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6 February 2023

In the fifteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Christians at Corinth, we find the earliest and most extensive discussion on the resurrection in the New Testament.

The integrity of the Christian faith, the apostle insists, hinges on the facticity of the resurrection of Christ.

“If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain … And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are all people most to be pitied” 1 Corinthians 15:14, 17-19 (NIV)

Throughout the history of the Church, various attempts have been made to show that the resurrection of Christ did not occur and that the disciples had either fabricated it or that they were simply hallucinating.

In recent decades, there appears to be a revival of the latter theory. While sceptical scholars now seem more inclined to believe that Jesus’ disciples really ‘saw’ what they believed to be their resurrected Master, this concession must conform to a naturalistic worldview, where the supernatural is ruled out as impossible.

For example, in 2000, American Broadcasting Company aired a documentary called The Search for Jesus in which a number of scholars of early Christianity commented on what can be known about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The New Testament scholar, Paula Fredriksen, who is not a Christian, opined that historical evidence showed that the disciples were convinced that they saw their Master, who had died three days before, appear to them.

“I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus,” Fredriksen said in the documentary.

“That’s what they say, and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attest to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know that as a historian that they must have seen something.”

Other scholars who have presented versions of the hallucination theory include Gerd Lüdemann, Jack Kent and Michael Goulder. According to these scholars, this theory should be favoured because it takes the claims of the disciples and the historical evidence seriously, but without ever conceding that Jesus’ resurrection was a real supernatural event.

The hallucination theory, however, fails to convince for a number of reasons.

According to psychologists Leonard Zusne and Warren Jones, the prerequisites for such group experiences are ‘expectation’ and ‘emotional excitement’. But these necessary elements of “collective hallucinations” were completely absent from the psychological state of the early witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection appearances.

In fact, the disciples of Jesus experienced the very opposite emotions – they were gripped with fear, disillusionment and depression as the whirlwind of events unfolded in the days leading up to the crucifixion and death of their Master. Even on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples were hiding behind locked doors in fear (John 20:19).

The disciples were therefore not waiting expectantly for their Master to return from the grave. In fact, when the risen Jesus appeared to them, they “were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost” (Luke 24:37 NIV).

Some disciples such as Thomas did not believe, despite witnessing the appearance of the resurrected Jesus. So, Jesus had to say to him: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” (John 20:27).

Finally, we have the experience of Paul on the road to Damascus. Paul was a sceptic par excellence. He was on a campaign to persecute Christians when he dramatically encountered the risen Christ (Acts 9) and became a believer and apostle.

The frequency and extent of the appearances of the resurrected Christ must also be taken into consideration.

According to the Gospels and Acts, the risen Christ appeared to many different people, at different times and contexts: Mary Magdalene (John 20:13-17) and two or more other women (Matthew 28:9), Peter (Luke 24:34), the disciples journeying to Emmaus (Luke 24:13), the ten disciples (John 20:19), Paul (Acts 9:3-9), and those who witnessed his ascension (Acts 1:10). In addition, Paul tells us that the resurrected Jesus appeared to 500 brethren at once (1 Corinthians 15:6) and also to James (1 Corinthians 15:7).

These facts must also be considered alongside other important pieces of evidence of the resurrection of Jesus Christ such as the empty tomb and the remarkable transformation of the early disciples into bold witnesses.

Taken together, they conclusively show that the hallucination theory is untenable and totally false.

[1] Justin Bass, ‘What Skeptical Scholars Admit about the Resurrection Appearances of Jesus’, Christianity Today, April 13, 2020. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/april-web-only/justin-bass-bedrock-christianity-resurrection-appearances.html (accessed 6 December 2021).

[2] Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994).

[3] Jack Kent, The Psychological Origins of the Resurrection Myth (London: Open Gate, 1999).

[4] Michael Goulder, ‘The Baseless Fabric of a Vision’ in Gavin D’Costa (ed)., Resurrection Reconsidered (Oxford: One World, 1996), 48-61.

[5] Leonard Zusne and Warren Jones, Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Extraordinary Phenomena of Behaviour and Experience (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1982), 135.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.