(Redated post originally published on 13 October 2011)
I don’t recall whether I ever posted this on SO. Prof. Stephen T. Davis did a review of The Empty Tomb edited by Jeff Lowder and Bob Price (Prometheus Books, 2005). In this review, he made some critical remarks about my contribution to the book, and the following is my response to Davis:
The portion of Stephen T. Davis’s review that relates to my “Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli on the Hallucination Theory,” is the fourth critique of that essay that I have seen. Of the four, it is by far the most worthy of a response. The other three ranged from the arrogant to the abusive to the merely inept. Clearly, The Empty Tomb touched some nerves in the apologetic community, and it is easy to see why. As St. Paul noted, much is on the line (I Corinthians, 15:17): “And if Christ be not raised, your faith is in vain; ye are yet in your sins.” Conservative Christians–at least those who have advanced beyond the more regressive forms of fundamentalism–might be easygoing about the skeptical probing of many Christian tenets, but not the doctrine of the Resurrection. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is the sine qua non. If Jesus remained in the grave, Christianity, at least in anything like its orthodox form, is a sham.
That said, we have to carefully distinguish two very different questions: (1) Is belief in the Resurrection a rational, epistemically responsible belief for thoughtful, intelligent, educated Christians such as Davis? (2) Does the balance of the historical evidence favor the Christian account, i.e., is the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth clearly the best explanation, when judged by accepted standards of historical research, of the acknowledged events that occurred soon after his crucifixion? I do not have an opinion on question (1), and I have little interest in it. I am prepared neither to sanction nor condemn such belief, and I cannot see why Davis or any other Christian would care what judgment I made on that score. Question (2), on the other hand, is most worthy of debate.
The purpose of my essay in The Empty Tomb (TET) was to provide supporting argument for a “no” answer to question (2). Skeptics have always had a ready reply to the argument that the bodily resurrection of Jesus best accounts for the events immediately following his crucifixion, particularly the claimed postmortem appearances to the disciples. They reply that it is plausible that one or more of the disciples, soon after Jesus’s crucifixion, experienced vivid, psychologically compelling hallucinations or visions of Jesus, which, in conjunction with other circumstances, led them to the conviction that Jesus had risen from the grave. We know that hallucinatory or visionary experience is not uncommon, even among the mentally healthy, and that it has changed the course of lives and of history (e.g., Joan of Arc). Such an account is consistent with what is known about anomalistic psychology, and has many well-known recent parallels (e.g., the rash of reported “close encounters of the third kind” with extraterrestrials in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s).
Of course, Christian apologists have always had answers to the hallucination hypothesis, and these are compiled and defended in Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli’s comprehensive Handbook of Christian Apologetics. To reply to those arguments was the modest purpose of my essay. In particular, my aim was not to defend a version of the hallucination hypothesis as the explanation of what happened to convince the disciples that they had encountered the Risen Lord. I do not think that anyone knows what happened. All accounts, including—especially—the bodily resurrection story seem dubious to me. While I regard no hypothesis accounting for Christian origins as particularly probable, I do regard a psychological explanation of the appearance traditions as far more plausible than a bodily resurrection story.
When addressing any important historical question an attitude of humility is appropriate. The problem of underdetermination can usually be managed with respect to scientific hypotheses, but with historical claims it is often intractable. For instance, aspects of the history of the Second World War are debated vigorously, sometimes fiercely, even though the events are massively documented and occurred within the living memory of millions of people. Often the only honest thing to say is that the evidence is compatible with various hypotheses. A fortiori we should be very circumspect in our conjectures about what happened nearly 2000 years ago in obscure circumstances.
With these preliminary clarifications, explanations, and caveats out of the way, I’ll turn to Davis’s critique. While he concedes that I scored some points on Kreeft and Tacelli, he says that my argument ultimately fails to convince because I spend much of my article answering the wrong questions (59). He indicates that the question I spend most of my time answering is whether people sometimes experience sensory delusions that lead them to believe things that never happened. But everybody admits that they sometimes do, says Davis, while the real question, which, presumably, I hardly address, is whether such delusions account for the disciples’ views about Jesus. Davis’s charge is a straw man, but for the sake of argument let’s begin with the point that he says everyone concedes–that people sometimes “see” what isn’t there. Why is it unlikely that one or more disciples, individually or in a group, had a vivid, compelling, but delusory experience that they construed as an encounter with the risen Jesus?
Well, maybe such delusions occur, but they don’t have a lasting effect on anyone’s beliefs. Davis asks:
Are there cases where A has a hallucination of the deceased B (whether B is a loved one or somebody like Elvis or Jimmy Hoffa,), comes to believe that B is alive and kicking here on earth, and A’s belief that B is alive has, so to speak, staying power? In other words, A genuinely believes that B is alive and perhaps, is now hiding (in Paraguay?). I rather doubt that this occurs…(60).
Don’t cases like Elvis and Jimmy Hoffa show that it does occur? “Sightings” of Amelia Earhart continued for years after her disappearance. Hitler was reported for years to be hiding (perhaps in Paraguay!). More to the point, numerous people have had visions of Jesus in recent years that included full-body appearances and physical contact (Wiebe, 1997; and see Carrier’s note on pp. 187 and 188 of TET). Why wouldn’t such an experience have “staying power?”

