Are All Memories Created Equally?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

According to former cold case detective J. Warner Wallace, there are certain kinds of events that are better remembered than others. Wallace explains in his book Cold-Case Christianity.

Much has been written in recent years about the “unreliability” of eyewitness testimony over time, especially as cases that previously hinged on eyewitness identification have been overturned by new DNA evidence. In fact, the New Jersey Supreme Court recently pointed to cases such as these and cited a “troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications.” As a result, the court issued new rules to make it easier for defendants to challenge eyewitness evidence in criminal cases.

Given that DNA evidence has overturned some eyewitness identifications, Wallace asks why we should “trust eyewitness testimony about an event in the past.” Here is his explanation:

In my experience as a cold-case detective, I’ve learned that not all memories are created equally. Let me give you an example. If you asked me what I did five years ago on Valentine’s Day (February 14 here in the United States), I may or may not be able to remember many of the details. I probably took my wife out for dinner or maybe a short vacation. I could probably tax my memory and recall the day with some accuracy, but I may confuse it with other Valentine’s Day memories; after all, I’ve got thirty-three memories of Valentine’s Day with my wife to sift through . . . . This day was important to me, so it may stick out in my memory a bit more than other days in February, but if you ask me for specific chronological details, I may struggle to recall the particulars from Valentine’s Day five years ago.

But if you ask me to recall the specifics of Valentine’s Day in 1988, I can provide you with a much more accurate recollection. This was the day that Susie and I were married. It definitely sticks out in my mind. I can remember the details with much more precision because this event was unequaled in my life and experience. It’s the only time I’ve ever been married, and the excitement and importance of the event were unparalleled for me. Valentine’s Day stands out when compared to other days in February, but this Valentine’s Day was even more special.

Wallace’s explanation seems quite reasonable. We better remember events that produced a strong emotional reaction in us. I can remember quite well events like my marriage, the births of my son and daughter, and even when the Challenger space shuttle exploded when I was in the 10th grade. Wallace continues:

Not all memories are equally important or memorable. When eyewitnesses encounter an event that is similarly unique, unrepeated, and powerful, they are far more likely to remember it and recall specific details accurately. . . .

Now put yourself in the shoes of the apostles as they witnessed the miracles and resurrection of Jesus. None of these eyewitnesses had ever seen anyone like Jesus before. He did more than teach them important lessons; He astonished the eyewitnesses with miracles that were unique and personally powerful. The apostles experienced only one Jesus in their lifetime; they observed only one man rise from the dead.

The resurrection was unique, unrepeated, and powerful. The gospel eyewitnesses observed a singularly powerful and memorable event and provided us with accounts that are distinctive, idiosyncratic, personal, and reliable.

Wallace’s point is compelling. Anyone who witnessed the kinds of things that happened when Jesus walked the earth would have no problem remembering them. Jesus’s deeds were emotionally powerful, and likely burned into the memories of the eyewitnesses. If anything that happened in the ancient world could be remembered, it would have been Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.

  • Todd

    I wonder if anyone would take eyewitness testimony over fact? It seems we would question anyone, or any group of people that claimed to witness something that cannot happen in nature, like resurrection.

    I’ve also always wondered why there is only testimony from people who would actually want to see him resurrected, or have something to gain from his resurrection. Certainly there is bias. Wouldn’t it have just been simpler to appear to everyone? Then there would be no ambiguity about the event.

    I think the reasoning is simple. Resurrection never happened. In fact, as I occasionally tread your blog and take in the anecdotal evidence it reaffirms my position of reality based reasoning. It seems that you believe if you stack up enough shaky evidence that it will somehow coalesce into something plausible. I suppose you get an A for effort.

  • barry

    “When eyewitnesses encounter an event that is similarly unique,
    unrepeated, and powerful, they are far more likely to remember it and
    recall specific details accurately. . . .”
    ——————-And ancient religious fanatics are also likely to fabricate tales very similar to the tales already believed by their pagan neighbors, to give Jesus a competitive edge. Matthew curiously admits that when the resurrected Jesus appeared, some of the 11 apostles there doubted, (28:17), and the Greek word he used for ‘doubted’ (distazo) is the same one Matthew uses in 14:31 to characterize the type of doubt that causes one to stop trusting Jesus.

  • barry

    “Wouldn’t it have just been simpler to appear to everyone? Then there would be no ambiguity about the event.”
    ———-That’s a good point, not much different from observing that the only people who claim to have seen gang-member Toby playing games at a friends house during the time the murder occurred across town, were his other gang friends. Yeah, they could possibly be telling the truth, but their motive to embellish and lie is so strong that we don’t need to prove them wrong in order to be suspicious that their standing something to gain makes them something less than icons of truth.