In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes,
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:
that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he
was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the
Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers
and sisters, at the same time, most of whom are still living, though
some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the
apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Jesus’ disciples believed in his Resurrection because he appeared to them after his crucifixion and death. It’s possible, but improbable, that the appearances were objectively real: that, for example, if anyone had been with Peter (Cephas) when Peter saw the Risen Lord, that person—Roman or Jew, skeptic or believer—would also have seen Jesus. More probable is the conjecture that the appearances were hallucinations.
The word “hallucination” instantly brings to mind schizophrenia, a mental disorder in which people see, hear, or otherwise sense something that is not really there. But the disciples were not schizophrenics; and hallucinations are actually quite common, even among people who are psychologically normal. For example, A. Y. Tien in a 1991 study of 18,572 people found that 13 percent of them claimed to have experienced at least one vivid hallucination. Only 1 percent of the general population is schizophrenic. (statistics from Bart Ehrman)
Particularly common are so-called “bereavement hallucinations,” in which people sense the presence of a loved one who has recently died. Such hallucinations are often accompanied by a sense of guilt over some aspect of the relationship with the deceased. Certainly, Peter felt guilt over denying he knew Jesus; and the disciples in general must have felt shame over so consistently misunderstanding him during his life. Moreover, bereavement hallucinations tend to be associated with anger at the people or situation that caused the death of the beloved. Surely the disciples were angry with the Romans! Finally, stress makes hallucinations more likely. And the disciples were certainly stressed by Jesus’ death. They fled to Galilee after the crucifixion, fearing that the Romans would also want to execute them.
Based on Paul and the Gospels, it seems likely that only a handful of the disciples “saw” Jesus immediately after his death—perhaps Peter, James, and Mary Magdalene, perhaps one or two others. Of course, we can’t know for sure. We do have Paul’s testimony that at some point over 500 of Jesus’ followers experienced his presence. Ridiculous, right? Mass hallucinations are impossible!
Well, no. Mass hallucinations do occur. Even in modern times crowds of people have seen apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Notable is the phenomenon of October 13, 1917, when a crowd of 30,000 to 40,000 people in Portugal saw the sun fall toward the earth and zigzag in the sky while multi-colored lights flashed over the clouds and the landscape. The event was taken by many to be the miracle promised by the Virgin Mary to three Portuguese shepherd children, the so-called “Miracle of Fátima.” Skeptics have, of course, cast doubt on aspects of the Fátima event.
Well, granted that some of the disciples saw “Jesus” after his death, who or what did they think they were seeing? The disciples had apparently expected Jesus to reveal himself in Jerusalem as the Messiah. A mysterious, cosmic “Son of Man” would descend from Heaven in power and glory, free Israel from Roman rule, and set up Jesus as the earthly King of the Jews. Instead, Jesus suffered the death of a slave or criminal.
When Jesus appeared to the disciples after his death, those appearances were usually brief. No matter that they were illusions, the disciples believed they were real. “Well, then,” asked the disciples, “Where was Jesus the rest of the time, between appearances?” The answer: he had to be in Heaven. God must have exalted him from merely human status to a semi-divinity. And now the disciples had solved the problem of the crucified Messiah. Jesus was both Messiah and Son of Man. Very soon he would return to earth permanently and rule Israel or even the whole world.
One final question remains. Were the disciples’ visions merely psychological, or did they refer to some external, spiritual reality that is not a part of our every-day world? I vote for the latter. My faith tells me that the visions of Jesus were visions of someone who somewhere—somehow—still exists.
(This post closely follows the argument of Bart D. Ehrman in his book, How Jesus Became God.)
~ Richard Russell
This blog was set up to post content of interest to Old Chatham Quaker members and attenders. Posts related to one's own personal spiritual journey, reports based on interviews with others, and reflections on Quaker-related topics are welcome. Posts by individuals are personal expressions and do not necessarily reflect those of the Meeting as a whole.
Guidelines for posting on website blog:
Submit to member of Communications committee; committee has editorial oversight over all content posted on the Meeting website.
Be respectful of the nature of vocal ministry given in Meeting for Worship or other settings and any private conversations about spiritual matters.
Cite source of any image or other external content submitted.