Updated: June 4, 2002
The following book review is a revised version of the original review published in Philo 2 (1999), pp. 89-102.
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.) 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. 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. Moreover, Strobel ignored objections that even Christians can accept. For instance, Strobel defends the partial authenticity of the so-called “Testimonium Flavianum,” the most famous reference to Jesus in the writings of Josephus. However, there is no discussion at all of the multiple reasons that have led some scholars–compatible with Christianity–to reject the Testimonium Flavianum in its entirety. This hardly constitutes balanced reporting on Strobel’s part; indeed, on this basis, one is tempted to dismiss the entire book as a farce. (By way of contrast, witness the backlash of the Evangelical community against a recent ABC News special by Peter Jennings on the historical Jesus, a television program which had a decidely liberal slant. Evangelicals complained in spite of the fact that Jennings, unlike Strobel, actually interviewed scholars who disagreed with the position he was promoting!)Nonetheless, I was compelled to review 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
- 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. Yet if the two-source hypothesis is correct, Matthew and Luke are based heavily on Mark; it is therefore unlikely that Matthew and Luke, in their entirety, constitute independent accounts. It is, of course, true that Matthew and Mark probably had their own independent source material. But the fact remains that the gospels of Matthew and Mark as a whole are not independent accounts. Moreover, the traditional authorship of Mark is open to serious question. (Note that I am not claiming that the traditional authorship of Mark is false. Rather, I am merely claiming that it is open to serious question. Given that the traditional authorship of Mark has been denied, one would have expected some sort of reply in Strobel’s book!) 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 non-Christians. 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.” First-century Romans 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. As for the Jews, Jewish sources do not even mention the Resurrection, much less attempt to refute it. As Michael Martin writes, “This hardly suggests that Jewish leaders were actively engaged in attempting to refute the Resurrection story but failing in their efforts.”
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). Did I previously say that psychological studies rendered human memory unreliable, even in oral cultures as described by Blomberg? I am grateful to my friend P.W. for correcting me on this matter, and I regret the error.
(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.
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, it would be an understatement to say that the early church would have excluded such a book from the New Testament. There would have been no reason for the church to include such a book in the canon. But in that hypothetical scenario, the church would not have included at least one important source for the historicity of Jesus, namely, the hypothetical book by Suetonius. Therefore, one can only marvel at Metzger’s suggestion the early church’s criteria guarantee that “the New Testament contains the best sources for the historicity of Jesus.” 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). It would have been more accurate to say that the early church’s criteria guarantee that “the New Testament contains the best sources for the historicity of Jesus, consistent with a Christian worldview.”
(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, the evidence for our position is not decisive, especially with respect to the longer reference. Strobel’s failure to interview someone who rejects the authenticity of the longer passage is further evidence of Strobel’s biased reporting. And while Yamauchi was merely using the writings of Josephus to defend the historicity of Jesus, other Christians have used Josephus to defend certain theological claims about Jesus, including his divinity and his resurrection from the dead. However, as Yamauchi himself shows, the very phrases that are used to support theological claims about Jesus are the same phrases that led scholars to question the authenticity of the entire passage in the first place!
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. 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.” 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 gospel stories have been criticized on archaeological grounds: (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. 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). 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.”
(ii) Although there are no references to Nazareth in any written source outside the gospels before the fourth century, 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.” 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. The problem is not that we lack a precedent for Herod committing moral atrocities. Rather, the problem is that 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). Some Christians have speculated that the writings of Thallus provide independent confirmation of the darkness following the crucifixion, but, as I have argued elsewhere, such a claim is not supported by the evidence. Second, the resurrection of the saints, and their subsequent appearance to many in Jerusalem (Matthew 27:52-53). And third, Jesus’ permanent and honorable burial in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Although the graves of prophets and holy men were typically venerated as a shrine, there is no evidence that this happened with Jesus’ burial place. Indeed, the tomb of Jesus has never been located. As I have argued elsewhere, this is just what we would expect on the assumption that the permanent location of Jesus’ tomb was unknown.
