Articles and book excerpts used in and referred to on Issues, Etc.
The Jury Returns: A
Juridical Defense of Christianity
by Dr. John Warwick Montgomery
An excerpt from Evidence for Faith Chapter 6, Part 2
EXISTENTIAL, BLIND "LEAPS OF FAITH" can be and often are suicide jumps, with no criteria of truth available before the leap is made. But suppose the truth of a religious claim did not depend upon an unverifiable, subjectivistic leap of faith? What if a revelational truth-claim did not turn on questions of theology and religious philosophy-on any kind of esoteric, fideistic method available only to those who are already "true believers"-but on the very reasoning employed in the law to determine questions of fact?
The historic Christian claim differs qualitatively from the claims of all other world religions at the epistemological point: on the issue of testability. Eastern faiths and Islam, to take familiar examples, ask the uncommitted seeker to discover their truth experientially: the faith-experience will be self-validating. Unhappily, as analytical philosopher Kai Nielsen and others have rigorously shown, a subjective faith-experience is logically incapable of "validating God-talk"-including the alleged absolutes about which the god in question does the talking. Christianity, on the other hand, declares that the truth of its absolute claims rests squarely on certain historical facts, open to ordinary investigation. These facts relate essentially to the man Jesus, His presentation of Himself as God in human flesh, and His resurrection from the dead as proof of His deity.
Thus the rabbinic lawyer, Christian convert, and apostle-Paul of Tarsus-offered this gospel to Stoic philosophers at Athens as the historically verifiable fulfillment of natural religion and the natural law tradition, with their vague and insufficiently defined content.
Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered [Paul at Athens]. And some said, What will this babbler say? Others said, He seems to be setting forth strange gods-for he had been preaching Jesus and the resurrection to them. And they took him to the Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine is of which you are speaking?...
Then Paul stood at the center of the Areopagus and said, You men of Athens, I note that in all things you are too superstitious. For as I passed by and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore you ignorantly worship I declare to you...The times of this ignorance God winked at, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, for he has appointed a day when he will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom he has ordained, and he has given assurance of it to all in that he has raised him from the dead.
At one point in his speech, Paul asserted that human life is the product of divine creation, "as certain also of your own [Stoic] poets have said," thereby making clear that classical natural law thinking was correct as far as it went, though it did not by any means go far enough. Its completion could be found in Jesus, the Man whom God ordained, and His divine character was verifiable through His resurrection from the dead.
Elsewhere I have argued this case by employing standard, accepted techniques of historical analysis. Here we shall use legal reasoning and the law of evidence. The advantage of a jurisprudential approach lies in the difficulty of jettisoning it: legal standards of evidence develop as essential means of resolving the most intractable disputes in society (dispute settlement by self-help-the only alternative to adjudication-will tear any society apart). Thus one cannot very well throw out legal reasoning merely because its application to Christianity results in a verdict for the Christian faith.
Significantly, both in philosophy and in theology, there are moves to introduce juridical styles of reasoning. Stephen Toulmin, professor of philosophy at Leeds and one of the foremost analytical philosophers of our time, presents a veritable call to arms:
To break the power of old models and analogies, we can provide ourselves with a new one. Logic is concerned with the soundness of the claims we make-with the solidity of the grounds we produce to support them, the firmness of the backing we provide for them-or, to change the metaphor, with the sort of case we present in defence of our claims. The legal analogy implied in this last way of putting the point can for once be a real help. So let us forget about psychology, sociology, technology and mathematics, ignore the echoes of structural engineering and collage in the words 'grounds' and 'backing,' and take as our model the discipline of jurisprudence. Logic (we may say) is generalized jurisprudence. Arguments can be compared with law-suits, and the claims we make and argue for in extra-legal contexts with claims made in the courts, while the cases we present in making good each kind of claim can be compared with each other.
Mortimer Adler, at the end of his careful discussion of the question of God's existence, employs, not the traditional philosophical ideal of Cartesian absolute certainty, but the legal standards of proof by preponderance of evidence and proof beyond reasonable doubt:
If I am able to say no more than that a preponderance of reasons favor believing that God exists, I can still say I have advanced reasonable grounds for that belief...
I am persuaded that God exists, either beyond a reasonable doubt or by a preponderance of reasons in favor of that conclusion over reasons against it. I am, therefore, willing to terminate this inquiry with the statement that I have reasonable grounds for affirming God's existence.
