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Lee Strobel’s Fragile Argument

Lee Strobel likes to introduce himself as a former atheist—quite an unpleasant atheist, in fact. As a tough-minded and award-winning journalist, he wanted to get to the bottom of the nonsense about Christianity when his wife became a Christian.

He was the legal editor at the Chicago Tribune where they had a sign reading, “If your mother says she loves you, get a second opinion.” Sounds like they take their fact finding seriously!

Journalists are great; it’s hypocrisy that I don’t care for. Strobel’s The Case for Christ starts off with this tough-minded search, and yet everyone interviewed in his book is a committed Christian. If this is journalism, where is the other side of the story? Looks like the conclusion was drawn before he started.

I have no problem with a Christian writing a Christian book; just don’t try to pass off this project as unbiased journalism.

Strobel wrote a summary of this search. I’d like to respond to his arguments.

He first picks up elements from the gospels—that Jesus was executed, that the tomb was empty, and that the opponents had to claim that the body was stolen—and uses them to argue for the truth of the overall story. That’s like saying that in The Godfather, the motivations of the movie studio executive made complete sense because he’d found a horse head in his bed.

The gospel story is a story. There really wasn’t a horse head, Indiana Jones didn’t really find the lost Ark of the Covenant, and Dorothy didn’t really land in Oz. Why imagine that there was a resurrection? Don’t show internal consistency between elements of the gospel story without first showing that it’s history.

Who Would Die for a Lie?

Strobel next says:

[The disciples] wouldn’t have been willing to die brutal martyrs’ deaths if they knew this was all a lie.

How do we know that this is accurate? Christianity Today reports that “The tradition of apostles’ martyrdom goes back at least to the beginning of the third century.” So we know this because it was written down 150 years after the events? Quite flimsy evidence.

And what does he mean by “if they knew this was all a lie”? In the first place, I don’t think that the gospel story was a deliberate invention, like a hoax, so this doesn’t attack a point I’d make. In the second place, Strobel apparently imagines that the disciples were charged with crimes that could be dismissed simply by saying, “Just kidding! Jesus wasn’t really raised from the dead.”

What crimes are we talking about? Sedition? Disturbing the peace? General rabble rousing? Denying Jesus doesn’t get you off from these. This “Why would they die for a lie?” argument collapses. (I’ve written more here.)

Straw Man Arguments Are Easier

He next “investigates” whether the reported post-resurrection appearances were hallucinations or visions. This is another argument I would never make just like I would never investigate whether the Cowardly Lion was a hallucination or vision.

This reminds me of the joke about the guy looking for something at night under a street light. Guy 2 comes over and asks what’s up.

“Lost my keys,” Guy 1 says.

So Guy 2 looks around to help. After a few minutes, he says, “I sure don’t see them. Where did you lose them, exactly?”

“Over there.” Guy 1 points to a dark part of a parking lot.

“Then why are we looking here??”

“The light’s better here.”

And that’s why Strobel brings up the hallucination argument and similar straw men. They aren’t serious arguments. Nobody raises them. But these he can knock over. The light’s better here.

Other Dying and Rising Gods

Strobel says:

Was the resurrection simply the recasting of ancient mythology, akin to the fanciful tales of Osiris or Mithras? If you want to see a historian laugh out loud, bring up that kind of pop-culture nonsense.

Unfortunately, all we have of Strobel’s juggernaut of an argument is this vague reference, so we’ll just have to do our best as we risk historians’ mocking laughter.

So the dying-and-rising aspect of the Jesus story couldn’t have come from the dying-and-rising aspect of gods that preceded Jesus like Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis, Attis, and Baal? These were gods from nearby cultures, which would likely have been familiar to literate first-century Greeks, and these gods all died and rose again. No chance of resurrection envy influencing the gospel story?

The typical response is that these other gods’ stories are different from the Jesus story. Of course they’re different—otherwise, they’d be the same story. But they sure sound similar. For example, in a story originating centuries before Jesus, Dionysus was the product of one of Zeus’s many affairs. His jealous wife Hera had the infant Dionysus eaten by Titans, but Zeus brought him back to life through the mortal woman Semele.

Dead, and then born by a mortal. Brought back to life by the ruler of all gods. Is something of that present—nay, central—to the gospel story? You decide if there’s any chance of cross-pollination.

