Could the early Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus have been based on a delusion? Habermas and Licona categorically dismiss such a possibility. First, let’s look at a definition of a delusion:
Delusion: a belief that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder.
Or to put it more simply: belief that defies established, overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The widow who refuses to believe that her husband is dead despite the fact that she attended his funeral and saw his lifeless corpse in a casket is experiencing a delusion. The followers of Heaven’s Gate cult who killed themselves thinking that they would be rescued by a spaceship traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet were operating under a delusion. So is it possible that the same phenomenon explains the belief by early Christians that their leader had come back from the dead and had appeared to them in the flesh?
“Delusions are a highly problematic explanation for Jesus’ resurrection, since they fail to explain much of the known data. First, they do not explain the conversion of the church persecutor Paul. Second, they do not explain the conversion of the skeptic James. People who are candidates for delusions believe something that overrides their logic. While some may accuse the disciples of being in this frame of mind because they really wanted Jesus to be with them, neither Paul nor James appear to have had any desire to see Jesus alive.” —Habermas and Licona, p. 109
Gary: Why must the conversions of everyone involved in early Christianity be explained by the same phenomenon? I suggest the following scenario is much more probable than a once in history reanimation/resurrection of a dead corpse:
Peter had an hallucination caused by a combination of severe grief, guilt for abandoning Jesus, shame for denying him, and a probable lack of sleep. People who have hallucinations believe they are very real and remember them as being real events. Peter convinced the other disciples that his hallucination was an actual encounter with the risen flesh and blood Jesus. The other disciples accepted Peter’s story just as the members of the Heaven’s Gate cult accepted their leader’s delusional story, just as the members of Jim Jones’ followers accepted his delusional story, and just as David Koresh’s followers accepted his delusional story. The disciples accepted and believed as fact a delusional story based on the persuasiveness of their second in command, Peter.
But what about James and Paul?
First, we never hear from James directly. In addition, the authors of the Gospels and the Book of Acts tell us nothing about James’ conversion. Paul tells us nothing about the conversion of James. No one tells us that James received an appearance of Jesus other than the one line statement in the Early Creed, quoted by Paul in First Corinthians 15. And this is second hand information…at best! We have no idea if Paul confirmed any of this information. This is hearsay, folks.
Bottom line: We have no idea why James converted. Therefore, all possibilities of why someone converts from one belief system to another are on the table, including personal benefit. We just don’t know why James joined the movement. And to say that James did not want to see his brother alive again is just preposterous! Habermas and Licona have no idea how James felt about the death of his brother. They are making wild assumptions and speculation.
And Paul? As a physician, I think Paul had a mental disorder. Mentally healthy people do not claim to experience visions in which they are transported to a “third heaven” to receive secret communications that no one else can hear. Mentally healthy people do not claim to see dead people who are not their recently deceased relatives or friends. Paul had issues, folks. We will never know why he converted to Christianity but to claim that the most probable reason for his conversion was that he really and truly saw a walking/talking dead corpse on a dark desert highway is simply wishful thinking on the part of Christians.
“Delusions do not explain the empty tomb.” —Habermas and Licona, p. 110
Gary: Once again, not all parts of a false belief must be based on the same phenomenon. Peter could have had an hallucination. The other disciples could have come to believe a delusional belief based on Peter’s hallucination. James could have converted for any number of reasons, including that he truly came to believe his brother was the messiah. Paul may have converted due to his own hallucination. Maybe he suffered from Bipolar Disorder with occasional psychotic features or some other mental illness. Maybe mental illness was his “thorn in the flesh”. And the Empty Tomb may have been fiction; a later literary invention of the author of the Gospel of Mark writing in circa 70 CE. Paul seems to have never heard of Joseph of Arimathea or his rock tomb. It is therefore possible that the author of Mark invented this pericope not to lie or deceive anyone, but for theological purposes…as was perfectly acceptable in first century Greco-Roman biographies.
Habermas’ and Licona’s claim that delusions do not “explain all the data” misses the point. They don’t have to. It is very possible that delusions explain some of the data and other errors in perception and judgment explain the others.