Over the past year or so I have received numerous queries about 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, specifically as to the statement in 1 Cor15:6 where Paul reports that Jesus had “appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive though some have fallen asleep.” The issue seems to be that appearances to single individuals (like Cephas, James, Mary, Paul, etc.) might seem less convincing than appearances to groups since one person is more prone to hallucinations, or simply being mistaken (as Mary initially was, John 20:14-15). The appearance to multiple individuals at one and the same time, my questioners felt, increased the probability that there was actually something out there to be seen because groups of people would be less subject to the charge of hallucination (“perceptions of objects with no reality”). As one person put it: an appearance by Jesus “to groups of people at once makes it more real, since hallucination is a private event.”1
This raises the question of what exactly was seen by those who claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus—if anything. An appearance of Jesus is not unique; for example, through the years many have also claimed to have seen an “apparition” (appearance) of Mary, Jesus’ Mother.2 One reasonable way to think about these posthumous appearances is as follows. If something registers upon the retina of the eye then one is seeing something “physical.” Hence, it is not a hallucination. There was something “there.” It would have been something like what occurred in Matt 28:9, where the women took hold of Jesus’ feet—they not only saw but they physically grasped his feet.
If there is no impression on the retina of the eye at the moment of the putative “seeing,” then it is a hallucination. One might argue, however, that it was a “spirit body” (whatever that might be; see 1 Cor 15:44, 50). If it was a “spirit,” however, then there was no actual “thing” out there to be seen, since spirits are invisible (God is spirit [John 4:24] and is represented as an invisible deity in the Christian Scriptures [Col 1:15; 1 Tim 1:17; Heb 11:27]). Yet if there was no actual physical “thing” out there, how does that differ from a hallucination? In that case it must be a mental event. I suppose one might think of it as a vision (something seen in a dream, trance, or experienced during ecstasy), but that is also a mental event. I personally would say the same thing about ghosts or phantoms, which at the very least are not physical, and since they do not physically exist how could they register on the retina?
Ophthalmologists recognize two kinds of afterimages. “An afterimage is an image that continues to appear in one’s vision after the exposure to the original image has ceased.”3 The two types are: physiological, or pathological. A physiological afterimage refers to an afterimage that continues after exposure to the original physical image has ceased. Pathological afterimages are of two types: illusory and hallucinatory. An illusory afterimage is “the distorted perception of a real external stimulus.”4 A hallucinatory afterimage is “the projection of an already-encoded visual memory and is similar to a complex visual hallucination: the creation of a formed visual image where none exists.”5
The difficulty with thinking that groups are not subject to the charge of “hallucination” is that hallucinations are also group events. Such an event is called “mass hysteria.”6
So what can reasonably be said about the posthumous resurrection appearances of Jesus: Depending on your point of view, they are as likely or unlikely as the reported apparitions of Mary.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1For reported group appearances see: Matt 28:16-20; Luke 24:13-53; John 20:19-23, 26-29; 21:1-14; Acts 1:6-11.
6For past events that are referred to as “mass hysteria” see: https://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/arts-culture/stories/5-strange-cases-mass-hysteria; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mass_hysteria_cases; https://www.csicop.org/si/show/mass_delusions_and_hysterias_highlights_from_the_past_millennium