The Christian apologist Gary Habermas has written an article in which he argues against the hallucination theory. He lists four problems with the concept of collective hallucinations.
First, he says that the primary example often cited for the reality of mass hallucinations is Marian apparitions. He argues that these examples simply beg the question whether such experiences could possibly be objective, or even supernatural, at least in some sense. In other words, why must a naturalistic, subjective explanation be assumed? This approach seems to rule out the apparitions in an a priori manner, before the data are considered.
It is interesting that Habermas is open to the possibility that these visions of Mary may be genuine because most of his evangelical brethren are not so open. The reason is that if these visions were veridical, then that would validate the Roman Catholic teaching on Mary and by implication all of Roman theology. Evangelical Christianity and the RCC are at odds on major theological doctrines and thus most evangelicals are not willing to grant this validation. I agree, however, that one should not rule out the reality of these visions a priori . The data should be examined and if possible scientific methodology used to evaluate the evidence.
Habermas' second objection is that the collective hallucination thesis is unfalsifiable. It could be applied to purely natural, group sightings, simply calling them group hallucinations, too. Concerning this thesis, crucial epistemic criteria seem to be missing. It can be used to explain (away) almost any unusual occurrence. How do we determine normal occurrences from group hallucinations?
This is a valid objection and needs to be examined. It is impossible to say that the individuals are hallucinating in psychological terms unless each individual can be examined. However, whether or not the claimed vision seems to have any real objective presence can be evaluated. This evaluation can then determine if the group of people really saw what they thought they saw or not. If it is determined that they did not really see what they thought they saw, then an explanation for their mistaken perception can be sought.
There is an interesting discussion on an apologetics website in which a fictional scenario is created with a defense attorney arguing that the three eyewitnesses to the murder were actually hallucinating. The judge will not permit the argument because in his opinion unless there can be some grounds for believing the witnesses did hallucinate, then it would
create substantial danger of undue prejudice. The point that the apologist is attempting to make by using this fictional court case is this:
Before trying to convince people that the disciples hallucinated Jesus resurrection, there should be some basis for finding it likely that they may have. This doesn’t exist in the case of the resurrection. Consequently, even though it can be raised as a possibility, the claims should be disregarded on the basis that, without more foundation, they create “substantial danger of undue prejudice, of confusing the issues, or of misleading” the listener.
There are a number of problems in using this court analogy to illustrate the case for the resurrection of Jesus. First, there are no multiple eyewitness accounts in Scripture. There are second or third hand reports of multiple eyewitnesses. Second, in a court room, eyewitnesses can be cross-examined and even evaluated psychologically if deemed appropriate by the court. Third, contrary testimony can be introduced if it exists. In the case of the gospels, we don't have the other side of the story because all we have are documents written by the side that believes the appearances were real. We don't have any documents from those, and there were obviously many, who did not believe the resurrection had really taken place.
Habermas' third objection to collective hallucinations is:
Even if it could be established that groups of people experienced hallucinations, it does not mean that these experiences were therefore collective. If, as most psychologists assert, hallucinations are private, individual events, then how could groups share exactly the same subjective visual perception? Rather, it is much more likely that the phenomena in question are either illusions — perceptual misinterpretations of actual realities— or individual hallucinations.
I think this is a valid argument. From what we know about hallucinations, it doesn't appear that a group of people could have precisely the same hallucination at precisely the same time. However, as Habermas admits, there are other possibilities. First, one person could hallucinate and then as that person describes what he is seeing, others see the same thing perhaps by illusion rather than hallucination. Second, it could be that the whole group is experiencing an illusion rather than a hallucination.
Habermas' fourth objection is that the conditions reported in the NT differ from the conditions necessary for collective hallucinations. He refers to the work of Leonard Zusne and Warren H. Jones, Anomalistic psychology: a study of magical thinking , in which they maintain that expectation and emotional excitement are prerequisites before such group experiences can occur. Habermas contends:
These necessary elements contradict the emotional state of the early witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. The early believers were confronted with the utter reality of the recent and unexpected death of their best friend, whom they had hoped would rescue Israel. As those events unfolded in a whirlwind of incidents that included Jesus’ physical beatings, crucifixion, and seeming abandonment, the normal response would have been fear, disillusionment, and depression. To suppose that these believers exhibited “expectation” and “emotional excitement” in the face of these stark circumstances would require responses on heir part that would scarcely be exhibited at a funeral! All indications are that Jesus’ disciples exhibited the very opposite emotions from what Zusne and Jones assert as being necessary for such hallucinations.Again, Habermas is assuming the inerrancy of the NT documents, and as I have already admitted, if the NT documents are inerrant then there is no natural explanation for what happened. However, if one treats the documents as one treats any other historical documents and assumes that there is both truth and error in the stories, then one can come up with other explanations. I would propose the possibility that Peter was the first one to have a vision of the risen Jesus. Perhaps it could be explained on the basis of his grief and overwhelming guilt for denying his Lord. In order to resolve these psychological issues, he experienced an hallucination in which he really believed that his Lord was alive.(See Gerd Lüdemann, What really happened to Jesus: a historical approach to the Resurrection, pp. 92-95). When he reported this experience to the other disciples, they did become emotionally excited and anxiously expected their Lord to appear to them as well.
In reality, there is no reason to believe that were any group sightings of Jesus unless one presupposes the inerrancy of the NT. It is actually more likely than a few experienced visions or hallucinations at separate times and as these appearances were told and retold by word of mouth and eventually written down a generation or more later, the individual appearances had morphed into group appearances with Jesus even having a physical body and being able to eat fish, and so on.