J. Warner Wallace, author of Cold-Case Christianity and founder of the site pleaseconvinceme.com, was a police detective and an atheist until he was 35. Then he started examining the claims of Christ and the scriptures with the hard-nosed skepticism of his police training. As a result, he became a Christian. Now in retirement, his recent book has taken the apologetics world by storm. It begins not with evidence for Christianity, but with a discussion of how we, as humans, evaluate any kind of evidence. I spoke with Wallace, who shared with me how he gradually came to believe the gospels were true.
You were well into adulthood before you became a Christian and accepted the claims of Christ. Can you say a little bit more about your own journey from atheism, skepticism, ultimately to faith? I was older and really had no interest. I wasn’t somebody who came to this because I had a need I was trying to fill. I wasn’t interested in heaven. I wasn’t somebody who had a train wreck of a life I was trying to fix. I was really somebody who had a great life. … I’d been with my wife, at that time, for about 18 years. She … was raised kind of as a cultural Catholic. [She] really had no idea what the Bible taught, had no idea what the principles or the doctrines of Christianity are at all. But I think she would have said, “Hey, I was raised in the church. I would like to have raised my kids in it.” I would go every couple of years. I’d be happy to go as an atheist and sit with her.
When did that change? This particular year, … I don’t know if it was taking her on a holiday or any real reason, but she wanted to go. I said, “I’m willing to go with you.” Sure, I was always willing to go, not as a believer. I was patient and I would sit through. What's an hour and a half? No big deal.
It was … my first time sitting in an Evangelical Church of this nature for any reason other than somebody died or somebody got married. I went and listened to the pastor preach. … On this particular day, he pitched Jesus as a smart guy: Hey, if you’re in this room and you’re not convinced he’s God, you can still learn a lot from Jesus. You might want to think about just examining what it is Jesus had to say about life, about marriage, about kids, about everything.”
Of course, that was interesting to me. I was somebody, as a kid, who studied the writings of Baha’u’llah, Buddha, or other ancient sages that I thought you could steal some wisdom from. I had no other interest in Jesus than that. I wasn’t out to prove Jesus wrong. I wasn't out to prove Christianity. I didn't care. To me, it was so silly. It wasn’t worth my effort. The idea of an ancient sage who probably did live, who has something smart to say, if he’s in those categories, I'm in for that.
So you approached Jesus from an intellectual point-of-view. I bought a Bible. I sat down with it and read through the red letters. It’s different though. It’s not like Valhalla’s proverbial statements. These are embedded in a historical narrative. The historical narrative in which they were embedded, it started to pique my interest because, as a detective by this time, I was familiar with relationships I would see between eyewitness accounts.
I call this kind of the unintended, unintentional eyewitness support. It’s when a witness tells you something about an event, and you’re kind of scratching your head afterwards. You’re going, “Something’s not right about this. It couldn’t have happened quite like that.” Then the next witness, you discover, a year later tells you something else about the event that makes sense of what the first witness said. Then maybe they even raised their own questions in this particular piece of testimony that maybe you’ll only get answered until the third person comes, or the first person says something that now what they’re saying does make sense on the basis of the first.
I was seeing that in the Gospels in several locations. I thought, “Huh, nothing really definitive.” This kind of piqued my interest.
I decided to push the Gospels through the same kind of scrutiny I would push other eyewitnesses through. … That’s what the book does in the second section.
You were how old? I think I just turned 35. It was a long process. People ask me, “Did you have like an aha moment?” Not really. [It was] a process in which I became more and more comfortable with the reliability of the accounts and I had to question more and more my presupposition against the supernatural because … I realized that these folks knew they were making remarkable claims and made them boldly and made them early and made them in an environment that was very hostile, and suffered as a result of their claims.
If it happened today and we made claims about the supernatural, we’d take the same kind of abuse. … I deal with people all the time who make claims about their lack of activity or lack of involvement in a crime, but it breaks down at some point.
It typically breaks down when you separate these conspirators and you start to talk to them individually, or you start to see the pressure’s starting to rise. They can’t communicate with one another to tell what the other person’s saying. Conspiracies break down pretty quickly when you start to do those things. All those elements were present in the 1st century, and this alleged conspiracy didn’t break down.
So the evidence convinced you? I don't suggest for a minute that on my own, with my own faculty, with my own wisdom, I was able to sort through the evidence and come to this decision. I think, in fact, I had an enmity toward God, a hostility toward God, that God had to lift before I could do anything. I do believe God acts first.
While that may not be popular with my atheist friends, … I saw it in my own life.
I’m not a Christian because it works for me, because it feels good for me, or has some practical benefit for me. … I had hostility, and then God had to remove that first. When God acts in that way, I think we’re then able to see the evidence for what it really is.
What advice do you have for Christians who want to witness to their atheist friends and neighbors? I think a lot of us, when we talk to our friends—I said this today in a class—we don't pray in advance like we should. We think it’s all on us. We don’t realize how much God’s involved in this process. We think we’re playing a game of tennis. It’s all on me. I’ve got one opponent, the person I’m trying to reach. If I don’t do well in this play, if I hit it out of bounds, oh well, I failed.
It’s not a game of tennis. It’s a game of baseball. We get up to bat, we do what God’s called us to do, we share the truth. We may not even advance a runner, but we might get him to first. Two years from now, somebody else might get him to second. A year later, someone will get him to third. Then five years later, somebody will actually say the thing that God has been working. Now, he’s all the way home. That person is going to think, “Wow! I got this guy saved in an hour.” No, you didn’t. This guy was standing on third, leaning toward home, because people for years had been sharing the truth with these folks.
I think all the students need to know: You pray, pray, pray, pray, get up to bat. You’re obedient, you satisfy what God wants you to do. … You don’t have to get a home run. Don’t always swing for the fences. Do your best, see if you can make contact, and let God take care of the rest. It’s in God's timing.
Listen to Warren Cole Smith’s full interview with J. Warner Wallace on Listening In: