Lee Strobel is a 64-year old, very successful, apologist author of books on Christian faith. But it wasn’t always so. He graduated from Harvard Law School and then was a journalist for 14 years at The Chicago Tribune newspaper. In Strobel’s most popular book, The Case for Christ (1998, Zondervan, p 13), he relates, “For much of my life I was a skeptic. In fact, I considered myself an atheist…. As for Jesus, didn’t you know that he never claimed to be God? He was a revolutionary, a sage, an iconoclastic Jew–but God?… As far as I was concerned, the case was closed. There was enough proof for me to rest easy with the conclusion that the divinity of Jesus was nothing more than the fanciful invention of superstitious people.”
Then Lee Strobel came to a place in his life where he looked more deeply into the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. But Strobel began this spiritual quest from the wrong premise–whether or not Jesus is God. He should have begun his journey with the question of whether or not Jesus was Israel’s Messiah sent by God to die for our sins on the cross and arise from the dead, thereby making himself available to us as our Savior from sin by God forgiving us and giving us eternal salvation. That is what the New Testament is all about.
But no, Strobel was converted and went way beyond these New Testament precepts to proclaim that Jesus is God. Of course, it is interesting to learn stories of people who were atheists and then converted to faith in Jesus. But faith in Jesus as Savior is not the same as believing Jesus is God.
Strobel’s bestseller, The Case for Christ, is like C. S. Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity. The primary thrust of both books is their authors assert that Jesus claimed to be God and is God. But then, they are only espousing what the post-apostolic, institutional church has said. If you go by the New Testament, I think that is wrong.
Just for starters, check these out: (1) Jesus never claims to be God in any of his New Testament gospel sayings; (2) Jesus clearly embraced Jewish monotheism, that God, whom Jesus called “Father,” is numerically one, thus a single person (e.g., John 5.44; 17.3; Mark 12.28-34); (3) Jesus said, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14.28); (4) the two times when Jesus was accused of making himself God or equal with God, he denied it (John 5.18-47; 10.30-38); (5) at Jesus’ hearing before the Sanhedrin, he was’t accused of ever claiming to be God; (6) in all of the evangelistic sermons and statements in the book of Acts, nothing is said about Jesus being God; (7) and there is no discussion or argument recorded in the New Testament about whether or not Jesus is God. All of this indicates that it is highly questionable that the New Testament ever says Jesus is God. Many of the few biblical texts that scholars put forth as evidence that Jesus is God have grammatical difficulties and therefore likely do not say Jesus is God.
As with Strobel, so with me–it wasn’t always so. I was a Trinitarian Christian for 22 years and involved in ministry on the PGA Tour for seventeen years. Then I had a eureka moment one day while reading Jesus Olivet Discourse that changed my theology and life forever. See “At Forty Years Old I Best Saw the Light–Trinity Doctrine No Longer Seemed Right.”
Like the good journalist that Strobel was, he crafted his book The Case for Christ based on interviews he conducted with thirteen of illustrious Evangelical scholars in the U.S. academy. They include Craig Blomberg, Bruce Metzger, Edwin Yamauchi, Gregory Boyd, Ben Witherington, Don Carson, William Lane Craig, and Gary Habermas. I respect all of these men and have many of their books in my library. Yet I think they are wrong to have followed church fathers on this topic, claiming Jesus is God.
William Lane Craig, who appears often on television, has become the most prominent apologist for Christian faith in the U.S. In Strobel’s interview with Dr. Craig, he quotes him as saying (p. 30), “‘Son of Man’ is often thought to indicate the humanity of Jesus, just as the reflex expression ‘Son of God’ indicates his divinity. In fact, just the opposite is true. The Son of Man was a divine figure in the Old Testament book of Daniel who would come at the end of the world to judge mankind and rule forever. Thus, the claim to be the Son of Man would be in effect a claim to divinity.”
I disagree. Daniel relates his vision about “one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven,” approaching the enthroned God in heaven, and being given a great kingdom of people (Daniel 7.13-14 NIV). There is nothing in this text indicating this Son of Man is God. Quite the contrary, the Bible repeatedly says there is numerically one God, whom it often identifies as “the Most High.” And Jesus often alluded to this Daniel text when he constantly identified himself as the Son of Man. And clouds certainly don’t indicate deity, as some scholars claim, since believers will be resurrected in the future and “be caught up in the clouds” as well (1 Thessalonians 4.17).
In Strobel’s interview of Dr. Craig Blomberg (p. 29), the latter cites Jesus saying “I am” in John 8.58 as evidence of Jesus indirectly claiming to be God. Blomberg and many others make this assertion by connecting this “I am” (Greek ego eimi) with that said by God in Exodus 3.14. But God only means by it that he is “The LORD,” which he says in v. 15 and is Yahweh (Hebrew YHWH), God’s name. (Bible translation tradition never transliterates God’s name, YHWH, but renders it “the LORD.”) Most New Testament scholars say Jesus never claimed to be Yahweh. Regardless, Jesus likely meant in John 8.58 that he ranks superior to Moses. (See my Restitution of Jesus Christ book on this.)