Second-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr even used the similarities to his advantage. He said:

When we say [that Jesus] was produced without sexual union, and that He … was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter.1

Not only did damning similarities exist, Justin argued, but they were deliberately planted in Greek myths by the devil:

For when [the Greeks] tell that [Dionysus] was begotten by [Semele], and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven … do I not perceive that [the devil] has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses?2

Justin not only acknowledged the similarities, he embraced them!

Strobel ends his essay:

After I had thoroughly investigated the matter, I reached an unexpected conclusion: it would actually take more faith to maintain my atheism than to become a follower of Jesus.

Yeah, whatever. Do some objective research and maybe you’ll reach a different conclusion.

I can imagine that Strobel used to be an atheist. But not that he was an atheist just like me.

And it came to pass that in the hands of the ignorant,
the words of the Bible were used
to beat plowshares into swords
— Alan Wilson Watts

1Justin Martyr, “Analogies to the History of Christ,” chapter 21 of First Apology.

2Justin Martyr, “The Devil, since he emulates the truth, has invented fables about Bacchus, Hercules, and Sculapius,” chapter 69 of Dialogue with Trypho.

(This is a modified version of a post originally published 10/12/11.)

Photo credit: Illuminating Distractions

About Bob Seidensticker
  • smrnda

    I read Strobel’s books, and was often surprised (particularly in ‘Case for Faith’) that such an allegedly tough-minded journalist would find the platitudes he got from experts on the difficult questions to be satisfying in the least. I’m inclined to link his conversion to personal reasons, as he states his wife became a Christian and then was super super nice to him, even though he seems like he was often kind of a jerk.

    Also did find it odd that he never bothered to actually interview say, Bart Ehrman, though he interviewed people who were dismissive of Ehrman’s scholarship. Getting an evangelical scholar to dismiss the Jesus seminar and then deciding ‘well, that settles it. They’re a fringe that I don’t need to bother with’ doesn’t strike me as quality journalism.

    • avalon

      Hi smrnda,
      “he states his wife became a Christian and then was super super nice to him, even though he seems like he was often kind of a jerk.”

      Sounds like love bombing: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_bombing

      “interview say, Bart Ehrman”

      Great suggestion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6PWFvzKl3I

      avalon

      • smrnda

        Glad to know these phenomena have been given silly sounding names. I did a stint of attending a church a while for my own personal research. My plan was to keep a low profile, but people were so *FRIENDLY* but it was friendly like the creepy guy at the cafe or on the bus who seems to have a problem respecting personal space.

  • Castilliano

    Strobel, Strobel, Strobel, we meet again…
    Short version:
    Strobel’s “Case for Christ”, and its shortcomings, were a rung in my ladder upward to atheism.
    Long version:
    I read it, even gave a copy to a Christian friend. Years later, after investigating the roots of Christianity, I formed many challenging questions. I referred back to “Case for Christ” because Lee addressed those issues. Addressed was too strong a word.
    In each case, generally near the end of interviews, Lee would pose one of those challenging questions, I’d clap my hands in anticipation, and…come out puzzled by the circumvention.
    The interviewee would summarily dismiss the question with phrases like “that’s not an issue” or “everyone agrees blah, blah, blah” or downright denial of some complication.
    NO! It IS and issue, and lots of people disagree. How can you lie like that?
    Hmm…how indeed. Click.
    It was disheartening, though I’m thankful, as that was a necessary step toward reality.
    So, yeah, I have to concur that Strobel is far from hard-edged, and probably was approaching the ‘mission’ with a bias toward reckoning with his wife’s shift.
    Cheers,
    JMK

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Interesting that reading Strobel (like reading the Bible) might be a step on the road to atheism.

      • MNb

        I can imagine that. Reading (about) theologians, Americans, Dutch and Flemish ones, and noticing how unskeptical they are towards their own arguments (example: I see causality everywhere, never mind modern physics, so that’s no problem for the cosmological argument) I have grown more radical last couple of years. Not to mention their muddled prose. Compare that to the straightforward logic of atheist philosophers. I strongly suspect the prose is often murky to hide how poor their arguments are.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          MNb:

          I strongly suspect the prose is often murky to hide how poor their arguments are.

          Yeah. I wrote a short piece about that here.

  • Blessed Jim

    One of the important things I learned in school is that critical analysis is not the same thing as criticism. When Christians approach other belief systems they approach them with criticsm, looking for faults, and jumping on each one with an ‘aha! they are wrong and Christianity is right!’. The death blow to Christianity is when someone (like castellilano) looks at Christianity using critical analysis. The whole ediface of Christian apologetics then falls apart. And believers just can’t understand what happened because they insist on equating critical analysis with unfair criticism of their beliefs.

