Why Paul Didn't Merely See A "Vision"
In chapter 8 of my book Inference To The One True God, in my blog post “The Minimal Facts Case For Jesus’ Resurrection PART 1” and in my blog post “A Quick Case For Jesus’ Resurrection”, I list 5 facts which undergird an inference to the resurrection of Jesus being raised from the dead. These facts are (1) Jesus' death by crucifixion, (2), Jesus' empty tomb discovered the following Sunday after His death, (3) Jesus' 12 Disciples believed that they saw Jesus alive after His death, (4) Paul converted on the basis of what He believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus, and (5) A skeptic named James converted on the basis what he believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus.
I argued for the historicity of these 5 facts using the historical method, or the "criterion of authenticity", followed by an inference to the He-Is-Risen hypothesis as the best explanation.
In my conversations and debates with non-Christians on this topic, several of them have tried to discredit or downplay the 4th minimal fact in the case by arguing that what Paul saw wasn't really a bodily appearance of Jesus, but that it was merely a vision of Jesus. They point out, for example, that in Acts 26:19 Paul explicitly calls his experience on the road to Damascus a vision. "So king Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision..." Acts 9 says that Paul was blinded by the light and is said to have heard the voice of Jesus. Later on in Acts Jesus appears to him to say he will bear witness to him in Rome but here it's just a voice and a light. The argument here is that based on this biblical data, it means that Paul only saw a sort of spiritual vision like Stephen had when he stood before the Sanhedrin and didn't have a post-mortem sighting on par with the disciples and James. A person in the comment section on this site even took the argument a bit further to say that because Paul lumps his experience in with the disciples that he must have believed their experiences to be of the same kind as his, and therefore the disciples also believed themselves to only have seen a vision of Jesus.
What are we to make of this argument? Did Paul only see a mere vision of Jesus? Was Paul's experience something produced by his own mind? I don't think so. Here are several reasons why this argument is a failure.
Only The Book Of Acts Records The Light, Paul Never Does
Paul almost never mentions seeing a light in his own epistles. Luke (the author of the book of Acts) is the only one to mention a light. Whenever Paul recounts his postmortem appearance experience in His epistles, he basically just says "I saw Jesus" or "Jesus appeared to me."
"Am I not an apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are not you my work in the Lord?" - 1 Corinthians 9:1
"Last of all, he appeared to me also, as to one untimely born." - 1 Corinthians 15:8
"But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles..." - Galatians 1:15-16a
While it's true that Paul does mention a light sometimes in the book of Acts, he never does in His own epistles. Only when Luke is recording Paul's words is a light ever mentioned. Paul's own pen never makes mention of it. When one reads Paul's writings, one gets the impression that Paul thought his experience was of an actual, flesh and blood, risen Jesus. Not merely a mental image.
In The Acts Account Of Paul's Experience, Other People Notice Something Going On
In Acts 9, where the first account of his vision takes place, Luke explains that "the men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one" (Acts 9:7). Later when Paul is giving a speech recounting his experience on the road to Damascus, he says, "now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me" (Acts 22:9).
The Acts account tells us that while none of Paul's companions saw who was there or what was said, they all saw the same light and heard a voice (they just couldn't make out what the voice was saying). If you accept Luke's account, then you have to concede that Paul's experience was an objective experience of something outside his mind. Why? Because that many peoples' brains couldn't all produce the same experience at the same time. It would be akin to a group hallucination, and those are statistically impossible. Hallucinations are like dreams. They don't spread like the common cold. If you met up with a group of your friends, and one of them said to you "Boy, that was one nice dream we all had, right?" You would either think he was joking or that he went crazy. You would never take seriously his claim that all of your friends simultaneously experienced the same dream. Dreams and hallucinations are both projections of a person's mind and it defies the odds that multiple peoples' brains could simultaneously conjure up the same mental images.
Therefore, to say that Paul had a subjective visionary experience (an experience produced by his own mind) simply does not work. The account clearly says that other people experienced it too. The only difference is that while they saw a light and heard a voice, they couldn't see who was in the light or make out what the voice was saying.
Now, if the skeptic wants to say "No, no. I think Luke was making the incident up", then the Paul-only-saw-a-light argument goes down the toilet because this is the only place in scripture where a light is mentioned. Again, in all of Paul's own writings, he never mentions a light. He just says "I saw Jesus" or "Christ appeared to me" etc. To reject Luke's account as historically accurate, you reject any basis upon which to make the objection. But if you concede it, then you also lose any basis upon which to make the objection.
The Word "Vision" Doesn't Always Mean A Purely Mental Experience
I asked about this in the Christian Apologetics Support Group a short while back to get my fellow apologists' take on the matter. I wanted to see how their approach to this skeptical argument differed from mine and/or how similar they were to mine.
In the comment section, Josh Sommer wrote: "The word optasia doesn't necessarily have to mean an apparition projected by our minds. A vision, or optasia, could simply indicate that someone literally saw what they describe to be a vision. I have an optasia of the flowers on my dining room table right now. That doesn't mean they aren't literally right in front of me, tangibly.
We use the word 'vision' to mean something like a daydream, but that's not usually how Scripture uses the term. 'Vision' can be used to indicate real events. For instance, Jesus calls the Transfiguration a 'vision' in Matthew 17:9, but this does not mean there weren't actual real events playing out in front of Peter and John."
Why Is Paul's Experience Different From The Disciples'?
Given all that I've said, we've got good grounds for affirming that Paul's experience was an experience of a postmortem risen Jesus, or at least that that's what Paul believed it to be. We can debate whether the actual risen Jesus really did appear to Paul, but the fact that Paul believed his experience was that of the risen Jesus (and not a mere vision) is well established.
That said, the postmortem appearance to Paul is clearly different than that of the 12 disciples and James. Why is that? And does Luke contradict Paul by saying he saw a light while Paul he saw a postmortem Jesus? If I can shift from examining the issue from the perspective of a historian for a minute and look at it from a theologian's perspective, I would say that the reason Paul's experience of Jesus is different is that its post-ascension. Paul most likely saw the risen Jesus standing there, bodily, but His body was shining His shekinah glory. It would have been similar to how the gospels describe Jesus during the Transfiguration (see Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36). This seems to me like a plausible way to reconcile the seemingly conflicting accounts.
The postmortem appearance to Paul was lit. 😜
Paul didn't think he merely saw a vision. He thought he saw the risen Jesus.