An Atheist Reads The Case for Christ
Conclusion: The Verdict of History — What Does the Evidence Establish — And What Does It Mean Today?
Instead of an anecdote, Strobel opens the chapter by setting the scene for his own conversion in 1981: “My investigation into Jesus was similar to what you’ve just read, except that I primarily studied books and other historical research instead of personally interacting with scholars. I had asked questions and analyzed answers with as much of an open mind as I could muster. Now I had reached critical mass. The evidence was clear. The one remaining issue was what I would do with it.” (Lee Strobel, THE CASE FOR CHRIST, p. 259)
- What books did he read, I wonder. How thorough was his research, really? Did he discover and accept the Christian answers to his questions, or did he seek out evidence to the contrary as well? Did he read Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason (after 200 years still the best takedown of the Bible ever written)? Did he read Robert Ingersoll? I’m sure he read C.S. Lewis — did he read Bertrand Russell? He says his investigation was similar to this book — this book where he doesn’t speak to a single scholar who is not a Christian apologist — so I’m going to guess that he didn’t. He says the evidence was clear — well, of course it was. The evidence is clear that the Sun and the Moon and the stars are circling Earth embedded in giant crystal spheres if all you read is Aristotle’s Physics.
Can the Biographies of Jesus Be Trusted?
- Strobel says he once thought the gospels were unreliable religious propaganda, but that Craig Blomberg demonstrated that they were eyewitness testimony that accurately described actual events. Blomberg also demonstrated that the gospels were written so early that they could not possibly have been contaminated by legend or folklore.
- Actually, even Blomberg’s own argument admits (albeit indirectly) that the gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, and that they are in fact hearsay. And the “too early to be legendary” argument is bogus, as we’ve discussed ad nauseum in this series.
Do the Biographies of Jesus Stand Up to Scrutiny?
- Strobel says that Blomberg argued persuasively that the gospel writers had reliably preserved an accurate, unbiased history of the life and ministry of Jesus, with the four gospels largely agreeing with each other on the essential facts and only disagreeing on certain details, and that the fact that the church survived in Jerusalem in those early days is proof of the accuracy of the gospels, since any exaggerations or falsehoods about Jesus would have been quickly exposed by people who knew better.
- The gospels largely agree with each other because two of the three synoptic gospels were cribbed from the other synoptic gospel. And their accurate, unbiased record of the life of Jesus includes such credible details as a miraculous conception and virgin birth (which none of the authors could have witnessed, by the way), miracles, resurrections, divine voices speaking from the sky, and the occasional presence and participation of angels.
Were Jesus’ Biographies Reliably Preserved For Us?
- According to Strobel, Bruce Metzger proved that the New Testament has been well preserved and passed down to our present generation, that its oldest manuscripts can be dated very close to the original writings, and that none of the discrepancies among those early manuscripts have any effect on church doctrine.
- Strobel and Metzger gloss over several significant discrepancies in those early manuscripts, including the missing story of the Agony at Gethsemane, which appears to have been added later, which can be cited to resolve the issue of whether or not Jesus was fully human, which was a controversy among the early church, and therefore does have an effect on church doctrine.
Is There Credible Evidence for Jesus Outside His Biographies?
- Edwin Yamauchi says Jesus is better documented than any other ancient religious figure, but the non-Biblical sources for Jesus only confirm what people believed about Jesus, not anything that Jesus actually said or did.
Does Archaeology Confirm or Contradict Jesus’ Biographies?
- John McRay claims archaeology strengthens the credibility of the New Testament and that Luke was a reliable historian. But archaeology only confirms the New Testament — when it confirms it — in the incidental details. There is no archaeological evidence for Jesus at all, period, let alone for the miracles, the resurrection, all the claims which compel skepticism.
Is the Jesus of History the Same as the Jesus of Faith?
- Strobel reminds us of what Greg Boyd said about the Jesus Seminar, that they’re a minority of scholars on the radical fringe who attract media coverage but whose ideas aren’t really taken seriously. He doesn’t remind us that he allowed the arguments of the Jesus Seminar to be expressed and challenged by one of their most ardent critics, without speaking to a single member of the Seminar itself. He also doesn’t remind us that he fails to even address skeptical arguments about Jesus from those outside the Jesus Seminar.
Was Jesus Really Convinced That He Was the Son of God?
- Ben Witherington III demonstrated, says Strobel, that Jesus did actually believe he was the unique Son of God and the Messiah. How was Ben Witherington III able to do this? “By going back to the earliest traditions, which are unquestionably safe from legendary development.” (p. 261) Right. This is also how we know for a fact, unquestionably, that Yogi Pullavar had the power to levitate. He demonstrated it in 1936, in front of witnesses, supposedly levitated for four minutes — no way that could have been a trick or a hoax, no way the people who believe he was literally floating in mid-air could be mistaken, no way the claims of Yogi Pullavar’s powers could have been exaggerated — there just hasn’t been enough time.
