Cold Case Christianity and The Gospel Coalition

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A Review of a Review

 J. Warner Wallace is a detective and evangelist. How he finds time for both jobs is beyond my ken; I’m thankful that he does, because it has led to the most entertaining defence of Christianity that I have read in some years. Wallace approaches Christianity as a detective, and sets out his case like a good prosecutor. The heart of his argument is quite simple: there is enough eyewitness testimony in Scripture to establish the following four facts:

1. Jesus died on the cross and was buried.

2. Jesus’s tomb was empty and no one ever produced His body.

3. Jesus’s disciples believed that they saw Jesus resurrected from the dead.

 4. Jesus’s disciples were transformed following their alleged resurrection observations.

Like a good detective, he explains this evidence by inferring to the best explanation(IBE). Wallace gives a succinct summary of IBE that those familiar with the philosophical literature will recognize: collect the evidence; develop a group of competing explanations for the evidence; compare the explanations in the light of the evidence. Look for an explanation that can account for all the salient facts; but remember that simple, consistent explanations are preferable.

Of course, Wallace argues that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the only way to explain the four facts. He briefly sets out a case for the existence of God which establishes that we shouldn’t rule out a miraculous event as too improbable, and I think his argument for the resurrection is convincing. However, Wallace’s volume (which has been ably summarized and discussed elsewhere) is noteworthy for its fascinating illustrations from court and criminal investigations. It shows how inferences work outside academia in “the real world”.

 It is also worth buying simply for Wallace’s rebuttal of Bart Ehrman’s use of textual criticism, and the demolition of Zeitgeist conspiracy theories. It is accessible enough to give to a pre-teen reader, yet  never talks down to readers; the book is a remarkable teaching tool. Still, Wallace reminds us several times that no case is perfect, and I think his own case is too ambitious in places. He argues that the Synoptic Gospels are very early eyewitness documents. He places Luke’s account “well before” AD 53– 57, and places Mark’s Gospel in the late 40s or early 50s. Although his case seems reasonable enough, I doubt that the majority of conservative evangelical scholars would travel back so far.

Given Wallace’s “minimal facts” approach to apologetics, I think it would be more fitting to argue that the Gospel’s contain enough eyewitness testimony to establish the four facts beyond a reasonable doubt. There is plenty of ammunition for such a case. James Dunn has argued that the earliest Christian communities preserved their memories of Jesus in oral traditions that were used to write the Gospels. Other scholars have pointed to the role of rote memorisation and more stable oral traditions in the early Church.

Richard Bauckham, using the testimony of Luke and Papias and a study of ancient historiography, argues that eyewitness testimony was extremely important to Gospel writers. In What Have They Done With Jesus?  Ben Witherington has argued that eyewitnesses like Peter and Mary of Magdala are important sources for the Gospels. Now, Wallace’s experiences with eyewitnesses in court and criminal investigations establish that their testimony can be reliable and useful even decades after special events. Cold cases are often re-opened on the basis of such testimony, and subsequent study of the physical evidence has established that the witnesses were reliable.

The passion narratives are usually dated quite early. Wallace could have evaluated the information in key sections of the Gospels rather than defending an extremely conservative dating of the Gospels. So why would one reviewer at the conservative Gospel Coalition, Pastor Gus Pritchard, object to Wallace’s book? His reservations seem to be theological, but they mainly depend on a misreading of Cold Case Christianity. And Pritchard’s reservations are severe: he begins his review with a cautionary tale about lottery winners, which warns us that:

“…that which appears to promise great happiness only delivers wretched misery in the end. Riches are a double-edged sword.”

Strong stuff! What can Cold Case Christianity have said to warrant warnings of wretched misery and double edged swords?

Pastor Pritchard’s first concern is that “Wallace seems to suggest we cannot affirm the truth of the Gospel accounts without the stamp of approval from archaeology and other extrabiblical sources”

Wallace says no such thing, and I am bewildered that a reviewer would attribute this view to him. It is clear from chapters three and four that the character of the testimony – and the characters of those who testified – were enough to convince Wallace that the resurrection occurred, and that Jesus claimed the authority and rights of God.  Time and again, he argues that we will never have all the evidence that we want for the Gospels; but we do have enough evidence to know that they are reliable. We should not delay and wait for more data before drawing a conclusion. The “evidence demands a verdict”, so to speak.

Wallace also explicitly states that the evidence that he is considering will only establish reliability, and not inerrancy or infallibility. Many enter the Kingdom before they even hear these terms, never mind understand them. Cold Case Christianity defends the Gospel, not the conservative evangelical position on Scripture. Like me, Wallace is an old-fashioned inerrantist, and he isn’t afraid to say so. But to argue for inerrancy before the Gospel is a fool’s errand; it puts the cart before the horse. We cannot grasp the nature of Scripture before we embrace the One who wrote it.

