Strobel’s One-Sided Cases

I’m reviewing Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus and The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity together since my objections to both of them are pretty much the same. I was more interested in The Case for Christ, which focuses on evidence for the historical Christ and his divinity than The Case for Faith which focused on theodicy. I don’t view theodicy as that much of a problem for
Christianity, so I was more inclined to respond favorably to Faith. The format left me frustrated by both.

Strobel frames his books as a journalistic investigation into the claims of Christianity, but they don’t match basic journalistic practices. Both books follow the same pattern: Strobel, in the role of skeptic (as he once was), interviews Christian apologists and asks them to respond to common critiques of Christianity. This format gives atheists short shrift. A real journalist would talk to sources on both sides of the issue, but, in Strobel’s books, atheists and skeptics are only present as channeled through Strobel. He cites quotations from or thesis of their books to the Christians he interviews, but he never gives the atheists a chance to rebut. Strobel casts himself in the role of an naif, and it’s ridiculous to think that atheists would like to be represented in a debate by any amateur, let alone an agnostic-turned-Christian.

As a result, each of the interviews tends to take the form of a blunt question from Strobel, several pages of response from the expert, and then an exclamation from Strobel that takes the form of “Yes, Socrates; you are quite right in saying so!” He doesn’t have the expertise to contest their claims. Some of the time (particularly when they discuss science or biology) I notice errors in the arguments of his interlocutors that Strobel lets pass unquestioned. I don’t have the expertise to notice any errors in the arguments from scripture, but I’m suspicious that Strobel skips over them there as well.

The discussion of the bear attack in Second Kings 2:23-24 Case for Faith illustrates pretty well my problems with the books. Here’s the excerpt:

And [the Prophet Elisha] went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.
And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.

Strobel asks Norman Geiser to defend the passage and Geisler advances a couple of arguments:

  1. The KVJ is wrong to use the phrase ‘little children,’ the phrase should be translated as ‘youths’ or ‘young men.’  Thus, they were old enough to pose a threat.
  2. The ‘bald head’ remark was a slur that likened Elisha to a leper, and to compare a prophet to an unclean person like a leper was extremely insulting.
  3. The cries for Elisha to ‘go up’ are a reference to Elijah being taken up to heaven.  The youths are taunting Elisha as less holy than Elijah, another insult.
  4. The teenagers’ taunts undermined God’s authority, so their deaths served as a warning to all of Samaria.  If people had heeded this warning and repented, their deaths would have been an act of mercy to save their people.
  5. God gives everyone life, so it is His to take away as he pleases, in any circumstance that serves his end.

Strobel hears all these arguments, and his reaction is:

“Then it’s a misreading of the original text to see these as mere children,” I said.

Geisler’s answers had deflated much of the case against God’s character by bringing some balance and context to understanding his apparent intent in these controversial episodes.

At the very least, he might have asked Geisler or another biblical scholar why the KJV translated the phrase differently, rather than immediately accept Geisler’s assertion, which was not accompanied by an explanation. He might also have asked why Geisler believed that ‘bald head’ and the other slurs were necessarily attacks on God rather than casual taunts.

He really ought to have pushed Geisler on his final point, which implies that God could never take a life unjustly, since all lives belong to him by virtue of His creating them.  By that logic, any creator god would never be guilty of an unjust smiting, since life was theirs to remove as they wished.

Strobel’s approach could be interesting if his books were written by an atheist or a journalist of any faith who was willing to ask tough questions and give both sides a fair hearing.  As is, the books are considerably less interesting and challenging than the works of the apologists he interviews.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Anonymous

    Ah come on, Strobel's a buffoon, but considerably less interesting than Michael Behe?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11174257204278139704 Charles

    Ana awful lot of books written in this style on both sides (although I think more so on the faith side) have this fault. My question is: is the author so blinded by his belief that he doesn't see the holes? Is he being lazy? or is he being disingenuous to some degree?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I don't have the expertise to notice any errors in the arguments from scripture, but I'm suspicious that Strobel skips over them there as well.Your suspicions are well-founded. :) Let me cite just one example of the kind of thing Strobel engages in.I mentioned Earl Doherty in the other thread, so I'll quote from his other excellent book, Challenging the Verdict, which is a book-length response to Case for Christ. Here's an excerpt from the chapter on William Lane Craig's interview:"Think about the claims and counterclaims about the Resurrection that went back and forth between the Jews and Christians in the first century. The initial Christian proclamation was, 'Jesus is risen.' The Jews responded, 'The disciples stole his body.' To this Christians said, 'Ah, but the guards at the tomb would have prevented such a theft.' The Jews responded, 'Oh, but the guards at the tomb fell asleep.' To that the Christians replied, 'No, the Jews bribed the guards to say they fell asleep.'"Now, if there had not been any guards, the exchange would have gone like this: In response to the claim Jesus is risen, the Jews would say, 'No, the disciples stole his body.' Christians would reply, 'But the guards would have prevented the theft.' Then the Jewish response would have been, 'What guards? You're crazy! There were no guards!' Yet history tells us that's not what the Jews said."You will forgive me, Dr. Craig, for shaking my head in disbelief at what you have just described. History tells us? Claims and counterclaims that went back and forth between the Jews and Christians in the first century? What history is that? What record paints such a picture? Your 'exchange' is based entirely on the Gospel of Matthew. You have simply paraphrased the dialogue which Matthew has written into his two-part scene of the guard at the tomb. The very issue under debate is whether this scene is historical. You can hardly extract that scene, turn it into 'history' and use that history as support for the authenticity of the scene it is taken from. That kind of circular argument would make anyone dizzy.

  • http://roger.burgess.iii.myopenid.com/ Ataraxzy

    I was just going to recommend that you read Ebonmuse's most excellent takedown of Mr. Strobel's other work, The Case for a Creator over here: http://www.daylightatheism.org/series/the-case-for-a-creator but it turns out that Ebon is reading your blog!How awesome is that!?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    @Ataraxzy, Excellent indeed! I'm a big fan of DA.

  • thomas tucker

    I think you are being to harsh to Mr. Strobel.His books ask good questions, and offer interesting answers to contemplate. He may not ask every question, or follow up on every answer, but then he is writing a popular work. His books are good as far as they go.For readers who want to, and have the capacity to, go further, they are more than welcome to, but that shouldn't call for snarkiness towards Strobel.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    @Thomas Tucker: I'm frustrated because they're meant as popular works. It's not that Strobel isn't asking all the questions, it's that he's only half answering the questions he raises. It feels deceptive.And it's not fair saying the reader is expected to 'go further' when he presents cases as nearly settled. Not to mention: Strobel makes it hard to follow up. In the questions/further readings at the end of each chapter, he only lists apologetic works and omits even the skeptical authors he mentions in his questions.

  • thomas tucker

    Good points. And some have criticized him for essentially writing for believers rather than for skeptics.But I think he is simply writing for people who aren't up to heavy reading.And he is convinced of his belief now so it really is a book of apologetics rather than a balanced debate, hence the title.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18223681740339288576 Jeff

    Dismissing the group as "youths" rather than children, and pointing out that their comments were *really mean* and really hurt poor Elisha's feelings, is hardly a good justification for their slaughter…


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