There were many messianic movements in the first and second centuries.  All of them ended with the death of their messiah, with one exception: the messianic movement centered around Jesus of Nazareth.  This is a historical anomaly that requires explanation.  Jews expected the coming Messiah to be a political and military victor, among other things.  He was to set Israelfree from Roman rule.  The fact that Jesus was crucified by the Romans rather than triumphing over them in a military victory should have been proof positive to any followers of Jesus that He was not the Messiah.  His group of followers should have disbanded in despair, and set their sights on finding the true messiah.  And yet, unlike all other messianic movements, Jesus’ disciples continued to believe that He was the Messiah, and some even gave their lives for that belief.  Why?  According to their own testimony, it was because they saw Him raised from the dead.  Even many skeptics who deny a real resurrection of Jesus will admit that Jesus’ disciples must have had experiences in which they thought they saw Jesus alive from the dead.  So what did they see and experience, if not the resurrected Christ?

Skeptics have proposed several theories, but one the most popular and enduring theories is the hallucination theory.  It is said that the disciples of Jesus had hallucinations of Jesus, leading them to believe that Jesus had come back to life.  There are several problems with this theory.  First, hallucinations are private, subjective occurrences.  How can we explain why so many people experienced the same kind of hallucination over a period of 40 days?  Secondly, why would the hallucinations stop after 40 days?  We have no evidence of anyone claiming to see the resurrected Jesus in the flesh after His ascension.  Thirdly, the Gospels and Paul report Jesus’ appearance to groups of individuals.  Seeing that hallucinations are private, subjective experiences, it is most improbable that every person would have the same hallucination at the same time.  Just as a group of people will not share the same dream, a group of people will not share the same hallucination.  Fourthly, a hallucination cannot explain the empty tomb.  If the disciples were merely hallucinating that Jesus was alive from the dead, then His body should still be in the tomb.  And yet, the tomb was found to be empty.

A blogger by the name of “Sam” adds one further argument against this hypothesis: it lacks explanatory power.  In other words, it can’t explain what it purports to explain because a hallucination involving a deceased person would not be enough to cause someone to think that person had risen from the dead.  All sorts of other conclusions are much more likely to be drawn.  The last thing someone would conclude upon seeing a recently deceased person walking and talking to them would be that the person was raised from the dead.  To draw that conclusion, much more evidence would be required than a mere post-mortem appearance.

Consider how you would respond if you saw a recently deceased loved one standing before you.  Would your first reaction be, “Is that you Uncle Joe?  Oh my gosh!  I can’t believe it!  You’ve been resurrected from the dead!  It’s so good to see you again.”  No!  If we saw someone standing before us that we were convinced had previously died, we would make one of the following conclusions:

  1. We are dreaming
  2. The person never truly died
  3. We are experiencing a vision
  4. We are hallucinating
  5. We are seeing a ghost

If you saw Uncle Joe after his death, perhaps you might conclude that you were dreaming.  But it probably would not take long before you would rule this option out.  While some dreams seem very real, it is not difficult, and does not take long to distinguish a dream state from reality.  Even if the dream was very real and lasted a very long time, as soon as we wake up we recognize that we were, in fact, dreaming.  Clearly Peter et al eventually woke up on that historic Sunday morning, so if they had just dreamt that they saw Christ alive after death, they would quickly realize it was just a dream.  Even if we argue that the dream could have seemed so real that Jesus’ disciples could not distinguish their dream from reality, surely not all disciples would do so.  And yet there was never any debate amongst those to whom Jesus appeared as to whether or not His appearance was in reality or just in dreams.

