Could Five Hundred People have the same Hallucination or Vision?

Excerpt from:  “Why I am not a Christian” by Keith M. Parsons

The indefatigable Kreeft and Tacelli (Christian apologists) offer thirteen (!) arguments against the claim that the appearances of Jesus could have been hallucinations. Methinks they protest too much. I give their arguments (in bold) and rebut each of their objections:

(1) There were too many witnesses. Hallucinations are private, individual, subjective. Christ appeared to Mary Magdalene, to the disciples minus Thomas, to the two disciples at Emmaus, to the fishermen on the shore, to James (his “brother” or cousin), and even to five hundred people at once…. Even three different witnesses are enough for a kind of psychological trigonometry; over five hundred is about as public as you can wish. And Paul says in this passage (v. 6) that most of the five hundred are alive, inviting any reader to check the truth of the story … he could never have done this and gotten away with it, given the power, resources, and numbers of his enemies, if it were not true (pp. 186-187).

There are so many things wrong here it is hard to know where to begin. Hallucinations are not always private. As far back as 1852, when Charles Mackay published his Memoirs of Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, it was known that people in crowds are often more susceptible to visual or auditory delusions than they are individually. Mass hallucinations are extremely well documented phenomena. In 1914, British newspapers were flooded with reports of the “Angels of Mons,” supposedly seen in the sky leading the troops against the godless Huns. The simultaneous hallucinations by several witnesses at the Salem witch trials are too well known to merit further comment.

Most importantly, mass delusions may be directly witnessed as they occur. When, a few years ago, a woman in Conyers, Georgia, began to claim regular visitations from the Virgin Mary, tens of thousands of the faithful would gather monthly to hear the banal “revelations.” While the Virgin was allegedly making her disclosures many of those attending claimed to witness remarkable things, such as the sun spinning and dancing in the sky. A personal friend, Rebecca Long, President of Georgia Skeptics, set up a telescope with a solar filter, and demonstratedto anyone who cared to lookthat the sun was not spinning or dancing. Still, hundreds around her continued to claim to witness a miracle.

We noted earlier that neither the gospels nor Acts specifically mentions an appearance to 500, as they certainly would have if their authors had known about it. Their silence makes the story deeply doubtful. As for Paul’s statement that many of the 500 were still alive, and so their testimony could be checked, this claim was made in a letter to the Corinthians (i.e., in Greece). How many of the Corinthian Christians would have had the means or the disposition to travel to Palestine to track down the witnesses (more than 20 years after the supposed event) and check the story? Paul was making a pretty safe claim.

Kreeft and Tacelli (hereafter “K & T”), like almost all apologists, repeatedly beg the question by assuming the 100 percent truth of Biblical reports (at least, when it is convenient for them to do so). There is no reason whatsoever to think that every claimed appearance of Jesus actually took place. In fact, as noted earlier, the numerous inconsistencies in the appearance stories, and the fact that the original text of Mark mentions no appearances, casts many of these stories in doubt. It is perfectly reasonable for skeptics to regard all the appearance stories as legendary accretions, but if we do concede that some of the disciples experienced an “appearance,” there is no reason they could not have been hallucinations or visions.

(2) The witnesses were qualified. They were simple, honest, moral people, who had firsthand knowledge of the facts (p. 187).

The disciples were simple, honest, and moral, eh? Why then do the gospels so often portray them as unbelieving, disloyal idiots? Jesus constantly rails against their incomprehension and lack of faith. They are depicted by Mark as so dense that they witness a miraculous feeding of 5000 in chapter six and 4000 in chapter eight and are scolded by Jesus because they are still worrying (verses 14-21) about how to get bread! When Jesus was arrested, the disciples decided that discretion was the better part of valor. In short, they denied him or ran into hiding. According to the gospels, only the women followers had enough courage to attempt to honor the body of Jesus.

