Tag Archives: resurrection

Resurrection or Hallucination?

December 2018 Credo

Throughout the history of the Church, there have been numerous attempts by her adversaries to debunk the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. It seems that these detractors understood very well – arguably perhaps better than some Christians do – the centrality of Christ’s resurrection in Christianity.

‘If Christ has not been raised’, writes the Apostle Paul, ‘then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:14). The resurrection of Jesus is not an optional extra, a concept or claim that can be pushed to the margins of Christianity. It is the truth upon which the Christian faith stands or falls.

The advance of modern science in the 18th and 19th centuries has led to the proliferation of naturalistic theories regarding Jesus’ resurrection. These range from the theory that the body of the dead Jesus was stolen by the disciples (Hermann Reimarus) to the proposition that Jesus did not in fact die but merely fainted or swooned (Friedrich Schleiermacher) and recovered later.

In recent decades the hallucination theory, popularised in the 19th century by David Strauss and Ernest Renan, is witnessing something of a revival.

In The Resurrection of Jesus (1994) Gerd Ludemann commandeered hallucination studies to offer a rehash of David Strauss’ hypothesis, that the appearances of the risen Christ were merely internal psychological events or subjective visions in the minds of the disciples – in a word, hallucinations.

Ludemann maintains that these hallucinatory visions were the result of ‘religious intoxication’ and ‘ecstasy’. They spread to the other disciples and to the five hundred witnesses mentioned by Paul by ‘an incomparable chain reaction’, resulting in ‘mass ecstasy’.

Michael Goulder, in a 1996 essay ‘The Baseless Fabric of a Vision’ adopts a similar approach to Ludemann, arguing that Peter was the first to experience a ‘Jesus hallucination’ due to the anxieties brought about by Holy Week and the shame he felt for denying his Master. Peter’s hallucination subsequently spread to the rest of the disciples.

In his attempt to find analogies of the ‘Jesus hallucination’, Goulder came up with some of the most farcical suggestions: the moving statue of Mary at Knock, the phenomenon of UFOs and the ‘Sasquatch’ (Bigfoot) sightings.

The most recent attempt to revive the hallucination hypothesis comes from the pen of a historian at the University of California, Berkeley, and trenchant advocate of atheism, Richard Cevantis Carrier.

‘I believe the best explanation, consistent with both scientific findings and the surviving evidence … is that the first Christians experienced hallucinations of the risen Christ, of one form or another’, writes Carrier. ‘In the ancient world, to experience supernatural manifestations of ghosts, gods, and wonders was not only accepted, but encouraged’.

Before we examine the differences between hallucinations and the experiences of the disciples of the resurrected Jesus, it may be helpful to consider a broad definition of hallucination. According to the 1996 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana a hallucination is a ‘report of a sensory experience in the absence of an actual external stimulus appropriate to the reported experience’.

Scientific studies show that this phenomenon is very commonly reported among mental patients. People with normal mental health only experience hallucinatory visions when they are suffering from extreme fatigue or grief. People on certain kinds of drugs may also have such experiences.

There are a number of important factors that have led Christian theologians and apologists to rule out the possibility that the early disciples may have experienced hallucinatory visions of their dead master.

The first is the facticity of the empty tomb. No secret was made of the fact that the body of Jesus was placed in a tomb that belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin.

If the sceptics thought that the early Christians were merely hallucinating when they claimed to have seen the resurrected Christ, they could easily have exposed their delusion by simply producing the body of Jesus. However, the sceptics simply did not do this (because they could not).

The second factor that rules out the possibility that the sightings of the resurrected Jesus were hallucinations is the number of people involved. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul provides an impressive list of eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus: Cephas, the twelve, the five hundred, and finally Paul himself.

According to the clinical psychologist Gary Collins, ‘Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly are not something which can be seen by a group … Since hallucinations exists only in this subjective, personal sense, it is obvious that others cannot witness it’.

In addition, the fact that the people who encountered the resurrected Jesus have different mindsets and different frames of mind when the experience took place also works against the hallucination hypothesis.

As the evangelical philosopher Gary Habermas compellingly puts it: ‘The wide variety of times and places when Jesus appeared, along with the different mindsets of the witnesses, is simply a huge obstacle. Men and women, hard-headed and soft-hearted alike, all believing that they saw Jesus, both indoors and outdoors, by itself provides an insurmountable barrier to hallucinations’.

The bodily nature of the resurrection also militates against the view that it was merely a psychological state or hallucination. All the appearances of the resurrected Jesus were bodily appearances, as opposed to only psychological visions.

The resurrected Jesus ate with his disciples on the seashore (John 21:14-15) and at the home of the two disciples traveling on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:28-30). In addition, Thomas touched the wounds of the crucifixion on the body of the resurrected Jesus (John 20:27).

Thus, William Lane Craig insists that ‘There is no trace of nonphysical appearances in the sources, a remarkable fact if all the appearances were really visionary, as some critics would have us believe. That strongly suggests that the appearances were not in fact visions, but actual, bodily appearances’.

Even the duration of the appearances serves as a strong refutation of the hallucination hypothesis. Hallucinations are usually fleeting, occurring not more than a few seconds or minutes at a time.

However, in Acts 1:3, we are told that the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples for forty days: ‘He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God’.

Finally, the lives of the disciples who saw, touched and ate with their resurrected Lord were radically transformed. They not only became faithful witnesses of the risen Christ, but they were also willing to suffer persecution and even die for him.

Studies in hallucinations, on the other hand, show that those who experienced them are seldom transformed. This has prompted Habermas to observe: ‘Critics acknowledge that Jesus’ disciples were transformed even to the point of being quite willing to die for their faith … To believe that this quality of conviction came about through false sensory perceptions without anyone rejecting it later is highly problematic’.

