Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. III. Seventeenth Century
The Resurrection and Evidence
By Thomas Sherlock (16781761)
From Miscellaneous Tracts
THE GENTLEMAN allows it to be reasonable in many cases to act on the testimony and credit of others; but he thinks this should be confined to such cases, where the thing testified is probable, possible, and according to the usual course of nature. The gentleman does not, I suppose, pretend to know the extent of all natural possibilities, much less will he suppose them to be generally known; and therefore his meaning must be, that the testimony of witnesses is to be received only in cases which appear to us to be possible. In any other sense we can have no dispute; for mere impossibilities which can never exist, can never be proved. Taking the observation therefore in this sense, the proposition is this: that the testimony of others ought not to be admitted, but in such matters as appear probable, or at least possible to our conceptions. For instance: a man who lives in a warm climate, and never saw ice, ought on no evidence to believe that rivers freeze and grow hard in cold countries; for this is improbable, contrary to the usual course of nature, and impossible according to his notion of things. And yet we all know that this is a plain manifest case, discernible by the senses of men, of which therefore they are qualified to be good witnesses. A hundred such instances might be named, but it is needless; for surely nothing is more apparently absurd than to make one mans ability in discerning, and his veracity in reporting plain facts, depend on the skill or ignorance of the hearer. And what has the gentleman said, on this occasion, against the resurrection, more than any man who never saw ice might say against a hundred honest witnesses, who assert that water turns to ice in cold climates?
It is very true that men do not so easily believe on testimony of others things which to them seem improbable or impossible; but the reason is not because the thing itself admits no evidence, but because the hearers preconceived opinion outweighs the credit of the reporter, and makes his veracity to be called in question. For instance, it is natural for a stone to roll down hill; it is unnatural for it to roll up hill; but a stone moving up hill is as much the object of sense as a stone moving down hill; and all men in their senses are as capable of seeing and judging, and reporting the fact in one case as in the other. Should a man then tell you that he saw a stone go up hill of its own accord, you might question his veracity, but you could not say the thing admitted no evidence, because it was contrary to the law and usual course of nature; for the law of nature formed to yourself from your own experience and reasoning, is quite independent of the matter of fact which the man testifies; and whenever you see facts yourself, which contradict your notions of the law of nature, you admit the facts, because you believe yourself; when you do not admit like facts on the evidence of others, it is because you do not believe them, and not because the facts in their own nature exclude all evidence.
Suppose a man should tell you that he was come from the dead; you would be apt to suspect his evidence. But what would you suspect? That he was not alive, when you heard him, saw him, felt him, and conversed with him? You could not suspect this without giving up all your senses, and acting in this case as you act in no other. Here then you would question whether the man had ever been dead. But would you say that it is incapable of being made plain by human testimony that this or that man died a year ago? It cannot be said. Evidence in this case is admitted in all courts perpetually.
Consider it the other way. Suppose you saw a man publicly executed, his body afterwards wounded by the executioner, and carried and laid in the grave; that after this you should be told that the man was come to life again; what would you suspect in this case? Not that the man had never been dead, for that you saw yourself; but you would suspect whether he was now alive. But would you say, this case excluded all human testimony, and that men could not possibly discern whether one with whom they conversed familiarly was alive or no? On what ground could you say this? A man rising from the grave is an object of sense, and can give the same evidence of his being alive as any other man in the world can give. So that a resurrection considered only as a fact to be proved by evidence, is a plain case; it requires no greater ability in the witnesses than that they be able to distinguish between a man dead and a man alive; a point in which I believe every man living thinks himself a judge.
I do allow that this case and others of like nature require more evidence to give them credit than ordinary cases do. You may therefore require more evidence in these than in other cases; but it is absurd to say that such cases admit no evidence, when the things in question are manifestly objects of sense.
I allow farther that the gentleman has rightly stated the difficulty on the foot of common prejudice; and that it arises from hence, that such cases appear to be contrary to the course of nature. But I desire him to consider what this course of nature is. Every man, from the lowest countryman to the highest philosopher, frames to himself from his experience and observation a notion of a course of nature, and is ready to say of everything reported to him that contradicts his experience, that it is contrary to nature. But will the gentleman say that everything is impossible, or even improbable, that contradicts the notion which men frame to themselves of the course of nature? I think he will not say it; and if he will, he must say that water can never freeze, for it is absolutely inconsistent with the notion which men have of the course of nature who live in the warm climates. And hence it appears that when men talk of the course of nature, they really talk of their own prejudices and imaginations, and that sense and reason are not so much concerned in the case as the gentleman imagines. For I ask, is it from the evidence of sense or the evidence of reason that people in warm climates think it contrary to nature that water should grow solid and become ice? As for sense, they see indeed that water with them is always liquid, but none of their senses tell them that it can never grow solid; as for reason, it can never so inform them, for right reason can never contradict the truth of things. Our senses then inform us rightly what the usual course of things is; but when we conclude that things cannot be otherwise, we outrun the information of our senses, and the conclusion stands on prejudice, and not on reason. And yet such conclusions form what is generally called the course of nature. And when men on proper evidence and information admit things contrary to this presupposed course of nature, they do not, as the gentleman expresses it, quit their own sense and reason, but in truth they quit their own mistakes and prejudices.
In the case before us, the case of the resurrection, the great difficulty arises from the like prejudice. We all know by experience that all men die and rise no more; therefore we conclude that for a dead man to rise to life again is contrary to the course of nature; and certainly it is contrary to the uniform and settled course of things. But if we argue from hence that it is contrary and repugnant to the real laws of nature, and absolutely impossible on that account, we argue without any foundation to support us either from our senses or our reason. We cannot learn from our eyes, or feeling, or any other sense, that it is impossible for a dead body to live again; if we learn it at all, it must be from our reason; and yet what one maxim of reason is contradicted by the supposition of a resurrection? For my own part, when I consider how I live; that all the animal motions necessary to my life are independent of my will; that my heart beats without my consent and without my direction; that digestion and nutrition are performed by methods to which I am not conscious; that my blood moves in a perpetual round, which is contrary to all known laws of motion; I cannot but think that the preservation of my life, in every moment of it, is as great an act of power as is necessary to raise a dead man to life. And whoever so far reflects on his own being as to acknowledge that he owes it to a superior power, must needs think that the same power which gave life to senseless matter at first, and set all the springs and movements a-going at the beginning, can restore life to a dead body. For surely it is not a greater thing to give life to a body once dead, than to a body that never was alive.