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Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? Part 11: Five Hundred Witnesses

Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? Part 11: Five Hundred Witnesses June 20, 2021

WHERE WE ARE

In Parts 1 through 7 of this series,  I argued that at least six of Josh McDowell’s seven objections (in The Resurrection Factor; hereafter: TRF) against the Hallucination Theory FAIL.

In Part 8 of this series, I began to examine McDowell’s one remaining objection: Objection TRF2 (“Very Personal”).  McDowell presents this objection in three short paragraphs (TRF p. 93-94).

I found some serious problems in the first paragraph on Objection TRF2.  I pointed out that McDowell commits the fallacy of EQUIVOCATION, because the phrase “the same hallucination” (and “the same dream”) is AMBIGUOUS, and McDowell shifts from one meaning of this phrase to another meaning in the course of his confused reasoning.

In Part 9 of this series, I began to examine the second paragraph in McDowell’s presentation of  Objection TRF2.  

I also found some serious problems in the second paragraph on Objection TRF2. I pointed out that, contrary to McDowell, common experience, scientific studies, and a number of passages in the Bible all agree that it is possible for us to dream about a person sitting down and eating something along with the person who is having the dream, and thus it is possible to have an hallucination about a person sitting down and eating something along with the person who is having the hallucination.

I also pointed out that McDowell commits the fallacy of EQUIVOCATION in the second paragraph, because the following key statement is AMBIGUOUS, and in one sense the statement is relevant but FALSE, and in another sense the statement is true but IRRELEVANT:

An illusion does not sit down and have dinner with you… (TRF, p. 94. I am using the Authentic Media version published in 2005)

In Part 10 of this series, I continued to criticize McDowell’s Objection TRF2.  I pointed out that McDowell does not provide ANY EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER in support of the psychological principles that his case against the Hallucination Theory is based upon.  And I objected that McDowell does a terrible job of supporting the historical claims and assumptions upon which his case is based, including the historical claims upon which Objection TRF2 is based.

McDowell cites a few passages from Luke 24 and from John 20 and 21.   I pointed out that McDowell did not cite or quote any passages from the other two gospels: Mark and Matthew, and that those two gospels CONTRADICT the claims in Luke and John that the risen Jesus appeared to his male disciples on the first Easter Sunday.  This completely destroys the credibility of the passages cited by McDowell from Luke and John, and shows that those passages are probably fictional stories.

The serious problems that I have pointed out with Objection TRF2 seem sufficient to show that this objection FAILS, but I have not yet examined the third paragraph of McDowell’s presentation of this objection, so I don’t want to declare victory until giving McDowell this one last chance to rescue Objection TRF2 from complete FAILURE.

 

FIVE HUNDRED WITNESSES OF THE RISEN JESUS

Since all of the other objections raised by McDowell in TRF against the Hallucination Theory have FAILED, it all comes down to Objection TRF2 and whether this objection clearly shows that the Hallucination Theory is FALSE (or that it is highly probable that the Hallucination Theory is FALSE).  And since the first two paragraphs of McDowell’s presentation of Objection TRF2 fail to support the key claims and assumptions of this objection, and since McDowell commits the fallacy of EQUIVOCATION in both of those paragraphs, the success or failure of this objection comes down to the contents of the third paragraph of his presentation of this objection.

The first two sentences of the third paragraph state the main point of that paragraph:

A ‘hallucination’ is a very private event–a purely subjective experience void of any external reference or object.  If two people cannot initiate or sustain the same vision without any external object or reference, how could more than 500 do so at one time?  (TRF, p.94)

If this final attempt to shore up Objection TRF2 FAILS, then ALL of McDowell’s objections to the Hallucination Theory FAIL, and his case against the Hallucination Theory FAILS.

McDowell does not present ANY HISTORICAL EVIDENCE in this paragraph supporting the key historical claim that “more than 500” people saw the risen Jesus “at one time”.  Furthermore, he also does not give us an END NOTE with a quotation or citation of a biblical passage to support this historical claim, let alone make an attempt to provide a clear and intelligent argument in support of this key historical claim.  However, he has briefly discussed this claim in a previous chapter of TRF (on pages 78and 79).

