Did The Disciples Hallucinate The Risen Jesus?

In this series we’ve been looking at alternate explanations for the Resurrection of Jesus.  We started the series by looking at the 12 minimal facts of the resurrection.  These are facts that are agreed upon by the majority of new testament scholars.  These same scholars may not necessarily believe the resurrection actually occurred.  They do however concede that our list of facts actually occurred.  We’re now looking at how skeptics try to explain away the facts of the resurrection.  So far, we have looked at The Swoon Theory, The Twin Theory, The Wrong Tomb Theory and the Legend Theory.  In this post we’ll look at whether or not The Disciples Hallucinated The Risen Jesus. 

What Is The Hallucination Theory?

The theory that the Disciples hallucinated the resurrection was a common one about a hundred years ago.  It is not as in favor as it used to be but is still prevalent in certain circles. This alternate explanation states that the Disciples were in a deep state of mourning after Jesus’ crucifixion.  The Disciples were so distraught that in their grief they hallucinated an encounter with Jesus.  They then came to believe that they had actually seen Jesus return from the grave.  They began spreading the message of his resurrection.  Christianity then grew from the story of the Disciples hallucinations. 

The 12 Facts Revisited

As with all out theories, we test them against the agreed upon facts.  For review, here are the 12 facts we are working with.  These facts were assembled by Dr. Craig Hazen from Biola University.  

The facts:

  1. Jesus died by Roman Crucifixion.
  2. He was buried, most likely in a private tomb of Joseph of Arimathea
  3. Soon afterwards, the disciples were discouraged, bereaved, and despondent having lost hope.
  4. Jesus’ tomb was found empty very soon after his burial
  5. The disciples had experiences which they believed were actual appearances of the risen Jesus.
  6. Due to these experiences, the disciple’s lives were thoroughly transformed, to the point of being willing to die for this belief. 
  7. The resurrection message was the center of preaching in the early church.
  8. This message was especially proclaimed in Jerusalem, where Jesus died and was buried shortly before.
  9. As a result of this preaching, the church was born and grew.
  10. Sunday became the primary day of worship.
  11. James, who had been a skeptic, was converted to the faith when he believed he saw the resurrected Jesus.
  12. A few years later, Paul became a Christian believer due to an experience which he believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus. 

What Can The Hallucination Theory Explain?

So which of the facts does this theory explain?  The hallucination theory would explain all of facts with the exception of numbers 4, 5, 11 and 12.  The burial of Jesus and the Disciples being discouraged and bereaved would be explained.  It would also make sense of the change in the Disciples, and their taking of Jesus’ message out from Jerusalem into the world. 

Does the Swoon Theory Explain The Resurrection?

While this explanation does cover quite a few of the facts, it doesn’t explain them all.  And as always, that’s the key.  We need to explain ALL the facts. So where does this theory miss the mark? 

What Are The Flaws In This Theory?

If the Disciples had hallucinated the resurrected Jesus, then the real Jesus’ body would still be in the tomb.  Remember that the group began preaching the resurrection quickly.  All the opponents of Christianity would have had to do was go to the tomb and produce the remains of Jesus.  That would have put an end to the stories.  The body still being in the tomb is a major disqualifier for this theory.

Did The Disciples Hallucinate The Risen Jesus?

The disciples hallucinating due to grief also does not explain the conversions of James and Paul.  While Jesus’ close associates were obviously distraught at his passing, James and Paul were not. Even if the group wanted him to be alive so much that they hallucinated his appearance, James and Paul did not share this mindset.  They were not grieving.  They did not expect Jesus to come back.  The possibility wouldn’t have crossed their minds.

Mass Hysteria?

This theory has another flaw.  And that is that hallucinations are not group events.  They are individual experiences.  Gary Habermas and Mike Licona point this out in their book “The Case For The Resurrection Of Jesus”.  Their illustration of shipwrecked sailors is a helpful one.  If a group of sailors is shipwrecked at sea for several days, they may become delusional.  They may want to see a rescue ship or an island.  But no two sailors will see the same hallucination of an island or ship. These are individual occurrences like dreams.  You can’t invite someone to share a dream with you.  


It’s safe to say that the hallucination theory is not an adequate explanation of the facts.  We have gone through quite a few alternate explanations in this series.  We’re going to look at one more before we look at the one theory that explains all the facts.  The last alternate explanation to examine is the theory that the Disciples stole the body of Jesus. Once we consider this final outside theory, it’ll be time to look at the Christian explanation for the facts.  It may surprise you to learn that this theory also has a problem that needs to be addressed.  Can you guess what it is?  Keep reading to find out!

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