Lee Strobel was an atheist and a hotshot journalist — publishing his first book, about the Ford Pinto trial, when he was 28 — when his life hit a roadbump he hadn’t expected: his wife became an evangelical Christian.
Strobel set out to debunk her faith, using his skills as an investigative reporter to interview experts on the death and purported resurrection of Jesus, and — much to his surprise — he ended up convinced that Jesus really did rise from the dead.
Strobel became a Christian in 1981. He wrote a book summarizing the evidence he had found, called The Case for Christ, in 1998. And that book has now been turned into a film of the same name, which comes out this Friday (April 7).
I spoke to Strobel — who now serves as a teaching pastor at Woodlands Church and as a Professor of Christian Thought at Houston Baptist University in Texas — over the phone. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.
They often say that people can’t be argued into the faith, but based on the film and my memories of reading your book many years ago, it seems that you kind of were. Is that fair to say, that you were argued into the faith?
Lee Strobel: I think what the evidence did was give me a rational basis for believing, and I think it sort of knocked down the barriers I had between me and God. In other words, I don’t feel like I was argued into the faith, but I feel like the evidence knocked down a succession of objections and issues and questions and doubts that I had, that sort of cleared the pathway for me to come to the faith.
Okay. So simply demonstrating that the evidence points towards the Resurrection, that itself wouldn’t make somebody a Christian, then.
Strobel: No, I think we can be in intellectual agreement with the faith and subscribe to the apologetic evidence and even recite the Apostles’ Creed, but John 1:12 says that as many as received him, to them he gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in his name. So I think there’s a faith formula in that verse: believe plus receive equals become. So I think believing’s important, having intellectual agreement with Christian doctrine is important, but there has to be a time when we receive God’s gift of grace — not that we’ve earned it or merit it or deserve it — but receive this free gift of forgiveness and eternal life that Jesus purchased on the cross for us. I think the evidence can get us to the point of being in intellectual agreement, but ultimately, coming to faith and being as the Bible refers to it born again requires receiving this gift of grace.
Right. The story takes place in 1980, and the book came out in 1998 — so almost 20 years later — and now the film is coming out in 2017, which is another 20 years almost. How have the issues changed over the years? Are people asking different questions? Are they asking the same questions?
Strobel: Well, that’s a good question. (laughs) I think fundamentally, the question of whether or not Christianity makes sense — whether it withstands scrutiny, whether the evidence supports it or hurts it — always comes down to the Resurrection. Paul said in I Corinthians 15:17, if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile. So that’s the linchpin of the Christian faith, is whether Jesus did indeed, A, live, B, die, and C, was resurrected from the dead, which authenticated his claims of divinity. So I think the Resurrection continues to be a pivotal issue, a pivotal question for people. I think a lot of other issues have been raised in interim years, about the nature of truth, of course gender issues, issues involving social matters like abortion and euthanasia and so forth, those swirl about and change from time to time, but I think the fundamental question of whether or not Christianity is true ultimately goes back to the Resurrection.
Right. Well, I was thinking about a quote I seem to recall hearing from Josh McDowell at least ten years ago. He was saying that when he did apologetics work in the 1970s, people were interested a lot more in facts and reason than they seemed to be nowadays, where there is a lot more emphasis on, I dunno, feeling or intuition or whatever.
Strobel: Yeah. Here’s what I’ve discovered along those lines. When I was interviewing one of the scholars for my book, he said, “You know, nobody’s going to read your book,” and I said, “Why not?” And he said, “Because we live in a post-modern world. Young people especially are not interested in historical evidence.” And I remember going home and telling my wife, “No one’s going to read my book!” I was really depressed until then. Fast forward: when the book came out, we were surprised that the single biggest group of people who said that they have come to faith through the book has been 16- to 24-year-olds, the very people who get accused a lot of times of relying too much on their feelings and not enough on facts and evidence. I think they really are interested. You cannot build your life with a consistent worldview that is on the shifting sands of moral relativism. It’s just very difficult to maintain that, so I think, ultimately, young people especially are interested in evidence, and that’s why we’re seeing a resurgence of apologetics on the part of young people. Christianity Today had a headline recently that said, ‘Apologetics makes a comeback in student ministries.’ I think young people really do care. They want to build their life on something that’s solid and makes sense, that’s rational, that’s not built on mythology, make-believe and wishful thinking.
