The Rest of the Story (1999)

Jeffery J. Lowder

 


Eyewitness Evidence | Documentary Evidence | Corroborating Evidence | Scientific Evidence | Rebuttal Evidence | Identity Evidence | Psychological Evidence | Profile Evidence | Fingerprint Evidence | Medical Evidence | Evidence of the Missing Body | Evidence of the Appearances | Circumstantial Evidence | Concluding Thoughts | Addendum | Related Resources


This review was originally published in Philo 2 (1999), pp. 89-102. Note: A revised version of this review is available.

Review of Lee Strobel The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.

Lee Strobel, an ex-investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune who describes himself as a "former spiritual skeptic," is a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church. (Willow Creek is a mega-church with more than 30,000 members and was the site of a very high profile debate--moderated by Strobel--on "Atheism vs. Christianity: Where Does the Evidence Point?" between William Lane Craig and Frank Zindler.[1]) Using his skills as a former legal affairs journalist, Strobel set out to "retrace and expand upon the spiritual journey ... [he] took for nearly two years." The Case for Christ is a summary of Strobel's interviews with thirteen leading Evangelical apologists, including Craig Blomberg, Bruze Metzger, Edwin Yamauchi, Ben Witherington III, and William Lane Craig.

In light of Strobel's frequent reminders that he used to be a hard-nosed, skeptical journalist, I skimmed the table of contents and index to see which critics of Christianity he interviewed. In so doing, I discovered a glaring deficiency in Strobel's journalism: Strobel did not interview any critics of Christian apologetics, even though he attacks such individuals in his book.[2] For example, Strobel devotes an entire chapter to his interview of Greg Boyd (an outspoken faultfinder of the Jesus Seminar), yet Strobel never interviewed a single member of the Jesus Seminar itself! Likewise, he repeatedly criticizes Michael Martin, author of Case Against Christianity, but he never bothered to get Martin's responses to those attacks.[3] This hardly constitutes balanced reporting on Strobel's part; indeed, on this basis, one is tempted to dismiss the entire book.

Nonetheless, I was compelled to review The Case for Christ, for two reasons. First, it comes with a number of endorsements from high-profile Evangelicals:

  • Bruce Metzger, Professor of New Testament, Emeritus, Princeton Theological Seminary;
  • Phillip Johnson, Law Professor, University of California at Berkeley;
  • Ravi Zacharias, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries;
  • D. James Kennedy, Coral Ridge Ministries;
  • J.P. Moreland, Professor of Philosophy, Talbott School of Theology, Biola University; and
  • Peter Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy, Boston College.

Second, Strobel interviewed a number of high-caliber Evangelical apologists, many of whom are worthy of consideration in and of themselves. Thus The Case for Christ constitutes a pseudo-anthology of Evangelical scholarship.

For these two reasons, I think The Case for Christ deserves critical notice despite its utter failure to honestly engage contemporary critics of (Evangelical) Christian apologetics. Therefore, I want to comment briefly on the book's three main parts.

Part 1: "Examining the Record"

In the first part of The Case for Christ, Strobel defends the historical reliability of the New Testament. He considers five lines of evidence: (a) the eyewitness evidence, (b) documentary evidence, (c) corroborating evidence, (d) scientific evidence, and (e) rebuttal evidence.

(a) Eyewitness Evidence: Strobel dedicates two chapters to summarize his interview of Craig Blomberg concerning the four gospels. Blomberg acknowledges that "strictly speaking, the gospels are anonymous" (p. 26). Nonetheless, Blomberg suggests that the four gospels were in fact written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and therefore the canonical gospels are eyewitness testimony. According to Blomberg, this fact is confirmed by Papias (writing circa CE 125) and Irenaeus (writing circa 180); the authorship of the gospels was never in doubt among early Christians. And Blomberg dismisses the Q hypothesis as "nothing more than a hypothesis" (p. 31). Yet the two-source hypothesis--that Matthew and Luke were written with a copy of Mark and Q in front of them--is not just an arbitrary assumption held only by liberal scholars. The evidence has led even conservative scholars to accept the existence of Q. Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary has written an excellent paper, "The Synoptic Problem," which argues for both Markan priority and the existence of Q.[4] Yet if the two-source hypothesis is correct, Matthew and Luke are based heavily on Mark; it is therefore unlikely that Matthew and Luke constitute independent accounts. Moreover, the traditional authorship of Mark is open to serious question.[5] Finally, it is unlikely that John was authored by John, son of Zebedee, for it seems to have been heavily edited and reworked.

