I’ve been a detective for over 25 years, and there are times when I wish my career was more of a secret. When people find out you conduct investigations for a living, they assume you have extraordinary powers of observation and deduction. Sometimes that can be a liability. I can’t tell you how many times, after searching for some item in the kitchen cupboard, I’ve asked for some help only to hear someone in my family respond, “You’re the detective, figure it out for yourself!” Everyone assumes detectives can figure anything out. No need to tell Jim how to get there, he’ll figure it out, he’s a detective! No need to help Jim solve that problem, he’ll solve it, he’s a detective! See my dilemma?
Why do people assume that detectives can figure things out when other people can’t? Is it that we possess techniques and skills that others don’t? That might be part of it, but I think it might be a little simpler. Detectives certainly aren’t smarter than everyone else, (this was clear to me once again last weekend as I had lunch with William Lane Craig in the green room at the Apologetics Canada Conference); I know lots of people who are much smarter I am! I think the difference is simply a matter of practice. I’ve had the great blessing of solving mysteries every day for a living; puzzling and un-puzzling evidence on a daily basis, trying to understand what really happened. Detectives dig and poke and question and probe over and over again until we’re finally satisfied that we’ve arrived at the most reasonable inference from the evidence. After a few years, you start to develop a detective’s perspective toward almost every aspect of your life. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes that’s bad. By the time I was 35 years old and beginning to examine the claims of the gospels, I was deeply entrenched in a “detective state of mind” and my cynical investigative attitude was valuable as I investigated Christianity:
Detectives Are Steady
Homicide detectives are mystery solvers. We’re focused and goal oriented. We’re hunting for killers and we know we can’t get distracted along the way. We know the importance of making the plain things the main things, and we recognize the danger of allowing minor issues to become major distractions. I still carry this attitude into my theological and philosophical studies. I am less interested in secondary or tertiary issues than many of my Christian friends, and I suspect this is largely because I view the reliability of the gospels as the critical focus of my investigation.
Detectives Are Skeptical
Healthy cynicism is of great value to police officers. Detectives can’t believe every claim offered by a suspect or witness. The longer you do this job, the more likely you are to have been fooled or duped by someone trying to get out of trouble or lay the blame on someone else. I’ve developed a “prove it to me” attitude over the years, and I brought this attitude into my investigation of the gospels. I seldom accept a claim as reliable until I have good reason to do so, and this attitude has propelled me toward a deep study of the historicity of the gospel accounts.
Detectives Are Systematic
Good investigations are methodical and thoughtful. You have to be incredibly organized if you hope to keep track of multiple lines of evidence over the course of a long investigation. Good detectives develop good study habits and are methodically rigorous. I took the same approach when reading the gospels for the first time. I can remember compiling notebook after notebook filled with “case files” and notes related to my discoveries. It was years before I finally pulled these files off my shelves to make room for other books. The more systematic you are in your approach to an investigation, the more likely you are to ground your inferences on a reliable collection of evidence.
Detectives Are Stubborn
Persistence is an investigative virtue. Sometimes the detective who’s going to solve the case is simply the detective who refuses to give up. I want to be the most determined and persistent person in the courtroom by the time we eventually go to trial and I certainly want a prosecutor who feels the same way. Determined investigators of the gospels are far less likely to give up when they hit an apparent contradiction or theological quandary. Good detectives learn to work through the rough spots, no matter how much is required along the way.
As I speak around the country, only part of my time is spent presenting what I’ve learned about the reliability of the gospels. Much more of my energy is expended trying to help people understand the importance of developing a detective’s perspective as they examine what they believe. If the Church was filled with committed, skeptical, methodical and persistent investigators, I think we would be ready to answer objections and influence our culture persuasively. That’s what happens when you develop the perspective of a detective.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Apologetics at 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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