Here is the biblical passage that McDowell uses to support this historical claim:

3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,
4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,
5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.
7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
(1 Corinthians 15:3-8, NRSV, emphasis added)

This is a passage from a letter written by the apostle Paul.   The phrase “brothers and sisters” is not a literal reference to family relationships, but means “male and female Christian believers”.

 

WERE THESE PEOPLE ALREADY CHRISTIAN BELIEVERS?

This suggests an important question about these “witnesses” of the risen Jesus: were they all Christian believers BEFORE having this experience or did some/most/all of them convert to Christianity AFTER this experience?  That makes a big difference in terms of the possibility of bias and wishful thinking being involved in their experiences of this event.  If these people were Christian believers BEFORE having this experience, then they already believed that Jesus had risen from the dead and they already believed that some people had seen the risen Jesus.  Such Christian believers would be inclined to desire and to expect to have experiences of the risen Jesus, and thus they would be biased and subject to wishful thinking concerning having such an experience.

Paul gives us NO INFORMATION on this point, other than to indicate that these people are Christian believers now.  For all we know, ALL of these people were Christian believers at the time this event took place.

 

HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE ACTUALLY PRESENT?

“five hundred” is a very round number, and it seem unlikely that a head count would have been done during this event or immediately afterwards, so this number is probably NOT an actual head count. This is probably a guess or an estimate of the size of a crowd of people.

How was this estimate made?

  • Did someone who was present during the event look around at the group and guess at that time the number of people in the crowd?
  • Did someone who was present during the event, make a guess a day or two after the event at the number of people who had been present?
  • Did someone who was present during the event, make a guess a week or two after the event at the number of people who had been present?
  • Did someone who was present during the event, make a guess a month or two after the event at the number of people who had been present?
  • Did someone who was present during the event, make a guess a year or two after the event at the number of people who had been present?
  • Did someone who was NOT present during the event, but who spoke with various people who were present during the event, make a guess a day or two after the event at the number of people present?
  • Did someone who was NOT present during the event, but who spoke with various people who were present during the event, make a guess a week or two after the event at the number of people present?
  • Did someone who was NOT present during the event, but who spoke with various people who were present during the event, make a guess a month or two after the event at the number of people present?
  • Did someone who was NOT present during the event, but who spoke with various people who were present during the event, make a guess a year or two after the event at the number of people present?

Paul gives us NO INFORMATION about HOW this estimate was made, about WHO made the estimate, and WHEN (how long after the event) the estimate was made.

 

WHEN AND WHERE DID THIS OCCUR?

If this was an actual historical event, then it took place on a particular day, and in a particular place.  When and where did this event occur?  Paul gives us NO INFORMATION about WHERE this occurred, and only provides very vague information about WHEN it occurred:  it happened sometime AFTER “the twelve” apostles had an experience of the risen Jesus, and sometime BEFORE Paul had an experience of the risen Jesus. ( It is odd that Paul mentions “the twelve” apostles, because there were only eleven apostles who had experiences of the risen Jesus, according to Matthew, Luke, and John.  No gospel mentions that Judas, who betrayed Jesus, had an experience of the risen Jesus.)   Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus happened a number of years after the crucifixion of Jesus, while the eleven apostles had experiences of the risen Jesus within weeks of the crucifixion, so this is a very broad span of time.

If this event took place a year or more after the crucifixion, these people were probably all Christian believers who already believed that Jesus had risen from the dead, and thus were subject to significant bias and wishful thinking in relation to having an experience they would describe as “seeing the risen Jesus”.

 

WHAT SORT OF EXPERIENCE WAS THIS?

What sort of experience was this for these people?  Did they all have exactly the same experience?

  • Were hundreds of Christian believers gathered together, worshipping, singing, and praying in tongues at the time of this experience?  
  • Did they all experience this as a dream or vision or did it seem like an ordinary sense experience?
  • Did some experience a vision and others seem to have an ordinary sense experience?
  • Did the people all experience a flash of light in the sky at the same time?
  • Did the people all hear the voice of Jesus speaking at the same time?
  • Did the people all hear Jesus speaking the very same words?
  • Did the people all see Jesus walking around in the exact same direction and at the exact same spot at the same time?
  • Did the people all see Jesus wearing the same color and style of clothing, the same style and color of hair, the same eye color, the same height, the same type of facial hair?

