J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013.
J. Warner Wallace is a Christian apologist, “a cold-case homicide detective, a missions leader, and a church planter.” He has written a book from this perspective that outlined his case for Christianity. Wallace asked if I would be willing to review his book and I obliged, though I confess apologetics of this sort is not my “cup of tea.”
I struggle with this book for a few reasons. First, I am a confessing Christian, but that doesn’t mean I think all the loose ends come together neatly. There remain many aspects of my Christianity that are in suspense or agnostic even. Meanwhile, Wallace directs a blog and podcast at PleaseConvinceMe.com that tends to work from the presupposition that evangelical Christianity has it “right” for the most part.
The man who wrote the forward to this book is Lee Strobal, a journalist turned apologist. I read Strobal when I was in college and it did help me think about my Christianity. Of course, over time, as I revisited many of the topics he addressed in his books I came to see the world is far more complex than his apologetics books presented. This is not to deny that Strobal honestly assesses the evidence using his journalist skills and that the evidence he found moved him toward becoming a Christian. It is to say that I don’t see things as black-and-white as Strobal.
Similarly, Wallace used his detective skills to study Christianity. Both Strobal and Wallace moved from atheism to Christianity. I don’t deny that Wallace examined the evidence sincerely, and if you want to read his book you can decide whether or not you accept his arguments, but I am a tad skeptical of some of his conclusions.
Message of the Book
The main point: [Evangelical] Christianity (more precisely an Evangelical understanding of the trustworthiness of the Gospels) can be defended through examination of the evidence. As I noted above, this is problematic for me because I have come to see evangelicalism as more ethos than creed. Evangelicalism has become increasingly difficult to assess through a list of doctrines. I imagine that the Christianity that Wallace defends isn’t the essence of Christianity to many readers of this blog, even those who are more or less theologically conservative.
The methodology: examine the evidence through the same steps Wallace uses to examine evidence as a crime scene or sees evidence presented in a courtroom. This has its problems as well. It is one-sided. I know quite well that the topics that Wallace addresses such as how the Gospels evolved or what early Christian tradition tells us about the earliest Christians lack the consensus that this book seems to presuppose. If the courts were examining whether the Fourth Gospel was written by John, the son of Zebedee in the late first century the defending attorney may use some or many of Wallace’s arguments. On the other hand, Wallace’s book doesn’t show you what the prosecuting attorney may argue.
Summary of the Contents
This book is divided into two main sections. Section 1: Learn to Be a Detective covers the first ten chapters where Wallace provides principles from his experience as a detective to help the reader examine the evidence for Christianity. Section 2: Examine the Evidence begins to apply what Wallace has promoted to particular case studies.
In Chapter 1: Don’t Be a “Know-It-All” Wallace begins by warning against dangerous presuppositions like philosophical naturalism and scientism. He warns (rightly) that our presuppositions can prevent us from seeing the truth of the matter. A detective must be able to examine the evidence considering multiple possibilities.
In Chapter 2: Learn How to “Infer” Wallace dives into the use of logic: collect evidence, know what is possible and what is reasonable, and several other helpful steps worth taking when trying to find the truth. This chapter examines the resurrection of Jesus. For those familiar with apologetical works on this topic it will be nothing new. Wallace argues that Jesus died. He argues against the disciples stealing the body, or hallucinating, or seeing someone they thought was Jesus. Honestly, I accept many of his points. I affirm Jesus’ resurrection, but it isn’t evidence alone that has lead me to it. If I were in a courtroom on a jury it would be hard to ignore one simple fact: people don’t resurrect from the dead. This analogy from real life would likely force me to ignore the other pieces of evidence presented. I have read Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus and chunks of N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God along with much more literature on the topic. Personally, yes, I think that Jesus was resurrected, but I am aware that for every argument presented in this book there are counter arguments that are argued quite effectively. Wallace is an apologist. He will present one side. That is fine. It is expected. Yet I imagine many of my friends and acquaintances would be skeptical of the one-sidedness.
In Chapter 3: Think “Circumstantially” forms of evidence such as the value of an eye-witness or the use of DNA matching other clues is Wallace’s focus. Wallace turns this toward cosmology: the universe appears designed. I agree, but I know of many scientist and philosophers who find the order to be quite chaotic at its core. Yes, human life (complex life) motivates me to seek a Creator. It doesn’t do this for everyone though because there are arguments that seems to be as strong for the lack of a Creator as there are for a Creator. Whenever apologists hint at attacking the evolutionary paradigm I am nervous. I fear a simplistic argument is coming. I imagine many critics would circle Wallace’s arguments like hungry sharks.
In Chapter 4: Test Your Witnesses we find many of the common arguments for Gospels being based on eyewitness accounts. I am sympathetic, mostly due to the work of Richard Bauckham which seems to have influenced Wallace. Again, the problem for me remains a simple one: the presentation is one-sided. I know there are counter-arguments and this book will not present those counter-arguments. Again, it is the prerogative of the author to present his side. As a review this is something that concerns me.
