The Cumulative Case for Christianity: Death By A 1,000 Paper Cuts

Following Dateline’s airing of our latest cold-case (“The Wire”), I received a number of concerned emails from viewers who felt there simply wasn’t enough evidence to be certain Douglas Bradford killed Lynne Knight. I think I can see their point. Dateline has done an excellent job chronicling four of our investigations, but our cases are nearly impossible to adequately represent in the limited time Dateline has to tell the stories. Why? Because our cases are complex, layered, cumulative, circumstantial cases. While I’ve written often about the nature of circumstantial evidence, one of the most evidential concepts related to our cold-cases is the role of cumulative arguments. When a large quantity of evidence point to the same suspect, the cumulative impact of this evidence can be powerful. Many of the individual facts and evidences may seem unimportant or trivial on their own, but when assembled as a set, their collective weight becomes unbearable. All my cold-cases are built in this way. We assemble dozens of facts, details, inferential statements and evidences and show the jury how the collective set of evidence implicates our suspect. I’ve often referred to this process sarcastically as “Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts”.

Defense attorneys typically respond to cumulative cases by focusing on those few pieces of evidence they believe to be the most damaging for their client. They then try to show how any number of other, unrelated causes might also explain these specific items of evidence. They want jurors to focus on the individual pieces rather than the collective set. In essence, they hope jurors will see the “trees” rather than the “forest” (and hopefully only a few of the trees, at that!) In the end, defense attorneys explain the evidences by way of many unrelated causes rather than by the simpler explanation: their client is the one causal factor who can account for all the evidence in the case. In many ways, it’s an “Ockham’s Razor” exercise. When one causal factor explains all the evidence in the case, that cause is the simplest (and most reasonable) explanation.

If you want to be a good Christian Case Maker (or you simply want to examine the case for Christianity for the first time), you’ll need to understand the power of cumulative cases. The Christian worldview is established in a collective manner: the reliability of the eyewitness Gospel accounts is built on more than one line of evidence. In fact, eyewitnesses are established based on four separate categories of evidence, expressed with four important questions: Where the eyewitnesses really present to see what they said they saw? Can their statements be corroborated or verified in some way? Have the eyewitnesses been honest and accurate over time? Do the eyewitnesses possess a bias or ulterior motive disqualifying them? These questions must be considered collectively. In addition to this, the case for each category is also made cumulatively. The issue of corroboration, for example is established on the basis of several unrelated lines of evidence including archaeology, ancient Jewish writings, ancient non-Christian Greek writings, geographic internal evidence, linguistic internal evidence, correct use of proper nouns, and the unintentional eyewitness support I describe in Cold-Case Christianity.

None of these individual elements corroborates the Biblical account on its own. They must be considered collectively. When a skeptic tries to attack the insufficiency of any single line of evidence for the Christian worldview, they are (like defense attorneys) asking the jury to ignore the implications of the collective case. They hope people will focus on a “tree” rather than the “forest”. They typically do their best to argue for an alternative explanation (or several alternative explanations) for each of these evidential facts. But the more reasonable explanation is much simpler: Christianity, if true, can explain all the evidence as the only causal factor. I’ve tried to illustrate the depth of the cumulative case for Christianity with a simple illustration (available as a free, downloadable Bible Insert on the homepage at

Cumulative Case for the Reliability of the Gospel Accounst Bible Insert

When our cases are covered by Dateline, only a few evidences ever make the final edit. As a result, I often get notes from viewers who can’t understand how the jury convicted our suspect (even when some of these men later confessed to the crime!) But our juries never seem to struggle with their decision. Instead, they typically convict rather quickly. When jurors come to understand the power of a collective case, the decision is easy. The Christian worldview is also established cumulatively. If we can learn to communicate the strength of collective cases such as these, we’ll become better Christian Case Makers. If you’re examining the case for Christianity for the first time, don’t stop at the “tree-line”. Go deep. Look at everything. Assemble and assess the cumulative case.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity

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1 reply
  1. Greg says:

    Mr. Wallace, when you were presenting evidence in a case while trying to get a jury to convict someone did you omit all contradictory evidence and intentionally try to mislead the jurors? I’m asking because your diagram above does just that in your attempt to convince readers of the case for Christianity. I can’t speak specifically to the gospels in all cases but based on your categories, much evidence exists that contradicts many biblical writings.

    The Pauline authorship of the pastoral epistles “dies by a thousand paper cuts” as does the Petrine authorship of 2 Peter. The reliability of the Canaanite genocide accounts “dies by a thousand archaeological paper cuts”. Your argument regarding motive “dies by a thousand paper cuts”. The 39 poor souls who, in 1997, donned outdated Nike running shoes, ingested cyanide and died covered in purple shrouds so they could catch the UFO that was flying hidden in the trail of the Hale-Bopp comet didn’t have any of the motives you list above. It doesn’t appear they were driven by sexual lust, the desire for power or financial gain either but you don’t therefore believe that they reached Heaven’s Gate do you? I would argue that the gospel writers and the Heaven’s Gate cult members had similar motivation; they all wanted to believe in something outside of this world that could come down and save them. Some of the apostles may have been willing to give their lives rather than deny what they believed about Jesus but that is not a good piece of evidence that it actually was true. People are willing to die for all kinds of crazy things they think are true.

    Are all the details of John Carpenter’s Titanic “verified”. Is the fact that most of the movie is very historically accurate evidence to you that the subplot of the love between Jack and Rose really happened and that the Heart of the Ocean blue diamond now rests somewhere near the wreck of the Titanic at the bottom of the sea? Surely not.

    And the external corroboration of the gospels is commonly exaggerated in apologetics. It’s a pretty slender reed.

    Also, ancient times were full of myths about dying and rising gods, immaculate conceptions, virgin births, god/man offspring, giants, flood myths, creation myths, myths about the fall, for every bible story there are many analogous myths in other cultures. This was so obvious to Justin Martyr that he used the apology that satan must have discovered in advance the circumstances surrounding the coming of the Christ and inspired similar myths in other cultures so that men would be skeptical of the claims of Christianity.

    I admit I am horribly inadequate in training and exposure to scholarship on these issues but I feel if someone is willing to take an unbiased look at the evidence they will find it is not nearly as convincing as you would have your readers believe and, there is much more contradictory evidence.

    I think this quote regarding apologetics sums it up.

    “This is what frustrates me most about apologetics. Its practitioners decide in advance upon a set of non-negotiable conclusions that must be defended. They then work backwards, accepting or rejecting evidence, not on its merits, but on the basis of how it comports with their preordained conclusions.” Chris Massey


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