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The Psychological Origins of the Resurrection Appearances

In I Corinthians 15:5-7, Paul recounted the resurrection appearance of Jesus. According to this Jesus appeared first to Peter and then to the "twelve", then to "five hundred", to James to "all the apostles" and finally to Paul himself. We saw earlier that Paul made no distinction between what he experienced and what the rest saw. Thus we can safely called all this visions of the resurrected Jesus. In other words, these are internal experiences not an external supernatural manifestation.

It would, of course, be more satisfying if we could also explain the psychological origins of the visions. In other words, what triggered the whole series of "Jesus sightings"? Since Peter, the twelve, James, the "five hundred" and "all the apostles" were all followers of Jesus, we can say that Peter's vision was the trigger for the rest of this. Thus being able to explain why Peter had the vision would suffice to explain the rest.

Paul's vision had to have a different origin, for he was not a follower and could not have felt what Peter and the rest felt.

Thus we have to explain the pyschological origins of the appearances to Peter and to Paul; two visions that did not have any external catalyst.

Gerd Ludemann in his excellent and honest [a] book, What Really Happened to Jesus suggested the psychological pressures that could have led to the visions experienced by Peter and Paul.

The Origin of Peter's Vision

Most scholars agree that Peter must have been one of the first to have seen the risen Jesus. It would otherwise be difficult to understand his primacy among the apostles. Furthermore this is supported by I Corinthians 15:5. The story of Jesus' appearance to Peter found in the 21st chapter of John, where Peter had returned to a life as a fisherman in Galilee, is paralleled closely by Luke 5:1-11. Although the latter is not set as a resurrection appearance, it's similarity to John 21 had led most scholars to conclude that it came from the same source that was somehow distorted by oral tradition of by Luke into the calling of Peter during the lifetime of Jesus.

Given below is Ludemann construction of a psycho-causation profile of the resurrection vision (hallucination) by Peter: [1]

  • We are sure that Peter must have mourned Jesus' death.
  • We also know, from studies by psychologist of the proces of mourning, that mourners, due to their love for the lost one, tends to feel in their minds the presence of the loved one. A successful mourning is when the mourner slowly parts, psychologically, from feeling the presence of the lost one. In other words, their lives slowly returns to normal as thoughts about the recently deceased slowly recede into the background.
  • However there are cases where successful mourning is hindered and the feeling of the presence of the loved ones becomes more intense and being unable to bear the pain, the mourner actually "see" the dead person as somehow being alive again. Research at Harvard University on cases like these show unsuccessful mourning is more likely if the following conditions are present:
    • The death is sudden
    • An ambivalent attitude towards the dead person associated with feeling of guilt
    • A dependent relationship between the mourner and the dead.
  • We notice that these three factors are all present in Peter's case.
    • Jesus death was sudden.
    • Peter denied Jesus just before the latter was executed. This must have caused tremendous guilt in the Galilean fisherman.
    • Peter, of course, was a follower of Jesus. He left his work and home to follow him. Thus it was a deeply dependent relationship.
To quote Ludemann directly:

The mourning hindered by the three factors mentioned was enormously helped in the case of Peter by a "seeing." The mourning first led to a real, deeper understanding of Jesus, and this in turn helped toward a new understanding of the situation of mourning. Recollections of who Jesus had been led to the recognition of who Jesus is. Seeing Jesus thus already included a whole chain of theological conclusions. [2]

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The Origin of Paul's Vision

According to Ludemann, the psychological origins of Paul's own hallucinations (his visions of the resurrected Jesus)are different from Peter's. Remember that we have Paul's own words in his genuine epistles. Thus we are able to derive a lot about the inner workings of his mind through his writings.

First let us note that Paul had some kind of illness. He said as much in his epistle to the Galatians:

Galatians 4:14
You never showed the least sign of being revolted or disgusted by my disease which was such a trial to you.

Paul must have also been frail looking, for this is what he quoted his opponents describing him:

II Corinthians 10:10
For some say, "His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing."

