The Gospel Coalition


Cold-Case Christianity

J. Warner Wallace | Review by: Gustav Pritchard

J. Warner Wallace. Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2012. 288 pp. $16.99.

In late November 2012, TIME Magazine catalogued the tragic accounts of lives ruined by lottery fortunes. The irony is striking: that which appears to promise great happiness only delivers wretched misery in the end. Riches are a double-edged sword.

Indeed, the double-edged sword is also apparent in Cold-Case Christianity, a book on Christian apologetics written by cold-case homicide investigator Jim Wallace.

At first blush, Wallace’s extensive experience in analyzing real-life witness statements and forensic evidence from crime scenes appears to endow him with unique insights into the claims of Christianity. As someone whose professional background involves investigating cold-case murders—crimes that occurred in the distant past with little or no forensic evidence available today—it seems Wallace would bring a distinctly helpful angle to Christian apologetics. In the end, however, Wallace’s detective approach to Christianity proves to be a double-edged sword. But before discussing its various strengths and weaknesses, let us consider the content and structure of Cold-Case Christianity.

Investigate the Claims

The book investigates the claims of the New Testament, especially the four Gospels, with the intent of proving the reasonableness of Christianity. To this end, Wallace focuses on several pieces of historical evidence regarding the Gospels and outlines their coherence as a “strong circumstantial case” for the claims of the New Testament.

Structurally, Cold-Case Christianity is divided into two sections. Section one contains “ten important principles every aspiring detective needs to master,” principles then applied in section two, where the claims of the New Testament are investigated. Throughout the book, Wallace explains and applies various critical-thinking principles by means of personal illustrations from real-life criminal case experience.

Cold-Case Christianity carries a few helpful features. First, there is the useful discussion on reasoning skills. Moreover, the explanations are quite easily referenced, since many of them take up one of the first ten chapters of the book. Second, Wallace serves the reader well by highlighting the role presuppositions play in our view and analysis of the world (174-175). Being able to pinpoint the influence of presuppositions is crucial to properly engaging the unbeliever. As Wallace notes, “We must (to the best of our ability) resist the temptation to allow our biases to eliminate certain forms of evidence (and therefore certain conclusions) before we even begin the investigation” (28).

Let me also note, third, that the book is an engaging and accessible read, as Wallace provides countless real-life illustrations from his many years as a detective. Some of the accounts, by way of warning, are graphic and bloody.

Significant Shortcomings

There are, however, two significant shortcomings to the book.

First, Cold-Case Christianity places far too much emphasis on the role of extrabiblical sources. No doubt there is a legitimate role for biblical archaeology and extrabiblical writing from antiquity. Christianity is, after all, a faith firmly rooted in human history. But there is a grave danger when truth is suspended because of an apparent lack of corroboration from extrabiblical sources. And Wallace, I’m afraid, wanders too close to this dark side of apologetics.

All of chapter 12, for instance, is devoted to proving the Gospels have external corroborative evidence—“evidence that are independent of the Gospel documents yet verify the claims of the text” (183). Wallace then addresses the historicity of the pool of Bethesda and makes another worrying statement: “For many years, there was no evidence for such a place outside of John’s Gospel. Because Christianity makes historical claims, archaeology ought to be a tool we can use to see if these claims are, in fact, true” (201-202, emphasis added).

In other words, Wallace seems to suggest we cannot affirm the truth of the Gospel accounts without the stamp of approval from archaeology and other extrabiblical sources. Such reasoning is dangerous, not least because it cannot affirm the inerrancy of the Bible. But also, it places the final court of appeal in the realm of extrabiblical sources rather than of God’s all-sufficient, all-powerful Word.

Second, 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. As Wallace concludes, “We’ve been diligent and faithful as jurors and have considered the evidence” (249).

This is a serious false assumption. The God-opposing nature of the natural man and his unwillingness to accept the things of the Spirit (e.g., Rom. 1:18ff; 1 Cor. 2:14) puts the skeptic’s evaluation of Scripture into an entirely different category than that of a juror. Unlike the skeptic, the juror is (or at least ought to be) completely disinterested in the outcome of the case before him. And while Wallace does at times note the biases of skeptics, he limits these biases to the naturalists. But the more fundamental and universal bias is our innate antagonism toward God and his claims over our lives. The major problem with the skeptic, then, is not the lack of reasonable evidence, but the hardness of his heart.

Moreover, when one adds the overemphasis on extrabiblical evidence to the false assumption that unbelievers are neutral, objective inquirers, we have a recipe for disaster. Here's what happens: 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).

Achilles Heel

Here, then, is the double-edged sword: the same factor that makes this book rather interesting—Wallace’s background as a cold-case homicide investigator—is the very same thing that proves to be its Achilles’ heel.

So in the end, Cold-Case Christianity leaves me ambivalent. While Wallace introduces the reader to some key concepts in critical thinking, and while his style is rather engaging and accessible, I am unsure whether his book adds much substance to the discussions of Christian apologetics. And in light of its serious shortcomings, I would hesitate to recommend the book.

Gus Pritchard, originally from Cape Town, South Africa, is an associate pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Johannesburg. He is married to Kate, and they have two daughters.

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