Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Hallucination Theory: A Skeptical Delusion

In a previous reply to John Loftus, I mentioned that he linked to an article by one of his colleagues, Matthew, on the subject of visions in early Christianity. As I said at the time, the article by Matthew is more assertion than argument. I gave some examples of evidence we have that's inconsistent with any visionary theory that's proposed in opposition to a physical resurrection. I also linked to two articles that discuss some of the problems with such vision theories.

But Loftus and Matthew continue to speak highly of Matthew's article, and Matthew is wondering why nobody has answered him. I suggest that people read Matthew's article, then evaluate it in light of the evidence cited in the two articles I linked to here and here.

Every major strand of early evidence we have contradicts the sort of visionary theory Loftus and Matthew are advocating. Subjective visions, whether we would call them hallucinations or something else, would be experiences within an individual's mind, not shared experiences. While it would be possible for people to have similar hallucinations around the same time, we wouldn't expect the details to be identical. If some people lost at sea begin having hallucinations, it's possible that they would all think that they're seeing a ship, but it's highly unlikely that all of them would think that the ship is the same color, is at the same distance, is traveling at the same speed, has the same markings on the side of it, etc. Hallucinations are rare, they're individual experiences, and they don't interact with the physical world. Yet, every major strand of early evidence we have for Jesus' resurrection appearances contradicts such characteristics.

Since the early Christians believed that Jesus physically rose from the dead, they would have looked for physical evidence. The purported event in question was a physical one, and it would leave physical traces. Hallucinating an appearance of a god in the heavens, for example, isn't the same as hallucinating appearances of a physical resurrection, since belief in a physical resurrection would result in expectations of accompanying physical evidence. If the physical evidence was absent, the people hallucinating would be able to discern that something was wrong.

What should we look for when evaluating the early accounts of Jesus' appearances, then? We should look for instances of coordinated action. Do two or more people hear the risen Jesus saying something? If so, how could two people independently hallucinating hear the same detailed message at the same time? We would also examine whether these appearances of Jesus interact with the physical world in ways that the witnesses would have been able to have detected.

When we take factors like these into account, we see data inconsistent with the hallucination theory in every major strand of early evidence. Jesus' appearance to Paul was perceived by Paul's travel companions, and Paul mentions group appearances of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:5-7). It seems unlikely that a group of 11 people or a group of more than 500 people would have hallucinations of Jesus at the same time without eventually discovering that they had been mistaken. What would happen when one of those people thought he heard Jesus say X, while the other people in the group didn't hear X? What would happen when one person thought he saw Jesus walking to the East, while another person thought he saw Jesus walking to the West? Even if everybody hallucinated Jesus around the same time, how would the details of those hallucinations align? When we turn to Mark's gospel, we once again see problems for the hallucination theory. There's an empty tomb, and the women hear the angel saying something. They react in the same way, together. Why didn't they each hear something different? Similarly, Matthew's gospel involves an empty tomb, the physical touching of Jesus' feet, coordinated group activity, etc. We see the same characteristics again in Luke. And in John. Acts gives us more examples, and tells us that Jesus was teaching those He appeared to (Acts 1:3), which would be difficult to do by means of hallucination. Ignatius of Antioch, writing early in the second century, may preserve an early tradition independent of the gospels when he reports that the disciples touched Jesus' body (Letter To The Smyrnaeans, 3).

Over and over again - in Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, and early post-apostolic tradition - we find details of Jesus' resurrection appearances that are inconsistent with hallucinations and other psychological disorders. The arguments put forward by Loftus and Matthew barely scratch the surface of this issue. They fail to interact with the large majority of the relevant data, and their theory is explicitly and repeatedly contradicted by every major strand of early evidence we have.

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