The entire Christian Faith rests on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For the resurrection event to be untrue is to cause Christianity to fall. The disciples’ proclamation that Jesus died, was dead for three days and rose again from the grave is an extraordinary claim. For centuries, skeptics have created theories attempting to refute the historical claims that the disciples of Jesus testified to having seen him alive again after being buried for three days. Today, a favorite theory of skeptics is that the disciples’ testimony to having seen the resurrected Jesus was not based on actual appearances but on hallucinations. However, in this paper I will show that the hallucination theory is unable to explain the evidence of the disciples’ proclamation of having seen the risen Jesus. First, I will examine the ability of the hallucination theory to explain multiple testimonies for the witness of the resurrected Jesus Christ by different people, at different places and different circumstances. Second, I will deliberate over the hallucination theory’s validity as it relates to the apparent life changes recorded by and about those that testified to witnessing the resurrected Jesus Christ. Finally, I will consider the explanatory scope of the hallucination theory in light of the corpus of evidence in favor for the testimonies of a resurrected Jesus Christ.

Hallucinations Cannot Be Shared

When first considering the hallucination theory as a plausible explanation for the eyewitness testimonies of a resurrected Jesus Christ, skeptics are eager to embrace and popularize it as a viable theory. However, in considering such a theory, we must understand both how hallucinations manifest themselves and reconcile this with the historical account of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. In this section, I will show that the hallucination theory fails to reconcile how hallucinations manifest themselves and the historical fact of eyewitness testimonies to the resurrected Jesus Christ in various circumstances.[1]

 According to clinical psychologist and professor Gary Collins, “Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time.”[2] Immediately, this becomes very problematic for the hallucination theory because the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a public event experienced and testified about by multiple people and multiple times. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in verses 15:1-8, he gives a summarized account of the multiple appearances of the resurrected Jesus Christ in what is believed to be an early apostolic creed. These reported experiences do not describe hallucinations. Paul is describing a repeated, publicly shared, phenomena that by its nature and description rules out the possibility of the hallucination theory.

In response, Richard Carrier, a skeptic and proponent of the hallucination theory, argues, “We don’t have any accounts from the actual witnesses, nor can we link any of the accounts we do have with any one of them by name, except Paul, who clearly did not see anything like what the Gospels report, nor does he seem aware that anyone saw anything different than he did.”[3] Carrier is proposing that the counterargument against the hallucination theory is wrong. He states that with the exception of Paul, “we do not have an eyewitness testimony by name.”[4] Therefore, other than Paul, there is no evidence that anyone else witnessed the resurrected Jesus.

 Carrier is clearly wrong regarding the absence of first-hand eyewitness testimony by name. However, even if he was correct his argument does not logically entail his conclusion. Luke, who was not an eyewitness, took great measure to accurately interview and composed his Gospel and the book of Acts as a historical narrative. Even if Luke’s summary of events was the only source available, Carrier’s observation that an eyewitness is not named does not entail that we cannot trust eyewitness testimonies from his research. Additionally, Carrier is incorrect, since Matthew the writer of the Gospel of Matthew was one of the twelve disciples. His account in Matthew 28:16-17 states, “Now the eleven disciples [The twelve minus one (Judas)] went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.” Additionally, John, the author of the Gospel of John, was one of the twelve disciples and records his testimony as an eye witness of the resurrected Jesus Christ in John 21:1-2: “After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together.” These two testimonies were written by eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth which contradicts Carrier’s assertion. Matthew, being one of the remaining eleven disciples, is including himself when he mentions “the eleven disciples” and John identifies himself when he names “the sons of Zebedee.” Carrier’s argument, whether due to ignorance of these eyewitness testimonies or a misunderstanding of the Gospel writers, is demonstrably false.

The evidence is not in favor of the hallucination theory as we further attempt to reconcile the historical testimonies with the nature of hallucinations. Hallucinations do not account for the disciples’ physical interactions with the resurrected Jesus. They saw him, heard him, touched him, and they ate with him.[5] Additionally, each of the witness testimonies had different moods and circumstances, which would have impacted any chance for them experiencing the same hallucination.[6] Paul hated Christians and was en route to persecute them; Thomas, in spite of hearing testimonies, refused to believe Jesus had resurrected until he touched the wounds of Jesus; and Jesus’ half-brother James thought Jesus was confused.[7] Considering the nature of the evidence provided here; hallucinations are not an adequate explanation to the eyewitness testimonies recorded. Further, as we’ll explore next, hallucinations cannot explain the absence of Jesus Christ’s body.

