A pastor friend and I were once having a discussion on what it would take to get me to believe in God again. He asked me, “So, what would happen if you were to have a ‘Damascus Road’ experience?” My response was, “Check myself into the nearest neurology unit.”
Hallucinations are much more common than people think. Approximately 1 in 20 people in the general population has experienced at least one hallucination in their lifetime that wasn’t connected to drugs, alcohol or dreaming. These are healthy people, with no background of psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia or manic depression. When one starts to look at experiences of people who do have some sort of medical or neurological issues, the likelihood of having some form of hallucinations goes up considerably. One of the most common disorder which causes hallucinations is epilepsy.
Epilepsy is a chronic disorder, the hallmark of which is recurrent, unprovoked seizures. The human brain is the source of human epilepsy. Although the symptoms of a seizure may affect any part of the body, the electrical events that produce the symptoms occur in the brain. Symptoms of seizures very (depending of the area of the brain being affected), and can be motor (twitching of certain muscles), autonomic (nausea), sensory (abnormalities or hallucinations of sight, sound, smell, etc), or psychic (sudden feelings of joy or fear without apparent cause, or sudden, often unusual, trains of thought). The location of that event, how it spreads and how much of the brain is affected, and how long it lasts all have profound effects. These factors determine the character of a seizure and its impact on the individual. Epilepsy commonly affects higher parts of the brain, where it may evoke very complex, multisensorial “reminiscence” or dreamlike fantasies. Essentially, anything the brain can do, it can do in the form of a seizure.
“Ecstatic seizures shake one’s foundation of belief, one’s world picture, even if one has previously been wholly indifferent to any thought of transcendent or supernatural.” – Oliver Sacks
Hippocrates referred to epilepsy as the “Sacred Disease”, no doubt bowing to the then-popular notion that epilepsy had divine origins (Yet, he himself dismissed such notions, claiming that epilepsy, like all other diseases had natural causes), and was long thought to be a supernatural, demonic, or spiritual disorder.
Many of histories most prolific figures are thought to have suffered from epileptic seizures which brought about vivid hallucinations and had notable affects on their lives.
Based on transcripts from her trial, many people have concluded that Joan of Arc likely had temporal lobe epilepsy with ecstatic auras. This would help explain how a farmer’s daughter with no formal education could have been so inspired as to gain the support and admiration of thousands of people in her attempt to drive the English from France.
Vincent van Gogh believed that all expressions should be expressed through colors. Being the loving and creative man that he was, his epilepsy had once caused him to run after his friends with an open razor, but cut cutting his own ear lobe off instead.
Aristotle was one of the first to point out that epilepsy and genius were often closely connected. He found that the seizure disorders may have the ability to increase brain activity in specific places and maybe also enhance a persons natural abilities to a certain extent.
And, in one of the Bible’s most dramatic stories, Paul was transformed from a zealous persecutor of Christianity into one of its most powerful advocates after being struck down by a blinding light.
The Damascus Road experience is recorded in a few different sections of the Book of Acts. The accounts differ slightly from each other, but we can form a reasonable account of the events that occurred. The best account is found in Acts 22:6-11 (Acts 9:1-9 and Acts 26:9-20 being the others), where Paul (then Saul) gives a description of the events in his own words:
“As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me. And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.”
Let’s note a few important points here regarding Paul’s episode. Paul recounts that he:
- Saw a bright light
- Fell to the ground, no indication why
- No loss of consciousness
- Heard a voice
- Was temporarily blinded
Now, let’s look at some common symptoms during an epileptic seizure:
- Loss of vision or unable to see
- Blurry vision
- Flashing lights
- Numbness, tingling, or electric shock like feeling in body, arm or leg
- Out of body sensations
- Feeling detached
The commonalities are striking, to say the least. But what about Paul’s claims of being blind for three days? Is there a natural explanation that can account for this? In turns out that there is. Episodes of temporary (and even permanent) blindness have been reported among those who have occipital seizures (a type of epileptic seizure): “Blindness may follow visual hallucinations and progress to other ictal epileptic symptoms but often occurs as the initial or the only ictal seizure manifestation with an abrupt onset. The duration of ictal blindness varies between less than one minute and days or can be permanent. Onset of ictal blindness in adulthood nearly always indicates symptomatic epilepsy”
This isn’t the only time we read about Paul having unique experiences. In Acts 16:9, Paul is said to have had vision of a man standing in front of him. The Lord appears to Paul in “a vision” in Acts 18:9, and also while Paul is “in a trance” in Acts 22:17. In 2 Cor. 12, Paul describes having an out of body experience and seeing visions: “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 that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”
In the above passage, and several others, we read of Paul hinting about his ‘physical ailment‘, by which he perhaps means a chronic illness. In the above passage from Corinthians, he states: ‘But to keep me from being puffed up with pride… I was given a painful physical ailment, which acts as Satan’s messenger to beat me and keep me from being proud.‘ (2 Corinthians, 12,7). In his letter to the Galatians, Paul again describes his physical weakness: ‘You remember why I preached the gospel to you the first time; it was because I was ill. But even though my physical condition was a great trial to you, you did not despise or reject me.‘ (Galatians 4, 13-14) In ancient times people used to spit at ‘epileptics’, either out of disgust or in order to ward off what they thought to be the ‘contagious matter’ (epilepsy as ‘morbus insputatus’: the illness at which one spits). Paul also hints at having some sort of eye disease in his letter to the Galatians (4:15, 6:11).
The descriptions of Paul’s visions and experiences have led many to believe that Paul himself suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. To put things in another light – Paul’s miraculous transformation from Jewish Zealot to one of the founders of the Christian religion was not the result of some supernatural intervention, but a classic case of hallucination brought on by epilepsy. Of course, there is no way of knowing for certain whether or not Paul, in fact, had epilepsy. This is admittedly just an educated guess. However, it is a far more probably explanation than the supernatural account portrayed in the Bible and believed by countless Christians throughout the centuries.
One has to wonder what other Biblical figures suffered from then unknown mental disorders which led to their dramatic visions. Take for example, John of Patmos, the author of the apocalyptic Book of Revelations, which features obscure and extravagant imagery. The accounts of John’s visions are reminiscent of another well documented church figure.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1180), a nun and mystic of exceptional intellectual and literary power, who experienced countless “visions” throughout her life, and left detailed accounts of figures of these. Modern neurologists have concluded, based on these accounts, that Hildegard almost certainly suffered from severe migraines, which resulted in her vivid hallucinations.
An example (seen above) of one of her visions is a figure of stars falling and being quenched in the ocean, signifies for the “The Falling of Angels”:
I saw a great star most splendid and beautiful, and with it an exceeding multitude of falling stars which with the star followed southward… And suddenly they were all annihilated, being turned into black coals… and cast into the abyss so that I could see them no more.
This account sounds strikingly similar to John’s visions in Revelations. Could John have also suffered from migraines, which led to his wild visions? It’s certainly possible, and far more probable than John being literally taken up into heaven by supernatural forces and given a glimpse of the future.
The Bible contains multiple accounts of very vivid, other-worldly, visions. While some of these are certainly just the creative imaginations of it’s authors, it’s likely that some are also the very real experiences of the people who had them – as the result of the some then-unknown neurological disorder. When talking about Paul, John of Patmos, or even Jesus, one should never overlook the possibility that they suffered from mental illness which led to their behaviors, beliefs, and claims. Remember, when it comes to extraordinary claims, a natural explanation (no matter how unlikely) is always more likely than a supernatural one.
Thanks for reading.