XFiles Friday: Hallucinations and Lost Disciples

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 12.)

Geisler and Turek claim to be “Skeptical About Skeptical Theories” concerning the Resurrection, though I’m not sure they’re really clear on what “skeptical” means. Skepticism does not mean blindly nay-saying whatever someone tells you, skeptical means that you want to see the evidence before you draw your conclusions. It’s the opposite of gullibility, not of faith, because a skeptic can have plenty of evidence-based faith, and that’s not a bad thing.

In any case, it’s time for G&T to try and sow doubts and suspicions about the doubts and suspicions of the skeptics, and we’re going to look at two of them today. The first is the skeptical suggestion that at least some of the early resurrection stories could have been rooted in hallucination.

Were the disciples deceived by hallucinations? Perhaps they sincerely thought they had seen the risen Christ, but instead were really experiencing hallucinations. This theory has a number of fatal flaws. We’ll address two of them.

Unfortunately, the “fatal” flaws addressed by Geisler and Turek may not be quite as lethal as they had hoped. Since they only shared two of them, we can’t be sure they didn’t pick the weakest available arguments, so as to lull skeptics into a false sense of security. But let’s look at their objections anyway, and see just how “flawed” the hallucination argument really is.

Before we look at the specific details, however, let’s just notice the basic strategy of divide and conquer being deployed here. As we saw last week, the resurrection story is most likely to have arisen by the complex interaction of a number of psychosocial factors, including the factor of bereavement-related hallucinations. Geisler and Turek aren’t interested in exploring how hallucination could have played a role as a partial factor in the emergence of a resurrection myth, however. Their goal is to discredit, once and for all, the possibility that some early believers could have had any hallucinations, and therefore they stage their argument as though mere hallucination, all on its own, had to account for the entire resurrection story in order to be a valid possibility. Either it explains everything by itself, or it’s entirely false. Black or white, yes or no, baby and bathwater or empty tub.

Another major factor in G&T’s strategy is the same ploy we saw in their argument about the resurrection not being a legend: they take one specific, narrow definition of “hallucination,” and use that as a stand-in for all kinds of different varieties of misperceptions, self-deceptions, autosuggestions, and of course hallucinations. Thus, by proving (as best they can) that “hallucinations” don’t fit the evidence, they can claim to have eliminated the whole spectrum of possible misperceptions, even though they’ve really only found one specific type that doesn’t work.

Now, on to their two “fatal flaws.”

First, hallucinations are not experienced by groups but only by individuals. In that regard, they are a lot like dreams. That’s why if a friend says to you one morning, “Wow! That was a great dream we had last night, eh?” You don’t say, “Yeah, it was fabulous! Should we continue it tonight?” No, you think your friend has gone mad or is just cracking a joke. You don’t take him seriously because dreams are not collective experiences.

This is a little bit troubling. Geisler and Turek are trying to argue that there’s no such thing as mass delusion, but to back up their claim, all they say is that hallucination is like a dream, and then they proceed to demonstrate that dreams are not shared between individuals. In other words, they have substituted the evidence regarding dreams in place of the evidence that ought to have been relevant to the question of whether hallucinations could be shared or not—a classic bait and switch.

Is it really true that the impossibility of sharing the same dream means that it is impossible for groups of people to experience some form of shared delusional perception? Of course not; stage magicians earn their livings by getting large groups of people to think they’re seeing things that aren’t actually happening. Psychologists have an interesting time studying such phenomena as mass hysteria and mass psychosis. In one incident not to long ago, an entire emergency room was evacuated and several staff members had to be treated after being exposed to what they thought was toxic gasses being released from the stomach of a patient who had swallowed some unknown substance(s)—but despite the clinical symptoms of the victims, it was later determined that no toxic chemicals had been generated or released. The staff members talked each other into believing they were having an experience that actually had no basis in reality.

So yes, while there are forms of hallucination that are not shared within groups of people, that does not mean there is no form of misperception that can be shared. In combination with other factors, such as religious fervor, peer pressure, traumatic grief, and so on, mass delusion can occur, and can be amplified by a feedback effect as other group members echo and reinforce the delusion. Geisler and Turek knock down a straw man, but they don’t begin to address the full range of possible psychosocial manifestations that might fall under the broad category of “hallucination and related phenomena.” And they don’t even mention the possibility that such a phenomenon might be only part of a larger and more complex interaction between powerful psychosocial forces above and beyond mere hallucination.

