J. Warner Wallace is a retired Los Angeles County detective, noted for appearing repeatedly on NBC’s Dateline, Fox News, and Court TV, explaining thereon how to conduct “cold case” investigations. Until he was 35 years old, he was an atheist, a religious skeptic skilled in dissecting and mocking Christian beliefs. But, as he says in a brief booklet entitled Alive: A Cold-Case Approach to the Resurrection (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, c. 2014), he “heard a pastor preach a sermon that described the resurrection of Jesus,” apparently believing “Jesus rose from the dead and was still alive today” (#6). His interest piqued, Wallace “decided to investigate the resurrection as I would any unsolved case from the distant past. My journey led me out of atheism to the truth of Christianity” (#12). Subsequently, he began reading the Gospels in light of the principles basic to his work as a homicide detective. Looking back, he recalls: “Somewhere on my journey from ‘belief that’ to ‘belief in,’ a friend told about C.S. Lewis. After reading Mere Christianity, I purchased everything Lewis had written. One quote from God in the Dock struck with me through the years. Lewis correctly noted, ‘Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, is of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important’” (#153).
Though many great apologists (from Tertullian to Calvin to David Limbaugh) have had legal training, detective Wallace brings a unique background to his work, for: “There are many similarities between investigating cold cases and investigating the claims of Christianity. Cold-case homicides are events from the distant past for which there is often little or no forensic evidence” (#136). In Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (Colorado Springs: David Cook, c. 2013), Wallace effectively uses examples from his detective days to explain “ten important principles every aspiring detective needs to master” and then shows how they enable serious investigators to validate the New Testament’s claims.
First of all, “don’t be a know-it-all”! Good detectives approach the evidence with objective humility, refusing to follow either their own presuppositions or rapid-response simple solutions. Lawyers and judges constantly ask jurors to disregard their biases and examine the evidence before them. In his atheist days, Wallace took for granted the philosophical naturalism pervading our intellectual milieu, automatically rejecting miraculous or spiritual realities. But once he set aside his presuppositions, looking carefully at the evidence presented by the Gospels, he began to see the strength of their claims. Secondly, detectives “learn how to ‘infer,’” to follow a chain of evidence—to reason abductively. There’s a great difference between engaging in possible (i.e. imaginable) theories and reasonable (i.e. logical) thought. The truth that convicts a felon or persuades a historian will be feasible, straightforward, exhaustive, logical, and superior to competing theories. Weighing the central Christian claim, that Christ arose from the dead, while considering various explanations for the account, Wallace found himself compelled to infer that something supernatural must have occurred. Nothing else makes sense. Thus he also discovered that faith does not negate reason; in fact, “faith is actually the opposite of unbelief, not reason. As I began to read through the Bible as a skeptic, I came to understand that the biblical definition of faith is a well-placed and reasonable inference based on evidence” (#678).
Principle #3 is: “think circumstantially.” Evaluate events and witness’s accounts in their totality, realizing that bits and pieces of apparently unrelated materials often fall into a coherent picture when put together. We’re tempted to disregard evidence that is “merely circumstantial” as somehow lacking significance. But California judges, following the state’s Criminal Jury Instructions, routinely emphasize: “Both direct and circumstantial evidence are acceptable types of evidence to prove or disprove the elements of a charge, including intent and mental state and acts necessary to a conviction and neither is necessarily more reliable than the other. Neither is entitled to any greater weight than the other.” Courtroom convictions, especially in cold-case trials, are frequently made purely on the basis of “circumstantial evidence.” It’s not necessary to have an eye-witness to a crime to convict the perpetrator! (In fact, circumstantial evidence is often better than an eyewitness, since it cannot lie!) Similarly, when one considers various cosmological data, it seems reasonable to conclude there’s a Creator responsible for the universe. “The cumulative circumstantial case for God’s existence is much like the circumstantial case we made in our murder investigation” (#946).
