Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Suppose that you have been falsely accused of committing a crime, say, a murder, that occurred many years ago. There is very little evidence connecting you to the murder except the testimony of 4 people named Mike, Monty, Larry, and Jacob. Your defense attorney puts them on the witness stand and interviews them one at a time. During the questioning several important facts about their belief that you committed the murder are revealed. It turns out that none of the four actually saw you commit the murder. They’ve never even met you before. But each one of them admits that they heard some stories from some other people that you committed the murder. And it cannot be established that these other people were witnesses either and they are not available to be questioned. None of the 4 knows how many times the story was repeated or passed around before they heard it. They heard that a lot of people were witnesses to the murder, but again, none of those people are available and it is not known who they are. It turns out that the murder happened 30 years ago and they heard about it because the accusation that you did it has been talked about and remembered by these other unavailable people during all these years.

It also turns out that Mike and Larry got the story from Monty. They believe that you did it entirely on the basis of Monty’s telling them that you did. Furthermore, when the attorney tries to get the details straight about what happened at the crime scene, none of them tell the same story. The important details (that they all got from other people) are different in every case.

At one point, the prosecution puts a man named Perry on the stand and he affirms that you did it too. But he admits that he wasn’t there and he did not see it. Rather, he had a powerful vision during a trance while he was walking down the street one day and a voice he heard told him that you committed the murder.

The prosecuting attorney makes an attempt to assure the jury that you are guilty because there are lots and lots of people out there who believe it because they heard it from Mike, Monty, Larry, Jacob, and Perry. But the judge prohibits it because “Everyone knows that it is true,” is not an admissable form of evidence in court. But it never becomes clear why the judge allowed the hearsay evidence of the 5 men to be heard in the court in the first place.

The prosecuting and defense attorneys close their case. And the jury, all being good Christians, promptly convicts you of murder and sentence you to death.

If you haven’t figured it out: Mike, Monty, Larry, Jacob, and Perry are all Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul, respectively.

Does it sound like fair grounds upon which to convict a person?

A murder charge and conviction are no less important in their impact on a person’s life than the changes that Christian’s believe we should enact in our lives for Jesus. If it is not reasonable to convict a person of murder on these grounds, it is no more reasonable to believe that 2,000 years ago a person came back from the dead on similar grounds, especially since it matters so much.

Suppose that we debriefed the jury after the trial and asked them about their decision and when we raised doubts about what they had done, some of them said things like, “Well, I know that the evidence was really sketchy, but in the end you just gotta have faith. And I have faith in my heart that he did it and deserves to go to prison for the murder.” Would that make the decision better or worse? Some of the others said things like, “I was raised Lutheran and we were always taught that he did the murder. That’s just the way I was raised. So when it came time to decide, I just went with that.” One of the other jurors said, “Yeah, the evidence for his guilt was really weak. But I just figure that it’s a good bet to find him guilty anyway. I mean, it could be wrong, but you never know—he might really have done it. There’s a 1 in a billion chance that he did. So if I convict him, then I will have done the right thing and justice will be served.” Another juror said that he just went along with the others to keep his grandmother happy.

There will be complaints about this story, no doubt. “The cases aren’t the same because in this case the person is accused of something bad, a murder, and it is a false accusation. But Jesus’ resurrection is true.” There are two problems with this response. The murder charge is analogous because it and the Jesus belief are both decisions of great import. What matters is that what is decided on the basis of the information at hand will have an enormous impact on a person’s life. There’s no question that believing in Jesus does have a radical effect on people, and there is no question that millions of believers think that it should have that effect on you. If believing in Jesus seems like a minor, trivial matter to you, then perhaps you should rethink the implications of it. But even so, believing something irrationally is irrational, no matter how big or little the belief is.

Furthermore, if the source of a person’s conviction that Jesus’ resurrection happened is the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul, then complaining that the murder case is different because it is a false charge is begging the question. The point is that we don’t know whether or not Jesus came back from the dead, except on the basis of their words, so we can’t then assert that we are sure their words are accurate because Jesus came back from the dead.

There is a disanalogy here that actually makes the case for Jesus worse. To make the murder trial closer, Paul would have to tell his vision story about 20 years after the alleged murder. Then 10 to 20 years later, Mike, Monty, and Larry would come to the courthouse and give their stories. Then a full 90 years after the alleged murder, Jacob would show up and give his account of the murder.

But we must assume that the Christians on the jury would still be untroubled by the problems in the case for your guilt and when they promptly convict you on the basis of it, we should find them guilty of nothing unreasonable or unfair in their decision.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Go here and watch this video. Focus your attention closely and try to count the number of times that the team of people with black shirts passes the basketball:

Basketball passing

Eyewitness testimony is, of course, overrated. We have heard that it is not reliable many times, but we may fail to appreciate just how bad it can be. Daniel J. Simons, a visual cognition researcher at the University of Illinois has created a number of experiments with shocking results. In the video above, a group of people in white and black shirts pass a basketball back and forth while rapidly changing position. Subjects are instructed to watch the video and keep track of the number of times one of the teams exchanges the ball. During the video a man in a gorilla suit saunters across in front of the basketball players, looks at the camera, beats his chest, and then walks off screen. An amazing 56% of the test subjects, who were focusing their attention on the ball passing behind the gorilla failed to even notice the gorilla standing in plain sight. People who are shown Simons’ video and instructed to do the same are typically incredulous that the gorilla was there until they are shown the video again. Show the video to someone else and tell them to count the number of times the black shirt team passes the ball.

Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. (1999). “Gorillas in our midst: Sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events.” Perception, 28, 1059-1074.

There were 30 to 100 years that passed between the alleged events surrounding Jesus’ death and when they were written down by the authors of the Gospels who based their accounts on hearsay sources. The stories passed through an unknown number of people and repeated an unknown number of times before they were written down. But suppose that on the best case scenario, the authors actually spoke to someone who claimed to be a witness to the resurrection of Jesus. If we don’t notice a man in a gorilla suit jumping up and down in front of us as it is happening, how reliable is our recall going to be about something we think we saw 30 years ago?