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Doubting the Disciples: were resurrection reporters deceiving or delusional?

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Part 6 of 8 in a series of articles by Derek Caldwell on the resurrection. Published April 1, 2024

Tradition tells us—and we have little reason to doubt it—that eleven of the twelve apostles (all but John) died an early death for their faith. Martyrdom was considered a sign of true faith in a society that periodically sought reasons to kill Christians. Many considered it an honor to die from persecution, just as their Lord had done. Questions still remain, though. For instance, don’t people claim to have seen the deceased still alive all the time? We’ve all heard tales of celebrities like Elvis or Michael Jackson still being alive, perhaps living in seclusion in some remote part of the world. But we don’t have any credible accounts of them appearing to credible eyewitnesses—in the hundreds (1 Corinthians 15:5-8)—over a period of forty days. And these are not accounts of people who died and are seen alive again; these are allegedly accounts of people faking their deaths (or more likely being mistaken for convincing impersonators).

Okay, one might say, but don’t people die for what they believe in all the time? Yes, they do, but we are discussing quite a different category here. This is not people who are dying for a cause they deeply believe in; in the case of resurrection eyewitnesses, we see people dying for something that they would have known was either true or false. This is one of the reasons why critical scholars believe that the disciples must have at least seen something they understood to be the resurrected Christ. Again, there is no indication that the early Christians were anything but sincere in their belief that they saw Christ alive again after His execution. Furthermore, the evidence we have seems to suggest that it was not difficult for Christians to recant their confessions and go back to living a safe, persecution-free life. Indeed, some did. However, we have no reports of any eyewitnesses doing so; no, they seem to have only marched willingly to their deaths. Pliny the Younger (c. 61-113 AD) wrote to the emperor Trajan (c. 53-117 AD) about how to properly prosecute Christians in the early years of the second century. He talked of some of the complexities of the situation, but ultimately said that he asks Christians three times to confirm their Christian faith. In other words, even if they say “yes” twice, he can impress upon them the severity of their situation before they say “yes” a third and final time. He explained to Trajan how he explicitly threatens capital punishment, and “if they persist I sentence them to death.” Unsurprisingly, he reports that with the persecution of Christians on the rise, he has seen people begin to frequent the pagan temples once again. Trajan replied to Pliny affirming his methods and adds that “if any one denies that he is a Christian, and actually proves it, that is by worshipping our gods, he shall be pardoned as a result of his recantation, however suspect he may have been in the past.”1 All that to say, it was not at all difficult for Christians to regain their lives by simply rejecting Christ and worshipping the pagan gods once more. 

People dying for what they know to be false is a difficult thing to comprehend, and yet some have claimed that people die all the time for things they know are not true. This claim is often made in the context of discrediting the martyrdom of Jesus’s disciples. I have not seen much evidence cited for these statements, however.2 But to give the benefit of the doubt, and assuming no form of psychiatric impairment, it is not unfathomable to imagine someone dying for what they knew was a lie, so long as that lie was in some way beneficial either for their own lives or for the world. But that does not seem to fit the situation we have with Jesus’s disciples. They did not gain from this lie. Instead, they lost everything: friends, family, affiliation with trade guilds (i.e., employment), good relations with the government (they were considered atheists for denying the pantheon of gods and consequently blamed for all manner of calamity), and the Jewish converts were kicked out of their synagogues. And these first followers, Jewish men and women, would not have thought it was good for the world to promote a false messiah. Rather, that would be disastrous for their co-religionists, for their families, and their nation (and everything we know of the apostles tells us that they were greatly concerned for Israel as a nation, some quite zealous in that concern). That is to say, their whole world and all they cared about would suffer because of their faith. Believing in a false messiah would lead someone directly to God’s fiery judgment seat. There was no benefitting from this in their minds if they knew it was a lie. 

Okay, so, perhaps no one willingly lied. But could they have accidentally lied? That is, could they be mistaken about something they genuinely believe they witnessed? This is typically how critical scholars respond to this since they assume, a priori, that a miracle could not have taken place. Clearly these early followers saw something. So, what do we call it when people see something that isn’t really there? A hallucination. And this appears to be the most compelling explanation given for why Christianity took the shape that it did. 

There are several problems with the hallucination theory, however. First, and probably most simply, is the physicality of the appearances. For this to have been a hallucination, that would mean a lot of people not only had saw their hallucination, but that many must have felt their hallucination as well. Thomas touched one of the wounds of Jesus (John 20:24-27); Mary Magdalene, Jesus’s mother Mary, and possibly other women held onto Jesus’s feet (Matthew 28:9). And would they have been the only ones to do so? Might we consider whether other devotees hugged Him when they saw Him again, or other followers wanted to touch Him to verify? The latter part is speculation, but nonetheless everyone was convinced that this was a bodily resurrection, though it would have been much easier to just say it was a spiritual one. Furthermore, Jesus was seen physically consuming food, food which presumably must have been there one minute and gone the next (Luke 24:41-43).