In Chapter 5: Hang on Every Word Wallace uses “the art of forensic statement analysis” to see if the wording used in the Gospels indicate witness. Wallace investigates the tradition that the Gospel of Mark is based on the message of Peter. Again, it is possible. I know the arguments. I am not adverse to them, but neither do I think there are watertight arguments for Mark being based on Peter’s preaching.
Chapter 6: Separate Artifacts from Evidence examines, primarily, scribal transmission of the biblical texts.
Chapter 7: Resist Conspiracy Theories provides characteristics of conspiracies and then critiques some of the modern conspiracies against Christianity, e.g., anything authored by Dan Brown or movies like Zeitgeist. I am in complete agreement with this warning. Likewise, his challenge of those who present early Christianity as a conspiracy by the apostles seems like a fair warning to me.
Chapter 8: The Chain of Custody discusses the movement from eyewitnesses of Jesus to later disciples to written documents. Wallace will argue along the lines of Bauckham that the Gospel traditions have been relayed accurately. Again, I am sympathetic here, though I think the debate is more complex than this book allows.
Chapter 9: Know When “Enough is Enough” presents readers with a true observation that sometimes you can collect only so much evidence. Sometimes more evidence will not convince those who won’t be convinced. This chapter explores theodicy as a case study.
Chapter 10: Prepare for an Attack surveys the role of a defense attorney and then asks how these principles apply to the apologist or Christian defending his/her beliefs.
Chapter 11: Were They Present? begins Section 2. Wallace presents his reasons for affirming eyewitness testimony (e.g. no mention of the fall of the temple in any of the Gospels; the deaths of Peter and Paul aren’t mentioned; etc). Wallace presents Mark as being written between 45-50, Luke 50-53, and Acts between 57-60. This isn’t absurd. Even a skeptic like James Crossley has dated Mark quite early. Those familiar with the study of the Gospels are aware that there are many good reasons given by scholars for dating Mark in the late 60s, Matthew and Luke in the 70s to 80s, and John in the 90s, even by more conservative scholars. So my problem here is with Wallace’s stacking the deck. I fear some young reader will be quite exited to see the Gospels written so early, then later in life feel a bit betrayed by the simplicity and assurance with which these early dates were presented.
Chapter 12: Were They Corroborated examines verisimilitude, a worthwhile endeavor. Do the Gospels mention names and locations that match what we know about the time of Jesus. Yes. Also, Wallace investigates whether authors like Josephus and Tacitus seem to correspond to the Gospels. We know this is more complicated then what most apologist let on, Wallace included. Wallace examines archaeology, and this is helpful as well because some things like an inscription naming Pilate or the discovery of the Pool of Siloam are helpful for validating some aspects of the Gospels’ messages.
Chapter 13: Were They Accurate simplifies a complex chain of transmission accepting with little resistance that John the Apostle taught Ignatius and Polycarp who taught Irenaeus and so forth and so on. I am not denying this may have been true. It isn’t simple though. I think this books makes it appear that this is obvious, even a consensus. In fact, there remains much debate over these matters.
Chapter 14: Were They Biased? examines whether the early Christians had other motives like financial gain or power for spreading their message. I think it is fair to say few would argue this. Wallace argues against it.
Wallace ends with a postscript, further resources, and his notes.
Let me restate what I said in the beginning: I am sure that Wallace has done his homework and that he affirms in all honesty the arguments he presents. That said, while I agree with much of this content, even if I don’t take the same road to get to the same location, I fear from my own experience being raised around Christianity and reading Strobal, McDowell, and other apologists that the backlash against a book like this will be that it is extremely one-sided. For some, this book will help them become Christians. That is fine and dandy and I am excited about it. For others, it may help reinforce their beliefs. Again, this may be a good thing. For others it will prove convincing temporarily. I remember the Brian LePort of my early twenties. He believed McDowell’s The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict settled many of his questions. One problem: I kept studying. I realized things were more complex and there there are arguments that apologists don’t take seriously that ought to be taken seriously.
I appreciate Christian apologists. I do. I appreciate Wallace and the effort he presents with this book. Yet I remain worried that arguments that may help an 19-22 year old may hurt those same people later. I understand apologists can’t always argue like biblical scholars, presenting a thorough reason for their beliefs while interacting seriously with opposing views. Yet this may be the most dangerous flaw of Christian apologetics, especially when an apologist has a critical thinker in the audience.
So would I recommend this book? Maybe, for some, with a grain of salt. I would tell them to read it critically. I would remind them that this book doesn’t settle the matter and that further study is demanded. The Gospels are worth a life time of study and there is nothing wrong with being a Christian who isn’t so sure that Matthew wrote the Gospel attributed to him. I don’t think Wallace would disagree with me on this.