Objection! "The Disciples Probably Hallucinated Seeing the Raised Jesus"

May 04, 2020

Could the disciples have experienced a mass hallucination that Jesus rose from the dead instead of actually seeing the risen Jesus? We put this explanation, popular among some skeptics, to the test by employing the rules as to the admissibility of expert testimony.

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The Defense Rests is a podcast where you're the jury. We'll put Christianity and other worldviews in the courtroom as we address the claims for and objections against the Christian faith, all from a legal perspective.

Our host is Abdu Murray, lawyer, author, former Muslim turned Christian and a senior vice president at RZIM. Abdu was named several times in Best Lawyers in America and Michigan Super Lawyer. He will bring objections right from the very lips of atheists, agnostics and various religions to see whether Christianity holds up to courtroom-level scrutiny.

Audio Recording: Dr. Stone, you've held a license to practice medicine for seventeen years. You're board certified in Internal Medicine. You are chief of Internal Medicine at a hospital which serves 5,426 people. In your professional medical opinion, was Willy Santiago poisoned?

Audio Recording: Your Honor, we renew our objection to Commander Stone's testimony and ask that it be stricken from the record. We further ask the court to instruct the court members to lend no weight to this witness's testimony.

Audio Recording: Your objection's overruled, counsel.

Audio Recording: Your Honor, the defense strenuously objects and requests an 802 conference so that His Honor might have an opportunity to hear discussion before ruling on this objection.

Audio Recording: The objection of the defense has been heard and overruled.

Audio Recording: Move to reconsider.

Audio Recording: Your objection is noted. The witness is an expert and the court will hear his opinion.

Abdu Murray: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen to The Defense Rests, a podcast where we take a look at the claims for and the objections against the Christian faith from a legal perspective. Now, the clip you just heard was from A Few Good Men, one of my favorite movies. In fact, it's the movie that inspired me to want to become a lawyer in the first place.

But you lawyers out there will resonate with this, is that once you go to law school and once you practice law and find out how courts really work, a lot of the mystique that comes from the TV shows and the movies, a lot of that goes away. The reason this is, is because you find yourself objecting during the movie, like they would never let that in or never allow that kind of thing to happen in a real court.

That's true; they wouldn't. But it's a good thing that the movies don't portray real courts because the movies would be boring. But this topic will not be boring. As you may have adduced from the clip, we're going to be speaking about expert opinion testimony.

Did you ever wonder how it is that certain people become qualified as experts to give technical or scientific testimony to a jury? What qualifies them? I got a hint for you. It's not a bunch of letters after their name. It's not a dazzling sounding presentation.

The court system actually has very strong standards to allowing people, whether they're very qualified or technically in proficient, to allow them to give an opinion to a jury. Because juries can be easily dazzled as many of us can be by impressive sounding credentials or technical sounding arguments or presentations.

What we have to do through the Federal Rules of Evidence and through the various interpretations of those rules is to see is this actually a qualified opinion based on solid methodology and does it actually pertain to the case at hand?

You see, the American jurisprudential system and, in fact, the European one as well and most around the world are adversarial systems where we have a plaintiff and the defendant and they go at it against each other. Oftentimes, a plaintiff can put up an expert in favor of a certain proposition and the defendant can put up a counter expert.

Well, then you have battling experts, but if you can just put up anybody who might sound impressive, the jury will be hopelessly lost in a sea of technical mumbo-jumbo and jargon. But if we're allowed to screen the process out, the judges can make determinations as to whether or not a certain expert's so-called opinion or so-called expertise will allow them to speak to a jury, then we streamline the process and hopefully get at the truth.

So the question we have to ask is, is expert testimony reliable given a particular expert and given their particular opinion? Now you might ask, well, why is that important now?

Well, you might recall that for the past few episodes we've been talking about the case for the resurrection of Jesus, and I'm going to wrap up our discussion on that and move on to other topics with this episode. But I gave a summary argument, a closing statement, if you will, and it was summarizing four key facts that almost every scholar agrees happened to the historical Jesus.

