Were the Resurrection Appearances of Jesus Hallucinations?

By Michael R. Licona

All of us are wired differently. For me, one of the things I don’t like about myself is that I’m a perpetual second-guesser. I can’t even purchase a bottle of cologne without questioning whether I should have purchased a different type before I leave the store. Although raised in a strong Christian home, I began questioning the truth of Christianity in my early twenties. I realized that my choice about God could be the most important one of my life. After all, although countless exceptions exist, we largely tend to believe what we were raised to believe. I had been confident that I had a good relationship with God in which I was doing my best to please him and he led me through life and answered most of my numerous prayers. But followers of some other religions have a similar confidence. Could it be that I had conditioned myself to believe and see things from a certain perspective? How could I know with reasonable certainty that Christianity is true?

This question plagued me to the point of throwing my future plans into chaos. Why devote my life to a belief system toward which I had serious doubts? A prominent Christian philosopher whose name is Gary Habermas and who had devoted his academic career to studying the resurrection of Jesus led me to that topic. And it’s an important one. After all, the truth of Christianity stands or falls on whether Jesus actually rose from the dead. The apostle Paul himself, who is perhaps the earliest known Christian author, wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless” (1 Cor 15:17).

Much attention has been devoted to the subject of whether Jesus of Nazareth truly rose from the dead. Gary Habermas has compiled a bibliography of more than 3,400 academic books and journal articles written on the subject since 1975. Another specialist, Dale Allison, refers to the topic of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection as the “prize puzzle” of New Testament research.

In the previous chapter, Gary Habermas argued compellingly that the preponderance of historical evidence strongly suggests that Jesus’ disciples and even a couple of skeptics had experiences that they were convinced were appearances of the risen Jesus to them. And the best historically attested experience is the appearance to the twelve disciples within a group setting. One might ask, however, whether it’s more likely that these experiences were psychological in nature rather than actual appearances of the risen Jesus. After all, psychological phenomena are common occurrences and many have been proposed to account for the appearances. But space allows us to cover only the most prominent proposed in the literature: hallucinations.

A hallucination may be defined as “a false sensory perception that has the compelling sense of reality despite the absence of an external stimulus” (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2007, 427). In other words, a hallucination is the perception of something that isn’t actually there. Hallucinations can occur in a number of modes. Participants believe they see, hear, touch, smell, or taste something that is absent in reality. Sometimes, hallucinations may occur in multiple modes, such as when a participant thinks that she or he both sees-and-hears something. However, multiple mode hallucinations are not as common as those occurring in a single mode.

About 15 percent of the population experience one or more hallucinations during their lifetime. Research has shown that some personality types are more prone to experiencing them. Women are more likely to experience them than men. And the older we get, the more likely we are to experience a hallucination. So, it should come as no surprise to discover that senior adults who are in the midst of bereaving the loss of a loved one belong to a group that experiences one of the highest percentage of hallucinations; a whopping 50 percent! (See Aleman and Larøi, Hallucinations: The Science of Idiosyncratic Perception, American Psychological Association, 2008.)

With these things in mind, let’s consider the possibility that Jesus’ disciples, the Church persecutor Paul, and Jesus’ skeptical half-brother James experienced hallucinations of the risen Jesus. All of the twelve disciples, Paul, and James were men, who were probably of different age groups and probably of different personalities. That the Twelve were grieving is certain. Yet proposals that the disciples were hallucinating must argue that more than 15 percent of them had the experience. In fact, more than the whopping 50 percent we find among bereaving senior adults would have experienced them. Indeed, it would have been a mind-blowing 100 percent! Moreover, it must likewise be proposed that when these hallucinations occurred, they just happened to do so simultaneously. And it just so happened that they must have experienced their hallucinations in the same mode for them to believe that they had seen the same Jesus. In other words, if a group hallucination had actually occurred, it would have been more likely that the disciples would have experienced their hallucinations in different modes and of at least slightly differing content. Perhaps one would have said, “I see Jesus over by the door,” while another said, “No. I see him floating by the ceiling,” while still another said, “No. I only hear him speaking to me,” while still another said, “I only sense that he’s in the room with us.” Instead, what we have are the reports that the disciples saw Jesus.

But there are more problems. Paul, who had taken it upon himself to persecute Christians was in no state of grief over Jesus’ death and, thus, was an unlikely candidate for a hallucination.

Further problems involve the group appearances. Since a hallucination is an event that occurs in the mind of an individual and has no external reality, one person cannot participate in another’s hallucination. In this sense, they are like dreams. I could not wake my wife in the middle of the night and say, “Honey, I’m having a dream that I’m in Hawaii. Go back to sleep. Come join me in my dream and let’s have a free vacation!” We might go back to sleep and both dream that we are in Hawaii. But we would not be participating in the same dream, doing the same activity, in the same location, and carrying on the same discussion with precisely the same words. This is because a dream occurs in the mind of an individual and has no corresponding external reality. Hallucinations are similar in that sense as a psychological phenomenon.

Gary A. Sibcy is a licensed clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology who has as interest in the possibility of group hallucinations. He comments,

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 (personal correspondence with this author on 3.10.09).

There is at least one more difficult problem for those claiming that the appearances of Jesus were only hallucinations: Jesus’ tomb was empty. If Jesus had not, in fact, been raised from the dead and the appearances were hallucinations, once must still account for how Jesus’ tomb had become empty. Aside from the fact that hallucinations are horribly inadequate at explaining the appearances as we observed above, even if that were not the case they cannot account for Jesus’ empty tomb.

In summary, we have observed that the proposal that hallucinations can account for the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus fails on several accounts. Although at least a few if not all of Jesus’ disciples may have been in an emotional state that rendered them candidates for a hallucination, the nature of some of the experiences of the risen Jesus, specifically those that occurred in group settings and to Jesus’ enemy Paul, and the empty tomb strongly suggest that these experiences were not hallucinations.