And from the jurisprudential side, Jerome Hall recognizes the potential for arbitrating central issues of religion and ethics by the sophisticated instrument of legal reasoning.
Legal rules of evidence are reflections of "natural reason," and they could enter into dialogues in several ways, for example, to test the validity of theological arguments for the existence of God and to distinguish secular beliefs, even those held without any reasonable doubt, from faith that is so firm (Job's) that it excludes the slightest shadow of doubt and persists even in the face of evidence that on rational grounds is plainly contradictory. In these and other ways the rationality of the law of evidence in the trial of an issue of fact joins philosophical rationalism in raising pertinent questions about faith.
In terms of our discussion, what are the "pertinent questions about faith"? Four over-arching questions need to be answered: (1) Are the historical records of Jesus solid enough to rely upon? (2) Is the testimony in these records concerning His life and ministry sufficiently reliable to know what He claimed about Himself? (3) Do the accounts of His resurrection from the dead, offered as proof of His divine claims, in fact establish those claims? (4) If Jesus' deity is established in the foregoing manner, does He place a divine stamp of approval on the Bible so as to render its pronouncements apodictically certain? Let us see how legal reasoning helps to answer each of these key questions.
Basic to any determination of the soundness of Christian claims is the question of the reliability of the pertinent historical documents. The documents at issue are not (pace the man on the Clapham omnibus) Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, or other pagan references to Jesus, though these do of course exist. Such references are secondary at best, since none of these writers had firsthand contact with Jesus or with His disciples. The documents on which the case for Christianity depends are the New Testament writings, for they claim to have been written by eyewitnesses or by close associates of eyewitnesses (indeed, their origin in apostolic circles was the essential criterion for including them in the New Testament).
How good are these New Testament records? They handsomely fulfill the historian's requirements of transmissional reliability (their texts have been transmitted accurately from the time of writing to our own day), internal reliability (they claim to be primary-source documents and ring true as such), and external reliability (their authorships and dates are backed up by such solid extrinsic testimony as that of the early second-century writer Papias, a student of John the Evangelist, who was told by him that the first three Gospels were indeed written by their traditional authors). Harvard's Simon Greenleaf, the greatest nineteenth-century authority on the law of evidence in the common-law world, applied to these records the "ancient documents" rule: ancient documents will be received as competent evidence if they are "fair on their face" (i.e., offer no internal evidence of tampering) and have been maintained in "reasonable custody" (i.e., their preservation has been consistent with their content). He concluded that the competence of the New Testament documents would be established in any court of law.
The speculation that the Gospel records were "faked" some three hundred years after the events described in them (a viewpoint gratuitously proffered by Professor Trevor-Roper) is dismissed by Lord Chancellor Hailsham, England's highest ranking legal luminary, with an apt lawyer's illustration.
[What] renders the argument invalid is a fact about fakes of all kinds which I learned myself in the course of a case I did in which there was in question the authenticity of a painting purporting to be by, and to be signed by, Modigliani. This painting, as the result of my Advice on Evidence, was shown to be a fake by X-ray evidence. But in the course of my researches I was supplied by my instructing solicitor with a considerable bibliography concerning the nature of fakes of all kinds and how to detect them. There was one point made by the author of one of these books which is of direct relevance to the point I am discussing. Although fakes can often be made which confuse or actually deceive contemporaries of the faker, the experts, or even the not so expert, of a later age can invariably detect them, whether fraudulent or not because the faker cannot fail to include stylistic or other material not obvious to contemporaries because they are contemporaries, but which stand out a mile to later observers because they reflect the standards, or the materials, or the styles of a succeeding age to that of the author whose work is being faked.
As for the skepticism of the so-called higher critics (or redaction critics) in the liberal theological tradition, it stems from an outmoded methodology (almost universally discarded today by classical and literary scholars and by specialists in comparative Near Eastern studies), and from unjustified philosophical presuppositions (such as anti-supernaturalistic bias and bias in favor of religious evolution). A.N. Sherwin-White, a specialist in Roman law, countered such critics in his 1960-61 Sarum Lectures at the University of London.
