The riveting story of award-winning, legally trained journalist Lee Strobel as told in the book The Case for Christ has become a series of books, which have together sold 14 million copies. Yesterday it opened as a movie, about which Lee Strobel said, “It’s been an incredible journey, not only to go from atheism to faith, but to see the raw reality of our lives played out on film. In the end, it’s our hope that everyone who sees it will take their own faith journey.”
If you’re a Christian who wants a pat on the head and you don’t need to think too hard about the arguments given, that might work. For everyone else, it’s an unsurprising journey from lack of God belief to Christian faith with a greatest hits collection of weak Christian arguments. It would’ve been a lot more engaging if they’d handed out Bingo cards of ridiculous Christian arguments.
Lee Strobel: award-winning journalist
The movie opens at the Chicago Tribune with Lee getting an award for investigative journalism into questions about the safety of the Ford Pinto. We learn the kind of guy he is when he says, “The only way to truth is through facts.”
His family life is blissful, but then at a restaurant, his little daughter chokes on a gumball. A nurse at the restaurant saves her. Afterwards, the nurse tells the wife that Jesus told her to be there that night. At home in bed, the daughter asks about Jesus, and we learn that the parents are atheists.
This event plants a seed in the wife’s mind. She later visits the nurse, and they talk about God. And then go to a church service together. The pastor says that we must listen for God’s whisper. He says, “Open your heart and take a chance.”
Clearly, not all the arguments are of the “just the facts” type.
After more church and a bit of praying, the wife admits to Lee that she’s now drawn to the Jesus thing. He gets offended and goes out to get drunk solo. Is his marriage at a crossroads?
Lee has two older mentors at the newspaper, an atheist and a Christian, and he discusses his concerns with each. The Christian mentor challenges Lee to investigate the Jesus story and points to a banner on the newsroom wall: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” He visits Gary Habermas, and we get the first of more than a dozen weak Christian apologetic arguments. I’ll summarize each argument that I noticed for completeness and for your amusement, but I won’t spend much time rebutting them. (I’ll put brief comments in italics after each one.)
☢ Atheist Gerd Lüdemann says that Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 passage was written just three years after the event. (That’s debatable, but even so, it doesn’t mean much. More here.) ☢ Paul claims that 500 eyewitnesses saw the risen Christ. (Is that compelling evidence? Then why didn’t the gospels include it, too? More here.) ☢ There are nine sources for the crucifixion, some of them outside the Bible. (I haven’t studied this one. I hope to do so and write about it soon.) Lee gave people drinking poison Kool-Aid at Jonestown in 1978 as an example of people laying down their lives for stupid reasons. ☢ Habermas responds that those people didn’t drink poison for something they knew was a lie or hoax (That’s true, but very few atheists argue that the resurrection was a lie or a hoax! More here.)
Lee sets up an unused storeroom in the newspaper’s basement to organize his research into Jesus, like in a murder case. As he revisits it in subsequent scenes, we see the white board filling with claims and photos.
The plot thickens
And now, a subplot: a Chicago cop is shot, and a man named Hicks is charged with the crime. Lee investigates, and all the evidence points to his guilt . . . though it’s clear to us in the audience that there’s more to this story.
Lee interviews another Jesus expert, a priest this time, and we get more arguments. ☢ Historians have 5800 copies of Greek New Testament manuscripts, three times more than second-place Homer. The priest shows an illuminated page from Homer that was written 800 years after the original. (I wonder why the priest doesn’t make clear that 800 years is better than 90 percent of those Greek New Testament manuscripts. More here.) ☢ He also has a facsimile of P52, a papyrus scrap of John, which may have been copied just 30 years after the original. (If you actually care about textual criticism, you’ll find that Mormonism has far better evidence than Christianity. More here.) ☢ Finally, there’s the photo negative of the Shroud of Turin hung on the wall of the church. (You like old evidence? Then you’ll be interested to hear that the oldest well-documented reference to this shroud—which is just one of dozens from a time when relics were valuable properties—states that it is a forgery. More here.)
Lee is back in his underground lair to organize all this data. We increasingly see Lee’s quest in parallel with his wife studying the Bible. Back at home, he gets drunk. Tensions flare, and she asks Jesus for help.
