Personal experience and testimony
Review and introduction

Before getting into the main topic of this essay, I’d like to review where we are so far. In the
first essay, I argued that absolute knowledge was impossible, but that we could achieve very highly probable truths. I also argued that if our goal is agreement, we need to rely on data that is available to all. I argued that personal data, while it is a type of evidence, and while it may be useful, is not scientific evidence.

In the
second essay, I again argued against absolutist beliefs, while also noting that the opposite extreme of complete relativism is not a good choice either. I argued that religious truth claims must be based, at least in part, on evidence, like all other truth claims. I argued that idea of Pascal’s wager can not change our assessment of truth. The consequences of an action, may influence one’s decision to undertake the action, but one may not be able to choose to believe something is true, if on the evidence, one does not believe it is true.

Finally, in the
last essay, I argued that the bible is not inerrant, and that we have the contents of the bible on human authority, not direct divine authority.

Now, I hope we have arrived at the point where we can say the evidence to support the truth claims of Christianity are various forms of personal experience and testimony. We have the testimony of the authors of the various books of the bible. We have the long history of Christianity, and we have our own experiences, and the testimony of others we might trust.

What I am not going to do here, is tell anyone else how to assess this personal data. For one thing, I don’t have direct access to their experiences. I also know that the way various people assess information differs. Some people are better at finding patterns than others are. Some are more trusting of other people than others are. Some are more interested in exploring all possibilities, while others are more interested in evaluating the merits of possibilities that are known.

A good site for personality information is:

Returning to some themes from the first essay, people operate within different paradigms. Clear experimental evidence may serve to choose between the paradigms. However, when we are dealing with personal data, there is no way to experiment, and no way to force a paradigm shift. People will evaluate things differently.

Is religion about truth?

However, before we do that, maybe we need to ask if we are even asking the right question. Is religion even about what is true? Or is it about ethics, and teleology, or meaning and purpose? This is up to the individual to decide for themselves.

Matthew 22:36 “
Master, which is the great commandment in the law? 37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

John 1:1 “
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Here “Word” is used for the Greek word LOGOS, meaning “word”, “thought”, or “meaning”.

Micah 6:8 "
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Christianity could just be taken to mean “Have faith that there is a purpose and meaning,” and that ethics is about universalizing our thinking to include what is good for all of us, not just ourselves. The religious narratives could then be seen as any other stories with a point. They could function to spread the ethical and teleological message of the religion, without making truth claims. There are people who accept the above, without accepting the truth claims of Christianity, and consider themselves to be Christians. I won’t argue that they are not. However, different systems of belief may share those principles. They are not distinctly Christian. And since, for most people, “being Christian”, implies a set of beliefs in the truth of some of the claims of the Christian religion, these people may not be Christian according to some definitions.

Also see
Salvation for non-Christians in Christian theology.


How should we evaluate the testimony of others if it is not directly confirmable?
This will depend on a number of factors.
1) It will depend on how much we trust the person giving the testimony.
2) It will depend on their position to know. Are they experts?
Did they witness an event, or did they just hear about it?
3) What other things do we know that may lead us to question their testimony?

I'll come back to the first point which may be fairly subjective. And since the second is fairly straight forward, let’s look at the 3rd point. Suppose we had pulled 100 red marbles from a bag, and someone told us they pulled a blue marble once. Would we believe them? If we trusted the other person, then we probably would. Now, what if we had pulled over a trillion red marbles, and every person in the history of the world, had only heard of red marbles, and someone claims to have pulled a blue marble. Do we believe them?

As I pointed out in the first essay, humans are not very good with small probabilities, so these cases may not seem dramatically different to some, but they are. There are a lot of things that are more likely than a 1 in a trillion possibility. The odds that a killer meteor will hit the earth in the next 3 months are about 1000 times higher.

As another example, suppose our friend tells us that they found $20 on the street. Do we believe them? Now suppose they say they were abducted by aliens. Now what do we think?

If someone gives us testimony, and everything else we know says that the testimony is extremely unlikely to be true, then we have to consider other unlikely alternatives. For example, even an honest person may be lying, or perhaps they really believe the testimony, but either their senses or their mind have manufactured the events. We may not want to automatically call people who report very extraordinary events liars, but we certainly may want to remain skeptical.

Carl Sagan wrote, “Extraordinary claims, require extraordinary evidence.” It is a conservative approach to knowledge. We will end up rejecting a large number of false claims that way. On the whole, we will be correct in our beliefs more often than with any other system we might choose. In the process, we will probably reject a few claims that are unlikely but true.

