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Countering the Assault on Eyewitnesses

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Published: 10 November 2020 (GMT+10)
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One of my main goals as a CMI writer is to inform the readership on all the most pressing and relevant issues that repeatedly come up in debates, arguments and discussions surrounding creation and evolution. This is so they can give effective answers when engaging in apologetics and evangelism (1 Peter 3:15). In my experience, one such topic that routinely rears itself is the reliability of eyewitness testimony. At first glance, this might seem tangential at best—but if that were so, then we might be puzzled as to why the topic keeps coming up. The answer, of course, has to do with the nature of the debate itself. Understanding the relevance may require a brief explanation.

The biggest clash between creationists and evolutionists really has little to do with the evidence we possess. It has to do with how we interpret that evidence. This ultimately leads to a discussion of epistemology: how we know what we (claim to) know. Without getting tangled up in some of the hairsplitting details and in-house debates, what we can say very simply is that creationists base their knowledge and worldview on Scripture first and above all. Evolutionists work within a naturalistic worldview (the presumption that supernatural events can be disregarded or assumed not to occur).

There are many avenues this disagreement ultimately takes, but one of them is often a debate about the reliability of eyewitness testimony. Secularists and evolutionists want to tell you a story about the past that nobody was there to witness or record. There are no civilizations on our planet with any written historical records of human evolution. All available ancient history agrees on this point: mankind did not evolve from apes, but has always been fully human.1 Evolutionists naturally disagree, and so would like you to believe that their interpretations trump all available historical documentation (including eyewitness reports). This often brings us to a debate about the reliability of eyewitness testimony in general.

A self-refuting evolutionary attack on human minds

The modern consensus is to distrust eyewitness testimony altogether and prefer “forensic evidence” instead (physical clues which are open to interpretation). Take this quote as a representative example of how most modern sources approach this topic:

“The claim that eyewitness testimony is reliable and accurate is testable, and the research is clear that eyewitness identification is vulnerable to distortion without the witness’s awareness. More specifically, the assumption that memory provides an accurate recording of experience, much like a video camera, is incorrect. Memory evolved to give us a personal sense of identity and to guide our actions. We are biased to notice and exaggerate some experiences and to minimize or overlook others. Memory is malleable.”2 [Emphasis added.]

Notice the evolutionary slant taken here: since we allegedly evolved, we mustn’t take human sense perception and memory as objectively accurate. They only serve to help us survive! The reductio ad absurdum should be jumping right off the page. This is a classic example of the double-edged sword that cuts anyone trying to wield it. What about the Judge or jury who listen to evidence in court and then have to provide a verdict? What about the scientists who are witnessing and recording the results of their experiments? Are their memories not biased and malleable as well? Nearly all we do in society, and in our daily lives, depends upon the assumption that our sense perception and our ability to recall the past is substantially accurate. Certainly, the enterprise of science, conducted exclusively by human scientists, depends upon this assumption! New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham, looking at eyewitness testimony in the Bible pointed out that:

“An irreducible feature of testimony as a form of human utterance is that it asks to be trusted …. It is also a rather neglected fact that all history, like all knowledge, relies on testimony …. We need to recognize that, historically speaking, testimony is a unique and uniquely valuable means of access to historical reality”.3

Interestingly, it is a biblical worldview which gives proper grounding here. Because God created us, and God intends us to understand the world around us (and to properly remember the past and learn from it), we can use this assumption to guide us in most cases. Conversely, if we are merely the result of unguided “natural selection”, we have no proper grounding for these assumptions. This is Darwin’s Doubt.

Defending the reliability of eyewitness testimony

A team of researchers published a paper rebutting the popular anti-eyewitness view in 2018 (Wixted et al). Their summation of how we arrived at this place ran as follows:

“At least until the 1970s, and to some extent still today, the legal system operated as if the testimony of a credible and confident eyewitness was essentially infallible. Experimental psychologists in general (and Elizabeth Loftus in particular) awakened the legal system to the fact that eyewitness memory is malleable and is therefore not immune to contamination. It was a groundbreaking development that inspired new recommendations about forensic interviews and eyewitness identification procedures … Despite these positive developments, we submit that the once surprising revelation about the malleability of eyewitness memory has led to a severe overcorrection such that the field now regards eyewitness memory not only as potentially unreliable but also as inherently unreliable. In our view, the evidence does not support this idea and instead clearly refutes it.”4

As it turns out, the majority of the focus for the many articles and papers documenting the alleged unreliability of eyewitness testimony is on cherry-picked examples where the witnesses have been tampered with and/or memories have been contaminated. When these factors are removed, it turns out that (unsurprisingly) eyewitness testimony tends to be reliable:

“In federal trials involving eyewitness-identification evidence, should juries be told that eyewitness memory is inherently unreliable even if the DOJ guidelines were followed? That seems inappropriate to us. Instead, just as is true of trials involving DNA evidence, the jury should hear arguments about whether proper testing protocols were adhered to so the jury can make an independent judgment about the reliability of the evidence. When memory is not contaminated and proper testing procedures are followed, eyewitness memory is clearly reliable. In our opinion, the cause of justice is not served by suggesting otherwise.”4

