This post begins a series discussing a relatively recent book by Christian apologist and former police investigator J. Warner Wallace, titled “Cold Case Christianity”.
Mr Wallace, a homicide detective himself, looks at the Bible through the lens of a cold-case murder investigator and suggests that the skills and techniques used in such investigations are applicable to testing the claims made by Christians with respect to the New Testament.
Mr Wallace observes that he himself was an atheist, but when he looked at the New Testament like a detective, the ancient texts appeared more and more to be “eyewitness accounts”. Not only that, but by applying the critical techniques of his profession, he was able to reliably conclude that these accounts were credible with respect to the central aspects of the Jesus story.
However, this is not really what Mr Wallace does in his book. Rather, he provides anecdotes from his detective career, discusses a critical technique, and then selectively applies it, or entirely abandons it with respect to the New Testament.
Most notably, this is done with respect to two principles related to how claims are tested in the legal system: the law’s approach to supernatural claims, and to hearsay. I will deal with the supernatural issue in this piece.
Bias Towards Naturalism
Mr Wallace introduces this issue with an anecdote in which he recalls his first visit to a homicide scene. His partner, an experienced detective, points to a photograph of the victim in the embrace of a man. He advises Mr Wallace that considering this and a number of other observations, the man in the picture is probably the husband, and the murderer.
Three months later, the murderer was identified as a neighbour while the man in the picture turned out to be her brother. Mr Wallace says his partner’s “philosophy was hurting his methodology… all of [his] presumptions were wrong… Luckily, the truth prevailed.”
This analogy is included to show how the truth can be missed if you let your biases exclude some important options. The inference being that the senior detective had a presumption or bias against anyone but husbands or boyfriends murdering women, and that this bias led them down the wrong road, delaying the identification of the real killer.
But this is not demonstrated by the anecdote. The senior detective seems not to be excluding other options, but to be suggesting that based on his experience most women are usually murdered by their boyfriends or husbands, and that this is the first place to look. (Incidentally, he appears to be right.) Are we to assume that they spent months looking for the man in the picture and missed evidence at the scene leading to the neighbour? Did they ignore other evidence that would have led them to the killer more quickly? Would they not have been able to identify that the man in the photo was the brother within minutes, or hours? Why did it take three months to identify the real perpetrator? If any presumption or bias had led to delays, false accusations, or dead ends, surely Mr Wallace would have told us.
Why it is a Very Good Idea to be Biased Against Supernatural Explanations.
Another thing to keep in mind is that some presumptions are really good ideas! The presumption of innocence is a rebuttable presumption that is fundamental to a fair system of justice. Another good idea is the presumption against supernatural explanations in legal cases. Mr Wallace never actually disputes this, but quite amazingly, after explaining that he will apply criminal investigation principles to the New Testament, he abandons this principle.
Why is presuming or being biased against the supernatural a good idea in criminal investigation? Because if we treat such options as equally credible to natural explanations, we can never establish anything. Supernatural explanations can explain anything, they never have to match or even be consistent with naturalistic evidence, in fact they can be completely contrary to everything else we know. Gravity is no longer certain. Murder victims may not stay dead. No matter what you find at the murder scene, all options are on the table.
There is no question that natural causes are overwhelmingly favoured in every discipline, except religion, for the very obvious reason that only they can be subject to testing for consistency and veracity. Supernatural explanations have no way of being verified, if they did, we would not call them “supernatural”. Even if we do not exclude supernatural causes, we still need to favour naturalistic evidence and consistency to reach conclusions about the supernatural. At the end of the day a supernatural “explanation” explains nothing. It is a place-holder for an explanation.
Take the following hypothetical. A man is found strangled to death in a room locked from the inside with no windows. Say we find no naturalistic evidence and can think of no naturalistic way the door could be locked from the inside with the killer not still being in the room. The reasonable conclusion is “we do not know how this happened.” We can, however, come up an infinite number of supernatural explanations. He was magically teleported, the killer can manipulate time and space, and so on. But without some naturalistic evidence to support one theory over another, all we are left with is “something supernatural did it”. Practically, this is no different that saying “we do not know how this happened” except the use of the place-holder might lead us to stop investigating. (There are obvious dangers to this. Would Amanda Berry have been found sooner if psychic Sylvia Browne had not told her mother the kidnapped child was dead?)
Indeed, even where true believers commit crimes in the honest belief that they are divinely justified, we do not accept this explanation for a second. In fact, the perpetrators themselves usually do not even try to justify their actions in this way. Rather, they plead insanity. (Consider for example Andrea Yates.)
In legal proceedings we accept that only naturalist explanations may prove a case and that pursuing supernatural explanations is a waste of time and resources. This doesn’t mean that the supernatural is necessarily ruled out, but in a court of law we can only accept evidence that we can test and demonstrate that it is reliable. A jury may harbour doubts that a supernatural explanation could lead to an alternative perpetrator, but we rightly accept that such doubts are not reasonable.
Removing a Bias Against Supernatural Explanations is not Applying Criminal Investigation Techniques
I am guessing that Mr Wallace understands and accepts the reasons why criminal investigators should never pursue supernatural explanations. Why then does he suggest we should when approaching the New Testament? Because he is not actually applying critical thinking and logic to the Bible in the way a criminal investigator would to a murder case. He is suggesting that we use a modified version of criminal investigation techniques and principles. This modified version has lower standards of evidence. For the legal system to accept that someone was revived after being dead for more than a day would require a great deal of explanation and naturalistic evidence before a criminal investigator would be able to consider it as even plausible. It would need much more than a few questionable ancient documents.
It is one thing to say that if we change our way of testing evidence, we can conclude that the stories in the Bible are true. It is quite another to suggest that we can establish the accuracy of the New Testament accounts in the same way as we can convict people of murders. From the outset of his argument, by asking us to suspend the bias against supernatural causes, Mr Wallace is signalling to us that he is not in fact going to approach the New Testament as a cold-case detective would.