Tuesday, April 11, 2006


When critics attempt to give an explanation of what happened after Jesus' crucifixion, they often don't deny that there were resurrection appearances, but instead suggest that the appearances were the result of hallucination or some other sort of psychological disorder. But such psychological disorders are rare, and by their nature they're individual experiences. The resurrection appearances, on the other hand, were often group occurrences (Matthew 28:17, Luke 24:31, 1 Corinthians 15:5-7, etc.). Gary Habermas gives 19 reasons for rejecting the hallucination theory.

If the resurrection witnesses were just experiencing hallucinations or something similar, why did they think that a resurrection had occurred? Why didn't they just say that they had seen Jesus’ spirit, that they had seen a vision of Him, or that He was bodily assumed to Heaven? The early Christians were familiar with such concepts (2 Kings 2:11, John 11:44, Acts 12:9). Why would they think it was a resurrection? The common Jewish belief at the time was that there would be a general resurrection in the future, not an individual resurrection for one person prior to the general resurrection. And since the Jewish concept of resurrection would involve an empty tomb and a physical body, people who thought they were seeing a risen person would expect and look for physical evidence, as we see in the gospels. The Old Testament scriptures that shaped the worldview of the early Christians taught a physical resurrection (Isaiah 26:19-21, Daniel 12:1-2), Paul believed in a resurrection that involved the transformation of the body that dies (Romans 8:23, Philippians 3:21), in agreement with the Pharisees (Acts 23:6, Philippians 3:5), and the gospels give physical descriptions of the resurrection. The women hold Jesus’ physical feet (Matthew 28:9), He eats physical food (Luke 24:43), etc. "All our early Christian sources unanimously affirm the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Jesus" (Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], p. 711). The early Christians were aware of the difference between a vision and a physical event (Acts 12:9). The concept of hundreds of first century Jews thinking they were encountering a man risen from the dead without ever seeking any physical evidence for what they thought they were experiencing is implausible.

Gary Habermas and Michael Licona summarize some of the problems with any hallucination theory:

"Let us suppose that a group of twenty people is sailing across the Atlantic Ocean when the ship sinks. After floating on the ocean for three days with no sleep, food, or fresh water, and with the strongest desire for rescue, one member points to a large ship on the horizon that he is hallucinating. Will the others see it? Probably not, since hallucinations are experienced only in the mind of the individual. However, let us suppose that three others in the group are so desperately hopeful of rescue that their minds deceive them into believing that they see the ship as well. As their imaginary ship approaches, will they all see the same hull number? If they do, it is time for the entire group to begin yelling at the top of their lungs because the ship is real." (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2004], p. 106)


"U.S. Navy SEALS are arguably the most elite fighting force in the world. Before becoming a SEAL, the candidate must complete a grueling ‘Hell Week.’ All of the candidates are put through intense exercises and experience extreme stress during the week on only a total of three to five hours of sleep. As extreme fatigue and sleep deprivation quickly set in, most of the candidates experience hallucinations. According to several SEALS interviewed, most hallucinations occur while the candidates, as a team, paddle in a raft out in the ocean. One believed that he saw an octopus come out of the water and wave at him! Another thought he saw a train coming across the water headed straight toward the raft. Another believed that he saw a large wall, which the raft would crash into if the team persisted in paddling. When the octopus, train, and wall were pointed out by the candidates to the rest of the team, no one else saw them, even though they were all in the same frame of mind. Most of them hallucinated at some point, but none of them participated in the hallucination of another." (ibid.)

The resurrection accounts repeatedly refer to close, lengthy encounters with Jesus, which included Jesus teaching (Acts 1:3) and multiple people seeing Him in one location and interacting with Him at the same time (Matthew 28:9, 28:17, Luke 24:13-32, 24:50, Acts 22:9, etc.).

How did a hallucination or other psychological disorder cause Paul's travel companions to see and hear things and fall to the ground? How did a hallucination or other psychological disorder lead Ananias to Paul and give Paul the ability to perform apparent miracles?

When we consider the modern skeptical theories that are raised against the traditional Christian view, we should remember that modern skeptics aren't the first people to propose such theories. The first people to do so were the resurrection witnesses themselves (Matthew 28:17, Luke 24:11, 24:21-24, 24:41, John 20:2, 20:15, 20:24-28, 1 Corinthians 15:13-19), and they later heard other people propose alternate explanations of what happened (Matthew 28:11-15, Acts 26:24). The witnesses of the resurrected Christ were aware of possible naturalistic explanations of what occurred. The common skeptical assumption that the early Christians were too naive to think through such issues is itself naive. When the witnesses of the resurrection were imprisoned, beaten, beheaded, and crucified for what they were testifying to, they were aware of the possibility that they had been mistaken. "We did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty." (2 Peter 1:16)

N.T. Wright, after studying religious movements in Israel around the time of Jesus' death, commented:

"So far as we know, all the followers of these first-century messianic movements were fanatically committed to the cause. They, if anybody, might be expected to suffer from this blessed twentieth century disease called ‘cognitive dissonance’ when their expectations failed to materialize. But in no case, right across the century before Jesus and the century after him, do we hear of any Jewish group saying that their executed leader had been raised from the dead and he really was the Messiah after all." (cited in Paul Copan and Ronald Tacelli, editors, Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment? [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000], p. 183)

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