Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? Part 1: The Hallucination Theory

Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? Part 1: The Hallucination Theory April 5, 2021

On the issue of the alleged resurrection of Jesus, I usually argue in defense of the Apparent Death Theory.

I do this NOT because I believe that the Apparent Death Theory is true, but in order to show that, contrary to the claim of Christian apologists, the Apparent Death Theory is a viable theory, that there is a significant chance that it is true, and that it has NOT been disproven by Christian apologists.

One cannot prove that Jesus rose from the dead.  But one also cannot prove that Jesus only appeared to die on the cross, and that his being seen alive after the crucifixion was the result of his surviving his crucifixion.  Nor can one prove ANY of the skeptical/naturalistic theories to be true.

The basic problem is that the evidence we have is very sketchy and very dicey,  so it is insufficient to prove ANYTHING about the life, ministry, and death of Jesus:

  • We don’t know if Jesus actually existed.
  • We don’t know who actually wrote the Gospels.
  • The Gospels were probably written decades after the events they describe.
  • The Gospels are written in Greek by literate educated authors, but Jesus and his disciples probably spoke Aramaic, and were probably uneducated and illiterate.
  • The Gospels provide conflicting stories and details in general.
  • The Gospels provide conflicting stories and details about the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection appearances of Jesus.
  • We know very little about the traditional “authors” of the Gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
  • The Gospels were written by religious Christians who were trying to promote Christian beliefs.
  • The Gospels are at best historically unreliable accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus, and are possibly fictional stories about a fictional character named “Jesus”.

Because of the sketchy and dicey nature of the evidence we possess concerning Jesus, it cannot be proven that Jesus existed, and it cannot be proven that Jesus died on the cross.  However, IF we assume that Jesus existed, and IF we assume that the Gospels are not purely fictional but contain some historical information that can be gleaned by means of careful critical analysis, THEN it would be possible to show that one of the skeptical theories was probable, or that one of the skeptical theories was improbable.  It might also be possible to show that a disjunction of various skeptical theories was probable (“Either skeptical theory A or B or C is true.”), or that such a disjunction of skeptical theories was improbable.

Christian apologists attempt to “refute” skeptical theories about the alleged resurrection of Jesus on the basis of questionable historical claims and assumptions.  They interpret some particular Gospel passage in a way that supports a particular historical claim, and they assume not only that their interpretation of that passage is correct, but that the author of that passage was merely recording an historical event that the author observed first hand, or that some reliable eyewitness conveyed that observation directly to the author.  Such assumptions are gratuitous and dubious, and there are often good reasons to reject these assumptions.  As a result, every attempted “refutation” by every Christian apologist of every skeptical theory FAILS.  Or, at least every attempted “refutation” that I have read of every skeptical theory FAILS, and I have read many such attempted refutations, so I have good reason to believe that no such attempts have ever been successful.

I have focused my attention on the defense of the Apparent Death Theory, but attempts by Christian apologists to refute other skeptical theories are as weak and defective as their attempts to refute the Apparent Death Theory.  So, for this particular post (or series of posts), I will focus in on a different skeptical theory: the Hallucination Theory.

The basic idea of the Hallucination Theory is that one or more of Jesus’ followers had some sort of experience after the crucifixion of Jesus that they took to be an experience of a living Jesus.  This experience, when reported to others then became the basis for the belief among followers of Jesus that Jesus had physically risen from the dead.  The Hallucination Theory further claims that the original experience or experiences of this sort were NOT actually experiences of a risen Jesus, but were dreams or hallucinations or mistaken or misleading experiences of someone other than Jesus.

My Eyes at the Moment of the Apparitions by German artist August Natterer

I have described this theory in a fairly broad and general way here, which favors the truth of this theory.   Strictly speaking, a dream is NOT an hallucination, but a dream of Jesus being alive that is interpreted by the person who had the dream to be a real experience of an actual living Jesus is very similar to the idea of a person experiencing an hallucination of Jesus and then interpreting that to be a real experience of an actual living Jesus.  So, it makes sense to include “dreams” of Jesus under the same category as “hallucinations” of Jesus, so long as such experiences were (a) interpreted as being real experiences of an actual living Jesus, and (b) reports of such experiences became the basis for the early Christian belief that Jesus had physically risen from the dead.

Christian apologists, however, tend to interpret the Hallucination Theory more narrowly, in order to make it easier to “refute” this theory.  It is in some ways better to define a theory narrowly, because then it is easier to think about and evaluate such a theory.  We don’t have to worry about various different possibilities and variations that are encompassed by a broader interpretation of the theory.   However, if one defines the Hallucination Theory narrowly, as Christian apologists tend to do, then this opens the door to OTHER alternative skeptical theories that are similar to the narrowly defined Hallucination Theory.  