    Applying critical analysis to the Bible was the last straw in destroying my Christian beliefs. The Bible fairs no better under critical analysis than any other ancient mythological story. An interesting (or depressing) note: last year the Texas Republican party had a plank condemning the teaching of critical thnking in Texas public schools. Gee, I wonder how that got in there??

  • Bob Jase

    I’d like to read the hard-hitting atheist essays that Strobel wrote before his conversion – when are those going to be published? Or don’t they exist?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Bob J:

      Interesting question. I suspect that they’d read like a high schooler’s thinking on the subject. I doubt that Strobel is well versed in anything but one side of these arguments.

  • Bender

    Who Would Die for a Lie?

    By that logic Mohamed Atta and his associates were right: there is no god but Allah, and he really, really hates America.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Bender: I think that Strobel would say that the 9/11 hijackers were indeed wrong, but they didn’t know that they were wrong.

      But Strobel is confused when he thinks that many atheists imagine that the gospel story was a lie–that it, it was made up. I think it’s wrong, but I don’t think that it was deliberately invented.

  • Rain

    Not only did damning similarities exist, Justin argued, but they were deliberately planted in Greek myths by the devil:

    Wow, no point in trying to win an argument with that guy. Justin sounds like the kind of guy that would say anything for the win, no matter how ridiculous.

  • smrnda

    Again, I want to give a shout-out to Elizabeth Loftus and her work on the unreliability of memory, since many of Strobel’s arguments are that there is no way the disciples got anything Jesus said wrong, and that there is no way that people could become convinced that Jesus walked on water or rose from the dead if it didn’t happen.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      smrnda:

      Good point. Thanks for bringing this up again. I’d like to write something on this subject sometime. The Challenger Memory Experiment is the most compelling demonstration of our fallible memories that I’ve seen.

      • smrnda

        There’s an interesting experiment where a group of people saw a film, and were brought back together to discuss the film. The naive belief is that if one person remembered something wrong, the majority would be right and so the ‘wrong’ memories would be corrected by the ‘right’ ones.

        Except that isn’t what happened, and it’s also worth nothing that people’s level of confidence in their memories is not in any way an indicator of their level of accuracy. If one person remembers wrong, but is incredibly confident, they can cause the whole group to get the movie wrong. I’ll try to find some more links to this kind of stuff.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          smrnda:

          Yes, links would be helpful, thanks.

          The herd effect is an issue when interviewing someone. I was in a group that was growing rapidly, and I had to do an interview each week or so. Emails would be sent out by interviewers with their comments, and I avoided reading those until I’d written my own comments. Even when you’re aware of the herd effect, it can have a strong hold.

        • smrnda

          Will look, might take a while, but I’ll try to get it done this week :-)

        • Bob Seidensticker

          smrnda:

          No rush!

  • Brian Westley

    Bob, could you open a thread to counter Rebecca Hamilton’s lies about atheists?

    Her statement:
    “The post itself is a response to a demand for “proof” that atheist regimes of the 20th century killed many people.”

    She’s almost certainly referring to me, but that isn’t at all what I was challenging, which you could find out if she didn’t refuse to print my comments. She’s simply demonizing atheists with her blood libel, and worse, she’s an Oklahoma state legislator.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Brian:

      I considered writing a post in response to that one, but it’d distill down to a paragraph–not worth it to devote a whole post to. I’ve made my point as a comment in her blog here. Tell me what you think.

      I’d love to have a battle of blog posts about any Christian on any meaty subject, but I just don’t see much here.

      Feel free to vent about that post here.

      • Darren

        Brain and Bob;

        I would advise staying away from Rebecca’s blog – she cheats.

        This is my own experience, and the short version.

        She selectively deletes poster comments. I had suspected this for a while, then two weeks ago decided to test my suspicions. I posted on several topics, with tones ranging from hostile and contentious to almost obsequiously polite. The strength of my arguments also varied, but in a less controlled manner, still some points were very strong, others less so.

        My conclusion, and again based only on my own posts:

        If an atheist shows up and is contentious, actively attacking her positions, she leaves the post up.

        If she has a ready answer to the question or challenge (satisfying to here, even if it really does not answer the charge) she leaves it up.

