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Weighing the evidence

Evaluating a body of facts isn’t as easy as it seems

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I’ve been thinking about evidence. We used to know what evidence was. Our only question was whether the man bringing his case possessed sufficient amounts of it. We would know it if we saw it. We would be able to say “guilty” or “not guilty.”

I looked up a definition: “the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.”

To read that, you would think everybody sees that “body of facts or information” the same way. Not so. What one person calls evidence another calls malarkey.

I always like to go back to the Bible. There’s the time in Israel’s history when civil war nearly broke out because a bunch of tribes thought they had evidence that another bunch of tribes was defecting from the true God (Joshua 22).

A bevy of dubious witnesses is a handful of nothing, as a hundred times zero is still zero.

What had happened was that the fledgling Israelite nation, having successfully conquered Canaan, divvied up the land under Joshua. Everyone was now heading home to his own fig tree. Moses had allowed the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh to choose portions on the east side of the Jordan, so off they went, bidding adieu to the other 9½ tribes west of the river.

But just before crossing over, the 2½ tribes built an altar near the river. Word got back to the others. It looked bad to them. They jumped to war preparations (Joshua 22:12). A posse of representatives confronted the eastern brothers for their “treachery” (v. 16). The stunned easterners explained that their pile of stones didn’t mean what the 10 tribes thought it meant. It was for a testimony, not a competing religion. All ended well.

If you guessed the moral of the story is that we should mind our own business and not pursue rumors of corruption, you guessed wrong. Scripture is bullish on good investigations: “If you hear in one of your cities, which the Lord your God is giving you to dwell there, that certain worthless fellows have gone out among you and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’ … then you shall inquire and make search and ask diligently.”

The command is thrice repeated: Deuteronomy 13:12-14; Deuteronomy 17:3-4; Deuteronomy 19:15-18. In religion or nations, God loves truth and hates lies. Turning a blind eye is not a virtue.

Circumstantial evidence is a kind of evidence. If a man returns home unexpectedly from a business trip and finds a stranger in his pajamas, who his wife nervously claims is a long-lost cousin, it’s only circumstantial evidence. But I would investigate, wouldn’t you? Especially if I’ve been seeing a pattern.

Multiple witnesses are another type of evidence. The Bible has a two-witness rule: “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15).

But witness evaluation is crucial. A bevy of dubious witnesses is a handful of nothing, as a hundred times zero is still zero.

Peter and Susan Pevensie get a lesson in witness evaluation in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Though the strangeness of sister Lucy’s story about a land of Narnia makes the siblings assume at first that her testimony is not true and that Edmund’s is, the Professor directs them to consider their past experience with their respective siblings: “If you will excuse me for asking the question—does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?”

This brings us to the matter of discernment, the ability to judge well. The raw data of so-called evidence is nothing without it, and discernment cannot be bought for money but comes from the Holy Spirit.

“The Lord … will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” (1 Corinthians 4:5).

Andrée Seu Peterson

Andrée is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. Her columns have been compiled into three books including Won’t Let You Go Unless You Bless Me. Andrée resides near Philadelphia.


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