When should we believe eyewitness testimony?


(Carson Weitnauer) #1

Hi friends,

I am always looking for relevant points of contact between contemporary events and the stories of Scripture. (As you spot these, do share them!). Of course, the #metoo movement has been a prominent feature of news stories since October 2017. A great conversation starter: when do you trust the stories of women (and some men) in the #metoo movement?

In particular, recently, I was pointed to this article by Matt Flannagan:

Sadly, the article details why claims of sexual assault against atheist celebrity Lawrence Krauss are to be believed. But it is particularly interesting how a skeptical atheist evaluates the eyewitness testimony:

Skepticism is, basically, looking at the evidence and allowing it to lead you to conclusions. What evidence we have here? That a number of women, at least five in my count, and a larger number of eyewitnesses, have accused Lawrence Krauss of sexual assault. That is enough evidence to satiate a skeptic. Maybe is there was only one involved, one could somehow withhold judgment out of the possibility of a vengeful liar, but the number of eyewitness accounts leaves no doubt.

If you were a historian and were writing Krauss’s biography twenty years from now, multiple accounts of his behavior from independent sources would convince you to put the allegations into your book.

If you honestly think this is not good evidence, then you must be prepared to throw away a vast majority of our historical knowledge, a great pool of evidence for social sciences (have you heard of qualitative research?) and also, more importantly, should stop believing the victims of Catholic Church and Roy Moore and Donald Trump — as in those cases we also rely on the accounts of independent sources.

Skepticism is not stubborn doubt: once the evidence is too overwhelming, continuing to demand for more evidence is as much a violation of skepticism as incredulous belief. Try to argue with a denier of Holocaust or other historical atrocities to see a non-atheist example of this. If you keep raising the bar of evidence for something you don’t want to believe, then you are not a good skeptic.

You may invent fantastical scenarios to explain away the evidence. Lawrence Krauss is a brave man who speaks uncomfortable truth and so a shadowy cabal of women has risen to taint his honest name. This is not skepticism, but conspiracy theory. No good skeptic would find solace in implausible but technically possible scenarios to avoid believing what they don’t like.

The parallels to the gospel accounts are uncanny:

  1. We have a number of women who testify to the resurrection.
  2. We have an even larger number of eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus.
  3. We have multiple, independent documentation of these eyewitness accounts.
  4. To throw out these eyewitness claims would be like throwing a way a vast majority of our historical knowledge and from the social sciences.
  5. To keep raising the bar of evidence for something you don’t want to believe, then you are not a good skeptic.
  6. Inventing fantastical scenarios to explain away the evidence is not skepticism but conspiracy theories. Jesus claimed to be God, yet allowed himself to be captured, tortured, and crucified, yet despite this public humiliation, his disciples went around saying he was bodily risen and alive today!

(Jennifer Judson) #2

I would image the skeptic’s argument to be that these witnesses are alive and able to give testimony. They can be examined and questioned for their veracity and competency.

The skeptic may even admit that the biblical witnesses from 200 years ago truly believed that Jesus was resurrected, but it can be accounted for by emotional hysteria. In this era of historic revisionism much of history is brought into question because of the potential “bias” of the information.

Ultimately we have to reckon with eyes, ears, and hearts that have not been opened and are blind to see the truth. Doesn’t there have to be a moment where the truth of the Gospel is taken on faith? The stubborn are too busy being their own God to allow any room for the possibility of the one, true God.


When do we go from evidence to faith?
(Missy Deregibus) #3

Great comments, both of you. I do like the argument using “eye-witness” testimonies, even though as mentioned, it’s not air tight, and there are other possible explanations, and depending on your inclination might be more or less plausible.
We could all think of some events that we believe to be proven to be shown false in hindsight. Nevertheless, eyewitness accounts, along with other evidence, may increase the probability of authentication. We would probably do well to use the word “evidence” as opposed to the rather too hasty "proof."
I’ve appreciated learning about Bayesian inference as being helpful in all thinking; that is allowing new evidence to influence our original hypothesis. We should all be willing to learn.


(Carson Weitnauer) #4

Hi @Jennifer_Judson, yes, I can see that being an easy point of differentiation. A witness today verses a witness from ‘ancient times’. That’s a good point. I think there is a point to be made, though, if someone says the women who reported the resurrection had emotional hysteria. I’d suggest that would be sexist, playing into the biases of their time, rather than respecting their testimony in spite of those biases.

And in actual fact, that’s one of the best reasons to trust the women’s testimony! Given that they were not respected to give testimony in courts of law, and sexism was far worse in first century Palestine than today, it is really outstanding that the gospel writers said that women were the first eyewitnesses. How embarrassing. Yet, it is there.

I agree with you there is a moment where the truth of the gospel is taken on faith, but let me open up a new conversation on this!

@missyd57, great thoughts! Yes, it does depend on our starting points. I think people who are invested in the #metoo movement are being habituated to believe eyewitnesses who report uncomfortable stories. (And I’m supportive of this). So, discussing the eyewitness nature of the gospels may be something they are more open to now than a few years ago?


(Jennifer Judson) #5

I see your point about the bias being “sexist” if I was speaking about Mary and her initial sighting of the resurrected “Rabboni”–but I was actually referring to all of the sightings, including those by the men.

I know the term emotional hysteria probably was typically used concerning women the last couple of centuries, but I was thinking more in terms of how John Wesley saw those overcome by the spirit in emotionally charged services where he was preaching. Circumstances where our hearts want something so badly we can manufacture that reality in our mind–like disciples who had heard Jesus say he would be raised from the dead and longing for that to be true, a longing so deep they convinced themselves it was true.

Perhaps there is more appropriate terminology than emotional hysteria. Either way I think this would be the fall back position of the skeptic.

Back in the 90’s, Newsweek Magazine had a cover story on Jesus, the resurrection, and the empty tomb. More or less it tried to cover the “story” with objectivity, interviewing persons of various beliefs. One member of the Jesus Seminar stated that the most likely true scenario of the empty tomb was that body was somehow taken by wild dogs and destroyed. I remember thinking how in the world was there any more evidence to substantiate that story than the one that had hundreds of witnesses and had survived for 2000 years. As if somehow plausibility (natural) equaled evidence and implausibility (supernatural) did not.