Empty Tomb

The next problem I want to address with the hallucination theory is its failure to address why the tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea was found empty. Proponents of the hallucination theory fail to recognize that hallucinations cannot account for what happened to the body of Jesus Christ. As stated earlier, a hallucination is an isolated event within the mind of the person hallucinating. So, if I am at a coffee shop in Texas hallucinating that my friend from California is having coffee with me, my friend does not suddenly transport to the coffee shop. As such, even if hallucinations about the resurrection of Jesus did happen it would not explain where the body went and why it was not in the tomb.

However, Richard Carrier believes there are several plausible explanations for the missing body. His hypotheses range from random theft of Jesus’ body for purposes of ritualistic necromancy, to mistaking the location of the tomb, or even Jesus not being buried in a tomb at all. As Carrier explains, “‘grave clothes’ being left in a tomb is not evidence…against planned theft, since the clothes would be deliberately left behind.”[8]

However, it is implausible that the body of Jesus was stolen, either by necromancers or the disciples of Jesus. First, Carrier’s appeal to theft by necromancers lacks any evidence and is completely ad hoc; which leaves the appeal to intentional theft by the disciples. According to theologian and scholar William Lane Craig “in the eighteenth century…critics were suggesting that the disciples stole Jesus’ body, but nobody espouses that theory today.”[9] When assessed in parallel with the empty tomb, the hallucination theory becomes even more problematic. In order to reconcile just these two explanations, Carrier has to defend a position that a band of hallucinatory disciples stole the body of Jesus from a tomb that was guarded by trained soldiers, hid the body where it would never be found, and maintain this conspiracy unto death.

An additional attempt by skeptics to explain the empty tomb is their claim that the tomb the disciples went to was empty because they went to the wrong tomb. Nick Covington couples the hallucination theory with the misplaced tomb theory to provide the necessary explanatory scope for the eyewitness testimony.[10] He states, “I believe that the disciples’ experiences of the risen Jesus can be accounted for by visions and that the empty tomb can be explained by…the women going to the wrong tomb.”[11] This would further entail that the other disciples also went to the wrong tomb and witnessed the tomb being empty. Therefore, he claims, the disciples did witness and testify accurately to arriving and inspecting an empty tomb; it is just that the tomb in question did not belong to Joseph of Arimathea. Had they gone to the correct tomb they would have encountered the corpse of Jesus Christ. This is extremely implausible.

The popularity of Jesus was of great concern to the authorities, both Jewish and Roman. They could not allow the situation, concerning Jesus and his followers, continue; from their point of view, to remain out of control. They believed the only course of action, to avoid riots and disruption of Passover celebrations, was to arrest Jesus at night and secretly put him on trial. After Jesus was crucified, the authorities had every reason to maintain control of his body. Once the disciples of Jesus began testifying they had witnessed him resurrected all the authorities needed was the body, the body in the tomb of a well-known authority; a rich “member of the council,” Joseph of Arimathea. For the skeptic, the attempt to explain the empty tomb by suggesting the wrong tomb theory is absurdity. Not only would all of the disciples have forgotten the location of the tomb, but all of Jerusalem, including the Romans and the Jewish officials–––who were highly motivated to produce a body. Even if a cataclysmic, contagious form of amnesia did occur, the authorities could have simply asked Joseph of Arimathea for directions to his family tomb. It would be ludicrous to claim that even the tomb’s owner forgot where it was located.

Transformed Lives

A third significant deficiency in the hallucination theory is the transformational impact on the lives of the disciples and other eyewitnesses surrounding the resurrection events of Jesus Christ. Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen when they were called to follow Christ. After the crucifixion of Jesus, they went back to their previous vocations. Yet, after Easter, they abandoned those familial vocations to enter a life of tremendous hardship and poverty as missionaries. As incredible as their transformation is, no example solidifies this argument of a transformed life like Saul of Tarsus. As William Lane Craig explains, Saul of Tarsus “was a rabbi, a Pharisee, a respected Jewish leader. He hated the Christian heresy and was doing everything in his power to stamp it out. He was even responsible for the execution of Christian believers. Then suddenly, he gave up everything.”[12] Saul, later known as Paul, was well educated in the Jewish faith and traditions and studied under one of the greatest teachers of the time. He was zealous for serving God and knew fully what the abandonment of his Jewish faith meant if he were wrong. Yet as prominent and promising of a he future he had; he abandoned his traditions and status in Jewish society for a life of poverty, labor, and suffering. 2 Corinthians 11:25 recorded Paul as being beating with rods three times, stoned, shipwrecked three times, numerous dangers from nature and criminals, dangers from Jews and Gentiles, toiling in hunger and thirst, and exposure to cold and heat. Finally, we know that Paul’s life ended when he was beheaded by Emperor Nero for his Christian beliefs.

