The Psychology of Grief and the Origins of the Resurrection Story

The Psychology of Grief and the Origins of the Resurrection Story November 17, 2020

Here is an excerpt from a brilliant book by anthropologist of religion, Homuyan Sidky – Religion, Supernaturalism and the Paranormal: An Anthropological Critique – concerning the psychology of grief and how it leads to hallucinations. The book is an academic title that commands quite a price.

The Psychology of Grief and the Origins of the Resurrection Story

The literature on the psychology of grief reveals that the bereaved frequently undergo recurring series of hallucinatory encounters involving the departed loved ones (Kent 1999: 27–28). As theologian Jack Kent points out in his book The Psychological Origins of the Resurrection Myth (1999), grieving people sometimes try to hang on to the deceased psychologically and experience feeling their presence, hearing their voices, being touched by them, and seeing their apparitions. Contemporary grief literature considers these hallucinations as a normal part of the grieving and coping process (Kent 1999: 31–32). The reason for this is that in the minds of the bereaved the deceased’s program is not erased, but instead, the dead individual is recast as a “virtual person,” with whom the living can continue to interact as they did before. The same cognitive mechanisms are involved here that generate other X-claims, such as sensing ghosts and other noncorporeal intentional entities we think we detect in our surroundings.

Grief hallucinations are exceptionally compelling. As Sacks (2012: 233) points out, “Bereavement hallucinations, deeply tied to emotional needs and feelings, tend to be unforgettable.” The psychiatrist and expert on bereavement Stephen Shuchter (1986: 116, 118–19) points out that human attachment bonds are powerful and deep and often mere physical death cannot erase them. Psychologically, the newly bereaved are driven to retrieve the loved one who has died. For this reason, most people during the early weeks and months of their grief believe that they have seen, heard, touched, smelled, or felt the presence of the dead person. In other words, internal psychological forces, along with cultural beliefs about spiritual survival, ensure that the emotional relationships with the deceased continue. Even for those who are aware that they are hallucinating, the experience seems very real (Shuchter 1986: 118). For the disciples seeing visions of their dead rabbi would have reinforced their convictions that he had survived death because God vindicates the righteous.

Wright (2003: 690) asserts, however, that people in the ancient world knew the difference between visions and events that happened in the “real world.” In other words, if apparitions of Jesus were merely hallucinations, the disciples would have known this fact. Moreover, he adds that postmortem hallucinations of deceased loved ones at other times have not resulted in the belief in resurrected dead people (Wright 2003: 690). What he means is that the disciples would not have become convinced that the Lord has risen if Jesus had not actually visited them in person. Wright overlooks the fact that history is full of instances of unexpected occurrences. Also, there are many other cases where the followers of dead prophets and messiahs become convinced that their leaders live on, as discussed in the next chapter.

We must also take into consideration that the individuals described in the New Testament were consummate visionaries who attributed anything contrary to ordinary experience to heavenly or paranormal sources. This fact was noted by scholars long ago. As Gorham (1908: 86) observed, for those who do not understand the origins of their vision, the hallucination appears powerfully real, and it is difficult to differentiate between what is illusionary and what is not. Similarly, Macan (1877: 74, 140) pointed out that the visions were treated as mind-independent and objectively real because the followers of Jesus were believers in miracles, supernatural interventions in the natural course of things, heavenly warnings through dreams, angelic visitations, theophanies, and revelations.

As a deeply committed believer, Wright is compelled to treat in this fashion tales that are otherwise “of extremely dubious historical worth” (Crossley (2005: 176). He has no other options. Wright’s contention that people in the ancient world could separate vision and events in the real world is more hyperbole. Some could; others could not. The idea that a vision can serve as evidence of a real encounter finds support in Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 15, which does not entail eating or touching (Crossley 2005: 178). There are plenty of other examples across space and time. During the Middle Ages, people took hypnogogic and hypnopompic hallucinations as physical attacks by tangible rapacious demonic beings called incubi and succubi that visited at night and engaged in sexual intercourse with them. They could not tell hallucinations apart from a real event. Present-day alien abductees experiencing the same type of hallucinations believe that they have been the victims of actual abductions by extraterrestrial visitors (see Hines 2003: 277–81). Indeed, their accounts are so compelling as to persuade the late Harvard University psychiatrist John Mack (1997) that alien encounters are real (unless he made this claim for publicity purposes to generate book sales).

