Seeing is believing

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 9: “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?”)

William Lane Craig is trying to convince us that the “resurrection hypothesis” is the best explanation for what he calls the “three historical facts” about the origin of Christianity: the empty tomb, the (perceived) appearances to the disciples, and their subsequent faith. Last week he tried (without much success) to eliminate the “disciples stole the body” alternative. Granted, a conspiracy to hide the body and then lie about the resurrection is pretty unlikely, but it’s extremely possible that some small group of disciples might have removed it without the knowledge or consent of the others, resulting in a major misunderstanding on the part of the others.

The next two alternatives Craig deals with are the “apparent death” hypothesis and the “misplaced body” hypothesis. I’m basically going to skip those two because Craig is mostly correct in dismissing them due to their inherent implausibility. The main argument we want to look at is what Craig calls the “hallucination hypothesis,” i.e. idea that the disciples were just having hallucinations about seeing Jesus.

Technically, this isn’t a new hypothesis, but rather an extension of the “disciples stole the body” hypothesis. Post-bereavement hallucinations are fairly common under the best of circumstances, so it’s virtually a given that at least some of Jesus’ many disciples would have post-death “experiences” of seeing him again. Couple this with the traumatic circumstances of his death, the messianic fervor of the early believers, and the emphasis on “spiritual truth” as something higher and truer than mere mundane materialism, and it’s perfectly plausible to suppose that these ordinary hallucinations would encourage the apostles to explain his empty tomb as the product of some kind of resurrection.

Craig, however, prefers a divide-and-conquer approach.

The hallucination hypothesis has narrow explanatory scope. It says nothing to explain the empty tomb. Therefore one must either deny the fact of the empty tomb (and therefore, the burial as well) or else conjoin some independent hypothesis to the hallucination hypothesis to account for the empty tomb.

By the time we get to his “resurrection hypothesis,” Craig will have no problem at all conjoining a number of other independent hypotheses, such as the hypothesis that one or more gods exist even though we can’t see them, and the hypothesis that one or more of these gods has any kind of interest in human affairs, and the hypothesis that such a god or gods would be willing and able to intervene in the material world to raise Jesus from the dead, and the hypothesis that some extenuating circumstances must exist that prevent any such god or gods from taking a more straightforward approach to making themselves known to mankind. And so on.

In the meantime, though, he avoids considering the hallucination hypothesis as a logical and plausible consequence of the empty tomb, and thus makes it appear as though we’re somehow cheating if we explain the empty tomb using anything but the hallucination hypothesis. This is a classic apologetic gambit: take each piece of a perfectly good explanation, isolate it from the rest of the explanation, and then demand that it solve the whole problem all by itself. (Creationists like to do this to say that mutation can’t explain evolution by itself, and natural selection can’t explain evolution by itself, and so on and so on, and therefore evolution can’t work.) It’s a great way to plausibly deny anything of more than trivial complexity.

Craig next tries to deny that the “appearances” of Jesus could be hallucinations, on the grounds that the disciples believed Jesus had really risen from the dead.

Some scholars have made a great deal out of the alleged similarities between the postmortem appearances of Jesus and visions of the recently departed on the part of the bereaved. But the overriding lesson of such intriguing stories is that the bereaved do not conclude that the deceased has returned physically to life as a result of such experiences, however real and tangible they may seem—rather the deceased is seen in the afterlife.

Craig is omitting a number of important facts here. It’s true that modern studies of post-bereavement hallucinations do not find that people today believe such hallucinations are actual resurrections. But by the same token, people today are also far less likely to believe that epilepsy is caused by demons, that natural disasters are the wrath of God, or that bad luck is caused by witches—unless their cultural conditioning leads them to expect such things. And, as Craig points out, people who believe in an afterlife do indeed interpret their hallucinations as evidence the afterlife is real. Belief and expectation have a very powerful influence on how you interpret your hallucinations and subjective experiences. Thus the disciples, living in an age of legends about gods dying and coming back to life, might very well interpret their hallucinations as evidence that their Messiah didn’t really fail after all, but only experienced death in order to triumph over it.

More importantly, Craig distorts the history of the Gospel when he implies that the initial appearances of Jesus were originally interpreted as physical appearances. Though the Gospels, written decades later, add certain details intended to make the resurrection look physical, it clearly was not, as seen by the way Jesus magically appears, disappears, walks through locked doors and giant stones, and so on. In fact, in I Cor. 15, one of the earliest discussions of the resurrection, Paul argues extensively against the idea of a physical resurrection, referring to Jesus as “the last Adam” who “became a life-giving Spirit” (verse 45). Unfortunately for Paul, the materialists won out: too many people know that a “spiritual resurrection” is just an imaginary one, so the resurrection of Jesus necessarily became a material resurrection too, so that it could be proclaimed as genuine.