Blomberg also repeats the familiar apologetic assertion that, if the claims of Evangelical Christianity were false, hostile witnesses would have happily shouted that fact from the mountaintops. He says, "If critics could have attacked it on the basis that it was full of falsehoods or distortions, they would have" (p. 66). Yet Edwin Yamauchi gives the decisive objection to this fallacious argument from silence just 48 pages later in the book! As Yamauchi points out, "When people begin religious movements, it's often not until many generations later that people record things about them" (p. 114). This was certainly the case with early Christianity. Robert L. Wilken, a Christian historian, notes, "For almost a century Christianity went unnoticed by most men and women in the Roman Empire. ... [Non-Christians] saw the Christian community as a tiny, peculiar, antisocial, irreligious sect, drawing its adherents from the lower strata of society."[6] First-century non-Christians had about as much interest in refuting Christian claims as twentieth century skeptics had in refuting the misguided claims of the Heaven's Gate cult: they simply didn't care to refute it.

Even conservative authors admit that the books of the New Testament originally existed only as oral tradition. But if that is the case, Strobel asks, "How can we be sure that the material about Jesus' life and teachings was well preserved for thirty years before it was finally written down in the gospels?" (p. 53). According to Blomberg, the disciples lived in an "oral culture, in which there was great emphasis placed on memorization" (p. 53). Yet recent psychological studies have shown that human memory is often incredibly unreliable, especially when it is memory of an unusual event.[7] The upshot is that the oral traditions about Jesus were probably not historically accurate. This objection was emphasized by John Dominic Crossan, a former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, in his recent book The Birth of Christianity,[8] but so far as I can tell Strobel never addresses this crucial point.

(b) Documentary Evidence: Strobel next writes about his interview of Bruce Metzger on the reliability of the textual transmission of the New Testament. In other words, since the original books of the New Testament are lost, how do we know that "each copied document was identical to the original memo?" According to Metzger, "the more often you have copies that agree with each other, especially if they emerge from different geographical areas, the more you can cross-check them to figure out what the original document was like" (p. 76). Moreover, as Metzger points out, we have far more ancient copies of the New Testament than we have of, say, Homer's Iliad or Tacitus's Annals of Imperial Rome. Since I am not aware of any classical scholar who seriously questions the textual reliability of those works, I am willing to accept the textual reliability of the New Testament.[9]

Strobel also asked Metzger why some books were included in the New Testament and others (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas) were not. As Strobel puts it, "What about allegations that church councils squelched equally legitimate documents because they didn't like the picture of Jesus they portrayed?" (p. 85). Metzger's answer was that "the New Testament contains the best sources for the historicity of Jesus" (p. 87). He stated that the early church adopted three criteria in evaluating documents for inclusion in the New Testament:

(i) Was the book written by an apostle or by a follower of an apostle?
(ii) Did the book conform with what Christians already believed?
(iii) Had the book been continuously accepted and used by the church at large? (p. 86)

In other words, Metzger admits that "church councils squelched equally legitimate documents because they didn't like the picture of Jesus they portrayed!" After all, consider the implications of these three criteria: (i) excludes a priori the testimony of non-Christian historians; (ii) rules out the possibility of books that did not conform to what Christians already believed; and (iii) ensures that only books popular with the Church were accepted. The implications of this are obvious. We have already seen why there is no reason to expect that first century non-Christians would have taken critical notice of Christianity. But suppose that assumption is entirely incorrect. If, say, the first-century Roman historian Suetonius had written a book entitled, "The Full Grave of Jesus," documenting in intricate detail that the Resurrection was a hoax, the early church would have excluded such a book from the New Testament. Therefore, the criteria for Canonicity identified by Metzger do not support his claims of historical reliability. To paraphrase a comment made by Strobel, these criteria were "loaded from the outset, like dice that are weighted so they yield the result that was desired all along" (p. 156).

(c) Corroborating Evidence: Strobel then interviewed Edwin Yamauchi about extra-biblical evidence that confirms the New Testament. Yamauchi first mentioned Josephus's references to Jesus, stating that both the shorter and longer references provide independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus (pp. 101-107). Although I agree with Yamauchi on this point,[10] the evidence for our position is not decisive and I think it is significant that Strobel did not interview someone who rejects the authenticity of both of these references. More important, the authentic references to Jesus in Josephus don't corroborate the central theological claims of Jesus. Josephus does not provide any corroborating evidence for the virgin birth, divinity, miracles, or Resurrection of Jesus.

