What a cold-case homicide detective wants to teach kids about having a reasonable faith.
J. Warner Wallace was an avowed atheist until age 35. He rejected the New Testament claims about Jesus’ resurrection. But after applying the professional skills he learned as a cold-case homicide investigator, Wallace ditched his atheism for Christianity.
Wallace dove into children’s ministry, preteen ministry, and youth ministry. He became a church planter, wrote curriculum for kids, and continued investigating murders during his day job. He also set about equipping kids and teenagers to deeply investigate their faith and Christianity, hoping he could help prevent so many from leaving the faith.
Today, Wallace is a best-selling author and a nationally sought-after speaker. His cases have been frequently featured on NBC’s Dateline, Fox News, and Court TV. He had a role on God’s Not Dead 2 and was awarded the Police and Fire Medal of Valor “Sustained Superiority” Award for his continuing work on cold-case homicides. Wallace still consults on cold-case investigations while serving as a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He is also an adjunct professor of apologetics at Biola University and a faculty member at Summit Ministries.
Wallace carved out a few minutes to talk about his passion for equipping today’s kids to investigate and build a lifelong faith and his new book, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids.
CM: You’re a cold-case homicide detective by profession. What drew you to ministry to children and youth?
WALLACE: When I first became a Christian, our kids were young. They were in the children’s ministry, so we ended up volunteering. So the first point of serving in the church for me was with elementary-age kids. My own kids were in that ministry. It was a big church, and by the time they were in the fifth and sixth grades, we had a separate ministry just for that age group. I ended up writing the curriculum and planning weekend services for our fifth and sixth graders. We had hundreds of kids just that age, so that’s really how I got involved. Of course, as my kids got older, I just got older with them. I followed them up and became the youth pastor. Eventually, we launched our own church.
CM: You say kids ages 8 to 12 are at a critical questioning point in their faith. How have kids changed in their need for critical thinking over the years?
WALLACE: When you look at surveys as to why people are no longer Christians and why people have walked away from the church or faith, you find that when they first started having doubts or questions about it, it was always at an earlier age than when they actually walked away. We assume it’s going to be during their freshman year of college, but it’s actually usually in the first year of junior high or in the last year or so of elementary school.
A lot of times it’s because of their questions. Our kids are saturated with access to the internet, so they have wide access to all the objections to Christianity. A lot of times, the questions people experience are that they just don’t believe in miracles or something happens that’s unfair or unjust or they just can’t reconcile it with God’s existence. And they’re constantly hearing the other side saying there can’t be a God because of this or that. Also, they still have questions about how to reconcile with the scientific community today about our origin and about our development over time. They also have questions about what they see as Christian hypocrisy.
[As children’s ministers], we can at least address the questions and issues we know are going to be coming. We can prepare kids and inoculate them to understand and answer the most critical questions and criticisms leveled against Christianity. I think that’s kind of our duty.
CM: What led you to write your book Cold-Case Christianity for Kids?
WALLACE: I was doing a training of high schoolers when I was a youth pastor. We wanted to inoculate them because we knew so many were going to walk away. One thing we did was a missions trip every year to the University of California, Berkeley, which is almost kind of antagonistic to the Christian worldview…We trained kids for eight weeks before going [on how to critically examine their faith], and I used to train other leaders on the topic. I was training that high school group and Sean McDowell, author Josh McDowell’s son, was watching the presentation. He said, “You know, Jim, you should write a book about that.” And that’s how I ended up writing Cold-Case Christianity (David C Cook), which was really just about my own journey, beginning as an atheist at age 35. The book came from that idea.
CM: You offer different investigative steps for kids to follow in your book. Talk about why those steps are important for kids to own their faith.
WALLACE: First, we teach kids that to be good investigators, we have to understand our presuppositions or what we think we already know. We have to be willing to reasonably examine the case for God’s existence. Second, we have to understand this thing we call abductive reasoning, where we are inferring the most reasonable explanation and understanding the most reasonable explanation of what’s possible and what’s reasonable. So you can believe something is true and have a very good reason to believe it’s true—and still have unanswered questions. And every case has its own set of unanswered questions.
