Walter Kaufmann on Courtroom-Styled Religious Apologetics

If the smash hit success of the Making a Murderer series on Netflix is a testament to anything, it might be that everyone loves a good courtroom drama. Over the course of almost any criminal trial, there is suspense, intrigue, and excitement as each side builds its case and new evidence is presented, eventually leading up to a verdict. Depending on the circumstances involved, many such trials can also be deeply emotional, eliciting anger, disgust, sadness, or sometimes joy even in people not in any way affiliated with the case. So-called “trials of the century,” like those of Charlie Manson or O.J. Simpson, have garnered massive public attention in modern times thanks largely to press coverage. Skilled attorneys, unexpected discoveries, and undecided jurors help to make some trials into gripping roller coaster rides of anticipation.

Christian apologists have published a number of best-selling books modeled on this format, most notably Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict (1972) and Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (1998). More recent is Cold Case Christianity (2013), written by homicide detective J. Warner Wallace, as well as the upcoming film God’s Not Dead 2, which teases a “court case” showdown that threatens to “expel God from the classroom”. The idea of defending the faith in a legal setting even goes back to Jesus himself, who defends his ministry before the Jewish and Roman authorities in John 18.

But how fruitful really is this approach in attempting to justify the truth of Christianity? Part of its appeal is likely that it tries to reduce bias by working on a more neutral ground of debate – a secular ground, arguably. Another part of the appeal is that it seems to allow for an evaluative contrast: the case is made so strongly that we ought to believe it tells the truth. This is what Lee Strobel implies by noting in the ending chapter of his book, “I had seen defendants carted off to the death chamber on much less convincing proof!”1 If Christ comes out favorably by even the high standards of the same justice system to which we trust countless human lives, then shouldn’t we trust Christ?

Years before the publication of the aforementioned texts, philosopher Walter Kaufmann offered an insightful critique of this particular apologetic style:

An attitude often encountered among religious people and exemplified professionally by a great many preachers and theologians is that of the counsel for the defense. Here is an attitude toward truth quite different from the scientist’s or the historian’s, but no less methodical and disciplined and moral. Only it is governed by a different morality.

In many countries the counsel for the defense is expected to use all his ingenuity as well as passionate appeals to the emotions to gain credence for a predetermined conclusion – namely, that his client is innocent. He may ignore some of the evidence if he can get away with it, and he is under no obligation to carry out investigations which are likely to discredit his conclusion. If, after all that, he cannot convince the jury of the truth of his position, he will saddle his opponent with the burden of disproof; and if necessary he will rest content with a reasonable doubt that his position might be true.

Common though this attitude is toward religion, it is indefensible outside the courtroom, and it does not indicate a second type of truth.

In the first place, some unusual conditions obtain in the courts where this attitude is legitimate. The very fact of the indictment creates some presumption, psychologically, that the accused is guilty. Then, the prosecutor is an official of the government and aided by its vast resources, ranging all the way from its prestige to its police. Against such formidable odds the defense requires a handicap; and that is one reason why it is conceded the liberties that have been mentioned. In the case of religion, the situation is more nearly the opposite. Its advocates are aided by the government’s prestige and by voluble testimony from officeholders and would-be officeholders; and the case for all kinds of religious propositions is proclaimed not only from the pulpits but in our most popular magazines, too, and in the press, and over radio and television, while the case against these propositions never gets a comparable hearing. If the courtroom analogy could be extended to the case of religion, the prerogatives mentioned should be granted to its critics to redress the balance.

Secondly, a jury is not asked to come up with the most likely story or even the most likely culprit. The jury is confronted with a single suspect, and truth is not the highest consideration. Better let two guilty men go free than punish one who is innocent.

Suppose that the major philosophic positions were haled into court, one at a time, each defended by a brilliant advocate. Surely, these attorneys – it could even be the same lawyer every time – would succeed time and again in raising a reasonable doubt in the mind of the jury that the position might be true. The attorney might not even have to try very hard if the prosecution were under pressure to pull its punches, as it is in the case of religion. Position after position would be acquitted. But such acquittal of a philosophy or a religion creates no presumption whatsoever that the position is probably true. In the end, those who care for a considered choice would still have the whole field to choose from.

We have here two different attitudes toward truth, but not two different types of truth. The second attitude, unlike the first, subordinates questions of truth to other questions of a moral kind. In fact, it might be argued that the verdict of the jury, “We find the accused not guilty,” is not so much a determination of fact as it is a deceptively phrased recommendation for action. In line with this, the records show that when juries know that a finding of “guilty” makes the death penalty mandatory they will find the accused guilty much less often.

There is no need here to distinguish legal truth from other kinds of truth: such a distinction only prompts confusion. Consider a case that happens occasionally: some of the evidence against the accused has been obtained illegally or was not legally admissible in court, and the judge therefore directs the jury to find the accused not guilty. There is no point whatsoever here in introducing any conflict between types of truth. Clearly, the truth is in this case subordinated to respect for civil rights. And the situation can be explained perfectly in terms of the one and only kind of truth we have encountered so far.

“Guilty” and “not guilty” are, in the mouth of a jury, elliptical expressions which are only apparently identical with these phrases in other contexts. In a verdict they mean “proved guilty (or not proved guilty) in accordance with the special rules of evidence and argument that govern court procedure.” Thus the accused may well be guilty in the ordinary sense but not guilty in this more restricted sense.

A jury operates under unusual conditions and is not expected to decide more than the special question whether the accused has been proved guilty in accordance with a certain set of rules. Neither the jury’s attitude nor that of the counsel for the defense is at all appropriate when we are asked if a religious proposition is true or not true.2

Could the gospels or the resurrection hold up in a court of law, as apologists like McDowell, Strobel, and Wallace have claimed? One is tempted to respond: so what if they could? Our legal system does not establish truth. Moreover, it’s not even clear what the charges might be that could reasonably be leveled against a faith like Christianity, nor is it clear why subjecting the beliefs of that faith to  standards developed and intended for judging human social behavior at this specific time and place in history should be appropriate, let alone impressive in the event that everything stacks up well.



1. Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (1998, Zondervan), p. 264.

2. Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy (1990, Princeton), p. 105-107.

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