What did the disciples see?  What did they actually see when they claim Jesus appeared to them risen from the dead?

As I’ve noted in previous blogs, the majority of scholars who study the resurrection, the “experts”, agree that Jesus’ tomb was empty and that the disciples sincerely believed—enough to die for this belief—that Jesus appeared to them. 

But how do we know these appearances weren’t some kind of psychological delusion, a trick their minds played on them.  As a matter of fact, the bulk of those scholars who don’t believe Jesus rose think this is exactly what happened.  They argue that the disciples experienced some kind of group hallucination, collective autosuggestion, communal ecstasy, or cognitive dissonance. 

Under great stress, people have been known to hallucinate.  It’s a psychological defense mechanism that enables them to cope.  Reeling from the trauma of the crucifixion, overwhelmed by grief and guilt, the most natural explanation for the appearances—especially if they found his tomb empty—is that visions of Jesus were manufactured by the disciples’ minds to provide the only comfort that could assuage their acute grief and guilt: he’s alive and all is forgiven! 

In other words, it wasn’t Jesus who appeared to them from the dead, but just a figment of their imagination. 

So how do we know this isn’t what happened?  That the appearances are nothing more than some kind of hallucination?

There are a number of compelling reasons this couldn’t have happened; reasons Jesus really did appear risen from the dead.  I’ll present one here but will have to wait for future blogs for the rest.

Last year, during an episode of the hit TV show Black-ish the lead character, Dre, was sitting around the conference table at work.  One of his colleagues, Charlie, began talking about a deceased relative who appeared to him as a ghost.  According to him, she was wearing an expensive watch.  Astonished, Dre shot him a look of disbelief.  Gesticulating wildly, he then proceeded to explain how non-sensical this comment is: ghosts are pure spirit—they can’t wear a watch; they don’t have anything physical to wrap it around! 

Exactly!  It’s ridiculous to think a pure spirit, such as a ghost, has the physical characteristics to wear a watch.  A spirit, a ghost, is the complete opposite: immaterial, ethereal, non-physical.  If a ghost tried to wear a watch, it would fall right through their wrist.

Mind you, I’m not arguing that ghosts exist.  Just that, by definition, “spirits” are non-physical entities.  They don’t have tangible bodies.  The joke everyone so clearly gets about Dre’s consternation at Charlie’s comment is that it is preposterous to think a ghost could wear a watch.

Why does this matter?  Because the way Paul and the gospel writers consistently depict the risen Jesus is as having a “spiritual body.”

Which is preposterous.  It’s a complete contradiction in terms. 

Like a square circle, married bachelor, or compassionate axe murderer.

In his resurrection appearances, Jesus is consistently described as having all the qualities and characteristics of a physical body AND all the qualities and characteristics of a transcendent spirit.  He can be seen, heard, and touched, he eats food, and still wears the wounds of crucifixion in his body.  Yet, at the same time, he is no longer vulnerable to pain or any other physical limitation, he can pass through locked doors, appear and disappear, and ascend into the heavens. 

Maybe it’s because we’re so familiar with the story, but we just don’t get how strange and non-sensical this depiction is.

Hearing it, we should have the same look of consternation Dre gives Charlie.  It’s completely unintelligible, maddeningly absurd.

A “spiritual body” is an intolerable contradiction.

Here’s the thing.  Hallucinations don’t work this way.  As psychologists agree, hallucinations can’t exceed the content of one’s mind.  They don’t drastically exceed the parameters of what the imagination finds cogent.  In fact, like a mirage in the desert, normally they are a projection of what the mind longs for most.  Even John Dominic Crossan, the most prominent skeptical scholar who doubts the appearances are real, affirms this. 

Hallucinations don’t produce oxymoronish concepts like a square circle, or a spiritual body.  A hallucination could never produce such an unintelligible and maddeningly non-sensical depiction of Jesus. 

Especially if it was meant to bring comfort.  If it was a coping devise intended to overcome their grief and guilt—such a preposterous vision could only add to their stress.  And it does. 

In the appearance of Jesus to the male disciples recorded in Matthew 28:16-20, there is a bizarre and mystifying statement that often gets lost in the wonder of that scene.  Jesus has just appeared to the eleven disciples.  As he’s about to ascend to heaven before their eyes, he issues what’s known as the Great Commission: Go into the whole world, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.  And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world. (vs. 19-20) 

It’s a regal scene.  In fact, when Jesus first appears, the text says that his disciples worshipped him. (v.17)

But what’s usually overlooked is that in the very same verse, it says that some doubted!  How could they?  How could these about-to-be-commissioned-to-go-out-and-transform-the-world great missionaries of the Gospel be so obtuse? 

He’s standing right in front of them, risen from the dead for God’s sake!

How can they doubt?

As many have noted, because it’s so embarrassing, this element of doubt has to be authentic.  It had to be their actual reaction.  Whatever else we want to say about the nature of these appearances, we can be sure historically that at least some of his “faithful” disciples doubted when he appeared.

By why?  Why did they doubt?  What would cause such a reaction, especially as others worshipped?

If the appearances were the figment of their imaginations, a psychological defense mechanism meant to provide comfort in the face of disabling fear, they wouldn’t have elicited doubt.  Instead, they would have brought peace, assurance, and confidence. 

That’s the whole point of a coping device!

But if Jesus appeared in a way that was, among other things, absurdly paradoxical, frighteningly bizarre, too far-fetched to get your mind around—in other words, if he appeared with a “spiritual body”—it’s no wonder it would be so baffling and disconceting.  It’s no wonder some would doubt. 

No hallucination, no psychological coping mechanism, especially one meant to assuage the disciples’ grief and guilt, would produce such an unintelligible depiction of Jesus. 

Such an outlandish, maddening, oxymoronish depiction can only be explained one way: this is the way Jesus actually appeared, with—as absurd as it sounds—a ”spiritual body.”

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

Read More