Thursday, May 11, 2006

Purported Extra-Biblical Visions And Jesus' Resurrection

Matthew at Debunking Christianity has replied to my recent article on the hallucination theory and Jesus' resurrection. His response is in the comments section of his original article. He writes:

I do not state that I believe that they are "hallucinations" rather, instead I believe that they are visions. What's more is that this fellow Jason doesn't even touch the social-science argument I brought up. He brings up the old Evangelical canard in that hallucinations cannot be shared. For Christ's sake, I wish he would take a better look at what I wrote.

I wrote that visions can definitely be shared collectively by groups of people simultaneously.In fact, all of my examples were examples of collective group visions, the exact kind argued for by Malina and Rohrbaugh and what's more is that they believe that the New Testament resurrection narratives fall into this social category.

As for the rest of his rebuttal, it's the same old "hallucinations can't do X". I hate to inform him but I believe that the majority of resurrection narratives were antidocetic apologetics. I'm not pulling this out of my ass here- Jason would believe otherwise, but I rely on the work of actual scholars like Charles Talbert and so I would expect a defense of traditional inerrancy from Jason against the critical and expert scholarship of Talbert and others.

Matthew suggests that I need to read more carefully. I would suggest that Matthew both read more carefully and think more carefully about what he's read. In my responses to him, I repeatedly explained that I was using hallucination as an example of a variety of subjective experiences. That's why I used other phrases as well, such as "subjective visions" and "psychological disorders". Near the beginning of his original article, Matthew told us that he was arguing for naturalistic visions:

These visions, I believe, were naturally-caused and are in no need of supernatural/divine causation.

As I explained in my earlier responses to Matthew, something like a hallucination can be said to be shared by more than one person in general terms, but not in detail. People lost at sea may hallucinate a ship around the same time, but it's highly unlikely that they'll hallucinate the same color for the ship, the same distance of the ship, the same speed at which the ship is moving, the same markings on the side of the ship, etc.

It isn't sufficient for Matthew to mention examples of people outside of the Bible allegedly sharing a purported vision, since Christianity doesn't deny that other people can have objective visions or other supernatural experiences. Matthew is arguing for subjective visions, not objective visions. He can't just assume that every purported vision or other purported supernatural experience outside of the Bible has comparable evidence supporting it and must be explained naturalistically. If Matthew wants us to reach such conclusions, he has to argue for them, not just assert them.

If Matthew had read the two articles I repeatedly linked to in my earlier responses to him, he would have seen that the second article discusses the work of Malina and Rohrbaugh. It also discusses the theory Matthew appeals to regarding whether the gospels contain material fabricated in response to Docetism. In other words, the arguments Matthew claims I've neglected are addressed in an article I repeatedly linked to in my earlier responses to him. I've read Matthew's article. Has he read the article I linked to? Apparently not.

That article I linked to discusses, in depth, the problems with the approach Matthew is taking. You can't just present vague references to purported visions outside the Bible, claim without much of an argument that their credibility is comparable to that of the resurrection accounts, assume without argument that those extra-Biblical experiences are naturalistic, then conclude that the resurrection experiences must be naturalistic as well.

I didn't just give links to other articles. I also explained, in my own articles responding to Matthew, some of the problems with his argument. Matthew hasn't addressed those problems. The resurrection witnesses don't meet the criteria needed for a naturalistic vision. When people experience hallucinations and other psychological disorders, they do so under particular circumstances. You can't assume that a drug user, for example, is in the same category as the men walking along the road in Luke 24. You can't assume that Saul of Tarsus traveling to Damascus is in the same category as a group of people expecting to see a Marian apparition, for example. You have to examine the people and circumstances involved in each purported vision, and that's something Matthew hasn't done in his article. Instead, he's made vague comparisons that neglect a lot of significant details.

Matthew's argument doesn't explain the empty tomb. It doesn't explain why the witnesses thought they saw a resurrected Christ rather than a resuscitated Christ or a vision, for example. I could go on, but Matthew should know about these problems with his theory, as well as other problems with it, if he's made a significant effort to think through these things.

Matthew doesn't give us many details about the purported extra-Biblical visions he cites, so we have to look elsewhere to give these accounts a closer examination. See here and here on Sabbatai Sevi. Sevi apostatized to Islam, miracle reports that circulated were denied by Sevi's apostle, his enemies denied the miracles, etc. The situation is much different with Christianity. Jesus never apostatized, His apostles affirmed His miracles rather than denying them, and the early enemies of Christianity corroborate facts such as the empty tomb and Jesus' performance of apparent miracles (though they deny that God was the source). Matthew makes a vague reference to post-death visions of Sevi, but without details. Let's see Matthew address the relevant historical details for those alleged visions in the manner in which Jesus' resurrection is examined in the article I linked to earlier. And if these alleged visions of Sevi have credible evidence supporting them, let's see Matthew give a naturalistic explanation for those visions (as well as for the evidence related to Jesus). I'm not aware of any evidence for Sevi that's comparable to the evidence for Jesus, but if such evidence existed for Sevi, the Christian worldview doesn't deny that there are supernatural occurrences outside of the Biblical record. I'm not the naturalist in this discussion. Matthew is.

Matthew mentions some ancient reports about Achilles, but, once again, doesn't give us many details. What eyewitness accounts or other reliable accounts do we have? Did the people reporting the alleged visions have reason to be critical of what they were reporting, as we know the early Christians did? The article I linked to earlier explains what sort of questions we need to ask when evaluating such accounts, and Matthew hasn't addressed the relevant questions.

Remember, as I said in my last response to Matthew, there's a significant difference between claiming a vision and claiming a resurrection. A resurrection would involve physical evidence that wouldn't be expected with a vision of a god in the heavens or a sighting of a ghost of a deceased relative, for example. We also have to distinguish between people who report a vision without much motivation to reexamine their experience and people who report a resurrection at the risk of their soul and with the consequence of decades of suffering and the potential of death. Putting legends about Achilles in the same category as the eyewitness testimony of Paul, for example, doesn't make sense. The people and contexts involved are radically different.

Nobody denies that there have been many miracle reports and hallucinations and other psychological disorders in human history, and there continue to be many in the world today. A Navy SEAL may hallucinate after undergoing fatigue and sleep deprivation during his training to become a SEAL, but we don't conclude that every other reported event in his life can therefore also be dismissed as a hallucination. His circumstances in training to become a SEAL were radically different from his other circumstances. The fact that many miracles have been reported in human history, or the fact that many hallucinations or other visionary experiences occur, doesn't justify the conclusion that Jesus' resurrection appearances were naturalistic visions.

Matthew's article and his follow-up posts have demonstrated that naturalistic visions are one possibility to be considered. But nobody ever denied that. What Matthew and other critics need to do is move us from possibility to probability, and the way to do that is to address the details surrounding Jesus' resurrection. That's what was done in my previous articles and the other articles I linked to. Matthew hasn't done it. Again, read Matthew's article, then read the Tektonics article I linked to earlier. Compare the quality of the two.

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