Introduction"Were you there?" When I was younger that is a question that I was taught to ask a naturalist when they tried to tell me that the universe was started by the big bang. Before I recognized the big bang as powerful evidence for the Creator (I vehemently rejected it as an atheistic theory), when presented with evidence for the big bang, I would respond by asking, "were you there to witness all those events you say happened...no?...I didn't think so, so how can you be so sure that God didn't create the universe like the Bible says?" I remember using this in several occasions in college and came across a couple students who turned the question around on me: "you weren't there either?...then how do you know it didn't happen as I described?" I realized that this was not a very good way to defend the idea that God created the universe (and the Christian worldview).
I have not seen this question used in quite some time as an apologetic strategy; however, it did come up last year in an article from the popular young-earth creationist organization, Answers in Genesis. The author proposed that the way the question was asked (similar to how I was taught) was unwise but that there is a proper way to use the question. Please read the original article here before you continue; I want you to be sure that in my critique, I am accurately representing the author.
The "Proper" Use of the QuestionThe author of the original post rightly points to the problems with asking the question "were you there." Quickly stated, a skeptic can ask the same question, and since neither were there, neither can claim to know what actually happened. This results in a stalemate of sorts, a conversation stopper, or agnosticism. The author still promotes using the question; however, when the skeptic turns the tables, he says to offer that God was there and that we have a reliable eyewitness account from God of what happened. Now, forgetting for the moment that the author is assuming that his interpretation of the eyewitness account is the same as the eyewitness account (see here and here), there are two problems that comes with taking the conversation in this direction.
Hypocritical EmpiricismWhen someone asks anyone "were you there" about any event, they are asking if the person was physically present to witness the event. This is a request for empirical evidence of the happening of an event. This causes two problems, though. The first is that many people who ask if someone was an eyewitness uses a negative response to dismiss the event actually taking place. This is often used by Christians when questioning the big bang (such as the author of the article). In their thinking, if someone was not there to witness the big bang, then they are justified in dismissing the idea that it happened. They do not accept circumstantial evidence; they demand only the empirical.
While this is not direct empiricism, it is only one step away from it. The person, who feels justified in dismissing the event because no eyewitness was there, does still rely upon the eyewitness who WAS there. So their evidence, though empirical, is second-hand. They are still ultimately relying upon direct witness by the senses being the only source of knowledge of an event. This is the same kind of empiricism that many Christians deny (and many naturalists affirm) because we know there are other sources of knowledge of singular, past events (including circumstantial evidence- see these posts: here and here). If the Christian still wishes to use the question "Were you there," they are promoting an epistemology (empiricism) that they deny the naturalist. This is simply a hypocritical use of empiricism: they deny it when it challenges their view, yet they insist upon it when it supports their view. They must either accept empiricism as whole-heartedly as the naturalist or deny it to the point of not being able to use the question. They simply cannot have it both ways.
Witnessing The TransmissionThere is a second problem that is tied to the transmission of the eyewitness account. For someone who asks 'were you there," they are usually asking potential eyewitnesses. Anyone who did witness the event can communicate their experience to the person asking the question. If the communication of the account does take place, notice that the person who asked the question is present to witness the transmission of the account. If they were ever asked "were you there to witness the transmission of the eyewitness account to know that it was transmitted accurately?" they could answer "yes."
The skeptic usually asks the Christian "if [they] were there" to neutralize the weakness of their own response. The Christian attempts to destabilize the neutral position by saying that God was there. The problem is that the perceptive skeptic will push the Christian harder here to neutralize it once again. All they have to ask is this: "were you there to witness the transmission of the account through the centuries to know that we have an accurate account of what the eyewitness said back then?"
When the skeptic first turns the question around on the Christian, they can respond truthfully by saying, "No." But in order to keep the conversation moving, they must add "...but someone else was..." (as the author of the original article suggests). However, they cannot justify this second claim. They must simply answer "No, I was not." For if they are to appeal to more eyewitnesses to establish the accurate transmission of the account of that "someone else," the same question will have to be asked until the Christian is so far removed from the original record of the account, that the case for the reliability of the eyewitness account becomes dependent upon circumstantial evidence- the very type of evidence that the Christian (who asks "were you there") is denying is a valid source of truth. Circumstantial evidence must be put forth to justify the belief in the accuracy of the account of the empirical experience. If they wish to justify the "someone else's account," they must appeal to circumstantial evidence. Similarly to their treatment of empiricism, they also affirm the validity of circumstantial evidence as a source of truth when it supports their view, but deny it when it challenges their view. They cannot have this one both ways either, for that too would be hypocritical.
ConclusionWhile I applaud the author of the article for attempting to salvage a seemingly clever way to steer the conversation to the Gospel, it ultimately fails on epistemic and logical grounds. The Christian who uses this will be caught "flat-footed" unless they are willing to accept circumstantial evidence as a source of truth and apply it consistently, even to their view of origins. If they do that, they then must also consider the circumstantial evidence against their view of creation that ultimately forced them to into this epistemic and logical mess in the first place.
Links for further research:Book Reivew: Cold-Case Christianity
Book Review: Origin Science
Philosophy of Science, Circumstantial Evidence and Creation
Are Nature and Scripture Compatible
Man's Fallible Ideas vs. God's Infallible Word