When people undergo an emotionally traumatic event, it has dramatic effects on the brain. When people lose someone they love, it is quite common for them to have hallucinations of the person (or pet!) shortly after the loss. The phenomena is now well documented and is known as bereavement hallucinations. In one study, an amazing 80% of elderly widows report having hallucinations—either full visual or auditory—up to a month after the spouse has died. It appears that the neurochemistry of grief is playing an active role on systems in the brain that contribute to visual representation. People report seeing or hearing the lost person in some familiar environment, being visited in their dreams, or having conversations with them while being completely awake.
This phenomena suggest several interesting points about religious beliefs. First, consider the resurrection stories about Jesus. If Jesus was a real person and he was executed in the public and dramatic fashion that is alleged, then the emotional impact on his devoted followers would have been staggering. Suppose there were 20 people in Jesus’ immediate circle of committed followers. If the studies above can be taken as an indicator of the likelihood of some sort of post death hallucination in which Jesus would revisit the followers, we can actually generate some probabilities. If there is a .5 probability for each person that they will experience a hallucination of Jesus after his death, then we would expect half of them to have one. The odds that none of the followers would have a hallucination are vanishingly small. What are the odds that you could flip a coin 20 times and get all heads? That is to say, knowing that bereavement hallucinations are so common, we would predict with a high degree of certainty that Jesus’ followers, like any other normal human beings, would have them. It would be far more surprising and unlikely for them not to report having seen Jesus returned from the dead.
So some or many of his followers most certainly would have had these hallucinations, and they would have talked with each other, encouraged each other, adjusted their stories, filled in or altered the details just as normal people do when they give testimony about important events. The question then is not so much whether or not they reported having such experiences—most people do. The question will be given that so many normal people have such experiences and they are the product of neurobiological functions in the brain and nothing more, what reasons do we have to think that the experiences the followers of Jesus had are not the ordinary, common hallucinations, but actually of something real? As I have argued in several previous posts, we have ample reason for not leaping to that extraordinary conclusion when such an obvious, common, and well documented natural explanation is available.
But what would an ordinary person in the first century be led to think if they had such an experience? The data I cited above wouldn’t have been available to them. They scarcely had any conception of what a brain is or what role it plays in fabricating, falsifying, or altering experience in special circumstances. Such an experience would have been utterly mystifying. We can imagine that it would have seemed to them that the only obvious and reasonable explanation of what they saw was that they were being visited by a ghost or the resurrected person they love. A failure to appreciate the capacities of the human brain have no doubt played a huge role in the fact that 70-80% of modern Americans believe in ghosts, afterall. If modern humans are having these experiences and concluding that they are ghosts, then surely the 1st century religious zealots following Jesus would have been no more insightful or informed. It may have been reasonable for them to think that Jesus was resurrected given that they just wouldn’t have known any better. But we have substantial reasons to think they were wrong. Clearly, what might be reasonable for someone 2,000 years without the benefits of science and the vast body of knowledge that we have should not be accepted as reasonable for us. What remains the baffling puzzle is why so many people are willing to simply accept what the early believers claimed without question while being so much better informed about so many things. Modern Christians will employ the highest levels of critical scrutiny to carefully dismantle the evidence for global warming while accepting the under reported claim from a small group of 1st century Iron Age religious zealots that their leader was magically resurrected from the dead.
Background articles on bereavement hallucinations:
Visits from the Deceased
Widows and Hallucinations
Saturday, May 9, 2009