However, skeptics would argue there are good explanations for the perceived transformational experiences testified about concerning the early followers of Jesus. Richard Carrier believes that culture plays a central role in hallucinations and in the ancient world; people were even encouraged to experience such visions or hallucinations.[13] Carrier provides examples where therapists, unable to cure a tribal community of their “visitations of the dead,” lead the community through a culturally accepted atonement that then successfully stopped the manifestations.[14] Coupled with this evidence, Carrier relates a personal “vivid Taoist mystical experience of an obviously hallucinatory nature” while being in a hypnagogic state: “When I fought with a demon trying to crush my chest…I could see and feel the demon sitting on me, preventing me from breathing, but when I ‘punched’ it, it vanished”[15]

However, Carrier’s reasoning and appeal to ancient world culture are flawed when considering first century Jewish culture as it relates to the coming of Messiah. Although Carrier appeals to cultural evidence to support his view that eyewitnesses were hallucinating, his evidence actually indicates otherwise. It appears Carrier is normalizing the hallucinatory experiences in ancient cultures to support his narrative.[16] Thus, he implies it is reasonable to believe the disciples radical life change was due to a culturally acceptable vision.[17] The failure of his argument is exposed when one understands, according to William Lane Craig, “Messiah was supposed to be a triumphant figure who would command the respect of Jew and Gentile alike and who would establish the throne of David in Jerusalem. A Messiah who failed to deliver and to reign, who was defeated, humiliated, and slain by his enemies, is a contradiction in terms.”[18] What Craig’s observation shows is a hallucination, based on any cultural expectation for a first century Jew, would have produced a contradictory narrative in comparison to what is recorded in the resurrection accounts. Carrier’s demon experience is clearly not a sufficiently similar experience to what the disciples experienced and therefore would not be expected to create the sort of life change testified to within the New Testament. Jesus did not vanish when Thomas touched his wounds and Carrier did not break bread, fellowship and interact with his demon on multiple occasions, in the company of other people, and with those who also were acquainted with said demon. There is no more expectation that Carrier’s life would be radically transformed by a hallucination than would those of the Apostles if their experiences were also mere hallucinations. This is true both in the context of current and ancient cultures and traditions. Therefore, Carrier’s appeal to culture fails to explain the transformational power witnessed in the lives of those testifying as witnesses of the resurrected Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

Often, skeptics will attempt to argue and defeat one specific piece of evidence, isolated from all other evidence for the Christian faith. However, the totality of extant evidence must be considered in its proper context and explanations weighted against the historical, philosophical and scientific validity of the evidence to determine a proper conclusion. With that in mind, I have shown the hallucination theory fails in its attempt to explain the eyewitness testimony of the resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ. Hallucination arguments appealing to a lack of direct testimony, cultural influences and mistaken or lost tombs are deficient in explanatory power, explanatory scope and are demonstrably false when properly examined within the totality of the extant evidence for the eyewitness testimonies of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.   


[1] Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli Ronald. Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 186.

[2] Gary Habermas and J. P. Moreland, Immortality: The Other Side of Death (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1992): 60, quoted in Lee Strobel, Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 238-39.

[3] Richard Carrier, “Stephen Davis Get’s It Wrong,” Richard Carrier Blogs, September 5, 2018, https://www.richardcarrier.info/Carrier–ReplyToDavis.html#hallucination.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Strobel, Case for Christ, 238.

[6] John R. W. Stott. Basic Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 57.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Richard Carrier, “Craig’s Empty Tomb & Habermas on Visions (1999, 2005),” TheSecularWeb, September 5, 2018, https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/indef/4e.html.

[9] Lee Strobel, Case for Easter (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), chap. 2, iBooks.

[10] Nick Covington, “Was Jesus Raised from the Dead?: A Response to William Lane Craig’s Resurrection Argument,” TheSecularWeb, September 5, 2018, https://infidels.org/kiosk/article/was-jesus-raised-from-the-dead-a-response-to-william-lane-craigs-resurrection-argument-796.html.

[11] Ibid.

[12] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), chap. 8, iBooks.

[13] Richard Carrier, “The Spiritual Body of Christ” in Robert M. Price and Jeffery Jay Lowder, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (Amherst, Ny: Prometheus, 2005), 184.

[14] Ibid., 185

[15] Ibid., 185.

[16] Ibid., 187.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Craig, Reasonable Faith, chap. 8.