Hallucination is defined by Campbell's Psychiatric Dictionary (2004) as a false perception characterized by externalization and a continued belief that the experience is a perception of something outside the self rather than an internal thought or image (p. 312). An illusion is a misinterpretation of some external stimuli. As Aleman and Laroi point out, the line of demarcation between an hallucination and an illusion is not always clear. Often an illusion will lead to an hallucination.
The three accounts of Paul's experience in Acts (9, 22, 26) all say that he saw a bright light in the sky, brighter than the sun, and then he heard a voice. It is conceivable that Paul saw something that was really there in the external world and then heard a voice which was not external but internal. The fact that the accounts all say that his companions also saw the light but did not hear (or understand) the voice would lend credence to this position. What might Paul have seen? Of course it's pure speculation but we know that a super solar flare can increase the brightness of the sun. Referring to a solar flare that took place in 1859, an article on the NASA website says: one super-flare produced enough light to rival the brightness of the sun itself. How large and intense would such a super-flare have to be to be visible by the naked eye? I am not sure but there are reports of phenomena in ancient history that are believed to be solar flares. A less dramatic scenario would be a perceived increase in the brightness of the sun due to the movement of clouds. Sometimes when the sun "peaks out" from behind clouds the sensation is that the sun has become much brighter.
Whatever it was that Paul saw, why would he misinterpret it as an appearance of the resurrected Jesus? The Jewish concept of a resurrected person was of a bright, shining being. Daniel 12:2-3 says:
Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever (see also Wisdom of Solomon 3:7-9).All three accounts say that Paul fell to the ground after seeing the bright light. This has led some to conclude that Paul may have had temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE).
In old Ireland, epilepsy was known as 'Saint Paul's disease'. The name points to the centuries-old assumption that the apostle suffered from epilepsy.(German Epilepsy Museum).An important article in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry (1987,50:659-664) by D. Landsborough entitled, "St. Paul and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy," compares Paul's experience to clinical research regarding TLE. The similarities are stunning.
Saul's sudden fall, the fact that he first lay motionless on the ground but was then able to get up unaided, led people very early on to suspect that this dramatic incident might have been caused by a grand mal seizure. In more recent times, this opinion has found support from the fact that sight impediment-including temporary blindness lasting from several hours to several days-has been observed as being a symptom or result of an epileptic seizure and has been mentioned in many case reports
Some attacks began with a flash of light seen in both eyes, followed by a psychic state in which the predominant force was one of intense religious experience, of resounding elation in which he would feel compelled to proclaim the glories of God.Paul also mentions other experiences besides the Damascus road event. For example, in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, he recounts:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know-God knows. And I know that this man-whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows-was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.Landsborough comments:
Paul's words "in the body or out of the body-that I do not know" suggest an aura of depersonalisation as described by Williams: the subject "may feel unsubstantial, not there, or dis-embodied. He may say he sees himself outside himself, with a disturbance of the relationship of himself to his environment ..." Paul also "heard sacred secrets which no lips can repeat" suggesting an intensely esoteric, rapturous state associated with an elaborate auditory sensation whose details cannot be recollected. Gowers writes "these psychological auras are often scarcely separable from the higher special sense warnings. The distinct idea of a sentence and perception of its sound may be almost identical in significance".The fact that Paul apparently had many experiences which he understood as visions and revelations from God (2 Cor. 12:1) lends credence to the theory that he suffered from TLE. As Landsborough states:
In the second paragraph of the extract from Paul's Corinthian letter he writes of his "wealth of visions". This might refer to the variety and richness of the one experience, but it seems more likely that he is writing
of a number of experiences similar to the one he has already described, experiences so delectable and ecstatic that he was prone to become over-elated and conceited ("puffed-up").
The diagnosis of TLE in Paul's case is suggested on the basis of his recorded subjective experience of a single attack (vide supra). Were this an isolated event without recurrences it would be difficult to sustain the diagnosis. But Paul experienced other "visions". His historian Luke writes that in one vision he saw a Macedonian standing before him appealing to him to cross over from Troy to Macedonia to help (Acts 16:9); in another, Jesus speaks words of encouragement to him (Acts 18:9); in another, while praying in Jerusalem, he fell into a trance (Greek: ekstasia) and saw Jesus (Acts 22:17-21). In other writings Paul does not provide details of his "visions and revelations", but it is suggested that some were ictal in origin, and that the one detailed description he gives was not of an isolated event. Others were mental images of his spiritual convictions. Both kinds were of equal spiritual significance for Paul.In addition, research shows that some people with TLE develop Geschwind syndrome. This is a characteristic personality syndrome consisting of symptoms such as circumstantiality (excessive verbal output), hypergraphia, altered sexuality (usually hyposexuality, meaning a decreased interest), and intensified mental life (deepened cognitive and emotional responses), hyper-religiosity and/or hyper-morality or moral ideas, that is present in some epilepsy patients. All of these symptoms would seem to be present in Paul.
Whether or not Paul had TLE, it is clear that he had the necessary emotional influences that could lead to hallucinations. Aleman and Laroi identify (1) stress, often related to the experience of traumatic events, (2)anxiety, which can be caused by cognitive dissonance, and (3)depression as triggers for hallucinations. Paul certainly was experiencing stress. He had been involved in the persecution and execution of Christians. Many scholars believe he participated in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7) which could have produced the syndrome known as post-traumatic stress syndrome. He may have been anxious due to the cognitive dissonance created by his Pharisaic theology and what he was hearing and seeing in Christians. The reference in Acts 26 to it being hard "to kick against the goads" might relate to this internal conflict. The evidence is not as good for Paul being depressed but if he was experiencing stress and anxiety as it appears he was, then it would not be surprising for this to also create depression. The presence of these emotional stressors in Paul could be enough to explain why he heard voices which he interpreted as being from Jesus. As Aleman and Laroi show, it would be expected for Paul, based on the culture, to interpret an hallucination as divine revelation.
So, what happened to Paul on the Damascus Road? The fact is that the data in the NT on this experience is so limited, that it's impossible to make any definitive conclusion. It could have been an illusion which led to auditory hallucinations, it could have been a seizure caused by TLE, or it could have been some other phenomena. In any case, a supernatural encounter with a risen Jesus is not required to understand Paul's radical conversion.