Thursday, September 25, 2008

Visions of Jesus and other spirits: were Resurrection appearances hallucinations?

Comparative religion is a tricky business, apologetically speaking. Pointing out cross-cultural similarities (or differences) between belief systems can be both an aide and a detriment to making the case for Christ. Take the Resurrection appearances, for example: many apologists argue for their uniqueness by pointing to their collective nature (i.e. Jesus appeared to many people at once) and the tangible effects of those appearances. In a recent post on his blog, N.T. Wrong attempts to provide comparative historical evidence, not for collective hallucinations per se, but for individual dreams/visions which subsequently mutated into reports of collective visions, and concludes that "The most plausible explanation for the accounts of the sightings of Jesus, therefore, is that they derive from individual vision reports, which over time have been transformed into reports of mass sightings of Jesus."

There are problems with Wrong's case stemming from the fact that all the examples of mass visions which he gives are dreams, experienced at night rather than during the waking hours by groups of awake, alert people. Furthermore, he acknowledges that some of the Resurrection appearances begin with a group of people (i.e. the three women who came to Jesus' grave) rather than an individual (Mark's resurrection account has an individual sighting, that of Mary Magdalene, tagged on to an original group vision account). He refers to Mark's account as visionary even though Mark does not present it as such on the basis of some similarities to other vision stories: the women were grieving which is known to produce hallucinations (so-called grief-induced visions), and it was in the early hours of the morning, the 'liminal' hours which are associated with visions (so this wouldn't apply to Luke's story of an encounter with the risen Lord by two disciples at around dusk). This seems pretty flimsy evidence upon which to pronounce the Markan account a vision story, especially given the distinctive nature of the Christian resurrection claim. As Robin Fox points out, "In the pagan world, visions of a person soon after death were not uncommon...Christians, however, advanced the extreme claim that the object of their visions had risen physically from the dead...These [resurrection] stories were very explicit and had no pagan counterpart." (Pagans and Christians, pp.377-378)

But suppose he is right that there is, or could be in theory, comparative evidence for phenomena similar to resurrection appearances. Would that be an apologetic weakness necessarily? Philip Wiebe's case for the Resurrection in Visions of Jesus is dependent upon there being such evidence. We should recall the oft-repeated caution not to prejudge the evidential value of vision accounts simply because they are visionary. Just because people have had visionary experiences doesn't mean they are not veridical. Of course there is the problem then of determining whether vision stories from other religious traditions are veridical. I think there is a case to be made that at least some of them are, although of course their source and meaning is open to question. The point is that each apologetic strategy (emphasizing uniqueness, emphasizing continuity) has its pros and cons. But perhaps they can be brought together to emphasize the strengths and downplay the weaknesses of each. The argument about the Resurrection is far from over.

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