I occasionally get asked to review cold-cases for local agencies. I examine the evidence they’ve collected to help them determine if they’ve got enough to file the case with the District Attorney. I employ an approach that I’ve described in Cold-Case Christianity, called “Abductive Reasoning”; a process that also has application for those of us who examine the evidence of Scripture. One local cold-case, like all my cases, relied on a cumulative collection of circumstantial evidences. Convincing circumstantial cases emerge when a large number of facts are most reasonably explained by the same common cause. If a particular suspect can account for all the evidence in the case, that suspect is the most reasonable candidate. In this particular local case, there just wasn’t enough evidence. I called the I/O (investigating officer) and told him the bad news: The case needed a “tipping point”.
How “Tipping Points” Impact Criminal Cases
The problem with some circumstantial cases lies in the alternate explanations that could be offered for each piece. Let’s say a suspect behaves in a certain way the day after the murder. I have to ask myself: Is that behavior most reasonably explained by his guilt? Could it also be explained in some other way? What if he made a statement to someone on the day of the murder; did he say something that can only be reasonably interpreted as an indicator of his guilt or is there another way to reasonably interpret the statement? The local case I examined suffered from the problem of multiple interpretations. Each and every piece of evidence could be reasonably explained as consistent with the suspect’s guilt or just a reasonably explained by some other cause. As I made a comprehensive list of all the evidence, I found that none of the facts were without a reasonable alternative explanation. While the detectives interpreted the evidence to demonstrate the suspect’s guilt, a member of the jury could just as rationally conclude that some alternate explanation was reasonable. The case lacked a clear, irrefutable piece of evidence to act as the “tipping point” to guide us in how we ought to interpret the rest of the facts.
“Tipping point” evidences help us understand which interpretive direction we ought to travel. If, for example, our suspect later told a friend, “I feel terrible about what I did to that girl. I can’t sleep at night, I feel like I have her blood on my hands. I didn’t think I was capable of killing anyone,” this one piece of evidence would guide us in interpreting other elements of the case that are less clear. It’s hard to envision another way to interpret that statement other than as an admission of guilt. Given that confession, we can now return to the other less certain pieces of evidence and see how they fold into the larger case. Everything makes sense now, because we have a “tipping point” statement from the suspect that helps us interpret everything else.
How “Tipping Points” Impact Biblical Interpretations
Something very similar occurs when we examine the Bible in an effort to make a case for a particular doctrine or theological truth. We begin by collecting all the evidence in the case; the verses that address the issue under investigation. Some of these versions will have more than one reasonable interpretation. How will we know which interpretation is correct? Begin by looking for “tipping points”. Is there a verse that can only be reasonably explained in one particular direction? If so, you’ve located a “tipping point” verse. This piece of scriptural evidence can then guide you as you return to the less certain verses. It’s fair now to interpret these verses in a manner that is consistent with the “tipping point”. If someone challenges your interpretation of those verses, you can simply return to the “tipping point” verse to make your case. This is the same approach we take in circumstantial homicide cases. It’s a reasonable approach in the court room and it’s a reasonable approach in Biblical interpretation.
I’m less aggressive about a homicide case when I lack an evidential “tipping point”. Rather than argue belligerently with the District Attorney in an effort to get him to file the case, I recognize the liabilities and alternative explanations. Sometimes I have a “tipping point” and sometimes I don’t. When I do, I present the case aggressively with confidence; when I don’t, I present the case modestly with qualification. Even though (in the latter situation) I might still think I have the right suspect, I can respect the fact that the DA might not agree. We are still brothers in this cause; we’ve known each other for years and have become good friends. I’m not going to get upset and pound my chest about a case that lacks a “tipping point”. In a similar way, I’m not going to divide from my Christian brothers and sisters over theological inferences that lack an irrefutable scriptural “tipping point”. If my conclusions are built on verses that can be reasonably interpreted in more than one way, I am willing to show charity to those with whom I disagree. We’re still brothers and sisters in the same cause; we all want to possess a reasonable faith. I’m not going to get upset and pound my chest about a position that lacks a “tipping point”.
For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
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