This morning NPR broadcast a follow-up on Hurricane Katrina. As the storm hurled itself ashore in Mississippi, a woman in the Biloxi area frantically called 911. She was the sole adult in an attic with 13 children. The flood water was already up to their heads. They had no way out of the attic. The dispatcher could not help the woman.
For months afterwards, the 911 dispatcher heard the woman's voice from time to time. The dispatcher — who sounded quite normal — interpreted the episodes as visits from a troubled spirit. (Link: Alix Spiegel, Hurricane Duty Continues to Haunt Mississippi Police, NPR Morning Edition, Wed. April 5, 2006; requires RealPlayer or Windows Media Player. The entire nine-minute report is worth listening to.)
The NPR story brings to mind Paul's reports of hearing and conversing with Jesus. Conceivably, some or all of Jesus's post-mortem appearances to other disciples might have been a similar phenomenon.
But what exactly is the phenomenon? Examples of people encountering the dead are not unknown. For example:
• Grief hallucinations are little-understood. John Shelby Spong has suggested, in one of his books, that the apostle Peter and other disciples might have experienced such hallucinations. A physician-authored entry in the National Institutes of Health's MedLine Plus service notes that "having a hallucination of hearing the voice of or briefly seeing a loved one who has recently died can be a part of the grieving process."
The gospels report that Jesus did much more than just appear to the disciples. He reportedly ate fish, walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and urged Thomas to put his hands in the wounds in Jesus's hands. We can't, however, discount the possibility that those accounts mutated in the retelling during the decades that they were passed along by word of mouth before being written down in the form we currently have. (See also here, as well as here for an attempt to rebut the idea that Jesus's post-mortem appearances were grief hallucinations.)
• According to a best-seller of a few years ago, during World War II a captured U.S. Navy flyer was executed by the Japanese. Shortly afterwards, his mother — who at that point knew only that he was missing in action — saw him flying overhead waving an American flag, saying "Good bye, Mom." (James Bradley, Flyboys: A True Story of Courage, Little, Brown & Co. 2003, p. 191). In a similar vein, both my mother and my grandmother (separately) reported encountered deceased relatives while wide awake. In my grandmother's case, one of my cousins, recently killed in an automobile accident, appeared to her and said, "don't worry, Grandma, everything's going to be OK."
• It's possible that Jesus might be alive in a new universe, a new creation of God, in another dimension that sometimes bumps into the universe in which we live. This idea sounds a lot like several different Star Trek episodes. It comes, however, from no less than the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, a noted particle physicist turned Anglican priest, who offers it as as one of several "naive speculations" in the conclusion of his recent book Exploring Reality. Polkinghorne comments:
... In the current version of superstring theory (a conceptual flight of fancy in its way as breathtaking as any idea in eschatology), it is assumed that our universe is located on a 'brane' (a multidimensional membrane) which may be only infinitesimally, but decisively, separated from other universes on other branes, which are also components in a hypothetical multiverse of such worlds 'side by side'.
... It is conceivable ... that though we shall all die at different times in this world, we shall all be re-embodied together at the same 'time' in the world to come. That would indeed be the Great Day of final resurrection.
It is also conceivable that the two creations sometimes draw very near to each other, in analogy to the way in which physicists speculate about how two branes might draw closer together with some form of consequent influence flowing between them. ... The two creations might sometimes actually intersect, their two times briefly colliding.
I personally think in this way about the resurrection appearances of the risen Christ, thereby understanding how it could be that Jesus suddenly appeared and disappeared as the different dimensions temporarily enmeshed and then separated. [pp. 171-72, emphasis added]
It's a shame we have so little hard information about what the disciples actually experienced. The tales handed down to us in the gospels were filtered through an unknown number of stages of the "telephone game," in at least two languages, for several decades, before being written down in the forms we have today. Those tales are subject to all the dangers of false memories and story distortion that long ago led to the prudent imposition of a hearsay rule.
Maybe someday we'll know more about the nature of people's encounters with the dead. That might give us more insights into what Jesus's disciples did experience after his death.