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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.