Was the Resurrection a Result of Mass Hallucinations?

There are two facts one must address to disprove Christianity:

  • The historical evidence in favor of the resurrection
  • The rapid growth of Christianity in a hostile environment

In part one of our series we looked at the idea the Jesus’ body was stolen. In part two we considered the possibility that Jesus didn’t really die at all. Today we’ll consider the idea that the post crucifixion sightings of Jesus were mass hallucinations.

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This theory was first popularized by David Strauss[1]. It’s the belief that the Apostles experienced mass hallucinations which explain their belief that Jesus rose from the dead. In their grief, guilt, and shock that Christ was killed, they had psychological experiences (collective or subjective) where they believed they saw something that wasn’t there.

Last Supper with Jesus and The Apostles How Might Have Experienced a Mass Hallucination
The Last Supper – Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com

 

According to this theory, we find parallels of this sort of thing all over the world:

  • Many people claim to have seen statues of Mary crying
  • Ghosts sightings
  • Alien abductions

Chris Hallquist, comparing Christ’s resurrection to stories of those who claim to have been abducted by aliens, says this:

The short of it is that there are many people in the US today who, as far as anyone can tell, sincerely believe they have been abducted by space aliens. They aren’t all lone psychiatric patients; there are organizations for these people.[2]

Is this a parallel to the accounts of sighting of Jesus recorded in history? Is it possible that resurrection stories come from followers of Christ who, in their grief, so wanted to believe that Christ rose from the dead, they hallucinated it? Yes, it’s possible. But remember this: possibilities do not amount to probabilities. While the swoon theory is possible, it is certainly not probable.

Related Product: The Resurrection of Jesus by Dr. Gary Habermas

The problems for the mass hallucination theory don’t end there. Let’s look at four flaws in this theory:

1. Hallucinations Don’t Happen in Mass

There are very few psychologists or psychiatrists who believe that such a thing as mass hallucinations exist. If a hallucination is a subjectively experienced phenomenon explicable in terms of brain chemistry, then mass hallucinations aren’t possible.

A mass hallucination would be like people coming to “Coffee and Theology” at Credo House and realizing that we’d all had the same dream the night before. Not just similar dreams, but exactly the same dream. I would consider this a prophetic miracle (if it’s message coincided with previously revealed revelation from God).

The improbability of a mass hallucination (for the naturalist) is so high it would have to be a miracle.  They might as well believe something easier: Christ really did rise from the grave and ascend into heaven. They may still hold to their naturalism, but this would just be a science-of-the-gaps excuse. In other words, there is a scientific explanation; we just don’t know it yet. Think of like this:

  • Resurrection = Miracle
  • Mass Hallucination = Miracle

The mass hallucination theory would be evidence for the supernatural just like Christ’s resurrection. So the mass hallucination argument is not really a naturalistic explanation at all. It’s just swapping one miraculous event for another.

2. Hallucinations Do Not Explain the Empty Tomb

The hallucination theory doesn’t explain the empty tomb of Christ. More specifically, it doesn’t explain why the Apostles didn’t check Jesus’ tomb to see if his body was still there. Forget the Apostles, why didn’t the Romans or the Jewish leaders check the tomb? The fact that they could have checked (thereby nipping Christianity in the bud) and didn’t is telling. Friend and foe alike had an interest in proving what happened to Jesus’ body.

Those who followed Christ would have wanted to verify their hallucinations. To assume they wouldn’t have checked or that they did check but lied about it, is to assume too much about their moral psychological state.

Would Christianity have flourished in such a hostile environment if it could be so easily falsified? Imagine yourself in such a situation. You know that if you become a Christian you’ll face harsh persecution, maybe death. Before you take that step you’d check to make sure the central claim of the movement is true. If Jesus body was still in the tomb the case for Christianity doesn’t even get off the ground.

3. Parallel Hallucinations Are Not So Parallel

What about the weeping Mary statues that have been reported all over the world? Don’t many people witness them? Are we to believe that they are true or mass hallucinations? Again, they cannot be mass hallucinations. A mass hallucination would be a miracle greater than a mere crying statue. So what are they? There are a few options:

  • Hoaxes
  • Illusions
  • Point-of-sight references
  • Psychologically expected occurrences
  • True

Most of the crying statues, when investigated at any level, turn out to be hoaxes. For example, in 1995, there was a Madonna statue that appeared to be weeping blood in Civitavecchia, Italy. 60 people witnessed this. The blood was tested and shown to be male blood[3]. The statue owner refused to undergo a DNA test to see if it was his blood. The Roman Catholic Church has only approved one of these stories as legitimate. And the RCC has more reason than most for wanting these stories to be true.

[Tweet “A mass hallucination would be a miracle greater than a mere crying statue.”]