Craig next tries to play the “Jewish Context” card.

Moreover, in a Jewish context other, more appropriate interpretations of such experiences than resurrection are close to hand. Given the current Jewish beliefs about life after death, the disciples, if they were to project hallucinations of Jesus, would have seen Jesus in heaven or in Abraham’s bosom, where the souls of the righteous dead were believed to abide until the final resurrection. And such visions would not have led to belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

Very kind of him to explain why his attempted rebuttal won’t work. The disciples don’t need a dead, failed messiah waving bye-bye as he crawls toddler-like up onto Abraham’s lap. They need something powerful, extravagant, unique, that not only explains their leader’s death, but transforms it into a secret but glorious victory. Granted, some of them (like Stephen) do see visions of Jesus in heaven, and others reportedly see him ascending into heaven. But any religion with a full-blown resurrected Messiah is going to far outshine any religion with a Messiah who just fails and dies. It might not be a given that they would necessarily interpret their post-bereavement hallucinations as a spiritual resurrection, but it’s not unlikely that at least some of them would. Given an empty tomb, the resurrection interpretation would naturally eclipse the interpretation that Jesus had merely failed and disappointed everyone.

At the very most, the empty tomb and hallucinations of Jesus would have caused them to believe in the assumption of Jesus into glory, for this was consistent with their Jewish frame of thought. But they wouldn’t have come to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead, for this contradicted Jewish beliefs about the resurrection of the dead, as we have seen.

Once again, Craig contradicts himself regarding whether Jewish beliefs about resurrection necessarily dictated Christian beliefs about resurrection. Just a few pages ago, he was arguing that Christians couldn’t have got their beliefs about resurrection from the Jews because Christian resurrection contradicts Jewish resurrection. Now he’s saying that Christians can’t believe in a resurrection if it does contradict Jewish resurrection beliefs. So which is it, Bill? Can they or can they not contradict Jewish teachings about resurrection?

In fact, Craig is being a bit misleading when he implies that there was a strict uniformity of thought among Jewish theologians. The rabbis frequently disagreed with one another, and whole schools arose according to which interpretations you preferred. And that’s just the rabbis. Who knows what the unlettered laity believed? Do all Catholics believe that the pope is infallible and that birth control is a sin? To say that there was just one single Jewish doctrine about resurrection, and that each and every Jew believed it, and that no doctrines could arise that failed to conform to that doctrine, is simply naive—not to mention raising the question of why God’s Chosen People, taught by the inspired prophets, were going around teaching and believing the wrong things about resurrection.

Craig next tries to assail the explanatory power of the hallucination theory. Once again, of course, he takes it out of the context of the stolen body hypothesis, so that he can claim it does nothing to explain the empty tomb. But on top of that he takes advantage of anachronistic misconceptions to make it sound like the hallucinations would be inadequate to account for the evidence.

Suppose that Peter was one of those individuals who experienced a vision of a deceased loved one or experienced a guilt-induced vision, as Lüdemann imagines. Would this suffice to explain the resurrection appearances? Not really, for the diversity of the appearances bursts the bounds of anything found in the psychological casebooks. Jesus appeared not just one time, but many times; not just at one locale and circumstance, but at a variety of places and under a variety of circumstances; not to just one individual but to different persons; not just to individuals, but to various groups; not just to believers, but to unbelievers and even enemies.

There’s the divide-and-conquer strategy again: Suppose Peter had a vision. Well, that doesn’t explain Paul’s vision, now does it? Well, no, Peter’s vision wouldn’t explain Paul’s. Why should it? But the common phenomenon of post-bereavement hallucination does explain why any number of people might have had such visions. And when you get such people together in groups, there’s another form of hallucination called mass hysteria (look up “slain in the Spirit” on YouTube for a few samples). Under the influence of strong emotion and the power of suggestion, it’s very common for people to experience some very “real” experiences that do not happen to correspond to the outside world.