What about denying death?  If you saw Uncle Joe after his death, perhaps you would conclude that he never died to begin with.  This option is all-the-more likely among those who did not witness Uncle Joe’s death or internment.  Consider Elvis.  Those who think they have seen Elvis alive never saw Elvis die, and thus they are open to the possibility that perhaps he never truly died (Interestingly, no one ever concludes that Elvis rose from the dead based on his post-mortem appearances alone.  They only conclude that he never died.  But Jesus’ post-mortem appearances caused the disciples to believe He had risen from the dead).[1]  In the case of Jesus, some of His disciples did see Him die: the Beloved Disciple (Jn 19:26-27), Mary Magdalene (Mt 27:55-56; Mk 15:40-41; Lk 23:49; 24:11; Jn 19:25), His mother Mary (Jn 19:25), Mary the mother of James and Joseph (Mt 27:55-56; Mk 15:40; Lk 23:49; 24:11), Jesus’ aunt—Mary the wife of Clopas (Jn 19:25), James and John’s mother (Mt 27:55-56), Salome (Mk 15:40), other acquaintances (Lk 23:49), and other women (Mt 27:55; Mk 15:40-41; Lk 23:49; 24:11).  Upon seeing Jesus after His crucifixion, these people were not very likely to conclude Jesus never actually died.

To be fair, most of Jesus’ disciples did not see Jesus die, and perhaps they would have been more open to the idea that Jesus never died to begin with.  On the other hand, it could be argued that even though they did not see Jesus die, they knew He was sentenced to die by crucifixion, and they knew that no one survived a crucifixion.  It would be similar to having a loved one be sentenced to death by lethal injection.  Even if you did not witness their execution, you would have no reason to think that perhaps they survived the process because you know the process is effective 100% of the time.  This is all-the-more so if you received reports from those who did witness the event, confirming that the individual died.  Surely the apostles and other disciples would have received reports from those who witnessed Jesus’ execution.  So when they saw Jesus, they were probably no more likely to think that Jesus never died than those disciples who were able to witness the crucifixion.

What about a vision?  Perhaps if you saw Uncle Joe, you would think you were seeing a heavenly vision.  Of course, if it was a heavenly vision it would reflect a spiritual reality, not a physical reality.  You might conclude that God was allowing you to see a spiritual reality—that Uncle Joe lives on in heaven—but you would not conclude from seeing a vision of Uncle Joe that Uncle Joe was raised from the dead.  The same is true of the disciples.  They could distinguish between a vision and reality; between a vision and a resurrection (Acts 9:10-12; 10:9-17; 11:5; 12:9-11; 16:9; 18:9; Revelation).  Think of Jesus’ transfiguration.  When Peter, James, and John saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus, they did not conclude that they were seeing these men in the flesh, or that Moses had risen from the dead (Elijah never died to begin with, so he couldn’t have risen from the dead).  They believed they were seeing a vision of spiritual realities (Mt 17:1-9; Mk 9:1-9; Lk 9:28-26).  If the appearances of Jesus were similar to the appearance of Moses and Elijah on the mountain, why wouldn’t the disciples conclude that they were seeing heavenly visions of Jesus in heaven?  Why would they think Jesus—but not Moses and Elijah—had appeared to them in the flesh, and rose again from the dead?  It’s because visions are limited to what we see.  In the case of Jesus, they didn’t just see Him and talk to Him, but they handled Him (1 Jn 1:1-3).  They saw His crucifixion wounds and even touched Him (Mt 28:9; Lk 24:38-40; Jn 20:20,24-28).  They gave Him food, and watched Him eat it in their presence (Lk 24:41-43).  Furthermore, the tomb was empty.  A vision cannot explain an empty tomb.

What about the hallucination theory?  How likely is it that you would conclude you were hallucinating when you saw Uncle Joe?  While this may be your initial conclusion, it is unlikely to be your final conclusion.  Hallucinations usually involve a radical distortion of reality.  What kind of hallucination would only distort the reality of a person’s death?  Why would your hallucination only involve Uncle Joe, and not pink elephants and crawling walls?  Once you recognize the clarity with which your mind is grasping reality in all things except Uncle Joe, you will probably rule out the possibility that you were hallucinating.  But this is precisely parallel to the resurrection appearances of Jesus.  Those who saw Him did not claim to see other strange phenomenon.  Their experience only involved an appearance of Jesus.  Given the specific nature of what they were seeing, and given the fact that everything else they were seeing corresponded to reality, the disciples were unlikely to conclude that they were hallucinating.

