Many times when I ask the question, “What type of evidence would you need to believe in God?”, I get the response, “God would have to appear in front of me of some physical evidence of His existance” or something to that effect. In light of that statement, I would like to respond by talking about circumstantial evidence versus direct evidence, and the reason why that statement is not proof against the existence of God.
Jim Wallace, a cold case detective, was standing in for Greg Koukl on Stand To Reason recently. I always enjoy Jim Wallace because he comes from a perspective of a detective when speaking about religion, ethics, and the big questions. During that episode Jim Wallace spoke of a former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s new book Divinity of Doubt: The God Question, in which he argues that agnosticism is the only sensible position to hold.
Bugliosi writes in his book, “By fact I mean a truth known by actual experience or observation. And something that cannot be logically explained in any other way” (p. 4). Bugliosi’s way of approaching Christianity, proof beyond any possible doubt, causes all of history to be off the table not just Christianity. Also many or most of Bugliosi’s trials I am sure were not won with proof beyond a possible doubt. He missed something the judicial system calls proof beyond a reasonable doubt. This is why I want to cover the the difference of direct and circumstantial evidence, and why both are reliable because Bugliosi is saying that we can only trust direct evidence.
Direct Versus Circumstantial Evidence
The definition for circumstantial evidence covers the definition for both direct and circumstantial evidence: Evidence in which an inference is required to connect it to a conclusion of fact. By contrast, direct evidence supports the truth of an assertion directly–i.e., without need for any additional evidence or the intervening inference.
Jim Wallace explains it well in an article from Please Convince Me called “The Problem of Evidential Insufficiency”:
We might determine, for example, that a suspect committed a murder on the basis of an eyewitness who saw the murder directly or a suspect’s later confession (two pieces of direct evidence), or we might determine this on the basis of the suspect’s prior threatening remarks, his bloody appearance minutes after the crime, and his efforts to flee the scene (all examples of circumstantial evidence). Our criminal justice system draws no distinction between these two forms of evidence; both are equally viable and powerful in making a case.
Even though direct evidence may give us a conclusion quicker or with less evidence, it isn’t more valid than circumstantial. With circumstantial evidence you may need more pieces to point to the same conclusion, but with enough pieces it makes it reliable, reasonable, and factual. Knowing this Bugliosi must be careful because when making such strong statements about direct and circumstantial evidence he is discrediting more than just Christianity. To his downfall, he is also discrediting his own work. Bugliosi would have to throw out much of the evidence he most likely used in the Charles Manson case he is most famous for. And many others who claim the same belief in the necessity of direct evidence would be discrediting many of their own beliefs or ideas that hinge on circumstantial evidence.
Must God Appear?
In Christianity there are both direct and circumstantial evidence, but a more robust and comprehensive amount of circumstantial. The difficult part for many is that none of the direct evidence is related to the existence of God. Many believe if God were real then he would show Himself, but He doesn’t therefore He is not real. There are three problems with that line of thought: (1) There is plenty of circumstantial evidence, (2) there is a lot of assumptions when making that claim, and (3) there is more than one way to prove something exists.
Since I have written in previous blog posts about the evidence for God, I will leave you to read those or others work on this weighty topic. However, I would like to touch a little on the second problem. The problem with making assumptions about God is that people do it without proper knowledge of God’s actions in the past, His character, or His overall purpose. All of these are important to understanding why God does what He does. Rather than taking these into consideration people draw quick conclusions based more on their own desires. So maybe the statement above should be written more like: If I were God, then I would show myself, and the Christian God doesn’t do what I would do, so He is not real. When the statement is put in it’s true light it sounds much more ridiculous and self-centered.
We must not forget there are different ways to prove thing’s exist. If a thing is physical, then some physical test should be able to reveal it, at least in principle. But if a thing is not physical, then a person has to infer its existence by different means. There are many nonphysical things in this world such as intent, a soul, or an idea. The God of Christianity is also not physical, so it seems that the use of circumstantial evidence to prove His existence would be more than sufficient (especially because there is a lot).
Bugliosi, and others like him, should know that that physical things are found by physical tests, but nonphysical things will need a different test, or inference. Even within Bugliosi’s sphere of work there are nonphysical things such as intent and contracts, so if he were to hold to his way of thinking then these things would be invalid too. Also we must remember that not only is circumstantial evidence a reasonable way of knowing God exists, but we must not be arrogant enough to believe that just because God doesn’t do something our way means He is not real.