It is astonishing that while Graeco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth-century study of the Gospel narratives, starting from the no less promising material, has taken so gloomy a turn in the development of form-criticism that the more advanced exponents of it apparently maintain-so far as an amateur can understand the matter-that the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of His mission cannot be written. This seems very curious when one compares the case for the best-known contemporary of Christ, who like Christ is a well-documented figure-Tiberius Caesar. The story of his reign is known from four sources, the Annals of Tacitus and the biography of Suetonius, written some eighty or ninety years later, the brief contemporary record of Velleius Paterculus, and the third century history of Cassius Dio. These disagree amongst themselves in the wildest possible fashion, both in major matters of political action or motive and in specific details of minor events. Everyone would admit that Tacitus is the best of all the sources, and yet no serious modern historian would accept at face value the majority of the statements of Tacitus about the motives of Tiberius. But this does not prevent the belief that the material of Tacitus can be used to write a history of Tiberius.
The conclusion is inescapable: if one compares the New Testament documents with universally accepted secular writings of antiquity, the New Testament is more than vindicated. Some years ago, when I debated philosophy professor Avrum Stroll of the University of British Columbia on this point, he responded: "All right. I'll throw out my knowledge of the classical world." At which the chairman of the classics department cried: "Good Lord, Avrum, not that!"
If, as we have seen, the New Testament records are sound historical documents, how good is their testimony of Jesus? This is a question of great importance, since the accounts tell us plainly that Jesus claimed to be nothing less than God-in-the-flesh, come to earth to reveal God's will for the human race and to save human beings from the penalty of their sins. Moreover, the same testimony meticulously records Jesus' post-resurrection appearances, so a decision as to its reliability will also bear directly on third major question, the historicity of the resurrection.
In a court of law, admissible testimony is considered truthful unless impeached or otherwise rendered doubtful. This is in accord with ordinary life, where only the paranoiac goes about with the bias that everyone is lying. (Think of Cousin Elmo, convinced that he is followed by Albanians.) The burden, then, is on those who would show that the New Testament testimony to Jesus is not worthy of belief. Let us place the Gospel testimony to Jesus under the legal microscope to see if its reliability can be impeached.
Here we employ a construct for attacking perjury that has been labeled "the finest work on that subject." McCloskey and Schoenberg offer a fourfold test for exposing perjure, involving a determination of internal and external defects in the witness himself on the one hand and in the testimony itself on the other. We can translate their schema into diagrammatic form thusly:
|(a) Internal defects in the witness himself refer to any personal characteristics or past history tending to show that the "witness is inherently untrustworthy, unreliable, or undependable." Were the apostolic witnesses to Jesus persons who may be disbelieved because they were "not the type of persons who can be trusted"? Did they have criminal records or is there reason to think they were pathological liars? If anything, their simple literalness and directness is almost painful. They seem singularly poor candidates for a James Bond thriller or for being cast in the role of "Spy and Counterspy."|
But perhaps they were mythomanes-people incapable of distinguishing fact from fantasy? They themselves declare precisely the contrary: "We have not followed cunningly devised fables [Gk. mythoi, 'myths']," they write, "when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty."
(b) But perhaps the apostolic witnesses suffered from external defects, that is, "motives to falsify"?
Not all perjurers have committed prior immoral acts or prior crimes. Frequently, law abiding citizens whose pasts are without blemish will commit perjury, not because they are inherently unworthy, but because some specific present reason compels them to do so in the case at bar. Motive, then, becomes the common denominator. There is a motive for every act of perjury. The second major way in which the cross-examiner can seek to expose perjury, therefore, is to isolate the specific motive which causes the witness to commit perjury.
Surely no sensible person would argue that the apostolic witnesses would have lied about Jesus for monetary gain or as a result of societal pressure. To the contrary: they lost the possibility both of worldly wealth and of social acceptability among their Jewish peers because of their commitment to Jesus. Might that very affection for and attachment to Jesus serve as a motive to falsify? Not when we remember that their Master expressly taught them that lying was of the devil.
(c) Turning now to the testimony itself, we must ask if the New Testament writings are internally inconsistent or self-contradictory. Certainly, the Four Gospels do not give identical, verbatim accounts of the words or acts of Jesus. But if they did, that fact alone would make them highly suspect, for it would point to collusion. The Gospel records view the life and ministry of Jesus from four different perspectives-just as vertical witnesses to the same accident will present different but complementary accounts of the same event. If the objection is raised that the same occurrence or pericope is sometimes found at different times or places in Jesus' ministry, depending upon which Gospel one consults, the simple answer is that no one Gospel contains or was ever intended to contain the complete account of Jesus' three-year ministry. Furthermore, Jesus (like any preacher) certainly spoke the same messages to different groups at different times. And suppose He did throw the moneychanger out of the Temple twice: is it not strange, in light of their activity and His principles, the He only threw them out twice? (We would have expected it every Saturday-Sabbath-night.) Observe also how honestly and in what an unflattering manner the apostolic company picture themselves in these records. Mar, Perer's companion, describes him as having a consistent case of foot-in-the-mouth disease; and the Apostles in general are presented (in Jesus' own words) as "slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken." To use New Testament translator J.B. Phillips's expression, the internal content of the New Testament records has "the ring of truth."
