Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Apologetics Make For Bad Court Cases

I recently saw recommendations for Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands A Verdict and Lee Strobel's The Case For Christ. Two different places, two completely different conversations; it's just that they happened to occur within a couple of weeks of each other.

I read Evidence That Demands A Verdict years ago, when it was a tiny little paperback. (The edition I linked to above appears to be substantially larger.) I have also glanced at The Case For Christianity. While I don't have any desire (let alone time, space, or attention) to refute these books here, I do want to glance at a conceit that appears in both them: the idea of examining the evidence for and against Christianity as if it were a court case.

This is a bit silly on the face of it. Oh, it's not completely worthless; it's an interesting mental exercise. But, come on: are we really going to argue about the objective truth of a religion whose doctrine insists on the profound importance of faith?[1]

Coming back to my point, though: given this set up (the evidence for Christianity as a court case), both books immediately introduce the Gospels, the written accounts of the Apostles, as eye-witness testimony. And that's a problem.

It's a problem in part because the Gospels were written well after the events they tell of. It's also a problem because there is some question about whether the Gospels were actually written by the people to whom they're attributed. It's also a problem because eye-witness testimony is notoriously unreliable. But mainly... Well, look at it like this:

Let’s say something extraordinary happened: a woman was hit by a speeding car, then got back up and walked away. There is no video evidence, but there are these four eye witnesses. They aren’t in perfect agreement, but their stories all share the same basic shape: speeding car, woman in the street, car plows into her and just flattens her, she gets up and walks away. It would, as McDowell asserts, be perfectly reasonable to believe that this actually happened. The jury adjourns, and the judge tells everybody to come back tomorrow.

Well, the next day the jurors get a little more background on our four eyewitnesses. In the... let’s say twenty years... since they saw this collision, they’ve gone in together and started their own church. This isn’t just a pet project for any of them, either. It’s their livelihood, their life. One of their core teachings is that this woman was the Second Coming, and after they witnessed the accident she gathered them together and taught them about a new, modern Covenant. Their authority as founders of their new church is based entirely on their claim that they were taught by this miraculous woman. The woman herself can’t be found; the witnesses say that this is because she ascended into the sky on a great shaft of sunlight ten years ago.

Do we still take the previous day’s testimony at face value?

Quite apart from the problems with eyewitness testimony in itself, there’s a huge problem in comparing the accounts of the Disciples to eyewitness testimony at all. The Disciples weren’t disinterested bystanders, reporting events that they just happened to see, in order to provide a record for posterity. They were intimately involved in the events they wrote about, and they had a huge personal stake in their story.

Now that, by itself, does not refute their accounts. But it does mean that you can’t just say, "See? This actually happened. We have multiple witnesses!"

Acting as if the Gospels are equivalent to eye-witness testimony is not a logical argument. It's a cute bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand, but that's the best that can be said of it. The Bible itself is part of the religion, and using it to prove the validity of Christian beliefs only works if you already believe in the validity of the Bible.

[1] I'm being a bit glib here, because I actually I do think it's important to have faith. It's just that a lot of the time, I'm not sure that I'm using the word in quite the same way that some Christians do - and I'm occasionally unsure that any three random Christians actually use the word the same way. But that's a topic for another post.


  1. Agree, it is a rhetorical argument. In my experience, the apologist is not in the end trying to convince people that they have an iron clad case, obviously that is impossible. At the end of the day they want to create an agnostic, someone who sits on the fence and says they cannot make a decision one way or another about the evidence. "Sure, it could easily have happened the way you say, the resurrection and all." Then they can move onto believing in faith, and all the emotional reasons for doing so, or moral reasons, or guilt or fear reasons, or whatever.

    The Case for Christ is especially bad, because it is actually claiming to be "hard nosed" journalism, but it is anything but that. First, he only interviews Christian apologists. He asks them questions their challengers ask, but does not interview anyone who disagrees with them. Secondly, he only really asks them loaded questions, to which he already knows the answers. Which he actually admits in the narrative of the book!

  2. Yeah, that's very much the impression I got from The Case For Christ. But I'm not sure they're aimed at agnostics, even; I think they mostly exist to reassure Christians.

  3. Absolutely I agree with that, that they are to reassure Christians, as are most apologetics. So maybe I am projecting my own experience of Christian argument onto those books in regard to what they are trying to do with the evidence.

    BTW, what an arrogant title, "Evidence that Demands a Verdict". It should be, "Evidence that demands a verdict, because my conclusions about it are correct." Bleh, I never even liked that book when I was an evangelical. It seemed embarrassing to me when people were convinced or fortified in their faith by reading it.


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