Response to Lee Strobel’s “Five E’s of Evidence”

Case for ChristLee Strobel has a story. No, it’s not the Greatest Story Ever Told (though he gets to that). His story is his conversion from unpleasant atheist to humble Christian servant, using his tough legal mind and journalistic experience to verify the facts of the Jesus story.

He offers five reasons to accept the gospel story, each starting with the letter E. Let’s examine them and see if we can apply the eight lessons we developed from wading through Gary Habermas’s “minimal facts” argument for the resurrection.

E #1: Jesus was executed. We can be sure that Jesus was dead. The Romans were very good at killing people. Don’t imagine that Jesus survived and then revived in the tomb. In addition, non-Christian historians like Tacitus and Josephus confirm the death. [I’ll show Strobel’s argument in italics.]

I’m always startled when Christians wallow in the agony Jesus went through. Strobel takes us on a gory journey through the details of the beating, how crucifixion worked, and so on. That apparently makes his sacrifice more impressive (though I’m unimpressed).

Strobel’s Executed claim violates our Lesson 1: it’s just a story. Yes, the story says that Jesus was executed, but so what? That’s not history. I’ll grant that someone dying is a fairly easy claim to accept. There’s nothing supernatural there, but we must emphasize the difference between a story and history. Is the gospel more than a story? That must be shown.

As for the historians, they give us little more than “there are people called Christians” (more about Josephus here).

E #2: There were early accounts of the Jesus tale. Not only do we have four gospels, but 1 Corinthians 15 gives a creed stating that Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected on the third day. This creed has been dated by scholars to just a few years after the death of Jesus.

A creed is a statement of belief; it isn’t history. (I’ve written more about 1 Cor. here.)

As for the accounts being early, if you read in the paper the story of a three-days-dead man resurrecting from the tomb yesterday, you wouldn’t believe it. Why believe it in a 2000-year-old document? Does making it harder to verify somehow make the claim more plausible?

The Early Accounts claim violates Lesson 8: just because the consensus of New Testament scholars says so doesn’t make it true. Christian scholars are entitled to weigh in, of course, but let’s not forget their bias.

Don’t imagine legend crept in to the gospel story. Historian A.N. Sherwin-White argues that “the passage of two generations of time was not enough for legend to wipe out a solid core of historical truth.”

I’ve written in detail about Sherwin-White’s work here. In short, Sherwin-White wasn’t making an immutable rule about the growth of legend. Note also that his claim is that the truth isn’t erased, not that there’s a reliable way of retrieving it.

E #3: The tomb was found empty. “Nobody in the first century was claiming it was anything but empty.” The authorities said that disciples stole the body, but the disciples had no motive to, and that story simply confirms that the tomb was empty! The skeptics had to invent a story to explain away this embarrassing fact.

Apologists are drawn to weak skeptical arguments like sharks to chum. “Disciples stole the body” or “Jesus wasn’t dead and revived in the tomb” are fun to knock over, but this process is just misdirection. Apologists hope we won’t notice how weak the primary argument is.

Disciples are said to have stolen the body? Lesson 1: it’s just a story. Strobel says that skeptics invented the story, but of course that story comes from Matthew, not from skeptics.

75% of critical scholars accept the empty tomb as historical.

Lesson 8: the consensus of New Testament scholars doesn’t count for much, especially when this “75%” isn’t a valid poll.

Remember that the gospel accounts of the empty tomb come decades after the supposed event. Why would anyone expect there to still be naysayers (people who knew the truth who could rebut a false tale) to challenge the gospel story? Though the Naysayer Hypothesis is popular, it crumbles with a little investigation.

E #4: We have eyewitness evidence. In 1 Cor. 15, Paul mentions individuals who saw the risen Jesus by name and makes clear that there were 500 more. And the icing on the cake is when Paul challenges the reader to look them up to verify the claim! “No way would he have said that if it wasn’t true.”

500 eyewitnesses? That’s no evidence. And you know who agrees with me? The author of each of the gospels! None of the gospels repeat this claim. Perhaps the authors hadn’t heard of this rumor or knew it to be false; either way, Paul’s claim looks pretty weak.

“You’ll back me up on this, right guys? Guys … ?” Sorry, Paul, but you’re alone on this one.

(I write more about the claim of 500 eyewitnesses here.)

“I’ve seen people sent to the death chamber on a fraction of this kind of evidence.”

And now Strobel really jumps the shark. He’s seen people convicted by a single sentence written by a stranger? I doubt it. The Sixth Amendment demands that the accused be able to cross-examine a witness. Not only is Paul long dead, but we know very little about him. Strobel compounds this problem because he probably takes the conservative line by insisting that the thirteen Pauline epistles were indeed all written by Paul, though most scholars only acknowledge seven. In other words, Strobel doesn’t even accept the scholarly consensus about this “witness.”

E #5: The emergence of the early church. The Christian church emerged in the very city where Jesus had just been crucified. “Now, how do you sell [a false story] to people if they are there and they know better?”

No, the people weren’t there! The New Testament wasn’t written in Jerusalem just days after the events it claims to document; the many books of the New Testament were written in cities all around the Mediterranean decades later. Skeptics couldn’t read it and then step out their doors to do man-on-the-street interviews to verify the facts.

Weeks after the resurrection, Peter stood up publicly and proclaimed the gospel story. People didn’t say that it was nonsense. “History shows that on that day 3000 people” proclaimed the truth and joined the church.

No, it was a story. The “people” are just characters on a page that can be made to do whatever suited the author’s purpose. If this is history, that must be shown.

The 8 lessons

Some of the other lessons are relevant to dismantling Strobel’s simple argument.

  • 2. The natural trumps the supernatural. The God hypothesis might be right, but we need big evidence.
  • 4. “Given the story to this point …” Strobel often wants to assume part of the story as history as he evaluates what comes next.
  • 7. Evaluate similar claims with a similar bar of evidence. If you’re unimpressed with a particular claim from another religion, don’t expect us to be any more convinced by an analogous claim from Christianity.

Strobel said that he had rejected Christianity because he refused to be held accountable for his worthless life and because he was too proud to bend his knee to Jesus. The bigger issue is that he had no good reason to accept it.

[Heaven is like] when you hear someone talk about Hawaii like they’ve been there
but they only read about it in a brochure.
Kodie (commenter)

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