The Case of Lee Strobel

A well-meaning Christian once recommended I read books by Lee Strobel, thinking this would alter my view of Christianity and steer me back towards the welcoming flock.  This was an interesting recommendation, and as I appreciate opposing opinions, I took it under consideration.  Over the past year, I have read several books from the secular community, for example “The God Delusion”  “God is Not Great”  “The Origin of Species” and “The Grand Design”.  All of these are excellent and use sound reasoning and proof, though the authors sometimes went a bit long to make the point.  During this time, I also watched various videos on Netflix and Youtube espousing the creation theory, and found them to be imaginative, but lacking in depth and persuasion.  Having gone through these, I decided that to be fair I should read a book that claims to use the investigative process to show the religious perspective.  This led me back to Lee Strobel and the original recommendation.

Lee Strobel is a former journalist and legal editor for the Chicago Tribune.  His brief biography at the start of “The Case For Christ” describes how he was once religiously indifferent man, but after converting to Christianity started an examination into the facts supporting the Christian religion.  To do this, he applied his journalistic expertise to investigate the evidence for the existence of Christ and other Christian aspects.  This seasoned investigator decided to put the Bible story of Christ to the test and see if the evidence would hold up to the tough scrutiny of a “Hard-Nosed” journalist (his description) applying his years of academic and street smarts.  It sounded promising, but I have to admit I was skeptical.  Did I go into this book biased?  Sure.  Did Lee Strobel?

The book starts with the “Hard-nosed journalist” taking up the case.  Maybe he is a “Hard-Nosed journalist”, but after a decent reading, this book raises doubts if he really applied this approach in the investigation.  Still, in case there is reservation, throughout he continually reminds the reader of his hard-nosedness and how he uses this to challenge the big questions of Christ’s existence.  My reservation with his implied approach starts from the structure of the book, which is based around a series of question and answer sessions with people he agrees with.  Most chapters start with an exciting criminal case either he was aware of or worked on that demonstrates the kind of evidence he is searching for.  Then it proceeds with an introduction to the man he is interviewing for that chapter, which includes their impeccable reputations, PhDs., and standing in theologic and academic circles.  After the credential paragraphs, Mr. Strobel physically describes the interviewee, with details of their impressive facial hair, glasses, esteemed learned mannerisms, and their variously described, impeccable, sparse, messy offices.  They drink coffee and talk sports and family.  Mr. Strobel then tosses softball questions at them and often ends the session with something akin to “well he certainly convinced me.”  There is no follow up with Christian scholars who have dissenting opinions or further review of physical evidence.  The hard-nosed approach is rarely in view.

The book has numerous examples where conclusions are based on bad facts and vague logic.  To support one argument, he cites some coins found by eminent archaeologist Jerry Vardaman.  Mr. Vardaman claimed these coins had micro-writing on them that proves there were two rulers named Quirnius, which relates to when the Census was taken.  My initial thought was “Micro-writing, don’t you need specialized tools and optics?”  As it turns out, you do, and Vardaman never produced evidence of such tools.  Mr. Vardaman’s sketches of the micro-writing show “Jesus” spelled out, even though the letter “J” was invented many centuries later, a glaring error for an eminent archaeologist.  I understand that the internet was not readily available during the mid-1990’s, but Mr. Vardaman’s papers and research were.  My small amount of research revealed there are no pictures of these coins, only Vardaman’s sketches.  This was one of the few examples of existing physical evidence Strobel could have investigated, but did not.  I could go on, but there are numerous people who have done a much better job, with relative ease, of exposing the appalling inconsistencies and lack of substantiation in this book.

I have never met Lee Strobel, and do not know anything about him as a person.  Therefore, I can only assume he wrote this book with all the best intentions, and was guided by his sense of correctness in finding the right answers.  With that said, my impression is that he sought people who agreed with him rather than inviting contrary opinions and working to determine the best answer.  My reaction to all of this was surprising.  About half way through the book I asked myself how I felt.  I had expected to be angry or upset that such an obvious set of fiction masqueraded as fact has gained considerable authority.  This will sound silly, but instead I felt frustrated and sad.  I was sad that so many people shelve even the barest hint of critical thinking any time a religious book is set in front of them.  Frustrated because this same misty belief system is all too common and is in wide spread use today to sway great numbers of people.

Case in point, Strobel makes great effort to trace the timeline of gospels back as close to the time of Jesus as he can.  The thought is that the closer they are the more accurate they are.  This sounds good, but is a weak premise that falls apart even today with unprecedented access to information.  Think for a moment about when John Kerry was running against George Bush and the Swift Boat controversy was promulgated.  The Bush team (I have to give them credit) skewed the facts so well that people could not figure out who actually had the more extensive military experience.  Bush had the bare minimum of service while Kerry did the ugly things in combat that people don’t like to talk about.  All the service records are obtainable, but the story became so smeared around that even a readily accessible truth could not be separated.

People want to believe so desperately, they are willing to forgo reasoning.  This is such a strong drive that there are still those who think Elvis is alive, Clinton had Vince Foster killed, God helps win basketball games and L. Ron Hubbard will return from the dead.  At the very least, it is difficult to believe the absolute accuracy of a 2000-year-old story when we can’t even agree on what has happened in the last 30 years.  Dating the origins of an inconsistent document that started as an oral tradition and has since been translated and interpreted repeatedly does not verify accuracy no matter how loud and often it is said.  The reason for my reactions is that there are so many Sunday schools, bible camps, etc. where flimsy logic is being presented to impressionable minds and being driven home as irrefutable facts.

While I understand the impulse to recommend these kinds of books, it is frightening to think these are held up as equivalents of scientific and historical research.  A hypothesis can be presented and mathematical proofs generated, but these need to be proven in the real world before they are accepted.  This is the hard-nosed approach that Lee Strobel did not subject his work to.  If he wants to be accepted, this should be peer reviewed as any kind of claim like this has to be.  Those that present miracles as facts will say that the academic world of historians and scientists will reject this because of an anti-religious bias.  No, they reject and challenge anything that is new and contradicts what is already out there.  That’s their job.  If the religious apologists and creationists want to be accepted amongst the acedemians then present it in that forum.  Until then, it will always remain an entertaining fiction.


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