Monday, September 30, 2013

Challenging Eyewitnesses of the Resurrection

Earlier this year I wrote a post regarding the irony of rejecting the eyewitness accounts to Jesus' resurrection. I received the following challenge that attempts to undermine the reliability of eyewitnesses and the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Since the Christian faith is grounded on this unique event in history (1 Corinthians 15), the challenge must be addressed. Here it is:
"Regarding eyewitness being good evidence. True, the further we go back in history, the more we have to rely on eyewitness testimony. However, the likelihood of an event occurring significantly affects the credibility of the eyewitness. If there was an eyewitness to a car crash, the car crash event itself does not diminish credibility, because those happen all the time. But if there was an eyewitness to extraterrestrials, or ghosts, or godzilla, or someone rising from the dead, it significantly diminishes the credibility of the eyewitness testimony because the possibility that the eyewitness was mistaken or lying increases. Do you see the difference?"
My goal with this post is to present four responses to this challenge, that combined will render it untenable to maintain.

Improbable Events
The first part of the challenge I wish to address regards improbable events. The challenger seems to believe that the probability of a particular event taking place has baring on the reliability of any alleged eyewitnesses. He states that someone who claimed to witness a car crash can be trusted because those are quite common and contrasts it to the unique event of the resurrection.

The challenge makes a very important mistake in his reasoning here. He claims that car crashes are common and implies that eyewitness to those are reliable. However, he fails to recognize that the inclusion of details of the event (a car crash) makes the event less probable. Let us say that a person claimed to witnessed a car crash between a red 1994 Ford F-150 and a silver 2009 Nissan Altima. The inclusion of the details makes the event quite rare, not common. Once the person includes the location, date and time (never mind the drivers, passengers, weather conditions, or any other details), the event becomes as improbable as any other unique event, including the resurrection.

If a person wishes to tie the reliability of an eyewitness of an event to the probability of that event taking place, then the reliability of an eyewitness of any event is eroded completely. Not only has the person eliminated the reliability of the New Testament eyewitnesses, but he has eliminated the reliability of eyewitnesses of crimes, eyewitnesses of non-criminal events, and eyewitnesses of events in his own life- himself included.

If the probability of an event determines the reliability of an eyewitness, then no person can trust even their own experiences- we cannot trust what our sense organs and brains are telling us is happening in our world. If we cannot trust our senses, then anything we believe that relies upon information obtained via our sense organs cannot be trusted.

Assumption of Impossibility
The second part that I wish to draw your focus is the list of events that the challenger believes should immediately deem the eyewitness unreliable. This list includes extraterrestrials, ghosts, Godzilla, and the resurrection (for good measure). I'm not going to address extraterrestrials or ghosts in this post, but I do want to examine Godzilla. From this inclusion of this item alone, I believe that it is safe to assume that the challenger believes that the other three are impossible. The challenger wishes to draw a conclusion from the reality that Godzilla does not exist and the fact that impossible events cannot be witnessed.

Two problems exist. The first is that the challenger is starting with the assumption that the resurrection is impossible to conclude that the eyewitnesses of the New Testament are not reliable. The conclusion has been assumed in one of the supporting premises- a fallacy in logic called "begging the question." It does not mean that the conclusion is false, just that this is not a valid way to get to the conclusion.

The second problem is that the challenger is challenging a strawman (a misrepresentation) of the Christian claim of the resurrection. Christians and skeptics agree that the resurrection is impossible by naturalistic processes alone, and that is what the challenger is banking on. However, Christianity does not claim that Jesus resurrected naturally, God (the Father) is responsible for the resurrection. This was a super-natural event, not a natural one. If God exists (which Christianity claims that God does), then the impossibility of a natural resurrection does not mean that resurrection is impossible, only that it is impossible by natural means- super-natural means are still possible. So, the challenger cannot argue from the impossibility of the resurrection to undermine the reliability of the New Testament eyewitnesses.

Credibility Determines Reality?
My third beef with this challenge regards the challenge's subtle implication that credibility of an eyewitness somehow determines reality. The challenger is attempting to justify rejection of the claim of the resurrection, and he seems to believe that by undermining the eyewitnesses' credibility he can show that it did not take place.

The problem here is that undermining credibility has no bearing on the actuality of the event itself. If someone who witnessed an event is a known pathological liar, can we immediately conclude that the event did not take place? No. Even if this challenge stood against critique, the challenger could not soundly conclude that the resurrection did not take place from the unreliability of the New Testament eyewitnesses.

Past Credibility and Present Credibility
After offering those three critiques of the challenge, I do feel that I need to let up a bit and provide the challenger a little bit of "wiggle" room. Let us go back to the pathological liar. How do we know he is a pathological liar? We examine his history of claims with regards to the reality of the events. Obviously we determined that he has a history of lying, so it is highly probable that he is lying about the event presently under investigation.

Two things: First, in order for the challenger to reliably cast doubt on the reliability of the New Testament eyewitnesses, he would need to have access to their history of claims and the reality of the events. But we run into a snag. Many of the claims AND the events are already assumed to be incorrect and non-existent, respectively, by the challenger. So, we are back to begging the question. The best that the challenger can do here to avoid establishing credibility (the complete opposite of his goal) is to claim agnosticism about the events and skepticism about the history of the claims of the New Testament eyewitnesses. The challenger is left hanging.

Cold Case Christianity
At this point, the challenger, as any juror stuck with only a pathological liar as an eyewitness (or no eyewitness at all) to a crime is responsible to do, must examine ALL the evidence- circumstantial evidence.

Cold cases are criminal investigations in which no living eyewitnesses are around to testify or have their testimony tested. This is the exact place that the challenger to the reliability of the New Testament eyewitnesses finds himself.  Cold-case homicide detective J. Warner Wallace takes the skeptic through all the circumstantial evidence for Jesus' resurrection, that convinced him to convert from atheist to Christian, in his book Cold Case Christianity.

The problem for this particular skeptic is that in order to reject the eyewitnesses in the New Testament based on his challenge, he undermines:
  1. All eyewitnesses to crimes
  2. The trustworthiness of his own senses
  3. The trustworthiness of everyone else's senses
Many more posts could be written explaining the further implications of these three, but suffice it to use your experiences and imagination to discover all that we depend upon the reliability of our senses in order to know and act.

I would argue that these sacrifices are too much just to maintain the challenge. The skeptic has traded the trustworthiness of the New Testament eyewitnesses for the trustworthiness of...well, nothing. The leap from "skeptic of Christianity" to "hyper-skeptic of reality" necessarily follows and cannot be escaped. Because of that, the challenge must be withdrawn.

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