(d) Finally, what about external defects in the testimony itself, i.e., inconsistencies between the New Testament accounts and what we know to be the case from archaeology or extra-biblical historical records? Far from avoiding contact with secular history, the New Testament is replete with explicit references to secular personages, places, and events. Unlike typical sacred literature, myth, and fairytale ("Once upon a time..."), the Gospel story begins with "There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed." Typical of the New Testament accounts are passages such as the following:
Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip, tetrarch of Itorea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene.
Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.
And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
Modern archaeological research has confirmed again and again the reliability of New Testament geography, chronology, and general history. To take but a single, striking example: After the rise of liberal biblical criticism, doubt was expressed as to the historicity of Pontius Pilate, since he is mentioned even by pagan historians only in connection with Jesus' death. Then, in 1961, came the discovery at Caesarea of the now famous "Pilate inscription," definitely showing that, as usual, the New Testament writers were engaged in accurate historiography.
Thus on no one of the four elements of the McCloskey-Schoenberg construct for attacking perjury can the New Testament witnesses to Jesus be impugned.
Furthermore, one should realize (and non-lawyers seldom do realize) how difficult it is to succeed in effective lying or misrepresentation when a cross-examiner is at work. Richard A. Givens, in his standard work, Advocacy, in the McGraw-Hill Trial Practice Series, diagrams ordinary truthful communication and then contrasts it with the tremendous complexities of deceitful communication (figures 6.2b and 6.2c).
Observe that the witness engaged in deception must, as it were, juggle at least three balls simultaneously, while continually estimating his chances of discovery: he must be sure he doesn't say anything that contradicts what his examiner knows (or what he thinks his examiner knows); he must tell a consistent lie ("liars must have good memories"); and he must take care that nothing he says can be checked against contradictory external data. Givens's point is that successful deception is terribly difficult, for the psychological strain and energy expended in attempting it makes the deceiver exceedingly vulnerable.
The wider the angles of divergence between these various images, the more confusing the problem, and the more "higher mathematics" must be done in order to attempt to avoid direct conflicts between these elements. The greater the angle of deception employed, the greater the complexity and the lower the effectiveness of these internal mental operations. If this is conscious, we attribute this to lying. If it is unconscious we lay it to the "bias" of the witness.
If one is lying or strongly biased, it is not enough to simply dredge up whatever mental trace there may be of the event and attempt to articulate it in answer to a question. Instead, all of the various elements mentioned must be weighed, a decision made as to the best approach, a reply contrived that is expected to be most convincing, and then an effort made to launch this communication into the minds of the audience.
The person with a wide angle of divergence between what is recalled and the impression sought to be given is thus at an almost helpless disadvantage, especially if confronting a cross-examiner who understands the predicament.
If the audience includes both a cross-examiner and a tribunal, the number of elements to be considered becomes even greater. The mental gymnastics required rise in geometric proportion to the number of elements involved.
Now, wholly apart from the question as to whether the New Testament witnesses to Jesus were the kind of people to engage in such deception (and we have already seen, in examining them for possible internal and external defects, that they were not): had they attempted such a massive deception, could they have gotten away with it? Admittedly, they were never put on a literal witness stand, but they concentrated their preaching on synagogue audiences. This put their testimony at the mercy of the hostile Jewish religious leadership who had had intimate contact with Jesus' ministry and had been chiefly instrumental in ending it.