Still, Pastor Pritchard fears that the Cold Case will take us to the “dark side of apologetics” because:

“…the Christian apologist will subject himself to an endless search for better, more persuasive evidence to convince his skeptical friend. All the while the skeptic is deeply (though perhaps at times subconsciously) committed to rejecting every piece of evidence that argues for Christianity. What’s more, this endless chase will move the discussion further and further away from the Bible—and the gospel—and the unbeliever is moved unwittingly further and further away from the very thing containing the power to truly convince him (Rom. 1:16).”

I’ve encountered and debated some very skeptical characters; I have taught many cynical students. I have yet to meet anyone who rejected every piece of evidence for Christianity. Wallace was a sceptic himself, and this was not his experience. Put all that to one side; the Cold Case approach has been caricatured at this point. Wallace wishes to send skeptics back to the Gospels, to read them continually and carefully, and to evaluate every statement that they make thoughtfully. Let me quote Wallace directly at this point:

“The forensic internal evidence of language can help us verify the claims of the early church related to these texts. The specific words used by the authors can teach us more than you might previously have thought possible. While it’s been popular in the twenty-first century to try to cast doubt on what was so certain to those in the first and second centuries, thoughtful consideration of the words themselves will verify many of the claims of the early church leaders. We need to do our best not to trust others (including me) for this careful analysis. Instead, read the Gospels for yourself and examine every word. We each have the obligation to do the heavy lifting for ourselves.” [emphasis mine]

Pastor Pritchard’s second objection to the Cold Case is that “there is little to no attention given to addressing the question of how rebellious, God-hating sinners investigating Christ’s claims is analogous to unbiased jurors serving in a human court. “

Again, this simply isn’t true. Wallace acknowledges that, alongside rational objections, sceptics can have emotional and volitional objections to Christianity. He suggests that Christians separate the unbeliever’s rational and non-rational objections, and deal with each separately. Making sceptics aware of their personal reasons for resisting Christianity is the first step to addressing them.

Then, Wallace suggests, we should address the sceptic like a prosecuting lawyer or judge, and instruct him to ignore his non-rational reasons for unbelief and focus entirely on the evidence. This strategy might not be infallible – Wallace does not claim that it is. But it might force the unbeliever to stop pretending that only Christians have emotional baggage. Wallace has suggested a clever rhetorical and logical move, and I’m glad for this advice.

But can any apologist persuade an unbeliever to personally accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour? Well, no, and they don’t try to. Accepting the Gospel means accepting certain facts that humans find repellant. We need to believe that we are sinners and that we merit banishment from God’s presence. Furthermore, the Gospel is not a set of academic facts to satisfy the speculations of life’s spectators. The Gospel is living knowledge; it calls us to a personal, challenging and transformative knowledge of God.

Indeed Wallace ends his book by pointing out the difference between believing that and believing in. It is one thing to accept the historicity of the Gospels; it’s another to accept Jesus as Lord. Wallace had to recognize the power of the Gospel to move from mere assent to living faith. Indeed, only the testimony of God’s Holy Spirit can fully motivate us to accept that the Gospel is true. Does that make apologetics – especially evidential apologetics – redundant? By no means! God’s Spirit does not merely appeal to us on an emotional level; God can convince us that his word is true.

Is it really so surprising that God would want to engage our minds? After all, he calls the whole person – body, mind and soul, if you will – to submit. Rational argument alone cannot deal with the deep biases against God’s truth, but evidence has its place in commending the word of God to the unbeliever, and in convincing him to repent.

I have some sympathy for Pastor Pritchard’s concerns. Intellectual pride, laziness and conformity prevent many unbelievers from addressing the evidence for Christianity. They also prevent people from giving a preacher or evangelist a fair hearing. That doesn’t mean I can shirk my responsibility to do my best in preaching or evangelism! Nor does it allow me to skip a robust presentation of the best available evidence. Of course, the darkness in the human heart is the source of intellectual vice. What can any human do about that? How can apologists turn human hearts towards God?

The evangelical Church is built on alliteration, so let me express the Bible’s advice this way: pray, proclaim and persuade. Apologetics addresses the mind, helps us to persuade the unbeliever, and provides an essential part of evangelism. Proclamation addresses the stubborn unrepentant heart. Prayer places the ultimate outcome into God’s hands. No apologist would be wise to rely on his own wisdom – but nor would any preacher, evangelist or pastor.

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