Resurrection Series- Part 5: Psychological Problems?

Welcome to part five of our resurrection series. Please see all preceding parts before reading this one to get a better understanding of what is being discussed. Today, we will talk about the psychological objection to the Resurrection -- the idea that the disciples had some sort of disorder which caused them to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

Some like to claim that the disciples experienced some psychological event, and therefore they claim that they saw the risen Christ. Let’s define some of these terms. Illusions are a distorted perception of something, hallucinations are “false perception[s] of something that is not there” (page 105), and delusions are false beliefs when there is evidence to the contrary. For the sake of argument, lets look at each of these as they would apply to the disciples, using an illustration. Suppose a widow’s husband has just died. A delusion would be for her to deny that her husband has just died despite the fact that he did – there is evidence to the contrary. An illusion could be applied in this way: “The grieving widow is tricked by her sense and experiences an illusion when she sees a man in the distance who looks like her husband and who has similar mannerisms. She thinks she sees her husband. This differs from a hallucination because she experiences a distorted picture of an object that is really there, whereas in a hallucination she sees something that is not there. She may experience the illusion of her husband momentarily without believing that it is actually him, because she has evidence to the contrary, much as we know the appearance of water ahead of us on the sunlit highway is an illusion” (page 105).

The most likely candidate, according to the critics, then, is a hallucination; the disciples merely hallucinated when they saw the risen Christ. However, hallucinations are not experienced by a group of people, but only by individuals (like a dream); hallucinations are not contagious! Secondly, hallucinations do not explain the empty tomb, or the conversions of Paul or James (both of whom did not have a hallucination “mindset”; they wouldn’t have readily believed). Thirdly, there are too many differences in people and their experiences; both men and women experienced post-Resurrection appearances, friends and enemies saw Jesus, and hard-headed Peter and soft-hearted Mary Magdalene saw Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus was seen both outdoors and indoors, and more than once over a period of forty days! Therefore, in the case of the Resurrection, hallucinations are ruled out.

What about delusions? Do they account for the claims of the disciples as to what they saw? Remember, delusions are false beliefs where there is evidence to the contrary. However, we have much evidence for the Resurrection. For example, the empty tomb is not a delusion! Nor do delusions account for the conversions of Paul from persecutor to Christian. Why would he have left his faith for a dead man who was considered cursed by God? Likewise, Jesus’ skeptical brother James would not have believed for a delusion! This precludes delusions as the explanation for the disciples’ experiences.

Some try to suggest that the disciples experienced a vision similar to those experienced in other literary works. However, if we define visions as that used in “vision literature,” then it can be refuted just as were the embellishment claims earlier. Additionally, we should ask whether the skeptic believes that these visions were subjective or objective; if objective, then Jesus really did rise from the dead. Of course “objective” vision means that Jesus was really seen, but not in a material state; “the ramifications are the same as Resurrection”(page 229). The only issue now would be the nature of the Resurrected body, but there is no question that Jesus did rise from the dead, proving that God exists and that Christianity is true. If visions are subjective, then the visions were either hallucinations or delusions; but as was shown, there are problems with that assumption. Visions do not explain the empty tomb, which anyone could examine. They also do not account for the bodily appearances of Christ; the disciples touched Him, talked with Him, and ate with Him -- this was certainly no immaterial body!

Another theory purported in favor of the Resurrection appearances is the Conversion disorder theory. This theory states that something that happens is due to a neurological malfunction. But the problem is that this could only account for the conversion of Paul; and even then, it doesn’t entirely account for his conversion. The bright light could have been a result of a neurological disorder; however, even if this were so, this does not prove that the Resurrection did not happen. In fact, none of the other post-Resurrection appearances adhere to this theory; not even James’ conversion agrees! Additionally, as with all theories, this does not account for the empty tomb. But there is further proof that Paul’s conversion does not fit this theory. Firstly, in a study done on people with psychological disorders, women scored higher than men by a 5:1 ratio. Of course this doesn’t mean that men won’t ever experience psychological disorders; there could be men who fall into these categories: “Adolescents, military persons in battle, those of a low economic status, and those with a low IQ are likewise more prone to experience the phenomenon” (page 114). However, Paul does not fall into any of these categories. Additionally, the “Damascus road” experience of Paul calls for more than just a neurological disorder. Paul didn’t just see something; he heard a voice, which would require an additional “auditory” hallucination. Paul also believed that God (Whom he had seen) directed him to tell others something; this is called the “messiah complex.” Whereas others have experienced a visual hallucination, an auditory hallucination, or a messiah complex, it is very unlikely that anyone would experience all three simultaneously – at least, according to the conversion disorder theory. Yet, Acts has all three in one account; if the critic wishes to reject Paul’s account in Acts, then he must also reject his conversion disorder theory which he accuses Paul of having, since the theory states that the three supposed “hallucinations” experienced by Paul do not happen simultaneously. Lastly, “Not only does it appear from what we know of Paul that he was not in the frame of mind to experience a hallucination of the risen Jesus, but the number of additional theories required in order to make conversion disorder explain Paul’s experience makes it strongly suspect of being ad hoc” (page 115).

Still, some critics employ numerous theories to try to explain Paul’s conversion. The first of these is the Guilt theory; this theory says that Paul felt remorse for his recent actions of persecuting the church while on his way to Damascus. However, the Scriptures speak against this view; Paul himself said that he was perfectly content in Judaism (see Philippians 3:5-6). He did not feel guilty for persecuting the church; he had a zeal for God, and he thought that what he was doing was what God would have him do. But even if this were the reason for Paul’s conversion, it does not account for Jesus’ appearance to the rest of the disciples. Additionally the Guilt theory does not account for the empty tomb; Jesus’ body isn’t there! The critics also claim that Paul desired power so he joined the church seeking a prestigious position. However, the Bible nowhere indicates this view! In fact, Paul had little contact with the church for fourteen years after his conversion! Secondly, Paul was a Roman citizen; if he had wanted power, he could have looked to Rome. Paul also lived a difficult, yet cheerful life as a Christian; if he wanted to gratify himself with power, this certainly isn’t reflected in how he lived his life! The next assumption is that Paul experienced an epiphany. But even if this were true, it would only account for Paul’s conversion, not those of the other disciples, nor of James. It does not account for the empty tomb, either. More importantly, the critics of Christianity in antiquity do not respond to an epiphany – they respond to a literal Resurrection as taught by the disciples of Jesus. For example, the Jews accused the disciples of stealing the body, and Celsus suggests that either trickery was used or that Jesus did not actually die on the cross; in both instances, neither critic argues that Jesus’ body was not in the tomb or that He did not rise from the dead. Acts records the bright light and the voice that Paul experienced; since this was written after Matthew, Mark, Luke, and most certainly after Paul’s conversion, there is no basis for the claim that the Resurrection account evolved from epiphany to bodily appearances.

Since these theories do not stand up to scrutiny, critics try to claim that a combination of the above theories accounts for the Resurrection. However, just as each theory has its own problems, so combining theories raises the degree of problematic material. Additionally, this view only raises the improbability; “Combinations of theories lead to higher improbabilities. Two theories, each having a 50 percent probability, lead to a combined probability of 25 percent” (page 231). Even if, for the sake of argument, we assume that there are no problems with this approach, just the fact that we have to use so many opposing theories to account for the facts “screams ad hoc” (page 231). Besides, merely presenting an opposing theory to explain away the Resurrection does nothing to the facts; sufficient evidence must be presented to back it up.


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