        If a post is respectful, polite, courteous? Deleted.

        If a post makes a very strong objection to her position? Deleted.

        If a post connects in a polite manner with another one of her readers in a manner showing atheists to be considerate debating partners? Deleted.

        So, my conclusion is that she selectively deletes posts to 1, make her arguments appear stronger than they are, and 2, to validate her narrative that Christianity, and she personally, are “under attack”.

        As much as I might like to reach some of her readers, I have no method to combat her selective editing…

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Yeah, a moderated thread, especially when there seems to be an agenda behind it, can be a waste of time. I get a fair number of comments that are agitated or angry, and some R-rated language. I’d prefer that tempers not flare, but I’m not going to delete comments to create an artificial appearance of pleasantness (or worse: that everyone agrees with me).

        • Darren

          Deleting abusive or profane posts is right and proper, deliberately misleading one’s readers to keep them in fear is not.

          Rebecca Hamilton meets my criteria for being a Bad Person.

          If I may suggest a topic: “When is it morally right to lie / mislead / deceive?” In the service of a greater good? To maintain one’s ego? When it is for ‘their own good’? And perhaps a nod at blog moderation policies… I know that I would enjoy your thoughts, and perhaps other Patheos bloggers could weigh in?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Darren:

          Thanks for the blog topic suggestion. I’ll keep it in mind.

  • gratch

    I’ve been trying to work my way through “Case for Christ” for a while now but I have to stop every few pages becuase the arguments and so called investigations are just so bad. Let me sum up a whole chapter in just a couple of sentences:

    “Hello Mr. Expert I am here to do a thorough investigation into the bible and Jesus. The gospels, are they true?”
    “Not just true. Super true. There are people who say they aren’t true but they’re wrong because of how true it all is.”
    “I see. Well case closed. Thank you for your time Mr. Expert.”

    • Bob Seidensticker

      :)

  • Josh

    When I announced that I no longer believed in christianity I was given Strobel’s book to read because one of my friends thought it would set me straight. I read it in a couple of days and gave it back. It didn’t change my mind at all – quite the opposite.

    I felt like I was reading the most flimsy arguments for the truth of something. Strobel’s used no methods that, when applied to other religions, would show Christianity to be any different from them. The story says its true? check. Devout believers today believe its true? yes indeed. We have stories of people dying for these beliefs? check. We have people throughout history who believed it? uh huh. Easily dismantled refutations are around? check check check.

    He could have done version for the book of Mormon or the Koran using the same basic arguments.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Josh:

      When I announced that I no longer believed in christianity I was given Strobel’s book to read because one of my friends thought it would set me straight.

      It’s weird that it’s not the other way around. It’d make more sense for a Christian to say to a newbie, “OK, this is a big, big decision. Don’t make it lightly. You really ought to read a number of books on theology and atheism to make sure that you’ve made the right choice.” But no, it’s the other way around. You pray the sinner’s prayer, and you’re in. You want out, and they give you an obstacle course.

      Strobel’s used no methods that, when applied to other religions, would show Christianity to be any different from them.

      It’s amazing that his stuff is held in such high regard. I guess lots of people like to be patted on the head that way.

  • Nemo

    I was raised as a Lutheran, but I’ve recently deconverted as well. I remember one time in high school (in a deeply conservative hometown, mind you), we were learning about world religions, and how Muslims believe Muhammad ascended to heaven from the rock in Jerusalem. I smirked and said that was stupid. The teacher turned to me and told me I probably believed some odd things myself, so I shouldn’t make fun of others. As far as I know, that teacher is Christian, but nonetheless, I consider that moment to be a small part of my journey.

  • Heather

    You do realize you concluded this piece with a “no true Scotsman” argument, right? ;)

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Heather:

      No, I’m not seeing that. But, hey, I’m not above making mistakes. Show me.

      The difference between atheists converting to Christianity (which happens all the time) and well-informed atheists converting (which I’ve never seen) is important to me, which is why I wrote a post about it.

    • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

      It wasn’t a No True Scotsman argument. He didn’t say Strobel wasn’t an atheist because he was different. That would be the fallacy you’re referring to. Making distinctions (between different kinds of atheists here) is not a No True Scotsman argument. Only if the difference is claimed to exclude them from a category would it be that.

  • duane

    Believe or don’t believe. Everything else springs from that. Fine if you don’t believe. It’s your life and eternity.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      duane:

      And when someone from some other religion says that, how do you respond?

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