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Could the Disciples Have Been Hallucinating When They Saw the Risen Jesus?

Renew partner Zach Breitenbach recently published an article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society called “A New Argument that Collective Hallucinations Do Not Adequately Account for the Group Appearances of Jesus in the Gospels.” Recently, I was able to interview Zach about his new argument against the theory that the post-resurrection appearances were merely hallucinations.

For some background, what is the “minimal facts” approach to defending the resurrection?

The difficult thing for skeptics of Christianity who want to deny the resurrection of Jesus is that there are a number of very well-established facts concerning Jesus that even the vast majority of non-Christian scholars accept as true. Gary Habermas, whom I had the privilege of studying under at Liberty University, as well as other prominent defenders of the resurrection of Jesus (such as William Lane Craig and Michael Licona) adopt an approach that Habermas calls a “minimal facts” approach to defending the resurrection. This is an approach that draws upon a small number of facts—usually about three to six—concerning Jesus that are widely accepted by nearly all scholars who study the life of Jesus.

Not only does this approach involve focusing on a small number of widely-accepted facts, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the best explanation of these facts is that God really did raise Jesus from the dead.

These facts would include things like: Jesus was crucified to death by the Romans; the disciples of Jesus had experiences that they believed were postmortem appearances of Jesus (that is, appearances of Jesus alive after He had died); the resurrection message was taught within the first few years after Jesus’ death; the disciples were radically transformed and were willing to die for their belief in the resurrection of Jesus; James (a brother of Jesus who did not believe in Jesus during Jesus’ lifetime) converts to Christianity after believing he saw the resurrected Jesus; and Paul (who was likewise a skeptic) does the same.

The great thing about the minimal facts approach is that nobody can say: “Oh, you only believe in the resurrection because you trust the Bible and the Bible was written by biased men.” Although I think we can make a great case for the general reliability of the Bible (and there is value in doing so), the minimal facts argument does not even require showing that the Bible is generally reliable. It makes a case based on facts that even highly skeptical scholars widely accept on good historical grounds.

What is the Hallucination Theory and what makes it a popular theory?

I would not say that it is a highly popular theory, but it has been put forward by a few scholars today. The hallucination theory is one of a number of naturalistic theories that have been proposed in an attempt to account for the well-accepted historical data concerning the resurrection of Jesus. By a naturalistic theory, I mean a theory that does not appeal to any supernatural events.

Now, you will notice that one of the minimal facts that I mentioned is that the disciples of Jesus had experiences that they truly believed were appearances of the risen Jesus. This is a crucial fact that, in conjunction with the other minimal facts, makes it hard to deny that the best explanation of these facts is that Jesus really did rise from the dead. So, to get around the strong evidence for this particular fact, some have proposed the possibility that the disciples, in their grief, had hallucinations in which they believed that they saw the risen Jesus. The idea is to account for the strong evidence that the disciples sincerely believed that they saw appearances of Jesus alive after His death without admitting that Jesus really rose from the dead.

The hallucination theory first became popular in the 1800s when many other naturalistic theories became popular. These include theories like: the theory that Jesus might have fainted on the cross and was taken off the cross alive and later revived and left the tomb to appear to people; the theory that the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the tomb (this one was actually first proposed by the Jewish authorities in Mt 28); the theory that the followers of Jesus may have gone to the wrong tomb and found the tomb empty; and the theory that there may have been legendary development surrounding the life of Jesus over time so that He was a legendary figure like Paul Bunyan.

Now none of these theories have stood up to the evidence, and no naturalistic theory has attracted very many scholars. This is because they do not explain all of the well-accepted facts that I just mentioned.

But the hallucination hypothesis has regained some traction in recent decades as an attempt to explain at least the sincere belief of the disciples of Jesus that they saw Jesus alive after His death. Habermas has said that he doesn’t think it has regained popularity as a result of any new evidence in its favor, and I would agree with that. It is just that some naturalistic theory needs to be embraced if one is to account for the powerful data in favor of the resurrection.