Witnesses, of course, are vitally important to detectives, juries and judges. But it’s important, following Wallace’s fourth principle: “test your witnesses.” Information gained from a witness is invaluable, but only if he is trustworthy! Skilled detectives master the art reading witnesses. Subtle clues, both in his words and physical mannerisms, often lead the investigator to believe or disbelieve what’s said. Four “critical areas should be examined . . . . If we can establish that a witness was present, has been accurate and honest in the past, is verified by additional evidence, and has not motive to lie,we can trust that that witness has to say” (#1101). Multiple witnesses are even more persuasive—especially if they differ on trivial matters while concurring on essential facts. “I would far rather have three messy, apparently contradictory versions of the event than one harmonized version that has eliminated some important detail. I know in the end I’ll be able to determine the truth of the matter by examining all three stories” (#1121). Reading the Gospels, with their slightly different perspectives, confirmed for Wallace their truthfulness! “All four accounts are written from a different perspective and contain unique details that are specific to the eyewitnesses. There are, as a result, divergent (apparently contradictory) recollections that can be pieced together to get a complete picture of what occurred. All four accounts are highly personal, utilizing the distinctive language of each witness” (#1239).
Importantly, when interrogating witnesses, “hang on every word”—the fifth forensic principle. Carefully recording and pondering a witness’s words often makes the difference between skilled and run-of-the-mill detectives. When Wallace studied the New Testament, he invested much time investigating its words. “every little idiosyncrasy stood out for me. Every word was important. The small details interested me and forced me to dig deeper” (#1405). It became obvious to him, for example, that Mark relied on Peter for his information. Sixthly, good detectives “separate artifacts from evidence.” Materials added to witnesses’ accounts must be considered “artifacts” and weighed less heavily when discerning what exactly happened. Ancient documents, including the Gospels, include some artifacts, such as the account of the woman accused of adultery in John 7:53-8:11. Careful scholarship enables one to disregard such artifacts as irrelevant to the investigation. So too it’s important to note Principle #7—“resist conspiracy theories.” Turning to the New Testament’s claim that Jesus arose from the grave, Wallace notes that various theories have been given to explain it, but a simple assent to the testimonies of men who died for this belief makes the most sense.
Principle #8 is: “respect the ‘chain of custody.’” Good detectives carefully document and preserve important evidence. So too the Early Church took care to preserve the eyewitness accounts basic to the Christian faith. Still more: those ancient believers seemed to embrace Wallace’s ninth principle: “know when ‘enough is enough.’” Given the magnitude of its claims, the New Testament is remarkably brief! In a courtroom, juries and judges look for sufficient, not overwhelming evidence. What ultimately matters is what’s called the “standard of proof.” What we want to know is what’s reasonable, not theoretically possible. Not everything than can be said needs to be said, and certainty in a trial necessarily comes without knowing every shred of evidence. Perfection cannot be attained in a hall of justice! Finally, cold case detectives must always “prepare for an attack” (Principle #10). Skilled defense attorneys will try to disprove or discount detectives’ work. When he became a Christian, Wallace understood atheistic arguments because he had once propounded them. Listening to the “New Atheists” who gained popularity a decade ago: “It wasn’t as though these skeptics were offering anything new. Instead they were presenting old arguments with new vigor humor, cynicism, and urgency. They were much like the defense attorneys I had faced over the years” (#2241). Dealing with them as a Christian apologist, once must, above all, insist upon the objectivity of truth, in particular the historical reliability of the Gospels.
Having introduced the reader to a detective’s guiding principles, Wallace proceeds to carefully consider various evidences pointing to the New Testament’s reliability, setting forth arguments familiar to students of apologetics. Doing he shows how seriously he has studied both the Scripture and the Early Church. Though neither a biblical scholar nor an ancient historian, he has clearly consulted the texts and sought to rightly understand them. Thus it’s reasonable to infer “from the circumstantial evidence . . . that the Gospels were written very early in history, at a time when the original eyewitnesses and gospel writers were still alive and could testify to what they had seen” (#2744). Considering corroborating evidence, found in both secular history and second century Christian documents, Wallace concludes that “we can have confidence that the essential teachings of the Gospels have remained unchanged for over two thousand years” (#4144).
Over the years I’ve read dozens of apologists’ treatises. Few of them fascinated me as much as this one, primarily because of its unique, detective’s perspective. Wallace writes clearly, understands the contemporary world, and sets forth his case persuasively.