Such an audience eminently satisfies Givens's description of "both a cross-examiner and a tribunal": they had the means, motive, and opportunity to expose the apostolic witness as inaccurate and deceptive if it had been such. The fact that they did not can only be effectively explained on the ground that they could not. It would seem, for example, inconceivable that the Jewish religious leadership, with their intimate knowledge of the Old Testament, would have sat idly by as the Apostles proclaimed that Jesus' life and ministry had fulfilled dozens of highly specific Old Testament prophecies (birth at Bethlehem, virgin birth, flight to Egypt, triumphal entry, sold by a friend for thirty pieces of silver, etc., etc.), had that not been true, Professor F. F. Bruce of the University of Manchester underscores this fundamental point as to the evidential significance of the hostile witnesses:
It was not only friendly eyewitnesses that the early preachers had to reckon with; there were others less well disposed who were also conversant with the main facts of the ministry and death of Jesus. The disciples could not afford to risk inaccuracies (not to speak of willful manipulation of the facts), which would at once be exposed by those who would be only too glad to do so. On the contrary, one of the strong points in the original apostolic preaching is the confident appeal to the knowledge of the hearers; they not only said, "We are witnesses of these things," but also, "As you yourselves also know" (Acts 2:22). Had there been any tendency to depart from the facts in any material respect, the possible presence of hostile witnesses in the audience would have served as a further corrective.
We do not waste time on the possibility that the disciples were suffering from insane delusions. First, because the law presumes a man sane, and there is no suggestion in the accounts the Apostles were otherwise. Second, because the point Professor Bruce has just stressed concerning the hostile witnesses applies with equal force to the insanity suggestion: had the disciples distorted Jesus' biography for any reason, including a deluded state of mind, the hostile witnesses would surely have used this against them.
The functional equivalence of hostile witnesses with formal cross-examination goes far to answer the occasionally voiced objection that the apostolic testimony to Jesus would be rejected by a modern court as "hearsay," i.e., out-of-court statements tendered to prove the truth of their contents. Let us note at the outset the most severe problem with hearsay testimony: the originator of it is not in court and so cannot be subjected to searching cross-examination. Thus even when New Testament testimony to Jesus would technically fall under the axe of the hearsay rule, the hostile witnesses as functional cross-examiners reduce the problem to the vanishing point.
In the second place, the hearsay rule exists in Anglo-American common law (no such rule is a part of the Continental civil law tradition) especially as a technical device to protect juries from secondhand evidence. Following the virtual abolition of the civil jury in England, the Civil Evidence Act of 1968 in effect eliminated the hearsay rule by statute from civil trials-on the ground that judges can presumably sift even secondhand testimony for its truth-value. In the United States, and in English criminal trials, the exceptions to the hearsay rule have almost swallowed up the rule, and one of these exceptions is the "ancient documents" rule (to which we referred earlier), by which the New Testament documents would indeed be received as competent evidence.
To be sure, the underlying principle of the hearsay rule remains vital: that a witness ought to testify "of his own knowledge or observation," not on the basis of what has come to him indirectly from others. And the New Testament writers continually tell us that they are setting forth that "which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled...the Word of life."
Simon Greenleaf's summation of the testimonial case for Jesus' life, ministry, and claims about Himself offers a perennial challenge to the earnest seeker for truth.
All that Christianity asks of men on this subject, is, that they would be consistent with themselves; that they would treat its evidences as they treat the evidence of other things; and that they would try and judge its actors and witnesses, as they deal with their fellow men, when testifying to human affairs and actions, in human tribunals. Let the witnesses be compared with themselves, with each other, and with surrounding facts and circumstances; and let their testimony be sifted, as if it were given in a court of justice, on the side of the adverse party, the witness being subjected to a rigorous cross-examination. The result, it is confidently believed, will be an undoubting conviction of their integrity, ability, and truth. In the course of such an examination, the undesigned coincidences will multiply upon us at every step in our progress; the probability of the veracity of the witnesses and of the reality of the occurrences which they relate will increase, until it acquires, for all practical purposes, the value and force of demonstration.
At the heart of the apostolic testimony and proclamation is the alleged resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. During His ministry, Jesus offered His forthcoming resurrection as the decisive proof of His claim to deity. Did the Resurrection in fact occur?
First, consider the written records of the Resurrection and of detailed post-resurrection appearances which occurred over a forty-day period. What is important here is that these accounts are all contained in the very New Testament documents whose historical reliability we have already confirmed and are testified to by the same apostolic witnesses whose veracity we have just established. To do an abrupt volte-face and now declare those documents and witnesses to be untrustworthy because they assert that Jesus rose from the dead would be to substitute a dubious metaphysic ("resurrections from the dead are cosmically impossible"- and how does one establish that in a relativistic, Einsteinium universe?) for careful historical investigation. We must not make the mistake of eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume, who thought he could avoid evidential drudgery by deductively reasoning from the gratuitous premise that "affirm and unalterable experience has established the laws of nature" to the (entirely circular) conclusions: "There must be a uniform experience against every miraculous event" and "That a dead man should come to life has never been observed in any age or country."