Strobel also quotes Blomberg saying (p. 30), “Jesus claims to forgive sins in the synoptics, and that’s something only God can do.” Blomberg refers to Mark 2.10 and Matt. 9.5. But later, when Jesus was accused of claiming to be “equal to God” (John 5.18), he extensively denied it (vv. 19-47). He therein said of himself as the Son, “For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgement, because he is the Son of Man” (vv. 26-27). So, God gave Jesus the authority to judge by either forgiving sins or not forgiving sins. If Jesus was God, the authority to forgive sins would be intrinsic to his nature so that he would not have had to be given this authority.
In Strobel’s interview of my friend Ben Witherington, Lee said to the good Doctor (p. 135), “‘Certainly you can’t say that Jesus’ miracles establish that he thought he was God.’ I said, ‘since later his own disciples went out and did the same things–and certainly they weren’t making claims of deity.'”
Ben answered, “No–to Jesus, his miracles are a sign indicating the coming of the kingdom of God.” That is quite right. But in one of my previous posts, entitled “Ben Witherington Entangles Himself by Deifying Jesus,” I mention that Ben gave a lecture, now online, in which I say Ben “cites the Devil’s temptation of Jesus to turn stones into bread, recorded in Matt. 4.3 and Luke 4.3. Ben says the Devil would not have tempted Jesus like that unless he was God because only God could do such a miracle.”
WOW! I must say, Ben, I was shocked by this from a scholar of your stature. Many Christians throughout the ages have thought likewise, that Jesus was God because he did miracles, and many have thought this since Jesus arose from the dead. But so many Bible scholars of various stripes have rightly alleged that this kind of thinking is so short sighted. Prophets and Jesus’ apostles did miracles, and all of God’s people will arise from the dead to receive immortal bodies at the resurrection at the end of the age; yet none of these things prove that any of these people were God. So, I’m only saying the same thing in that post that Strobel said to Witherington, with which he agreed. I don’t know if Ben realizes that he made a contradiction between these two statements.
But Strobel makes the same contradiction in some statements of his own in The Case for Christ. He had earlier stated with approval concerning Jesus’ resurrection (p. 35), “The Resurrection–which is cited by Christians as the crowning confirmation of Jesus’ divinity.” Strobel later says (p. 206), “The Resurrection is the supreme identification of Jesus’ divine identity.” Both statements contradict what Lee said to Ben, above.
As Strobel concludes his book he says (p. 262), “Jesus backed up his claim to being God through miraculous claims of healing,… and with his own resurrection, which was the final authentication of his identity.” Again, this is a clear contradiction to what Strobel earlier writes that he said to Witherington. Now, Strobel is not the first to say Jesus’ resurrection proves he was God; many Christians have erroneously thought that. But it is shallow thinking. The Bible proclaims that all of God’s people who have died will arise on Resurrection Day, and no one thinks that will prove they all are Gods.
N. T. (Tom) Wright does well in attempting to correct this misconception in his book, The Challenge of Jesus. He says, (p. 130), “A serious problem that needs addressing … is that the resurrection [of Jesus] has from fairly early on in the church been regarded as the proof of Jesus’ divinity.” Wright also explains (p. 108), “Again and again one hears it suggested that the resurrection somehow proves Jesus’ divinity, so that to affirm or deny the one is to affirm or deny the other.” Wright calls this a “mistake.” He adds, “Nothing in the Jewish expectation of resurrection indicates that anyone would conclude that, faced with someone alive again with a new sort of life following death, such a person must be in some sense divine. To the contrary: resurrection was what was supposed to happen to all the dead, or at least all the righteous dead, and there was no suggestion that this would simultaneously constitute divinization.”
C. S. Lewis, whom I otherwise much respect, commits the same errors in his bestseller Mere Christianity. Both he and Strobel assert in these books, which have been their most successful, that Jesus even claimed to be God. Yet it is astonishing that both authors never try to prove it. Thus, they don’t even cite and discuss any New Testament gospel sayings of Jesus in which they believe he claimed to be God. At least one would think Jesus’ saying in John 10.30 would be cited–“I and the Father are one”–since some church fathers wrongly asserted that Jesus therein claimed to be God.
I don’t see how such successful authors get away with such an assertion without being challenged to defend what is a very serious declaration–that Jesus claimed to be God. No, he did not, that is, if you believe the Bible! Even the leading evangelical, New Testament scholars, e.g., James D. G. Dunn and Tom Wright, now admit not only that Jesus never claimed to be God; they say he never believed he was God. See these posts:
Finally, to see how weak Stroebel and his interviewees are on proving from scripture that Jesus is God, The Case for Christ does not even have a Scripture Index.
In conclusion, Jesus was a perfectly righteous man sent by God to die for our sins on the cross, and God proved it by raising him from the dead. That is the message of the New Testament that we Christians should proclaim to the world and not mix it with the error, adopted by church fathers who were influenced by Hellenism, that Jesus is God and that God is three persons.
(See Part 2 of this review, posted on May 7, 2017, by clicking here.)
(To see a titled list of over seventy, two-three page posts (easily accessible) about the Bible not saying Jesus is God, click here.)