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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Did Paul Hallucinate on the Road to Damascus?--Part Two

In yesterday's post, I summarized some of the latest research on hallucinations as presented by Andre Aleman and Frank Laroi in Hallucinations: The Science of Idiosyncratic Perception (American Psychological Association, 2008). Today, I would like to compare what the book of Acts says about Paul's experience on the road to Damascus to see if a case can be made that Paul may have experienced an hallucination.

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.

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
(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.
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".

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 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:
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.


  1. How do you explain the transformation? It seems hallucination is always used as a last resort. Everyone seemed to have hallucinated, disciples and all others that saw Jesus, including James and Paul! This is ridiculous.

    1. transformation OFTEN goes alongside mental conditions this extreme.

  2. John,

    Hallucinations that people interpret as religious experiences have been known to bring about radical transformation. In addition, if he was having cognitive dissonance about the new movement, his change of position is not surprising at all. Given the fact that his personality was to be zealous and passionate about his beliefs, it stands to reason that he would be the same way about his new beliefs.

  3. OK what about the disciples then? And the many others to whom Jesus appeared? What about the fact that the appearance to Paul is consistent with the disciples'?

  4. Mass visions are not uncommon in religious setting. Traumata is a form of mass hysteria combined with anxiety, and is frequently employed via communal experience.

    Everything as common as a Boyscouts campfire setting and ghost stories have had people all thinking they heard or saw something in the bushes.

    Tons of people think they see Elvis on a yearly basis. UFO buffs may not be ubiquitous but they are plenty. Not to mention numerous cults which see their dead leaders. In fact, Kim Jung-Il Sung is still the president of Korea even though he died in 1994, and according to my Korean friends, people still have visions of him.

    My family has dealt personally with frontal lobe disorders and temporal epilepsy and I can tell you from first hand experience, it does sound like something Paul may have had it or something like it. I mean, it is a real possibility.

    And that fact that others saw Jesus may be all legend. There is nothing to confirm such an account outside of the Gospels themselves, which smells fishy if you ask me. Apart from a partially fictional evangelical retelling of the events, all recorded by people from a country 300 miles away, written in a language that none of Jesus followers probably even knew (with the exception of Paul perhaps) it seems less likely that anybody actually saw Jesus than it was a fictitious rewrite of a historical account which later got legendary to become a propaganda piece and devotional centerpiece of Christian theology.

    The fact that these natural explanations are more plausible than the events which supposedly happened should cause any devout believer to pause. If believers simply dismiss a possible historical event for an implausible one, then I don't see how they can claim that their convictions are historically reliable when they have obviously rejected what is historically viable in place of something so far fetched it begs the question all over again.

    But that's faith in a nutshell, I suppose.

  5. OK who wrote the gospels?

    My understanding it is historical fact that:
    1. Jesus existed and died on the cross
    2. Disciples saw Jesus (even tho may be hallucination...)
    3. Disciples died for their beliefs
    4. The tomb of Jesus was empty (this is not widely held with all scholars)

  6. To John Sfifer:

    Who actually wrote the gospels is basically an unsolvable puzzle, although there is pretty good evidence for Luke having written Luke and Acts... and he, like the others, had apologetic and polemical purposes and major slant, to say the least.

    If you're willing to do some reading that may be "heavy lifting" but accessible for lay readers, I highly recommend "Who Wrote the New Testament?" by Burton Mack. (The book is so packed and significant in several theses that I'm on at least my 3rd time reading it, as well as realted things by Mack.)

    Howard Pepper

  7. Thanks Ken, for more good summary work on important core issues. Though the topic is not new, it deserves continued attention and updating with more recent science, as you help provide.

    I agree that hallucination is either the right analysis, or perhaps part of it. Or something related that might deserve a different label. When one combines several of the dynamics for Paul personally and in his situation with our knowledge of conversions and of altered states, hallucination, etc., I think we can be pretty solid on a naturalistic explanation. However, that CAN include, to me, valid "spiritual" (as distinct from "supernatural") aspects.

