Lee Strobel’s Fragile Argument

Lee Strobel’s Fragile Argument March 8, 2013

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

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  • 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.

  • Belief and faith both mean”accepting as true something for which there is no supporting evidence and possibly much evidence against it. How intelligent is that?

  • Totally different argument. Islam kills to convert nonbelievers. Christians are killed for their beliefs.

  • Deborah Anwar

    the apostle’s died for their faith, so, yes, denying Jesus would have gotten them free, sorry, BUT, i believe you are able to get past your scepticism, just have a little faith

    • I have zero use for faith, I’m afraid.

      But I have replied to the “But who would die for a lie?” argument here.

    • Greg G.

      You have no idea how they died or if denying Jesus would have gotten them off. The second century churches competed with one another for their apostolic lineages and having a spectacular story of martyrdom was one of the ways they competed. At least one apostle is said to have been killed twice by different means in two different countries.

  • Dee Jay

    He might have been an athiest and still is an athiest I guess. But there is no money in that. You can only fool blind folowers but not those who see reason adn can question. A pastor makes tons of money using his fait. You call youself as an athiest once upon a time, you are more interesting and can make even more money. nothing more. Jesus does exist for Lee and it is the other name for his riches…LOL

    • Maybe if more atheists spoofed this game (had a very loud reconversion back into the fold and then said, “Gotcha!” after enough people were taken in), people like Brother Strobel wouldn’t get so much airtime.

      • I was raised a Christian. I was sent to religious schools. I started to think about what a real god would do, or say, or advocate. In my early teens, I gave up that childish belief, which I had been indoctrinated in from birth.

        Although I have read a lot of arguments for Jesus and other gods, including The Case for Christ (just finished this reissued book of logical fallacies), I haven’t come across any logically consistent reason to change my mind. Why are the Gods of the Bible so illogical and so ignorant?

        Why is it acceptable for Strobel to sell his daughter as a sex slave? The Bible, the source of Strobel’s morality, says it is OK.

        I get the impression that my conversion is the same as for many other American atheists.

        Logic is the enemy of belief. Those who do not understand logic, take refuge in belief. The book is a paean to eyewitness testimony, which is the least reliable form of evidence.


        • Why are the Gods of the Bible so illogical and so ignorant?

          And why are smart scholars still taken in by this superstition?

          The Bible, the source of Strobel’s morality, says it is OK.

          Christians get all excited about how atheism has nothing moral to say. Of course, that’s not surprising when you realize that it’s simply a lack of god belief and nothing else. The glass house part comes when you remember that Christianity does have a lot to say about morality, and much of it sucks.

  • Megan

    From Strobel’s point of view, he was an atheist. He wasn’t a Christian looking for more confirmation, he was an atheist out to disprove Christianity. He had already been well groomed by atheist readings and thoroughly enough seen things from an skeptic point of view, he didn’t need to go an ask a skeptic for their point of view because he was one and had read plenty of other skeptic point of views! Secondly, when he went to do the interviews (years before he wrote the book) he was only doing it for himself because he believed his wife had taken on a stupid belief and was out to disprove her.
    Read. The. Book. The movie is bollocks.

    • I haven’t seen the movie, but it seems as if the movie matches the book.

      A guy goes to 11, or was it 12, people to find out if Christianity is right.

      Just by coincidence, every one of them was an Evangelical preacher.

      They convinced Strobel that they know the truth, even though most Christians disagree with them.

      It’s a miracle.

      A real miracle would be someone getting all of the religious people of the world to agree on which Gods are real, what they want people to do, and why.

      I will wait for that true sign of Divine morality.

      I will not be holding my breath.


    • The resulting book was no honest discussion of the issue but a one-sided discussion. That’s fine, let’s just not say that it explored both sides.