Christian Teacher of the Year: Joseph Cox takes his students to ‘court’ to put their faith on trial, preparing them for college and life

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the linchpin of the Christian faith. So how do you teach Christian school students to believe and defend it? Put the belief on trial.

That’s exactly what…

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the linchpin of the Christian faith. So how do you teach Christian school students to believe and defend it? Put the belief on trial.

That’s exactly what theology and English teacher Joseph Cox has his students do at Lutheran High School South in Saint Louis, Missouri each year as part of the capstone project of Apologetics, a class about presenting and defending the faith.

For the exercise, students are placed either on the plaintiff team, arguing that the historical evidence for the resurrection is unreliable, or the defense team, arguing the evidence is reliable.

And just like a real court case, jurors decide the verdict.

“We invite family and friends to serve as jurors to decide the case based on the merits of the arguments put forward,” Cox tells The Lion, adding that sometimes special guest jurors, one of which was a famous apologist, are invited to participate. “The trial ends with a public debriefing of the students’ learning and a clear proclamation of the resurrection.”

The faith-forging approach Cox takes in his classes, along with his passion for pushing students to think theologically about virtually everything, partly explains why he is one of 12 educators named 2023 Christian Teachers of the Year by the Herzog Foundation, which publishes The Lion.

So does “team resurrection” win every time? No, Cox says, emphasizing that even though it’s the side with stronger evidence, students’ ability to present and argue for the evidence is decisive.  

“Not every time when we do the trial, does the side in the favor of Jesus win,” he says. “I think by far they’ve got the better evidence. But the reality is, sometimes when you have a stronger team, it can come out against you. But then that gives me the opportunity to debrief and talk about the evidence we do have in favor of it, and recognize that this isn’t an easy thing.”

In fact, students learn that sometimes the arguments against their faith have less to do with the evidence and more to do with the emotions evoked in the moment of debate.

To illustrate, Cox relates the story of student who faced an intense cross examination that scrutinized her belief in the resurrection.

“And she [the examiner] really leaned into this young girl on cross examination, to the point that to everybody’s surprise, this mild, timid girl who is being examined, denied faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” he recalls. “Not because she really believed it, but because she was so overwhelmed by the process and the line of questioning.”

Afterward, the student reflected on what happened before the audience, admitting that she in fact still believed in the evidence for the resurrection all along, despite what she said. 

It was fear, Cox says, not a lack of faith, at play.

“We had a chance to really debrief that and talk about how, in the face of the adversity, in the face of direct attacks like that, it’s not necessarily a lack of faith, but our fear can overpower us,” the teacher explains. “We can get so overwhelmed that we say the exact opposite of what we really believe.” 

Cox recently ran into this same student, who went on to a university, and unprompted, she brought up how the trial project armed her for what she would face at college.

“She talked about how it had prepared her as she went away to the public university, to be able to withstand some of the challenges and be willing to stand firm and to be okay with not knowing all the answers, but being able to confess Jesus,” he told The Lion. “And ironically, part of what she brought up was the second issue, which was during the trial.”

The passion for preparing students to defend their faith is in part from the high school teacher’s own experience in public schools and universities.

“Part of my love for it is because when I went away to the university, I didn’t have that training,” he says. “I’m a public school kid. I went to Christian school till fourth grade. But after that, I’m public school through university. And so when it came time to face those challenges, I felt like I was floating by myself, and I had to really bring myself up to speed.

“I had a campus pastor who said I was the kind of guy that would storm the gates of hell with nothing but the spit in my mouth. The problem was, I needed a little more ammo then to be able to face some of those challenges.”

And whether or not Cox’s students have quite the same gumption to storm the gates as he once did, they are sure to be battle-tested by the time they leave his classroom.

“And so that’s really my goal with that apologetics, is inoculation for when our students go to the secular universities and face, not just animosity towards Christianity, but even just genuine questions that are raised, and to do so with courage and competence, without feeling like they have to be absolute masters to be able to proclaim the gospel.”

The Christian Teachers of the Year honor is part of the Herzog Foundation’s Excellence in Christian Education award series. Each of the 12 winners will attend a special awards event in Washington, D.C., where they will also receive a monetary gift.