Review of “Christianity on Trial: A Lawyer Examines the Christian Faith,” by W. Mark Lanier. InterVarsity Press (2014), 230 pages, paper, $16.
Americans have always loved books, movies, and television shows that climax with a trial. There is something intensely dramatic about a trial’s shape and progression: the way it uncovers and assembles the evidence, piece by piece, until the greater picture emerges and reveals the guilt or innocence of the accused. Indeed, I believe that what ultimately draws people to court cases, real or fictionalized, is the fact that a vigorous search for truth undergirds them.
No matter how often and how vehemently we may lampoon, criticize, and even malign lawyers, Americans share a strong faith in the judicial system. We understand that the courts, with their carefully chosen judges and juries, their elaborate rules for what can and cannot be admitted as evidence, and their reliance on the cross-examination of eyewitnesses, possess an uncanny ability to get to the truth of a matter and to mete out justice.
This respect for the truth-discerning nature of the judicial system has not been lost on Christian apologists. One of the most successful, investigative reporter Lee Strobel, not only thinks like a trial lawyer but has tellingly titled his books “The Case for Christ,” “The Case for Faith,” “The Case for a Creator,” and, most recently, “The Case for the Real Jesus.” Together with a growing number of apologists—from Josh McDowell to J. P. Moreland, Gary Habermas to Michael Licona—Strobel has found it particularly useful to present the evidence for Christ’s resurrection in terms of a court case. Given the eyewitness evidence, an impartial jury would certainly rule in favor of the resurrection, for the accounts in the four gospels are close enough to corroborate each other while being distinctive enough to preclude collusion.
Considering the Evidence for Christianity
Back in the early 1990s, a law professor from Berkley University named Phillip E. Johnson hit upon the strategy of using the trial as a method and a metaphor for uncovering the deep flaws and inconsistencies in Darwinian evolution. His book, “Darwin on Trial,” published by InterVarsity Press (IVP), helped kick off the Intelligent Design movement and challenged readers to take a close look at the real scientific evidence and decide for themselves whether what we now know about nature, the fossil record, and DNA points to a Creator or to undirected time and chance.
Now, two decades later, a successful and highly respected trial lawyer named W. Mark Lanier has partnered with IVP to publish his well-conceived, bracing defense of the gospel, “Christianity on Trial: A Lawyer Examines the Christian Faith.” Although he does reference the fine-tuning of the universe as proof for God’s existence and creative power, Lanier, in the tradition of C. S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity,” focuses more on human morality as the clue to God’s presence and to our need for salvation.
True to the title of his book, Lanier begins by establishing the ground rules by which trials function. Although the law looks to science for facts, it knows that facts alone cannot determine the verdict. An impartial, unbiased jury must weigh the available evidence the lawyers provide (they, like Lanier, engage in prodigious research before the trial begins) and assess the trustworthiness of the testimony offered.
The Problems with God and Man
Unfortunately when the trial concerns, in part, the existence of God, two problems immediately arise: 1) Our senses cannot apprehend God, causing all testimony to be necessarily circumstantial; 2) so many false notions of the God of the Bible exist in the minds of Americans that most jurymen will have to have their false notions wiped away before they can fairly consider Christianity’s theistic claims. Riffing off of J. B. Phillips’s still timely “Your God is Too Small,” Lanier deals with the latter problem by taking his reader on a tour through a dozen or so of the spurious (non-biblical) images that people harbor about the nature of God: morality cop, earthly father writ large, the Force (from Star Wars), divine ATM machine, absentee landlord, cosmic killjoy, impersonal deity, etc.
For Lanier, all these false gods represent so many “human efforts to understand God in our own terms rather than understanding God as he revealed himself” (93). “Revealed” is the key word. Although modern man insists that all arguments must be based on human rationality and empiricism, when it comes to a God who is outside time and space, the only way we can gain real knowledge of him is if he initiates the conversation. “In striking contrast to all the other religions in ancient times,” Lanier explains, “the God of the Bible reached out to communicate” (109). That is why if we are “to adequately decode the message of God we need to see the Bible and its prophets as media God used to convey his message, rather than mere humans who themselves devised the message” (112). And we need to recognize as well that the Incarnation of Christ was itself a supreme form of divine communication.
Lanier offers the biblical teaching that we were made in God’s image but fallen as the best explanation for why we desire God yet are unable to reach him on our own: a phenomenon that manifests itself both in the area of cognition and of morality. We know in our conscience that certain actions are good and others evil (that is why we can judge Nazism as evil), but we also know that we cannot follow the moral guidelines implanted in us. “The mind is neither reliable as a source of all knowledge nor as the arbiter of right and wrong. Scripture teaches that our minds are wonderful creations with incredible purpose and possibilities, but they are fallen and sometimes deceptive. However, through revelation God enlightens the human mind to better understand reality, especially the spiritual aspect of reality” (133).
Having established our cognitive and moral limitations, Lanier presses on to a masterful defense of Christ’s resurrection, which he presents as “the missing piece of the puzzle in this book” (207). That is to say, the death and resurrection of Christ both bridges the communication gap between God and man and offers a solution to human depravity. Apart from these historical events there can be no possibility of escape from our bondage to sin and no hope for a final restitution when God will make all things right.
Christianity Could Have a Clearer Defense
While Lanier’s book is well worth reading, it does have some flaws. The chief flaw, as is often the case in life, is directly related to one of the book’s (and author’s) chief strengths. Lanier is a true Renaissance man able to draw on vast areas of knowledge and to excite in his reader a love for the pursuit of truth. This gives his book an impressive range and “meatiness,” but it also causes Lanier to go off on too many tangents.
When the author gets interested in a topic, whether it be language and communication, the number of atoms in the human body, the Greek understanding of logos, behaviorism, or the Holocaust, he inundates the reader with so many facts that the thread of the argument tends to get muddled. This unnecessary expansion of the early chapters also forces him to rush his vital treatment of the resurrection, a treatment which really needs to be broken into two lengthy chapters: one on the reliability of the Bible itself; the other on the resurrection.
Second, the book would have benefitted from a different organizational strategy. The chapters on human morality, sin, and choice, rather than build on one another, are scattered throughout the book. This causes Lanier’s otherwise powerful case to lurch from topic to topic and thus to lose some of its cohesion. Still, he does draw things together effectively in his closing chapters, presenting the resurrection as the answer to the dilemmas raised in the earlier chapters.
Finally, though Lanier’s prose thankfully avoids falling into legalese, it does not avoid the dangers of politically correct language. Although the communicating God whom Lanier celebrates specifically refers to the human race by the name of the first man, Adam (see Genesis 5:1-2), Lanier proscribes the use of man, men, or mankind to refer collectively to the human race. As a result, his otherwise lucid prose is rendered turgid and tedious by an endless stream of euphemisms: person, human, humanity, humankind.
But these are minor reservations. “Christianity on Trial” represents an important addition to the field of apologetics, one that I hope others will imitate. Perhaps in the face of growing academic opposition to the truths of the Bible, Christians can carry their message out of the classroom and into the courtroom.