David Limbaugh’s recent best-selling book, Jesus on Trial, had at least three things in its favor before I ever cracked the cover. First, the title showed an obvious interest in legal apologetics. With ‘trial,’ ‘lawyer,’ and ‘truth’ in the title, my legal chops were salivating (full disclosure, I happen to be a trial lawyer). Second, the cover details describe an author who is a ‘practicing lawyer and former law professor,’ surely a sign of familiarity with the long history of lawyers interested in the apologetic task and in the application of legal and evidentiary methods to the most sophisticated secular challenges to Christian truth-claims. And third, the 406 pages with over 750 endnotes are written by a New York Times best-selling author (who is also the brother of conservative talk show host, Rush Limbaugh), and thus promised to be focused, well written, and thoroughly documented.
I should never have underestimated the cachet attached to a celebrity last name and what this can mean for procuring author contracts and book sales, not to mention media buzz for a book upon its release. In all honesty, what one actually finds in Jesus on Trial is page after mind-numbing page of what Limbaugh feels blessed with from his own reading of the Bible. It also comes from a self-taught layman who frequently cites ‘awesome’ pastors and ‘awesome’ Bible teachers, including his own pastor who is both ‘extraordinary’ and a ‘friend.’ Perhaps one of the sharpest criticisms to raise of the book is that Limbaugh shows no familiarity whatsoever with the large bibliography of legal apologetics in existence. In fact, there are over thirty-five works of apologetics written by Christian lawyers with almost exactly the same title as Limbaugh’s Jesus on Trial, and yet none of them receives any mention.
The sources with which Limbaugh does interact include a surprising range from Bishop Fulton Sheen to Charles Stanley and John McArthur. Several Biola University apologists (J. P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, and John Bloom) are referred to positively. Limbaugh shows the most familiarity with such popular apologists as Josh McDowell, Ravi Zacharias, and Lee Strobel. The other most frequently cited author on whom Limbaugh largely relies is Douglas Groothuis and his 2011 volume, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith.
After some two hundred pages of personal reflections on the Bible, Limbaugh finally presents an objective apologetic, describing his move from skepticism about Christian truth-claims to ardent belief based on the evidence of the truthfulness of Christianity. The chapter ‘Aha Moments, Part I’ is followed by ‘Aha Moments, Part II.’ Later sections explore a range of topics such as ‘Why Should We Pray?’ and ‘It’s Not Knowing about God, but Knowing God.’ The book is neither a summary of the best legal arguments nor a presentation of creative or new information.
The essential problem with Jesus on Trial is that in attempting in some sense to be a comprehensive defense of Christianity, it is sadly not really about Christ in any meaningful way. Limbaugh focuses on important but secondary matters’that is, laboring through problems in the Old and New Testaments, wading into the plethora of worldviews, and tediously explaining the traditional proofs for the existence of God before eventually getting to the case for Jesus Christ. The effect is that readers finally arrive at the central issue’namely, the death and resurrection of Christ’exhausted. The apologetic task slips into something other than the presentation of Jesus crucified for sinners.
In a larger cultural context, Jesus on Trial is certainly on the side of the angels, and for that we can be thankful. But it is unfortunate that someone legally trained, and with a platform most Christian apologists can only dream about ever having, has missed an opportunity to do something extraordinary.