Cold-Case Christianity (Extract)

Cold-case detective Jim Warner Wallace shares the surprising story of how he came to apply his skill set to the Gospels.

(This is an extract from a 2019 episode of CPX’s Life & Faith podcast. Listen to the full episode here.)

SIMON SMART: Now, Natasha, you’ve been speaking with detective Jim Warner Wallace who’s worked on cold cases for decades. But a big part of his story is really interesting. He goes from being a hard-boiled atheist to a Christian believer. He even then goes on to get a theology degree and these days he does a lot of teaching and speaking on worldview and on the evidence for Christianity, while still of course, consulting on cold cases.

NATASHA MOORE: This is the real twist in Jim’s story – how he came to apply his skills as a detective to assessing the truth claims of the Christian faith.

JIM WARNER WALLACE: So, my wife was interested in going to church. I was not, but I was happy to go with her as a nonbeliever. I didn’t think it was true. But if she wants to go, I’ll go. So I went. And the pastor that first day that we were in church just made the statement that Jesus was super smart. He was the smartest man who ever lived in fact. And I, of course, didn’t believe that to be the case, but I was interested to see what it was that Jesus had to say. Like, why would this guy think this is true?

So I went out and invested all of $6 in a pew Bible at a local bookshop. And I started, just curious – I assumed it would be kind of like fortune cookie, proverbial statements of Jesus. I didn’t expect to open it up and see that it’s actually an account that seems to be written as a historical narrative by people who want us to believe this stuff actually happened. That was surprising to me. So in other words, you have accounts here that allegedly contain events that are not just allegorical, proverbial statements of Jesus, they are actually things they want us to believe happened. Well, there’s a skill set you could use to determine if eyewitness accounts are reliable.

I had unanswered questions as an atheist, but I held onto that position for 35 years. So I knew that I didn’t have to answer every question to draw a reasonable inference.

NATASHA MOORE: And you just happen to have that skill set.

JIM WARNER WALLACE: Well, I mean, I don’t know that it’s a perfect system, but nothing is perfect. What we do is we make the most reasonable inference from evidence in these cases, even though we have large glaring unanswered questions. You know, as an atheist, I couldn’t tell you how the universe began, how life begins in the universe, why the universe appears to be fine-tuned, why biology appears to be designed, how we possess these immaterial things called minds and have free agency in an entirely deterministic physical universe, and how we can even embrace certain moral truths as though they are objectively true for all of us. Look, I had unanswered questions as an atheist, but I held onto that position for 35 years in spite of unanswered questions. So I knew that I didn’t have to answer every question to draw a reasonable inference. And when I finally drew the reasonable inference, I also knew I would still have unanswered questions.

So I knew that the system I could use to evaluate the gospels is like every other system, it’s imperfect, but it’s sufficient to determine if the claims are reliable.

NATASHA MOORE: What was decisive for you in making that decision to become a Christian?

JIM WARNER WALLACE: Well, I mean, there’s not one thing. So in all my cases, you’ve got, you know, 80 pieces of evidence that point to this suspect. Any one of those pieces of evidence, I’m not sure I would want to go to trial with just that one piece. I think the jurors could easily say that’s not sufficient. But when you have all 80, and they point to the same reasonable inference, this is now heavy and weighty. And that’s where I was with the gospels. I mean, I knew that I had to evaluate them to determine – Number One: Were they early enough to have been written by eyewitnesses? Number Two: Could I corroborate or verify them in any way through history, the statements of nonbelievers at the time, internal evidence, external evidence? Three: Could I demonstrate they hadn’t been changed or altered over time? And finally, Four: Do the writers possess a bias that would cause me to recognise that they might incline something in a certain direction because of that bias or that motive? Those are the four ways we evaluate eyewitnesses in jury trials. So that’s a lot of stuff in each one of those four categories, there might be 100 pieces of evidence that will either assist you or, you know, eliminate an account.

I got to a point where I really felt comfortable with the reliable nature of the eyewitness accounts.

So six months into this, I was like: Wow, this is, I mean, I don’t know what’s keeping me out, except that I rejected anything supernatural. So, I got to a point where I really felt comfortable with the reliable nature of the eyewitness accounts. But how do you reconcile supernatural events? Now, if out of hand, before you start, you’re like “hey, I don’t care: if it’s got a supernatural event, it can’t be true” then you’re not going to ever get to a place where you’re going to be comfortable with the Gospel accounts, because they include supernatural acts. But, of course, I had to ask myself, as an atheist, I believed there was something incredibly supernatural about the beginning of the universe. In other words, if all space, time, and matter leapt into the existence as Big Bang cosmology, the standard cosmological model, tells us, that means that the first cause has to be something non-spatial, non-temporal, non-material. So whatever it is that causes the universe has to be outside of nature.

So I was already on the bandwagon. I was already in the group that says “I believe there’s something extra-natural that’s at work in the universe now.” So the question becomes: Why would we think that that supernatural force couldn’t also be responsible for other things we see, and maybe even in the Gospels? So I was able, I think at some point to at least be honest about it: OK, I’ve got to suspend my hesitation, suspend my disbelief long enough to evaluate the claims and not just start off by saying, “Hey, I could never even begin this investigation because before I start, I think I know the answer. I don’t believe in anything supernatural.” That’s never a good way to start an investigation.