If it could be proven that Jesus never rose from the dead after he was brutally crucified, would that be the end of Christianity? Journalist Lee Strobel seemed to think so in 1980 when he spent two years of his life attempting to debunk the resurrection myth in order to save his wife from her new-found Christianity. It's a dramatic tale of theology and marriage that was chronicled in the bestselling book, The Case for Christ, and a newly released film from the evangelical production company, Pure Flix.
In the film, young Strobel is a cynical atheist and hard-drinking journalist for the Chicago Tribune, who simply cannot accept that his wife has begun praying and attending church. "I should be the thing that gives her life meaning," he whines to his atheist friend as they swill whiskey and quote Bertrand Russell. In an obsessively dickish move, he devotes his nights and weekends to finding holes in the resurrection story, believing that if he can prove Jesus was a fraud, he will get his wife back.
After two years of applying all his skills of science and reason to the matter, interviewing various experts on Jesus and his death (essentially treating it like a crime story), Strobel succumbs and tearfully admits to his wife, "the evidence for your faith is more overwhelming than I could've imagined." This experience drives him to quit journalism and become a pastor of one of the first megachurches, Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois.
Like George W. Bush trading in hooch for the holy ghost, evangelicals love a good conversion story. It's a narrative that makes audiences feel good about picking Christ. It's a big part of why The Case for Christ the book became such a huge hit with believers, with 14 million copies currently in print.
"It's one of those books, like The Purpose Driven Life, that you often find in evangelical Christian homes," says Adam Holz, an editor with the Focus on the Family movie review site, PluggedIn. "It was a phenomenon."
Attempting to prove the Bible's legitimacy using science and history is nothing new. The tradition has been going on since the birth of the religion in the first century. The most well-known modern example is C.S. Lewis, creator of The Chronicles of Narnia series. Lewis spent years writing books like Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters, which have become the foundation for the Christian apologetics today. It's authors like Lewis and Strobel whose books are given to teenage Christians when they start asking questions about why the Bible stories of their youth appear to contradict the science of evolution, archeology, or physics.
Like a lot of evangelical books, The Case for Christ has been expanded into a veritable library of study guides, lecture series, specialized bibles, and student and children's versions of the book. This merchandising empire often becomes the primary source of historical information for people in evangelical culture (particularly for children who don't attend public school), with little secular information to compare it against.
In 2001, Ryan Connell was one such evangelical Christian who leaned heavily on Case for his understanding of Biblical history. Though his experience eventually became the mirror opposite of Strobel's, going from believer to atheist via a historical investigation.
"I'd say Strobel's book did more to damage my faith than strengthen it," recalls Connell, who now runs his own former-fundamentalist blog called The Holy Apostate, mostly read by people grappling with their religious past.
Back when he was a 19-year-old bible-college student in Dallas, Texas, Connell would often go out and proselytize to random people in bars, parking lots, or sidewalks (a common practice among evangelicals). He was armed for debate against non-believers with a copy of Strobel's book in hand. "That book gave me a lot of confidence to talk to intellectuals and academics about Christ. But when I found out that the general scholarship around Christ and the history of the church is not what Strobel presents, it kicked the legs out from under me. I felt lied to."
Connell says that despite having never actually encountered an atheist before he began street-witnessing, he felt he'd already known what all their arguments against Christianity would be, because he'd read Case. When actually confronted with non-believers, he had no answers for their questions.
"I'd never heard of the pagan roots of Christianity, or basic information surrounding how the gospels were written, how many copy errors there were, or that we don't have the original documents," he says. "Nothing I'd read had prepared me for those arguments. In his book, Strobel doesn't ask the same questions that scholars or skeptics would. Like trying to prove Jesus faked his own death and then coming up short. [But skeptics don't] wonder if Jesus faked his own death. They wonder how reliable the Bible's manuscripts are."
Among many, the biggest criticism Strobel's book receives is that all of his sources for historical or scientific information come from Christian apologists, never any non-believers, a circumstance Connell likens to "scientists who work for oil companies trying to prove global warming is a hoax. They'll start with the answer, then go looking for the question: 'The Bible is real, now how do we use science to prove that?'"
