Friday, August 14, 2015

Resurrection Appearances as Altered States of Consciousness

From the April 2012 E-Block.


There are signals on the horizon of a new variation we might see Skeptics use as an alternative theory to explain the Resurrection, though it will probably be a case of misuse rather than use. In Flights of the Soul (hereafter FOS), a member of the Context Group, John Pilch, discusses the applicability of alternate states of consciousness (hereafter ASC) as an explanation for certain Biblical phenomena. My expectation is that Skeptics will misuse Pilch's findings to support some version of the hallucination hypothesis to explain the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus. As we shall indicate, this would be a mistake, both because of how Pilch actually presents his thesis on ASCs, and because Pilch himself does not sufficiently justify his widest application of ASC theory. 

We will explain the second aspect first. On the one hand, there seems to be hardly any problem with using the label of ASC to designate certain recorded Biblical experiences. In particular, Ezekiel's vision, and that of John in Revelation, can certainly be classified as ASC experiences. In contrast, Pilch -- without practically no explanation or justification -- expands the range of ASC to also include the experience of Jesus and Peter walking on water, as well as the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus. 

Admittedly, FOS is a collection of past journal articles by Pilch, so it is not a systematic treatment of any particular issue. If it were, perhaps Pilch would have given more and better explanations for why the post-Resurrection appearances ought to be classed as ASC. As it is, we are offered in FOS no way to distinguish between an ASC and a "normal" state of consciousness experience with respect to certain incidents. His arguments for such broad application seem to amount to two:
  1. A lot of people -- upwards of 90% of the population -- have experienced ASCs. Of course, this in no way argues for any particular experience by any person as an ASC.
  2. Jesus assures people not to be afraid, and is not always immediately recognized, which is consistent with ASC experiences. Of course, not all of the experiences of the Risen Jesus have these elements; some are missing one or the other, or both! Moreover, such elements are hardly exclusive of "normal" consciousness either.
But now we move to the other hand, which is how Skeptics are likely to misuse ASC theory. It seems highly likely that at least some with equate ASC with "hallucination" or some other subjective delusion and use what Pilch and other ASC theorists have to say to further such an argument. This would be illicit, for several reasons.

First, even as we do, Pilch rejects the Enlightenment dichotomy between natural and supernatural (4), and has strong words (for him, at least!) for those who adopt an Western and ethnocentric dismissal of such experience.

Second, and relatedly, although he does not say so as frequently as I'd like, it is quite clear that Pilch regards ASCs as reflecting some sort of objective experience. In his introduction, Pilch reports a personal dream he had which related objective truth about a faraway person, which he later confirmed to be true in real life. Answering a potential reader question about whether Ezekiel ate a scroll, or Jesus ate fish, in a vision or in reality, Pilch says, "The answer to both questions, of course, is yes!" (41) He describes the experience as being as real as a dream, and as noted, Pilch thinks one can receive objective truth via a dream about someone far away. These and other comments make it clear that Pilch accepts a sort of objective reality to ASCs that Skeptics would be unlikely to accept.

Third, ASC simply doesn't mean hallucination. Pilch notes that varied experts have classified 20 or more states of consciousness, some of which (sleeping, dreaming) can involve subjective experience, some of which (lethargic, hyper-alert) may, but in general do not.

Fourth, in terms of the Resurrection appearances, Pilch specifically states that what the disciples saw was "quite real" and that they "saw Jesus in an alternate reality." (119) Roughly, it appears Pilch is describing an effect much like someone in Star Trek opening a door to another dimension which is as real as this one. He also explicitly rejects the thesis of someone like Ludemann (147) who turns the appearances into hallucinations as culturally inappropriate.

Again, as we have noted, Pilch does seem all too ready to see an ASC where it isn't at all apparent. He decides, for example, that in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was involved in a type of ASC that involved breathing through the left nostril, and to affirm this, arbitrarily decides that the "drops of blood" Luke describes must refer to a nosebleed (25)! He also concludes that other ASCs, which would seem incompatible with an exclusive Christian message, are true; he reports as veridical, experiences of Moroccan Jews with a deceased holy man. (155) Nevertheless, regardless of whatever merits and ASC interpretation may have for the Resurrection -- and at present, despite Pilch, I see no reason to favor one -- we can be reasonably sure that it will be twisted and turned by critics into some variation of the hallucination hypothesis.


  1. Maybe people like Lowder and Edski are getting ready to write an article now.

  2. I haven't gotten the book yet, but already quite intrigued and confused. So is Pilch saying that the appearances weren't bodily in some way? This is quite a strange way to look at the appearances...

    1. He really didn't commit to "bodily" one way or the other, as I recall.

  3. hey JP what do you think of price's suggestion that "on the cross" in that hymn in phillipians 2:6-11 is an interpolation? Witherington calls the line an intensification.

    1. "Contrived" would be the kindest word for that or just about anything Price says.

    2. witherington also thinks the hymn was not created by paul but used by him in the letter. Maybe paul himself interpolated that line!