Supposing that the disciples were decent, honest people, why does this make them unsusceptible to hallucinations? Decent, honest people have been having delusions and hallucinations for thousands of years and interpreting those experiences as real. It is not at all unlikely that several of the disciples experienced vivid postmortem visions of Jesus and that this was the basis of the appearance stories.

(3) The five hundred saw Christ together, at the same time and place. This is even more remarkable than five hundred private “hallucinations” at different times and places of the same Jesus. Five hundred separate Elvis sightings may be dismissed, but if five hundred simple fishermen in Maine saw, touched and talked with him at once, in the same town, that would be a different matter (p. 187).

Sometimes apologists say things that are so strange that it makes me doubt my faith that we have enough rational principles in common to have a fruitful dialogue. This is one of those occasions. If 500 Maine fisherman claimed to have seen, touched, and talked to Elvis, I would say they were fooled by one pretty darn good Elvis impersonator. As for the “500” mentioned by Paul, Paul says nothing about them touching or talking to Jesus, and, as noted earlier, the word for “appeared” used by Paul is ambiguous with respect to physical or visionary “seeing.” How did Jesus supposedly appear to this crowd so that they would all recognize him? Did each person in the crowd know Jesus personally, so they could reliably identify him? Did each person get close enough for a good look? Unfortunately, Paul is silent on these issues. He just does not tell us enough about the “appearance” to draw any conclusions about its trustworthiness.

(4) Hallucinations usually last a few seconds or minutes; rarely hours. This one hung around for forty days (Acts 1:3) (p. 187).

There is no reason to think that Jesus was literally physically present for a continuous forty-day period. The “40-day” motif is repeated in both the OT and the NT: It rained for 40 days and nights in Noah’s flood, Moses was on the mountain 40 days and nights, Jesus went into the desert for 40 days, etc. The author of Acts was using the 40-day formula to indicate that for a limited time after Jesus’s crucifixion he “presented himself” to a number of the apostles. The nature of these appearances and “proofs” is left quite vague, and the wording hints that they were sporadic visitations rather than a continuous presence.

(5) Hallucinations usually happen only once, except to the insane. This one returned many times, to ordinary people (p. 187).

This claim is backed by no references to the psychological literature on hallucinations. How do K & T know that normal people don’t get more than one hallucination, especially when they are undergoing enormously stressful or onerous circumstances?

(6) Hallucinations come from within, from what we already know, at least unconsciously. This one said and did surprising and unexpected things … like a real person and unlike a dream (p. 187).

Maybe K & T have really boring dreams. In my dreams people say and do lots of unusual things. Who knows what surprises lurk in the unconscious? Where is Freud now that we need him?
Aside to the reader: You have probably noticed by now that K & T’s objections to the hallucination theory are pretty thin and that my tone is becoming increasingly contemptuous. Be warned that the remaining objections do not improve and neither does my tone.

(7) Not only did the disciples not expect this, they didn’t even believe it at firstneither Peter, nor the women, nor Thomas, nor the eleven. They thought he was a ghost; he had to eat something to prove he was not (p. 187).

By the time the gospels were written, they had to address the anti-Christian polemics of their enemies. The Jews charged that the Christians were telling a ghost story when they talked about the resurrected Jesus. In response, Christians made up the stories about him eating and being touched by Thomas. Enemies also accused them of gullibility, so they reacted by depicting the disciples as initially skeptical of the empty tomb reports. It is a very common rhetorical device used by True Believers in anything (UFO’s, monsters, the occult) to claim that they started out as skeptics and were convinced by overwhelming evidence.

By the way, it is very odd that the gospels depict the disciples as skeptical of the Resurrection. After all, the disciples had supposedly seen Jesus raise others from the dead, walk on water, turn water into wine, cast out demons, cure the sick, the lame, and the blind, feed thousands with a few loaves and fishes, and appear in glistening raiment with Moses and Elijah while a divine voice boomed “This is my beloved son…” By this time it should have been clear even to the slowest disciple that Jesus was a supernatural being possessed of awesome miraculous powers. After all that it would surely be a pretty simple trick to come back from the dead. So something is out of place here. Either the disciples, dumb as they were, could not have been so skeptical of the resurrection, or they had not witnessed the miracles they allegedly did. Either way, the credibility of the gospels is undermined.

