One of the theories that is still under the discussion and is considered to be the best naturalistic explanation is the hallucination hypothesis, originally proposed by David Strauss in 1835, today defended primarily by Gerd Lüdemann. What exactly is a hallucination? There are several terms in psychology that are similar to one another and thus might be easily confused. These are delusion, illusion, peridolia and hallucination.
- Delusion: something that is falsely or delusively believed or propagated (false belief)
- Illusion: perception of something objectively exists in such a way as to cause misinterpretation of its actual nature. (E.g. peripherally seen lamp mistaken for a person)
- Peridolia: misinterpretation of a vague stimulus as something clear and distinct.
- I. perception of objects with no reality (absence of external stimuli)
- II. Serious misperception of actual external stimuli (e.g. lamp which is directly looked at is perceived to be jumping around while talking to me)
Ultimately all of the above can be defined as either individual or collective in regard of how many specimen share the same misconception.
Throughout the history there were quite many events that some considered to be genuine miracles, which others regarded as hallucinations while in fact they perfectly fit in one of the other prior definitions. Some regarded Bigfoot as a collective hallucination while it was only a collective misinterpretation of an actual animal and his footprints, which resulted in a collective delusion. Another saw a statue of Mary in Ireland in 1980’s supernaturally move back and forth, which was later very naturally clarified by the lighting conditions of the environment. This makes it a good example of illusion. At last social networks are today permeated by Peridolias as a grilled sandwich that looks like Mary or resemblances of other familiar objects seen in various shapes of trees, mountains, clouds etc. While all of the above fall to some sorts of collective misconception they are far from, above defined hallucination.
The Textbook Response
As the hallucination hypothesis requires us to recognize collective hallucination (shared by two or more people) the Christian textbook response for decades was to simply say that collective hallucinations do not occur. Let us just look at some of these dismissals:
“Experiences of this kind are highly individualistic, since they spring, in part at least, from the past experiences and subconscious minds of the persons concern. One man’s hallucinations, therefore, will almost certainly differ from another’s.”
“Hallucinations are linked to an individual’s subconscious and to his particular past experiences, making it very unlikely that more than two persons could have the same hallucination at the same time.”
“Hallucinations are private experiences, whereas our earliest accounts report that Jesus appeared to groups as well as to individuals.”
“The problem with this theory stems from the sheer number of people (over five hundred) who must share matching hallucinations. It’s difficult to believe that just two people could have identical hallucinations. But in this case, not only must more than five hundred of them have the same hallucination; they must all hallucinate at the same time!”
Even Wiersbe’ exposition commentary took this response for granted:
“Peter saw Him and so did the disciples collectively… The 500 plus brethren all saw Him at the same time (1 Cor. 15:6), so it could not have been a hallucination or a deception.”
This approach was sufficient for a number of years, however recent studies of well documented past events point to occasions that could be defined either as collective hallucinations or objective extraordinary events. O’Connell compiled them in his paper on Resurrection and Visions where he, besides other less reliable ones, lists 6 trustworthy cases: Companies of Men marching in order, Moving statue, Miraculous Eucharist and three Marian Apparitions. This new insight, O’Connell suggests makes resurrection appearances seem like only another religious vision, just like those above. However to infer these were only hallucinations, he expounds, that all of them were expected, under great stress, not seen by everyone present, seen differently and occurred without a conversation. These established facts lead us to a conclusion that collective hallucinations do happen. At this point the classic Christian response is obviously not valid anymore and there is a need for more profound explanation.
Comparing Appearances with Hallucinations
If resurrection appearances are hallucinations then they must be naturally in concord with all the previous common characteristics of hallucinations(X) otherwise we cannot categorize them alike. Now let us look at these properties.
X is expected
The situations in which Jesus appears are often not filled with expectations. While Craig correctly vindicates this point by asserting that the general notion of resurrection was in Jewish context ascribed to a single event after the end of the world it appears Craig’s conclusion is insufficient to fully disqualify apostles’ expectations, based on Mark 6:14-16 or 8:28. Moreover, even if true, this would apply only to the initial appearance for if the word got out, all the other ones would be expected. O’Connell solves this by pointing to the probable glorious nature of all these expectations, as while the time of expectation could alter, at least some of the apostles would anticipate glorious appearance of Christ based on the traditional view of the state after resurrection (Jesus in heaven or in Abraham’s bosom). However the Gospel accounts present us only non-glorious appearances. It seems there is no reason why gospel writers would hold back such a glorious experience, for if they wanted others to accept their belief in risen Messiah, they would of course conform to the classic Jewish expectations, for writing otherwise would undermine their record and predestine it for failure. Therefore it is rational to assume, what they wrote was true.
X involves signs of extreme stress
We can identify with the common grief of bereaved, yet this alone is an insufficient stimulus to be considered as extreme stress. Moreover it is likely that not all of the 500 brethren were closely acquainted with Jesus. In fact several of the appearances occurred in very ordinary situations. (Trip to Emmaus, Disciples fishing).
X is seen only by some
There is no indication that some of the disciples wouldn’t see Jesus in the same place and time while others did.
X is seen differently
There is no indication that some perceived Jesus in the same time and place differently than others.
X does not involve conversation
Virtually during every appearance Jesus spoke and during several he also involved himself in a conversation. (Lk. 24:13-31, John 20:11-18, 24-29, 21:1-23)
Altogether it appears after comparing some of the characteristics that we do not have reasons to confirm them and others utterly differ from what we would expect to see if we were dealing with a hallucination instance. Since these do not match, it would be quite arbitrary to maintain the position that resurrection appearances were hallucinatory. Beyond this line of reasoning hallucination hypothesis faces another challenges for it alone does not account for the empty tomb, broken seal, the guard units and the reaction of high priests. Moreover it simply assumes that disciples were inclined to hallucination, Peter was haunted by guilt and Paul was secretly drawn to Christianity which we have no sound reason to think whatsoever. It seems to me that hallucination hypothesis does not hold, and thus I believe it is not a significant competitive theory to the classic Christian resurrection hypothesis which can positively account for all three historically proven facts. The challenge raised by Mr. Renan was answered and while his intentions were different, his initiative might have given birth to the strongest argument for Christian faith today.