Just because Paul sincerely believed that he had “seen” Jesus the Christ in a resurrected, transformed, but yet physical body, does that mean he really did?
If someone walked up to you today and claimed to have just seen the flesh and blood, walking/talking body of Abraham Lincoln, what would be your first impression? Answer: “This guy is delusional. This guy is mentally ill. This guy is psychotic. I need to get this guy to a psychiatrist.” Your first impression would not be, “Wow. This guy just saw Abraham Lincoln!” (At least I hope it wouldn’t.)
So why do Christians not see Paul’s claim in the same way?
I would suggest it is because of a religious bias. Christians give Paul’s very out-of-this-world claim a pass because it is part of their religious world view. In my world view, all persons claiming to see (while awake) walking/talking dead people should be viewed in the same light: Unless they can provide OVERWHELMING evidence to the contrary, we must consider them delusional and suffering from some form of mental illness.
But Paul not only claims to have seen a resurrected dead body. He claims to have possibly…he isn’t sure… been transported to a third heaven. Mentally healthy people do not have such experiences while they are awake. Neither do mentally healthy people experience trances while they are awake in which they see sheets floating in the sky full of animals. Peter, the chief disciple, reports such a trance in the Book of Acts. This description fits very well with a visual hallucination, a component of a delusion. Again, if someone walked up to you today claiming that while sitting on a park bench this morning, while awake, with his eyes wide open, he saw a sheet full of animals float down from heaven, you would refer this guy to the local mental health hospital! You would not rush down to the park to see the floating sheet of animals yourself. Yet Christians give Peter a pass for the very same claim.
These two men most likely suffered from some form of mental illness. Mentally healthy people do not have visions and trances while they are awake. Vivid dreams while asleep, yes. My guess based on other descriptions of these two men in the Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s own epistles is that they were both bipolar. Persons who are bipolar can be very high-functioning, successful people, but, they can have major mood and behavior swings and in some persons with Bipolar Disorder they can have psychotic episodes in which they experience delusions accompanied by visual and auditory hallucinations (see this information from the Mayo Clinic).
Some conservative Christians claim that no first century Jew would ever believe in the bodily resurrection of one individual without seeing the resurrected body with their own two eyes. But the Bible itself proves this claim false. First century Jews did not need to see a resurrected body personally to believe in the Resurrection, they simply had to hear the testimony of someone they trusted who claimed that he had seen the resurrected body to believe. We have proof of this from the conversion of devout Jews in Asia Minor based solely on Paul’s testimony.
So imagine the same scenario a few years earlier occurring in Judea and Galilee, but this time with another “eyewitness” and other devout Jews. The “eyewitness” is Jesus’ chief disciple, Peter. He has just “seen” the resurrected, flesh and blood, body of Jesus, has spoken to Jesus, has touched Jesus, etc. (but all this happened in a manic phase of his Bipolar Disorder in which he experienced delusions accompanied by visual and auditory hallucinations). He is 100% certain that this experience was real (people who experience delusions are unable to distinguish reality from non-reality). He excitedly tells the other disciples that Jesus has risen from the dead just as he had prophesied that he would. Peter’s position and authority would probably have been enough not only for the other disciples to believe his story, but to initiate, by the power of suggestion, their own experiences of a resurrected Jesus, but instead of in the form of delusions, in the form of vivid dreams, false sightings, and misperceptions of natural phenomena (bright lights, shadows, etc.).
If devout Jews in Asia Minor would believe in the bodily Resurrection of Jesus based on the testimony of Paul, someone they most likely did not know personally, how much more likely would the disciples of Jesus believe in the bodily Resurrection of Jesus based on the testimony of Jesus’ “right-hand” man and someone they had grown to trust as their second-in-command for three years!
And why assume that Peter was the first to “see” the resurrected Jesus? Answer: Because that is what the Early Creed in First Corinthians 15 says.
Jesus had already planted the concept of his resurrection in the mind of Peter during his three year ministry. If I am right and Peter was bipolar, it only took a moment of psychosis, in a manic delusion, for Jesus to “appear” in the flesh “literally” to Peter. (Once again, in a delusion, the person cannot distinguish reality from non-reality). And the same quite possibly happened to Paul a few years later as he was chasing down Christians on the Road to Damascus. He had a manic episode and experienced auditory and visual hallucinations in a delusion: a very real Jesus “appeared” to him to chastise him for persecuting Christians and ordered him to fall in line as one of his followers.
Therefore, if just TWO of the principle figures of early Christianity were suffering from a temporary episode of mental illness at the time which they believed Jesus “appeared to them in the flesh” the entire Christian movement can be explained by natural phenomena without the need for supernatural/divine explanations. Skeptics don’t need to claim that all the persons listed in the list of eyewitnesses in the Early Creed were hallucinating…only TWO.
“Not probable!” You say.
Much more probable, I say, than the traditional Christian supernatural explanation.