Craig is also ignoring the fact that the evidence we have is not the actual appearances of Jesus, but only stories about such alleged appearances, recorded many years after the events they purport to describe. We know that the later stories were embellished and revised to improve the materialistic appeal of the resurrection accounts, because Paul initially denied the physical resurrection and insisted that Jesus had become “a life-giving Spirit,” where the gospel writers clearly tried to make the resurrection sound physical—despite the decidedly non-physical behaviors of the “resurrected” Jesus in the stories!

In fact, the hallucination hypothesis fits these facts much better than the physical resurrection hypothesis does, because the hallucination hypothesis also explains why the disciples would need and want to embellish the story and make it sound more materialistic. However much you might give lip service to belief in spiritual truth, in practical terms even the most ardent believer knows, at some level, that “spiritual reality” is a whole lot less solid than real reality. A spiritual resurrection like Paul taught is simply not a real resurrection, and despite Paul’s best efforts, it took the materialists’ revision of the story to make it really last.

And by the way, that part about appearing to unbelievers and enemies? Yeah, not so much. The only two men Craig proposes to fit those roles are James the brother of Jesus, and of course Paul. But we have no evidence that James was still an unbeliever at the time Jesus allegedly appeared to him. It sounds nice and romantic to say he was converted by Jesus showing up again, but think about it: if Jesus could get people to believe by showing up in his resurrected body, then where is he now, and why isn’t he saving the rest of us like he did his own brother?

Paul’s case is even worse, because Jesus had supposedly taken his physical body to heaven by the time Paul had his vision. Craig claims that this still counts as a physical appearance because there were physical elements to the appearance (the light and the voice). Discrepancies in the story, however, suggest that these elements may be later embellishments as well. Paul’s experience might have been consistent with a hallucination or even an epileptic seizure, but they certainly don’t require a physical resurrection of Jesus, since even in Biblical terms this was not a case of a bodily manifestation of the risen Jesus.

Craig next tries to discredit the hallucination theory by citing a scholar, Gerd Lüdemann, who tries to psychoanalyze Peter and Paul. Craig points out that we don’t have nearly enough evidence to psychoanalyze someone based on brief mentions in the NT texts, which is certainly true, but really has nothing to do with the plausibility of the hallucination hypothesis. Post-bereavement hallucinations occur in one-third to one-half of mentally healthy widows and widowers, so Peter and Paul needn’t have had any particular psychoses to see Jesus after his death.

Craig then takes issue with the assumption that all appearances of Jesus were like the appearance to Paul. He’s right that we have no grounds to assume that all the appearances were like Paul’s appearance, but by the same token we also have no grounds to assume that they were different. Granted, the embellished versions were different, but that’s a change from the original stories that led Paul to believe in a spiritual resurrection. And that leaves us without a good reason to assume that the original, spiritual resurrection experiences were any different from Paul’s.

Interestingly, those are the only two points where Craig thought he could attack the plausibility of the hallucination hypothesis, and neither one of them seriously impeaches the hypothesis itself. In classic apologetics technique, he could not attack the theory directly, so he found someone who said something wrong, and used that as an argument that the whole hypothesis was implausible, even though neither mistake was really important to the hypothesis. He repeats the same approach under the criterion of how “contrived” Lüdemann’s version of the hallucination hypothesis is, picking out non-essential details, calling them contrived, and then arguing that this means the whole hypothesis is contrived.

For his last point, Craig throws together a few “accepted beliefs” that he feels the hallucination hypothesis is “disconfirmed” by, namely…

…that Jesus was laid in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea, that Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty by women, that psychoanalysis of historical figures is not feasible, that Paul was basically content with his life under the Jewish law, and that the New Testament makes a distinction between a mere vision and a resurrection appearance.

So two “disconfirmations” that he gets by the divide-and-conquer gambit, one irrelevant observation, one unsupported assertion, and one factual inaccuracy—Paul referred to his experience as both an “appearance” and as a “heavenly vision“—for a total of five disconfirmations, none of which is the least bit incompatible with the hallucination hypothesis.

And on that somewhat feeble, irrelevant, and incorrect note, Craig wraps up his attempt to discredit the hallucination hypothesis. If you’ve been keeping score to see how well the explanations measure up to Craig’s 5 criteria, go ahead and put aside your rule books now. Next week he’s going to look at the resurrection hypothesis, and he’s going to use an entirely different set of standards. Only the labels on the criteria will stay the same. Stay tuned.

8 Responses to “Seeing is believing”

  1. mikespeir Says:

    “Craig points out that we don’t have nearly enough evidence to psychoanalyze someone based on brief mentions in the NT texts….”

    Boy, that’s a sword that cuts both ways!