Interesting. In turning your book into a feature film, it occurs to me that you may have found– There’s at least the potential here for a fusion of the argument side of things and the emotional side of things, because we are being taken into your character’s story. What was that like, trying to turn this into a narrative feature?
Strobel: Because it’s based on the true story of our marriage, our life, that narrative was already there. So we just kind of told the story of two people who fell in love when they were 14 years old, got married when they were young (19 and 20), had a pretty good marriage because they both had a similar worldview (one an atheist and one an agnostic), but then how my wife coming to faith threw a monkey wrench into our relationship and almost destroyed our marriage. So it’s a very human story; as you say, there’s a lot of emotion in that story, because it tells a real-life adventure of a couple caught up in an unequally-yoked relationship and how that nearly destroyed their relationship. So that aspect of it, the emotional side, the human side, the personal side, is very much evident in the film, because it’s not a documentary — it’s really, as you say, a narrative based on a true story. And I think because it is rooted in reality, it carries more weight than if it was just made up out of some screenwriter’s imagination.
Right. With regard to both your book and the film, how closely are they based on the actual investigation you did in 1980, and to what degree have you augmented it with questions or experts that you came across afterwards?
Strobel: Well you know, it’s very difficult to take a two-year experience, which is about the length of this spiritual investigation, and compress it into a 90-minute film in a three-act format that makes sense. And so, we have had to make some compromises, in terms of time-shifting. Certain things are time-shifted. For instance, there’s a reference to the death of the wife of Gary Habermas, the Resurrection scholar, which actually happened several years after 1980, but with his permission we were able to time-shift that, just to make the point. It’s true, it happened, we’re just changing the timing of it to be able to talk about it in the film. So sometimes those things take place. So we’ve time-shifted some things, some characters are composites. For instance, the character Alfie, who is the woman who led Leslie to the Lord, is based on two people. It’s based on Linda, who was a nurse, and another woman, who was an African-American co-worker — actually a boss of Leslie, when she worked at a bank in Chicago. Both of them reached out to Leslie, both of them had an impact on her spiritually, but instead of having two characters — it became very bulky in the script — we’ve melded that into one. So I’d say the film is 80 to 85 percent, very close to what happened. But there is a percentage, just because that’s the nature of movie-making — it had to be shifted or augmented in some way.
You had a cameo in God’s Not Dead 2 as an expert witness in court. If you were ever asked to do that, would you testify yourself, or would you pass the request along to one of the historians you have interviewed?
Strobel: Whether my qualifications as the author of almost 20 books about Jesus would have qualified me would have been up to the court to decide. Personally, I like going to Ph.D.s who have an educational qualification in that specific area and professional qualifications in terms of peer-reviewed articles and books and so forth. That’s why, I think, you know, when we talk about debates, I always like to see debates between Ph.D.s who are thoroughly schooled in the specific area they’re debating, rather than popular-level debaters that end up often more emotion than substance.
Early on, there’s a line in the film that the only way to truth is through facts. Does this movie vindicate that line or do you think it challenges it in the end?
Strobel: I think it– That line was coming from a skeptic, Ray Nelson, the character in the film who was sort of my atheist mentor. And I think it’s kind of vindicated in the film, in the sense that the evidence of history, I think, points convincingly in the direction of the Resurrection having occurred, whether we look at the evidence for the crucifixion and the death of Jesus, we look at the evidence of the earliest accounts that date back to within months of the death of Jesus, as we look at the nine sources inside and outside the New Testament that confirm and corroborate the conviction of the disciples that they encountered the risen Jesus, the evidence for the empty tomb — I think the facts of ancient history point persuasively toward Jesus having returned from the dead and thus showing us he is who he claimed to be.
Director Jon Gunn, left, Leslie, me and the movie "us:" Erika Christensen of Parenthood and Mike Vogel of The Help. pic.twitter.com/Qc72fnBIWw
— Lee Strobel (@LeeStrobel) September 30, 2016
— The Case for Christ opens in theatres across North America on April 7. There will also be special advanced screenings followed by a live-streamed Q&A on April 6.