Davis devotes nearly all of his critique to my subsidiary points. For instance he challenges my contention that the lack of appearance stories in Mark indicates that these accounts were inventions of the later gospel writers (60). He also claims that, though Paul’s list of alleged appearances in I Corinthians 15 is given with no narrative, such a narrative must have existed since it is just not feasible that Peter or James would have had no answer if asked by believers or skeptics for the details about these appearances (60).

Well, they probably had some answer, but we just do not know what it was or how satisfactory it would have been. For instance, who were the “500” mentioned by Paul who supposedly encountered the risen Jesus? Did Paul have any of their names and addresses? Did they all know Jesus well enough to be sure that they had seen him? Did they get close enough to get a good look? Was Jesus on a hilltop or a stage so that everyone could view him? Did he say or do anything to authenticate his identity? These are all questions I raise in my essay in TET, and I do not see that they as yet have any good answers. To suppose that they at one time did have satisfactory answers is merely to rely on an argumentum ad ignorantiam.

So, of the earliest NT writings, Mark and the Pauline epistles, the first says nothing about the postmortem “appearances” and the latter is wholly lacking in detail. However the accounts written decades later offer engaging and detailed accounts. Information generally decays over time, so I take the silence of the early accounts and the richness of the later ones as prima facie evidence that these stories were confabulated, concocted, or at least greatly embellished in the interim. By comparison, consider the famous case of the disappearance into the “Bermuda triangle” of a flight of TBF Avenger dive-bombers in December 1945. Eyewitnesses present in the Fort Lauderdale control tower reported no bizarre communications from the flight. The notorious claims of panicked radio transmissions (reports of compasses spinning wildly, etc.) first appeared in popular accounts published decades later. Isn’t this prima facie evidence that those weird, intriguing stories were later additions.
Davis also objects (60) to my assertion (p. 443, TET) that the later Gospel writers made up appearance stories. He regards this allegation as implausible given the apparent sincerity of the Gospel writers. But sincere, honest people often make up stories without consciously fabricating them and with no intention to deceive. False stories spontaneously rise and quickly spread, especially when teller and audience are strongly motivated to believe them. A case in point is the “Darwin legend,” meticulously documented by James Moore (1994). Within a week of Darwin’s burial in Westminster Abbey, a Welsh minister preached a sermon claiming falsely, but probably with complete sincerity, that Darwin had confessed his faith on his deathbed. Darwin’s “deathbed conversion” became a staple of evangelical literature, and continued to spread for decades, though repeatedly denounced by the Darwin family. How do such stories get started? Probably, they begin innocuously, with someone asking a question, speculating, joking, or fantasizing. Through retelling, speculation becomes hearsay, hearsay becomes fact, and fact finally emerges as “Gospel” truth—all without anyone intending to deceive.
Davis devotes a paragraph (60) to disagreements over what he calls “lesser points,” which, since space is limited, I shall just pass over. He concludes with a paragraph stating his reasons for thinking that the resurrection of Jesus is an “unlikely candidate” for hallucination:
Jesus’s followers were not expecting a resurrection; many people saw the risen Jesus; the encounters were located in various places and times; some doubted that it was Jesus, and others only recognized him with difficulty; there were no drugs, high fever, or lack of food or water mentioned; and longstanding convictions and permanent lifestyle changes were produced. Taken together, these points constitute a powerful case against hallucination (61).
In fact, I address nearly all of these points in the essay in TET, so I shall just refer the reader back to it. Further, it seems that Davis, like Kreeft and Tacelli, assumes that the defender of a hallucination hypothesis has to account for each specific reported appearance as the product of a specific hallucination. Not so. If it did not happen, there is nothing there to explain, and so no burden to explain it. It simply begs the question to assume what skeptics deny, namely, that the Gospel appearance stories, written late in the first century, are firsthand reports of the disciples’ experiences immediately after the crucifixion.
Davis concludes his review of TET with this assessment:
Has TET shown that rational rejection of the claim that God raised Jesus from the dead is possible? I would say yes. Has TET refuted the claim that God raised Jesus from the dead? No: the authors have not even come close to that (63).
While, naturally, I shall not presume to speak for the other contributors to TET, I would not claim to be able to “refute” the claim that Jesus rose from the dead any more than I can “refute” the claim that extraterrestrials advised Old Kingdom Egyptians about constructing the pyramids (where “refute” means “prove to be false”). However, TET successfully resists the efforts of Christian apologists to turn an article of faith into an established fact of history.
Davis, S.T. (2006), The Counterattack of the Resurrection Skeptics. Philosophia Christi, Vol. 8, No 1, pp. 39-63.
Kreeft, P. and Tacelli, R.K. (1994), Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
Moore, J. (1994), The Darwin Legend. Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks.
Parsons, K.M. (2005), Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli on the Hallucination Theory in Price, R.M. and Lowder, J.J., eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave. Prometheus: Amherst, NY.
Wiebe, P., (1997), Visions of Jesus: Direct Encounters from the New Testament to Today, New York: Oxford University Press.