Was Jesus Crazy When He Claimed to Be the Son of God?
- In this chapter Gary Collins made the Miracle on 34th Street defense of Jesus: Jesus wasn’t crazy when claiming to be the Son of God because he actually was the Son of God. If only there were some reason to believe that, he’d be getting somewhere.
Did Jesus Fulfill the Attributes of God?
- D.A. Carson schools Strobel on the intricacies of the Incarnation, how he possessed all the traits of God — omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, eternality and immutability — but just chose to lay them aside for a few years when he became human. Source? The Bible, natch.
Did Jesus — and Jesus Alone — Match the Identity of the Messiah?
- Strobel reminds us of the imaginary odds that someone like Jesus would fulfill all those Old Testament messianic prophecies without actually being the Messiah. He doesn’t remind us that he spent most of the chapter telling us Louis Lapides’s lameass conversion story.
Was Jesus’ Death a Sham and His Resurrection a Hoax?
- In this chapter Dr. Alexander Metherell made the stunning announcement that the crucifixion would have killed Jesus, and if he had somehow managed to survive he would have been well beat the fuck up. Dr. Metherell reached this conclusion by examining the medical evidence, which . . . wait, that can’t be right. There is no medical evidence. So what did he examine to reach his . . . oh, that’s right! The Bible.
Was Jesus’ Body Really Absent From His Tomb?
- Remember when William Lane Craig argued that the empty tomb was real? Remember when he forgot to mention that no one’s ever found it and that it wouldn’t prove shit if they did? Yeah, me too.
Was Jesus Seen Alive After His Death on the Cross?
- In this chapter Gary Habermas claimed that belief in the resurrection and the appearances of Jesus dates back to the very beginning of the church, and that therefore it must be true because otherwise people who knew better would have . . . you know.
Are There Any Supporting Facts That Point to the Resurrection?
- J.P. Moreland made the “die for a lie” argument, which I refuted at length in the previous video, and he also threw in some horseshit about the emergence of the church and changes in Jewish social traditions and the appearance of the rites of baptism and communion. Nevermind that the only way we know — or “know” — any of this is through the Bible itself and later church tradition. Doesn’t seem to bother Lee Strobel, but then again he’s a credulous buffoon.
Failing Muller’s Challenge
- Strobel, citing what he calls “a study” by A.N. Sherwin-White, claims that more than two generations of time was necessary for legend to develop and contaminate stories based on historical truth. So that’s where this “early equals true” bullshit comes from, eh? A.N. Sherwin-White. We got you, you son of a bitch. So what did Sherwin-White say in this study of his? Did he assert that the gospels were historically reliable because they were written within two generations of the life of Jesus? Did he establish, after careful research and analysis of not only Jesus but other figures whose lives have become the subjects of folklore and exaggeration, a firm and widely applicable principle that legendary development requires a minimum of two generations removal from the actual historical events? Actually, no. There’s a great article about this on the blog Do You Ever Think About Things You Do Think About, titled “The Apologists’ Abuse of A.N. Sherwin-White,” (http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/2007/11/apologists-abuse-of-sherwin-white.html) that not only clears up what Sherwin-White actually wrote on the subject, but directly addresses The Case for Christ. It turns out when Strobel and others mention Sherwin-White, they’re citing a book he wrote titled Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament. Check this out, from the article:
“The part of Sherwin-White’s essay that has attracted the most attention from Christian apologists is his comments on the length of time it takes for mythology to displace historical fact. However, contrary to Craig, Strobel, Geisler and a host of others, he did not attempt to calculate a rate of legendary accumulation that is universally applicable. Nor did he lay out a rule that enables an historian to identify a point before which an oral tradition can still be considered historical. Indeed, Sherwin-White acknowledged that various types of bias can be present both in the original source of the oral tradition and in the writer who finally records it. He merely asserted that ‘historical content is not hopelessly lost’ to the critical historian even after a period of two generations. (RSRLNT p. 191)
[. . .]
“Contrary to Strobel’s imagination, the comments in Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament do not constitute a ‘study’ and they do not reflect ‘meticulous’ examination. No such study was required to support the rest of the book, which is why Sherwin-White described himself as considering the topic of historicity ‘briefly and very generally.’ (RSRLNT p. 186) Most importantly, Strobel ignores the fact that it still takes critical historical methodology to identify that ‘solid core.’ Sherwin-White did not admit the possibility of accepting the gospels at face value.” (“The Apologists' Abuse of A.N. Sherwin-White,” Do You Ever Think About Things You Do Think About?)
