(…continued) In his excellent book Resurrecting Jesus, New Testament scholar Dale Allison surveys the available scientific studies and literature on hallucinations. In documented cases, he concludes, there are four things that do not happen (or rarely happen). First, hallucinations are rarely seen by multiple individuals and groups over an extended period of time. Second, hallucinations are rarely seen by large groups of people, especially groups of more than eight. Third, hallucinations have never led to the claim that a dead person has been resurrected. And fourth, hallucinations do not involve the person’s enemy. (We could also add the fact that hallucinations typically aren’t known for launching global movements or world religions.)
Yet in the case of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, every last one of these rare or seemingly impossible circumstances has come to pass.
Allison sums up the implications forcefully:
These appear to be the facts, and they raise the question of how we should explain them. The apologists for the faith say that the sightings of Jesus must, given the reports, have been objective. One person can hallucinate, but twelve at the same time? And dozens over an extended period of time? These are legitimate questions, and waving the magical wand of ‘mass hysteria’ will not make them vanish.
The only other answer given by respectable scholars wrestling with this robust historical record is some variation of “I don’t know.” Much like Fredriksen, renowned New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders also represents this cautious-agnostic approach when he writes, in The Historical Figure of Jesus: “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had Resurrection experiences is, in my judgement, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.”
Jordan Peterson, the popular professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, also belongs in this category. He neither affirms nor rejects the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. When asked directly if Jesus literally rose from the dead, Peterson responded, “I need to think about that for about three more years before I would even venture an answer beyond what I’ve already given.”
The cautious-agnostic’s position is a respectable one. Even the original apostles did not believe the claim of the Resurrection when the women first told them (Luke 24:8–11). Yet if someone like Peterson, with an open mind and heart, follows the evidence where it leads, I am convinced he will find himself at the feet of the risen Jesus, proclaiming with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
The extraordinary nature of Jesus’ resurrection reminds me of my favorite scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The play opens with the “wondrous strange” appearances of Hamlet’s dead father to Bernardo and Marcellus and then later to Hamlet’s friend Horatio. Horatio is the skeptic of the group, and Hamlet challenges his disbelief of the supernatural with these words:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Shakespeare speaks through Hamlet, telling us to expect the unexpected. Welcome the strange and extraordinary. It is indeed wondrous strange that the ghost of Hamlet’s father is appearing to people, but do not reject it for that reason alone. Your philosophy should be wide enough for the supernatural. More things are happening in our wonderful world (and beyond) than you can imagine. If your philosophy is not wide and open enough to include the miraculous and the extraordinary, then you need a new philosophy.
Our philosophies should make room for the unexpected, strange, and extraordinary. And yet, the most important question to ask of any miraculous claim is “What is the evidence?”
We have seen that, even from the perspective of the most skeptical scholars, the weight of the historical record attests that a host of individuals and groups believed they saw the risen Jesus. All the evidence we have suggests that his eyewitnesses were trustworthy and honest. Why disbelieve them?
We can even move beyond the first-century time frame, exploring how belief in the Resurrection laid the foundations of all Western civilization, inspiring some of the greatest art, literature, music, film, philosophy, morality, and ethics that the world has ever seen. Is this all based on a lie?
And if all that is still not enough, then doubters may behold the billions across the world today who readily testify to how the living Christ has transformed their lives. These include intellectual giants who have converted to Christianity from every world religion (or from atheism and agnosticism). In Christ, they have found all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
Now more than ever, in this dark, plague-ridden world, your family, friends, and neighbors are looking for hope. The living Christ is the only hope for us all for anything beyond this short and uncertain life.
“I prefer to believe those writers who get their throats cut for what they write.”
–Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), French inventor, mathematician, physicist, philosopher, and adult convert to Christianity.
I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.