Sunday, September 30, 2012

A response to Gerald O'Collins

In this post, I will respond to the arguments Gerald O'Collins gives against the Hallucination hypothesis from the appendix of his book Believing in the Resurrection: The Meaning and Promise of the Risen Jesus. I have mentioned them before here. Unlike Habermas, O'Collins is actually familiar with the phenomenon of bereavement experiences, and so his critique is much more relevant.

O'Collins starts by summarising Dewi Rees' study of Bereavement experiences in senior widows and widowers:

Rees found that close to half (46.7%) reported contact with their beloved dead at various times during waking hours; dreams were not considered in the study.  The bereaved had “felt the presence of the deceased” (39.2%), “seen” them (14%), “heard” them (13.3%), “spoken” to them (11.6%), and, very occasionally, been “touched” by them (2.7%). Some of the widows and widowers interviewed reported having had more than one type of experience, and in 36.1% of all the cases these experiences of the beloved dead lasted for years.

Than, he pointed out two similarities between Bereavement experiences and the supposed Resurrection appearances of Jesus:

first, the grief experienced by both Rees’ bereaved persons and the disciples after the death and burial of Jesus... A second addition that I now make to the analogy proposed by Rees concerns the unexpected nature of the encounters with the risen Jesus

I agree with him that these are some fairly striking points of similarity. However, despite the shoe fitting finely, O'Collins argues that the parallels end here, and proposes eight areas of dissimilarity between these bereavement experiences and the Resurrection appearances of Jesus. I will review each of them below.

Area's of dissimilarity
The first area of dissimilarity is that Dewi Rees' bereavement study only considered Widows and Widowers: as far as we know, Mary and the disciples were not married to Jesus.

1) By naming “the disciples,” what I had in mind was, first of all, the fact that the Twelve and others, both women (e.g., Mary Magdalene) and men (e.g., Cleopas of Luke 24: 13-35), were disciples and not married partners of Jesus.

He also adds that the disciples made radical claims about Jesus, and that this somehow acts as an additional dissimilarity. This argument is weak, since it ignores the many stories of non widows having supposed encounters with the deceased. Besides, if these bereavement experiences are hallucinations, something which I will argue for in the future, than there is no reason to suppose they would be exclusive to widows. I can imagine widows and widowers being more likely to hallucinate their loved ones, but that's it. The second argument is equally poor:

2)  Jesus died a horrible and utterly shameful death on a public scaffold. In the eyes of his contemporaries, the crucifixion involved being cursed not only by human beings (the religious and political authorities responsible for his execution) but also by God... Rees reports no cases of anything like that among his 293 widows and widowers.

Well, we do live in the 21 century; not very many are cursed and publicly executed. Some of the widows Rees interviewed did have spouses that were killed by accidents, which I think suffice as "violent deaths". O'Collins, however, needs to prove his point, so he declares that only a perfect analogy will do. I think he forgot where the burden of proof lies.

3) A third, enormous difference emerges from the fact that, unlike the disciples of Jesus, none of Rees’s widows and widowers ever alleged that their beloved departed had been raised from the dead

Oh come on! Even Licona acknowledges that this is a poor argument (see the appendix of The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical approach). At any rate, there aren't very many people in the modern day that believe in corporeal resurrection, so the lack of modern day analogies shouldn't be surprising. At any rate, modern widows and widowers would probably say their spouse became a ghost or went to heaven, since those are the modern day expectations. The resurrection was an ancient expectation, even if it was supposed to occur at the end of the world.

4) A fourth reason for differentiating between the Easter experiences of the disciples and Rees’s widows and widowers emerges from the New Testament reports about appearances to groups, as well as to individuals

This argument is interesting, since he actually criticizes a lot of the Apparitional literature Allison uses to make his case.

On the question of bereaved people experiencing (or not experiencing) as a group some beloved, deceased person, Allison (who knows and values Rees’ ground-breaking research)  has also taken issue with me. He claims that there are “many firsthand accounts of several people seeing at once the apparition of a person recently deceased.” But he cites no examples and gives no references. Notice that he does not say “bereaved people” having such an experience, and that is the issue. Is he thinking of parapsychology and alleged cases of the spirits of the deceased being brought back from the dead through mediums? But many scholars, including professional psychologists, find only pseudo-science in the works of parapsychologists. In fact, Allison himself observes: “reports of collective apparitions are…prominent in the literature of parapsychology but not in normal psychology.” That silence on the part of professional psychologists might have warned Allison not to introduce, as he does, repeated references to a number of long-discredited parapsychologists.

