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Vincent Bugliosi: Prosecutor, Judge, and Jury of God

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Vincent Bugliosi has struggled with whether God exists. He’s not sure, and he contends that both sides in the debate should not be dogmatic. The opening words on the flap of his new book Divinity of Doubt: The God Question [1] summarize his position: “Do you believe in God? If your answer is yes or no, Vincent Bugliosi will prove you wrong.” That’s a pretty bold claim for an evolved human. If God does exist, Bugliosi argues, “he has chosen to keep those he created in the dark about him.” [2] He sets forth his operating assumption in a clear and unapologetic way:

[W]hat follows [in this book] is an almost unremitting, scathing, indictment of God, organized religion, atheism, and theism. [3]

I’ll come back to his interpretive paradigm in a moment. How good of a prosecutor is he?

Mr. Bugliosi has had a storied legal career. He was the prosecuting attorney for the city of Los Angeles during the Charles Manson trial in the Tate-LaBianca murders. He was also a professor of criminal law at the Beverly School of Law in Los Angeles. Bugliosi was something of a prosecuting phenomenon during his tenure, “in a class by himself,” at the time, “105 convictions out of 106 felony jury trials; . . . 21 murder convictions without a single loss.” [4]

Bugliosi came to my attention when I read his book Helter Skelter (1974), a disturbing chronicle of events leading up to the Tate-LaBianca murders and the subsequent trial. The book digs deep into the bizarre motive behind the murders: Manson saw himself as the prophetic voice of the Beatles as he deciphered their cryptic messages embedded in songs like “Revolution 1,” “Revolution 9,” “Piggies,” “Blackbird,” and, of course, “Helter Skelter.” Manson believed that the Beatles were calling for a revolution, “an imminent black-white war.” [5] Family member Gregg Jakobson explained it this way:

“It would begin with the black man going into white people’s homes and ripping off the white people, physically destroying them, until there was open revolution in the streets, until they finally won and took over. Then black man would assume white man’s karma. He would then be the establishment.” [6]

After the mass killings and eventual black ascendancy, the blacks in charge would turn to Charles Manson for help. Manson reasoned that blacks had been under “whitey’s” influence for so long that they would not be able to rule effectively. He would then put the black man back in his subservient position, and he would then rule the world. [7] Manson, standing only five feet two, was convincing enough in his peculiar scheme that he got a group of teenagers and twenty-somethings to kill for him.

To a certain degree, justice was served in the Tate-LaBianca murders. Manson and five of his followers got the death penalty for their vicious crimes. But on February 18, 1992, the California Supreme Court had voted 6–1 to abolish the death penalty in the state of California. While California has since restored the death penalty, the new statute was not retroactive. Manson and his murdering compatriots remain in prison.

While Bugliosi had no official role in the O.J. Simpson trial, he followed the case with a prosecutor’s eye and wrote Outrage in response to the not-guilty verdict and what he believes was gross incompetence on the part of the prosecution. Unlike the Manson case, Bugliosi believes that justice was not served. In the Epilogue to Outrage, Bugliosi bears his soul and the struggle he has had with justifying God’s goodness with the presence of evil in the world and God’s “inaction” in the trial in allowing a murderer to go free:

When tragedies like the murders of Nicole and Ron occur, they get one to thinking about the notion of God. Nicole was only thirty-five, Ron just twenty-five, both outgoing, friendly, well-liked young people who had a zest for life. How does God, if there is a God, permit such a horrendous and terrible act to occur, along with countless other unspeakable atrocities committed by man against his fellow man throughout history? And how could God–all-good and all-just, according to Christian theology—permit the person who murdered Ron and Nicole to go free, holding up a Bible in his hand at that? When Judge Ito’s clerk, Deidre Robertson, read the jury’s not-guilty verdict, Nicole’s mother whispered, “God, where are you?” [8]

Mr. Bugliosi’s honesty is refreshing. He’s not an atheist. He finds it difficult to believe in God under the circumstances and according to his criteria.