The resurrection of Jesus is not a brilliant idea or a powerful myth. It is certainly not a hallucination! It is a historical reality, the non-negotiable essence of the Gospel of salvation (1 Corinthians 15:1-11).



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

It is Finished!

‘It is finished’ is the sixth of the seven words of Christ on the cross. From the late eighteenth century, meditation on the Seven Last Words of Christ on the cross became a very popular form of devotion. In some churches today, the last words of Jesus are heard in the liturgy of Holy Week, when the passion narrative is read in its entirety. Reflection on the last words of our Lord can be a deeply rewarding experience, for they are pregnant with spiritual and theological meaning.

‘It is finished’ is the cry of our Saviour just before he commends his spirit to the Father. These words must not be understood merely to mean ‘It is over’. They must be taken in the sense of consummatum est – it is consummated, fulfilled and brought to perfection. These words, then, should not be understood as the final cry of someone who has come to the end of a terrible ordeal. Rather it is the assertion that the task that Jesus came to perform is now completed. The work that Jesus set out to do has been accomplished, and brought to perfection. His goal is achieved, and there is nothing else left for him to do!

What was this work that Jesus came to do? He came to offer himself as a complete and perfect sacrifice in order to atone the sins of humanity and make available the salvation of God. The theme of sacrifice and atonement is replete in the New Testament. Paul in Ephesians tells us that ‘Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Ephesians 5:2). Comparing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the high priests of Israel, the writer of Hebrews asserts: ‘Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself’ (Heb 7:27). And John in his first letter maintains that Jesus ‘is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world’ (1 John 2:2).

To skeptics the death of Jesus does not signal victory. To them, ‘It is finished’ simply means ‘He is finished’! But for the Christian, ‘It is finished’ is not a death gurgle. It is the cry of victory! As Stanley Hauerwas has put it, ‘It is finished’ means that ‘God has finished what only God could finish. Christ’s sacrifice is a gift that exceeds every debt. Our sins have been consumed, making possible that glow with the beauty of God’s Spirit’. Far from being a sign of defeat, the cross points to victory! In this sense, ‘It is finished!’ points beyond the cross to the Resurrection. It brings together Good Friday and Easter.

Nicholas Lash has summed this up eloquently in his book Believing Three Ways in the One God:

Out of the virgin’s womb, Christ is conceived. Out of that world threatening death on Calvary, life is new-born from an empty tomb. Christ’s terror is God’s Word’s human vulnerability. But, it is just this vulnerability, this surrender, absolute relationship, which draws out of darkness finished life, forgiveness of sins.

More, however, must be said. It is finished. But it is not over! It is finished. But time marches on! It is finished. But evil and suffering persist! How are we to make sense of this?

This situation is perhaps best described by the use of an analogy. The victory over sin and death by the death and Resurrection of Christ is like the liberation of an occupied country from Nazi rule towards the end of World War II. To understand the excitement of the liberation, we must imagine what it must be like to live under the shadow of Nazi presence. We must appreciate something of the utter hopelessness of the situation in order to sense its true poignancy. Many in that situation had resigned themselves to the thought that nothing could be done to turn things around.

Then, suddenly, news of a battle fought somewhere far away came to them. Some call it D-Day. And this battle is turning the tide of the war. The war seems to be brought to a new stage, and the enemy is now in disarray. Its back has been broken. Before long the Nazis will be driven out, and occupied Europe will be liberated. This is exhilarating news indeed!

But the Nazis are still present in that occupied country. Thus, in a sense, the situation has not changed at all. But in another sense, the situation has totally changed! The Nazis are defeated, and they will be driven out of that occupied country. The sweet scent of liberation and victory is in the air. This brings about a dramatic change in the psychological climate to the citizens of that occupied country. The whole atmosphere is changed. The gloom is lifted and the citizens of that country could rejoice as if they were free, even though freedom still lies in the future.

It is finished! But it is not over. Evil, suffering and pain still persist in our sin-scarred world. But the horror does not have the last word! At the heart of this horror is hope, because at the heart of the horror is Christ who has declared, ‘It is finished!’

In addition, at the foot of the cross, we realize that we are not merely victims of a senseless fate. At the foot of the cross we realize that we are participants of the drama of salvation, for our stories have become part of the story of the One who was crucified. Here at the cross the suffering of all time, the suffering of every human being is gathered to his suffering. The out-stretched arms of Jesus on the cross reach out to embrace, complete and make whole every human moment of horror. All the victims of evil, those who suffer in hospitals and at home, the victims of genocide, rape and murder, the innocent victims of war, and those who are crushed by injustice– their suffering need not be ‘senseless’ if they are caught up by faith in that once-for-all-time sacrifice of Christ on the cross for which it is said ‘It is finished’.

The cross of Christ does not give us all the answers to the world’s troubles and to ours. But the cross of Christ enables us to face these troubles without any answers because through it God has opened up a way for us to live without answers. In a statement that must surely be enigmatic to some Paul asserts ‘Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church’ (Colossians 1:24). Paul is surely not saying that the suffering of Christ on the cross was insufficient. Rather Paul is saying that he is able to suffer because the work of the cross is finished.

It is finished! But it is not over.

We live in a time between the times. The kingdom of God has begun in Christ, but it will not be consummated and perfected until the end of the world. But the Good News is our Saviour has won that decisive far-off battle on Golgotha. The enemy is defeated! Its back has been broken! Although everything looks pretty much the same, the situation has totally changed. That is why the church throughout the ages could echo the words of Venantius Fortunatius, who in the sixth century wrote:

Sing my tongue, the glorious battle, Sing the last, the dread affray;
O’er the cross, the victor’s trophy, Sound the high triumphal lay:
How, the pains of death enduring, Earth’s Redeemer won the day.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in the Trumpet (TTC).