Yamauchi also claims that other ancient sources provide independent confirmation of the New Testament: Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Thallus, the Talmud, and the writings of the early church fathers. However, there is no good reason to believe that any of these sources provide corroborating evidence. There is no reason to believe that Tacitus or Pliny the Younger relied on independent sources.[11] As for Thallus, the date of Thallus' writing is not known and therefore the reference could be based on Christian sources. It is not even known that Africanus correctly interpreted Thallus. As the Christian New Testament scholar R.T. France writes, Africanus does not give Thallus' words, "so we do not know whether Thallus actually mentioned Jesus' crucifixion, or whether this was Africanus' interpretation of a period of darkness which Thallus had not specifically linked with Jesus."[12] The Talmud is inconclusive because it is late and much of the Talmudic portrayal of Jesus is a polemical response to Christian claims. Finally, the writings of the church fathers do not provide any independent confirmation; they were late and based on earlier Christian sources.

(d) Scientific Evidence: Does archaeology increase or decrease the credibility of the New Testament? This was the central theme of Strobel's fourth interview, that of archaeologist John McRay. McRay notes that archaeology "doesn't confirm that what Jesus Christ said is right. Spiritual truths cannot be proved or disproved by archaeological discoveries" (p. 127). However, Strobel argues that archaeology can increase the overall credibility of an ancient text if it shows the empirical claims of the text to be accurate. He writes, "if the minutiae check out, this is some indication--not conclusive proof but some evidence--that maybe the witness is being reliable in his or her overall account" (pp. 128-129). According to McRay, archaeology provides precisely that sort of evidence concerning the gospels. McRay claims that archaeological discoveries have corroborated several of the incidental details of Luke, and that archaeology has bolstered the credibility of John and Mark.

Yet at least three stories of the gospels are suspicious: (i) the census (reported in Luke); (ii) the existence of Nazareth; and (iii) the slaughter at Bethlehem (reported in Matthew only). I want to briefly comment on each of these "puzzles" and McRay's explanations for them. Concerning (i), Luke claims that Augustus initiated a worldwide census; that a Roman census took place in Judaea or Galilee before the death of Herod in 4 BCE and that Quirinius was governor of Syria before 6 CE. Many historians reject these claims, arguing that there is no support for any of these claims and that the idea of an empire-wide tax is contrary to documented Roman practice. McRay quoted London Papyrus 904 (dated 104 CE) as evidence that censuses were common Roman practice. However, the census referenced in the London Papyrus asked people to return to their current place of residence to enroll; it did not ask citizens to return to their birthplace.[13] As for Luke's claim that the census took place while Quirinius was governor and during the reign of Herod the Great, Luke simply conflated the death of Herod (4 BCE) and the exile of Archelaus and the incorporation of Judaea into the empire (CE 6).[14] Historian Larry Taylor writes, "Fitzmyer, in the Anchor Bible, surveys the wreckage of all the attempts to save the accuracy of Luke. All of the approaches are failures."[15]

(ii) Although there are no references to Nazareth in any written source outside the gospels before the fourth century,[16] I agree with Strobel that Nazareth probably existed. Even Earl Doherty, a secular humanist who denies that Jesus ever existed, writes, "It is impossible to 'establish' that Nazareth did not exist in the early first century, since no one tells us this fact. And ... no one makes statements or offers other evidence which would lead us to draw such a conclusion."[17] Moreover, the existence of Nazareth is simply not intrinsically improbable. Therefore the gospels do not require independent confirmation on this point; the gospels alone are sufficient historical evidence to make it probable that Nazareth existed in the first century.

Finally, (iii). Matthew's claim that Herod the Great ordered the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem is unlikely because the Gospel of Matthew is the only historical source to report this alleged event. In response to questioning by Strobel on this point, McRay offered various reasons why the incident would not have been of interest to other writers. If the story had been included in other New Testament documents I might buy McRay's explanations, but the Slaughter of the Innocents is not even mentioned in the New Testament outside of Matthew. That fact is more likely on the hypothesis that the Slaughter of the Innocents never happened than on the hypothesis that the Slaughter of the Innocents is historical. Even Strobel admits it is "difficult to imagine" that no other writer mentioned this event, on the assumption that the Slaughter of the Innocents really happened (p. 140).