So the argument against the gospels being the result of legend and folklore — the foundation of every argument made by every apologist interviewed in this book — is based on a misinterpretation — perhaps willful, perhaps not — of an author who actually took care to state that he wasn’t intending to establish a principle or to evaluate the historicity of the gospels. The argument isn’t just bullshit — it’s bullshit on top of bullshit.
- But wait! Strobel’s not done yet. “In light of the convincing facts I had learned during my investigation, in the face of this overwhelming avalanche of evidence in the case for Christ, the great irony was this: it would require much more faith for me to maintain my atheism than to trust in Jesus of Nazareth!” (p. 265)
- CraniumOnEmpty! You called it. “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” Are there any bullshit Christian clichés we haven’t covered yet?
Implications of the Evidence
- Strobel brings back James Dixon, who confessed to a crime he didn’t commit and was eventually found innocent after an investigation, to set up two questions about his own investigation into the Jesus story.
- First, Has the Collection of Evidence Really Been Thorough? Strobel: “Yes, it has been. I selected experts who could state their position and defend it with historical evidence that I could then test through cross-examination.” (p. 266) But you didn’t interview a single expert who was skeptical of Christian beliefs about Jesus. You interviewed thirteen Christians for this book — no atheists, no agnostics, no Jews, no Muslims. You attacked the Jesus Seminar, but you didn’t have the balls to do it to their face. No, much like only allowing a jury to hear witnesses from the prosecution, your collection of evidence has not been thorough, or honest.
- Second, Which Explanation Best Fits the Totality of the Evidence? Strobel talks about letting go of his “legend hypothesis” and how his atheism buckled under the weight of historical truth. He says he couldn’t imagine a single explanation that fit the evidence as well as the conclusion that Jesus was the Son of God. Then he goes through the implications of this conclusion. If Jesus was the Son of God, he says, then his teachings are more than good ideas — they’re divine truths that provide a foundation for life. If Jesus is the absolute standard of morality, then he is the basis for choices and decisions and moral judgments. If Jesus was resurrected, then he is alive today to be personally encountered. If Jesus conquered death, then there is eternal life for us, too. If Jesus has divine power, he is able to change and transform those who follow him. If Jesus himself knew pain and suffering, he can comfort those who experience it in their own lives. If Jesus loves us, that means he wants what is best for us, so we should commit ourselves to him. And if Jesus is who he says he is, then “as my Creator, he rightfully deserves my allegiance, obedience, and worship.” (p. 267)
Most of that is just mindless Christian happy talk, but let’s look at two of them. First, the second one, the one about morality: I’ve talked to Christians about this a lot, especially lately in comment threads of other videos. I know you would all be more comfortable if you had an absolute standard of right and wrong to appeal to, if you had some divine authority to decide these things for you, if you didn’t have to actually grapple with difficult moral questions, some of which don’t have nice, neat answers, if morality was like a dictionary you could just pull down from a shelf and consult rather than having to actually use your brain and make these judgments yourself. I know you think that would be nice — but that’s not the world we live in. Christians, you get your morality from the same place Muslims do, which is the same place Jews do, which is the same place Hindus and Buddhists and Wiccans do, which is the same place atheists do — from yourselves, from your culture, from the moral consensus of your species. The difference between you and me is that I don’t pretend my morals come from on-high, or argue that it would be better if they did.
And that last one: If Jesus is who he says he is, he deserves our allegiance, obedience, and worship. Allegiance I’m fine with, though you don’t rightfully deserve allegiance because of how powerful you are, even if you are the all-powerful creator and sustainer of the universe — if you rightfully deserve the allegiance of others, it’s because of your character. Obedience comes as the result of respect, and respect, like loyalty, must be earned. It cannot be demanded, and anyone who demands respect in the manner of the Biblical god is not worthy of it. And worship — the Greek word translated as “worship” in the New Testament is “proskuneo,” which literally means to bow down, to fall on your knees, to prostrate yourself. I’m sorry, but I’m not a slave, I’m not the subject of a king, and I’m not a Trekkie in the presence of William Shatner — I’m a free person, and I don’t prostrate myself before anyone, especially someone who demands it of me.
The Formula of Faith
- Strobel talks about taking that experiential step described somewhat vaguely by J.P. Moreland in the last chapter. In order to take this step, Strobel turns to John 1:12: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12) Strobel then describes the mathematical formula for starting a relationship with Jesus: believe + receive = become.
- Believe that your sins (Strobel claims his were numerous) have separated you from God and that Jesus, and only Jesus, can bridge the gap.
