In order to make a case for the resurrection of Jesus, we need to confirm that: 1) Jesus was crucified. 2) Jesus died. 3) Jesus was buried and the tomb was found empty. 4) The disciples began to claim that they had experienced the risen Jesus. 5) The disciples suffered for their testimony and some of them were killed. This blog series is working through each one of these historical facts and responding to common naturalistic objections.

The disciples began to claim that they had experienced the risen Jesus.

Shortly after the tomb was discovered to be empty the disciples claimed that Jesus had risen from the dead and appeared to them. We are told that Jesus appeared to Cephas, the twelve, more than five hundred brothers, James, all the apostles, and also to Paul.[1] Paul, who wrote this list of appearances, was not with the disciples when this happened but received it shortly after. “In fact, many critical scholars hold that Paul received it from the disciples Peter and James while visiting them in Jerusalem three years after his conversion. If so, Paul learned it within five years of Jesus’ crucifixion and from the disciples themselves.”[2] It is for this reason that many skeptics hold to the belief that the disciples claimed they had experienced the risen Jesus.

Atheist historian, Gerd Ludemann admits that the creed from 1 Corinthians is early. “We can assume that all the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus. It is also likely for 1 Cor. 15:6a-7 since the conversion of Paul lies at the chronological end of the appearances cited and is probably to be thought of as not later than three years after the death of Jesus.”[3] Three years doesn’t provide time for embellishment or myth. Even one of the most famous skeptical New Testament historians, Bart Ehrman agrees. He said,

Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record. For it is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death.[4]

Based on the multiple attestation, early writings, and skeptics in agreement, it is reasonable to conclude that the disciples believed to have had experienced the risen Jesus.

Did the disciples experience hallucinations of the resurrected Christ?

So why don’t these skeptics believe Jesus rose from the dead if they agree that the disciples believed to have had experienced the risen Jesus? They believe it is possible that the disciples hallucinated the resurrection appearances. Carrier, who holds to the hallucination theory states, “I believe the best explanation, consistent with both scientific findings and the surviving evidence (particular to Christianity and the general cultural milieu in which it rose), is that the first Christians experienced hallucinations of the risen Christ, of one form or another.”[5] Carrier isn’t alone in his belief in the hallucination theory. Ludemann claims, “But not long after the Friday on which Jesus died, Cephas saw Jesus alive in a vision which also had auditory features, and this event led to an incomparable chain reaction.”[6] This chain reaction is the beginning of the belief that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to all the different witnesses.

The first problem with the hallucination theory is that hallucinations are individual experiences that cannot be shared. Dr. Gary A. Sibcy, a licensed clinical psychologist, has taken a great interest in group hallucinations and come to the following conclusion:

I have surveyed the professional literature (peer-reviewed journal articles and books) written by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other relevant healthcare professionals during the past two decades and have yet to find a single documented case of a group hallucination, that is, an event for which more than one person purportedly shared in a visual or other sensory perception where there was clearly no external referent.[7]

After more than a decade of research, professionals have been unable to find a single case when a group hallucination happened. The reason group hallucinations can’t occur is because hallucinations are much like dreams in that they are subjective personal experiences. “Hallucinations are linked to an individual’s subconscious and to his particular past experiences, making it very unlikely that more than two persons could have the same hallucination at the same time.”[8]  This understanding that hallucinations are subjective personal experiences also creates a problem for the skeptic when Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that Jesus appeared to over 500 people at the same time.

The hallucination theory also has the problem of too many people in very different moods. Along with Paul’s mention of “the 500” in 1 Corinthians, we have statements from other Gospel writers that they too saw the risen Jesus. It was not just one story told by a single source who experienced a hallucination. “Likewise, individuals and groups, friends as well as foes saw Jesus not once but many times over a period of forty days. We are told that these numbers included both men and women, hardheaded Peter and softhearted Mary Magdalene, indoors and outdoors, and so on. Not all these persons would be in the same state of mind.”[9] Here, Habermas shows that in addition to multiple sources, there were many different moods in which the witnesses experienced Jesus’ appearances. Along with the examples listed by Habermas, we have the vision witnessed by Paul, who was a leader in Judaism and on his way to Damascus in order to arrest Christians. He was most likely not in a state of mind to experience a vision of the risen Jesus and change the course of his life. He already had the life for which he had worked. Paul would be the last person to grieve the death of Jesus.

Furthermore, there is the account of Jesus’ skeptical brother James, who witnessed his brother’s ministry without becoming his follower. But it seems something changed after the resurrection event. Again, 1 Corinthians 15:7 states that Jesus appeared to James, convincing him of the fact that Jesus had risen to life. Therefore, there are too many witnesses reacting in different moods for the hallucination theory to be plausible. The hallucination theory also fails to account for the empty tomb. For these reasons, the belief that the disciples hallucinated Jesus’ resurrection appearances does not account for the evidence.

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:5-9 ESV

[2] Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 52-53.

[3] Gerd Ludemann, The Resurrection of Jesus (Minneapolis, MI: Fortress Press, 1994), 38.

[4] Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Oxford: OUP, 2001) 231.

[5] Lowder, The Empty Tomb, 184.

[6] Ludemann, The Resurrection of Jesus, 174.

[7] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 484.

Gary Habermas obtained this statement from Gary Sibcy and then forwarded it to Michael Licona the same day in an email dated March 10, 2009.

[8] Josh McDowell, The Resurrection Factor (San Bernardino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers, INC, 1981), 84.

[9] Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 109.