Second, we should reflect upon the force of the "missing body" argument of Frank Morison, who was converted to Christianity through his investigation of the evidence for the Resurrection. His argument proceeds as follows: (1) If Jesus didn't rise, someone must have stolen the body; (2) the only people involved were the Roman authorities, the Jewish religious leaders, and Jesus' disciples; (3) the Romans and the Jewish religious leaders would certainly not have taken the body, since to do so would have been against their own interests (the Romans wanted to keep Palestine quiet, and the Jews wanted to preserve their religious influence),; and (4) the disciples would hardly have stolen the body and then died for what they knew to be untrue; (5) Ergo-by process of elimination-Jesus rose from the dead just as the firsthand accounts declare.
I have shown elsewhere that Antony Flew's attempt to avoid the impact of this argument is unsuccessful. When Flew says that Christians simply prefer a biological miracle (the Resurrection) to a psychological miracle (the disciples dying for what they knew to be false), he completely misses the point. The issue is not metaphysical preference; it is testimonial evidence. No such evidence exists to support a picture of psychologically aberrant disciples, while tremendously powerful testimonial evidence exists to the effect that Jesus physically rose from the dead.
During the last few years, more inventive attempts to explain away the Resurrection have appeared. Schonfield's Passover Plot argues that Jesus induced His own crucifixion, drugging Himself so as to survive just long enough in the tomb to convince the fuddled disciples that He had risen. (Quaere: How does this square with Jesus' own moral teachings? And does it not leave us with precisely the same problem as to what finally happened to the body?) Von Daniken-who turned to pseudo-scientific writing while serving a prison sentence in Switzerland for embezzlement, fraud, and forgery-"explains" the Resurrection by suggesting that it was the product of a close encounter of the third kind: Jesus was a kind of Martian cleverly dressed in a Jesus suit who knew a few tricks such as how to appear to rise from the dead.
Aren't such hypotheses possible? Doubtless, in our contingent universe, anything is possible (as one philosopher said) except squeezing toothpaste back into the tube. But legal reasoning operates on probabilities, not possibilities: preponderance of evidence in most civil actions; evidence beyond reasonable (not beyond all) doubt in criminal matters. The Federal Rules of Evidence defines relevant evidence as "evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence." Suppose a jury brought in a verdict of "innocent" because it is always possible that invisible Martians, not the accused, were responsible for the crime! Judges in the United States carefully instruct juries to pay attention only to the evidence in the case, and to render verdicts in accord with it. A guilty verdict in a criminal matter should be rendered only if the jury cannot find any reasonable explanation of the crime (i.e., any explanation in accord with the evidence) other than that the accused did it. May we suggest that the tone and value of discussions about Jesus' resurrection would be considerably elevated if equally rigorous thinking were applied thereto?
Can we base ultimates (Jesus' deity, our commitment to Him for time and eternity) on mere probabilities? The analytical philosophers have shown that we have no other choice: only formal ("analytic") truths (e.g., the propositions of deductive logic and of pure mathematics) can be demonstrated absolutely-and the absoluteness here is due to the definitional nature of their axiomatic foundations, as with Euclid's geometry. All matters of fact ("synthetic" assertions) are limited to probabilistic confirmation, but this does not immobilize us in daily life. We still put our very lives in jeopardy every day on the basis of probability judgements (crossing the street, consuming packaged foods and drugs, flying in airplanes, etc.). And the law in every land redistributes property and takes away liberty (if not life) by verdicts and judgments rooted in the examination of evidence and probabilistic standards of proof.
But the issue here is a miracle: a resurrection. How much evidence ought a reasonable man require in order to establish such a fact? Could evidence ever justify accepting it? Thomas Sherlock, Master of the Temple Church (owned by two of the four guilds of English barristers, the Honorable Societies of the Inner and Middle Temple) and Bishop of London, well answered these questions in the eighteenth century:
Suppose you saw a Man publickly executed, his Body afterwards wounded by the Executioner, and carry'd and laid in the Grave; that after this you shou'd be told, that the Man was come to Life again: What wou'd you suspect in this Case? Not that the Man had never been dead; for that you saw your self: But you wou'd suspect whether he was now alive. But wou'd you say, this Case excluded all human Testimony; and that Men could not possibly discern, whether one with whom they convers'd familiarly, was alive or no? Upon what Ground cou'd you say this? A Man rising from the Grave is an Object of Sense, and can give the same Evidence of his being alive, as any other Man in the World can give. So that a Resurrection consider'd only as a Fact to be proved by Evidence, is a plain Case; it requires no greater Ability in the Witnesses, than that they be able to distinguish between a Man dead, and a Man alive: A Point, in which I believe every Man living thinks himself a Judge.