Allison himself is very forthright about the lack of rigor in many of his cases. As a matetr of fact, he clearly states that he is comparing "like with like" when he uses them, since the Gospels are also equally poor sources. I concede, however, that I don't quite know how to explain the group experiences in naturalistic terms. After all, I don't even know what goes back to the eyewitnesses! Our earliest source, 1 cor 15, gives us three group experiences: one to "the twelve", one to the "five hundred", and one to "all the apostles". By the time we reach the gospels, however, the appearance to"the twelve" is all that remains. How one explains this one naturally depends on how accurate you think the narrative is.

5) A fifth dissimilarity arises when we notice that around 40% of Rees’ widows and widowers continued to experience their deceased spouses for many years. But the appearances of the risen Jesus to individuals or groups took place over a limited period of time and did not continue for years.

How do we know what they would've made of later experiences? Apologists often argue that the initial experiences must of been qualitatively different from later ones, since the early church called them "appearances" instead of visions. However, this still doesn't tell us exactly how they were different? Perhaps the difference between appearances and visions had to do with whom had them, or when they occurred. How could one prove these suggestions wrong? Furthermore, according to Licona, word studies don't help either, as the greek word for "appearance" could mean many things. So, even if the disciples had later experiences, how would we know?

6) “one difference between the Easter experiences and those reported by the widowed…Widowed  people’s experiences of their dead spouses tend to occur weeks  or months after the person’s death; in contrast, Jesus appeared to his friends soon after the crucifixion.

Depends how you define "soon". A few weeks doesn't seem too long to me. At any rate, how do we even know when the disciples started having their experiences? The phrease "the third day" was an idiom that could refer to any short period of time, not just 3 literal days. Another issue is whether the experiences all happened within a short period of time. What if some occurred weeks or months later than others? After all, the creed Paul refers to in 1 Cor 15 includes the appearance to himself, which occurred years after Jesus was crucified. We just don't know how much time passed between appearances.

(7) Prior to Rees’ study, only 27.7 % of the bereaved who experienced their dead spouses had mentioned these experiences to others

This is really weak. Did O'Collins forget the stigma that is associated with hallucinating in the modern day?

8) In Easter Faith I pointed out an eighth difference: unlike the first followers of Jesus, “none of those whose bereavement experiences are reported by Rees dramatically changed their lifestyle and became missionaries proclaiming to the world their experience and what it implied.”

O'Collins got so desperate for another pot-shot that he re-used the seventh point. Again, in the modern day there is a stigma against having wierd experiences. In ancient times, no such stigma existed. The problem wasn't whether you saw something- it was how you interpreted it. This, if anything, was the problem the disciples would have had.

Well, there you have it. For what it's worth, I'm still offering a copy of the paper to anyone who wants it. Conact me here for it.


  1. Hey Andy, nice work refuting O'Collins. Please excuse this rather long rambling comment. I agree with you that most of O'Collins' objections are weak. The fourth has some bite, though. He's right to point out that the literature Allison cites for group visions is from paranormal researchers and not psychologists, and some of it comes from books that are a century old or from unreliable, popular books about ghosts and such. There doesn't seem to be any scientific basis for group hallucinations.

    It that's true, it appears we're stuck with either a real resurrection or some kind of paranormal phenomenon that causes visions of the dead in multiple people at the same time. The former validates Christianity while the latter merely refutes naturalism.

    Sometimes I wonder if we're trying to explain facts that haven't been established. Even a critical scholar like Allison seems to move too quickly in assuming every appearance in 1 Cor 15 is a historical fact. If it's in Paul's creed it must have happened, however you explain it, right? I'm not so sure. Consider two alternative ways to account for the group Christophanies:

    1. Evangelical propaganda- Let's say that O'Collins is right to dismiss the paranormal literature on group visions as pseudo-science. What follows? Well, paranormal researchers still have recorded a bunch of claims from people who say they had a shared apparitional experience. Let's assume that these are mostly false claims, claims made to get attention or to convince others that ghosts/psychic powers are real. If that's the case, it seems we can still make an argument from analogy for the resurrection appearances: people like trot out stories of shared apparitional experiences to prove that they are real, veridical, not just tricks of the mind. Couldn't the early Christians have been doing the same thing? Say that in the beginning, there were only appearances to individuals - Peter, Mary Magdalene, whoever. These appearances - possibly in conjunction with an empty tomb and reflection on the scriptures - would have convinced the disciples that Jesus had been raised. In their initial preaching, however, they would have been met with resistance. Lone appearances to Peter and the demon-haunted Mary may not have been too convincing to skeptical outsiders. So some of the early Christians, either members or the twelve or the first converts, took to embellishment: "It was not just Peter who saw Jesus, but all of us at the same time. We even touched him and even ate with him." Ask yourself, what sounds more convincing: "Jesus appeared to some prostitute named Mary" or "Jesus appeared to 500 people at once"? Eventually, some educated Greek speaking Christians turned these emerging stories into 1 Cor 15 and the gospels. Note that this theory does not deny the fact that the disciples sincerely believed in the resurrection; it was their sincere belief that motivated them to dedicate their lives to proclaiming the risen Jesus, part of which meant coming up with good stories for public preaching, sermons, and so on. Think of Catholics during the counter-reformation. Some were accused of outright faking exorcisms to prove the Holy Spirit was with them and not the Protestants. Surely they made deceptive claims to promote their religion, but who would deny that they sincerely believed that the Roman Catholic Church was the one true Church founded by Christ? Passion and sincerity can exist along side invention and even deception.

