For almost two thousand years, opponents of the Christian faith have proposed various theories in an attempt to explain away the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. From the “stolen body theory” proposed by the Jewish religious leaders in Matthew’s gospel to the “swoon theory” advanced by the 19th-century critic Friedrich Schleiermacher, skeptics have stopped at nothing to explain the testimony to the resurrection of Jesus without recourse to the supernatural.
While most of these naturalistic explanations have been rejected as implausible by contemporary critics of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, one particular theory has begun to gain traction in skeptical circles. This hypothesis is known as the “hallucination theory.” The hallucination theory attempts to account for the testimony to the resurrection of Jesus by claiming both auditory and visual hallucinations on the part of Jesus’ disciples. Proponents of this view claim that Jesus’ disciples really did “see” Jesus, but that these sightings were merely hallucinations in the minds of Christ’s followers, not genuine encounters with a resurrected man. The hallucinations, or sightings, are claimed to have happened repeatedly and are said to have been so vivid as to convince Christ’s followers that Jesus actually had risen from the dead.
The advantage of this proposal is two-fold. First, the proponents of this theory need not engage the impressive evidence for the life-changing transformation of the disciples based on their newfound belief in Christ’s resurrection. Rather, the skeptic can grant that there were “appearances” of some sort without conceding the occurrence of a miracle. The second move is to then explain these “appearances” as subjective hallucinations, events that took place only in the minds of the disciples.
From the outset, the hallucination theory is beset with problems. First, we now know that anticipation and expectation play a crucial role in the occurrence of hallucinations. This, by itself, makes the disciples poor candidates for such experiences. The disciples were understandably depressed, sorrowful, and deeply grieved as their beloved leader had been violently taken from them and executed. All four gospels describe the disciples as not expecting to see Jesus resurrected. In fact, some doubted even after Jesus appeared to them (Matthew 28:16–17)! It does not seem that any of Jesus’ disciples were in the proper mindset to be likely candidates for hallucinations.
Second, the diversity of the appearances makes hallucinations an unlikely explanation. Jesus appeared to numerous individuals under various circumstances and locales. He appeared both indoors and outdoors. He appeared not just on one particular day but over a period of weeks. He appeared to people of different backgrounds and personality types.
Probably the most formidable obstacle for the hallucination theory to overcome is its failure to explain appearances to groups of people. As clinical psychologist Gary A. Sibcy has commented, “I have surveyed the professional literature (peer-reviewed journal articles and books) written by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other relevant healthcare professionals during the past two decades and have yet to find a single documented case of a group hallucination, that is, an event for which more than one person purportedly shared in a visual or other sensory perception where there was clearly no external referent.” Psychologist Gary Collins was no less clear when he remarked, “Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly aren’t something which can be seen by a group of people. Neither is it possible that one person could somehow induce a hallucination in somebody else. Since a hallucination exists only in this subjective, personal sense, it is obvious that others cannot witness it.” And yet, Jesus not only appeared to numerous individuals but to groups, as well—and on numerous occasions (Luke 24:36–43, Matthew 28:9, John 20:26–30; 21:1–14, Acts 1:3–6, 1 Corinthians 15:5–7)!
Still more problems remain. Jesus not only appeared to His disciples but to His skeptical brother James (1 Corinthians 15:7), who had earlier refused to believe in Jesus (John 7:5). How likely is it that he and Jude and others like them would also have individual hallucinations of a resurrected Jesus to whom they had no previous commitment?
Even if all of these obstacles could be overcome, a further problem remains for the hallucination theory: the empty tomb. If all of the disciples of Jesus had simply been the victims of numerous individual and group hallucinations, the body of Jesus of Nazareth would have remained where it was, interred in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. How likely is it for the disciples of Jesus to have gained converts—after preaching a bodily resurrection in the very area where Jesus was buried—if His tomb were in fact occupied with a recently crucified man? The critic who appeals to hallucinations must then combine this theory with another hypothesis to explain why Jesus’ tomb was found to be empty.
Hallucinations, by themselves, cannot begin to explain all the data. When all of these factors are taken into account, the hallucination theory crumbles under the weight of the facts. The Christian can remain confident that Christ has risen!