Was the Resurrection an illusion?The other day, while driving on the freeway, I saw a large bird on the side of the road. It was just walking around ignoring the cars. As I got closer, I could see its little legs moving, and as I got closer still I saw that this was really a big bird – a turkey maybe. I didn’t think we had wild turkeys in this part of Texas, but this sure looked like one. I got closer still and saw that it was a plastic bag blowing in the wind.
It happens to everyone – our eyes see something, and our brain tries to interpret it. Because we automatically try to place things in familiar categories, our brains occasionally place something in the wrong category – even supplying the necessary details, like little bird legs (which were probably just grass), to make the category work.
A more relevant example: I saw my grandmother more in the first couple of months after her death than I had in the previous few years. We were not even particularly close, but everywhere I went I saw her, at least for a split second, in someone else. It was obviously an illusion – a trick of my mind – and at no point did I actually think my grandmother had returned from the dead.
Given the tricks our minds can play on us, could the apostles and other “witnesses” to the resurrected Christ have been mistaken?
The first argument against this notion is that Christ’s post-resurrection appearance were made to many people at the same time. We can accept that a person can make such a mistake, but a dozen all at once? Five hundred (1Cor 15:6)?
The second argument against this objection is that the witnesses did not just see Jesus across a room. They spoke with Him, touched Him, ate with Him (e.g., Luke 24:36-43). An illusion doesn’t break bread for you (Luke 24:30).
The third problem with this theory is that if the apostles were mistaken about seeing the risen Jesus, His body was still in the tomb. If they ran around Jerusalem preaching that Jesus was alive and making a general nuisance of themselves (c.f., Acts 4:1-22), we would expect the authorities to produce that body and snap them out of their euphoria. This didn’t happen. The earliest Jewish polemic against the resurrection (Matt 28:11-15) assumes an empty tomb.
It seems highly unlikely that the early Christians mistakenly believed they had seen a resurrected Christ. Were they perhaps lying? We’ll look at that next time.