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.
If you want to read some more resources on the resurrection of Jesus as hallucination, I suggest the following from the Christian CADRE website:
I suggest a couple of things: it is impossible for Paul to have experienced grief hallucinations about Jesus because there is no evidence he was close to Jesus at the time.
Grief hallucinations cannot, to my understanding, account for Paul's being struck blind.
John Shelby Spong's reading of the Bible is not warranted by a fair view of the text.
The Gospels were not "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." The best evidence shows that while there may have been about twenty years of oral tradition about Jesus, Luke wrote Luke around 64 A.D., Matthew was written by Matthew -- an eyewitness -- (or his followers based upon what was told to them) prior to that date, Mark wrote what Peter -- an eyewitness -- told him when he worked with Peter in Rome during the 50s or early 60s, and the apostle John -- an eyewitness -- wrote his Gospel personally around 95 AD (although it may have been written in two parts with the first part being written around 45 AD). Finally, Paul, while not an eyewitness to the earthly ministry, relates that he learned from eyewitnesses in Galatians, and his letters start as early 48 AD and extend throught around 62 AD. Thus, there is lots of evidence of what Jesus actually did and said.
Posted by: BK | April 05, 2006 at 09:42 PM
Welcome, BK, and thanks for the observations. Let me respond to a few of them.
I agree that there's no evidence Paul was close to Jesus. But you go too far to say that "it is impossible for Paul to have experienced grief hallucinations about Jesus ...." We know far too little about how the brain works to be able to rule out this possibility so categorically.
So far as I've been able to determine, Paul's first-hand accounts of his conversion say nothing about his being struck blind (see 1 Cor 15, Gal 1.13-14, Phil 3.6). Only the hearsay accounts in Acts refer to Paul's blindness.
Don't get me wrong: I agree it's possible that Paul simply chose not to mention his blindness in the particular letters preserved in our canon. But in a couple of those letters, Paul went out of his way to proclaim his dominical credentials. He was eager to convince his readers that yes, he really, truly was an apostle. If he had in fact experienced a blinding flash of light from the Lord during his conversion experience, it seems strange that he didn't mention it to help bolster his claims. On this point, the argument from silence — that maybe Paul wasn't struck blind after all — isn't completely implausible.
Your comments immediately after the above-quoted sentence actually work against your argument. I'll deal with some of them below.
Twenty years is one heck of a long time for stories to circulate before being written down. I probably sound like a broken record, but there's a reason we have a hearsay rule: it's because millennia of experience have taught us that stories tend to become corrupted in the retelling. Memories can fade and even mutate. People tend to remember things in a way that fits into their preconceived notions — especially if they have an agenda to push, an axe to grind, or a score to settle. That's just a fact of human nature.
Let's assume for the sake of argument that John did indeed write the Fourth Gospel — even though that's not free from dispute. Any reasonable person would wonder about an account that purports to include long, verbatim quotations from 60 years in the past.
Here's an analogy: Suppose Dwight D. Eisenhower had a very young lieutenant as part of his staff during the D-Day landings. Now suppose that today, more than 60 years later, in his old age, the former lieutenant writes up, from memory, an account of his days with Ike. The account contains long, purportedly-verbatim quotations of Ike's speeches to his staff and to others. The speeches reported by the lieutenant are considerably different than those recounted in other histories (which other histories, by the way, are never mentioned in the lieutenant's account). Moreover, the now-elderly lieutenant goes out of his way to emphasize how close he was to Ike, and how much Ike trusted him. We might well give the lieutenant the benefit of the doubt that he was telling the story as best he remembered it. But we would naturally be wary of putting too much stock in his tales — and we would almost certainly want more corroboration before making any important decisions based on his testimony.
Again, there's a reason we have a hearsay rule. I can't stress that often enough. As time passes, memories not only can fade, they can mutate. Moreover, as stories are retold, each reteller tells the story as it "lives" in his or her brain, not necessarily as s/he heard it (hence my reference to the "telephone game").
Thanks again for stopping by and for taking the time to leave the detailed comment.
Posted by: D. C. | April 06, 2006 at 09:37 AM
I recently had a fun and fascinating discussion with my grandfather on the topics of planes and the nature of our existence. Pretty surprising stuff from a guy who's been an elder in the Church of Christ for 30 years, a group not known for its thought of anything beyond what is "clear" in scripture.
I've also enjoyed presentations from Brian Greene and have read some of his work on physics, string theory and dimensions. All very exciting... too bad our technology is 100 years away from actually testing any of this stuff in the lab.
Posted by: Redlefty | April 06, 2006 at 12:52 PM
quote from original article "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."
We can't prove anything 100%---even our own existence.
The evidence for the Resurrection, however, is substantial...the evidence for the disciples so QUICKLY getting courage and either being deceived...or dying willingly as their plan of deception is slight and incredibly shaky.
I had a discussion almost like this with a dear friend who did not take the supernatural claims of the Bible seriously. Let's see. Time, verbal retelling, story mutation...to a fairy tale ending. However, some EXTREME events done in front of witnesses, can still be burnt into one's mind years later...
It was about 1988. Then, I had living relatives who remembered 1938---when the Nazis invaded their country of Norway. While they forgot things between 1938 and now, I doubt the critical days of the invasion of their country, homes, and villages was forgotten....And they did not forget their traitorous leader Quisling, for whom they reversed their policy of "no capital punishment" (he was executed after the war).
Point---lots of people saw & heard Jesus in most of the events of his life. And even then, as the Gospels, Letters were starting to be written, there would be some (see the beginning of Luke) who could "vet" the basic accounts of the Gospels, and earlier Letters (which mention some events of Jesus life, death, resurrection in passing).
Like the Norwegians of 1938, surely major events would stick hard into the brains of the witnesses. Maybe they recorded the Gospel stories with slightly different details, but death & life are hard to deviate on.
Surely, Jesus' life and actions were burnt into their memory, and the early Christians started to change the world after their Leader split history with His carpentry axe. While if it were all a sad joke, the name "Jesus" would be a minor note in some ancient history textbook.
Posted by: V Knutsen | April 11, 2007 at 01:17 PM
VK, please don't make the mistake of all-or-nothing thinking. Few reexaminers think there's much doubt that Jesus lived and died, and that his followers had their lives dramatically changed afterwards.
But Luke's claim to have thoroughly researched matters needs critical scrutiny itself. That's impossible, of course; we have no way of determining whom he might have talked to, nor what prior documentation he might have reviewed. Plus, we don't know the extent of the manuscript tampering (we do know that some took place).
Incidentally, the Nazis invaded Norway on April 9, 1940, not in 1938; thanks for helping illustrate my point about faulty memories — in the present context it's a minor error, but who knows what kind of ripple effects the error might have when combined with other facts and errors.
In any case, thanks for stopping by.
Posted by: D. C. | April 11, 2007 at 01:38 PM
Lacan calls a hallucination a return of the repressed in the Real -- Paul's "kicking against the pricks" suggests the repressed. However a mere hallucination could not found the substantial Easter joy that pervades Paul's writing. See http://josephsoleary.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/04/the_resurrectio.html
Posted by: Joseph O'Leary | April 17, 2007 at 02:44 AM
For an excellent aid in understanding the significance of additional dimensions and their relevance to this topic, check out "Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions" written in 1884 by an Englishman named Edwin Abbott Abbott - That's not a typo - Edwin A. Abbott.
Posted by: VentureLawyer | April 01, 2010 at 10:43 PM