    One older classic that helps shed light on the conversion and neurological processes likely involved in a case like Paul's is "Battle for the Mind: A Physiology of Conversion and Brainwashing" by William Sargant. I think the dynamics of his personality, his ideals, his experiences persecuting Jesus followers, etc. need to be folded into the possibility of some neurological trigger and perhaps hallucination. These would involve his physical state and environment perhaps, and/or the tensions (stress, as you've identified) of what he was about to engage in, but was double-minded about.

    Howard Pepper

  8. Ken

    Just in case you are interested, I am a BJU grad BS 1994. I am intrigued by your say the least. I have gone thru my share of doubts though.

  9. Is it considered true that Paul wrote his letters before the accounts of the gospels were written down?

  10. @ Emet:
    Yes, virtually all of even conservative/traditionalist scholars believe Paul's letters were completed before the earliest of the gospels, on pretty solid historical grounds. Definite dating of the gospels is more difficult than of Paul's writings, but the range of suggested dates begins no earlier than the late 60s.

    A further comment on the importance of the hallucination subject, and the broader one surrounding it, of the authority of Paul: It IS a crucial, perhaps even a "central" issue in the web of logic that has historically been used to create and perpetuate "apostolic authority" for all the New Testament. This in turn is critical for the idea of unique divine revelation in it, which is also supposedly unified "truth." The entire orthodox system, particularly for Protestants, rests on the apostolic period and supposed "apostolic authority." (Catholics also, but more heavily around Peter than Paul.)

    Next aspect: Even IF (very big "if") one accepts a valid authority of divine teaching through 11 chosen apostles (12 minus Judas), via Jesus plus later Holy Spirit guidance and/or revelation, then Paul has to be grafted onto that authority somehow. That is because without his writings (or what is attributed to him including 4 to 6 disputed letters), we would not have a good bit of "orthodox" theology; and what would have then emerged might have been significantly different.

    Now, the connecting of Paul to other "apostolic authority" is something that even Evangelicals realize is a bit dicey. Without the clear slant of Luke in that direction, trying to establish that clearly, there would be little or any indication of a coordinated, unified authority, or a validation by the Apostles of apostleship (and its authority) for Paul. It surely doesn't appear in Paul's own writings. Rather, there is a picture of competition, of defensiveness, and of asserting of his authority, based on his "vision," revelation, and such... all things which Evangelicals normally label untrustworthy because of their subjective nature.

    So the entire traditional orthodox theology (dating, importantly, not from the first or early 2nd century, but around the early 3rd century as to any relatively settled orthodoxy) hinges on really just two men: Luke and Paul. Together they make up over 1/2 of the NT. It is Paul's theology which ultimately "carried the day." And it had significant points of difference and tension with that of the Jerusalem leaders ("Apostles"). And without Luke's evident contortions of what actually happened, Paul might never have been effectively tied to the Apostles and the eventual authority they were to be invested with during the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

    Evangelical scholars of real depth and carefulness realize this is a weak point in the chain of logic. And ones who are truly open truth-seekers will perceive that the views commonly accepted are just not supported even within Scripture taken at face value. Much more is this validated if one learns to be properly critical of any apologetic effort such as that by Luke, and to unravel where his spin comes in, and has "worked."

    Howard Pepper

  11. Emet: Is it considered true that Paul wrote his letters before the accounts of the gospels were written down?

    It's not considered true. It is true. At least when concerning the Gospels as we know them today. The earliest of those, Mark, was written about 10-20 years after Paul did his thing. The last one, John, was several decades later.

    Now, it's widely believed that there was an earlier document from which Matthew and Luke borrowed in addition to their similarities to Mark and there are also a couple of other documents out there from which the writer of one borrowed but the other didn't and vice versa. Those might have been contemporary with Paul. But we have no extant Christian writings that pre-date the Pauline Epistles.

