Post Resurrection Appearances: Inventions or Hallucinations?

Since July 8th, I have been commenting on John Stott’s discussion of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  That post on July 8th  is entitled “The Most Important Claim of All.” 

For someone not familiar with Christianity, the extreme focus on resurrection might seem strange.  Why would the claim of resurrection be the most important claim of all?

For Jesus to rise from the dead indicates that His assertions that He was God incarnate are true.  Critics who say that His body was merely a human body of course deny that claim.  However an empty tomb does not prove divinity any more than a body stolen from a morgue.  For a discussion of how Jesus could have escaped the tomb see “How Did Jesus Get Out of the Tomb?” on July 15 and for a discussion of how Jesus could have escaped His burial wrappings see “Burial Procedures and Jesus’ Resurrection” on July 23rd

Dr. Norman Geisler writes “If Christ did not rise in the same physical body that was placed in the tomb, then the resurrection loses its value as evidential proof  of His claim to be God”   William Lane Craig writes “Without the belief in the resurrection the Christian faith could not have come into being.  The disciples would have remained crushed and defeated men.  Even had they continued to remember Jesus as their beloved teacher, His crucifixion would have forever silenced any hopes of His being the Messiah.  The cross would have remained the sad and shameful end of His career.”  Theodosus Harnack says “Where you stand with regard to the fact of the Resurrection is in my eyes no longer Christian theology.  To me Christianity stands or falls with the Resurrection.”*

Instead we have a faith that Jesus Christ is who He said He is.  We believe in a divine God who has control over everything including death.  Josh McDowell comments “Of the four [major world religions] based on personalities rather than on a philosophical system, only Christianity claims an empty tomb for its founder” [New Evidence, 205]. 

However let’s stop and see if we can justify another post on this topic, this post examining the fact that Jesus was seen after the resurrection. Would that not provide enough proof to accept His resurrection?

Stott states “Every reader of the Gospels knows that they include some extraordinary stories of how Jesus appeared to His disciples after His resurrection” [Stott, 54].  There are ten times in Scripture when Jesus appeared to people and there may have been more that were never recorded.

How could anyone doubt this?

Over the years many have doubted.  The first explanation for doubting post-resurrection appearances is the invention theory.  This is just the idea that people are making up these appearances; it is all fiction.  Stott refutes this theory with the idea that the story of the appearances is “sober and unadorned.”  Also the stories are “graphic” and “enlivened by the detailed touches” that one would expect from an eye-witness.  Added to this is the fact that they are not “good” inventions.  The doubts and fears of the apostles could have been eliminated or at least diminished but they were very evident.  The resurrection drama could have been “played up,” Jesus bursting forth from the tomb in sublime triumph.  Stott declares the writers of the Gospels “naïve,” in that the writing is so matter-of-fact. 

Yet despite that “matter-of fact writing,” the response from the disciples and other believers is so certain.  Maybe the telling is bland but the response from Jesus’ followers is not.  They are certain that the resurrection happened.  They are willing to commit to the spreading of the Gospel, doing the work of creating the church with little regard for their own welfare.

A second explanation for the post-resurrection appearances is that they are all hallucinations.  This theory has gained more ground over the years than the invention theory.  Stott defines a hallucination as “the apparent perception of an external object when no such object is present.”  Often hallucinations occur when a person has some type of neurosis or psychosis or when there is an “exaggerated” period of wishful thinking, and inward desire meets a predisposed, appropriate outward setting.  Someone may then attempt to will something into some type of mental reality.

First of all, Mary Magdalene may have had some neurosis or psychosis, but not Peter and not Thomas [doubting Thomas].  When the women found the tomb empty they did not engage in wishful thinking, they were afraid, fleeing in “trembling and astonishment.”  When Mary and other women reported Jesus alive, the disciples would not believe it, their words “seemed to them an idle tale.”  Then Jesus came and stood in their midst.  Again they were all frightened, saying they saw a spirit.   Jesus complained of their unbelief and hardness of heart.  Thomas demanded that he see Jesus’ nail wounds.  Christ met the eleven apostles on a mountain in Galilee and instead of worshipping Him; they were still filled with doubt.  Stott says in all these instances, “Here was no wishful thinking, no naïve credulity, no blind acceptance” [56-57].  Instead of circumstances leading to wishful thinking, gullibility and acceptance, the people who saw the resurrected Jesus were cautious, skeptical, and slow to believe.  Instead of jumping to conclusions, they were more prone to ask for verifiable facts.

The appearances also occurred in less than favorable circumstances.  An appropriate outward setting helps a wishful thinker to develop a “hallucination.” One would be more inclined to believe in hallucinations or wishful thinking if the location of the appearances were in sacred places but they occurred in a garden at the tomb, near Jerusalem, in an upper room, on the road to Emmaus, by a lake, on a mountain and on the Mount of Olives.  Certainly there was a wide variety of locations.

There was also wide variety of reporting on the mood of those who saw Jesus.  Mary Magdalene was weeping.  Other women were afraid.  Some were astonished.  Peter was remorseful and Thomas was [of course] full of doubt.  The two [Cleopas and Luke] who were on the road to Emmaus were distracted by the events of the week and the disciples in Galilee were preoccupied with fishing.   It did not seem to matter.  Whatever their mood, whatever they were doing, Jesus made Himself known to them. 

Stott says it is just impossible to state that all these appearances were hallucinations or the product of people who had deranged minds. 

Stott has argued in Basic Christianity that it would be impossible for Jesus to escape the tomb on His own, it would be impossible to rid Himself of His burial wrappings leaving them in their undisturbed state and now it would be impossible to discount the post resurrection sightings, especially as inventions or hallucinations. 

People can find many ways to doubt Christianity from criticizing God’s word to looking at the behaviors of Christians as they live out their lives in this world [if they were true believers they would not behave as they do].  Certainly some have doubts about the circumstances of Jesus’ death and resurrection but so far, John Stott has tried to remove that doubt in his book Basic Christianity.

This is important work that he is doing for the new believer, for without the resurrection we would not have a faith, without the resurrection Jesus would not be the Son of God, indeed God incarnate.

Belief in the resurrection is the foundation of our faith and in the next post, it is the stimulus for how the disciples were changed. 

You see, they accepted the resurrection.

And then they changed the world.

*Geisler and Craig as quoted in Josh McDowell The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, 204-205.

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