(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. Again, this is odd for someone who is promoted as a journalist. 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.” 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.” Elsewhere, Crossan writes, “I leave absolutely open what God could do.” 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 importantly, 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.'” 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: A key presupposition of Lewis’s famous argument is that Jesus did, in fact, claim to be God. Strobel defends this view in an interview with Ben Witherington III, who referenced several passages from the New Testament in support. Yet Strobel did not interview any of the scholars who deny the authenticity of those passages. (Please note that I am not disputing the authenticity of those passages.) But let us put aside worries about the authenticity of those passages. 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 and not worthy of worship but I would leave the door open about his moral teachings until I examined them in their own light on a case-by-case basis. Obviously, any moral teachings that applied to Jesus himself would be false, but other teachings could be true even if Jesus was not God. For example, the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” could still be objectively true even if Jesus claimed to be God but was mistaken. And if the moral teachings of Jesus that fit into this category showed significant moral insight, then Jesus could reasonably be called a “great moral teacher” even if Jesus was mistaken about his claim to be God and even if the majority of moral teachings were based on that claim. I wish to emphasize that I do not hold such a view. I do not regard Jesus as a great moral teacher because of his doctrine of Hell. But the position I have described appears to at least be a coherent one.
(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). True, but that isn’t very surprising given that the New Testament wasn’t written as a set of therapy notes, including a complete list of relevant details about Jesus’ childhood history, emotional issues, etc. 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. (One may be tempted to wonder if Collins, as someone who believes he has a personal relationship with Jesus, can really be objective concerning Jesus’ sanity. But this is a moot point, since the historical record doesn’t provide enough data to make a diagnosis.) 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. As Carson himself says, “If you have an animal that looks like a horse, smells like a horse, walks like a horse, and has all the attributes of a horse, you’ve got a horse” (pp. 214-215).
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.
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. Even if one believes that it is better for someone to freely go to Hell rather than to go to Heaven against their will, the traditional doctrine of Hell denies the possibility of escape. So if someone dies as a non-Christian, according to the traditional doctrine of Hell, there is no way for that person to later escape Hell by freely choosing to become a Christian while in Hell. 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.
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 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.” 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.
(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! (One would think that it might have occurred to Strobel to check the Internet sites of Jews, Muslims, and other theistic non-Christians as well, to “see the kind of arguments they were raising against the Resurrection.”) Apparently, Strobel visited the Secular Web for he quotes a section of my essay on the Resurrection on p. 295. However, while journalists normally identify their sources, Strobel neither provided the URL for that essay nor mentioned the author’s name. This is another failure of Strobel’s journalism. Nor did Strobel discuss the objections raised by New Testament scholar Robert Price in his online rebuttal to Craig’s defense of the empty tomb, available on the same website as my earlier Resurrection essay.
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.
Strobel then recounts his interview with Craig, in which Craig defends the historicity of the empty tomb by answering objections and presenting affirmative evidence. While it is impossible to properly assess each of Craig’s points in this short book review, I will make the following summary comments. (i) To his credit, I believe that Craig made convincing replies to some of the objections to the resurrection, including Roman practice regarding crucifixion victims and inconsistencies in the empty tomb accounts. (ii) While I am tentatively prepared to join Craig in accepting the historicity of the empty tomb, I am not nearly as impressed as Craig is by some of his affirmative evidence for that conclusion. More importantly, Strobel did not ask Craig any questions relating to the objections to that evidence. To cite but one example, Craig, in defense of the empty tomb, appeals to the fact that Jewish authorities never produced the body (p. 296). However, as Price has shown in his rebuttal to Craig, one of the many problems with that particular argument is the fact that the disciples did not begin to publicly preach the resurrection until seven weeks after the resurrection. Even if the Jewish authorities had wanted to publicly refute Christian claims (which is itself doubtful), they could not have convincingly done so. Unfortunately, neither this objection nor Craig’s answer to it is discussed in Strobel’s summary of the interview. So once again we have an instance of Strobel’s biased reporting.