Paul gives us NO INFORMATION about WHAT SORT of experience or experiences these people had.  For all we know these experiences were all clearly subjective in nature, like dreams or visions.

 

HOW LONG DID THESE EXPERIENCES LAST?

  • Did these experiences last for only a second or two?
  • Did these experiences last for only a minute or two?
  • Did these experiences last for an hour or two?
  • Did these experience last for several hours?
  • Did these experiences last for a day or two?
  • Did these experiences last only briefly (seconds) for some, but much longer (minutes or hours) for others?

Paul gives us NO INFORMATION about the the DURATION of these experiences.  For all we know, these experiences only lasted for a second or two and then abruptly ended.

===============

In short, we don’t know HOW MANY people had this experience,

and we don’t know WHEN or WHERE this event took place,

and we don’t know WHAT SORT of experiences these people had,

or HOW SIMILAR their experiences were,

and we don’t know HOW LONG these experiences lasted!

===============

HOW MANY OF THESE PEOPLE KNEW THE HISTORICAL JESUS?

There is one more crucial aspect of this event that we don’t know about.  Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus is of dubious value as evidence for the resurrection because, so far as we know, Paul never met Jesus before Jesus was crucified and buried: Paul did not know what Jesus looked like.  

Since Paul did not know what Jesus looked like, Paul COULD NOT IDENTIFY any person as being Jesus of Nazareth.  The eleven apostles traveled around with Jesus for a year or longer, so they knew what Jesus looked like.  But Paul was not a follower of Jesus when Jesus was a preacher, prophet, and faith healer.  Because Paul never met the historical Jesus, Paul would have no way of identifying any person as being Jesus of Nazareth, so Paul’s alleged experience of the risen Jesus has no significant value as evidence that Jesus rose from the dead.

La conversión de San Pablo by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

The same problem occurs with the “five hundred” witnesses of an alleged appearance of the risen Jesus:

  • Did ALL of these people know the historical Jesus?
  • Did MOST but not ALL of these people know the historical Jesus?
  • Did MANY but not MOST of these people know the historical Jesus?
  • Did ONLY A FEW of these people know the historical Jesus?
  • Did NONE of these people know the historical Jesus?

These are absolutely crucial questions for doing a rational evaluation of the experiences of the “five hundred” alleged witnesses of an appearance of the risen Jesus.  If NONE of these people knew the historical Jesus, then NONE of these people would be ABLE TO IDENTIFY a person they saw as being Jesus of Nazareth.  If ONLY A FEW of these people knew the historical Jesus, then only a FEW of them would BE ABLE TO IDENTIFY a person they saw as being Jesus of Nazareth.  However, Paul gives us NO INFORMATION about these “five hundred” witnesses and whether any of them knew the historical Jesus.

 

FOR ALL WE KNOW

For all we know, given the extremely limited information provided by Paul, this is what actually happened:

Two hundred and twenty-three Christian believers were gathered together in Thessalonica on a Sunday, worshipping Jesus and singing hymns.  The crowd was whipped into an ecstatic religious frenzy, and after two hours of the believers singing and speaking in tongues, a preacher/prophet among them shouted out “Jesus is here!  Jesus is here!” and this preacher/prophet looked up into the sky and had a vision of Jesus in the clouds.  He spoke again:  “I see Jesus standing on the clouds right above us!”  and through the power of suggestion, a few of the Christian believers (more specifically, three believers) who were in a state of religious frenzy also “saw” Jesus in the clouds overhead for about four seconds.   But the preacher/prophet and the few other Christians who “saw” Jesus in the clouds were people who, like Paul, had never actually met the historical Jesus.

Ten months later, someone named Jason who was present during this Christian worship service told Paul that there was “a crowd of about  500 people gathered together” and that the risen Jesus was seen in the clouds overhead, above the gathered crowd.  Jason did not himself see Jesus, but knew that the preacher and some others in the crowd sincerely believed they saw Jesus in the clouds that day.  Jason did NOT say to Paul that everyone in the crowd saw Jesus in the clouds that day, but Paul mistakenly inferred that this is what took place. 

