The 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 millions of copies. It also became a movie (2017), 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 apologetics. 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 Strobel getting an award for exposing the safety problems 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. They go to a church service together, and the pastor says that we must listen for God’s whisper. He says, “Open your heart and take a chance.”
Which is what you’d say if there were no good evidence for your supernatural claims. I wonder if the pastor has this leap-before-you-look approach with Scientology or Mormonism. Clearly, not all the arguments are of the “just the facts” type.
After more church and a bit of praying, the wife admits to Strobel that she’s now drawn to the Jesus thing. He gets offended and goes out for a drinking binge. Is his marriage at a crossroads?
Strobel has two older mentors at the newspaper, an atheist and a Christian, and he discusses his concerns with each. The Christian mentor challenges Strobel 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 Christian scholar 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. It could be three days and you would dismiss a miraculous account if it came from a religion not your own. 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 enough to comment.)
Strobel gave people drinking poisoned Kool-Aid at Jonestown in 1978 as an example of people laying down their lives for stupid reasons. ☢ Habermas responded 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! They argue that it was a legend. More here and here.)
Strobel 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. Strobel investigates, and all the evidence points to Hicks . . . though it’s clear to us in the audience that there’s more to this story.
Strobel 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.)
☢ The priest also has a facsimile of P52, a papyrus scrap of John, which may have been copied just 30 years after the original. (Be consistent: 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.)
Strobel is back in his underground lair to organize all this data. We increasingly see Strobel’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.)
☢ Strobel notes that women weren’t reliable witnesses in Jewish culture. Craig responds with the Criterion of Embarrassment: why would you put in something awkward like that 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?” (Does nothing count as poor evidence? Are you this generous with evidence for other religions?! I discuss contradictions in the resurrection accounts here.)
Strobel’s questions are those of an amateur. We all have to start somewhere, and 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 Strobel good responses to the Christian arguments and give him more questions to ask. The average atheist blogger would make quick work of the Christian position given in this movie.
Strobel 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 team to check out the Jesus story.
He placates his wife by going to church once, ☢ and 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.)
Trouble at home
Strobel’s parents show up to see their new baby, and we discover that Strobel has issues with his emotionally distant father.
Things are also going poorly on the marriage front. He confronts his wife: wouldn’t you want to know if Christianity isn’t true? She throws it back at him: Wouldn’t you want to know if it is?
Later, her nurse friend references a verse from Ezekiel: “I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Dear Jesus, when are you going to make that conversion on Strobel??
Back on the hunt, Strobel 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. And anyway, wouldn’t something like the dancing sun at Fatima count? It was seen by 30,000 people. [h/t commenter Pofarmer])
She asked about Strobel’s father, and we learn more about that bad relationship. ☢ She ticked off famous atheists who 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 had a bad relationship with his father. More here.)
We again see Strobel’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
Stop the presses! Strobel uncovers new evidence in the 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 Strobel visits him in the hospital. Strobel admits 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, Strobel 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 Strobel’s father dies. Strobel discovers that the old man wasn’t so bad after all—he just had a hard time expressing his affection. Could Strobel’s stoney heart be softening?
Strobel’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 Strobel 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. Strobel pitches his personal conversion story to his editor: one man’s journey from skepticism to faith. The editor turns it down, but then his wife suggests turning it into a book. In the final scene, Strobel rolls paper into his typewriter and pecks out the words, “The Case for Christ.”
The End. Thank God.
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,
and you’re worshipping a god who will burn your child 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)
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 4/8/17.)