might we suspect that some of the other appearances are legends or exaggerations, based on a few early reports of visions?

    2. I've read that these verses are something like an early 'creed' of the church. We would do well to remember that religious creeds in general, and Christian creeds in particular (think Nicea) are not formulated without debate and disagreement. Imagine the first reports of vision came from both future church leaders (Peter, James) and other, lesser known followers of Jesus (who are 'all the apostles'? did 'the twelve' include Judas?). We know that 'some doubted'. Might we suspect that the polished list we find here (complete with the addition of 'according to the scriptures' and so on) is the result of a trimming of some appearances, an multiplying of some, and a good smoothing over to present a unified front with Peter and the twelve emphasized?

    3. About Paul's conversion. It seems to me that a good way to make yourself known in the early church is to claim to have seen Jesus. I know it is a doctrine of mainstream NT studies that Paul was comepletely sincere and passionate about his belief in the risen Christ, and that his vision of Jesus accounts for this. I've no doubt that he was sincere about his belief. But did that stem from a vision? Maybe the belief came first. I don't know.

    Again, these are all very rough and hastily written ideas.

  2. 1: Actually- I was gonna discuss the vision to the 500 in this post originally! My belief is that, if the vision to the 500 were authentic, it would be VERY easily explainable as a form of mass delusion, or more of a trance. They seem quite interesting while you have it, but than afterwards, the recepients tend to just forget it. Maurice Casey mentions it in his excellent book "Jesus of Nazareth: an independant historian's account of his life and teaching". Here is a link to a review, which sums up the best part of the book so you dont have to buy it!

    2: Im not sure if I'm reading you properly, but i recall Allison making a similiar argument that we dont know whether the early Jesus movement had any detracters. I think its extremely likely that the more sane ones left, not buying the visions, so only the inner circle and the fanatic ones remained.

    3: It seems like Paul could have already secretly believed prior to his "vision". Another path I like is that he had Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, which caused the white flash and the fanatic religiosity. He would blame himself for it, believing that God did it to him because he persecuted the christians. I like this route because it removes a hallucination from the list- for now there are only 5 to account for. Also, It seems like Paul would interpret the events in light of what later christians told him- which is why he percieved it as Jesus, even though it had nothing to do with him.

  3. So, do you think we have to simply go down the list in 1 Cor 15 and explain each appearance? Or do you think there might have been an earlier historical core on which the list is based on--one with less fantastic group visions and no additions like 'according to the scriptures'?

  4. If you want me to be honest, I honestly don't have a clue. I know legends can grow very quickly, so thats a possibility. Of course, another possiblity is that at least one person or group of people made up an appearance. Since I reject the martyr argument, I am certain that at least a bit of fudging was done. Why not- they seemed contempt to make up zombie stories and earthquakes in the book of Matthew. The amount of fudging that was done, however, is beyond me, since I'm not a real historian. Because of this, I usually just concede as many "minimal facts" as possible, just for the sake of argument. I'm just a worst case scenario type of guy, I guess.