Moreover, at least three New Testament claims are completely unsupported by archaeology: first, the three hours of global darkness during the crucifixion (Mark 15:33 and synoptic parallels), second, the resurrection of the saints, and their subsequent appearance to many in Jerusalem (Matthew 27:52-53), and, third, the tomb of Jesus has never been located.

(e) Rebuttal Evidence: As Strobel explains, "rebuttal evidence" is a legal term for "any proofs that's offered to 'explain, counteract, or disprove' a witness's account" (p. 147). Strobel classifies the work and findings of the Jesus Seminar as "rebuttal evidence" presumably because the Jesus Seminar challenges many traditional claims about the New Testament. For example, the Jesus Seminar maintains that important information about the historical Jesus may be found outside the New Testament (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas); that Jesus did not say 82 percent of what the gospels attribute to him; and that Jesus probably was not resurrected from the dead.

Incredibly, Strobel's discussion of this "rebuttal evidence" does not even include a summary of that evidence. Not only did Strobel fail to interview a single member of the Jesus Seminar, Strobel neglected to quote or even summarize the Jesus Seminar's arguments for their position. Instead, Strobel chose to interview an avowed enemy of the Jesus Seminar--Greg Boyd--and wrote a chapter that is full of a conclusionary statements but short on arguments which support these conclusions. For example, Strobel quotes Boyd as making the following accusation: "They rule out the possibility of the supernatural from the beginning, and they say, 'Now bring on the evidence about Jesus.' No wonder they get the results they do!" (p. 155). Nowhere in the book does Boyd or Strobel provide any evidence to support this assertion. Moreover, I think the leaders of the Jesus Seminar have made it quite clear that they do not "rule out the possibility of the supernatural from the beginning." For example, Robert Funk, director of the Westar Institute, writes, "Nothing is impossible, unless we exclude logical impossibilities, such as square circles."[18] And Crossan explicitly denied this accusation in a debate with William Lane Craig. Crossan stated that he believed miraculous healings really did happen at Lourdes and that the supernatural "always ... operates through the screen of the natural."[19] Elsewhere, Crossan writes, "I leave absolutely open what God could do."[20] Crossan may not accept the historicity of all the miracles his Evangelical counterparts have faith in, but that does not imply he denies the possibility of miracles.

Boyd says that we should reject the hypothesis that Matthew and Luke used Mark because "an increasing number of scholars are expressing serious reservations" about that theory (p. 157), as if the results of New Testament scholarship were determined by a majority vote! (In a field composed almost exclusively of people who have dedicated their entire lives to Christianity, I personally would find it significant if even only a few scholars challenged orthodox views.) More important, we are never told why we should reject the theory that Matthew and Luke used Mark. One cannot help but wonder what Boyd and Strobel would say about the Jesus Seminar if the Jesus Seminar argued in this manner.

Part II: "Analyzing Jesus"

I personally found this section to be the least interesting part of the book, but I think I understand why Strobel, as a Christian apologist, needed to include it in his book. Like the late C.S. Lewis, Strobel is (presumably) "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.'"[21] Lewis's argument was that if we believe Jesus said the things the New Testament attributes to Him, then we must believe that Jesus claimed to be God. And if we believe that claim is false, then it makes no sense to maintain that Jesus was "a great moral teacher." He was either insane or a compulsive liar.

(a) Identity Evidence: Lewis's point is well-taken, but what reason is there to believe that Jesus really did claim to be God? Strobel interviewed Ben Witherington III, who referenced several passages from the New Testament in which Jesus allegedly claimed or implied that he was God. Yet Strobel did not interview any of the scholars who deny the authenticity of those passages.[22] But suppose that Jesus really did claim to be God. If Jesus was wrong about that, does it follow that Jesus was not "a great moral teacher," as Lewis suggested? Not necessarily. It seems to me that the claim, "Jesus was a great moral teacher," must be evaluated in light of Jesus' behavior and Jesus' moral teachings. If Jesus claimed to be God but was lying, then I would agree with Lewis that Jesus was not a great moral teacher. If, however, Jesus sincerely thought he was God but was mistaken, I would conclude that Jesus was severely deluded but I would leave the door open about his moral teachings until I examined them in their own light.

(b) Psychological Evidence: "Was Jesus crazy when he claimed to be God?" Despite the fact that no contemporary critic of Christianity claims that Jesus was crazy, this question was the topic for Strobel's interview of psychologist Gary Collins! Perhaps Strobel would reply that insofar as the evidence indicates that Jesus was not insane, that evidence indirectly increases the probability that Jesus was the Son of God. But can psychology really show this to be the case?