I summarized that with an acronym, CASE, the case for the resurrection of Jesus. The C was the crucifixion, that he died by crucifixion. The A was the appearances to the disciples as the risen Lord after his death. The S was for the skeptics. It's for the Paul and James who were skeptics of the Christian faith, in fact, enemies of it who became champions of it based on their claim that they saw the risen Jesus. And then E was the empty tomb, that the tomb was known and the tomb was empty.

What we're going to do today is respond to one of the most pervasive objections to that evidence. It attacks the A in the acronym. It attacks the appearances of Jesus to the disciples.

As we pointed out earlier, folks like Gerd Ludemann, an atheist, for example, will say that the disciples had a legitimate actual experience where they sincerely believed that Jesus had appeared to them as the risen Christ. But it is that very same Gerd Ludemann who also says that that experience was a group hallucination or maybe a series of hallucinations, where one person has a hallucination about it and then that person influences other people and then they have a series of hallucinations.

So the argument goes like this: That as opposed to a supernatural, highly unlikely resurrection, what's more likely is that everybody hallucinated it. Well, the question we're going to ask is, does that stand up to the kind of scrutiny that an expert opinion would be subject to in a court of law? Because it is an expert opinion.

It's an expert opinion about a psychological phenomenon. And the question is, is that even admissible, let alone strong? So the Federal Rules of Evidence actually anticipate this issue, and not this particular issue on the resurrection, but on expert testimony and try to weed out junk science and conjecture.

So the Federal Rules of Evidence, specifically Rule 702, it says this: that persons qualified as experts based on their knowledge, skill, experience, training or education are permitted to offer expert opinion testimony to the jury if the following conditions are met.

First, the experts, scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact, which is a fancy way of saying jury or judge, to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue. In other words, do they have a specific scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge to allow them to speak into a specific issue?

Number two: The testimony that the offer has to be based on sufficient facts or data. They can't just make it up as they go along or offer tons of conjecture about what may happen in certain hypotheticals. Even those kinds of opinions have to be based on facts.

Number three: The testimony has to be the product of reliable principles and methods. In other words, your methodology, the way you come to your conclusions, has to be reliable. It can't just be ad hoc and a one-off.

Then four: The expert has reliably applied those very same reliable methodologies and principles to the facts of the case. In other words, their methodology might be great, but their opinions don't really matter or their methodology doesn't really apply to this particular kind of a case.

So the criteria, you have to have some kind of a specialized knowledge. You have to have the facts to back up your testimony or your opinion. It has to be reliably produced. Other words, your methodology has to be good. And it has to pertain to the facts of the case.

Now, the Supreme Court has interpreted this through a very famous case called Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. This was specifically about scientific evidence, the kind of evidence that would be produced in a scientific case like a forensic case or something about why the tires blew up or does this particular drug cause this particular malady, that kind of a thing.

So applying rule 702, the Supreme Court in that case, in the Daubert case, offered some additional criteria to think about when it comes to scientific evidence. Now, I'm going to go through those and I don't want to bore you with it, but it's important that we see some of these in specific.

First is whether the theory or technique in question can and has been tested. It's got an empirical aspect to it.

Number two: whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication. That will be very important later on in our discussion. Has the theory been subjected to peer review and publication?

Is there a known potential error rate? In other words, can we falsify it? Can we see what kind of error rate it has? If it has a high error rate, maybe we shouldn't listen to it at all.

Number four: the existence and maintenance of standards controlling the operation of the methodology, the scientific method that they use. Are there standards and controls? Or is it just sort of a Wild West show?

And then five: whether this theory or the technique has attracted widespread acceptance within a relevant scientific community. Put a pin in that one too: relevant scientific community.

