The Burden of Proof
by W. Mark Lanier
One of the keys to a jury’s decision is the basis on which a jury is instructed to find truth. I was discussing this point recently while fishing with a United States Supreme Court judge. We were joined in the boat by a guide who maneuvered us artfully through the Louisiana waters in search of dinner. As the day wore on, our discussion turned to the issue of why we believe in God. The justice, a well-educated man who is brilliant—plain and simple—is a devout Christian believer. I suggested to him that framing the deliberation process before framing the question is of paramount importance. Here is what I mean.
There are many valid units of measurement. Gallons and quarts (or liters if we use the metric system) measure liquids. Inches, feet, yards, meters, kilometers and miles express distance. Fahrenheit and centigrade scales measure temperature. Each term works to measure its category, but not matters outside its category. While I can validly measure the heat outside as 72 degrees Fahrenheit (or 22 degrees Celsius), I would never say the temperature is 6 gallons. Conversely, if I were discussing how much gas I put in my car, I might say 6 gallons, but never 72 degrees Fahrenheit. We must be careful to use the right measuring system for the category or item being measured.
In the same way, we err in any discussion of the existence of God if we use the wrong measure of proof. It is as absurd to think of proving God in the scientific sense of a lab process or the mathematical precision of a calculator as it is to measure distance by gallons. Ultimate questions like God’s existence call for an appropriate measurement of proof. I suggest the measurement of proof from the American jury system.
History has fine-tuned our jury trials to efficiently and fairly determine truth. It is done in civil cases by a “preponderance of the evidence” burden of proof. This means that before a jury can find for the party that carries the “burden of proof,” the jury must be persuaded by the “greater weight of the credible evidence.” This is also defined as “What is more likely than not?”
This is the appropriate measurement for truth, and it is my suggestion for our consideration of the existence of God. We should no more seek scientific proof of God than we seek to determine time by kilograms and pounds. The proper measure of proof is to ask simply: What is more reasonable to believe—that there is a God or that there is not? With that burden of proof set out, we move into the direct question under consideration.
Taken from Christianity on Trial by W. Mark Lanier. Copyright (c) 2014 by W. Mark Lanier. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com
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