Christians dispute that those who saw the Risen Jesus after his death were merely experiencing hallucinations or ‘visions’ in their own heads. Despite the fact that the only first-hand eye-witness report we have of a resurrection sighting is of precisely this nature – Paul’s, in Galatians 1.16 where he says that the Risen Christ was revealed ‘in’ him – Evangelicals in particular insist that Jesus rose physically from the dead and was seen by numerous ‘witnesses’.
And yet, in the two thousand years since he supposedly ascended into Heaven, no-one has seen Jesus in his resurrected, physical body. This doesn’t stop believers today claiming that they experience him in ‘real’ ways. As the old song goes, they walk with him and talk with along life’s narrow way. Or they think they do.
Back when I was a Christian I used to hear Jesus speaking to me. He’d create a thought in my head, telling me to act in a certain way, to speak to some lost soul about him, for example. At the time I was convinced these promptings were really ‘the Lord’. How could they not be? I had his Spirit living inside me, a sure-fire way of experiencing the living Jesus. His presence felt very real, as it does still for millions of Christians. What greater proof of the resurrection could there be?
In fact, Jesus’ ‘voice’ was no more than the vague recollections of Bible verses I half remembered. The sense of his presence I felt was a trick of my own mind, conditioned by hours of sermons, Bible reading and the mutual reinforcement provided by fellow-believers.
I never actually visualised Jesus, though many claim to. They see him in burnt toast or cloud formations; they dream about him or think he has visited them in the night, standing at the foot of the bed. Some have near-death experiences when they (imagine) they travel to Heaven and are welcomed by his outstretched arms. Others ‘know’ he has rescued them from calamity, or purposely sent them a sign (by leaving a Bible unscathed after a storm destroyed a house, as happened this week in Indiana.) Still others, a mite more credibly perhaps, have a sense of Jesus being present in a wishy-washy mystical way. He seems especially real when they’re caught up in the ecstasy of worship or a mighty and wondrous healing is being staged taking place. What a blessing! After all, didn’t Jesus promise in Matthew 18.20 that ‘when two or three are gathered in my name there I am in the midst of them’? (Probably not, but Christians believe he did and that’s what matters.)
My point is this: if this is how Jesus ‘manifests’ himself today – in whispered messages, inner-visions, emotions, dreams, blessings and ‘signs’ – and if these are enough to keep today’s believers convinced he lives again, then isn’t it likely that this was exactly how his earliest followers experienced him after his death? Not as a real, physical body but in these same ‘spiritual’ ways, conjured up by minds deep in the thrall of religion? If illusions of their own imaginations are enough to persuade the susceptible of the Risen Lord’s presence today, then surely they were more than enough to convince a handful of superstitious zealots in the first century.
I mean, just look at Paul.