I think for our purposes to address the hallucination hypothesis, we have to really focus on a couple of things. One: Does the person offering the testimony actually have specialized knowledge that will help the trier of fact to determine a fact in issue? So you, ladies and gentlemen, are the jury; you're the trier of fact.

Does someone like a Gerd Ludemann? Does someone like a John Loftus, an atheist I've debated in the past or a Bart Ehrman or a Matt Dillahunty or you name it, does one of these people that would actually have specialized knowledge in a particular field like psychology or like hallucination theory that would actually help you to determine if they actually did have hallucinations? That's a question at issue.

Do they have sufficient facts to base their opinions on in the first place? And then we go to the Daubert standard and we ask this question, has this theory been subjected to peer review and publication? In other words, this idea that people can have mass hallucinations that are identical or largely the same in terms of detail. Has that been peer reviewed? Has it been published? Do you find anything like that?

And the fifth one of the Daubert standard, but we're going to apply as well, is whether this theory that people can have mass identical hallucinations, does this find widespread acceptance within the relevant scientific community, not just any community but the relevant scientific community? We'll ask that question in a moment.

But first, I want to talk about admissibility versus strength of evidence. What I've just outlined for you, all those standards, is your method reliable, is that expert actually speaking from an expertise that they actually have, is it peer reviewed, is the accepting widespread acceptance within a relevant community? That all goes to admissibility.

You see, someone can be a very serious scholar in a particular field, but if they offer an opinion outside that field, then it's not even admissible to the jury. Because the jury wants to only see things that are relevant and admissible and the judge wants to prevent them from being dazzled by a lot of letters after someone's name.

But evidence can be admitted and still be weak. So even if the evidence was admitted, is it weak or does it have strength to overcome the objection? You see, I think even if the evidence on hallucination theories was admissible in a court of law, it still would be extremely weak, because it shows it has almost no explanatory power for the other parts of the case.

It doesn't really explain why Paul and James would convert. It doesn't really explain why the tomb was known and the tomb was empty. Because even if you could admit to the jury to say this particular expert says that these disciples hallucinated it, the jury would say, "Yeah, but doesn't that fall short of explaining why the tomb was known and was empty?" Because hallucinations don't produce empty tombs.

It still wouldn't be strong even if it was admitted. But ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I want to make the case for you that the hallucination hypothesis doesn't even meet the standard of admissibility. It's not even weak. It's not even admissible.

So let's apply the Daubert standard from the Supreme Court and Federal Rule of Evidence 702 to see if this hallucination hypothesis actually holds any water. Well, the first hallucination hypothesis is that the disciples experienced successive hallucinations.

In other words, someone of influence, like Peter or James or John or Paul, had a hallucination, and somehow that hallucination infected a willing community who wanted to believe in Jesus' resurrection, and so they all had successive hallucinations.

The problem with that is, is that the data doesn't back this up. Remember one of the factors is, is the opinion based on sufficient facts and data? And the answer is no. Because what we see in the Gospels, in the four Gospels plus the Book of Acts and Paul's letters, is that Jesus appeared to people in groups.

So the first one we have, for example, is in Luke chapter 24, on the road to Emmaus, two men after Jesus' death, who were disciples of Jesus, are walking and talking about what had happened, the tragedy that had occurred. And then they meet Jesus on the road.

Now we know one of their names, the name of Cleopas, for example, which suggests that Luke got this from Cleopas. It was a firsthand account of what Cleopas saw, and Cleopas talks about how Jesus appeared to him and a companion on the road.

So they couldn't have both hallucinated a guy walking with them and then having a meal with them as well. Because that's part of the testimony. They didn't just hear Jesus, they didn't just see Jesus, they had a meal with Jesus, and they both believed they both had that experience.

Then there's the empty tomb. The Gospels record the empty tomb, and that Peter and John raced into the tomb after being told that it was empty by the women, and they saw that tomb empty. Now, they didn't expect to see the tomb empty. In fact, the women went to the tomb expecting to anoint Jesus' body, preparing it for burial, so they were surprised by the empty tomb. They didn't come expecting it.

