Did Jesus’ Disciples Fool Themselves?

By L. Alfred James

We are currently in a series of blog posts that provide an intellectual pathway for moving someone (or yourself) all the way from hardcore atheism to biblical Christianity. In the past couple of weeks we have seen three separate lines of evidence that support the theory that Jesus literally rose from the dead: the empty tomb, Jesus’ post-mortem appearances, and the disciples’ belief in his resurrection.

One popular response to this evidence is to assert that all of the disciples’ possibly had some kind of hallucinations: “Maybe Jesus’ body disappeared because of some kind of mix-up of gravesites, or something else happened that we don’t know about. Whatever it was, his body went missing, and his tomb was empty. And the empty tomb suggested to the disciples that he was resurrected because they wanted to believe it so bad.”

Mary Todd LincolnHallucinations are a real phenomenon recognized by modern psychology. And we know of historical figures who have had such hallucinations. For instance, Mary Todd Lincoln became mentally unstable after the death of her husband, President Lincoln. She afterwards reported that Mr. Lincoln would appear to her at times to comfort her. She said the same thing about her son Willie, who died at the age of 12 while they lived in the White House. Apparently, she was absolutely convinced that these were real visitations, not hallucinations.

Why could we not say the same thing about Jesus’ disciples? Maybe they were like Mary Todd Lincoln, and lived in a delusory state. Thus, their mental condition induced them to have hallucinations in which Jesus appeared them. They so badly wanted to believe that Jesus was alive that their wishful thinking fooled them into thinking they saw him.

In fact, it might even be possible to explain everything without resorting to hallucinations. It might be the case that wishful thinking alone led the disciples to be very gullible. After all, it only takes one rumor for people to believe something that they want to believe. Just consider how many people believe stupid things simply based off of forwarded emails.

Wishful thinking is clearly responsible for many of our beliefs. So, why not think that the disciples just sort of fooled themselves into thinking that Jesus rose from the dead? Whether it was through the phenomenon of hallucinations or through gullibility, or both, it seems possible to explain away their belief in Jesus’ resurrection.
So, how solid of an objection is this?

Refutation: Saul’s Conversion

The easiest refutation of this idea comes from the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Saul was dead-set against Christianity. According to Luke (in the book of Acts), he had formulated a plan to weaken the influence of Christians in the region of Damascus: “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2). Luke rightly calls Saul “murderous.” Saul had already granted his support to the killing of Stephen (Acts 8:1), and he was ready for more killing, if necessary.

Saul ConversionHowever, something dramatic happened while he was traveling to Damascus. The resurrected Jesus appeared to him and totally rocked his world. He was knocked off his horse, was blinded for three days, and did a complete about-face in his theology. He underwent a gigantic transformation. To call it a paradigm-shift is an understatement. To signify his internal revolution, he changed his name to Paul and went from being the church’s worst persecutor to its most fervent advocate.

Moreover, Saul’s conversion is widely accepted by historians as a historical fact. This is the case for a number of reasons, but I will only mention one: His conversion is attested by multiple independent sources. It is attested by material written by Luke (the book of Acts). It is attested by multiple epistles written by Saul himself. And it is attested by historical documents outside of the Bible. Thus, the transformation of this man is a rock-solid historical fact.

No Wishful Thinking

Something very important follows from the historicity of Saul’s conversion: It totally refutes the wishful-thinking hypothesis. This man was not hoping Christianity was true. He hated Jesus and he hated Christians. As a good Pharisee he believed the Christians were guilty of some of the worst blasphemy possible. Worse, the Christian movement was undermining the Pharisees’ influence. If Jesus really was the messiah then the Pharisees were absolutely wrong in opposing Jesus and they were terribly mistaken in many of their theological beliefs. So, the more that Christianity grew, the worse the Pharisees looked. Again, Saul had lots of reasons for wanting to prove that Christianity was absolutely false.

Thus, it is ridiculous to think that Saul’s conversion was the result of wishful thinking, gullibility, or self-delusion. That is no more likely than the moon being made of green cheese.

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