An Atheist Reads The Case for Christ
The James Dixon Story
- Dixon, violent and with a rap sheet, is convicted of shooting a Chicago police sergeant, Richard Scanlon, only to be exonerated when the evidence is re-examined and it is proven that Scanlon actually accidentally shot himself with an unregistered pen gun and framed Dixon to avoid getting in trouble. Dixon had confessed to the crime as part of a plea bargain to gain a release with time served rather than risk a conviction and a harsh sentence.
- Strobel shares the story of Dixon to illustrate how conclusions can be challenged and overthrown, and also to establish his bona fides as a guy who can look at evidence objectively and find the truth. But he tells us more than he means to.
- First, he displays his grating faux-novelistic style by writing scenes in dialogue form that would be better if simply summarized. For example, he relates the reason for the innocent Dixon’s false confession this way:
Finally I put the crucial question to Dixon: “If you were innocent, why in the world did you plead guilty?”
Dixon sighed. “It was a plea bargain,” he said . . . “They said if I pleaded guilty, they would sentence me to one year in prison. I’d already spent 362 days in jail waiting for my trial. All I had to do was admit I did it and I’d go home in a few days. . . .”
“And so,” I said, “you admitted doing something that you didn’t do.”
Dixon nodded. “That’s right.”
The dialogue is dull and expository, reveals nothing about either person talking, and is almost certainly a paraphrase of their actual conversation. There is no reason to write this way, unless your aim is to make your writing as annoying and amateurish as possible.
- Second, at the end of the Dixon story, Strobel writes, “Where there had been inconsistencies or gaps, I naively glossed them over. . . . Finally I allowed the evidence to lead me to the truth, regardless of whether it fit my original presuppositions.” The first sentence is precisely the sort of thinking employed by Christian apologists, including Strobel himself throughout this book; the second is the sort of thinking that has led many people to atheism.
From Dixon to Jesus
- Strobel claims he once considered himself an atheist. I doubt this claim. He defines his former atheism by recounting the sort of questions he would ask: “How could there be a loving God if he consigned people to hell just for not believing in Him? How could miracles contravene the basic laws of nature? Didn’t evolution satisfactorily explain how life originated? Doesn’t scientific reasoning dispel belief in the supernatural?”
- The problem of hell is a question of the nature of God; it is not evidence against God’s existence. The question presumes there is a God.
- The question should not be “how could miracles happen?” but rather “is there any reason to believe miracles ever happen?”
- Evolutionary theory is not concerned with the origin of life, but with the development of life, the descent of modern organisms from common ancestors. Strobel is either ignorant of this, or deliberately asking a misleading question. Neither possibility helps his credibility.
- Scientific reasoning shows us that phenomena can be explained without resorting to the supernatural. It doesn’t disprove the supernatural (in general — it can and does disprove specific supernatural claims) so much as render it unnecessary. A subtle distinction, but one Strobel ought to make if he wants to be taken seriously.
- He pleads ignorance about Jesus, claiming he thought Jesus had never actually claimed to be divine, as if a person claiming to be a god has any bearing on whether or not they actually are one.
- He cites as his primary motivation for maintaining his skepticism and ignoring inconsistencies he detected in the evidence against Christianity (he never deals with other faiths), “a self-serving and immoral lifestyle that I would be compelled to abandon if I were ever to change my views and become a follower of Jesus.”
- The idea of atheists being in moral rebellion against God, of secretly accepting God’s existence but outwardly denying it to avoid having to follow his rules, is a religious slander. I have never heard of an atheist ever describing her- or himself in this way. Atheists are not motivated to defy a god they believe to be imaginary. If Strobel had ever actually been one, he would understand this. Instead of being an avowed atheist, I suspect Strobel was actually someone who had not given religion much thought one way or the other.
- Strobel cites his wife’s conversion to Christianity as the impetus for his original investigation and ultimately his own conversion. He claims he noticed changes in his wife’s character after she became a Christian: “fundamental changes in her character, her integrity, and her personal confidence.” Is he suggesting the woman he married was a person of low character and integrity before she became a Christian? Is this another swipe at atheists?
Judging for Yourself
- Here Strobel reveals for the first time how disingenuous is his purpose for writing the book.
- He claims to be writing for the skeptics in the audience: “Maybe you too have been basing your spiritual outlook on the evidence you’ve observed around you or gleaned long ago from college professors, family members, or friends. But . . . If you were to dig deeper — to confront your preconceptions and systematically seek out proof — what would you find?”
- To seek out proof suggests that a conclusion has already been drawn. But Strobel also claims that his aim is to be objective. Additionally, he describes his investigation as a “spiritual journey.” This is not the rigorous objectivity of someone hoping to persuade skeptics to his position. This is the inviting, reassuring glad-handing of the apologist.
- A minor point, but note that Strobel takes repeated indirect swipes at college professors, convicting them along with family members, friends, and his own selfishly immoral lifestyle, for his former rejection of Christianity, only to then tout the academic credentials of those he interviews in the book: “I’ll take you along as I interview thirteen leading scholars and authorities who have impeccable academic credentials.” He also touts his own education at Yale Law School. So scholars who encourage skepticism of Christianity are not to be trusted, but those who argue in its favor are? Not only inconsistent and hypocritical, but, again, not the sort of thing I’d expect to find in a serious work aiming to persuade.
Next time: Chapter 1: The Eyewitness Evidence: Can the Biographies of Jesus Be Trusted?