An Atheist Reinterprets The Christian Courtroom Analogy

When I was a Christian, I heard many preachers and apologists use courtroom analogies to describe the most crucial part of their faith, namely substitutionary atonement. This is a very common attempt to illustrate in mortal, human terms exactly what Christ did on the cross. One version goes something like this:

We are the defendant in the courtroom of God. We are guilty, and Satan is the prosecutor. However, Jesus is representing us, and make such a convincing argument that God decides to let us go. We walk out, free of our chains.

Another popular version of this scene is a tad more dramatic, and also a bit more questionable from an actual legal standpoint:

God, the judge, is about to pronounce you guilty when Jesus steps up and offers to take your punishment. Even though you are rightfully guilty, because of his great love for you, Jesus will take your punishment, which is death. And because God loves you, he will accept that offer.

Substitutionary atonement is not the only element of the Christian faith that gets rewritten as a courtroom drama. A similar, more dubious analogy is used as the basis for the eternally problematic “presuppositional apologetics” touted by popular evangelists like Sye Ten Bruggencate. Basically, it states that:

When you demand evidence for God, you put God on trial. You make yourself the judge and jury. But God is the judge, not you, and you don’t deserve or get to ask for evidence.

This affinity for the courtroom in Christianity is nothing new. Even English congregational hymns from the 1800’s make reference to Satan as the fierce accuser rebuked by a forgiving Judge (Hymn LXXVII). Hell, when Christians discuss their faith, they call it their “testimony.”

So I figured why not use this same analogy to explain exactly why I’m an atheist? After all, too often debates between believers and nonbelievers get sidetracked or stymied due to simple difference of communication styles. I’m hopeful that an argument drawn from such a familiar concept will help get my point across. So here we go.


Scenario:

You have been accused of murder. It was a horrible, sadistic crime, one that will certainly result in the death penalty. Except, you know you’re innocent. You’re not quite sure how you’ve gotten here, or why they think you are guilty, but there you are, facing a judge and jury and watching witnesses be called against you.

Witness 1:

The prosecution calls up the first witness. You’ve never seen this person in your life, but they claim to have damning evidence against you. They present Exhibit A: a yellow, crumpled letter.

“Can you tell the court what this is?” asks the prosecutor.

“This is a letter that states that the accused is guilty,” says the witness.

“When was the letter written?”

The witness says: “Over two thousand years ago.”

“And is it addressed to you?”

“No, sir, it’s addressed to someone else. I just happened to get a hold of it.”

The prosecutor taps his chin. “Can you prove that this letter has not been tampered with between now and when it was written?”

“No, I cannot. In fact, I know it was edited many times.”

“And do you know who wrote the letter?”

“No, sir, I do not.”

“And to be clear, this is just your interpretation of this letter. It doesn’t say the defendant’s name or describe the murder outright.”

“That’s correct.”

The jury scribbles furiously, and the small crowd behind you whispers to themselves. The prosecutor smiles as though he won that round, and allows the witness to leave: “No further questions.”

Witness 2:

The next witness is an old woman, who presents Exhibit B: a photo of your house. There is a beam of sunlight breaking through the clouds and illuminating your front door.

“Can you tell the court what this is?” asks the prosecution.

“I was walking my dog and listening to the radio. As soon as I heard of the murder, I saw that sun beam hitting the accused’s house. That means that the accused committed the murder.”

“What makes you think that?”

“That’s how I decided to interpret it. Besides, what else could it possibly mean?” the witness asks.

“Why should we take your interpretation of this event as valid evidence?”

“Because it can’t just be coincidence!” the woman exclaims. “Besides, no one can prove that’s not what it meant.”

“Thank you, that is all.”

Witness 3:

This is ridiculous, you think, as they call up the third and final witness. This man does not have any evidence to offer, but they have chosen to allow him to speak anyway. “I know the accused is guilty,” he says, “because I sincerely believe that all left-handed people are murderers.”

“How do you know this?” asks the prosecution.

“My entire family holds this belief very dear, and my whole community agrees with me. It’s how I was raised, and it’s deeply ingrained in my identity. It’s how I see the world.”

“Well, your honor,” says the persecution to the judge. “I think my work here is done.”

Verdict:

The jury debates and reconvenes. You are found guilty of murder based on the overwhelming evidence presented, and are sentenced to death.


Now, I’m not going to pretend that anecdote was a particularly nuanced look at a legal proceeding, but you get the idea. Never in a court of law would an ancient, unsigned letter be considered valid evidence of someone’s guilt, nor would an interpretation of an unrelated event, nor a personal conviction, no matter how deeply held.

As you could probably guess, these three witnesses represent the only kinds of evidence Christians offer atheists when condemning them to eternal torment: their holy book, miracles or divine intervention, and personal faith. No one in their right mind, Christian or not, would ever want to be tried in a courtroom allowing such evidence. No matter how convinced or well-meaning the witnesses, these methods are simply not reliable pathways to truth. Yet they are routinely used to condemn fellow humans to fates much worse than the death penalty. And the fact that nonbelievers are not convinced by these methods is baffling and insulting.

