Last weekend, I went to an apologetics symposium at Southwestern Seminary called Stand Firm. I enjoyed the conference and wanted to jot down a few thoughts on it, focusing mostly on the main speaking sessions. I think conferences like this are very important and I hope more and more Christians try to go to them.
There were several speakers, primarily theologians and philosophers, but the keynote speaker was J. Warner Wallace, author of Cold Case Christianity and owner of the website coldcasechristianity.com. Wallace has experience as a crime scene investigator and a detective, specializing in “cold cases,” cases that have been unsolved for years. Though Wallace is neither a trained theologian or philosopher, nor does he present anything new, his testimony and unique perspective as a detective make his presentation compelling. He is relatable and a talented public speaker, and his many analogies between investigating the historical Jesus and detective work were very helpful. I can’t do justice to his presentations here, but I’ll talk a bit about them to show how effective he was.
For example, Wallace talked about how he sometimes had cases where both the witnesses were dead and even the people who wrote down their testimony was dead. Sound familiar? He still utilized tools to conclude within reason whether or not these witnesses, and the accounts recorded by the interviewers, were reliable. He utilized many of those same tools to evaluate the Gospels: Were these people really eyewitnesses or recorders of eyewitnesses? Is it reasonable to believe that they were making this up? What motive would they have to do that? Though he was a strident atheist at the time of his investigation into the Gospels, he concluded that these were reliable accounts that he could not easily dismiss.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. He made many other useful analogies, such as relating textual criticism to crime scene investigation (basically, knowing what to remove and what to keep). He discussed the four things one needs to have a successful conspiracy (like when committing murder) and showed how unlikely it was for the disciples to make this all up and have a consistent story despite being far away from one another for a long period of time. One of his most important talking points was to point out that circumstantial evidence is not necessarily less valuable than “direct” evidence (eyewitness testimony), contrary to what is popularly believed; in fact, circumstantial evidence is often used to establish the credibility of eyewitnesses to begin with. He showed how circumstantial evidence from archaeology, non-Christian accounts, and known historical records show that the Gospels pass the test of general reliability. It is important to keep in mind that this was all he cared about, especially as an atheist detective. He was not talking about inerrancy; he was talking about historical reliability. He pointed out that in his experience, reliable witnesses can make small mistakes in recollection, but they could still be trusted as reliable. This is not to say that he does not believe in inerrancy now but only that he understood, even as an atheist, that possible discrepancies in minor details does not even begin to damage the historical, evidential case for Jesus.
After hearing him in all three sessions, I was humbled. In many ways, as someone who has studied apologetics for years and has studied philosophy and theology, I no doubt have more familiarity with certain topics than he does, especially when it comes to philosophical arguments. Nothing he presented was new to me. However, I quickly realized that he was way more impactful than I could ever be. He had a powerful testimony for people with a rationalist bent: He was an atheist for the first 35 years of his life and only started investigating the Gospels because he thought Jesus had some wise sayings about life, never dreaming that he would start taking the resurrection seriously. He used his years of detective experience to study the Gospel accounts only to find with surprise how reliable they are. His testimony is very similar to Lee Strobel’s, who was a journalist with a law degree, but in many ways it was even more powerful because of his years of experience investigating murders, thefts, etc. Also, he would not strike anyone as a particularly “feely” type of person. He made this much clear: He does not believe in Christianity because it’s easier (in many ways, it’s made things harder for him), because he had an emotional experience, or because he was even feeling all spiritual at the time. He believes in Christianity because it’s true, and he became convinced of that through an evidential journey.
Of course, those with particularly strong, Van Tillian tendencies towards presuppositionalism may not be quite happy with his approach, and he even shared that when his book was first circulated to other Christians for feedback (before he even knew what presuppositionalism was), some presuppositionalists were especially harsh and condemning (pretty embarrassing and arrogant for those clowns, if you ask me). However, that’s not all presuppositionalists, and even presuppositionalists still utilize all of these historical evidences to show the internal consistency of Christianity. Thus, I think his testimony and presentation have a broad appeal among Christians.
One thing he stressed was this: He felt that there needs to be more case-makers in Western Christianity, and I agree with him. He first made an analogy between wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs and related that to criminals, average citizens, and the police. Sheepdogs may have similar attributes to wolves, but ultimately they’re there to protect the sheep. He then made the relation to apologetics, saying that he was trying to turn more and more sheep into sheepdogs. He was, of course, not saying that one has to know all of this stuff to be saved, but I think he understands the environment we are in these days: People have a lot of questions and a lot of presumptions about God and the Bible that need to be answered. It does not do for Christians to pretend these do not exist.
And that, ultimately, is where I feel the value of this symposium was. Like I said above, there were trained academics there who also gave presentations, and they said some good stuff too. However, nobody made a connection with the audience more than Wallace, who is more of a layperson but a smart layperson with unique skills. He is a living example that even lay Christians can learn a lot more about their faith and about why they believe and then be able to make a case for Christianity to nonbelievers. None of this is to deny the Holy Spirit’s work but only to fully obey texts such as 1 Peter 3:15 by giving a reason why we hold to the hope that we have. We need more intellectual sheepdogs because the wolves in our time and culture are less about physically hurting us and more about attacking us intellectually. Is it hard work? Yes. But if upholding the truth of Christ is important to us, it is hard work that we will want to do for our Lord.