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.


mikespeir said...

I once wrote an essay (unpublished) very much like this one, except that I made the reader a member of the jury. I went even further and asked the reader how it would affect his vote during deliberations if God appeared to him personally--as really as any other purported encounter with God as he had ever experienced--and told him the accused was guilty. Would even that direct testimony, supposedly from God himself, cause the reader to vote to send a man to his death? How could anyone ever be so sure of his revelatory experience as to deprive someone of life based on it? Wouldn't we all shudder, step back, and admit to ourselves that we're just not that sure that our experience really was what we thought it was? Is it more believable if the experience wasn't ours, but that of some man (presumably) 2000 years ago, whose name we don't even know for sure?

Matt McCormick said...

Great point Mike. Nice variation on the theme. The model here is you take some form of believer/theistic reasoning and run a parallel case where people draw a conclusion on comparable grounds or in a comparable way, but the conclusion they come to has negative, morally repugnant, or obvious bad consequences. Then you ask the question: would this form of reasoning still be acceptable? If the answer is no in the negative case, then the form of reasoning is no more acceptable for the sake of God. These kinds of cases lay open the errors in theistic rationalizing that we have been inured to by the widespread popularity for and sympathy with believing.


Steve Martin said...

The curveball is that the witnesses were all killed as a result of their testimony (except John).

They could have changes their stories, even disingenuously, to save their lives...but they did not.

Not to mention the millions of people who have had their lives transformed for the better by hearing their testimonies and coming to faith throughout the spite of all the evidence to the contrary for the existance of God.

I'm one of those millions.

ChrisAC said...

Ah, Steve, but you see Islamic fundamentalists are willing to give their lives to fight the good fight, so you must concede that they must no doubt have true beliefs.

And, to completely mangle Dawkins since I don't feel like looking up the quote:

"I suppose a shot of morphine would be comforting as well, but to say it is comforting is not to say that it is true."

Besides, to say that the only reason you, or others, are a decent human being is because the belief in a divine power giving you goodies when you die (or burning you forever) is not a heartwarming story but a terrifying tale of a wire-thin sanity.

Sure, you can say the story of sacrifice is quite touching... but honestly it's a rather mediocre story. Even the Greeks had better mythological sacrifices.

Prometheus had his liver torn out every day (it regrowing during night) for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man. Quite frankly that's a far more respectable man than someone who sent himself-as-his-son to die to stop an arbitrary rule he could have stopped regardless since he's sorta omnipotent. One crucifixion and he goes back to heaven? Tons of people were crucified by the Romans, that's not too special.

Regardless, you'll find that reading books can help change you for the better, you can find many inspirations. Also, unlike with televangelists, you get a tangible good from spending ten bucks.

mikespeir said...

"The curveball is that the witnesses were all killed as a result of their testimony (except John)."

Says who?

Matt McCormick said...

Generally I try not to respond much to Steve's posts. The grossest of non sequiturs don't trouble him in the slightest. But this news story is relevant. At least 12 fans who were overcome by sorrow killed themselves after Michael Jackson died:

mikespeir said...

I can't get the link to work, Matt.

Matt McCormick said...

Try this:

MJ Fans Commit Suicide

Steve Martin said...

I wasn't talking about killing yourself.

I wasn't talking about killing others (Islam).

I was talking about one's life being taken from them by others who do not like the beliefs of those they wish to kill.

The disciples could have easily walked away, unscathed.

They could not deny Christ. The Christ they had seen for themselves, raised from the dead by God the Father.

Your faith that all of this world and the life within it, all came from...nothing...astounds me.

Your faith is far greater than mine.

mikespeir said...

Are you going to deal with my simple question, Steve? Again, I ask, Says who? Who says they were all, except John, killed as a result of their testimony?

Matt McCormick said...

I think the question of whether or not they were killed for believing is utterly irrelevant since it is obvious that people devote themselves slavishly to all many of idiotic ideas and happily die for them every day--hence the Michael Jackson point. The general principle here has to be something like, "People will only dedicate themselves to or be persecuted for beliefs that are true." And the counter examples to this principle are just too numerous to count.


mikespeir said...