On what grounds, however, can the atheist object? Mr. Bugliosi assumes the existence of God and the ethical system espoused by Christianity to make his case against God in light of the existence of evil. “The unbeliever,” Greg Bahnsen writes, “must secretly rely upon the Christian worldview in order to make sense of his argument from the existence of evil which is urged against the Christian worldview!” [9] In the end, the unbeliever uses stolen credentials (Christian presuppositions), establishes himself as prosecutor and judge, and then takes his seat in the jury box to render a verdict against God. Everything he uses to construct his system has been stolen from God’s “construction site.” The unbeliever is like the little girl who must climb on her father’s lap to slap his face. . . . [T]he unbeliever must use the world as it has been created by God to try to throw God off Hs throne.” [10]

None of this is designed to demean Mr. Bugliosi. But we are justified in putting his arguments on trial since he has seen fit to put God’s existence on trial. In an interview, when he was asked whether he believed in God, he stated, “If we were in court I’d object on the ground that the question assumes a fact not in evidence.” [11] The evidence is there, but Mr. Bugliosi has set the ground rules for what he will enter into evidence. In essence, if the evidence does not fit his operating presuppositions, then for him it is not evidence. John Frame answers such flirtations with wholesale autonomy in an unbending manner, as John Frame puts it:

Unbelievers must surely not be allowed to take their own autonomy for granted in defining moral concepts. They must not be allowed to assume that they are the ultimate judges of what is right and wrong. Indeed, they should be warned that that sort of assumption rules out the biblical God from the outset and thus allows its character as a faith-presupposition. The unbeliever must know that we reject his presupposition altogether and insist upon subjecting our moral standards to God;s. And if the unbeliever insists on his autonomy, we may get nasty and require him to show how an autonomous self can come to moral conclusions in a godless universe. [12]

Mr. Bugliosi consistently criticizes the prosecutors in the O.J. Simpson trial for not raising crucial points of evidence. One wonders why he nowhere deals with the argument that if there is no God then there is no morality or a call for outrage when personal sentiments (like his own) are offended.

Remember, Mr. Bugliosi is a prosecutor. He’s noted for doing exhaustive research. In addition to Outrage, he has also written Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (2007) and The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder (2008). Reclaiming History is more than 1600 pages. It includes a CD-ROM with an additional 1000 pages of footnotes. “It analyzes all aspects of the assassination and the rise of the conspiracy theories about Kennedy's assassination in the years subsequent to the event. The book won the 2008 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.”

Divinity of Doubt is different. Yes, there are endnotes, but only a few of them cite any contrary evidence. He doesn’t spar with contrary evidence put forth by those who have wresteld with similar questions and have not turned into theistic skeptics. In light of 1000 pages of footnotes on the Kennedy assassination, one would expect a more rigorous interaction with what other theistic scholars have written on the subjects Mr. Bugliosi discusses. We are talking about God here! It’s like a prosecutor making his case without a defense attorney present. Piece of cake.

Anyone reading Divinity of Doubt would most certainly assume that an airtight case has been made, given Mr. Bugliosi’s credentials. While it would take several books to answer all of Mr. Bugliosi’s charges—books that have already been written that he does not spar with—I want to look at one piece of evidence he does present. As I was thumbing through the endnote section, I spotted a familiar author. I could hardly believe my eyes. Mr. Bugliosi referenced science fiction writer Wilson Tucker (1914–2006). I’ve read Tucker’s books since I was 14 (The first was The Man from Tomorrow that was originally published as Wild Talent. It’s still my favorite.) In fact, I’m a collector. Over the years I have been able to find first-edition, first-printing copies of most of his major works. Every time I found a copy, I would send it to Mr. Tucker for him to sign. I have quite an autographed collection. So I was surprised when Mr. Bugliosi referenced a Wilson Tucker novel that I was not aware he had written. Mr. Bugliosi mentions a 1959 “novel” by Tucker with the title The Planet Earth. Tucker never wrote The Planet Earth. He did write the short story “The King of the Planet” that first appeared in the October 1959 issue of Galaxy and was included in The Best of Wilson Tucker in1982. Sure, this is a minor mistake, but there’s more.

Bugliosi references Tucker and his short story because of the passage in John 21 and the fictional story of the “Wandering Jew,” a story line that does not fit the narrative of John’s gospel. It’s in the last chapter of John’s gospel that we are told that Jesus was going to return before John the apostle dies:

Peter, turning around [to John], saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?” So Peter seeing him said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?” (vv. 20–23).