On the other side of the question, St. Augustine would say that this is exactly where faith comes into play. He argues that before one can come to understand Christian teachings, one must trust, or have faith in Christian teachers. Rather than looking at trusting another reductionisticly in terms of evidence and credibility, I would say that Augustine looks at the question holistically, seeing the person as a whole package, and asking us to trust the person who would be our teacher.

The reader can decide for themselves the merit of the different approaches. However, in the following sections we will look at some of the evidence. Also see
induction and the problem of miracles.

The Old Testament

I’m not going to say much about the Old Testament here, since my focus is on Christianity. The view of most scholars on the Hebrew scripture is that the oldest parts were written down as a body of literature, during the Babylonian captivity, around 600 BCE. So, the evidence is that most of these documents were not produced by witnesses to the actual events described.

On a tangent note, the evidence also shows that the early Jews were Henotheists. That is, they believed there were many gods, but that they should worship only one. This gradually evolved into monotheism. There are hints of earlier beliefs here and there in the Old Testament. The story of Job, for example, is probably very old, and may tell a story older than many of the other books. Near the beginning of it we have:

Young's Literal Translation
Job 1:6 "
And the day is, that sons of God come in to station themselves by Jehovah, and there doth come also the Adversary in their midst.
7 And Jehovah saith unto the Adversary, `Whence comest thou?' And the Adversary answereth Jehovah and saith, `From going to and fro in the land, and from walking up and down on it.'

Who is this talking to God?
If it is Satan, what is he doing walking around the earth, and visiting God’s realm?
It seems to reflect at least dualistic belief.

The teaching company has some good
courses that discuss the Old Testament.
Also, the
New Jerusalem bible, has a lot of information about the context of the documents.

1st century testimony and the New Testament

What sorts of testimony do we have from the early Christian era? In the first century we have the books of the New Testament, some non-canonical Christian writings, and a brief mention by the historian Josephus. However, scholars generally regard the mention by Josephus as a fairly obvious forgery, made in later times. The earliest versions do not have the text in question, it is not in the same style, and it has the pagan Josephus talk as if he were a believing Christian. Other than that there are no records of any kind. We have numerous writings from the Romans and Jews of the time, but nothing mentioning Jesus, or his followers in the first century. The only evidence is the testimony of the books of the New Testament. In later centuries there are Roman reports of Christians, and Christians were persecuted. These martyrs are often pointed to, as a reason to accept Christian beliefs, since they were willing to die for their beliefs. However, many people have died for many different religious beliefs, and not all of them can be true. In addition, the people that died for their beliefs were not themselves witnesses to Jesus’ life. This brings into question the 2nd point about testimony, which I mentioned above.

Are any of the reports eyewitness reports? Of the gospels, John and Matthew claim to be. However there is fairly wide consensus among scholars that John is a late document, probably early second century. Of some interest in John, we have:

John 21.23 "
The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?" 21.24 This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true. "

It is being claimed, it seems, that this disciple has lived an unnaturally long life, in order to testify to this. The idea of an immortal disciple was picked up in the science-fiction book, “Stranger in a strange land.”
Although this is not the primary reason scholars consider it to be a late document, it is interesting.

I’ve done some investigation of the three synoptic gospels myself, which for the most part, agrees with the view of the majority of scholars.

I believe the evidence shows Mark to be the first written, then Matthew, then Luke. We don’t know who these authors were for sure, but Mark, the first gospel we have, is generally dated to around 60 AD. Luke was probably written by someone well educated, and writing in the late first century. Here a number of scholars believe that the traditional attribution of the gospel to Luke could really be correct.

However, Matthew claims to be a disciple, and most scholars do not find this likely. Of interest is the passage in Matthew where the tax collector that follows Jesus, is named Matthew. The other two synoptic gospels have him named Levi. We could speculate that he had two names, or that they talk about a different person, but it is interesting.

Mathew 9.9 "
As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he rose and followed him
9.10 And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. 9.11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?

Mark 2.14 "
And as he passed on, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, "Follow me." And he rose and followed him. 2.15And as he sat at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him. 2.16And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?"

Luke 5.27 "
After this he went out, and saw a tax collector, named Levi, sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, "Follow me." 5.28 And he left everything, and rose and followed him. 5.29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house; and there was a large company of tax collectors and others sitting at table with them. 5.30 And the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?"

Most scholars, believe Matthew wrote second, probably around 80 AD.

Paul of course does not claim to be an eyewitness. We know of his travels from the book of Acts, which probably was written by the same author as Luke. Scholars are divided about how much of Acts to regard as historical.

Finally there are the letters that come after Paul in the New Testament. Most scholars also regard these as having been written later. One possible exception is James, but that letter tells us little about Jesus.