If they aren’t hoaxes, than illusions and point-of-sight perspectives are not so hard to accept, especially if you’re expecting to see something. People often go to these statues hoping and expecting that they’ll see something. A tear in the eye of a statue is pretty obscure. It may be that people are simply seeing what they want to see. They see something that looks like a tear, declare that is is a tear, and go home happy.

As for alien abductions, once again, unless there are many people seeing the exact same thing, at the same time, in the same place (and I know of none that claim to be, but am open to correction), this isn’t really a parallel too much of the Gospel narrative on the resurrection. These would be more like those who have died and said they saw heaven. They all give somewhat similar accounts based on, what seems to be, cultural conditioning on what they believe heaven is supposed to be like.

And further unlike the crying statues and near-death visions of heaven (and here is where we can throw in seeing ghosts)  the Apostles had no cultural or psychological expectations to hallucinate Christ’s resurrection. They did not expect him to raise. And with Paul and James it goes even further. They did not expect him to raise and did not want him to. In these cases, hallucinations may come on an individual level when one desires to see, say, a dead loved one so bad due to grief. Some postulate that the guilt of what they did to Christ caused them to see visions of him. But, again, at least with Paul and James, we have no reason to believe they felt guilt for what happened. They seemed perfectly content in their antagonism toward Christ.

Now, of course, while I am very skeptical of alien abductions and crying statues, I don’t dismiss them out of hand. Things that don’t fit my worldview are not completely dictated by my worldview. Reason and evidence should create our worldview, not the other way around.

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4. This Argument Could Be Made for Any Historic Event

If the mass hallucination theory is adopted, what’s to stop us from applying this to any and every historical event that we don’t agree with or like? Nothing. In fact, we could apply it to reality itself vis-a-vie the Matrix and throw it all out the window. Who is to say that 9/11 was not a mass hallucination? Who is to say that the Holocaust was not a mass hallucination? Who is to say that the landing on the moon was not a mass hallucination?   This wouldn’t be scholarly of us. It’s turning a possibility into a probability.

In my opinion, the resurrection of Christ is not best explained by mass (or individual) hallucination. It is trading one miracle with substantial evidence to support it for a lesser miracle with no evidence to support it.

Footnotes

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C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    5 replies to "Was the Resurrection a Result of Mass Hallucinations? (Alternate Resurrection Theory #3)"

    • Braden

      I am confused with point # 2. He says “it doesn’t explain why the Apostles didn’t check Jesus’ tomb to see if his body was still there”. But John chapter 20 mentions Simon Peter and John going to the tomb and checking it. So shouldn’t it read, “it doesn’t explain why they DID check the tomb and still believe.”

      Does the hallucination theory suggest that the apostles saw hallucinations of Jesus and did not go and check the tomb, along with the Jews and Romans. If so, what Michael wrote would make perfect sense.

      Thanks

    • Michael

      Why must we wrestle with mass hallucination theories when we don’t actually possess a mass of witnesses? What resurrection event do we know about that even has more than one witness? Forget Mark and Luke, they weren’t there. Paul had an event by himself, so that doesn’t rate in the mass hallucination problem. John and Matthew, (if they even are the John and Matthew who were there, which is highly debated) don’t discuss the same events. So it seems to me all arm waving about mass hallucination is beside the point.

      • Travis

        @Michael, how do you define mass hallucination? I believe the author is referring to at least these two …
        1. the doubting Thomas event
        2. 1 Cor 15
        Based on those two alone, I think his argument stands.

    • Dale Matson

      None of the disciples of Jesus were predisposed to believe that He would rise from the dead or that once He was dead, would rise again.Even though He told them ahead of time that He would be killed and would be raised from the dead, they did not understand/absorb it until they saw the empty tomb. The women went to the tomb with burial spices. Therefore, it can’t be said that His rising from the dead was a state of mind induced beforehand. They were surprised that He in fact rose from the dead.

    • gary

      A Resurrection is Possible. It’s just not Probable

      The Christian tale is not impossible, allowing for the supernatural, of course. It is just that it is very improbable. There are many natural explanations for why early Christians came to believe what they did.

      If you wake up and can’t find your keys, is your first thought that a goblin stole them? If your spouse is late coming home from work, is your first thought that a demon has abducted him or her? If a storm ravages a city, is your first thought that a god acted in a fit of rage?

      So if while you are visiting the local cemetery you happen upon an open grave, with the casket lid ajar, and the corpse missing, is your first thought that a zombie is somewhere loose nearby, eating a broiled fish sandwich with his former fishing buddies??

      It’s possible, friends, but its just not probable.

      Skeptics will never prove the Christian tale to be false, but we can very easily demonstrate its improbability.

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