The shamans I have worked with, while able to distinguish the natural from the supernatural realms, treat the paranormal beings they encounter during their ecstatic states as actual entities that exist in the real world and can and do impinge upon earthly human affairs in tangible ways. I have also encountered lots of people in lots of cultures who believe that their dead relatives somehow live on and can interact with them because they had visions of those individuals. Hope and wishful thinking are as limitless as the human imagination.

Moreover, there is considerable ethnographic evidence that people in many cultures interpret apparitions as veridical. There are even instances when present-day university-trained, Western-educated anthropologists have taken hallucinatory phenomena as mind-independent occurrences, including one researcher who reported that he observed a corpse come back to life and dance to the rhythm of drumbeats, as discussed in Chapter 7.

People’s cultural background and life experiences have a bearing on the contents of hallucinations, as already noted. Hence people in Newfoundland suffering from hallucinations due to sleep paralyses believe themselves to be the victims of nocturnal assaults by a creature known as the “Old Hag” (Hufford 1982), while some in the United States experiencing the same type of phantasms conclude that they have been assaulted or kidnapped by beings from other planets and star systems (Adler 2011: 31–35). It is for this reason that the disciples did not see apparitions of Jupiter, Ahura Mazda, Marduk, or Osiris but saw their teacher.

The disciples’ Jewish background beliefs that wrongful deaths are vindicated by God factored in on the contents of their hallucinations (cf., Crossley 2005: 175). Thus, if they were inclined to think that God would exculpate Jesus in this way, then there is no reason why they would not have interpreted their grief hallucinations as evidence that Jesus has risen from the dead in a modified resurrected body. Paul expressed this very point in his first letter to the Corinthians.

Evidence from cognitive psychology, discussed in Chapter 6, also has a direct bearing on this question. As cognitive scientist István Czachesz (2007: 53) points out, the fact that the disciples thought that Jesus was still alive is an aspect of the human predisposition to detect agency in the environment, and the theory of mind accounts for their inclination to attribute thoughts and intentions to perceive agents. These common human cognitive predispositions make it easy to conceive of dead people in the form of paranormal agents who can move about, enter into conversation, and interact with the living. The result is the development of a cognitively resonating and seductive X-claim that the dead live on in a nonmaterial form.

If the accounts are not legendary, the fact that they describe Jesus in modified resurrected form who could appear and disappear and walk through locked doors (Luke 24:31; John 20:19), that is, violate ontological expectations, is consistent with the cognitive theory of counterintuitiveness of religious beliefs (Boyer 2001). As also discussed in Chapter 6, paranormal agent ideas that are part of religious beliefs around the world involve attributes that violate specific ontological categories. Agent concepts that lack this attribute are less appealing and harder to remember and less likely to be transmitted. Such ideas are also less alluring and less memorable if they have too many fantastic attributes. Paranormal agent concepts that have only a single or just a few violations of expectations seem more memorable than overly preposterous ones. For this reason, the conception of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15 and the canonical gospels had a greater chance of being remembered and transmitted in comparison to the more complex construals of Jesus associated with Docetism, that Jesus had two forms with multiple violations of expectations (Czachesz 2008: 104).

Given what is known about the psychological, psychiatric, and cognitive dimensions of hallucinations, the constructive nature of perception and memory, the various cognitive biases, psychological contagion, mass delusions, and the force of grief hallucinations, it was not necessary for all the Jesus cultists to see a corporeal Jesus in order to conclude that he had risen. It is very likely that one or a small number of these individuals experienced grief hallucinations because such apparitions are always perceived by those closest to the deceased. Scholars generally concur that Peter was the likely candidate to have been the first percipient of Jesus’s apparition (Barclay 1996: 25). The likelihood of this being the case is the fact, as Guignebert (1958: 522) observes, that Peter was the earliest of Jesus’s disciples and foremost in matters of affection and confidence.

In addition to these circumstances, Peter was psychologically vulnerable because he had to cope with the overwhelming disconfirmation of his deep convictions by the execution of a man that he ardently believed was the Savior. He also bore a heavy burden of guilt for his betrayal of Jesus (Mark 14:66–72). Another clue is that Paul (1 Corinthians 25:5) names Peter as the disciple who first saw the risen Jesus. Also, Luke 24:34 says, “The Lord has risen indeed and hath appeared to Simon [Peter].” As already noted, the reason that Peter rose to a position of leadership of the Christians in Jerusalem may have been because he was the first to see Jesus’s apparition (Lüdemann (2004:72). The women are interjected into this story much later with the development of the empty tomb legend “in relation to creedal considerations unconnected with historical facts” (Guignebert 1958: 522).


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