Most crucially, K & T ignore the fact that a powerful vision experienced by one or more disciples could have overcome the initial skepticism. Reginald Fuller, perhaps the leading authority on the resurrection narratives, says that the post-resurrection appearances should be regarded as “visions” rather than “hallucinations” (Fuller, 1993, p. 648). A hallucination may be silly or trivial. A vision, while it may certainly involve auditory or visual elements, also conveys a profound sense of epiphany. According to Fuller, due to the ineffable nature of the experiences, the early community asserted that God had raised Jesus but did not tell appearance stories (Fuller, 1993, p. 648). The appearance stories entered the tradition when later Christians tried to express in earthly terms what was originally indescribable (Fuller, 1993, p. 648).

(8) Hallucinations do not eat. The resurrected Christ did, on at least two occasions.

(9) The disciples touched him.

(10) They also spoke with him, and he spoke back. Figments of your imagination do not hold profound, extended conversations with you, unless you have the kind of mental disorder that isolates you (p. 187).


Again, one looks in vain for references to the psychological literature that document the claim that sane people cannot hallucinate someone touching them or dining or conversing with them. Further, the people who had these experiences, the disciples, wrote nothing so far as we know. These strange experiences, whatever they were, were recorded years later, shaped by the creative and imaginative processes of individual and collective memory, and then incorporated into self-conscious literary narratives (the gospels).

The earliest appearance account, Paul’s testimony in Corinthians, is a bare formula, a kerygmatic assertion wholly lacking in detail. Only much later, with the writing of Matthew and Luke, do we find fleshed-out appearance narratives with details of time, place, and circumstance. In their worked-out gospel forms, these stories are tailored to address the doubts and polemics of non-Christians of the late first century. Thus for Paul and the earliest Christians it was not important to distinguish between a visionary and a physical encounter with the risen Christ. Only later, in response to anti-Christian polemics, did it become important to emphasize that the appearances were physical and not visionary. Clearly, the appearance stories grew in the telling, and the telling may well have obscured their original nature.

(11) The apostles could not have believed in the “hallucination” if Jesus’ corpse had still been in the tomb. This is a very simple and telling point; for if it was a hallucination, where was the corpse? They would have checked for it; if it was there, they would not have believed (pp. 187-188).

The logic of this argument seems a bit hard to grasp. I shall set it out semi-formally as I understand it:

  1. If the appearances were visionary or hallucinatory, Jesus’s body would still have been in the tomb (premise).
  2. If the body had still been in the tomb, the disciples would have seen it there (premise).
  3. If the disciples had seen the body in the tomb, they would not have believed that Jesus had risen (premise).
  4. The disciples did believe that Jesus had risen (premise).
  5. The disciples did not see the body in the tomb (from 3 and 4, by modus tollens).
  6. The body was not still in the tomb (2 and 5, by modus tollens).
  7. Therefore, the appearances were not visionary or hallucinatory (1 and 6, by modus tollens).

The first premise assumes that Jesus’s body was placed in a tomb, but this is doubtful. The honorable burial of a crucified person was possible; bodies were sometimes released to relatives as an act of mercy (Crossan, 1995, p. 167). However, such clemency was rare. Of the thousands of persons crucified in the Jerusalem area in the first century, only one crucified body has been found preserved in an ossuary (Crossan, 1995, p. 168). Marianne Sawicki gives the most probable explanation of the paucity of remains of victims of crucifixion:

The Gospel stories mention a gentle enshrouding, a magnanimous laying out, and a loving tombside vigil … but a limed pit is more probable…. Lime eats the body quickly and hygienically. Therefore we find virtually no skeletal remains of the thousands crucified outside Jerusalem in the first century (Sawicki, quoted in Crossan, 1998, p. xxvii).