That doesn't explain that alleged hallucination. Then they go and tell the disciples about this. And then they would have had to also have hallucinated an empty tomb as well, but they would have to do it together so that John and Peter would have had to have the same hallucination successively at the same time in the same detail. That strains credulity as well.

Then, of course, the Gospels speak about numerous sightings, and, of course, Paul's letter in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 talks about that he appeared to the disciples and he appeared to 500 people who could be questioned at the time. And last of all, he appeared to Paul as well.

But Paul had an experience where other people did have an experience as well. They just didn't see what Paul saw specifically, but they saw something else that frightened them.

So all of these experiences were not successive hallucinations. They were group experiences. And so the success of hallucination hypothesis I think holds no water, because the facts aren't there and therefore that opinion simply cannot be admitted.

But let's see about the group hallucination theory. Is that admissible in a court of law? Does that meet the standards under Daubert and Federal Rule of Evidence 702? I think when we look at all the factors, the answer is a clear no.

Factor one: Under the Federal Rule of Evidence, it says that the experts, technical, scientific, or specialized knowledge has to help the trier of fact, meaning you, ladies and gentlemen, the jury, to determine a fact in issue. Well, the fact in issue is this: Did the disciples see Jesus? Did they have an encounter with Jesus that convinced them he was alive? The opinion offered by Gerd Ludemann and others is that they had a mass hallucination.

The problem is, is that Gerd Ludemann does not have, and people like him do not have technical, scientific or specialized knowledge that would help you as a trier of fact. They say, "Wait a minute. They're PhDs, they're biblical scholars, they're people who study the new Testament in the ancient Near East." Yep. All that's true. They don't study psychology. They don't study mass hallucinations. And that's the key factor.

All of these so called “experts” in this field are experts absolutely in other fields, but not in this one. So their opinion on this matter would not help you to determine if a mass hallucination actually occurred. The first thing I would do is object: "Objection, your honor, foundation and conjecture. This expert is not qualified as an expert in this field. He would not help the trier of fact," and I would be right.

This is incredibly important, because the ad hoc nature of this theory that they had mass hallucinations highlights just how strong the appearances were, just how strong the evidence for the appearances actually were.

Gerd Ludemann and John Loftus and all these other skeptics who want to object and say that, "No, the better explanation is a mass hallucination," they have to engage in an utterly conjectural armchair, 2000-years-stale psychoanalysis of people they've never met, have limited knowledge of, who lived in a culturally different atmosphere completely foreign to them in a time and day that they can't relate to.

And yet they can say what these people experienced and even why. This is important because Gerd Ludemann suggests, for example, that Paul was so guilt-stricken that he had a hallucination of the risen Jesus because he was persecuting the church, and Peter was so grief-stricken that he had a hallucination along with others as well.

Well, that's a lot of armchair psychoanalysis. And I can tell you, from my own undergraduate background in psychology and exposure to clinical psychologists as experts in cases I've had, that it's hard enough to psychoanalyze somebody who's sitting across the room from you, who is contemporary with you, who lives in your era, let alone psychoanalyze somebody who was dead 2000 years before you were even born.

So I think that this is extremely telling that they have to resort to this kind of conjecture and speculation because of the evidence for the appearances is that strong.

What about the other factors? A critical factor in determining whether or not expert testimony is admissible is whether the methodology used to come to that conclusion enjoys, quote, "widespread acceptance within a relevant scientific community." Remember, I told you to put a pin in that one and here we are; we're talking about it again.

Well, when it comes to the group hallucination hypothesis, the answer is just “no.” See, it might be the explanation that an ancient Near East scholar or a historian or a New Testament scholar might reach. But that isn't the relevant scientific community.

Yes, they are experts. Of course Ludemann's an expert in what he speaks about, but he is not an expert in hallucinations and he's not an expert in psychology, so he is not a part of the relevant scientific community. Now, other people who are, like forensic psychologists, psychiatrist and the like, that is the relevant scientific community.

