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Resurrection Theory III: Were the Disciples Seeing Things?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 20, 2006

To round out our consideration of the efforts to explain away the Resurrection, we must look at two modern theories. The first is the theory of general hallucination. On this view, the disciples thought Christ rose from the dead simply because their intense desires led them to see things that weren’t there. The second is the theory that accounts of the Resurrection were never meant to be taken literally. They were intended as symbolic stories of new life.

Collective Hallucination

The hallucination theory naturally surfaced in the 19th century with the rise of clinical psychology. Note, however, that Christian sources do not present us with a variety of uniquely different, highly colored individual visions of Jesus after his death. Instead, they refer to situations in which multiple persons, sometimes hundreds of persons, claimed to see the Risen Christ at the same time. If this were caused by hallucination, therefore, it must have been collective hallucination. Though the possibility of collective hallucination is denied by many psychologists, others posit it might be possible given certain essential conditions:

  1. A high-strung or nervous mood;
  2. A strong link between the hallucination and past personal experiences;
  3. A restricted, emotion-charged locality;
  4. Psychological conditioning and intense expectation.

None of these conditions were fulfilled in the reported visions of Jesus Christ. Those who claimed to see the risen Christ were in a variety of moods. Mary was weeping in sorrow, Peter filled with remorse and fear, Thomas incredulous, and the disciples on the road to Emmaus highly distracted. Nor are the reports of the Resurrection unduly tied to past experiences. It was not as if one disciple saw Jesus in one way, possessing certain unusual characteristics, while another disciple saw him in some different way, with different characteristics. The Resurrection experiences are remarkably uniform. They also occurred in a wide variety of places: to Mary in the Garden; to the apostles in the upper room; to the seven on Lake Tiberias; to 500 on a Galilean mountain. Further, the experiences involved the senses of sight, touch and hearing. They possessed a concreteness unusual in this type of phenomena.

As for intense expectation, it simply didn’t exist. The disciples had no inkling of what Christ was talking about when he predicted his Resurrection, as their behavior at the crucifixion makes clear. When they heard the tomb was empty, their first impulse was not to proclaim the Resurrection, but to check the tomb. On at least one occasion they thought Christ was a ghost, and on two other occasions they did not recognize him at first. Thomas even insisted on touching our Lord’s wounds before believing he was truly risen. As several commentators have famously noted, Mary Magdalene did not see a gardener and expect him to be the Risen Christ; she saw Christ and expected him to be a gardener.

Two final points are also worth mentioning. First, studies suggest that repeated hallucinations either increase in frequency to a crisis or slowly fade away as mental balance is restored. But the vision of the Risen Christ did neither. It simply departed at the Ascension. Second, psychologists teach that hallucinations can cause only temporary changes in lifestyle, whereas the changes for the disciples of Jesus were permanent.

The Resurrection as Symbol

Faced with the difficulty of explaining away Resurrection claims which were so incompatible with the modern mood, the Modernists of the past century frequently argued that the Resurrection accounts are not meant to be taken literally. Instead, the Resurrection story, like the stories of all of Christ’s miracles, are literary devices adopted by the Christian community to express the importance of the transformed life available to those who follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. This viewpoint depends on a great deal of sleight of hand, including a late dating of the gospels so that they can be taken as faith-reflections of the later community rather than first hand accounts—a late dating which has long since been rejected by Scripture scholars of every viewpoint.

In any case, there was no pre-existing literary symbolism of this type on which the evangelists could draw. The closest that Jewish tradition came to the idea of Resurrection was the “taking up” of a prophet as a ratification of his mission, which is quite different from a bodily death and resurrection. Neither does this symbol theory explain why there was no grave cult for the dead Jesus, which is what one would naturally expect if the Resurrection language was merely figurative. Nor is it easy to see how a mere symbol could have transformed the hearts of the disciples from watery fear to rocky courage, taking them from flight to martyrdom.

In fact, the gospels are early, eyewitness accounts, and there is no question that the disciples believed that Christ physically rose. They say he “manifested himself” (Mk 16:12-14), “stood among them” (Lk 24:36; Jn 20:19), and “showed them” his hands, feet and side (Lk 24:40; Jn 20:20). St. Paul uses the word opthe to express “he appeared” (1 Cor 15:3-8), a term which denotes a physical disclosure, a literal seeing. Paul, of course, was knocked to the ground by the risen Christ—a potent symbol indeed! Moreover, the Resurrection caused Christians to change the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, indicating that a remarkable intervention by God had taken place on that day.

As It Is . . .

Ultimately, if one subscribes to the symbol theory, one must believe not that the early Christian writers employed literary devices, but that they lied. To make this point, and to close this three-part series on alternative Resurrection theories, we can do no better than to cite St. Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians around the year 56 AD (1 Cor 15:12-20):

Tell me, if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how is it that some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, Christ himself has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is void of content and your faith is empty too. Indeed, we should then be exposed as false witnesses of God, for we have borne witness before him that he raised up Christ; but he certainly did not raise him up if the dead are not raised. Why? Because if the dead are not raised, then Christ was not raised; and if Christ was not raised, your faith is worthless. You are still in your sins, and those who have fallen asleep in Christ are the deadest of the dead. If our hopes in Christ are limited to this life only, we are the most pitiable of men.

But “as it is”, concludes St. Paul, “Christ is now raised—the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

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