I would take it a step further and suggest that truthful, confident and unadulterated eyewitness testimony (direct evidence) is a more reliable form of evidence, since circumstantial evidence (including forensic evidence) must necessarily be interpreted by people who didn’t actually witness what they are claiming occurred—a process that inevitably introduces bias. An eyewitness has a mental picture of what happened that they saw firsthand. As long as this mental picture is transmitted honestly and without contamination, it really is somewhat akin to having a video of the event—albeit transmitted to us imperfectly through language, rather than being able to view the video ourselves. This, including being able to convey the emotions felt at the time of the event, is still much more powerful than any speculation or inference could ever be. People may also be surprised to know that everything presented in a court relies on people’s testimony, from the collection, storage, and handling of material or forensic evidence, to the arrest, interview and charging a suspect.5

The Bible’s eyewitnesses

The easiest example in the Bible of eyewitness accounts is in the New Testament. For example, Peter wrote, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16). So not only do we have Peter’s own letters, but we also have Peter’s gospel, or his eyewitness testimony of the life of Jesus Christ, which was written down for us by Peter’s interpreter Mark (the “Gospel of Mark”).6 This is particularly interesting to us, because according to Peter, Jesus taught a young earth and special creation! Mark 10:6 quotes Jesus, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” Despite many attempts to obfuscate by Christians promoting compromise views, this verse clearly contradicts both evolution and an old earth. Since as Peter held, Jesus is God, then Jesus’ words clearly take precedence over any human claims to the contrary.

What about the Old Testament? Does Genesis represent an eyewitness account of things like Creation, the Flood and the Tower of Babel? Indirectly, we have strong reason to accept this history regardless, since Jesus affirmed them. Speaking independently of that, however, we can say there is still some internal evidence to suggest that ancient eyewitness reports were preserved in Genesis. Naturally, Moses could not have been an eyewitness to any of these things himself, but in the case of Genesis, there is good reason to believe Moses was an editor, not the sole author, of Genesis. There are internal clues that suggest Moses was drawing upon much more ancient source materials (which are lost to us today). For example, Moses made editorial comments in places like Genesis 26:33. Genesis 10:19 reads as if it were written by someone living at the time of Sodom and Gomorrah.7 For reasons like this, we have evidence that Genesis does preserve some very ancient accounts of the early history of our planet, even though Moses himself was not there to witness it.

Don’t eyewitnesses often contradict each other?

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Skeptics routinely bring up alleged contradictions in the eyewitness accounts (both in general, and in the case of the New Testament particularly), as proof that such testimony is unreliable. However, it’s actually the opposite: if all the witnesses to an event give an identical testimony, there is reason to suspect collusion. Apparent contradictions are an indicator of honest independent testimony, as detective J. Warner Wallace writes:

“If there’s one thing my experience as a detective has revealed, however, it’s that witnesses often make conflicting and inconsistent statements when describing what they saw at a crime scene … The more witnesses involved in a case, the more likely there will be points of disagreement … The apparent contradictions are usually easy to explain once I learn something about the witnesses and their perspectives (both visually and personally) at the time of the crime.”8

Imagine the gospels were all indistinguishable with no apparent contradictions or differences of any kind. Would the skeptics not then take that as an opportunity to claim collusion, or to claim that a single author manufactured them all, rather than them being independent testimonies? Tails we lose, heads they win. Don’t play that game! Of course, it is important to highlight that any of the alleged contradictions are resolvable with a closer look at the text, and that they in fact provide an incredible coherence on the events observed.

Strictly speaking, Christians do not have to depend upon a defense of the reliability of human eyewitness testimony in order to uphold the Bible. We believe the Bible is supernaturally inspired by God and is therefore inerrant. Given supernatural inspiration, the reliability of natural human eyewitnesses becomes technically irrelevant. However, this is not a belief shared by many of our evolutionist opponents (including many people claiming to be Christians, unfortunately). For this reason, it is still helpful for us as apologists to consider and address this topic effectively without solely depending on an appeal to inspiration and inerrancy.

References and notes

  1. Of course, I acknowledge the fact that evolutionists have a ready explanation for this: that human evolution happened too gradually to witness, and the transition occurred prior to the invention of language, writing, etc. So, the lack of an eyewitness report of human evolution is no refutation of the idea per se; but the fact remains that all available history of which I’m aware contradicts the evolutionary account. In particular, the Bible’s history cannot be reconciled with it. Therefore, to accept evolution requires that we disregard not only the eyewitness testimonies we have in Scripture, but essentially all historical notions of the origin of mankind. Return to text.
  2. Chew, S., Myth: Eyewitness Testimony is the Best Kind of Evidence, 20 August 2018. psychologicalscience.org/teaching/myth-eyewitness-testimony-is-the-best-kind-of-evidence.html. Return to text.
  3. Bauckham, R., Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2006, pg. 5. Return to text.
  4. Wixted, J., Mickes, L., and Fisher, R. Rethinking the Reliability of Eyewitness Memory, Perspectives on Psychological Science 13(3):324-335, 2018. doi.org/10.1177/1745691617734878. Return to text.
  5. Think about a drunk driving case. Although the breath, blood or urine may show that the person is over the limit, it is the eyewitness testimony of the police, or other witness, that is required to place them in the vehicle at the time of offence. Without this the alcohol reading alone would not be sufficient for a conviction. Return to text.
  6. Wallace, J., Cold Case Christianity, David C Cook, Colorado Springs, 2013, pp 91-95. See also: coldcasechristianity.com/writings/is-marks-gospel-an-early-memoir-of-the-apostle-peter. Return to text.
  7. Sarfati, J., The Genesis Account, Creation Book Publishers, Powder Springs, GA, 2015, pg. 11. Return to text.
  8. Ref. 4, pp. 74-75. Return to text.

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