Collins states that Jesus was not crazy because he did not exhibit the behavior of someone who is mentally disturbed. Collins says, "I just don't see signs that Jesus was suffering from any known mental illness" (p. 197). On the face of it, I find the very premise of Strobel's interview to be absurd. A psychologist simply cannot make a diagnosis concerning the sanity of a person who has not walked the Earth for almost 2,000 years. (I also wonder if Collins, as someone who believes he has a personal relationship with Jesus, can really be objective concerning Jesus' sanity.) Even if we accept Strobel's arguments in Part 1 for the empirical accuracy of the New Testament, I can't think of any reason to believe the writers of the New Testament were even qualified to accurately report the psychological tendencies of Jesus, no matter how sincere the writers may have been. John 10:20 reports that many Jews thought Jesus was "demon-possessed and raving mad;" yet Collins rejects that belief, arguing "that's hardly a diagnosis by a trained mental health professional" (p. 197). Indeed. But I fail to see why the Christian writers of the New Testament were any more qualified as "mental health professionals" (or reporters on psychologically-relevant data) than first-century Jews! The upshot is that psychology provides no evidence--however indirect--for the claim that Jesus was God Incarnate.

(c) Profile Evidence: Summarizing a conversation with theologian Donald A. Carson, Strobel's argument seems to be that Jesus "fit" the Old Testament's profile of God as someone who is omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, immutable, loving, holy, righteous, and just (p. 209). In order to justify that claim, Strobel must provide a positive argument for believing that Jesus possessed all of the divine attributes. Yet Strobel spent the majority of his chapter answering objections to the claim that Jesus possessed various divine attributes. Strobel only attempted to provide a positive argument for believing that Jesus was morally perfect and forgave the sins of mankind. He did not provide positive arguments for believing that Jesus is omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, immutable, and loving.

Besides, the gospels themselves provide good reasons for doubting that Jesus was God Incarnate. Jesus was clearly not omnipresent. Jesus said, "Not even the Son of Man knows the hour of his return," which implies that Jesus was not all-knowing. The gospels state that Jesus was unable to do many miracles in his hometown. Therefore, it certainly seems that Jesus did not fit the profile of God.[23]

Nonetheless, Carson maintains that Jesus was (and is) God Incarnate. Despite Jesus's humanlike characteristics, Carson suggests that Jesus was fully human and only "functioned like God when his heavenly Father gave him explicit sanction to do so" (p. 215). Yet, as Carson admitted, the problem with that explanation is that "there is a sense in which the eternal Son has always acted in line with his Father's commandments" (p. 215). While I praise Carson for his intellectual integrity, this seems to leave Strobel's argument rather empty. Strobel provides no positive argument(s) for the claim that Jesus possessed all of the divine attributes. Moreover, Carson's explanation for the humanness of Jesus is simply unsuccessful and relies on yet another questionable Christian doctrine: the Trinity.[24]

Another objection to the claim Jesus possessed all of the divine attributes is that, according to the gospels, Jesus taught the doctrine of Hell. According to that doctrine, Hell is permanent and inescapable for those who wind up there. Even if the people in Hell sincerely changed their behavior and attitudes, they could never escape from Hell. This doctrine is difficult to reconcile with the claim that Jesus, as God Incarnate, is loving, because a finite sin does not warrant an infinite punishment. In legal terminology, eternal damnation is "cruel and unusual punishment." The punishment is totally out of proportion with any conceivable crime.

(d) Fingerprint Evidence: Strobel's final line of evidence for the Incarnation is the familiar argument from prophecy; his interview subject was Louis Lapides. Lapides argues that Jesus (as Messiah) was actually predicted by the Old Testament prophets. Much like the chapter on "rebuttal evidence," this chapter consists mainly of conclusionary statements with almost no supporting argumentation! I will therefore simply state that all of the alleged "prophecies" cited by Lapides have been answered by skeptics--none of whom were interviewed by Strobel--and that interested parties should consult Tim Callahan's recent book, Bible Prophecy, for a well-researched response to the argument from prophecy.[25]

Part III: "Researching the Resurrection"

The third part defends the Resurrection. Strobel begins by defending the historicity of the Crucifixion of Jesus. He then seems to present an inference to the best explanation. He never explicitly formulates his argument for the Resurrection, but it seems to be this: the Resurrection is the best explanation for the alleged historical facts of the empty tomb, post-Resurrection appearances, and other circumstantial evidence.