Bugliosi comments on the Bible’s statement, “‘Behold, I am coming soon’ (Revelation 22:12).” [13] In an extended endnote, he writes the following: “How soon did Jesus mean? Very soon. Indeed, in Matthew 16:27–28 he said, concerning his return to ‘judge all people’ (Judgment Day), ‘I assure you that some of you who are standing here right now will not die before you see me, the Son of Man, coming in My kingdom.’ (See also Mark 9:1; Mark 13:30 [‘this generation’], and Luke 9:27.) James 5:8 proclaims, ‘The coming of the Lord is at hand.’ This poses what would seem to be an insurmountable problem for bible Fundamentalists (creationists). . . . But how can they get around Jesus saying he was going to return during the lives of many of those living during his time?” [14] Since Jesus has not returned, then John must still be alive somewhere in the world today [15] or Jesus was mistaken. Neither of these is correct.

So what is the meaning of Jesus’ words? John Gill offers the best explanation. The “coming” referred to by Jesus in John 21 refers, “not till his second coming to judge the quick and the dead at the last day” but the coming “in his power . . . on the Jewish nation, in the destruction of their city and temple by the Romans [in AD 70].” As Gill points out, “till which time John did live, and many years after; and was the only one of the disciples that lived till that time, and who did not die a violent death.”

As a good prosecutor, Mr. Bugliosi should know that there is a great deal of scholarly literature on the subject of the soon return of Jesus, much of it I’ve written myself. But there are more well known scholars who have addressed the issue. If he is not familiar with this material or knows about it but decided not to interact with it, then we have a right to question his prosecutorial integrity and skills.

The arguments Bugliosi raises in his book are not new. They've been dealt with over and over again. He can certainly take issue with them, but it would have been nice if he had actually interacted with some qualified defense-attorney type scholars.

  1. Vincent Bugliosi, Divinity of Doubt: The God Question (New York: Vanguard Press, 2010), 129.[]
  2. Bugliosi, Divinity of Doubt, xiv.[]
  3. Bugliosi, Divinity of Doubt, xiv.[]
  4. Starling Lawrence, “Editor’s Note” in Vincent Bugliosi, Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away With Murder (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 11.[]
  5. Vincent Bugliosi, with Curt Gentry, Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1974), 244.[]
  6. Quoted in Bugliosi, Helter Skelter, 245.[]
  7. Bugliosi, Helter Skelter, 246–247.[]
  8. Bugliosi, Outrage, 247.[]
  9. Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith (Atlanta, GA: American Vision, 1996), 170.[]
  10. John A. Fielding III, “The Brute Facts: An Introduction of the Theology and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til,” The Christian Statesman 146:2 (March-April 2003), 30.[]
  11. Quoted in Bugliosi, Outrage, 247.[]
  12. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 169.[]
  13. Bugliosi, Divinity of Doubt, 129.[]
  14. Bugliosi, Divinity of Doubt, 302, note 9.[]
  15. I’ve only found one modern author who even suggests that John might still be alive. David Dolan’s Israel in Crisis is a perfect example of forcing the Bible to fit an already developed prophetic system. Dolan tries to explain Jesus’ comments in John 21:18–23 in which Jesus says to Peter about John, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me” (21:22). Because Dolan holds to a futuristic eschatology, he must force Jesus’ words into his dispensational mold: “In further nonbiblical research, I discovered that many early church authorities believed that John had never died. This was based on the Lord’s mysterious words in John 21 and also on the fact that, unlike the other apostles, no credible account exists about his death. I suspect that may be because John did not die.” (David Dolan, Israel in Crisis: What Lies Ahead? (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 2001), 143.) Dolan speculates that John could have been living on a Greek island for two millennia, wandering around the world hiding his true identity disguised, or caught up into heaven like Elijah where he has been supernaturally preserved until he is needed. John 21:23 refutes this notion: “yet Jesus did not say to [Peter] that [John] would not die, but only, ‘If I want to remain until I come, what is that to you.’”[]

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