- Receive the forgiveness and eternal life offered through Jesus by saying a prayer admitting what a piece of shit you are, telling Jesus you’re sorry and asking him, if it’s not too much trouble, to please not send you to Hell to burn forever when you die.
- Become the sort of person to whom weak, dishonest garbage like this would be convincing.
Reaching Your Own Verdict
- Now comes the real hard sell. Strobel turns his attention to you — er, to me — to the reader of the book. He addresses the reader directly, even addressing skeptics for the first time and demonstrating in the process why he usually sticks to preaching to the choir: “Perhaps I didn’t address the objection that’s foremost in your mind. . . . However, I trust that the amount of information reported in these pages will at least have convinced you that it’s reasonable — in fact, imperative — to continue your investigation.
“. . . Use the suggested resources in this book to delve deeper. Study the Bible yourself (one suggestion: THE JOURNEY, a special edition of the Bible that’s designed for people who don’t yet believe it’s the word of God).
“Resolve that you’ll reach a verdict when you’ve gathered a sufficient amount of information . . . You may even want to whisper a prayer to the God who you’re not sure exists, asking him to guide you to the truth about him. And through it all, you’ll have my sincere encouragement as you continue in your spiritual quest.” (pp. 270-271)
- No adult person should ever allow themselves to be spoken to like this, as though they were a wayward child being corrected by a patient parent. But, it’s nice to know I’ve got Lee Strobel’s encouragement now that I’ve taken his advice and my “spiritual journey” — what an idiotic phrase — has led me to atheism.
- And Strobel finishes up — the final words of the book — with a quote from C.S. Lewis: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic . . . or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” (C.S. Lewis, MERE CHRISTIANITY)
- It’s appropriate that Strobel closes by quoting Lewis. As some of you already know, I’m going to continue doing this — examining Christian apologetics from an atheist perspective. Now that the series on The Case for Christ is about to conclude, I’m turning my attention to C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and my series on it will pick up right where this one leaves off. So look for that, if this sort of thing interests you. But before I move on to Lewis, let me finish up with Lee Strobel.
- Were I to take the most charitable position possible after reading this book, were I to accept Strobel’s claims that he was an atheist and that his intention was to present the facts about Jesus to other atheists and skeptics so that they might judge for themselves, were I to ignore the bias and attempts at manipulation, the best I could say for The Case for Christ is that it is a chronicle of its author’s credulity. If this was the evidence and these were the arguments that transformed Strobel from an atheist to a born-again evangelical Christian, I’m afraid it doesn’t say much for him.
- This past week leading up to shooting this final episode, I’ve been having an exchange with a Christian in the comment section of the previous video in this series. The details of the exchange aren’t important for these purposes — we were arguing over whether or not the growth of the church pre-Constantine was as miraculous and explosive as apologists like Lee Strobel claim it was, and how it could have spread if it was based on false claims, etc., etc. My Christian adversary — and I call him that with all respect — wound up making the same arguments that Strobel makes, that the church’s growth under such unlikely circumstances was remarkable, that the disciples would have had no reason to lie about what they had seen or done. I brought my own counterarguments, as did a few others from the non-Christian side, and finally my Christian adversary said that we were just close-minded, that we’d already made up our minds and we were just dismissing inconvenient facts to hold our comfortable positions. To which I responded, “If I were the type to make up my mind once and ignore all further evidence, I’d still be a Christian.” And my Christian adversary said, “If this kind of weak evidence brought you out of Christianity, you never were one.” And I know that’s a bad argument, someone else pointed out it’s a “no true Scotsman” fallacy, but in this case he’s right. Technically speaking — I tried to be a Christian for half my life, I called myself a Christian, I struggled to believe, but I never actually believed in my heart of hearts, so I suppose I never actually was a Christian. And eventually, very gradually, I was reconciled to that unbelief and I was brought out of Christianity, as it were. But I didn’t reject Christianity initially because I had read The Age of Reason — I didn’t read that until many years later. It wasn’t the arguments against the claims of Christianity that started me on the path to atheism — it was the arguments for those claims, because they never convinced me. They never gave me any reason to believe. Since I started down that path I’ve found the arguments and the evidence against Christianity, and against the existence of gods and the supernatural in general, to be anything but weak. But that wasn’t the kind of evidence that made me doubt my religion, the religion of my parents and my grandparents. It was this kind of weak evidence that brought me out of Christianity, the kind found in The Case for Christ.
- I’ll see you for the Mere Christianity series. Thanks to all of you for watching. And thanks to the still very much missed faithfightsfact for inspiring me to do this series. Becca, I hope I did okay.