Most New Testament scholars, even non-believers and skeptics, acknowledge that Jesus’ followers had experiences of Him being alive following His crucifixion.* But a common skeptical reply to this well-founded fact is that these experiences are best explained as hallucinations on the part of the disciples.** But how reasonable is this claim? In his recent book Can You Believe It’s True: Christian Apologetics in a Modern & Postmodern Era, Dr. John Feinberg offers several reasons the hallucination hypothesis is unconvincing.
How do nonbelievers answer these claims of seeing Jesus alive? The most commonly heard response is that all of these people were just hallucinating. They thought they saw Jesus, but they really didn’t. But how likely is it that all of these post-resurrection sightings were hallucinations? I think we can make the most knowledgeable response if we see what is most typical of hallucinations. For one thing, hallucinations tend to be linked to a person’s subconscious and its recollection of past experiences. They are also more likely to occur when people are expecting something to happen.
How does this fit with Jesus’ story? Not well. During his earthly ministry, Jesus had surely mentioned his death and resurrection many times, but it is clear from the Gospels that his listeners didn’t understand what he meant. When Jesus died, there is no sign of his followers encouraging one another with the prospects of his forthcoming resurrection. The disciples are portrayed after the crucifixion as disconsolate, depressed, demoralized, and quite scared of what might happen to them. Such a mind-set is not fallow ground for hallucinating that one sees Jesus alive.
In addition, psychologists tell us that hallucinations are very individualistic. It is extremely unlikely that any two people would have the same hallucination, let alone more than five hundred people all at once [see 1 Cor. 15:6]. And, it is dubious that a hallucination would recur again and again in different places and circumstances to different people. Moreover, many who saw Christ not only claimed to have seen him, but they touched him and talked with him. It is surely possible for one having a hallucination to think such things are actually happening, but it is hard to believe that all eleven disciples, for example, would be having that same hallucination at once [see Luke 24:36-43].
So, it is possible that everyone who claimed to see Jesus alive after his death was hallucinating, but that is highly improbable when you consider the number of different people involved, their frame of mind, and the different circumstances in which they claimed to see Jesus, etc.***
* “Even Gerd Lüdemann, the leading German critic of the resurrection, himself admits, ‘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,'” quoted in William Lane Craig, “The Resurrection of Jesus,” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-resurrection-of-jesus.
** Indeed, this is Gerd Lüdemann’s claim. For a response, see William Lane Craig’s critique, “Visions of Jesus: A Critical Assessment of Gerd Lüdemann’s Hallucination Hypothesis.”
The Tolle Lege (“Take up and read”) series focuses on excerpts from notable books in philosophy, theology, apologetics, and related areas.