We must also consider the fact that hallucinations are projections of one’s one mind.  If the disciples were merely hallucinating a resurrected Jesus, then they must have previously had the idea of a resurrected Messiah in their mind.  But this is very unlikely.  First, they had no concept of a dying Messiah, yet alone one who would rise from the dead.  Secondly, while the disciples did believe in a future bodily resurrection, they were anticipating this to occur at the end of time for all the righteous, not for a single individual in the middle of history.  There was no expectation that Jesus would rise from the dead, and thus no basis for such a hallucination to occur in a single individual, yet alone hundreds of people.

We can’t even explain this as a mental projection; some sort of wish fulfillment.  The disciples had already given up hope in Jesus as the Messiah (Mk 16:10; Lk 24:18-21; Jn 20:24-25), so they were not hoping for anything to happen related to Jesus.  Furthermore, in some instances, when Jesus appeared He was not recognized by those to whom He appeared (Mk 16:12; Lk 24:15-16,31; John 20:14-16; 21:1-14).  Surely if the resurrection appearances are to be explained as mental projections fueled by wish-fulfillment, those people would project a Jesus they recognized![2]  So it is unlikely that a hallucination can explain the origin of the disciples’ belief that Jesus had risen from the dead.

If we saw Uncle Joe alive from the dead, I think most of us would ultimately conclude that we were seeing his ghost/spirit.  Interestingly, this was the disciples’ initial conclusion upon seeing Jesus.  They thought they were seeing a ghost (Lk 24:37).  That is why Jesus went to great lengths to prove He was not a ghost.  He showed them His wounds, and allowed them to touch Him.  Even then, Luke tells us they still disbelieved for joy[3], which prompted Jesus to eat food in their presence to once and for all prove He was truly alive from the dead (Lk 24:41-43).  When you think about it, these are the kinds of things that it would take to convince you that you were not just seeing Uncle Joe’s ghost, but Uncle Joe himself, alive from the dead.  If the disciples only experienced appearances of Jesus, they would not have concluded that Jesus was risen from the dead—even if they carried on a conversation with Him.  They would have thought they were seeing His spirit.  What brought them to the most outlandish and bizarre conclusion of all—that a man who was killed three days earlier had risen from the dead—was the physical evidence.  They didn’t just see and talk to Jesus, but they touched Him and ate with Him.  The only thing that could explain that sort of experience was a bodily resurrection.  That is what they preached, and that is what they gave their lives for.

Resurrection is the most unlikely explanation one would offer for a visionary experience involving a person who was known to be dead.  And yet, that is the explanation the disciples gave for their experiences of the post-mortem Christ, because no other explanation could account for the breadth of their experience.  Jesus was not someone who lived-on only in their dreams; Jesus did not live-on only in their memory or as a happy hallucination; Jesus did not live-on only as a spirit.  Jesus lived-on as a flesh and blood man who had experienced death, conquered it, and then returned to the living to proclaim Himself as the resurrection and the life, promising that all who believe in Him will experience this same resurrection power in the age to come.


[1]Sam, “The Hallucination Hypothesis”; available from http://philochristos.blogspot.com/2011/06/hallucination-hypothesis.html; Internet; accessed 12 September 2011.
[2]Sam, “The Hallucination Hypothesis”; available from http://philochristos.blogspot.com/2011/06/hallucination-hypothesis.html; Internet; accessed 12 September 2011.
[3]Mt 28:17 also speaks of disciples “doubting” when they saw Jesus.  While some people like to paint ancients as gullible fools who were quick to believe everything and anything, they were just as skeptical as we are in modern times.  When the women reported seeing Jesus alive from the dead, they did not believe them (Mk 16:11,14; Lk 24:10-11).  Neither did they believe the two disciples walking to Emmaus (Mk 16:12-13).  They required a lot of evidence before they concluded that Jesus had risen from the dead.

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