As I’ve said in earlier posts, the goal here is not to ridicule or disprove individuals’ beliefs. If these things convince you personally, you have every right to believe it. But to use these beliefs in the condemnation of someone else — or to become offended or upset when someone points out the unconvincing or subjective nature of these beliefs — is nonsensical. And in any other context, you’d agree.

Originally published on Medium in February 2018. 

7 thoughts on “An Atheist Reinterprets The Christian Courtroom Analogy

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  1. In November of 2008 my mom who is a diabetic almost slipped into a diabetic coma. In that month she had been in and out of the hospital and for some reason the last time I called 911 the operator told me not to call them until I checked her blood sugar. The next day her blood sugar drops. Remembering the operators words. I try to check her sugar only problem is I can’t find her meter. My mom who was 68 at the time is disoriented rolling around on the bed in her disoriented state. I can here her talking to someone. Keep in mind we’re the only two in the house. Knowing that I could lose her I begin to panic and cry as I’m searching and I begin to cry out. God where are you. I need you. Do you know in that very second my mom snapped out of it Sat up looked at me and said Aqua what’s wrong? I tearfully told her I can’t find your meter and told me Calm down every thing is going to be OK told me where to look before coming disoriented again. I found it checked her sugar it was 19 I called 911. Within 5 mins they were there all the while they could hear my mom say. I’m not ready to go. They brought her back and when she was coherent told her she almost died. I told her what happened and even though it had only been 15 mins she didn’t remember. They ended up taking her to the hospital where it was discovered she had bacterial meningitis. I told you my story because I’ve always been a believer but it’s more than what I read in his word, but what he’s personally shown me in my life. You may never believe and I’m sorry for that but your scenario will not stop me from believing either. BTW my mom celebrated her 79 birthday last month still in her right mind!!

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    1. Thanks for commenting! I’m glad your mom is OK, that must have been very scary. I personally don’t see a God in that story, let alone a specific God of a specific religion. But we are pattern-seeking creatures and so I understand how you came to that conclusion. If you don’t mind my asking, how did you come to the conclusion that it was God?

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      1. Hi I don’t mind you asking. To answer your question. There were several reasons how I knew that it was God. One because I prayed another is that my mom had no recollection of what transpired. Most of all my faith and what I’ve seen him do before in my life. Truth is that if you don’t want to see God in any situation then you won’t. No matter what I or anyone else may say. May I ask you a question if you don’t mind. You made the statement that when you were a Christian. We’re you ever a Christian or were you one because your parents told you that you were? I’m not trying to be offensive but I am curious.

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  2. I was raised in one Christian denomination but found a Christianity I liked better when I left for college. I went to a Christian private college, went to worship services at least three times a week (they were my favorite), took classes on theology and the Bible, learned Koine Greek to translate Scripture myself, volunteered on overseas missions trips, and attended churches in countries all around the globe. I was as strong and devoted a Christian as one could be. I’d recommend you check out my Deconversion Story (in the website header menu) if you want to learn more about it!

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    1. Hi again! I read your de conversion story. You mentioned in your comment to me that you took classes in theology. So I know that you are very familiar with the Bible. Your story reminds me of John 6 . Remember that there were originally more than 12 disciples who started off following Jesus. Some of the “disciples” begin to complain that this was too hard of a saying who can hear it. Jesus made the comment but there are some of you who believe not. The scripture says for Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him. The thing is these disciples who left walked with Jesus himself but yet deep down they still did not believe. It reminds me of your story you mentioned studying theology and going to a private Christian college, mission trips and etc, but I wonder if you actually truly believed. (Not trying to offend) here’s what I learned from the scripture the unbelieving disciples could only follow Jesus to a certain point before they turned and walked away. The thing is even though they walked with Jesus did the theology courses, mission trips saw him heal deep down they really didn’t believe. I’m sorry for the experiences that led you to this point in your life but I just want to add that God was never gone from you are your situation.

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      1. I have gotten this theory from quite a few people. It can be scary to think that Christians who “truly believe” could fall away, so it is more comfortable to imagine that those who deconverted never were “real” Christians to begin with. I understand that, but it does tend to feel a bit like predetermination to me (which I had doubts about even when I was a Christian).

        Instead of hypothesizing about the “trueness” of the faith of others–an intangible and fluctuating thing even to the possessor of that faith–why not “know them by their fruits,” as Christ suggested? If we are going by that Biblical metric, I was most certainly a “true Christian,” as my fruits were right up there with the best of them.

        One note: Your theory from John 6 is interesting, since many Biblical scholars think Jesus was discussing faith in him as a messenger of the God of Judaism heralding the rebuilding of Israel, not “faith” in the modern Christian sense. So, while I understand how it could seem like that discussion is applicable, it’s widely believed to be referencing a different concept entirely.

        Thank you for the discussion!

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      2. So what is your fruit? I’m curious to know. The fact that you don’t see how John 6 even applies tells me alot. God’s word is God’s word it still holds power to this day.whether you want to admit it or not. You yourself mentioned some of the things you did when you were “A Christian” as were the unbelieving disciples back in John 6. I’m not here to judge you I can only respond to what you put out. Personally not biblical I don’t believe that a true believer will just stop believing if that unbelief hadn’t always been there. It was nice chatting with you even if we are on opposite sides of the fence. Take care!

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