Imagine your very honest friend Tom tells you that his honest friend told him he had read a credible story about an honest guy in the next town over who had actually called down divine fire from from the sky. Tom believes the story. Would you? What would be the initial likelihood you would assign to the truth of this claim that divine fire came down from the sky? For most, this claim would be considered highly improbable. And the primary problem would not be the tenuous links of communication between you and the alleged eye-witnesses of the event, but rather would be the probability you intuitively assign to the notion that divine fire would ever descend from the sky. Imagine you ask Tom for direct evidence that this event truly took place, and he responds that all of the eye-witnesses are now dead and consequently unavailable to those who wish to verify their account, and have left only a few anonymous written documents describing the event. Would you default to believing the event actually happened until evidence was discovered that demonstrated the event to be untrue? Probably not. Based on your experience, you would justifiably hold a very strong disbelief that such an event truly occurred. Yet millions who would justifiably strongly disbelieve such a claim accept similar claims if the miraculous events are said to have taken place 2,000 years ago as described in an old book. Is this rational?
There is something strongly enticing about amazing stories of miracles from thousands of years ago. We tend to lower our standards of evidence for ancient claims of miracles. Claims of miracles we would quickly dismiss as false if said to occur in our time we are more inclined to believe if embedded in an ancient context of mystique. What are the reasons for this pervasive cognitive bias?
One reason is likely the loosening of the imagination when the claims are geographically and temporally distant from our immediate context in which the constrains of physical laws are saliently experienced. Events that happen “far, far away” and “a long time ago” are less constrained by the laws of nature we are reluctantly forced to life in. This is similar to when we watch Hollywood movies during which we quite willingly suspend disbelief in order to experience the wonder of the story. The hope that the story wows us is stronger than the standards of evidence we would have imposed on more geographically and temporally local claims.
This cognitive bias exists across religious cultures. Muslims truly believe Allah split the moon, but scoff at the more recent claim that Joseph Smith received golden plates from Jehovah. Even Christians do not commonly believe many miracles of the New Testament sort take place these days. If Christians do hear of a miracle of significance beyond finding their keys after praying for their discovery, they rightfully maintain a healthy degree of skepticism, and apply standards of evidence similar in rigor to what most scientists would apply. Claims of healed amputees are seldom believed.
Yet, when Christians read the New Testament, a collection of accounts by unverified authors written decades after the events they alleged, they often do so with a credulity far exceeding the normal skepticism they apply to events the encounter in their modern lives. Is this rational?
What’s the remedy for this deceptive bias? Perhaps the most effective way to ensure we are not fudging on our standards of evidence when encountering ancient claims of the miraculous is to simply sit down and explore our response to two identical events occurring at two different times. Let’s take a look at an example. The following verses describe the resurrection of dead bodies in Jerusalem:
And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his [Jesus’] resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. (Matthew 27:52-53)
Now let’s consider a contemporary event that would parallel this event. Imagine reading the following newspaper article:
Ten years ago in a cemetery in New York City, the graves opened, and the persons who had been dead arose and appeared to many across New York City.
With your normal standards of evidence, you would very likely ask, at minimum, the following questions:
- How likely is it that the newspaper reporter is simply telling an outright lie for some reason?
- How likely is it that those who allegedly told the reporter about the alleged event were telling an outright lie?
- How likely is it that the story was largely embellished by the time of its documentation ten years after the actual event?
- Should we believe the story if the reporter is no longer available to cross-examine?
- Should we believe the story if the alleged witnesses are not named, prohibiting us from following up on the claim?
- Should we believe the story if the alleged witnesses are no longer around to cross-examine?
- Given the amazing nature of the alleged event, why was it not written down immediately?
- Given the densely populated location of this amazing alleged event, why are there no corroborating reports of the event?
If these questions naturally emerge from our normal standards of evidence for modern claims, why should we not require that ancient claims of the same sort satisfactorily address these questions?
We can then move to the most critical question: How does the likelihood of many dead bodies rising to be seen by many in New York City compare to the likelihood of the other candidate explanations?
I think most of us would reject to a high degree of confidence the claim of the newspaper article. Yet many give the Biblical account of dead rising and appearing to many in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago an unexplained special status that allows much weaker standards of evidence. Is this rational?
(See also #49 on the resurrection, “Supplementary C” on probabilities, and “Supplementary E” on inference to the best explanation.)