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Hearsay and Christianity

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

I am not a lawyer, but I will argue that the Christian religion is built on hearsay. In fact, there is not a single important element of the Christian dogma which would be permissible as evidence in a modern courtroom. Allow me to explain.

Hearsay may be understood as equivalent to the statement, “They say . . .” When someone says something like, “They say there were several people involved in the assassination of JFK,” it is hearsay. If such a statement were made on a courtroom stand, it would be disallowed as evidence since the claim is unsubstantiated by any evidence and may be no more than rumor.

Here is a more formal definition of hearsay: “Statements by a witness who did not see or hear the incident in question but heard about it from someone else.” Hearsay is admissible as evidence in American courts only under very stringent conditions, such as testimony by a representative of a crime laboratory.

The reason hearsay is not generally permissible in a court of law is because it is not helpful in finding the truth, and may even impede the search for truth. Imagine John Doe on the stand testifying in the theft case of John Smith, and John Doe says, “Everyone in the neighborhood knew that John Smith was a thief.” Since John Doe never says how they knew, never provides any hard evidence, his testimony will be inadmissible as it does not prove John Smith is a thief. And, even if John Smith was indeed a thief, that wouldn’t prove that he was guilty of the theft he was accused of in this particular case.

Hearsay is inadmissible in good science as well. There is a recent book in which the author argues that children are not being over-diagnosed and over-drugged in the US, despite repeated claims to the contrary. However, the author builds her case almost entirely on interviews with parents of medicated children, and there is very little, if any, scientific evidence presented in her book. Without hard data, replicable science that can be falsified, her book amounts to hearsay. While a parent may honestly claim that a given medication helped her child, that doesn’t prove it will help her neighbor’s child, or that there are no serious side effects. No responsible physician would prescribe medications based on the claims of this book.
Clearly, hearsay can be misleading as to how the world really works, and may sometimes even be dangerous to one’s freedom, health, or safety. It would appear to be a very important skill to be able to identify hearsay and not be swayed by it.

I think it far more likely that the Gospel writers were repeating rumors. That is, it was rumored that Jesus performed all these amazing feats and that he rose from the dead, and they believed those rumors, so they wrote them down. So, how do we know that Christianity is based on hearsay? We know because none of the foundational claims of Christianity are based on proven facts or testable theories. As we have seen, books can be hearsay if their contents lack sufficient proof of their claims. According to the Gospels, Christ could work miracles like conjuring a feast from a few fish and loaves of bread, heal the sick with a touch, walk on water, and change water into wine. But what evidence do we have of any of these amazing stunts? None. We have only the written claims of long dead writers who didn’t even claim to be eye witnesses. We have no photos, film, or independent, unbiased witnesses. Note John 20-31: “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” The author of John (and most biblical scholars claim it was not the John who appears in the bible) admits that he is writing to convince others, that he has a specific agenda, that he is biased. Since John offers no claims that can be actually verified, how is his testimony any different from John Doe’s hearsay testimony in the case of John Smith? How is it any different from a “They say . . .” type claim?

In that previous paragraph, concerning the many alleged “miracles” of Jesus, I asked, “But what evidence do we have of any of these amazing stunts?” I chose the word “stunts” precisely to suggest that perhaps these “miracles” were nothing but magic tricks. Can I prove this? No one can. Without the unbiased witnesses, photos, film or other hard evidence, we can never know for sure. All we have is hearsay. Do I believe they were magic tricks? No, but I would suggest that that hypothesis is far, far more likely than the Gospel authors’ claims of real miracles. After all, we have all seen magic tricks (some much more impressive than these), so we know they exist, but have you ever seen a miracle actually proven?

I think it far more likely that the Gospel writers were repeating rumors. That is, it was rumored that Jesus performed all these amazing feats and that he rose from the dead, and they believed those rumors, so they wrote them down. But couldn’t they have been real miracles? As the philosopher David Hume wrote, we should believe a claim of a miracle only if any other explanation would require an even bigger miracle. This strikes me as very sound advice, and very helpful to anyone who wants to learn how to identify hearsay.

Please note, also, that the only people who have ever written or talked about heaven and hell are people who have never seen them, and are unable to actually demonstrate their existence. By definition, then, the claims of heaven and hell are hearsay.

In Philip Appleman’s book, “Perfidious Proverbs and Other Poems,” there is a fascinating little poem titled “Credo.” In it, Appleman writes that Christians are all familiar with the “facts” that Jesus is the son of the living god, that a star showed the way to a manger, that he cast out demons, calmed a tempest, cured blindness with a touch, made the lame walk and the lepers clean, brought corpses back to life, fed five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, walked on water, and rose from the dead. Now think of the poor backward villagers in Asia whose gods “. . . have as many limbs as spiders, and take on monstrous forms as quickly as a cloud. The natives, shrouded in their ignorance and superstition, believe the most bizarre tales about them, despite the best efforts of our enlightened missionaries.”

My purpose here has been to demonstrate that all of the foundational stories of Christianity are hearsay and that all religious claims should be subjected to the test of evidence, since failure to recognize hearsay can be dangerous to your common sense.