The Resurrection Appearances: 2. Eyewitnesses, Visions or Hallucinations?

The Resurrection Appearances: A Seven Part Series
Part 2. Eyewitnesses, visions or hallucinations?

The people who saw the resurrection appearances are frequently called eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus Christ, but they were not eyewitnesses in the modern sense of the term. A closer and more accurate analysis of the resurrection appearances reported in the New Testament reveals that these people had visions of the risen Jesus. Technically, visions may be considered eyewitnesses, because a person has seen something but the reality of what was seen is in doubt—especially when an eyewitness observes paranormal activity. 

In this post, I will explain why the resurrection appearances are visions and not eyewitnesses (as commonly understood today), and yet these visions may still be used to establish the resurrection of Jesus as a fact of history (pace. Wolfhart Pannenberg), and may not be dismissed as hallucinations.   

The Resurrection Appearances were Visionary Experiences

The resurrection of Jesus was a supernatural event, that was also observed in a supernatural way. For instance, during Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus, he saw the risen Jesus, but his traveling companions did not hear or see Jesus (or experienced something they didn't comprehend). Since the resurrection appearance was only seen by Paul, it was not an ordinary event that could have been video tapped, or seen by anyone who present with him, and this raises the question whether Paul saw Jesus in reality, or was his vision actually a hallucination. The other resurrection appearances reported in the gospels are also visionary in nature. For instance, Jesus was not immediately recognizable to people who intimately knew him (cf. Luke 24:16; John 20:11-18), and in once instance he was perceived to be ghost (Luke 24:37). 

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament classifies the resurrection appearances as a subtype of vision, because they contain some features that are commonly found in visions, but not all. Also, the visionary nature of the resurrection appearances are still understood as real events despite being seen through a vision. In other words, the people who saw the resurrection appearances, believed that they had really seen the risen Jesus in reality, and did not think of it as a dream with no historical reality behind it.  

The Resurrection Appearances: we have accounts of the resurrection appearances in Mt 28:9-10, 16ff; Lk 24:13ff, 36ff, 50ff; Jn 20:14ff, 19ff, 24ff; 21:1ff; Acts 1:4ff, and cf. Paul's conversion. The appearances are all isolated, and in Acts 9:3; 22:6 Jesus seems to come from heaven. No appearance is said to have occurred during sleep, so the appearances are not dream-visions. Indeed, they do not take place by night. Again, they are always linked with revelations by word. At times the Lord's corporeality is viewed more literally (Lk 24:39-40), at times more spiritually (Lk 24:36). In 2 Cor 12:1 Paul does not include the Damascus experience among his visions (in spite of the optasia of Acts 26:19; cf. 22:17-18). If he sees the Lord according to 1 Cor 9:1, it is because God reveals his Son to him (Gal 1:16). In 1 Cor 15:3ff. Paul says that Jesus "appeared" (cf. Lk 24:34; Acts 9:17). The stress is on revelation rather than on actual seeing; Jesus shows himself, and those to whom he does so experience his presence. The Damascus experience is for Paul similar to prior experiences during the 40 days. [1]

Does the visionary nature of the resurrection appearances mean they were hallucinations?

All of the resurrection appearances reported in the New Testament contain supernatural features that are common in other biblical and extra-biblical visions, and they are unlike the ordinary eyewitness accounts used as evidence in a modern law court today; if these resurrection appearances were presented as eyewitness accounts today, then they may be likely be dismissed as hallucinations. In the ancient world of the New Testament, visions established the veracity of a witness, but today visions generally discredit a witness' truthfulness. So I don't think its helpful to covertly describe the ancient resurrection appearances as modern eyewitness testimony, when they were intended to be visionary experiences in their original ancient context.

Pannenberg offers a very important insight, that the visionary nature of the resurrection appearances do not prevent them from being used to demonstrate the resurrection was a fact of history. I consider this to be the impost important and best insight that Pannenberg offers, and desires further discussion today. 

Pannenberg says, "A common view is that in their form the events in all the stories seem to offer visionary experiences. This is not to deny their reality, however, even though in detail there might be circumstances that are usually associated with hallucinations, whether due to drugs or sickness. The thesis that we must regard all visionary experiences as psychological projections with no basis in reality cannot be regarded in any case an adequately grounded postulate." [2] 

Paul's vision of the risen Jesus

Paul's vision of the risen Jesus is reported three times in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 9:1-16; Acts 22:6-11; Acts 26:12-18), and in Acts 26:19, Paul explicitly calls this resurrection appearance a "heavenly vision" (optasia), further confirming that his conversion on the road to Damascus was a vision. Pannenberg says, "In Acts 9:3 we seem to have a vision of light (along with an audition). The Lord thus appeared from heaven (Gal 1:16) in distinction from the Gospel appearances, in which Christ came on earth, passing through closed doors." [3] Granted, Paul is not the author of Acts, and the three reports are slightly different and contain contradictions. Nevertheless, the three reports in Acts are derivative of what Paul says about the resurrection appearance in his own writings.

