Have you ever seen a stage hypnotist give water to someone they’ve put in a trance and then suggest to them that they were drinking wine? They smack their lips, get giddy and start to feel intoxicated, as though they were swigging cheap Bordeaux.
British author Ian Wilson has raised the possibility that Jesus may have been a master hypnotist, which could explain the supposedly supernatural aspects of his life. For instance, hypnosis could account for his healing of lepers, his exorcisms and his transfiguration, during which three of his followers saw his face glow and his garments shine as white as light (see Matthew 17:1–2). As evidence, Wilson cites the modern example of a 16-year-old boy whose serious skin disorder was inexplicably healed through hypnotic suggestion.
Perhaps Lazarus wasn’t really brought back from the dead (see John 11:1–44). Couldn’t he have been in a deathlike trance induced by hypnosis? As for the resurrection, Jesus “could have effectively conditioned [the disciples] to hallucinate his appearances in response to certain pre-arranged cues (the breaking of bread?) for a predetermined period after his death,” according to Wilson.
This would even explain the enigmatic reference in the Gospels to Jesus’ inability to perform many miracles in his hometown of Nazareth (see Matthew 13:54–58; Mark 6:1–6). Wilson said that “Jesus failed precisely where as a hypnotist we would most expect him to fail, among those who knew him best, those who had seen him grow up as an ordinary child. Largely responsible for any hypnotist’s success rate are the awe and mystery with which he surrounds himself, and these essential factors would have been entirely lacking in Jesus’ home town.”
While this is a clever argument, it just doesn’t stand up to analysis. First, there’s the problem of hypnotizing a whole bunch of people. Not everybody is equally susceptible. Stage hypnotists talk in a certain soothing tone of voice to the audience and watch for people who seem to be responding, and then they pick these people as their volunteers. In a big group many people are resistant. When Jesus multiplied the bread and fish, there were 5,000 men, besides women and children, who “ate and were satisfied” (see Matthew 14:13–21). How could he have hypnotized them all?
Second, hypnosis doesn’t generally work on skeptics and doubters. So how did Jesus hypnotize his half brother James, who doubted him but later saw the resurrected Christ (see Matthew 13:55; John 7:5; 1 Corinthians 15:7)? How did he hypnotize Saul of Tarsus, the opponent of Christianity who had never even met Jesus until he saw him after his resurrection (see Acts 9:1–19)? How did he hypnotize Thomas, who was so skeptical he wouldn’t believe in the resurrection until he put his fingers in the nail holes in Jesus’ hands (see John 20:24–29)?
Third, concerning the resurrection, hypnosis wouldn’t explain the empty tomb. Jesus certainly couldn’t have hypnotized the Pharisees and Roman authorities, and they would have gladly produced his body if it had remained in the tomb. The fact that they didn’t tells us the tomb was really empty.
Fourth, the skin healing that Wilson mentions wasn’t spontaneous. The British Medical Journal says it took five days after the hypnosis for the reptilian skin, called ichthyosis, to fall off the teenager’s left arm, and several more days for the skin to appear normal. The hypnotic success rate for dealing with other parts of his body over a period of several weeks was 50 to 95 percent.
Compare that with Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers in Luke 17:11–19. They were instantaneously healed—and 100 percent. That’s not explainable merely by hypnosis. Neither is Jesus’ healing of a man with a shriveled hand in Mark 3:1–5. Even if people were in a trance and merely thought his hand had been healed, eventually they would have found out the truth. Hypnosis doesn’t last a real long time.
Finally, the Gospels record all sorts of details about what Jesus said and did, but never once do they portray him as saying or doing anything that would suggest he was hypnotizing people. Yet as evidenced by the books that encourage these kinds of ideas, some people will grasp at anything to try to disprove Jesus’ miracles.
Adapted from interview with Dr. Gary Collins