The Rules of Evidence

The most dishonest religious people are those who pretend to value reason. Instead of just admitting that they rely solely on faith (or what I would term wishful thinking), they will claim that since there’s plenty of evidence to back up their faith, it’s really not faith at all. God is so self-evident that, according to them, you’d almost have to be crazy not to believe in Him.

But what’s their evidence? More importantly, what are their rules of evidence? Most importantly, what ought to be their rules of evidence?

Let’s pretend for a moment that we are jurors in a court of law judging whether the man before us is guilty of murder. How would we judge the evidence of guilt presented by the prosecuting attorney?

Most murder trials rely on various types of evidence such as eyewitness testimony, including confessions; forensic evidence such as blood, gun residue, and DNA; and circumstantial evidence, such as having motive and opportunity, for instance. Sometimes circumstantial evidence is enough to convict, especially if it come from a variety of sources. With this evidence it is sometimes possible to infer the guilt of a particular individual beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt.

What do Christians, for instance, claim as irrefutable evidence for the existence of their God?

Since I was raised a Christian and have read the Bible from beginning to end (skipping over some boring parts such as the chronicles of military battles in the Old Testament), I thought I’d present the most common arguments I’ve heard for the veracity of Christianity, the “proofs,” if you will, and attempt to contrast them with the types of proofs that underlie our criminal justice system. In this way, I hope to prove beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt that the “evidence” Christians rely on to prove their faith is no evidence at all. Needless to say, it should be understood that the same logic that applies to Christian claims applies to the claims of all other religions.

The entire edifice of Christianity rests on the foundation of the New Testament, especially on the four gospels that present the testimony of eyewitnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and on the books of the Old Testament that supposedly foretell his life and death as the Messiah.

Eyewitness testimony is considered key evidence in a trial. But the validity and value of eyewitness testimony must be judged by the character of the eyewitnesses, their reliability, objectivity, and judgment. There is no way of judging the reliability of the men who wrote the gospels or any book in the New Testament since there are no written records concerning the authors’ reputations at the time. They cannot be considered objective witnesses to the claims of Jesus because they were believers not journalists simply recording his words and deeds. Lastly, their writings were composed many years after the events they wrote about. Scientists, doctors, and legal professionals know that time not only dims memories but distorts them. People are subject to the power of suggestion, among other distorting processes, when they attempt to recall the details of events long past.

If the gospel according to Matthew, for instance, was not written by the disciple Matthew but by someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew Matthew, then what is considered “gospel truth” is simply a form of hearsay known as “oral tradition.”

Hearsay testimony is not admissible in a court of law. In short, if so and so says that so and so told her that she saw x murder y that doesn’t count for anything at all. Hearsay testimony is often given as evidence of the validity of Christian claims. It is the 20 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong argument that is nothing but an appeal to authority, in this case the authority of a multitude. In legal terms, this is the equivalent of declaring a man guilty on the say so of a mob that did not witness the crime, but heard about the crime from others who heard about it from others still.

Even if one accepted that a preacher named Jesus lived in Palestine around the time of the Jesus of the gospels (and there is only one contemporaneous historian, Josephus, who has so written), this would still not in any way imply that this preacher named Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, or in any way substantially different than any other man on the planet. It is not like we have a smoking gun in the form of a photo of Jesus rising from the grave, or a film clip of fish being created out of thin air. An extraordinary claim like rising from the dead demands extraordinary evidence, and there is certainly nothing extraordinary about that “fact” being written down in a book. It is just as easy to write about something that one made up as it is to write about something that actually happened.

It's called fiction.

Some might say that the prophecies of the Bible are a form of evidence since they supposedly foretell the birth of Jesus, but the prophecies in the Bible are very general and could apply to many individuals. Moreover, there is such a thing as a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, if, like Jesus, you were familiar with the prophecies you could live your life in such a way that would fulfill them.

A better way to judge Jesus and whether he had any claim to the title of Messiah, King of the Jews, Prince of Peace, etc., is to examine his own prophecies. Did Jesus foretell things that a reasonably intelligent person could not foretell by logic or by guesswork, like someone predicting very specific details about a future event he had no ability whatsoever to infer from current events?

Let’s say a man living in the year 10 predicted that in a little under 2000 years human beings would be able to communicate with each other by pressing a button that would send a coded message nearly instantaneously thousands of miles away to someone on the other side of the world. A pretty nifty prediction, huh? Did Jesus predict the networking of computers called the Internet? Of course not. Instead, he predicted that in the end times there would be wars, rumors of wars, and earthquakes. Well, this couldn’t possibly be a prophecy since there have always been wars and rumors of wars. And earthquakes occur on a daily basis. His statements are about as prophetic as me saying that 50 years from the year 2005 everyone born in the nineteenth century will be dead.

He also predicted that those who believe in him should be able to drink any deadly poison without ill effect. Since when have Christians been able to do this?

Is there anything else particularly compelling about the life of Jesus that would lead one to infer that he must be who he says he was, despite the lack of reliable eyewitness testimony and hard corroborating evidence? What would circumstantial evidence in this case be? Are his teachings so extraordinary that they raise him above the status of an ordinary man and imply some relationship to God? Is the behavior of his followers such that we believe what he said about “by their fruits ye shall know them”? Many of the moral teachings of Jesus are found in earlier scripture and in the traditions of other religions and philosophies. Other teachings, most notably the ones that embrace the notion of “turning the other cheek” are not moral at all and are practiced by virtually no one, if not literally no one. Jesus stated that those who love him obey his commandments. Yet no one obeys his commandments or loves him by his own standard.

In short, there is no evidence for the Christian God that would hold up in a court of law. Instead, all we have is unsubstantiated declarations, in effect, hearsay evidence; truisms that cannot be seen as even remotely prophetic; ordinary insights into human psychology made by thousands, if not, millions of people; extraordinary moral imperatives that are impractical if not outright evil; and lastly, a standard of judgment that condemns all the people on earth, including the followers of Jesus himself.

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© 2005 Laura J. Rift. All rights reserved.