Gerd Lüdemann, an atheistic German New Testament scholar who is referenced in my recent article, is one of the primary scholars on the scene today who has adopted the hallucination hypothesis. He appeals to what he calls a “shared hallucinatory fantasy” (or collective hallucination) to account for the sincere belief of the disciples that they saw postmortem appearances of Jesus. Lüdemann suggests that Peter may have hallucinated seeing the risen Jesus and then, in a sort of chain reaction, others followed suit and there were many people who were drawn into a shared hallucinatory experience in a mass ecstasy.

To make it more plausible that collective hallucinations may explain the group appearances of Jesus, Lüdemann has argued that details of the group appearances reported in the Bible that do not fit at all with these appearances being collective hallucinations (e.g., Jesus eating with the disciples and touching them) are found in the Gospels rather than in the writings of Paul. The claim is that Paul, who is the earliest source who mentions group appearances and provides strong reason to believe that these appearances were part of the early Christian tradition, does not provide specific information about the nature of these appearances that conflicts with collective hallucinations whereas the Gospels, which were written later, indicate details that do not fit with the group appearances being collective hallucinations. So Lüdemann suggests that maybe the early group appearance traditions (which are widely accepted by scholars) originally sprung from collective hallucinations (which would explain why group appearances were part of the early tradition), but then the nature of what the hallucinators allegedly saw was altered over time (explaining why the accounts of the group appearances described in the later Gospels do not fit with collective hallucinations).

Lüdemann thinks we should start with Paul’s account of the postmortem appearances of Jesus, which he thinks has no details that would conflict with the collective hallucination hypothesis, and then allow that this early appearance tradition that was rooted in collective hallucinations was later replaced by the stories found in the Gospels that are not consistent with collective hallucinations. He suggests that the Gospels added details like Jesus eating in front of the disciples as an attempt to do a bit of apologetics and strengthen the case for their claims about the resurrection.

Why don’t you think it’s a good theory?

In my recent article I point out that one big problem with Lüdemann’s hallucination theory is that a strong case can be made that there is eyewitness testimony underlying the Gospel accounts that would preserve the traditions—especially traditions concerning the appearances of Jesus that are at the very core of the Christian movement—from drifting far from their original form in the decades between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels.

Richard Bauckham, in his fine book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, provides many arguments to support the claim that there is eyewitness testimony behind the Gospel accounts and that the events described in the Gospels were not corrupted by the interests and biases of the early Christians. If Bauckham’s arguments succeed (as I think they do), then it becomes problematic to think that the group appearances of Jesus were actually collective hallucinations and that the group appearance stories later departed so far from the original traditions by the time they were written in the Gospels. Bauckham’s case makes it hard to believe that all of the appearance narratives in the Gospels no longer describe what the original witnesses believe actually happened. As an oral society, the earliest Christians clearly could have preserved these traditions accurately. Since the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus is critical to Christianity, it is not especially plausible that the accounts of the postmortem appearances of Jesus would drift so from their original form in a matter of decades.

I also pointed out in the article that there is real doubt about whether collective hallucinations of any sort are possible at all.

There is no good reason to think that collective hallucinations in which multiple people hallucinate the exact same thing at the very same time are possible. Since hallucinations, like dreams, are mental experiences that have no basis in the outside world and occur only privately in one’s own mind, it is widely recognized as impossible for multiple people to have the exact same hallucination. Peer-reviewed medical and psychological literature establishes no good evidence that such collective hallucinations can occur. But some have argued that it is possible for a more weakly-defined sort of collective hallucination to occur—one in which multiple people experience at least “similar” hallucinations at the same time and place. Even this sort of collective hallucination is dubious, but I accept in the article for the sake of argument that such a thing is possible and outline the sort of characteristics that proponents of this sort of collective hallucination think it must have.

I then note that none of the group appearances in the Gospels fit with the qualities of even this more modest type of collective hallucination, but I focus my article on addressing the claim of Lüdemann that the group appearances mentioned by Paul that we read about in 1 Corinthians 15 are consistent with collective hallucinations and then the later Gospel accounts of the postmortem appearances of Jesus were significantly altered from their original form so that they were no longer consistent with collective hallucinations. I argue against this by showing how several themes that are prevalent in the group appearance accounts in the Gospels cannot be accounted for well by this hypothesis.