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Though police officers occasionally apprehend and arrest culprits at the crime scene, detectives are called in to study the evidence “inside the crime scene” and identify the suspect who is “outside the crime scene.” Thus detective J. Warner Wallace followed up his initial work of apologetics—Cold-Case Christianity—with a fine treatise entitled God’s Crime Scene: A Cold Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, c. 215). To refer to creation as “God’s crime scene” might initially startle a reader, but the title makes sense when one sees a detective’s mind in action, trying to locate a person by looking at the evidence for his activity. As was true in his earlier work, the materials presented are generally available in other works of apologetics, but Wallace provides the unique perspective of a skilled sleuth and effectively makes his case, pointing to someone “outside” the physical world responsible for its substance and structure.
Detectives like Wallace “investigate causes. Who caused this murder? What motivated this suspect to commit this crime? Criminal investigations are largely causal investigations. Detective learn to ask good questions about causation to determiner the identity of a suspect” (p. 27). What does the evidence suggest regarding whether or not a crime was committed? So too, what cosmological evidence leads one to conclude that a Creator created the universe? Wallace cites copious current data (i.e. the “Big Bang” Standard Cosmological Model, including amazing details regarding a “finely-tuned” universe) that cogently point to the fact “that our universe came into being from something beyond the space, time, matter and energy of our universe” (p. 37). Assuming the principle of sufficient reason, we wonder “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and conclude Someone—“a purposeful Fine-Tuner”—made it. “Inside evidence” cannot fully explain the existence of the universe. “The evidence points to a cause outside of space, time, and matter” (p. 44). Evidence at a murder scene invariably points toward a murderer, not an accidental confluence of random events. So too the amazingly fine-tuned cosmos provides evidence (“signs of design”) pointing toward an intelligent Artist orchestrating it all.
Origin of life questions provide yet more reasons to believe in God. Having investigated murders, Wallace fully understands the radical difference between living persons and deceased corpses. We can easily detect and describe the difference between the living and the dead, and as we explore the mysteries of living organisms we find that “the complexity required for cells to metabolize and reproduce is mind boggling. Cells are packed with miniature biological machines resembling (and often exceeding ) the best work of human engineers” (p. 72). Though not a trained scientist, Wallace nicely explains what life scientists have found—amino acids, proteins, DNA etc. As a detective he seeks to answer the “where, what, why, when, and how” life originated questions. Purely naturalistic answers regarding the mystery of life’s origin prove ever ephemeral, especially when dealing with the vast amount of “information” basic to all that lives, for “the laws and forces of nature cannot produce information, but information is required for life to begin” (p. 321).
As manifestly evident (and deeply mysterious) as the reality of life is the reality of human consciousness! “Consciousness poses one of the most difficult conundrums for philosophers and scientists. As philosopher David Chalmers lamented, ‘Conscious experience is at once the most familiar thing in the world and the most mysterious. There is nothing we know about more directly than consciousness, but it is far from clear how to reconcile it with everything else we know. Why does it exist? What does it do? How could it possibly arise from lumpy gray matter?’” (p. 122). Though persons can see and touch physical things, their mental states, their minds, are known only to themselves. In particular, we first intend to do things and then do them. We think about things apart from ourselves, and those thoughts are purely mental, non-material, realities. We’re also able to think logically, following a train of argumentation that cannot be reduced to the chemical reactions within the brain. As the renowned philosopher Thomas Nagel recently wrote: “‘So long as the mental is irreducible to the physical, the appearance of conscious physical organisms is left unexplained by a naturalistic account of the familiar type. On a purely materialist understanding of biology, consciousness would have to be regarded as a tremendous and inexplicable extra brute fact about the world’” (p. 136).
Naturalistic thinkers deny the existence of free will as well as consciousness. Though he didn’t think clearly about this in his atheist days, Wallace’s deterministic philosophy actually undermined his legitimacy as a detective! For without free will the criminal justice system has little justification. If a killer couldn’t have avoided killing it’s hard to see why he should be punished for his “crime.” But in the criminal justice system: “Personal responsibility is assigned to every person who chooses to commit a crime when he or she could have chosen otherwise” (p. 141). Forty years ago the Supreme Court decreed that “‘a deterministic view of human conduct’ was ‘inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminal system.’ In fact, the Court described ‘belief in freedom of the human will and a consequent ability and duty of the normal individual to choose between good and evil’ as the ‘“universal and persistent” foundation stone in our system of law, and particularly in our approach to punishment, sentencing, and incarceration’” (p. 147).