Bishop Sherlock is certainly correct that a resurrection does not in principle create any insuperable evidential difficulty. Phenomenally (and this is all we need worry about for evidential purposes) a resurrection can be regarded as death followed by life,
Normally, the sequence is reversed, thus:
We are well acquainted with the phenomenal meaning of the constituent factors (though we do not understand the "secret" of life or why death must occur). Furthermore, we have no difficulty in establishing evidential criteria to place a person in one category rather than in the other. Thus the eating of fish is sufficient to classify the eater among the living, and a crucifixion is enough to place the crucified among the dead. In Jesus' case, the sequential order is reversed, but that has no epistemological bearing on the weight of evidence required to establish death or life. And if Jesus was dead at point A, and alive again at point B, then resurrection has occurred: res ipsa loquitur.
However, does not the unreliability of eyewitness testimony cast doubt on an event as extraordinary as the Resurrection? Psychologists such as Loftus have pointed up genuine dangers in eyewitness testimony. Nonetheless, as we have already seen, it remains the cornerstone of legal evidence. As for the reliability of identifying acquaintances (the precise issue in the disciples' post-resurrection identifications of Jesus), specialists on the subject agree that "the better acquainted a witness is with a subject, the more likely it is that the witness' identification will be accurate." These same authorities add that "in an eyewitness context, the greatest challenge to the advocate's power of persuasion is presented by the attempt to argue, without support from expert testimony, the unreliability of an unimpeached eyewitness's identification of a prior acquaintance." And this is precisely what we have in the case under consideration: disciples like Thomas provide "unimpeached eyewitness identification" of the resurrected Jesus with whom they had had the most intimate acquaintance for the immediately preceding three-year period. No advocate's "power of persuasion" is going to make a difference to that kind of identification evidence.
Finally, the objection may be offered: even granting Jesus' resurrection, is that fact alone enough to establish His deity and the truth of His claims? Theological presuppositionalists Carl F. H. Henry and Ronald H. Nash tell us that there are no self-interpreting facts, and Calvinists R. C. Sproul and John Gerstner, as well as evangelical neo-Thomist Norman L. Geisler, insist that an independent theistic structure must be established to make any theological sense out of Jesus' resurrection. We profoundly disagree. Even Rat-famous for his leading role in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, but hardly an accomplished epistemologist-becomes exasperated with his companion for not recognizing that facts can be self-interpreting:
"Do-you-mean-to-say," cried the excited Rat, "that this doormat doesn't tell you anything?"
"Really, Rat," said the Mole quite pettishly, "I think we've had enough of this folly. Who ever heard of a doormat telling anyone anything? They simply don't do it. They are not that sort at all. Doormats know their place."
"Now look here, you-you thick-headed beast," replied the Rat, really angry, "this must stop. Not another word, but scrape-scrape and scratch and dig and hunt round, especially on the sides of the hummocks, if you want to sleep dry and warm tonight, for it's our last chance!"
Elsewhere we have argued in detail that facts-historical and otherwise-"in themselves provide adequate criteria for choosing among variant interpretations of them." Philosopher Paul D. Feinbert has defended that case with inexorable logic:
Let us consider an example from recent history. It can be substantiated that some 6 million Jews died under German rule in the second World War. Let me suggest two mutually exclusive interpretations. First, these events may be interpreted as the actions of a mad man who was insanely anti-Sematic. The deaths were murders, atrocities. Second, it might be asserted that Hitler really loved the Jews. He had a deep and abiding belief in heaven and life after death. After reviewing Jewish history, Hitler decided that the Jews had been persecuted enough, and because of his love for them he was seeking to help them enter eternal blessedness. If no necessity exists between events and interpretation, then there is no way of determining which meaning is correct. We would never be justified in claiming that one holding the latter view is wrong. This is both repugnant and absurd. There must be an empirical necessity that unites an event or fact with its correct interpretation.