(a) Medical Evidence: Here I agree with Strobel. The evidence for the historicity of the Crucifixion makes it more likely than not that Jesus really was crucified by the Romans. As Funk, no apologist for Evangelical Christianity, writes, "Most scholars agree that Jesus was executed by crucifixion on the authority of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem."[26] Although, as Funk notes, "We know very few things for certain about the death of Jesus and the events that led up to it," those uncertainties do not undermine the historicity of the Crucifixion itself.[27]

(b) Evidence of the Missing Body: Strobel questioned theologian William Lane Craig. "In preparing for my interview with Craig," Strobel writes, "I had gone to the Internet sites of several atheist organizations to see the kind of arguments they were raising against the Resurrection" (p. 294, my italics), as if atheism were the only alternative to the empty tomb story! Apparently, Strobel visited the Secular Web for he quotes a section of my essay on the Resurrection on p. 295 (but he does not give the URL for that essay or mention my name).[28] Yet Strobel never acknowledges the existence of New Testament scholar Robert Price's rebuttal to Craig's apologetic for the Resurrection, available on the Secular Web![29]

At the beginning of his chapter on the empty tomb, Strobel makes the following howler of an observation: Craig "seems genuinely perplexed why some people cannot, or will not, recognize the reality of the empty tomb" (p. 278). I, in turn, am genuinely perplexed by Craig's (apparent) perplexity! New Testament scholars who deny the empty tomb story at least claim to do so on historical grounds; I am perfectly happy to accept their explanation for their rejection of the empty tomb story.

(c) The Evidence of Appearances: By itself, an empty tomb does not entail that a dead body came back to life. Therefore, in order to show that Jesus' corpse was revivified, Strobel has to show that Jesus was alive again after his death. Yet, contra Strobel and Gary Habermas, there just does not seem to be any reason to believe that 1 Corinthians 15, our earliest source concerning the Resurrection, implies that Jesus physically appeared to people after his death. Where English Bibles say "appear," the original Greek uses the word "ophthe." The Greek word "ophthe" can describe either a physical appearance or a nonphysical vision. And Mark, the earliest gospel, does not contain any appearance stories. Only the later gospels (Matthew, Luke, and John) include any appearance stories. Thus, if we compare the New Testament accounts of the Resurrection to one another, it certainly appears that the story has grown with the retelling. Only if we read the later gospels into 1 Corinthians would we assume that Paul was describing a physical appearance. Yet if we do not have any reports of a physical, post-mortem appearance of Jesus until the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John, it seems unlikely that the appearance stories of those gospels are historical.

(d) Circumstantial Evidence: "Circumstantial evidence," writes Strobel, "is made up of indirect facts from which inferences can be drawn" (p. 330). In his final interview, Strobel asked Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland to provide "five pieces of circumstantial evidence" that convince him of the Resurrection. Moreland provided six: (i) the disciples died for their beliefs; (ii) the conversion of skeptics; (iii) changes to key social structures; (iv) communion and baptism; (v) the emergence of the church; and (vi) the religious experience of Christians.

Concerning (i), Moreland claims that most of the disciples "were executed in torturous ways" for their belief that "Jesus Christ was the Messiah of God who died on a cross, returned to life, and was seen alive by them" (p. 333). However, this argument is multiply flawed. First, as Strobel points out, "Muslims and Mormons and followers of Jim Jones and David Koresh" (p. 333) were also willing to die for their beliefs. Therefore, the fact that the disciples were willing to die for their beliefs would increase the probability of the Resurrection only if the disciples were in a position to "know for sure" (p. 334) if the Resurrection really happened. Yet the earliest sources on the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15, Mark) do not even imply that Jesus' corpse was revivified; therefore, there is no reason to believe that the disciples were in a position to "know for sure" if Jesus' corpse came back to life! Second, Galatians 6:12 makes clear that early Christians were persecuted because they had relaxed the rules on circumcision and the law--not because of the Resurrection--and that some early Christians actually compromised their beliefs in the face of persecution.[30]

The evidence for (ii) is inconclusive. First, it is simply an exaggeration to assert, as many Christian apologists do, that James the brother of Jesus was at one time skeptical of Christianity. Yes, James was a non-Christian who later converted to Christianity, but there is no evidence in the New Testament to support the assertion that James was an enemy of Christianity. Moreover, one need not assume the Resurrection in order to explain the conversion of James. According to Robert Price,