And in that community, the consensus isn't in favor of group hallucinations. It's in favor of the opposite. There are no such things as identical group hallucinations.

But let's take a look at some of the opinions from people who are qualified within the relevant scientific community. I'm speaking specifically of Joseph Bergeron, MD, who is himself a psychiatrist.

Now, he wrote an article along with Gary Habermas, who is a philosopher and a historian who specializes in the resurrection of Jesus. The article was entitled, “The Resurrection of Jesus: A Clinical Review of Psychiatric Hypotheses for the Biblical Story of Easter.”

Now, here's what they conclude about the group hallucinations and how it does not enjoy anything like a consensus or affirmation within the relevant scientific community in terms of the methodology or the conclusions reached. This is what they say, "It's noteworthy that hallucinations are private experiences. Hallucination hypotheses, therefore, are unable to explain the disciples' simultaneous group with the resurrected Jesus.

They go on to say this: "What are the odds that separate individuals in the group could experience simultaneous and identical psychological phenomena mixed with hallucinations? This is a non-sequitur," they say, "concordantly, the concept of collective hallucinations is not found in peer reviewed medical and psychological literature."

That goes to the other factor, by the way, very related to this. Under the Daubert standard is does the methodology and the conclusions reached actually comport with peer-reviewed academic rigor? As Bergeron and Habermas just pointed out, the idea of group hallucinations that are identical does not enjoy anything like peer review within the relevant scientific and psychological literature.

Now, does this mean that group hallucinations don't occur at all? Well, no. They do occur. In fact, "Jake O'Connell says that they do occur, but they're very rare. But he does not find that collective hallucinations adequately explain the disciples' encounters with the post-crucifixion Jesus." That's a quote from the Bergeron and Habermas article as well.

In fact, they go on to say this, Bergeron and Habermas do, quote, "Characteristics of these collective hallucinations were inconsistent with the biblical accounts of the post-crucifixion. Jesus."

In other words, collective hallucinations occur when there is a heightened sense of group expectation. Not everyone in the group experiences a hallucination. Those that do see something have different hallucinations from one to another, and the apparitions do not carry on conversations.

The group hallucination theory is something akin to this: Let's say people had a sleepover. They were all sleeping in a cabin or something like that up in the woods and they all laid on sleeping bags on the floor. They all had a dream and they all had the dream of the same subject, a bear in the woods or whatever.

Well, that may make sense because of where they're located. But would they have an identical dream? Like the bear came into the house and it walked on its hind legs and it walked into the door and helped itself to macaroni and cheese? And they all had that same dream. We would all say, "You're all lying. That's just not the way it works. People don't have dreams like that."

Well, that's exactly what the group hallucination hypothesis actually propounds, that these people had identical hallucinations of Jesus saying the same thing, doing the same things, eating the same foods in the same place with all of them at the same time. What O'Connell says and what Bergeron and Habermas point out is that that simply does not occur: We don't have any evidence of that whatsoever.

I really like this statement in their article: "Again, it is important to note that simultaneous, identical collective hallucinations are not found in peer-reviewed medical literature, and there is no mention of such phenomena in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. As such, the concept of collective hallucination is not a part of current psychiatric understanding or accepted pathogomy. Collective hallucination as an explanation for the disciples' post-crucifixion group experience of Jesus is indefensible."

So ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you this: Could this even be admitted into a jury? Should you even hear it? Now, we're hearing it because it's part of the podcast, but if you were a jury and Jesus' resurrection was on trial, this hallucination theory wouldn't even make it past the judge.

As I wrap up, I want to bring up just two small points. The facts show that group hallucinations that are identical just don't happen, which means that the claim that the disciples had an identical group hallucination is an extraordinary claim.

