This article first appeared in: The Skeptical Review: January/February 1998, Farrell Till, editor
The Man with No Heart: Miracles and Evidence
The problem of evidence for miraculous occurrences has frequently been discussed in TSR. It sometimes takes the form of an exchange between Farrell Till and some inerrantist. Till: "Extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence." Inerrantist: "Then miraculous events require miraculous evidence, and since you don't accept anything miraculous, you preclude the offering of any evidence in support of a miracle!" This puts Till in an unnecessarily awkward position.
As a retired (and recovering) attorney, I sometimes wonder why this is such a problem. Perhaps a review of some of the rules of evidence, particularly as they are used every day in thousands of American and British courtrooms, would be helpful.
The party who makes a positive assertion in court has the responsibility of offering sufficient evidence for his assertion. If he fails to do so, his assertion is not proven and will be disregarded. This is the "burden of proof." What is "sufficient" evidence? That depends on the assertion and its importance in the case. If it is a minor point and asserts an ordinary, everyday kind of fact, very little evidence is required. If the issue in the case is where Bob was yesterday, a friend of Bob who saw him yesterday can testify that he saw Bob eating a ham sandwich, but if Bob died of poisoning from bad chicken, more than casual testimony would be required to establish definitely that Bob ate ham, not chicken for lunch. Again, if someone asserts that Bob, who weighs 180 pounds, ate an eight-pound ham and four loaves of bread for lunch yesterday, that is so unusual that it would require much more evidence than the casual testimony of one witness.
In law there are generally three degrees of sufficiency of evidence. They are, in ascending order: 1) preponderance, 2) clear and convincing, and 3) beyond a reasonable doubt. To prove something by a preponderance of the evidence is to weigh the evidence on each side of an issue, declaring the side with the most evidence to be proven. This is the standard applied in most noncriminal trials. The clear and convincing standard is often required when one party is trying to prove something that is out of the ordinary, that is, something which doesn't ordinarily occur. An example in law would be trying to prove that someone who signed a deed or will did so against his will. That is so rare in the ordinary course of things that whoever makes such a claim must provide considerable evidence to support it. The beyond reasonable doubt test is used primarily in criminal trials, where the prosecution is required to prove its case with so much evidence that no reasonable person could doubt the accused's guilt. (The difference between the reasonable-doubt test and the preponderance test was vividly displayed in the two recent trials of O. J. Simpson.)
Other rules of evidence require us to disregard some things offered as evidence, such as hearsay. These rules are not arbitrary, but have developed over centuries in the courts as pragmatic and reliable methods to come as close as possible to the truth in disputes over facts. Hearsay evidence--that is, the witness stating that something is true because some other person told him it was true--is generally not admissible because it is inherently so unreliable. Documentary records of events that are offered as evidence are not generally admissible unless they were made at the same time as the events they describe, because otherwise their reliability is suspect.
An explanation of an event that is probable is more acceptable than an explanation that is improbable. In fact, improbabilities are not even admissible as evidence if there is a probable explanation. This rule alone would make the miracles of the Bible unprovable, since they can all be explained as reports of gullible writers reporting tales of gullible people.
So does an extraordinary event require extraordinary evidence? If "extraordinary evidence" means "clear and convincing" evidence or evidence "beyond a reasonable doubt," then the answer is clearly "yes." But that requirement is a statement about the sufficiency of the evidence, not its nature. The evidence itself can be very ordinary, and, in fact, must be (since improbable explanations are inadmissible). But if a miracle really happens, there is no reason why there should not be evidence to prove it.
Let me illustrate with an imaginary miraculous event. Suppose that a man is undergoing surgery for a heart transplant. As the surgeons remove his diseased heart, and before they can connect the replacement, the man dies. The surgeons stop the procedure, and the corpse is taken to the mortuary, where the embalmer begins to do his work. Suppose that the corpse sits up and says he wants to go home. The astonished embalmer calls an ambulance, which returns the living corpse to the hospital, where the surprised doctors examine this man, who has no pulse, no heart, no blood, and a still open chest cavity. They examine him, test him, photograph him, feed him, and finally send him home. He is contacted by news media, and he appears on talk shows, where he displays his empty chest. He posts a schedule of visiting hours at his home, where anyone for five dollars can see him and put a hand inside his chest. He survives with no heart for ten years.
Now, this event, if it actually happened, would indeed be a miracle, with no ready "natural" explanation. (Perhaps it would be a miracle for an inerrantist only if the man were brought back to life as a result of a minister's prayer to God.) The question then is, what evidence would "prove" that this "miracle" occurred? The evidence would be very convincing both in amount and weight: the testimonies of the doctors who performed the surgery and other disinterested doctors who examined him, the x-rays and other medical records, the video tapes and photographs, the testimony of the thousands of people who personally put a hand into his chest. Yet all these items of evidence are very ordinary, nonmiraculous things.
I would believe in the virgin birth of Jesus or in his resurrection and bodily ascension into heaven, if we had such evidence for the actual occurrence of those alleged events. But we do not. Inerrantists may object, "But they did not keep medical records in those days! They did not have video cameras! Nobody wrote down the events as they happened!" Yes, and that is precisely the point. That is why we are not justified in believing any of the miracles reported in the Bible (or in Tacitus, or in Homer): there is no admissible evidence that they occurred as reported.
There are undoubtedly many things that are true even though we cannot prove that they are true. For instance, there may well be a city of twenty million purple people on Planet X in the Andromeda galaxy. I really don't care whether that is true or not. However, if someone asserts that such a city exists and that the mayor of that city has ordered that I am supposed to obey and assist the person now making that assertion, I am justified in requiring some evidence to establish all his assertions beyond reasonable doubt, before I accede to his demands. That is all we ask of Biblical inerrantists, who insist that the Bible is such a message from some invisible being in space.
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