Second, the hallucination theory assumes that several people (perhaps in the hundreds, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:6)—potentially with different beliefs, not expecting a resurrection to take place, with different levels of bereavement and guilt associated with the death of Jesus, several of whom had seen Jesus’s real empty tomb—all saw (and perhaps many felt) the same hallucination, sometimes at the same time. This is simply not how hallucinations work, but we can point to instances where mass hysteria and mass visions were reported. Bart Ehrman, in attempting to make a case for this theory, points out rightly that “visions appear to occur with particular frequency among those who are experiencing bereavement or religious awe and expectation.”3 Sure, you could point to times when everyone saw a statue of the Virgin Mary crying blood or appearing elsewhere around a church, but these are all things that people came desiring to happen, believing that they could happen, and perhaps even expecting them to happen (and, not to cast aspersions, but these are not difficult things to manufacture). But none believed or expected Jesus to rise from the dead, though they may have wished to see Him again. When Jesus did try to tell the disciples about His impending death and resurrection, they either didn’t understand or chose not to believe (Matthew 16:21-23; Luke 18:31-34). There may have been some who felt incredibly guilty about Jesus’s death and, because of this extreme guilt, had visions. But this, again, would not account for Paul, James, Jesus’s brother, or the women at the tomb (or most others). Paul would welcome the news of Jesus’s death and James would grieve, but not have any need to feel guilty (especially if he, someone who apparently did not believe Jesus was the messiah at the time, thought that his brother was perhaps blaspheming or insane and leading faithful Jews astray). The women remained with Jesus to the end (Matthew 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41; Luke 23:49; John 19:25). The only one this could possibly make sense of was Peter, though Peter’s vision/hallucination is experienced while others had the same hallucination at the same time, and Peter is quickly relieved of his guilt by Jesus (John 21:15-23). 

You may be wondering, given how unlikely it is that Paul would have hallucinated any of this because he fits none of the criteria, why he would suffer from a hallucination. By all accounts, he was happily persecuting Christians until he saw a vision of Christ. Well, the argument goes, Paul must have had either temporal lobe epilepsy or maybe he just saw a fireball meteor.4 Of course, if we take the account of Paul’s conversion seriously (the whole account, without just rejecting the parts that disagree with our thesis) then neither of these explanations succeed. The men traveling with Paul also experienced something of what Paul did. They did not see anyone, but they “heard the sound” and “stood there speechless” (Acts 9:7). Elsewhere Paul relays that his companions saw a light but not the person of Christ, and they heard Christ’s voice but could not make out what He said (Acts 22:9). Now, if it was a meteor that blinded Paul, why weren’t the others blinded as well? They were also apparently looking at the light. And why would they all hear a voice? There is also no good explanation as for why Paul would have seen or heard Christ at that moment, either. And if it were temporal lobe epilepsy, then no one else should have seen or heard anything. 

The only way around these difficulties with the hallucination theory, then, is to simply state that only a few people must have seen Jesus. This is the only way for the hallucination theory to fit: one must be very selective about which appearances they will consider real visions, and then just claim that others came to believe in this unfathomable, unbelievable thing through the persuasiveness of the few people who had visions. But please do see this move for what it ultimately is: “a rejection of the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead, rather than a rejection of the evidence.”5 This rejection of the conclusion simply causes one to arbitrarily dismiss some of the evidence. Yet they still have not given a good explanation as for why those who did have the “legitimate” experiences saw what they saw. Essentially, they have to say that these credible historical documents simply lied about many people—or stretched the truth. There must be a limitation of the number of people who saw Jesus, a limitation of the number of times they saw Jesus, a limitation to how they may have actually experienced the resurrected Jesus, and a reduction of the amount of time Jesus is said to have spent with them. There is no indication that anyone within the faith found anything inaccurate about the reports in the Gospels or the early letters. Quite the opposite, as it happens. So, again, what we see is a dismissal of conclusions merely due to presuppositional commitments, rather than being free to follow the line of evidence to its most obvious conclusion.

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Derek Caldwell

Derek Caldwell is researcher and content creator for Embrace the Truth.


1 See Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder (eds.), Documents of the Christian Church, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 3-5. 

2 For instance, Bart Ehrman states that “we have lots of instances in history for people dying for lies when they think it will serve a greater good.” See Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 165. However, there is no citation given for who these historical subjects are. I would love the read these narratives, assuming they do indeed exist, and see what similarities and differences exist.  

3 Ehrman, 195.

4 You can hear more about this in episode 56 of John Dickson’s Undeceptions podcast, entitled “Paulos Apostolos.” This can be accessed at https://undeceptions.com/podcast/paulos-apostolos/. 

5 Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004), 128.

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