For example, if we distinguish dreams from hallucinations, and exclude dreams of Jesus from counting as potential examples of the Hallucination Theory, then a refutation of the Hallucination Theory might well FAIL as a refutation of the alternative skeptical view that dreams of Jesus after the crucifixion became the basis of the early Christian belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus.  So, narrow definitions of the Hallucination Theory might make it easier for Christian apologists to “refute” this theory, but this comes at a significant cost to their defense of the resurrection: this opens the door to MORE skeptical theories about how belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus came about.

We can see a related problem of ambiguity in Josh McDowell’s defense of the resurrection in The Resurrection Factor (1981, Here’s Life Publishers, Inc. ; hereafter: TRF).  On the one hand, McDowell defines “hallucination” in a fairly broad way:

The American Psychiatric Association’s official glossary defines a “hallucination” as “a false sensory perception in the absence of an actual external stimulus.” The Psychiatric Dictionary defines it as “an apparent perception of an external object when no such object is present.”  (TRF, p.83)

Notice that visual experiences in dreams fit these definitions.  So, based on these broad definitions of “hallucination”, visual experiences in a dream constitute hallucinations.  Based on these broad definitions given by McDowell, the Hallucination Theory would include dream experiences of Jesus (after the crucifixion) by followers of Jesus that (a) were interpreted as being real experiences of an actual living Jesus, and (b) became the basis for the early Christian belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus.

However, as McDowell begins his attempted refutation of this theory, he immediately attacks a narrower interpretation of the Hallucination Theory:

Why is the hallucination theory so weak?
[…]
…only particular kinds of people have hallucinations–usually only paranoid or schizophrenic individuals, with schizophrenics being the most susceptible.  (TRF, p.84)

This objection only works against a very narrowly defined interpretation of the Hallucination Theory.  It clearly does NOT work against the theory that dream experiences of Jesus led to belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus.  EVERYBODY has dreams.  Dreams are NOT exclusively experienced by “only paranoid or schizophrenic individuals”.  So, although McDowell begins his discussion of the Hallucination Theory with a very broad definition of what constitutes an “hallucination”, his very first objection against this theory assumes a much narrower interpretation of what constitutes an “hallucination”, and therefore his objection only applies to some versions of the Hallucination Theory but not to others.

McDowell’s defense of the resurrection FAILS, because his attempted refutation of the Hallucination Theory FAILS.  His attempted refutation of the Hallucination Theory FAILS because some of his objections DO NOT APPLY to versions of the Hallucination Theory that claim that dream experiences of Jesus were the basis for the early Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus.

McDowell commits the fallacy of EQUIVOCATION, and the STRAW MAN fallacy here.  He initially defines the Hallucination Theory in a way that is fairly broad (and that includes dream experiences of Jesus), and then proceeds to raise objections that apply only to some particular versions of Hallucination Theory but not to others (e.g. not to versions about dream experiences of Jesus).

This is the fallacy of EQUIVOCATION because the term “Hallucination Theory” is used ambiguously by McDowell.  He attempts to refute the “Hallucination Theory” in one (narrow) sense of that term, but he claims to have refuted the “Hallucination Theory” in a different (broader) sense of the term.  This is the STAW MAN fallacy, because it is EASIER to attempt a refutation of the Hallucination Theory that is based on a narrow definition of what constitutes an “hallucination” than it is to attempt a refutation of this theory that is based on a broader definition of what constitutes an “hallucination”.

Furthermore, it is clear in the overall LOGIC of McDowell’s case that he needs to refute the Hallucination Theory that is based on his broader definition of what constitutes an “hallucination”.  McDowell categorizes some skeptical theories as being “Occupied Tomb” theories.  His complete list of “Occupied Tomb” theories includes the following five theories (see the diagram in TRF on page 83):

  1. Unknown Tomb
  2. Wrong Tomb
  3. Legend
  4. Spiritual Resurrection
  5. Hallucinations

Note that there is no Dream Theory in this list.  So, if the Hallucination Theory  is interpreted narrowly, and thus EXCLUDES dream experiences of Jesus as a possible explanation for early Christian belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus, then he has left out an important skeptical theory in this list of “Occupied Tomb” theories, and thus he has FAILED to refute all of the skeptical theories in the general category of  “Occupied Tomb” theories, and thus FAILED to refute all of the major skeptical theories.

In order for McDowell’s LOGIC to work, he must interpret the Hallucination Theory in a broad way that includes dream experiences of Jesus as an explanation for early Christian belief in the resurrection.  McDowell FAILED to present his case against the Hallucination Theory in a way that was consistent with his own broad definition of “hallucination”, and thus he FAILED to refute the Hallucination Theory, understood in this broad sense, and thus he FAILED to defend the belief that Jesus actually rose from the dead.

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