The estimate of there being “five hundred” or more people gathered together at the event was a serious exaggeration due to (a) the fact that Jason’s memory of the event was several months old by the time he told this story to Paul, and (b) due to the strong desire of Jason to tell an exciting and impressive story to Paul.  The number of people who had the experience of “seeing” Jesus in the clouds (as a vision, not as an ordinary sensory experience) was not wrongly estimated by Jason, but Paul misunderstood the story, because the story was told in a vague or unclear way by Jason, so Paul mistakenly inferred that everyone present had experienced seeing Jesus in the clouds overhead, when in fact only a few people in the crowd had a visionary experience of “seeing” Jesus in the clouds that day.

If the above description of the actual event is correct, then the evidence provided by McDowell about the “five hundred” people who allegedly experienced an appearance of the risen Jesus is WORTHLESS as evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, and WORTHLESS as evidence against the Hallucination Theory.  For all we know, given the extremely limited information provided by Paul, the above scenario describes what actually took place.  Thus, for all we know, this evidence from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is WORTHLESS as evidence against the Hallucination Theory.

Although such very brief “visions” of Jesus during an ecstatic religious frenzy might not constitute hallucinations, and thus the Hallucination Theory might not itself explain this particular event, the Hallucination Theory would NOT be significantly damaged or thrown into doubt by this event, as described above.  The purpose of the Hallucination Theory is NOT to explain every religious experience any Christian believer will ever have, but to explain why at least some of Jesus’ original disciples came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Of course, McDowell and other Christian apologists can imagine the original event being very different from the description I presented above.  He could imagine that there were in fact five hundred thirty-four people present at the event, that none of them were Christian believers, that they all knew the historical Jesus very well, and that their experiences of the risen Jesus seemed like normal sensory experiences of a physical person, and that they all saw Jesus wearing the same color and style of clothing, and they all saw Jesus up close, face-to-face, and clearly recognized his face and his voice, and that they interacted with this person who taught them parables about the kingdom of God for hours, and…  In other words, McDowell and other Christian apologists can imagine a scenario that would make this event into very powerful evidence for the claim that more than five hundred people experienced an appearance of the risen Jesus, and that this was NOT an hallucination, dream, or a religious vision.

But there is no way to rule out my description of this event or to show that their imagined description of the alleged event is even probably correct.  The evidence is way too skimpy to make a reasonable determination either way.  The one single vague sentence by Paul in 1 Corinthians does not provide enough information to establish whether the alleged event provides any significant support for belief in the resurrection of Jesus or any significant support for the view that the Hallucination Theory is FALSE.

 

A PURELY SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE VOID OF ANY EXTERNAL REFERENCE OR OBJECT ?

McDowell re-states one of his definitions of “hallucination” in the first sentence of the third paragraph of his presentation of Objection TRF2:

A ‘hallucination’ is … a purely subjective experience void of any external reference or object.  (TRF, p.94)

So far, I have not challenged this definition.  However, there is a problem here that is significant for evaluating Objection TRF2.  

The  term “hallucination” is ambiguous.  Sometimes the term is used narrowly to mean a subjective experience “void of any external reference or object”, but sometimes it is used more loosely to refer to subjective experiences that are not entirely “void of any external reference or object.”  The term “hallucination” is sometimes used to refer to distortions of perception of an actual person or object.

For example, suppose that a woman has taken a dose of LSD and as a result she experiences her boyfriend as being a vampire, she sees her boyfriend as having long sharp bloody fangs, and sees him as wearing a long black cape, and sees him as attempting to bite her neck, when in actuality, he does NOT have long sharp fangs, is NOT wearing a long black cape, and is making no attempt to bite her neck.  We would be inclined to say that this woman is experiencing an “hallucination”, but her boyfriend is in fact present, and she is looking directly at her boyfriend, so her experience is ABOUT her boyfriend who is actually physically present in the room with this woman.  Her perceptions of her boyfriend at that moment are mistaken, inaccurate, and false, but her subjective experience is NOT entirely “void of any external reference or object”.