Now, remember the adage: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Now, I happen not to believe that, but the skeptics do. They often use this claim to say that miracle claims are extraordinary claims and will require extraordinary evidence, not the kind of evidence that Christians typically rely on. But the reality is extraordinary claims don't require extraordinary evidence; they just require good evidence.

But let's turn that kind of a bumper sticker argument on its head. So if a skeptic says, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," well, if you propound a hallucination theory, you're making an extraordinary claim because they simply do not happen. So I would ask the skeptic to present extraordinary evidence in its favor. And the reality is they don't have any evidence in its favor, let alone extraordinary evidence.

The only evidence they would possibly offer is ad hoc and evidence by negative. In other words, they assume resurrections can't happen, so it must be a group hallucination, even though group hallucinations don't happen either.

The last point I'll say is this: Folks like Bart Ehrman, scholars like Bart Ehrman, would say that scholars can't reach as, a historian, the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead, because then historians are making pronouncements on miracles in the past. If you allow for miracles, then history's unknowable because history becomes littered with all these inconsistent things where nature is not left to itself.

So how could you know what really happened? Because you can't make conjectures or you can't make conclusions or draw inferences to fill in the gaps because it could be a miracle, that kind of a thing. But they do it all the time. They do it right here.

If scholars can't make pronouncements on the seemingly miraculous or go against the scientific understanding of how the world actually works, then a scholar could not possibly make a pronouncement on whether or not the disciples had a group hallucination, because group hallucinations don't occur.

When you think about the idea that group hallucinations that are identical don't happen, except in this one time that they did and it happened to be around the most influential fact of history, it very much sounds like a historian is making a pronouncement on a miracle. So contra to what they say that as a historian, you can't determine if a miracle happened. They certainly do when it comes to group hallucinations.

So I would say this: You really have competing unlikelihoods, don't you? It's unlikely that a person rises from the dead. It's unlikely that an entire group would hallucinate. And someone could say, "Well, just cancel them out. They seem equally unlikely. And so we don't know what happened to Jesus."

That's not fair, because we still have to account for the case, the crucifixion, the appearances because we know those did happen, the skeptics being converted because we know those did happen, and the empty tomb. We have a good idea that that actually did happen as well, that the tomb was known and it was empty.

The hallucination theory first enjoys no evidence for it whatsoever. It also doesn't explain why Paul converted, James converted, and it doesn't explain that empty tomb. But the resurrection not only explains all those things, but it explains them extremely well. And the resurrection happened in a context.

You see, the group hallucination wouldn't have happened in a context. The disciples didn't expect a specific revelation of one man but for the rest of the world was resurrected. As good Jews, they would've expected the entire world to be resurrected in one general resurrection, not one guy first. But that's exactly what they saw.

So their hallucination goes against their expectations, and most hallucinations usually are consistent with at least some aspect of our expectations. But it was consistent with what Jesus said. He says that he has come to give his life as a ransom for many.

He claimed that he would die on a cross to save us from our sins. And then in that one instance among others, but in John 2, he says, "Destroy my body and I will raise it up again from the dead." And the resurrection, the appearances of Jesus to the disciples with their own eyes they saw him alive again, fits everything. The hallucination hypothesis doesn't fit anything, but the resurrection fits it all.

Let me close by saying this to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury: There are a lot of counter theories to the resurrection of Jesus, whether they're the group hallucination theory, the swoon theory that he didn't really die but he passed out, or that miracles aren't even possible, but you can see as we have seen each one of them fails at some critical point.

Denying miracles at the outset is circular in its logic. The swoon theory goes against the medical testimony, and this idea of group hallucinations goes against the psychological evidence.

But the resurrection of Jesus, while incredibly extraordinary, comports with all the historical facts. It comports with logic. It comports with the medicine. It comports with psychology. And more importantly, it fulfills the very purpose for which Jesus came, and that was to save you and to save me.

I think the central claim of the Christian faith stands on solid ground. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I'll leave it to you to render your verdict. Until next time, my friends, the defense rests.

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