Now let us look into a very revealing passage from II Corinthians:

II Corinthians 12:1-4
I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ, who, fourteen years ago, was caught up to the third heaven-whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know, God knows. And I know this man was caught up into Paradise-whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows-and he hread things which cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weakness. Though if I wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth...And to keep me from being to elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, presecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

Our thinking here will take a few steps to work through: [3]
  • Paul is obviously describing one of his visions in this passage.
  • Note that he did not attempt to differentiate between his visions and his revelations.
  • And "a thorn in the flesh", a disease, was given to him to keep him from being to elated by the revelations (or visions).
  • This disease, his weakness, was what gave him his visions. For "Christ's power is made perfect in weakness."
  • Thus for Paul, his illness (or the manifestations of its symptoms) and his visions, are inseparably bound together. In other words, he only sees Jesus when he is ill!
Paul's Damascus vision, his first vision of Jesus Christ, must be of a similar nature. However what triggered it? Wasn't Paul on the opposite end of the spectrum from Peter and his views completely opposite? For the vision to be coming in from the depth of Paul's psyche we need to show that Paul already had the seeds of belief in him.

Here Ludemann takes us through the steps, using a psychodynamic approach, in seeing how this is so: [4]

  • Many fanatics suffer from inner turmoil. Their basic instincts long to do things their beliefs tell them they cannot.
  • Thus they suppress their instincts.
  • This leads to a hatred of their own situation.
  • Which in turns turns into hatred for those who could do what they themselves cannot do. For example, the "disgust" most religious fanatics feel towards sex of any kind is but one manifestation of this.
  • In some fanatics, a crucial turning point occurs which releases them from previous inhibitions and they become free of their previous shackles.
  • In other words within the inner turmoil, the "emotional dialectic", already lies the new "synthesis" or world view.
We find Paul's situation to follow these steps very closely:

  • Paul (or Saul) was a fanatic. He was, in his own words full of zeal and faultless in keeping to legalistic requirements to Jewish law (Philippians 3:6).
  • Although he claimed to be faultless in following the law, he suffered from inner turmoil and fought to suppress his instincts. The passage below clearly shows this:
    Romans 7:7-12
    Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the laws had not said, "You shall not covet." But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it kill me.

  • His obvious hatred of his own situation is turned outwards towards the Christians. Paul probably saw within the Christian movement the very antithesis of his position towards the law. This is more so in its preaching of a crucified messiah in express contradiction to the law (Deuterenomy 21:23 "anyone hung under a tree is under God's curse"). In zeal he presecuted the Christians. (Galatians 1:23)
  • This inner turmoil came to a climax on his trip to Damascus, where probably suffering from sunstroke or an epileptic seizure, Paul had his vision which "released" him from his inner turmoil and converted him.

To again quote Ludeman directly:

Paul's appearance did not depend on Peter's vision, since here it was not a follower but an "enemy" of Jesus or his supporters who was affected. Here Paul's biography gives strong indications that his vision of Christ is to be explained psychologically as an overcoming of a smouldering "Christ complex" which led to sever inner (unconscious) conflicts in him and finally released itself in this vision. [5]


We leave the final words here to Ludemann again:

God must no longer be assumed to be the author of these visions, as is still argued frequently, but inconsistently, even by advocates of the vision hypothesis. Rather these are psychological processes which ran their course with a degree of regularity-completely without divine intervention.
At the same time this means that the assumption of the resurrection of Jesus is completely unnecessary as a presupposition to explain these phenomena. A consistent modern view must say farewell to the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event. [6]

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a.As a result of his intensive study into the birth, resurrection of Jesus and the heresies of early Christianity, Ludemann made a public statement renouncing his Christian faith in 1998, as he could no longer believe what his research has shown to be untrue. As a result Professor Ludemann was subtly removed from his chair (New Testament) by a renaming of his chair to that of "History and Literature of Early Christianity". The new position would not be one that would attract research funds. In effect this change in name has the effect of stifling his research.


1.Ludemann, What Really Happened to Jesus: p83-94
2.ibid: p94
3.ibid: p117-125
4.ibid: p126-129
5.ibid: p130
6.ibid: p130

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