I have encountered numerous atheists or agnostics such as Richard Carrier (“Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave”), Aron Ra (via YouTube and Twitter), and Bart Ehrman (“How Jesus Became God”) who posit that early Christian disciples, such as Peter, Paul, James, Mary Magdalene, and John, had “mass hallucinations.” They often admit that these early Christians believed that they saw Jesus (implying the early Christians were honest) – but they posit that they really just had mass hallucinations. The intention of this blog is to share why these atheists and agnostics are incorrect in this assumption.
Hallucinations, Illusions, and Delusions
Psychologists define a hallucination as follows (Grinnell, 2016). “A hallucination is a sensation or sensory perception that a person experiences in the absence of a relevant external stimulus. That is, a person experiences something that doesn’t really exist (except in their mind). A hallucination can occur in any sensory modality — visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, etc.”
A hallucination is not the same as an illusion, which is something that deceives by producing a false or misleading impression of reality, such as a magician’s tricks or a mirage of water in a desert. Hallucinations are also not delusions, which occur when a person believes something despite conclusive evidence to the contrary, such as a person believing that U.S. President John F. Kennedy is still alive, despite witnessing (via television or in person) the fatal gunshot that killed him.
As Michael Licona (2018) states: “hallucinations are private experiences occurring inside the mind of an individual. Since they are mental events with no external reality, there is no way for people to participate in the same hallucination. Hallucinations are similar to dreams in this sense. I could not awaken my wife in the middle of the night and say, ‘Honey, I’m dreaming I’m in Maui. Go back to sleep, join me in my dream, and let’s have a free vacation!’ She may dream she’s with me in Maui. But it’s not going to be the same dream. And any interaction with me in that dream is not something in which I would actually be participating.” Click here for the continuation from Michael Licona on this topic: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/appearances-of-mary-and-jesus-resurrection-appearances/#.Wxa4tD4cGjd.twitter
In summary, hallucinations occur individually within someone’s mind and hallucinations are of things that do not exist. “Mass hallucinations,” as atheists and agnostics have dubbed them, therefore do not exist. We do not have access to the minds of fellow humans, which is why people cannot share “mass hallucinations.”
Mass Hallucinations, Mass Illusions, Mass Delusions
In contrast, “mass illusions” or “mass delusions” may exist. Groups may be duped by a magician’s illusions and groups may share the same vision of a mirage of water in the desert. But illusions are by definition acts of deception, so if early Christians were acting with the intentions to deceive, we would need evidence they benefited from the deceptions. Instead we have evidence that they did not materially benefit and instead were beaten, whipped, imprisoned, beheaded, torched, and crucified. Groups may also share delusions, such as when multiple people make claims that the earth is flat.
Multiple Testimonies, Multiple Times
This mass hallucination proposition is further refuted when one examines the reports from early Christians of multiple encounters with the risen Christ over a forty day period. The so-called mass hallucinations were not of the same event or encounter, yet they all shared the same message: Jesus rose from the dead. Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus, who appeared to her at the empty tomb (John 20:16-18). He then appeared to female disciples on the route from the empty tomb to the disciples’ place of hiding (Matthew 28:8-10. The women eyewitnesses to the first or second appearance of Jesus were named by Luke 24:7-10: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others with them. Jesus appeared to the eleven male disciples in Galilee, where Jesus had instructed them (through the women) to go. He further appeared to Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-27). He made more appearances over the forty days He spent with His disciples before they saw Him rise into heaven (Acts 1:9). John 21:25 states: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. Paul wrote that Jesus appeared to five hundred people in separate instances, including specific disciples (Peter and James, Jesus’ half-brother) and himself. He wrote this at a time when some of the five hundred were still alive and could have contested his information if it were not true (1 Corinthians 15).
Atheists often argue that early Christian disciples had visions just as people may have visions or dreams of loved ones after they depart, yet this position does not take into account the fact that the disciples were emboldened after they said they saw and ate with Jesus. They came out of hiding to preach illegally for Him.
This position further does not take into account the way the disciples expressed doubts before the resurrection. Peter thrice denied Jesus to avoid His same fate, yet ended up being crucified upside-down. Jesus’ half-brother James, who tried to stop His ministry early on, ended up preaching for Him boldly before being martyred. And then there is Paul’s experience. Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus when Paul (known then as Saul) was preparing to hunt down Christians for imprisonment and execution (Acts 9). Paul converted to Christianity immediately and went on to write between seven and thirteen New Testament books. Despite being whipped, beaten, stoned, imprisoned, and ship-wrecked, Paul persisted. He was beheaded by Nero around the year 62.
In conclusion, and in agreement with some atheists and agnostics, early Christian disciples and martyrs honestly believed they saw the risen Christ but their beliefs were not based on mass hallucinations. They were based on the fact they saw the risen Christ in a physical form. And despite risking their lives and receiving no material or physical rewards, they shared the Good News, knowing that the prize they would receive is in heaven with Jesus forever. The door to heaven is open to all of God’s children, even those who have posited mass hallucinations.
“I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” – Paul in his letter to the Philippians 3:14.
“They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. ‘He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?’ Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.'”
Grinnell, R. (2016). Hallucination. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 3, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/encyclopedia/hallucination/
Licona, M. (2018). Appearances of Mary and Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Question of the week to William Lane Craig. Retrieved on June 6, 2018, from https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/appearances-of-mary-and-jesus-resurrection-appearances/#.Wxa4tD4cGjd.twitter