J Warner (Jim) Wallace is a homicide detective, and an atheist-turned christian. This is his story and the reasons why he changed his mind about Jesus.
From architect to detective
Jim originally trained as a designer and architect, and worked in that field for a short time. I don’t know why, but he then joined a Los Angeles law enforcement agency and worked as a police officer and detective for almost 25 years.
He specialised in homicide investigations, and eventually cold case investigations (unsolved homicides committed decades ago). In this role he solved a number of old cases leading to several convictions, and in 2012 was awarded the South Bay Medal of Valor Sustained Superiority Award. His cases have been featured in several television documentaries.
An atheist investigates christianity
Jim’s father was an unbeliever while his stepmother was a Mormon and raised his half-siblings as Mormons. He grew up without any faith, and was a “conscientious and vocal atheist” during his graduate and post graduate university study.
Jim was (and is) an evidentialist. He believed that our beliefs and conclusions should always be shaped by the available evidence. This position was reinforced by his work as a homicide detective, where obviously evidence is absolutely necessary to finalise an investigation and obtain a conviction.
Jim was also an evidentialist when it came to christianity. When, at about 35, Jim decided to re-examine the truth of christianity, he examined the evidence. Some christians take a different view – they are presuppositionalists who presuppose the truth of the Bible, but Jim was unable to do that.
When he began to examine christianity, one of his sisters encouraged him to examine the claims of Mormonism, so he examined the two together.
A four part investigative template
Jim used a systematic approach to investigating both Christianity (specifically the New Testament) and Mormonism. This approach borrows some ideas from his experience in cold case homicide investigations – both relate to events far enough in the past that we have “no living eyewitnesses nor good forensic evidence. We solve cases such as these by assembling cumulative, circumstantial evidences.”
His approach used the following four principles of witness reliability:
1. Make sure the witnesses were present in the first place
Jim says that there are times in cold case investigations when a witness comes forward years after the event, and the detective has to ascertain if the person is a credible witness, that they were present at the events they report.
It is uncertain whether the gospel writers were eyewitnesses, but Jim points out they are the earliest accounts we have, early enough that they could have been written by eyewitnesses, and their claims could be fact-checked by others.
2. Try to find some corroboration for the claims of the witnesses
In criminal court cases, Jim says “jurors are encouraged to evaluate witnesses in a trial on the basis of any evidence offered to verify or corroborate their testimony.”
When examining the New Testament he found “‘external’ corroboration of archaeology and ancient non-Christian sources, and the ‘internal’ corroboration between Gospel accounts (what I call, “unintentional eyewitness support”), the accurate referencing of regional 1st Century proper names, the correct description of governmental structure, the familiar description of geography and location, and the reasonable use of language.”
3. Examine the consistency and accuracy of the witnesses
In criminal investigations, a witness changing their story over time may indicate an intention to deceive. Similarly with an ancient document – does its transmission indicate change over time?
The New Testament, Jim judged, was well attested – we have very old copies and early references in external sources, much more than for most ancient documents on which we base much of our understanding of history.
If there are several witnesses, a detective building a case will look out for possible collusion or one witness copying another rather than giving independent and verifying testimony. Jim would expect reliable witnesses to agree on the major details, although sometimes having a different emphasis or perspective, but complete agreement even on minor aspects can indicate collusion.
The gospels pass this test very well – they agree about the important facts of Jesus’ life, but they have different perspectives and differ about some of the minor details.
4. Examine the presence of bias on the part of the witnesses
Obviously witnesses who are biased are less useful in obtaining objective facts. Jim observes: “Bias comes down to motive, and motive always comes down to three driving desires: financial greed, sexual/relational lust, and the pursuit of power.”
There is, he says, a “difference between bias prior to an experience and conviction following an experience”, and argues that the Gospel authors cannot be said to have bias before the event. But their conviction afterwards is quite understandable if the events they record are true.
The evidence he examined in this way gave him confidence that the Gospels were substantially truthful records of events. At the same time, it made it impossible for him to have confidence in the Book of Mormon. “I became a Christian at the same time I became a Not-Mormon” he says.
This process also confirmed his belief that “truth is tied directly to evidence”.
He’s a christian evidentialist
“I’m an evidentialist because the evidence protected me from error and guided me to the truth simultaneously” Jim has said. To further his understanding of what he now regarded as christian truth, Jim studied and obtained a Master’s Degree in Theological Studies, and went on to become a pastor and an author.
He has now written three books about christian evidences and set up a website for the same purpose.
I find a lot to admire and agree with in Jim’s reasoning.
- Like him, I am an evidentialist. I think we should base our beliefs on the evidence without making initial assumptions. This includes arguing the case for the New Testament as reliable history and not assuming it.
- I agree with him that faith isn’t blindly believing without evidence, but rather “trusting what can’t be seen on the basis of what can”. For him, and for me: “we don’t possess a blind faith in spite of the evidence; we have a reasonable faith because of the evidence.”
- I think religious experience can be good evidence for God, but like Jim I believe we must be careful in assessing our experiences.
There are one or two aspects I would approach a little differently. Most prominent here is that I think many sceptics would challenge the scholarly consensus on some of the evidence he sees for the reliability of the Gospels. I don’t think he is necessarily wrong in what he says, but I tend to start from a more sceptical position so that only an unreasonable sceptic who doesn’t accept the scholarly consensus wouldn’t be happy to start there also.
Read more about Jim Wallace
- Why I’m A Christian Evidentialist, Unbelievable? Four Simple Principles to Determine Ancient Historical Reliability and About the author from his website.
- LinkedIn profile and Good Reads profile.
Picture: Cold Case Christianity.