    John: OK who wrote the gospels?

    My understanding it is historical fact that:
    1. Jesus existed and died on the cross
    2. Disciples saw Jesus (even tho may be hallucination...)
    3. Disciples died for their beliefs
    4. The tomb of Jesus was empty (this is not widely held with all scholars)

    This is not a good way to actually have a conversation. You're asking an unanswerable question, wherein all we know is that Matthew, Mark, and John were written by someone and attached to the names of disciples, while Luke probably did write Luke and Acts (as Howard Pepper mentioned). You're then following it up with an argument by assertion.

    The only external confirmation we have of Jesus comes from the historian Josephus, who once references James, the brother of Jesus and once offers a coda about Jesus as Messiah that was probably added to the History of the Jews by a later Christian apologist.

    From there on out we have the issues of the disciples seeing Jesus, which Ken has been handling quite well for the last several weeks. And the disciples dying for their beliefs tells us absolutely nothing more than that people die because they believe in things. If I die tomorrow because Homer Simpson tells me to that doesn't make him any more real. In fact, it probably means I'm insane.

    And as for the empty tomb, that's no more historically attested than anything else in the Bible. It doesn't get mentioned anywhere else, so anyone who does not accept the historical validity of the Gospel accounts won't accept the empty tomb story. It's an argument from authority based on a questionable authority.

  12. Howard: So the entire traditional orthodox theology (dating, importantly, not from the first or early 2nd century, but around the early 3rd century as to any relatively settled orthodoxy) hinges on really just two men: Luke and Paul.

    This is why my new plan upon being accosted by evangelists is going to involve asking them where they stand on Arianism and Monophysitism. Then, if I'm feeling really mean, I'll ask them where they stand on Nestorianism.

    I'm also working up a counter to the Emergent folks based on Hans Frei and Paul Tillich, but I haven't gotten around to figuring it out just yet.

    Also, sorry for the double post...

  13. John,

    Glad to make your acquaintance and glad to have you reading the blog. I am sure there are some faculty members at BJU reading it but they wouldn't dare comment.

  14. Howard,

    Thos are some excellent points. Yes, evangelical theology is really built on a house of cards and the house is very shaky. There is little doubt that Paul is the one who basically shaped Christian theology and he was not even a companion of Jesus and never knew him "in the flesh." That alone should raise some eyebrows.

    As pointed out in today's post (4/26), the two golden proof texts around which evangelicals construct their doctrine of inspiration come from books that are most likely not authentic and if that had been realized by those who selected the canon, they would not have been included--2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:20-21.

  15. Geds,

    I appreciate your comments. Yes, I agree that the fact the disciples died for their beliefs means very little except that they were sincere. But we know people can be sincerely wrong. Everyone who has died for their beliefs (people from many different religions and ideologies) can't all be right.

  16. Small correction to my 4-26 post. I miswrote.... I meant to say "early 4th century" for any relatively settled orthodoxy, with emphasis on "relatively." I'm not a specialist on X'n history of the 2nd century and following but my reading clearly indicates orthodoxy was a very slowly emerging thing, with a fair balance of numerous competing views on even dogma Evangelicals/traditionalists now consider "core" or essential. (I've not been able to find any good counter-view to this by any conservative scholar.) That held pretty much at least until the forced political unifying of Constantine, tho he and his bishops didn't come close to fully settling key issues, either, or persuading everyone to fall in line. That, of course, was early to mid 4th century, which I meant to reference.

    Also thanks for the responses, Geds and Ken. And I did see and appreciate the importance of your comments, Ken, about inspiration "theory" growing largely out of very dubious books. (Of course, the whole idea OF any authoritative canon is itself only human invention.)

  17. I think Arianism is actually fairly common among evangelicals and other Christians, not as doctrine, but as gut belief. There is often a reluctance to accept Jesus's full humanity, to accept that he pissed and shat and had nocturnal emissions like any other natural man.