The answer is not far to seek. He was the eldest brother of King Messiah. Once honored for this accident of birth, he did not see fit to decline it. One might well remain aloof to a movement in which one's brother was the leader yet soon warm to it once the leadership role were offered to oneself.[31]

Second, the story of Paul's conversion is also open to serious question. Turning to Price again, he states:

The story of Paul's conversion is hardly even hinted at in any of the writings attributed to him. And when you read about it in the book of Acts, this looks like an awful lot like two stories widely known at the tomb: the conversion of the persecutor Pentheus--persecutor of the Dionysian religion that's told in Euripides' play, The Bacchae--and the conversion against his will of Heliodorus, the agent of Antiogas Epiphanes, 2 Maccabees. [These are] both texts that the author of Acts would certainly have known as an educated person. His stories of Paul being converted don't sound much like Paul's epistles but do sound like this.[32]

As for (iii)-(v), these facts are not even circumstantial evidence. They no more increase the probability of Christianity than, say, the emergence of the Mormon church increases the probability of Mormonism being true.

This leaves only (vi) the religious experience of Christians. Here I think it is important to distinguish truth from rationality. I do not believe Christianity is true, but I am perfectly happy to grant that it may be rational for Christians to believe Christianity on the basis of their experience.[33] Yet even granting that, there is no reason to believe that the religious experience of Christians is evidence for the Resurrection. Moreover, there are many people who have not had experiences of the Christian god; this fact cries out for an explanation.

One explanation, proposed by Theodore Drange in his recent book Nonbelief and Evil, is that the Christian god does not exist.[34] He argues that the mere fact of reasonable nonbelief in the world is evidence for the nonexistence of the Christian god. According to Drange, if the Christian god were to exist, He would want everyone to believe in Him. Drange suggests that, if the Christian god actually existed, He could do many things to bring about more believers in Him. He could provide good, objective evidence of His existence. He could reveal Himself to people through private, subjective religious experiences. He could create "belief genes," giving people the genetic tendency to become Christians. And so forth. Yet there many, many people who do not believe the Christian god exists. This would be surprising if Christianity were true, but what we would expect if Christianity were false (and if the Resurrection never happened). The upshot is that reasonable nonbelief indirectly decreases the likelihood of the Resurrection.

Concluding Thoughts

Case for Christ is a creative, well-written contribution to Christian apologetics. Moreover, Strobel is to be commended for summarizing the work of so many leading apologists for Evangelical Christianity in such a compact and easy-to-read format. Yet Strobel did not interview any critics of Evangelical apologetics. He sometimes refutes at great length objections not made by the critics (e.g., the claim that Jesus was mentally insane); more often, he doesn't address objections the critics do make (e.g., the unreliability of human memory, that non-Christian historians do not provide any independent confirmation for the deity of Jesus, etc.) Perhaps this will be a welcome feature to people who already believe Christianity but have no idea why they believe it. For those of us who are primarily interested in the truth, however, we want to hear both sides of the story.[35]

Addendum (11/29/00)

Since the original publication of my review, I was pleased by the amount of attention it has received, including a mention on Hank Hanegraaff's "Bible Answer Man" Radio Show! But many readers have misunderstood my statement that Strobel "quotes a section of my essay on the Resurrection on p. 295 (but he does not give the URL for that essay or mention my name)." If Strobel's book had been promoted only as an apologetic, I would have no objection. But Strobel's book was promoted as more than just another Christian apologetics book; it was promoted as the result of an investigation into Christianity by an investigative reporter. My point was simply that we would normally expect a journalist to identify their sources, and Strobel's refusal to even mention my name is yet another example of how Strobel's book was not written according to the standards of contemporary journalism.

Notes

[1] See William Lane Craig and Frank Zindler, Atheism vs. Christianity: Where Does the Evidence Point? (audiocasette, South Barrington, IL, 1993), 1993.

[2] In his interviews of Christian apologists, Strobel occasionally quotes passages from a book critical of Christianity, but he does so only to elicit a response from a Christian apologist. He never quotes passages from works in Christian apologetics to non-Christians, in order to get their response.

[3] Michael Martin, The Case Against Christianity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991).

[4] See Daniel B. Wallace, "The Synoptic Problem" (<URL:http://www.bible.org/docs/soapbox/synoptic.htm>, n.d.), spotted 1 Mar 99. I am grateful to Peter Kirby for making me aware of this paper.