Time to speak to a world-famous apologist
And now, a phone call with William Lane Craig and more evidence. ☢ Maybe the disciples went to the wrong tomb? (Not an argument that I make.) ☢ Lee notes that women weren’t reliable witnesses in Jewish culture. Craig responds with the Criterion of Embarrassment: why would you put something like that in unless it were true? This is evidence that they weren’t making up the story. (Here again, the only one proposing that the story was made up is you. Anyway, women at the tomb makes perfect sense. More here.) ☢ What about the contradictions in the accounts? Craig says that if there weren’t some contradictions, you’d suspect collusion and challenges him: “When is enough evidence enough evidence?” (I discuss contradictions in the resurrection accounts here.)Lee’s questions are those of an amateur. That’s fine, since we all have to start somewhere, but every question is Lee’s own. He comes up with some good questions, but the Church has had 2000 years to paper over its embarrassing problems, so their riposte is often compelling. Where’s the atheist expert to interview? That expert would give Lee good responses to the Christian arguments and give him more questions to ask. Lee’s attack isn’t bad for a novice, but the average atheist blogger would make quick work of the Christian position.
Lee finds new data in the cop shooter case and writes a front page story that puts Hicks away for a long time. Clearly he’s a great investigator! It’s good we have him on our side to check out the Jesus story.
He placates his wife by going to church once, ☢ where the pastor talks about people turning away from the church simply because of bad experiences with the church, not because it’s not true. (Not an argument I make.)
Lee’s parents show up to see their new baby, and we discover that Lee has issues with his distant father.
Trouble at home
Things are going poorly on the marriage front. He confronts his wife: wouldn’t you want to know if it’s not true? She throws it back at him: Wouldn’t you?
Her nurse friend later references a verse from Ezekiel: “I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Dear God, when are you going to make that conversion on Lee??
Back on the hunt, Lee visits a famous nonbelieving psychologist. He asks if the disciples could’ve been deluded by a group hallucination. ☢ Nope—she declares that group hallucinations don’t happen. (Not an argument that I make.) She asks about Lee’s father, and we learn more about that bad relationship. ☢ She ticks off famous atheists, all of whom had distant or abusive fathers. (This is Paul Vitz’s flabby argument, which simply cherry picks the data to come to a predetermined conclusion. For example, I wonder why she didn’t list C. S. Lewis, a famous Christian who also had a bad relationship with his father. More here.)
We again see Lee’s quest paralleled with the wife’s journey through the Bible and pray that this movie is stumbling to a close.
Tying up the loose ends
Hold the presses! Lee uncovers new evidence in Hicks case: the cop actually shot himself by accident with an illegal pen gun. It wasn’t Hicks! Shortly after, Hicks gets beaten up in prison (guards don’t do much to protect cop shooters), and Lee visits him in the hospital. Lee tells him that he didn’t see the truth. Hicks replies, “You didn’t want to see the truth.” Take that, atheists!
In what mercifully turns out to be his last interview, Lee asks a doctor about the swoon theory—that Jesus didn’t actually die but that he just fainted on the cross and revived in the tomb. ☢ Wrong again, the doctor tells him. The Roman executioners were very good at making sure the convicts were dead, and we get the obligatory journey through the agony of Jesus’s last day. (I never argue the swoon theory. I try to slap some sense into the resurrection story here and here.)
Remember that atheists-are-atheists-because-of-bad-father-figures hypothesis? We get closure on that one after Lee’s father dies. Lee discovers that the old man wasn’t so bad after all—he just had a hard time expressing his affection. Could Lee’s stoney heart be softening?
Lee’s at the end of his investigation, but what to do with it all? His atheist friend tells him that ☢ it’s a leap of faith either way. (Uh, no—it’s a leap of faith if you’re making a conclusion without evidence; more here. You should believe things only if there’s good evidence to do so. You don’t believe in unicorns, leprechauns, and fairies because there’s insufficient evidence, so why not follow the same approach for something far more important like God?) Inexplicably, ☢ Pascal’s Wager pops up in this conversation; that is, a bet on God is a huge win if you’re right and not a big deal if you’re wrong. (I rebut that here.)
And Lee is left to decide. Back in his man cave, he remembers what the priest had said: Jesus is love. This is the last straw, and he concludes, “All right, God—you win.”
He reconciles with his wife and says, “The evidence for your faith is more overwhelming than I could ever imagine.” They kneel, and he says the sinner’s prayer.
Three months later, justice has been done for Hicks. Lee pitches his conversion story to his editor: one man’s journey from skepticism to faith. The editor turns it down, but then his wife suggests that he write a book. In the final scene, Lee rolls paper into his typewriter and pecks out the words, “The Case for Christ.”
The End. Thank God.
(If you’re interested in how to respond to these ex-atheists with their poor arguments, I have a suggestion here.)
and you’re worshipping a god who will burn your child forever
Here you are, a shitty teenage father who’s not even good at this,
and there is nothing this little girl could ever do to you in her entire life
that would make you want to kill her, let alone burn her forever,
because she doesn’t get his name right
or thinks he has six arms
or doesn’t believe in him?
You have to be kidding me.
— Frank Shaeffer (Point of Inquiry 3/24/14 @ 30:40)