Strobel, who did not respond to request for an interview, has dismissed this by saying "I was standing in the shoes of a skeptic" when he set off on his quest, and that he reiterated arguments of atheists when he was conducting his interviews. The book wasn't written until the late 90s, after he'd already built a lucrative career around evangelicalism. This means Strobel had to recall what his mindset and arguments were as a young man in 1980, who was influenced by the writings of Freud and Bertrand Russell he'd read years before that.
The idea of putting the gospels to the test as a piece of journalism is one that makes most secular historians a little uneasy. After all, no one really knows who authored them (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not compose the books attributed to them), but historians do agree that the authors never met Jesus, never met anyone who met him, didn't speak the language of Jesus's land, most likely lived in another country, and wrote the gospels 40 to 70 years after Jesus's death, based on rumors that had been going around.
According to Dale Martin professor of religious studies at Yale University, there are no Roman records about Jesus from anywhere near his lifetime (assuming his execution was around 30 CE). The earliest mention of him outside those by Christian believers comes from around 60 to 90 years after his death, and some of those were later doctored by Christian scribes. The Gospels themselves contain contradictions, especially in the details of Jesus's birth, death, and resurrection appearances. Moreover, the text of the Bible was altered by Christians for political and theological reasons in thousands of manuscripts, copied over and over by hand, for centuries before the text of the New Testament could be said to become relatively "stable" with the invention of the printing press in the 1450s.
The Case for Christ refutes a lot of this, claiming that there were 500 eyewitnesses to Christ's resurrection, and that they were interviewed months after the fact. Strobel also maintains that the Bible is historically sound within itself, and when compared with secular sources.
Attempting to unravel the science behind evangelical claims that the Earth is 5,000 years old, or that Noah lived on an ark with two of all the world's animals during a global flood, or that Jesus's death and resurrection were "one of the most attested events of the ancient world" (as a doctor in the movie claims), and then compare them with the secular scientific opinions that refute those claims, would be quite an epic undertaking.
For Dale Martin, such a debate is not only futile and unnecessary, but misses the whole point.
"The gospels are not designed to be journalistic documents," says Martin, who specializes in origins of Christianity and the New Testament. "They're written more like sermons in order to illicit faith and strengthen different theological point of views by people who were already believers. None of these were written to send out like a newspaper, or with the aim of converting people. The gospel of Mark wasn't even considered a book until the end of the second century, just a series of notes."
Unlike Ryan Connell, Martin identifies as a Christian, and says that his faith has never been dependent on whether or not the Bible is historically sound.
"I teach students how to read the Bible from a critical, historical perspective, but that's not the only way to read this text. If you need the Bible to be confirmed by modern historiography in order to be true, then you're putting your faith in historiography, and not in God. And that's idolatry. As a believer, I put my faith in God. I can't explain why I have faith, I just have it. The Apostle Paul said that 'we are justified by grace through faith, not works.' That's a fundamental tenet of protestantism, and yet these people don't seem to understand that. They seem to think if you can't prove it there's no reason to believe it."
In addition to Martin, the New Testament scholars I'd reached out to from Duke and Vanderbilt had never heard of The Case for Christ either, which illustrates the massive divide between evangelical education and those of secular universities. Often the academic world knows nothing of best-selling Christian educational texts, and vice versa, so the two realms of thought are rarely forced to contend with one another.
Holz, the film editor for Focus on the Family, doesn't feel that this is as much of a problem as it was when Strobel began his quest in 1980.
"At the time of this film, the church was still responding to modernism," he says. "In the 19th and early 20th centuries there were all these folks leveling a scientific and historical criticism of the Bible, and the church began to struggle with what is true and what isn't, and how to respond to these attacks. And they responded on the scientist's terms, using rationality and history to fight against those arguments, which is the context of this film. Forty years later we're very much in a postmodern culture that seems to be far less interested in the idea of truth: There's your narrative and my narrative, let's all coexist. So this movie feels a little anachronistic. But I still think it was a legitimate approach for the church to make, because ultimately even if there is historical evidence, you still have to decide whether or not to put your faith in Christ."
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