Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Eyewitness Experiences and the Existence of God

Do eyewitness encounters with God “count” as an apologetic for the existence of God? If so, how in the world can one man’s experience with God, for example, at a burning bush (or the Apostles' claim to have seen the Resurrected Christ for that matter) be a proof for God’s existence if the skeptics themselves have not seen these events with their own eyes? Can such experiences be validated?

The White Stag Illustration
Let me try an illustration. Suppose that a large group of persons went together on a camping trip into the woods, some three hundred people. And let’s suppose that ten men are sent out to fetch water from the stream while the others stay back. And let us further suppose that those ten men witness with their own eyes the most beautiful, pure white stag, drinking from the stream.  They cannot believe our eyes! An albino buck! These men immediately return to the camp to tell everyone what they’ve seen. Most are skeptical. Some are not interested. A few are curious. Eventually the first ten men lead another ten people back to the stream, right to the same place they saw it, and sure enough--it is gone!

Logically (remember: we are interested in reasoning clearly) does the fact that the second envoy failed to see the white stag prove that the first group’s experience didn’t happen?

One man says “I didn’t see anything!”

Another man says, “I didn’t either!”

A third says “I’ve never even heard of a white stag!”

A fourth says “That’s patently impossible!”

The ‘Logic’ of Unbelief
Quite often, the logical thinking of the skeptic goes something like this…
a. I’ve never seen a white stag.
b. I can not believe what I have not seen. 
c. Conclusion: Therefore there are no white stags.

Obviously there is a fallacy between points ‘b’ and ‘c.’ The fact that one observer has not personally beheld any given object or phenomenon does not make it impossible a priori.

Nevertheless, the question remains, How do we validate other people’s claims of religious experience? If a skeptic has not experienced a given phenomenon (such as grace), how can he weigh the claims of those who have? Is there any objective way that he can weigh the evidence? I think there is.

Weighing the Claims of Witnesses

1. Agreement in Testimony: First, in the White Stag Illustration, the witnesses have the benefit of not being alone. If only one man had seen it, we might have reason to suspect that he’d been smoking something on the walk to the brook. But the fact is that nine others saw the same thing, and their testimony agrees. In Christianity of course, we have the benefit of 2.2 billion other people making the same claim of having experienced the grace of Jesus Christ! It’s hard to dismiss 2.2 billion people! And that is only counting those alive on the planet today, not to mention the billions that have lived in prior centuries.

2. What Do They Stand to Gain? Secondly, we can ask whether the witnesses stand to gain anything by making such a claim. Are they planning to write a book about it? Are they selling the rights of the interview to Katie Couric? Are they going on a speaking tour to make millions? Will there be a Pixar animated “White Stag” movie forthcoming? If there is clearly something to gain personally, we might weigh their claims with some degree of dubiousness. 

3. What Do They Stand to Lose? On the other hand, we might also ask if their experience puts them in such a position that they are now going to suffer because of their experience. I can tell you that Moses’ claim to have seen God at the bush did not exactly make life easy for him. It made his life infinitely more complex. It brought him into the cross-hairs of Pharaoh. It brought great suffering to the Egyptians in the ten plagues. It would eventually cause Aaron and Miriam to rebel against him. And ultimately, it placed upon his shoulders the additional burden of leading the people of Israel who, throughout much of the Pentateuch, amount to a bunch of whiners and complainers, and grumblers, and faultfinders!

As for the Apostles, we can say without any hesitation that their having seen the Resurrected Christ was a decidedly “inconvenient truth.” Their claim to have seen Jesus Christ raised from the dead cost ten of the remaining Apostles their lives. James was beheaded. Peter was crucified upside down. The only apostle who lived was John, who was exiled.

In fact, I can go even further and state that being a Christian believer is the hardest life any mortal could possibly choose. Our people, from day one, AD33, have been chased, mocked, beaten, burned at stakes, tossed to lions, systematically persecuted, hated, lied about, slandered and falsely accused. 

Add to that the fact that we as a people willingly choose to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, tithe on our income, volunteer or time, deny the cheap pleasures of this world, retain our sexual purity within marriage, and many other marks of sacrifice—one wonders why anyone would willing choose Christianity if God had not first chosen us.

So if there are multiple witnesses whose testimonies agree, and those witnesses stand to gain nothing by their claim (at least in regards to this fading world) and in fact have everything to loose for their confession, eyewitness testimony turns out to be a very powerful apologetic for God’s existence. 

Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. Please consider following on Twitter @matt_everhard

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