Geisler and Turek take the trouble to list all twelve “appearances” of Jesus after his alleged resurrection, and I want to take a brief look at them. According to the New Testament, Jesus appeared:

  1. To Mary Magdalene
  2. To Mary Magdalene and the other Mary
  3. To Peter and John (though the latter passage says nothing about Jesus appearing, oddly)
  4. To two anonymous disciples on the road to Emmaus
  5. To ten apostles (reported by Luke and John, with the missing apostles being Thomas and of course Judas)
  6. To eleven apostles (minus Judas again)
  7. To seven apostles
  8. To all of the apostles (reported by Matthew and Mark)
  9. To 500 unknown “brethren,” at some unknown time and place
  10. To James
  11. To all the apostles
  12. And last of all, to Paul

I don’t know, it seems to me they might have fudged that list just a bit to come up with the magical number 12. The appearance to Stephen is missing, for instance. But that’s a small matter. Let’s look at some of the other interesting features we have in this list. First of all, we see that one of the twelve “appearances” was Paul’s experience on the Damascus road, about which the Bible clearly states that “The men traveling with Saul… heard the sound but did not see anyone.” Right away, we can see this is some kind of subjective perception, and not an actual, tangible, real-world appearance by Jesus, otherwise he’d have been visible to the others as well. Nor does Paul make any distinction between this appearance and any of the others, when he refers to it in I Cor. 15.

Notice, too, that most of these “appearances” are being reported second-hand, i.e. the writer is not the one who saw the “appearance.” Thus, the story could have grown with the retelling: we’re not dealing with 500 people seeing Jesus at once, we’re only dealing with Paul relaying hearsay about some very non-specific group encounter, as we are with Luke’s rendition of the Ascension. Not that this is at all necessary, of course, since Paul’s example shows it was possible to have a “vision” of Jesus in a crowd, even when the crowd was hostile. It wouldn’t be too hard to have multiple visions occurring in a gathering of mutually encouraging and reinforcing believers (just visit a few Pentecostal revivals if you want examples).

Notice, too, the very urban-legendy, ghost-storyish character of many of these reports: the travellers unwittingly sharing the trip with an unrecognized guy known to have died some time before, who has the ability to appear and disappear at will, and to walk through locked doors. Pretty standard fare for late night campfires, and not just at church camps either.

There’s a lot of room here to question the assumption that Jesus ever did appear, in any literal, tangible sense, to any individual or group of people. And if he did, then why does he not continue to do so, for whatever reasons motivated him to show up in the first place? After all, both Stephen and Paul claim to have seen him after the so-called Ascension, so that’s no obstacle. Yet what we observe in the real world does not match what the stories claim. Go figure.

Geisler and Turek also raise the “empty tomb” argument as proof that the disciples were not hallucinating—the second “fatal flaw” in the argument. But an empty tomb would be entirely irrelevant to whether the disciples were hallucinating or not. If, as Matthew records, it was commonly believed that the tomb was emptied by disciples (not necessarily with the approval or knowledge of the apostles), then the tomb could very well have been empty, but that wouldn’t change anything. Nor would the Romans have necessarily had the body, even if it would have done any good to “parade” it around the city, as G&T argue. Sure, that “would have ended Christianity once and forever”—until some demagogue swift-boated the proof by denying that it was really Jesus’ corpse. By the time the Romans would have perceived a need to produce a body, it would have been pretty tough (not to mention gross) for his own mother to recognize his rotting corpse, let alone the general public. Why get your hands dirty when the counter-claim is so obvious, and so tricky to refute?

It seems to me that, despite its “fatal flaws,” the possibility of hallucination is still alive and strong. Maybe it was only resting in its own tomb for a few days, and decided to rise again, immortal?

I said we’d try and get through two sections this week, and I’ll keep my promise. Well, technically, anyway. The second argument that Geisler and Turek address is the claim that the witnesses went to the wrong tomb. I haven’t heard this argument being made, and I’ll give G&T the benefit of the doubt and assume that someone did indeed propose it at one point, but it’s obviously a silly and pointless argument, since fewer than half of the purported appearances were anywhere near the tomb.

It’s just possible, though, that someone has claimed a trip to the wrong tomb led to the initial reports of an empty tomb, which then snowballed into the other perceived “appearances.” Perhaps, once again, Geisler and Turek are setting up a valid point that explains part of the data as a straw man that needs to explain all of the data, only to knock it down by pointing out that it doesn’t explain all the data, and thus, we are supposed to conclude that it doesn’t explain any of the data. If so, then that’s a shame, because, as a possible partial factor, it’s not silly at all, and might indeed have prompted the autosuggestive notion that perhaps Jesus had come out of the tomb.

It’s getting late, though, and so I’ll let that suffice for that. Next week: the “Swoon” Theory. Stay tuned.

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “XFiles Friday: Hallucinations and Lost Disciples”

  1. pboyfloyd Says:

    These apologists seem to be clutching at so many straws that they have enough to build and rebuild straw-men to burn down.

    Hey, it sells books!

  2. melior Says:

    One of the best in-depth looks at this topic is Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay (1814-1889)

    Available for free download at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/24518

  3. nal Says:

    How about going to the wrong tomb as an argument for the empty tomb?

    I like your analysis and the explanation of their basic strategy. Look forward to the next installment.