I’m fully persuaded that some of Jesus’ followers ‘saw’ him after his death, and were convinced that he had ‘risen’. ‘Seeing’ people who matter to us, after they have died, is not an uncommon human experience, nor are ‘visions’ of a religious nature. There is therefore plenty of debate around this, but I want to make a point that’s seldom explored. It has to do with the word “see”.
As human beings, there is a sense in which we don’t actually ‘see’ anything. There is no one inside us, looking out through the ‘windows’ of our eyes. Light, which is electro-magnetic radiation, enters our eyes and stimulates electro-chemical activity across our brains. Different parts of the brain deal with colours, tones, shapes and lines etc, and interpret this data in order to create mental images.
In addition to this, however, the brain has ‘feedback’ mechanisms, and has already existing ‘data banks’ or ‘memory banks’, built up from our previous experiences. These are also called upon in the business of interpreting the incoming data. What all this means is that sometimes the eventual mental image produced can be ‘inaccurate’. Let’s consider an example.
We’re given a piece of paper with a short sentence on it, and we read aloud what we ‘see’. For brevity’s sake, let’s just say, ‘the cat sat on the mat’. Someone then tells us that one of the words occurs twice. We take another look and then read, ‘the cat sat on the the mat’. What happened is that our brain, when interpreting the wording of the paragraph, made use of the fact that we have an inbuilt ‘language data base’, which ‘knows’ how our language is properly formulated. This doesn’t allow for incorrectly repeated words, and so we don’t ‘see’ any – until our mistake is pointed out, whereupon our brain quickly ‘reinterprets’ and updates our mental image of the paragraph accordingly.
The eyes of some of Jesus’ followers received incoming data in the form of electro-magnetic radiation, which was interpreted by their brains. They had internal data banks, full of memories of their much loved and missed leader. As a result of all this complex internal processing, mental images were created and entered their conscious awareness, and they ‘saw’ Jesus alive from the dead.
There is no way of knowing whether these mental images were accurate interpretations or not. We can only form our own opinions and nothing other than that. It’s perhaps interesting, however, that, if we read the information in the Gospels historically, beginning from the earliest, Mark, and working our way through Matthew and Luke to the latest, John, we find that, moving away from the ‘visionary’, there is a steadily increasing emphasis on the ‘physical’ nature of Jesus’ appearances. This might very well reflect the development of the ongoing doctrinal disputes in the early church around the humanity and divinity of Jesus.
This is not to suggest that these early followers were deluded. Delusion has no basis in reality, whereas illusion does have such a basis but is incorrectly interpreted. So what exactly was it that these first followers ‘saw’?