I first argue that the non-recognition theme in the Gospels of Luke and John, in which Jesus is not at first recognized by those to whom he appears, is a problem for the collective hallucination hypothesis.

If those who saw Jesus in these accounts were hallucinating, then they would not have initially failed to recognize Jesus because hallucinations are projections of one’s mind and are drawn from the content of one’s mind. So collective hallucinations do not explain why there is this prominent non-recognition theme across multiple Gospels. I also offer a response to the skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman’s suggestion for how one might reconcile this theme with hallucinations, and I would encourage folks to check out my article to see what I say about that.

Finally, I give the key argument of the paper, showing how the repeated themes in the Gospels that involve Jesus delivering new information to the disciples and eating with them during his postmortem appearances cannot be squared with the collective hallucination hypothesis that is put forward by Lüdemann.

Neither of these themes, which are present in multiple Gospels and multiple group appearances, could have originally been hallucinated because hallucinations cannot produce new information that was not already in the mind and hallucinations cannot produce changes to the physical world as would be the case with eating food.

The prevalence of these two themes means that there must be some reason that they are present—either they are historical or there is a plausible reason why they would be added despite not being historical. Since these themes absolutely could not be hallucinated, they must have been added later. If they were added later, adding them must have served some purpose. But the problem is that neither the disciples nor the later Christian community are viable candidates for adding these themes. It would not serve the purposes of the disciples or the later Christian community to add these themes, and these are the only two candidates for adding the themes.

If the disciples added these themes, I show that it would undermine the entire purpose for which the collective hallucination hypothesis is proposed—namely, to explain away the sincere belief of the disciples in the resurrection appearances.

If the disciples added the themes, they would be deceivers and not sincere; this goes against the widely-accepted historical fact that the disciples sincerely believed they saw the appearances and were willing to die for this belief. But the other possibility—that the church (and not the disciples) invented these themes later on to serve their purposes—is equally problematic. If the Christian community modified the appearance accounts in order to uphold the belief in a dying and rising Messiah who rises to a bodily and immortal existence before the end of the world, then this raises many problems. Most importantly: From where did these ideas originally come? This option eliminates the possibility that it came from the original teaching of the disciples, and it certainly is implausible that the church would be willing to depart dramatically from the appearance traditions that the disciples—the core witnesses to the most central beliefs of the church—originally taught.

Also, since the ideas of a dying and rising Messiah or of any individual person bodily rising from the dead to an immortal existence before the end of human history were not part of Jewish expectations, why would the early Christian community go out of its way to emphasize the bodily resurrection of Jesus? That would only make it harder for Jews to convert to Christianity.

Since the disciples and the early church are the only candidates for adding the themes and neither is viable, it is best to conclude that the themes are not plausibly added. Since the themes are not plausibly added and could not be hallucinated, the collective hallucination hypothesis fails.

What’s the best explanation of all the facts?

This is the ultimate question. The hallucination theory does not really deal with all of the minimal facts that I mentioned. Even if the hallucination theory were successful, which I (and many others) have argued is not the case, it would at most account for the disciples’ belief that they saw postmortem appearances of Jesus and would not account for all of the minimal facts that I listed earlier. Another fact that is accepted by the majority of scholars, though perhaps not quite as many as those I mentioned before, is that Jesus was buried in a known tomb and that this tomb was found empty on the first Easter Sunday. There are a great deal of plausible historical arguments in favor of this fact, and it is not explained at all by hallucinations.

If the disciples had a collective hallucination, the tomb would not be empty. The corpse of Jesus would still be in the tomb. So then you would have to conjoin another naturalistic theory to explain away the empty tomb.

Ultimately, no naturalistic theory has been embraced by a large number of scholars. No naturalistic theory explains all of the widely accepted historical facts concerning Jesus as successfully as the theory that God raised Jesus from the dead. That is what makes the historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus so powerful.

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