Kids need to know that because the world around them is going to try to convince them that if we can’t answer every question beyond a possible doubt, we can’t believe it’s true. Well, then, we couldn’t believe anything.
They also have to know things like what a reliable witness looks like. And what are the distinctions between direct evidence and indirect evidence? These are the things I try to teach kids in the book. People will unknowingly and inaccurately say that we can’t make a case for anything unless we have direct evidence. If all of history were reliant on observations of people who are now dead that we can no longer cross-examine, then we’d have nothing, right? So we have to understand the distinctions of what’s circumstantial and how powerful circumstantial evidence can be.
Then there are conspiracy theories. These are so popular within the culture, and often Christianity is described as an elaborate hoax people buy. If that were the case, it would be a pretty significant conspiracy involving hundreds of people. So we want people to look at that and say, is it even reasonable to think hundreds of people were in on an elaborate hoax? What would it take to pull off that kind of lie? As detectives, we know what it would take because we’re constantly investigating big lies of one nature or another.
I think we can help give kids the skills to at least assess whether or not Christianity could reasonably be a lie. Those are some of the things we do in the book. If they use the skills we teach them, they can apply them toward Christianity—toward anything, really—and they can make the case for any mystery in life.
CM: What’s at stake if kids don’t learn to think deeply and critically about their faith?
WALLACE: Kids will sometimes ask tough questions, and a lot of times they’re shamed for it or they just don’t get their question answered at all. And that’s not a failing of the child who wants to have a reasonable faith. It’s our failing if we’re not ready for those questions.
We asked people across the country why they are Christians, and the most popular answer by far is: “Because I was raised that way”. The second most popular answer is something akin to: “I had an experience that convinced me Christianity was true”. Those two answers are the same answers every religious believer gives. We know all these faith systems can’t be true. But the culture around us is challenging us, and we want to be able to respond. But are we really responding if we give the same kinds of answers offered by people we know who hold to something that’s not true? I think we need better answers than that, so we have to think critically about our faith.
If you ask young people why they walk away from the church, they’ll offer all kinds of answers, including the hypocrisy they see. But the largest slog of answers by far is simply that they had questions that went unanswered. Or the answers they got weren’t very satisfying compared to the answers they’re getting in the secular world.
If we want to respond to people in the very area that causes them to leave, it’s right here in the unanswered questions. All of us want the answers. So that’s what we’re trying to do is provide resources that equip kids to get the answers. Taking the view that it’s just a matter of belief isn’t going to work with this generation. This is a generation steeped in science: “Show me that it’s true”.
Every other worldview will try to show you it’s true based on some science, and we have to deal with the same thing. But trust me, God uses this evidence. If you look at Scripture, over and over again Jesus is a case maker. He’ll do just that. Remember John 10:38: “But if I do his work, believe in the evidence of the miraculous works I have done, even if you don’t believe me. Then you will know and understand that the Father is in me, and I am in the Father”. He’s saying, believe the evidence of the miracles I’ve worked in front of you. And then he spends 40 days with the disciples answering their questions. That’s a very big commitment
to evidence. I think evidence has very much been the tradition of Christianity.
CM: Of all the cases you’ve worked, which one that you solved is most intriguing to kids?
WALLACE: I typically don’t share them with kids because all my cases are murders. I work homicide. So it’s really hard to be specific. That’s why in the Cold-Case Christianity for Kids book, we’re offering the mystery of the skateboard or a shoe box with a bunch of items in it. I try to pitch ideas in a way that kids can catch it, right?
Let’s put it this way: The most satisfying cases are the cases that are really old. I worked a case one time from 1979. It was really satisfying because the family of the victim really had given up hope years before that they were ever going to know the truth. So the older the case, the more satisfying it is. That’s really why this case of Jesus is the most satisfying case of all, right? This case involves our eternal lives. It’s the oldest case that has the most long-reaching, far-reaching future benefit. It’s by far the best case.