In short, we do not seem to have eyewitness accounts. I certainly am not claiming that it can be proven that eyewitnesses produced none of the documents, but I do claim that there is significant doubt.  If you would like to investigate what scholars have to say about this yourself, here are some good places to look.

The Teaching company
New Jerusalem bible
The Non-Pauline Epistles:
The Gospel of John:
Synoptic problem

It is also important to understand the context of the time in which these documents were written.
The teaching company’s course on the
New Testament does a good job discussing this. At the time, there were new religious movements forming all the time. Most people believed in many gods, and there were many stories of semi-divine sons of gods. There were also many stories of miracle workers. In fact, very little of the story of Jesus that comes down to us, was unique to him. Most of the account parallels other stories that were already in circulation in the region.

Finally, while these early documents were carefully preserved and copied over many centuries, any documents that may have seriously conflicted with the views presented were not preserved. In fact, in some cases, they were actively destroyed. The only reason we have a full copy of the non-canonical gospel of Thomas, for example, is that one was dug up in Egypt, after nearly 2 millennia of lying buried. So, in effect, we are getting only one side of a complex story.

In summary, we have the testimony of a handful of people that were not likely, eyewitnesses, and their testimony is not corroborated by any other evidence. On the other hand they were certainly in a position to talk to eyewitnesses, and were part of a community of people who had been witnesses.

These people lived in a time when many mythological ideas were regarded as credible. But, on the other hand, most mythological ideas were associated with events of the distant past, not the recent past.

It is possible that we are only getting one side of a complex story. On the other hand, no historian can point to any non-canonical Christian writing that preceded the canonical gospels and Paul.

I leave it to the reader to make a judgment.

Personal evidence and experience

Let’s now examine the claim that personal experience can be used as evidence for a religious belief like Christianity. First of all there are claims of many different forms of experience. It could be something very explicit, like a talking burning bush. Or, it could be something very general, more a kin to an emotion. I don’t think these general sorts of experience can be claimed as support for a
specifically Christian faith, but the other sort could. However, it is interesting to note that these experiences are cultural. That is Hindus tend to see Hindu gods. Native Americans encounter Native American gods, etc. So, even if what is being experienced is a manifestation of the Divine, it would seem that the interpretation of it, is at least often, filtered through our cultural expectations.

Of course there are other possibilities. The person testifying about the experience could be lying. This is a possibility we can not completely eliminate unless the experience is ours. And, we also need to look at another possibility. Could the experience be completely internally generated? After all, the brain can play tricks on us. The teaching company has a good short
course on the workings of the brain.

It is interesting, for example, that in many (but not all) cases people that claim vivid religious experiences have relatives that are schizophrenic. In true schizophrenia the brain loses the ability to distinguish between externally and internally generated thoughts. It is possible that vivid religious experience is at least sometimes produced by borderline schizophrenia. Certain disorders of the brain have been shown to lead to profound interest in religion, when there was no interest before.

Karl Jung theorized that our species had evolved instincts for working together, and for putting value on the survival of the tribe or society, something larger than ourselves. He theorized that our religious beliefs are manifestations of this instinct.

Brain imaging techniques have identified an area of the brain that is active during religious activities like meditation and prayer. This would fit with the idea that the religious experience was internally generated.

In summery, there alternate possible explanations for religious experience. And in any case, they seem to be filtered through the culture they appear in, which makes it difficult to take them as evidence for any specific religious claim, like Christianity.

Now, some would say here, “If you had such a personal experience, you would be convinced”.
Perhaps that is so...

Shared personal experience

Before concluding this essay, I’d like to introduce one form of evidence not specifically mentioned so far in these essays. This is "shared personal evidence". It is not publicly available external data, but we can all agree that we have experienced it. Examples include pain, happiness and other emotions, the experience of beauty, and importantly for later essays, intentionality, or the experience of making a choice. Also, in the essays on ethics we will want to ask question like. “Are there universally shared values?”

These things are not scientific data, as I have defined it. (see
knowledge essay). However, by definition, they are things we can all agree on. Thus they have at least the potential to help give us a view of the world that is not purely scientific or not only scientific, and that we can all, potentially at least, agree on.


In closing, I’d just like to say that no matter what we think of its truth claims, there are valuable elements to the Christian religion. I dislike the way some modern groups use it to argue  against the results of modern science. However, the message of  “Have faith that there is a purpose and meaning, or LOGOS”, and the core ethical message “love thy neighbor, like thyself” can be excellent guides to life. The Christian religion also has been of great historical importance to Western civilization, and the development of Western thought.
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