    • HumanisticJones Says:

      Silly Mike, it’s not psychoanalyzing if he does it to support his beliefs. When he does that, it’s just reading the revealed truth of The Word in the proper context.

  2. David Roemer Says:

    There are two sets of reasons for believing in Jesus: 1) The large number of people who believe in life-after-death (Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc) and 2) the historical Jesus.

    Concerning #1, there are a number of people who think it is irrational to believe in Heaven and Hell. However, these people tend to be unintelligent about the mind-body problem (man is an embodied spirit), ignorant of the proof of God’s existence ( a finite being needs a cause), and irrational about the meaning of life (self-realization).

    Concerning #2, the historical Jesus was a Jewish prophet who preached the coming of the Kingdom of God. He was an exorcist and healer, and his followers swore up and down that he appeared to them after he died. Jesus saved mankind for meaning.

  3. gluonspring Says:

    “Granted, a conspiracy to hide the body and then lie about the resurrection is pretty unlikely, but it’s extremely possible that some small group of disciples might have removed it without the knowledge or consent of the others, resulting in a major misunderstanding on the part of the others.”

    A host of possibilities admit themselves here, including the whole thing being fiction beginning to end. But I tend to think that some kind of execution and subsequent thing happened. It is very easy to concoct plausible stories that violate the false dichotomies of believers, but my favorite goes something like this:

    Jesus was laid in a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. Probably not a cheap thing, such a tomb. Perhaps Joseph didn’t mean for him to stay there. Perhaps he just meant for the burial spot to be a temporary spot, someplace to put the body to satisfy the requirement to bury the body before sunset. He was just being a good Jew, lending a tomb to satisfy a ceremonial requirement. A few days later, he moves the body to the pauper’s burial grounds, as he intended, but comes back to find his friends, these women, gaping at the open tomb and going on about a resurrected Jesus. It would be very easy to just keep your mouth shut rather than to be the big spoiler on this happy bunch. What’s the harm? He couldn’t have foreseen how this would get out of hand. And the story is off.

    Or, even more plausibly, he intended the tomb to be a permanent gift, but perhaps after a couple of days of reflection he decided that a crucified Jesus wasn’t really the Son of God or even an important prophet, that he’d made a mistake to get hooked up with Jesus. Or maybe he decided that being associated with Jesus’ followers was going to be a bad thing for business or would attract too much scrutiny from the Romans. “Hey, aren’t you the guy who took the body of that rebel? We want to have a word with you. We hear that seditionists are still planning to stir up trouble. ” That’s all it’d take to spook most normal people into wanting to distance themselves from the whole affair. So maybe he repented of his own flirtation with Jesus, moved the body to the pauper’s grave in secret, but the empty tomb was found by other disciples. Who, in this situation, would just come out and admit that they had stolen the body? Simple embarrassment might be enough for him to just play along, to just shrug and say he didn’t know what happened to the body, and let the other disciples believe what they want. And here, again, the story would be off to a roaring start! So even taking many of the basic plot points of the story to be completely true, it is STILL very easy to imagine mundane circumstances, psychologically believable circumstances, that could have led to an empty tomb thoroughly believed by a large group of disciples.

    And, of course, the biggest possibility is always just fraud. There is no need to explain what happened to Joseph Smith’s golden tablets because, of course, they are an invented fraud. The fact that they were an invented fraud doesn’t keep subsequent believers in the fraud from going to considerable lengths, risking persecutions and so on, on the basis of a false belief in this fraud.

    Overall, this is such an easily refuted argument that it is a marvel that it persists.

  4. David Roemer Says:

    The Resurrection of Jesus is an historical event. The followers of Jesus swore up and down that he appeared to them after he died. They had a religious experience. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, who do not believe in life-after-death, trace the Resurrection to within a few years of Jesus’s death.

    • gluonspring Says:

      I’ve seen people swear up and down that they have been abducted by aliens. That doesn’t make it true (or false). It’s just an assertion. If you want to interpret, as Crossan does, the resurrection to be a mere vision, well, have at it. I don’t doubt for a moment that someone had a vision. Visions are cheap, though. I don’t see why anyone would bother to take an interest in them.

      • David Roemer Says:

        The vision or religious experience called the Resurrection is just one part of the story. The other part is that Jesus founded the Catholic Church, which gave us Western Civilization. Also, Jesus saved mankind for meaning. Another part of the story is that we know God exists from the cosmological argument. My guess is that you don’t take an interest because you don’t understand the concept of God and why God exists.


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