Review of “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” by Habermas and Licona, Chapter 6, Part C: Conversion Disorder

Habermas and Licona are certain that mental illness cannot explain Paul’s “heavenly vision” experience on the Damascus Road.  As we have seen in previous posts in our review of their book, H. and L. think they have ruled out hallucinations and delusions as possible causes for the early Christian resurrection belief.  But what about a “conversion disorder”?  First, let’s define this term.  From the NIH website:

Conversion disorder is a mental condition in which a person has blindness, paralysis, or other nervous system (neurologic) symptoms that cannot be explained by medical evaluation.  Conversion disorder symptoms may occur because of a psychological conflict.

Symptoms usually begin suddenly after a stressful experience. People are at risk of conversion disorder if they also have:

  • A medical illness
  • A dissociative disorder (escape from reality that is not on purpose)
  • A personality disorder (inability to manage feelings and behaviors that are expected in certain social situations)

People who have conversion disorder are not making up their symptoms (malingering). Some doctors falsely believe that this disorder is not a real condition and may tell people that the problem is all in their head. But this condition is real. It causes distress and cannot be turned on and off at will.

The physical symptoms are thought to be an attempt to resolve the conflict the person feels inside. For example, a woman who believes it is not acceptable to have violent feelings may suddenly feel numbness in her arms after becoming so angry that she wanted to hit someone. Instead of allowing herself to have violent thoughts about hitting someone, she experiences the physical symptom of numbness in her arms.

Symptoms of a conversion disorder include the loss of one or more bodily functions, such as:
  • Blindness
  • Inability to speak
  • Numbness
  • Paralysis

Common signs of conversion disorder include:

  • A debilitating symptom that begins suddenly
  • History of a psychological problem that gets better after the symptom appears
  • Lack of concern that usually occurs with a severe symptom

Gary:  Is it possible that Paul felt intense guilt or shame for his harsh treatment of his fellow Jews who had come to see Jesus as the Jewish messiah?  Did this guilt/shame lead to a conversion disorder which caused his temporary blindness that is reported in the Book of Acts?  Was his blindness “cured” by converting to the very belief system he had been persecuting?

“A conversion disorder on Paul’s part does not refute Jesus’ resurrection because of the following crucial reasons.  First, even if plausible, at best a conversion disorder could only account for the single appearance to Paul.  It cannot adequately account for the appearances to the disciples or the appearance to James.”  —Habermas and Licona, p. 114

Gary:  Why does it have to?  Since when must all the members of a new belief system (cult) convert or believe due to the same phenomenon or set of circumstances?  Isn’t it possible that out of all the Branch Davidians only David Koresh was delusional and/or experiencing hallucinations?  Maybe all the other members were mentally healthy; they believed not because they were delusional or hallucinating but because they were gullible to the wild tales of a very charismatic leader.  The early Christian belief system may have originated based on a combination of hallucinations, delusions, and conversion disorders.  As unlikely as this might sound, this possibility is still much more probable than a never heard of before or since resurrection of a dead corpse!

“Second, conversion disorder cannot account for the empty tomb.”  —Habermas and Licona, p. 114

Gary:  How many times must I repeat myself?  Not all aspects of the Resurrection Story as told in the Gospels must be explained by the same alternative, naturalistic explanation.  Some parts could be explained by hallucinations, some by delusions, etc., etc..  In addition, since the Gospels were written many decades after the alleged event, by unknown persons, in lands far, far away, it is entirely possible that parts of the story are fiction.  I, and a number of scholars, assert that it is entirely possible that the Empty Tomb is a fictional detail to the Resurrection Story.

“Third, Paul does not fit the profile of one who is likely to experience a conversion psychosis.  …women are more likely than men to experience conversion psychosis by as much as a 5:1 ratio…”  —Habermas and Licona, p. 114

Gary:  As unlikely as it might be for a man like Paul to have experienced a conversion psychosis, it is still much, much more probable than that he really did see a walking, talking corpse.  It is amazing that Christians cannot see this.

“Fourth, conversion disorder cannot explain other detail’s of Paul’s account of the risen Jesus appearing to him, such as the voice and his belief that God wanted him to tell others something.”  —Habermas and Licona, p. 114

Gary:  First, it isn’t Paul’s account, it is the account of the unknown author of the Book of Acts.  How much of the story in the Book of Acts is literary invention?  We will never know!  Paul himself, in his own epistles, never gives us the details of his conversion.  All we know from Paul is that he had received a personal revelation of “the Christ”; that he had “seen” the Christ; that Christ had “appeared to” him as he had appeared to the other persons in the Early Creed of First Corinthians 15.

Isn’t it possible that the conversion disorder was only the start of Paul’s mental illness…the “thorn in his side”??  We don’t know, but it is possible, and again, much more probable than anyone actually meeting a walking, talking corpse on a dark desert highway.

“A fifth and final problem with conversion disorder is an explanation to account for Paul’s experience of Jesus is that it requires the adding of  multiple explanations to account for the event.  Such a combination theory appears ‘ad hoc’, that is, it appears to be manufactured in order to make everything fit, not because it appears to have been what happened.”  —Habermas and Licona, p. 115

Gary:  Yes, the ol’ “Ad hoc” argument!  This worn-out Christian complaint drives me nuts!  Let me repeat an analogy I have used in prior posts:

Your neighbor says that last night he was abducted by a one-eyed Cyclops, flown to the planet Neptune, given a walking tour of the planet without an oxygen tank, and then returned safely to his bed before sunrise.

Your reply to your neighbor’s story is that he was either drunk, drugged, hallucinating from a high fever, or just plain stark raving mad!

“But it really did happen!” your indignant neighbor retorts.  “All of your accusations are AD HOC!” he adds.  “You have zero proof for any of them!  You created them out of thin air!  Why don’t you just accept the only evidence you have in front of you:  my eyewitness statement!”

Objections by conservative Christians to the”ad hoc” explanations of skeptics for the Christian supernatural Resurrection of Jesus story are just as ridiculous as your neighbor’s objection to your “ad hoc” explanations for his trip to Neptune.  Just because skeptics cannot prove that a particular natural explanation or collection of natural explanations is/are the true cause of an extra-ordinary claim does not mean that we are forced to accept a non-natural (supernatural) explanation as the cause simply because it was the original explanation given.

2 thoughts on “Review of “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” by Habermas and Licona, Chapter 6, Part C: Conversion Disorder

  1. The idea that one can put the last 2000 years pus of Christian witness down to a or a series of different mental disorders amazes me. It just does not pass the test of common sense and is a faith position that I cannot hold to. Much more sense in following the Scriptures that have a divine mark all the way through them and which still save lives from sin and depravity and transform lives today and will do until Christ returns.


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