By Joseph W. Bergeron, MD
Were the disciples hallucinating when they met Jesus after his crucifixion? Do psychiatric disorders explain the disciples’ belief in Jesus’s resurrection?
The resurrection of Jesus to bodily life after death by crucifixion is a foundational belief of orthodox Christianity. All of Jesus’s friends watched his ignominious and grisly death (Luke 23:49). Jesus’s disciples and many of his friends met him after his resurrection, too many to easily explain away (1 Cor. 15:3–8). The disciples unanimously believed Jesus had resurrected. Could their belief in Jesus’s resurrection be the after-effect of hallucinations?
As a naturalistic alternative for the biblical accounts of the resurrection, some skeptical scholars propose that the disciples’ post-crucifixion meetings with Jesus were actually various kinds of hallucinatory psychological phenomena. Collectively, such explanations have become known as the hallucination hypothesis for Jesus’s resurrection.
The hallucination hypothesis has significant medical implications yet its main proponents are critical New Testament scholars, not physicians. Consequently, books and articles advocating the hallucination hypothesis have not been subjected to the specialized readership of medical peer review. As the majority of proponents of the hallucination hypothesis are outside the disciplines of medical education and healthcare practice, an examination of the hallucination hypothesis from a medical perspective certainly seems warranted.
What Are Hallucinations?
A hallucination is an experience involving one or more of the five senses in the absence of external stimuli that the conscious mind perceives as real. Most proponents of the hallucination hypothesis overlook the fact that hallucinations are symptoms of an underlying illness. Hallucinations generally arise from three disease categories: (1) psychophysiological causes related to an alteration of function or structure in the brain (a brain tumor, for example); (2) psychobiochemical causes due to alteration of chemical neurotransmitters within the brain (for example, delirium tremens in alcohol withdrawal); or (3) psychodynamic causes, namely the intrusion of psychiatric illness into the conscious mind.
But could Jesus’s disciples have all simultaneously suffered severe medical or psychiatric illness? This contention defies reason and probability. In Jesus’s time people with psychiatric illness were ostracized and considered incompetent or demonized. Could a group of people with uncontrolled psychiatric illness have deployed such a rapid and successful expansion of Christianity in the first century? This hardly seems plausible.
It must not be overlooked that hallucinations are private experiences occurring only in the milieu of the individual’s brain. No two hallucinations are identical from person to person. As such, the hallucination hypothesis offers no explanation for group encounters with the resurrected Jesus.
Does mass hysteria explain group meetings of the disciples with the resurrected Jesus? In modern medical parlance, mass hysteria is more precisely termed mass sociogenic illness. This condition describes individuals within a group who have similar simultaneous collective psychological experiences, even visionary experiences in rare cases. The group dynamic is characterized by a heightened sense of social excitement in the context of unique cultural or social expectation. But Jesus’s disciples don’t fit that profile. They weren’t expecting his resurrection. They were frightened and in hiding (John 20:19).
It is noteworthy that no two persons in a group experiencing mass sociogenic illness have identical visual hallucinations. This is not surprising since hallucinations are private experiences within the individual’s mind. Thus, mass sociogenic illness fails to offer a plausible explanation for group meetings of the disciples with the resurrected Jesus.
In Freudian psychoanalysis, subconscious conflicts are sometimes “converted” into neurological symptoms, hence the term conversion disorder. Conversion disorder symptoms can be profound and can include blindness or paralysis. Symptoms are psychiatric, however, and lack identifiable pathophysiological causation.
Conversion disorder is twice as likely to affect women than men and is often associated with other psychological comorbidities. It results from a psychologically painful experience. For example, a mother who finds her child has drowned may become blind. People with conversion disorder show a peculiar lack of distress about their condition, a demeanor sometimes called la belle indifference. Nevertheless, conversion disorder has a generally positive prognosis. Neurological symptoms most often subside in days to a few weeks.
According to psychologist Carl Jung, the apostle Paul had subconsciously been a Christian for some time but had repressed his true faith until it broke into his conscious mind, manifesting in a vision of Jesus followed by psychogenic (psychological-in-origin) blindness. Jung believed that Paul’s transient blindness after his Damascus road experience with Jesus (Acts 9:3–9) was a conversion disorder.
Jung’s idea that Paul simultaneously experienced visual hallucinations and conversion disorder is antiquated. Visual hallucinations are not part of the current clinical pathognomy of conversion disorder. To propose that Paul had hallucinations and conversion disorder would require dual diagnoses.
Also, Paul doesn’t fit the profile of someone suffering from conversion disorder. He had no misgivings or psychological turmoil about persecuting Christians (Gal. 1:13–14). And he was a rising star in the Hebrew religious world of his day (Phil. 3:4–6, Gal. 1:14). Had Paul merely experienced a conversion disorder, it would be expected that he would resume his usual life activities once the symptoms had subsided.
Even skeptical scholars concede that Paul believed Jesus appeared to him bodily. This would be a peculiar lifelong belief had he merely experienced a conversion disorder. Paul made a lasting 180-degree change after he met Jesus. He became the most prolific proponent of Christianity to the Gentile world in his time, despite severe persecution and eventual martyrdom. He relentlessly preached of Jesus’s messiahship and resurrection from the dead. Paul’s radical, enduring change, prolific doctrinal writing, and Christian advocacy are inconsistent with the proposition that he experienced conversion disorder.
Hallucinatory symptoms during bereavement are common, most often experienced by a widowed spouse. Unlike hallucinations, bereavement experiences are psychologically mediated but are not considered pathological (related to disease). The most common experience is a sense of closeness with the deceased. Auditory and visual experiences can occur but are less common.
The rarest type of bereavement experience is visual apparitions. Visual experiences are reported to range from 4% or less but up to 10.8% in spouses suffering severe grief. Visual apparitions are typically noninteractive. Attempting to interact with an apparition causes it to disappear. Visual bereavement experiences would be doubly atypical among friends and disciples. Grieving the loss of a friend and mentor is dissimilar to the grief a widowed spouse may experience.
A widowed spouse is typically reluctant to disclose such experiences. It is noteworthy that bereavement experiences neither cause the grieving spouse to believe the deceased had resurrected nor inspire them to make any particular life change. Bereavement experiences often diminish in frequency over time but can persist in some cases for months or years. Unlike bereavement experiences, Jesus’s disciples saw him only within the forty days after his resurrection.
Meetings with Jesus included person-to-person visits, group and large crowd meetings, physical contact, eating together, and detailed conversations. Those who met him were convinced that he had resurrected. The disciples’ meetings with Jesus are simply unlike the psychological experiences reported in bereavement literature.
Hallucination Explanations Unconvincing
Jesus’s disciples experienced something that made them believe he had resurrected from the dead. The effect on each was profound and lifelong. Proponents of the hallucination hypothesis seem unaware of the psychiatric and neurophysiological pathologies that cause hallucinations. The disciples’ belief in Jesus’s resurrection cannot be reasonably explained away as the sequelae of psychiatric illness. Moreover, psychological phenomena offer no plausible explanation for the group meetings between the resurrected Jesus and his disciples. The hallucination hypothesis fails to offer any tenable explanation for the disciples’ belief in Jesus’s resurrection.