Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Evidence that demands a verdict

Let us realise that the approach of the New Testament writers is primarily forensic (as it relates to the true origin of that word, forum), rather than strictly scientific. The forum was the ancient courtroom that primarily collected and tested oral testimony in order to arrive at a decision. There was no luxury of experimenting in the laboratory. The character and oral statement of a witness were even more crucial to establishing the truth than it is today. Arguments would need to be skilfully and logically presented. The motives of each side would need to be examined. ‘By the mouths of two or three witnesses shall every word be established’ (2 Cor. 13:1) was the corollary. The court could even inflict harm to see whether it might cause someone to recant their testimony.

An unrepeatable historic event occurs and over 500 people claim to have witnessed the reality of it over a period of several weeks. Unlike a laboratory experiment, history cannot be verified by repetition. Yet, we accept a world that already consigns those convicted by credible testimony to long terms of imprisonment and, in some countries, death.

So, why do we hesitate on account of faith decisions? Is it not because we are hopelessly prejudiced against the outcome and find the personal implications of acceptance unbearable? Our guilt is fixed by this double standard, as John said, ‘If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater.’ (1John 5:9)

The first-century movement claimed a growing following of those who were convinced that the continuation of miraculous events corroborated the testimony that Jesus had returned to life forever. Hardened, but thoughtful critics were eventually won over by the positive impact on the lives of that following who saw virtue in eschewing personal gain for others. The calm, sane leaders of the movement were also willing to sacrifice their own safety, yet maintained their testimony without a hint of retaliation. Moreover, they extended compassion towards their persecutors.

We can question the likelihood, motives, relative resourcefulness and credibility of the witnesses to the resurrection and their detractors. We may be swayed by rhetoric, the resonance of the testimony with our own first-hand experiences of personal guilt and what we know of human nature. This is as it should be in a courtroom.

However, there is one caveat. Ultimately, we, the jury, are also on trial. The motives and prejudices of our own lives face as much scrutiny as the biblical witness itself. We sit in judgement and still desperately need a cure for own own selfish nature, a cure that the early church and those who, through the ages, were touched by its faith and practice appear to have found.

It would be criminally negligent to ignore such a cure, if it exists. So, we can no more postpone our judgement indefinitely after careful deliberation than we do in a court of law. There is an awful responsibility for continuing in error, if all the evidence points to a conclusive remedy.

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