Review: Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I could tell by reading the promo material for Cold-Case Christianity that this book of Christian apologetics would land firmly in the camp known as “evidentialism.” The blurbs read like a who’s-who of contemporary evidentialists: McDowell (and McDowell), Mittelberg, Moreland, Copan, McFarland.
I appreciate the work done in this camp—Josh McDowell was instrumental in my own mother’s conversion, and Evidence that Demands a Verdict was on our family bookshelf my whole life. I do sometimes feel, however, that the evidentialist camp forgets (or refuses to acknowledge!) that their camp is on my camp’s property. Evidentialism is, I think, properly viewed as a subset of presuppositionalism.
So I was pleasantly surprised to see author J. Warner Wallace bring up the important role of presuppositions at the outset of his book. He’s quite strong on this:
Make no mistake about it, all of us have a point of view; all of us hold opinions and ideas that color the way we see the world. Anyone who tells you that he (or she) is completely objective and devoid of presuppositions has another more important problem: that person is either astonishingly naive or a liar.
However, I’m afraid the author crystallized something for me, because he turns right around and urges readers to be objective, to bracket out our presuppositions:
It’s possible to have a prior opinion yet leave this presupposition at the door in order to examine the evidence fairly.
He uses an illustration from his forensics work to help prove this point. A murder victim lay in her bed, and Wallace’s older partner read all the evidence in the room in light of one explicit presupposition: it’s husbands who kill wives. Only when she was later found to be unmarried did they start on the track of the real killer. That presupposition, though generally accurate, caused them to misread the picture on the nightstand, the men’s clothes in the closet, and the murder itself. Leaving that presupposition aside allowed them to examine the evidence fairly.
And in this case I think Wallace’s idea about bracketing off presuppositions undeniably works. But the belief that it’s usually husbands who are guilty of killing wives is not a belief people, even homicide detectives, hold close to the center of their hearts. It’s not base-level.
I’m afraid that I, in turn, think it’s naive to think that someone can set aside the kinds of presuppositions that come into play when evaluating the Christian faith. What Wallace crystallized for me was the role played by something deeper than merely cognitive presuppositions: the role of the heart. Someone who, in his heart, fundamentally hates God is not going to be persuaded by mountains of evidence and reasoning, however cogently presented.
Notice what I did not say: I did not say that faith is unreasonable or that the Christian faith in particular is irrational. Nor did I say that evidence and rational argumentation are useless. These are means God may choose to use to bring someone to faith. Surely reason plays a necessary role in every conversion. But fallen people are not fundamentally “reasonable,” because they refuse the very beginning of knowledge, the fear of the Lord (Prov 1:7).
As a convinced presuppositionalist, I had to start with all that. But I don’t want it to detract at all from my hearty commendation of Wallace’s excellent work. He writes clearly, concisely, and cogently. His unique angle—that of a cold-case homicide detective—provides numerous valuable insights into the use and evaluation of evidence. The structure of his work is very clear, easy to hold onto. You get the feeling that the rigors of his detective work have, Sherlock-like, turned his mind into a neatly useful filing cabinet. And as a seminary-trained pastor, he also shows a responsible grasp of New Testament studies: he handles topics such as textual criticism without beginner’s gaffes. Also, responsible writers like Richard Bauckham pop up in his footnotes.
In addition, the numerous visual illustrations were truly excellent. Well done and very helpful. (I go back and forth on whether or not the textual illustrations from real-live murder mysteries were salacious, helpful, or somewhere in between—but they attracted my interest, I must admit.)
A few other things I found valuable about the book:
- I had high hopes for the chapter on conspiracies; he very helpfully pointed out how difficult—nearly impossible—it is to hold together a conspiracy among multiple people. And yet that is exactly what the early disciples are supposed by some skeptics to have done.
- Along similar lines, I felt he made an argument I was familiar with helpfully more specific. The activity of the apostles is hard to explain without a genuine resurrection; I’d heard that. I believe it. But Wallace specified the kinds of motivations that are most common in criminal acts and showed convincingly that these were very unlikely to be present among the apostles.
- Speaking of likelihood, I also found it helpful to distinguish the kinds of doubt allowed in various types of court cases.
- Likewise, Wallace explains how “circumstantial evidence” can be relied upon to build a case. Yes, one piece of such evidence—a mud stain on someone’s pants that matches the color of mud found at the murder scene—is not enough to build a case. But taken together, such evidence provides a cumulative case.
- He shows very helpfully (and from a real-life case) how it can be that two eyewitnesses can both testify truthfully and yet sound contradictory—because of their differing perspectives.
- He argues that because emotionally powerful experiences imprint themselves on one’s memory, it is feasible that various eyewitnesses could remember Jesus’ sayings with accuracy several years on.
- I loved the comparison he drew between the Johannine Comma, John 7:53–8:11, etc. and “artifacts” found at crime scenes—pieces of evidence that turn out to have no bearing on the matter at issue.
This kind of evidentialism is valuable, and I wish it were more ready on my tongue. But I still do believe that it has inherent limits: all it can do is show us that principles that appear to “work” in investigating cold-case homicides appear to work when applied to the New Testament. But what about the principles of evidence evaluation used in other cultures’ systems of law? What if our own system changes? What if more evidence is found—hasn’t the use of DNA “fingerprinting” overturned a number of apparently rock-solid cases?
And a more apposite question, I think: what if an intelligent person—more intelligent than you, I, or the author (I think we’d all agree such people exist)—reads the best evidential defense out there and still isn’t persuaded? Is he being unreasonable? If so, who says?
If your answer is, “God says,” then you’re a presuppositionalist.
People do need more of the facts. They do need their barriers to be knocked down. And evidence and argument are sometimes effective tools (I’m told) for that work. But I think it’s theologically and evangelistically unhealthy to forget that a person’s loves are more ultimate than his thoughts. So I can’t say things like the following:
Let’s make sure that our objections and doubts are less emotional or volitional than they are rational. When I was an atheist, I never took the time to categorize my doubts into “rational” versus “emotional” classifications. I also never took the time to see if theism (or Christianity) offered a reasonable response to my doubts. Looking back at them, many of my doubts were merely possible doubts based on an emotional or volitional response.
Who says that rational doubts are more important or weighty than emotional or volitional ones? I don’t think that’s the Bible talking; that sounds like Enlightenment rationalism to me.*
I was moved to read of Wallace’s conversion. And as a rigorous, logical thinker, it seems appropriate this his approach to Jesus involved a lot of careful study of the evidence. But a lot of people on earth can’t even read, many who can don’t, and not all paths to Jesus are smoothly paved and carefully lined. I’m reminded of a story D.A. Carson told once of a rigorously logical college student (Fred, I think his name was) who was converted after multiple Bible studies with Carson answered all his logical objections. Carson said Fred was a rarity. I hope many people will read this book and fill the world with Freds. More likely, I hope Christians will be strengthened in their faith and use Cold-Case Christianity as a resource book for apologetics discussions (that’s what I’ll do).
*One other theological complaint: Wallace argues that free will exists so that those who love God won’t do so as automatons. I don’t think that’s a scripturally cogent argument, and he doesn’t discuss the alternative.