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Investigating Easter: Did the Disciples Imagine the Resurrection?

Did the Disciples Imagine the Resurrection
Image Credit: Ricky Gipson

In the many centuries since the disciples of Jesus reportedly observed the risen Christ, critics of Christianity have challenged the supernatural claim of the Resurrection. Some skeptics believe the disciples, as a result of their intense grief and sorrow, only imagined seeing Jesus alive after His death on the cross. These critics claim the appearances were simply hallucinations that resulted from wishful thinking. But this proposal fails to explain the empty tomb and only accounts for the resurrection experiences at first glance.

As a detective, I frequently encounter witnesses who are related in some way to the victim in my case. These witnesses are often profoundly impacted by their grief following the murder. As a result, some allow their sorrow to impact what they remember about the victim. They may, for example, suppress all the negative characteristics of the victim’s personality and amplify all the victim’s virtues. Let’s face it, we all have a tendency to think the best of people once they have died. But these imaginings are typically limited to the nature of the victim’s character and not the elaborate and detailed events that involved the victim in the past. Those closest to the victim may be mistaken about his or her character, but I’ve never encountered loved ones who have collectively imagined an identical set of fictional events involving the victim. It’s one thing to remember someone with fondness, another thing to imagine an elaborate and detailed history that didn’t occur. Based on these experiences as a detective, there are other reasonable concerns when considering the explanation that the disciples hallucinated or imagined the resurrection:

  1. While individuals have hallucinations, there are no examples of large groups of people having the exact same hallucination.
  2. While a short, momentary group hallucination may seem reasonable, long, sustained, and detailed hallucinations are unsupported historically and intuitively unreasonable.
  3. The risen Christ was reported seen on more than one occasion and by a number of different groups (and subsets of groups). All of these diverse sightings would have to be additional group hallucinations of one nature or another.
  4. Not all the disciples were inclined favorably toward such a hallucination. The disciples included people like Thomas, who was skeptical and did not expect Jesus to come back to life.
  5. If the resurrection was simply a hallucination, what became of Jesus’s corpse? The absence of the body is unexplainable under this scenario.

Hallucination theories simply fail to account for the detailed observations of the disciples and the empty tomb of Christ. Someone would certainly have questioned these observations and checked the tomb to see if Jesus’s body was present. If the disciples only imagined seeing Jesus alive after the Resurrection, the tomb should still have contained His body. It didn’t. The truth of the Gospel accounts and the Resurrection of Jesus is still the most reasonable inference from the evidence. This brief review of the issues related to the resurrection is excerpted from Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. For more information, please refer to Chapter Two – Learn How to Infer. A complete assessment of the evidence for the Resurrection can also be obtained as an accessible Easter “tract” called ALIVE.

For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.

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Written By

J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured cold-case homicide detective, popular national speaker and best-selling author. He continues to consult on cold-case investigations while serving as a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He is also an Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, and a faculty member at Summit Ministries. He holds a BA in Design (from CSULB), an MA in Architecture (from UCLA), and an MA in Theological Studies (from Gateway Seminary).

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