  2. (continued)

    2. Misperception. According to this article

    "There are no official statistics but it is clear that most ghost cases, when properly investigated, turn out to be caused by misperception. It is obviously something that must be eliminated first, before anything can be claimed as paranormal. It is therefore important to understand it. Misperception is misinterpreting something seen, heard, felt or otherwise sensed. It is likely, taking into account the results of many investigations, that misperception alone accounts for the most reported paranormal experiences. Hallucinations, by contrast, originate inside your brain, so they don't require any 'something' in the real world (a sensory stimulus). Between them, misperceptions and hallucinations probably account for a great many reports of apparent paranormal phenomena."

    Now that's significant for the resurrection appearances for obvious reasons. The article goes on the claim that while hallucinations happen to individuals, misperception can happen to individuals and groups alike. If a group of people see an ambiguous object or shape, they might perceive it as something specific, like whatever they're expecting to see. This explains a lot. People who go on a haunted house tour see a shadow that appears to be moving. One shouts out "it's a ghost!" and suddenly everyone thinks it's a ghost. Or a group of hunters in the woods see a bear or a dark shape in the distance. If they've heard other reports of bigfoot in the area they might perceive this as bigfoot too. Same thing happens when people turn strange bright lights into UFOs or apparitions of the Virgin Mary. You can't help but think of the disciples. They go to a mountain expecting to see Jesus. As the sun goes down they see a human-like shape at the top of the mount, where Jesus used to preach when he was alive. One disciple points to it and claims "It's the Lord!" They all fall to the ground in worship. When they look up, Jesus is gone. There it is: Jesus appeared to the twelve. Same thing could happen to a larger crowd. Once one person points to a distant figure and says it's Jesus, everybody 'sees' Jesus.

    The point of all this speculation is that "either resurrection or hallucination" is a false dichotomy. There are several other options that aren't terribly implausible. Who could ever prove one is more probable than another?

  3. Nice to see you again Chris. Anyways, I wrote the post yesterday night, so it had some mistakes. I just edited them out now. Anyways to respond to you:

    1) It depends on what you mean by group hallucination. No, I dont think many people can share the exact same hallucination. I have read some parapsychology papers discussing the possibility, but dicided it was groundless. I still hold, however, that many people can think they saw the same thing, so long as they have enough time to discuss it and create a "consensus reality". This usually occurs with illusions though.

    2) I also don't think collective apparitions happen. How could I, being a materialist? Anyways, I scoured the web for countless hours, and couldn't find a single good case of one. The only cases I found involved one person, and were almost certainly cases of misidentification. If any actual, well supported cases of collective apparitions exist, I have yet to find them. I made an account on the JREF site, and plan to write a few threads on the topic in the future.

    I'm sure the books Allison brings forth aren't reliable, either. The key point, however, is that he never claims they are. All he claims is that they are as reliable as the gospels- which is to say they aren't very reliable at all.

    3) I think the group appearances have to be examined individually before we attempt to explain them. "the 500" never appears in the gospels, and seems inherently implausible (who counted their heads). The appearance to "all the apostles" is even worse. I sent an email to allison asking what the appearance to all the apostles was. he assured me that no one knew. The only group appearance that passes scrutiny is the appearance to the 12. This one, however, has many contradictory stories based on it, all of which seem to have vested apologetic interests. Assuming that the ressurecction narratives are fictional (virtally every apologist does this), we could explain it away in many ways.

    One way is that the 12 mispercieved someone at a distance a la elvis. Another is that Jesus was a "phantom hitchiker". That is, the 12 met a guy that reminded them of jesus, and later became convinced it was him in disguise. Sound odd? Well, it would certainly make sense of Marys encounter and that of the emmaus disciples. And, of course, several of them could've simply hallucinated at the same time. Maybe only a few, and maybe under very conductive circumstances (extreme fatigue, late at night, etc). Apologists never ever answer to these types of explainations

  4. A quick point- I wanted to do a resurrection sundays article on the possibility of fraud, since it appears in so many religions. A good example is with mormonism, claiming that joseph smith was a martyr even though he tried to escape his death and even killed some members of the mob in retaliation.

    The disciples could have easily made up appearances. They also could have seriously distorted them through exaggerations. How would we know?