[5] See <URL:http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/gosp1.htm> for arguments against authorship by a disciple of Peter. See <URL:http://www.knight.org/advent/cathen/09674b.htm> for arguments for traditional authorship. I am grateful to Peter Kirby for making me aware of these papers.

[6] Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), p. xiv.

[7] See, for example, Elizabeth F. Loftus, Eyewitness Testimony (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).

[8] John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus (San Fransisco: Harper Collins, 1998), pp. 59-68.

[9] This does not mean, however, that I accept the empirical accuracy of the New Testament.

[10] See Jeffery J. Lowder, "Josh McDowell's 'Evidence' for Jesus -- Is It Reliable?" (<URL:http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/jury/chap5. html>, 1997), spotted March 1, 1999.

[11] There is absolutely no reason to believe that Tacitus referred to the Resurrection, as Strobel suggested. Indeed, one wonders if Yamauchi rejects that interpretation, given that Yamauchi "ducked" Strobel's request for an opinion (p. 108).

[12] R.T. France, The Evidence for Jesus (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1986), p. 24.

[13] I owe this point to Larry A. Taylor.

[14] Larry Taylor, "Luke and Quirinius" (<URL:http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/jury/luke_and_quirinius.html>, n.d.), spotted March 1, 1999.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Frank Zindler, "Where Jesus Never Walked," American Atheist (Winter 1996-1997), 34.

[17] Earl Doherty, "Reader Feedback and Author's Response," spotted March 1, 1999.

[18] Robert Funk, Honest to Jesus (San Fransisco, HarperCollins, 1996), p. 60.

[19] John Dominic Crossan in Paul Copan, ed. Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? A Debate Between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan (Grand Rapids, MI: 1999), p. 45. Italics are Crossan's.

[20] John Dominic Crossan, Who Is Jesus? (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), p. 96.

[21] Quoted in Strobel, p. 367.

[22] John Hick, ed., The Myth of God Incarnate 2nd ed. (London: SCM Press, 1993).

[23] Martin points out additional problems with the doctrine of the Incarnation. See Martin, pp. 125-161.

[24] For a systematic argument for the incoherence of the Trinity, see Michael Durrant, Theology and Intelligibility (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973).

[25] Tim Callahan, Bible Prophecy: Failure or Fulfillment? (Altadena, CA: Millenium Press, 1997).

[26] Funk, p. 221.

[27] Ibid.

[28] See Jeffery J. Lowder, "The Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus" (<URL:http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/jesus_resurrection/>, 1995), spotted March 1, 1999.

[29] Robert M. Price, "By This Time He Stinketh: The Attempts of William Lane Craig to Exhume Jesus" (<URL:http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/robert_price/stinketh.html>, 1997), spotted 1 Mar 99.

[30] I owe this point to Steven Carr.

[31] Price, "Apocryphal Apparitions: 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 as a Post-Pauline Interpolation" Journal of Higher Criticism 2/2 (Fall 1995), 69-99.

[32] Price in John Patrick Michael Murphy and Robert M. Price, "Was There a Historical Jesus?" tape of "Murphy's Law" radio program broadcast on KVOR, 1300 AM, Colorado Springs, Colorado on Sunday, February 28, 1999 at 10 A.M.

[33] See Keith Parsons, God and the Burden of Proof (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1989), p. 36.

[34] Theodore M. Drange, Nonbelief and Evil: Two Arguments for the Nonexistence of God (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1998).

[35] I am grateful to Steven Carr, Jim Lippard, and Mark Vuletic for helpful comments on previous drafts of this review.

 

Related Resources

"Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story: A Reply to William Lane Craig" (2001)

Lowder provides a point-by-point rebuttal to Craig's case for the empty tomb. Along the way, Lowder defends a naturalistic explanation of the empty tomb. He concludes that historians should be agnostic about the empty tomb story.

"Challenging the Verdict: A Cross-Examination of Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ" (2001) by Earl Doherty [Off Site]

Doherty critiques Strobel's book, in order "to expose the fallacy, distortion of evidence, and basic misrepresentation inherent in the "case" for Christian orthodoxy as presented by this consortium of reactionary scholarly opinion."


"The Rest of the Story" is copyright © 1999 by the Society of Humanist Philosophers. All rights reserved. The electronic version is copyright © 1999 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Jeffery Jay Lowder. All rights reserved.

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