Assuming that Jesus’s body was placed in a known tomb, by the time the disciples would have checked, and we don’t know when that would have been, any number of things could have happened to the corpse. Maybe Joseph of Arimathea had second thoughts about placing the body of an executed miscreant in his own tomb. So, as soon as the Sabbath is over, he sent servants to remove Jesus’s body to another site. Any number of such scenarios can be generated to account for the missing body.

The second premise assumes that the disciples knew where Jesus was buried, but this is doubtful. The disciples ran into hiding with Jesus’s arrest. If they thought they knew where Jesus was buried, they had to depend on the reports of one or more women who supposedly saw the burial site. As noted earlier, that report might not have been reliable. The second premise also assumes that the disciples would have checked for the body had they known the site. Even this is not clear. Grave desecration was a serious crime, and the disciples were in plenty of trouble already.

It is essential not to project onto the disciples the mind-set of a modern critical historian. Whatever state of mind the disciples were in following the “appearance” experiences, it certainly was not a spirit of critical, much less skeptical, inquiry. The ineffable quality and psychologically overwhelming nature of these experiences would have left little room for doubt and no motivation for rigorous investigation. There was only one task: to go forth and proclaim the Good News of the Risen Christ. Rigorous empirical scrutiny is the last thing on the mind of one in the grip of a powerful vision.

(12) If the apostles had hallucinated and then spread their hallucinogenic [sic] story, the Jews would have stopped it by producing the body (p. 188).

After Jesus’s crucifixion, the disciples absconded, probably all the way back to Galilee. If any remained in Jerusalem, they went underground. How long they remained in hiding is unclear. Eventually, emboldened by the “appearances,” whatever they were, the disciples returned to the streets and the Temple, proclaiming the risen Christ. By this time, even if only a few months after the crucifixion, the body of Jesus, even if the Jewish authorities could recover it, would have been in an advanced state of decay. Had the authorities produced the badly decomposed body of a crucified man, the disciples would simply have denied that it was Jesus’s.

(13) A hallucination would explain only the post-resurrection appearances; it would not explain the empty tomb, the rolled-away stone, or the inability to produce the corpse. No theory can explain all these data except a real resurrection (p. 188).

Only real ET’s in real extraterrestrial spacecraft would explain all the claimed phenomena associated with UFO’s. Strange lights in the sky, vivid abduction experiences, cattle mutilations, and hosts of other weird phenomena are most economically explained by postulating real flying saucers piloted by real aliens. Otherwise, separate accounts would have to be given for each of these things, and this would be a less simple explanation.

In fact, just about everything K & T have said about the “appearances” of Jesus could be said about the various “close encounters” with ET’s. Large numbers of people, far more than 500, have witnessed UFO’s on given occasions. People “abducted” by aliens reported that their captors did all sorts of things we don’t normally think of hallucinations as doing. Maybe hallucinations don’t usually eat or converse, but neither do they insert anal probes or levitate people through the air. The ET’s are often reported to materialize through solid walls, just like the resurrected Jesus. Many of the people who have had “close encounters” claim not to have wanted such experiences or expected them. Many were former UFO skeptics. “Contactees” are usually simple, honest, moral (and sane) persons who have nothing to gain by reporting these phenomena.

Further, K & T try to saddle the skeptic with the burden of explaining every detail of every appearance story (the stone rolled away, etc.) in terms of hallucinations. There is no reason the skeptic should accept such a burden for the simple reason that skeptics do not have to accept the appearance stories as 100 percent accurate. Apologists are constantly assuming as “data” what skeptics rightly regard as hearsay. I conclude that it is perfectly reasonable and rational for skeptics to regard all of the genuine postmortem “appearances” of Jesus as visions.


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