The basic tenets of the Christian faith have been skeptically criticized by unbelievers for centuries. The belief that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead by the power of God three days after being executed via crucifixion by the Roman government is no exception.
It is undeniable that for two thousand years a sizable portion of the human populace has believed that the carpenter from Nazareth came back to life. This belief is how the Christian religion started. According to the New Testament record (as well as the Roman historian Tacitus, who described Christianity as “a most mischievous superstition” which was “thus checked for the moment” by the execution of Christ but “again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome…” [Annals 44.3]), Christ was first proclaimed by his apostles as risen from the dead on the Jewish holy day of Pentecost not only after his execution, resulting in several thousand believing the claims of the apostles with that number continually rising, in spite of persecution, in the years to come.
Did the resurrection of Christ actually happen? It’s clear the apostles believed it did. But are there better explanations for what they believed to have happened?
For example, did Jesus’ followers collectively hallucinate that he had risen from the dead?
No, for several reasons.
Hallucinations are linked to an individual’s subconsciousness. They are not linked to the collective subconsciousness of groups of people. Jesus appeared to separate individuals at times (cf. John 20:11-18). However, he also appeared to groups of people, more specifically a diversity of different people at different times and places, all of whom perceived Jesus in different ways via sight, touch, and hearing (cf. Lk. 24:13-35; John 20:19-25). Paul wrote to Corinth that he had appeared on one occasion “to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now” (1 Cor. 15:6), indicating that it was possible that the Corinthians could hear the testimony of most of the five hundred who saw Jesus if they wanted to do so. Did all five hundred people experience the exact same hallucination? Such a conclusion is not credible.
Furthermore, hallucinations tend to happen to people who anticipate or hope for something positive. They are the result of intense wish fulfillment. However, after Jesus’ death the disciples were dejected, fearful, and without hope (cf. Lk. 24:13-21; John 20:24-25). They were not anticipating their Lord’s resurrection. In fact, upon hearing the news of his resurrection from the women, they at first did not believe it. Upon seeing the risen Jesus for themselves, they were surprised.
With this in mind, consider James, the brother of Jesus. He did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah (John 7:5) and thought him to be mentally unbalanced (Mk. 3:21). Yet after the resurrection, he and the other brothers of Christ were listed among his followers (Acts 1:14), with James himself becoming a leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:13ff) and the likely author of one of the New Testament books. Can this abrupt change be attributed to a hallucination? The problem with this conclusion is that James, not being a believer of Jesus, would not have anticipated, hoped, or wished fervently for God to resurrect him.
The same applies to the apostle Paul. Paul had been actively killing people who claimed Jesus had been resurrected, only to become Christianity’s most passionate defender after seeing the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. It does not make sense to conclude that Paul hallucinated the risen Jesus on that road; what fervent wish or anticipated hope did the persecutor of the followers of Jesus have that a hallucinated vision of the risen Nazarene would have fulfilled? Some claim that Paul did hallucinate the risen Jesus out of an attack of conscience, a feeling of guilt that came upon him for all the horror he had visited upon Jesus’ disciples. Yet what evidence is there that he felt bad about what he was doing to Christians? By all accounts, he thought he was serving God by persecuting them and had a clean conscience (Acts 23:1; 26:9-11; cf. John 16:2). Why would he therefore feel guilty at all about what he was doing, much less feel so guilty that he hallucinated a conversation with the risen Jesus?
Besides, assuming for the sake of discussion that all of these people had somehow been deceived by hallucinations of the risen Lord, surely at least some of them, upon telling people that Jesus was risen, would have been taken by concerned friends or family members — or by the enemies of Christ — to the tomb where Jesus’ body would still lie. At that point, they would at best be disabused of their mistaken perception that Jesus was alive again. At worst, even if they continued to believe that their hallucination was real, those who had shown them Jesus’ body in an effort to help them out of their delusion would be happy to show the body to anyone who was told that the carpenter from Nazareth was resurrected by God. Yet, the body of Christ was never produced to silence the claims of his disciples.
Thus, one cannot disprove the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth by dismissing the eyewitness testimony of the risen Christ as cases of mass hallucination.