Beyond this, we merely remind the reader that the very nature of legal argument (judgments rendered on the basis of factual verdicts) rests on the ability of facts to speak for themselves. As a single illustration, taking the leading U.S. Supreme Court case of Williams v. North Carolina (the "second Williams case"), which stands for the proposition that a divorce on substituted or constructive service in one state need only be given full faith and credit by another state when the parties have acquired a bona fide domicile in the divorcing state. In the course of its opinion, the Court declared:
Petitioners, long time residents of North Carolina, came to Nevada, where they stayed in an auto-court for transients, filed suits for divorce as soon as the Nevada law permitted, married one another as soon as the divorces were obtained, and promptly returned to North Carolina to live. It cannot reasonably be claimed that one set of inferences rather than another regarding the acquisition by petitioners of new domiciles [sic] in Nevada could be drawn from the circumstances attending their Nevada divorces.
Geisler misrepresents us when he says that we hold that "the resurrection is so bizarre, so odd, that only a supernatural explanation will adequately account for it." In our view there are two compelling reasons to accept Jesus' resurrection as implicating His deity. First, "this miracle deals effectively with the most fundamental area of man's universal need, the conquest of death"-a truth recognized in law by the "dying declaration" exception to the hearsay rule (even the declaration of the homicide victim without religious faith is admissible in evidence, on the ground that one is particularly likely to tell the truth when conscious of the immanence of that most terrible of existential events). If death is indeed that significant, then "not to worship One who gives you the gift of eternal life is hopelessly to misread what the gift tells you about the Giver."
In the second place, there are logically only two possible kinds of explanation or interpretation of the fact of the Resurrection: that given by the person raised, and that given by someone else. Surely, if only Jesus was raised, He is in a far better position (indeed, in the only position!) to interpret or explain it. Until Von Daniken, for example, rises from the dead, we will prefer Jesus' account of what happened. And Jesus tells us that His miraculous ministry is explicable because He is no less than God in human form: "I and my Father are one"; "He who has seen me has seen the Father." Theism then becomes the proper inference from Jesus' resurrection as He Himself explained it-not a prior metaphysical hurdle to jump in order to arrive at the proper historical and evidential interpretation of that event.
Jesus' deity in itself establishes the truth of the Christian message, over against competing religions and secular world-views. And Jesus' teachings per se, being God's teachings, represent an infallible guide to human life and conduct. But Jesus does more even than this. By His direct statements concerning the Old Testament as divine revelation and by His consistent quoting of it as trustworthy and divinely authoritative in all respects, Jesus put upon it His (i.e., God's) imprimatur. By giving His Apostles a special gift of the Holy Spirit to recall infallibly what He had taught them, and, by implication, to recognize apostolicity in others, He proleptically stamped with approval as divine revelation the future writings of Apostles (the original twelve, minus Judas Iscariot, plus Paul-grafted in as Apostle to the Gentiles) and writings by their associates (Mark, Luke, etc.) whose accuracy the Apostles were in a position to verify. As a result, the entire Bible-Old Testament and New-becomes an unerring source of absolute principles.
Two objections may be raised to the argument we have just presented. First, why should the mere fact that God says something guarantee its truth? Second, what if the incarnate Christ was so limited to the human ideas of His time that His stamp of approval on the Bible represents no guarantee of its absolute accuracy?
The first of these arguments is reflected in Descartes's discussion of God as a possible "Evil Genius"-a cosmic liar. But if He were, He would be a divine and, therefore, consummate liar, so you would be incapable of catching Him at it. In short, He would be a better liar than you are a detective. So the very idea of God-as-liar is meaningless-an analytically unverifiable notion in principle. Once you have met God incarnate, you have no choice but to trust Him: as to the way of salvation and as to the reliability of the entire Bible.
The suggestion that Jesus was limited to human and fallible ideas (the so-called Kenotic theory of liberal theology) also collapses under its own weight. On Kenotic reasoning, either Jesus chose to conform His statements to the fallible ideas of His time (in which case He was an opportunist who, in the spirit of Lenin, committed one of the most basic of all moral errors, that of allowing the end to justify the means); or He couldn't avoid self-limitation in the very process of Incarnation (in which case Incarnation is of little or no value to us, since there is then no guarantee that it reveals anything conclusive). And note that if such a dubious Incarnation mixed absolute wheat with culturally relative chaff, we would have no sufficient criterion for separating them anyway, so the "absolute" portion would do us no good!
To meet man's desperate need for apodictic principles of human conduct, an incarnate God must not speak with a forked tongue. And, as we have seen, no divine stuttering has occurred. To the contrary: His message can be relied upon as evidentially established, a sure light shining in a dark world, illuminating the path to eternity.
Used by permission of Probe Books, copyright 1991. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Probe Books.
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