It doesn't quite go along with your intention for the thread, Matt. But Steve seems to believe the notion that the disciples died for their witness is an adequate answer to you. I don't think he can come up with any compelling evidence for the claim. In short, he has no answer.

eheffa said...

Steve Martin:

Not only do we have no evidence that the anonymous authors of the books we call the "Gospels" or the cardboard cutout disciples of Jesus they caricature were actually killed for their faith; we have very little evidence that the Jesus person described in the Gospels was an actual historical person.

Doesn't it strike you as odd that the perfectionist creator of the universe would do such a poor job of documenting what is supposed to be the most important event in all of human history? Why would leave this story open to such reasonable doubt. It's almost as if he had nothing to do with this whole story... Hmmmm doesn't it make you think some scary thoughts - like maybe it's all a made up story & you (like me in a former life) have devoted yourself to a fable?


Matt McCormick said...

Evan's dead on about what God would have done if he wanted to make his existence clear by means of Jesus or the Bible. An omnipotent being could have done a profoundly better job than what we've got. So since the evidence is so poor, it must not be that an omnipotent being wants us to believe it. So by believing it, you are diverging from his will, if there is such a being. So believing the Bible is against God's will, ironically.

mikespeir said...

I see you got rid of the Chinese spam. And, gee, I came back just to click on it and fill my computer with all manner of adware, viruses, and Trojan horses. Ah, well. Missed opportunities.

the feral fox said...

Is there only the physical, or do you respect the spritual?

Ken (feel free to call me names) said...

So let me see if I got this straight. We believe anything written after 1950? We dismiss everything before 1950?

Lets come at this from a different angle. How many pieces of written documentation are there that are 2000 years old?
What are those documents?
Back 2000 years ago things were not recorded at the rate they are today or anytime this century for that matter.

There is a Sumerian text about the epic of Gilgamesh which people will accept as truth because it doesn't come from the bible.

Those same people dismiss the story of Noah and do so ONLY because it is written in the bible.

Josephus recorded events during his time. Do we dismiss these also?

Which year is it ok to start believing recorded documents?

No matter which year you choose, I will produce documents that will contradict your documents, EXCEPT for the bible.

Now some people say the epic of Gilgamesh predates the story of Noah.

But thats not provable at all.

Personally I think that christians are the dumbest race of people on this planet.

But the arguments I am seeing be put forth make the christians look smart.

mikespeir said...

Gee, where are you getting this stuff, Ken? No self-respecting historian accepts any ancient document at face value. You really think we take Gilgamesh, for instance, as historical? And, no, Gilgamesh doesn't provably predate the story of Noah, but the surviving documents of the former certainly do predate the surviving documents of the latter. That's a good reason to think Gilgamesh is older. Do you have a good reason to think otherwise?

So, do you have any actual evidence for the historicity your ancient texts; evidence strong enough that we should turn our lives upside down on account of it?

J said...

"How many pieces of written documentation are there that are 2000 years old? "

Thousands of pages. Check out Rome, Greece, China. Hell, Herodotus and Thucydides had already started making evidence based based historical arguments some 400 years before the time of Jesus.

"Those same people dismiss the story of Noah and do so ONLY because it is written in the bible."

Well, I can't speak for "those same people," but as for me, I reject the Noah myth based on the archeological, geological, and historical record. All three sciences clearly falsify the global flood hypothesis. I personally don't care if it were written about in the Bible, in Homer or in Einstein's 1915 paper; it didn't happen.

"Josephus recorded events during his time. Do we dismiss these also?"

Two things about Josephus, one I don't take his accounts at face value without corroborating evidence, however for a good amount of what he wrote there is corroborating evidence. That said, he writes nothing that would corroborate any itinerant Jewish preacher doing anything supernatural.

Ken, I won't call you any names, but you appear to me to have created quite a straw-man and in no point in your discussion did you ever remotely address the central argument: If I apply the same standards of evidence I would use in a trial (or evaluating any other historical claim for that matter), is there sufficient documented evidence to believe a supernatural resurrection occurred in the Levant 2000 years ago?