Karl Barth provides a helpful list of Paul's references to his vision of the risen Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus:

It pleased God "to reveal his Son to me, that I might preach him among the heathen" (Gal 1:16). The Resurrected appeared to him too, as the last of the apostles, and therefore quite plainly as one of them (1 Cor 15:8). "Am I not an apostle? ... Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?" (1 Cor 9:1). Christ had pity on His persecutor, treating him as a believer and taking him into His service (1 Tim 1:12f). The Lucan accounts read like analyses of these compressed Pauline statements. [4]

Contradictions in Paul's Vision

Another challenge in establishing the historical facticity of the resurrection appearances, is the biblical accounts contain contradictions. One of the more challenging contradictions is between the first and second report of Paul's vision in Acts 22:9 and Acts 9:7.  Luke Timothy Johnson says that Acts 22:9 "exactly contradicts the first version of the story"[5] of Paul's conversion recorded in Acts 9:7. Paul's traveling companions on the road to Damascus in Acts 9:7 heard the voice of the Lord but saw no one (ἀκούοντες μὲν τῆς φωνῆς μηδένα δὲ θεωροῦντες) but in Acts 22:9 they saw the Lord but didn't hear the voice (δὲ φωνὴν οὐκ ἤκουσαν τοῦ λαλοῦντός μοι). Contradictions such as this, but are artifacts of the resurrection stories, due to the way they were communicated through oral tradition and then assembled by authors for the purpose of telling a narrative involving disparate sources. The Biblical Texts have a capacity for error, such that contradictions such as this, do not disprove the historical facticity of the resurrection appearances.

Richard Bauckham says, "If, as I have suggested and allowing for the evangelists' freedom as storytellers, . . . then we must regard the differences between the stories as irreducible. We cannot go behind them to a supposedly original version. Nor can we dispense with the angels and reconstruct a less mythological laden event. They are different performances of the oral traditions, and their differences are such as would have been expected and unproblematic in performances of oral traditions, no greater and no more problematic than those between the three narratives of Paul's conversion that all occur in Acts. Did Paul's companions on the road to Damascus hear the voice that spoke to him or not (Acts 9:7; 22:9)? Did the women see one angel or two? We do not need to answer such questions in order to find their story credible."[6]

I also believe it is unhelpful to use clever English translations to cover up the contradictions in the text. For instance, the NIV and ESV bibles covertly covered up this contradiction by translating Acts 22:9 as "did not comprehend" to hide the explicit contradiction of "heard" [akouontes] (Acts 9:7) and "did not hear" [ouk akousan] (Acts 22:9) in the Greek text. This example demonstrates how a pre-commitment to Biblical Inerrancy causes translators of the ESV, NIV and other evangelical bible translations, to intentionally mistranslate the bible to maintain their pre-commitment to Biblical Inerrancy, and this always always creates problems, and never solves biblical difficulties. 

Visions Grounded in Reality of Roasted Fish

The visionary nature of the resurrection appearances rest upon an underlying factual and historical reality that Jesus had truly risen from death and the grave. Not every resurrection appearance described in the New Testament may be described purely as a vision. The following two resurrection appearances describe Jesus eating fish and bread, and although they are laden with eucharistic symbols, they were experienced, remembered, communicated to others as a very real and tangible event that happened in history.

Luke 24:36-43 (NRSV): While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.  

John 20:9-14 (NRSV): When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 


Header Image: By Bartolomé Esteban Murillo - [2], Public Domain, Link

1. Bromiley, Geoffrey William., et al. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume, W.B. Eerdmans, 1986, pp. 712–713.

2. Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Systematic Theology (Volume 2). trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001. Print. 354.

3. Ibid. 

4. Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Vol IV/3.1. Trans. G. W. Bromiley. Vol. 27. London: T & T Clark, 2010. 195. Print. Study Edition. [203]

5. Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Acts of the Apostles, edited by Daniel J. Harrington, Liturgical Press, 2006, p. 389.

6. Bauckham, Richard. The Women at the Tomb: The Credibility of their Story. p12-13 <>


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