Why it is critical to understand the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence

Most recently, my friend Dr. Michael Licona debated Jewish atheist Larry Shapiro on the resurrection of Jesus. This is the second time they have debated. In the Q&A part of the debate, Dr. Licona asked Dr. Shapiro what would change his mind about the resurrection.  I can almost sum up what happened here.

Shapiro thinks:

(1) The claim that Jesus rose  is extraordinary….
(2) Therefore, any evidence supporting it ought to be extraordinary as well.
(3) I’m not sure what I mean by “extraordinary.”
(4) But whatever you come up with, it’s not going to work.
(5) Therefore, Jesus did not rise.

(6) Oh wait, I do know something that would convince me.

Shapiro says he would like to verify the fact that Jesus actually died.  In other words, he needs be present in the first century to verify this. A couple of issues here: 

Once again, like many atheists, Shapiro seems to not know the difference between direct and circumstantial or indirect evidence. Remember: 

  1. Direct evidence: Evidence that is simply unavailable to those of us who are studying historical events in the Bible: This is called “direct evidence.” We were not present to directly witness the events in the Bible. Nor, are we able to  directly verify many scientific events and other historical events in the past.
  2. Almost all of historical evidence, science, as well as cold case investigations are built on “circumstantial or indirect evidence.”

Also, we must utilize what is called “Inference to the most reasonable explanation” (Abduction)

  1. Inference refers to the process of collecting data and then drawing conclusions on the basis of this evidence.
  2. We compare the evidence to the potential explanations and determined which explanation was, in fact, the most reasonable inference in light of the evidence.
  3. The best explanation will cover all the data.

In the debate,  Shapiro is convinced his alien hypothesis is just as good as Licona positing that God is the best explanation for the raising of Jesus. 

  1. Remember, whatever someone proposes as an alternative explanation, it has to be able to adequately explain all the minimal facts (i.e., the death of Jesus the birth of the Jesus movement, the experiences of the disciples with the risen Jesus, Paul coming to faith, etc).
  2. Explanations can’t be ad hoc: People make up explanations, despite the fact that we have no real evidence for what they are making up. Remember, an assertion is the act of asserting something without evidence. Evidence is facts or observations presented in support of an assertion. Shapiro says he can come up with several other possibilities other than the alien hypothesis. But he seems to think that just because he can assert hundreds of possibilities, they are all just as good. But he needs evidence for his assertions. Licona provided evidence for why the alien hypothesis is nonsense.To see some of the common naturalistic objections to these minimal facts, see our post,  Answering 15 Objections to the Resurrection of Jesus.
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