Accompanying a belief in free will, detectives almost necessarily believe in “law and order”! The laws they seek to uphold are society’s way of declaring and enforcing morality. Laws are necessary because there are really evil people in our world! They reflect the fact that written on the human heart is a deep awareness of the “natural law,” the notion that good should be done and evil resisted. Wallace has found that even “hardened criminals” who break the law hold one another accountable to certain moral standards! The man who kills another man’s wife will inevitably condemn anyone who kills the killer’s mother! There are right ways—and wrong ways—of treating others. Such standards are more than personal perspectives or fleeting emotional reactions. They point to a higher, objective standard, a “transcendental moral truth giver,” a Lawgiver, an “all-powerful, non-material, nonspatial, atemporal, purposeful, personal Creator” whose laws reflect “His nature” (p. 172).
Having carefully examined all the relevant evidence, Wallace concluded there is Someone responsible for the world we live in, ourselves included. “I believe God exists because the evidence leaves me no reasonable alternative” (p. 201). In jury trials, judges explain that verdicts should be based on a “Standard of Proof.” Jurors can never be 100% sure when they’re making decisions, but they can with certainty conclude—“beyond a reasonable doubt”—that a suspect is guilty of a crime. As a does a good detective, he also points us to “expert witnesses,” scholars who have shaped his presentation, providing us with a helpful, up-to-date reading list.
Praise for God’s Crime Scene comes from distinguished writers such as Eric Metaxis, the bestselling author of Bonhoeffer, who says: “What if a brilliant prosecutor tried to prove the existence of God using real evidence and crystal clear arguments? Well, that’s precisely what J. Warner [Wallace] does in this magnificent book—and you get to be the jury. Don’t blink. Thrilling and amazing.” Hank Hanegraff concurs: “Sherlock Holmes has nothing on J. Warner Wallace. In God’s Crime Scene, Wallace uses the tools of a world-class homicide detective to discern whether or not clues point in the direction of a Divine Intruder. The reader can almost hear the words ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ as Wallace evaluates the evidence for cosmic design. A highly readable resource by which seekers and skeptics can follow truth toward its origins.”
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In Forensic Faith: A Homicide Detective Makes the Case for a More Reasonable, Evidential Christian Faith (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, c. 2017), J. Warner Wallace urges us to take the apologetic materials presented in his two earlier works and effectively use them as we interact with our increasingly secular culture. All too many Evangelicals, says John Stonestreet, President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, dismiss such endeavors. In his judgment: “It certainly sounds spiritual to say things like, ‘Arguments never saved anyone,’ or, ‘No one is ever argued into the kingdom.’ Such are, however silly straw men” (#193). In fact, most folks come to faith when they find good reasons to do so. Truth matters! “To be human is to reason, to reflect, and to ask questions about life and its meaning” (#198). And, Stonestreet insists, “Christianity is really True. With a capital T. True for everyone, whether they believe it or not. Christianity describes reality as it actually is” (#209).
Policemen like Wallace are committed “to protect and to serve” the public. It’s an honorable—indeed a sacred—calling. To protect and serve our world, as C.S. Lewis did nearly a century ago, we Christians need to know what we believe and explain it clearly. We need a “forensic faith,” a faith that can withstand public scrutiny and rigorous argumentation, for in addition to caring for the poor and homeless we need to provide Truth for hungry minds. We need to become skilled “case makers,” committed to bearing witness to our Lord. To do so we need solid biblical teaching—and Wallace provides a plethora of texts supporting his position—but we also need good training, learning how, as Origen said centuries ago, “to do battle for the truth.” Parents and pastors, to protect and serve young believers, simply must engage them in activities designed to discipline them, to make strong disciples, able to withstand the challenges, the intellectual battles awaiting them. Taking students on a “forensics” mission trip to UCLA may be more important than a “compassionate” mission trip to Mexico!
To do so, using Wallace’s books—and downloading free materials from his website, ColdCaseChristianity.com—would be wise! Inasmuch as far too many collegians forsake their religious views, youth pastors especially should ponder the case he builds for a Forensic Faith!