Another example would be if a driver of a car was under the influence of LSD, and as a result of the LSD this driver saw a large fire-breathing dragon sitting in the middle of the highway up ahead, when there was no such creature positioned in the middle of the highway up ahead.  We would be inclined to say that this driver is “hallucinating” the dragon, and yet the driver “sees” the dragon sitting on the highway, and the highway is real and actually exists.  So, in this case the subjective experience of this driver could be reasonably called an “hallucination” even though part of the experience is of an actual external object: the highway.  So, this is an example of an “hallucination” which is NOT  entirely “void of any external reference or object”.

Dreams actually fit McDowell’s definition better than do hallucinations.  In a dream EVERYTHING is subjective and made up by one’s mind or imagination (typically).  There are (typically) no elements or parts of a dream that are directly caused by perception of actual external objects.  Hallucinations, however, often involve a combination of completely imaginary things or creatures that are experienced in a context of other things that are objectively real and perceived by the senses (e.g. the bloody fangs are imaginary, but the boyfriend is real; the dragon is imaginary, but the highway is real).

In any case, if McDowell wants to insist on his narrow definition of “hallucination”, then his case against skeptical theories about the resurrection is doomed to FAIL, because he will be ignoring a significant skeptical theory that refers to subjective distortions of experience that don’t fit his narrow definition of “hallucination”, namely the vast array of distorted perceptual experiences in which a PART of the experience is imaginary, while another PART of the experience is NOT imaginary, but is based upon sensory perception of an actual external object.  His “refutation” of the Hallucination Theory, would in this case, leave untouched the largest collection of mistaken distorted experiences that most people are inclined to call “hallucinations”.

So, McDowell can EITHER stick with his narrow definition of “hallucination” in which case his refutation of the Hallucination Theory will be insignificant and largely irrelevant, OR he can broaden his definition of “hallucination” in which case his argument about hundreds of witnesses seeing the risen Jesus at the same time, will FAIL.  Either way Objection TRF2 FAILS.

 

ONE FINAL PROBLEM WITH OBJECTION TRF2

Since this event where hundreds of people allegedly experienced an appearance of the risen Jesus supposedly occurred after the crucifixion of Jesus and before Paul’s conversion to Christianity, this event took place before any of the four gospels or the book of Acts was written.  This gives us a good reason to doubt that this event was an actual historical event.

  • Why would the Gospel of Mark not mention that hundreds of people saw the risen Jesus at the same time? 
  • Why would the Gospel of Matthew not mention that hundreds of people saw the risen Jesus at the same time? 
  • Why would the Gospel of Luke not mention that hundreds of people saw the risen Jesus at the same time? 
  • Why would the Fourth Gospel (John) not mention that hundreds of people saw the risen Jesus at the same time?
  • Why would the book of Acts (about the early spread of Christianity) not mention that hundreds of people saw the risen Jesus at the same time?

All five of these books were written by Christian authors who desired to promote the Christian faith, and who viewed the resurrection of Jesus as the turning point of history, so all five of these books were written by authors who desired to promote belief in the death and the miraculous resurrection of Jesus.  So, why do NONE of these books mention that hundreds of people experienced an appearance of the risen Jesus at the same time?  This suggests that this story that Paul told the Corinthians was a story that most Christians in the first century doubted or rejected, including the authors of the gospels.

 

CONCLUSION

Because of the extremely limited information provided by Paul about this event, the claim about there being “five hundred” witnesses of an appearance of the risen Jesus FAILS to show that the Hallucination Theory is FALSE (or that it is highly probable that this theory is FALSE), because this is the main point made in the third paragraph of McDowell’s presentation of Objection TRF2, and because this third paragraph was his last chance of showing that this is a solid and powerful objection against the Hallucination Theory, we may now confidently conclude that Objection TRF2 FAILS, just like all of the other objections that McDowell raised against the Hallucination Theory in Chapter 5 of TRF.

McDowell’s case against the Hallucination Theory  in his book The Resurrection Factor FAILS, because ALL SEVEN of McDowell’s objections against the Hallucination Theory FAIL:

 

 

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