(iii) There are many ways for an occupied tomb to become empty. However, all we get from Craig and Strobel are the following alternatives: the women went to the wrong tomb, the disciples stole the body, or Jesus was resurrected from the dead. But clearly those are not the only options. Even if we agree that the empty tomb cannot be explained by either the wrong tomb or theft theories, there are other, non-ad hoc alternative explanations besides the resurrection. Elsewhere, I have defended an alternative explanation for the empty tomb I call the “reburial hypothesis”: Joseph of Arimathea temporarily buried Jesus in his (Joseph’s) tomb before the Sabbath and then reburied Jesus in a criminal’s graveyard after the Sabbath. In addition to the reburial hypothesis, there is at least one other, non-ad hoc alternative explanation. But if Craig’s list of alternative explanations for the empty tomb is incomplete, it follows that his inference to the best explanation is also incomplete. But that entails that Craig has not yet justified his claim that Jesus’ resurrection is the best explanation for the empty tomb.
(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. In a previous version of this book review, I argued that Jesus’ post-mortem “appearances” were inconclusive evidence for the resurrection, given textual indicators of a progression in Christian belief from spiritual resurrection to physical resurrection. However, I am no longer confident that the “spiritual resurrection” interpretation is a plausible one. As I wrote in my detailed reply to Craig’s arguments for the empty tomb story, I think the issue of spiritual vs. physical resurrection is much more complex than critics typically acknowledge, and I lack the linguistic and theological expertise to assess that debate. Hence, I shall grant, for the sake of argument, the assumption that all of the authors of the New Testament understood Jesus’ resurrection in a thoroughly physical way (i.e., revivification of Jesus’ corpse).
Yet even granting that the concept of resurrection throughout the New Testament, including 1 Corinthians 15, is physical, there are many alternative explanations for alleged post-mortem sightings of Jesus. Habermas and Strobel only consider the following explanations: legend, the hallucination theory, and Jesus’ resurrection. But those are not the only options. Even if we agree that legend and the hallucination theory are failures, there is at least one other, non-ad hoc alternative explanation besides Jesus’ resurrection. Hence, Habermas’s inference to the best explanation is, at best, incomplete.
Moreover, even on the assumption that the tomb was empty but Jesus was not resurrected from the dead, we would still expect some people to report post-mortem appearances. For example, we know where Elvis was buried, Elvis is still buried there, but that doesn’t stop some people from believing reports of Elvis sightings. Hence, Habermas has not shown that Jesus’ post-mortem appearances are more likely on the assumption that Jesus was resurrected than on the assumption that Jesus was not resurrected. But that entails the post-mortem appearances do not increase the likelihood of Jesus’ resurrection.
(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.
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 nonChristian 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.
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.
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. Depending upon the circumstances, it is perfectly possible (and, indeed, quite common) for someone to rationally hold a false belief. Thus, while I do not believe Christianity is true, I am perfectly happy to grant that it may be rational for specific Christians, at specific times and in specific epistemic circumstances, to believe Christianity on the basis of their experience. Yet even granting that, there is no reason to believe that the religious experience of Christians is evidence for the Resurrection. In fact, the distribution of religious experiences is actually more likely given the nonexistence of God than given God’s existence. As Paul Draper writes:
… we have no more reason to expect God to reward those who seek him or who already worship him by appearing to them than we have reason to expect God to reach out to those who do not already know him or worship him and hence are more in need of such an encounter. So the distribution of theistic experiences we find is antecedently more likely given the nonexistence of God than given God’s existence … .
Thus, the religious experiences of Christians do not by themselves make Christianity (or the Resurrection) more probable than not.
In fact, the distribution of religious experiences can be understood as part of a larger issue, the reasonableness of nonbelief. Just as belief in the Resurrection may be rational even if it is false, nonbelief may be rational even if theism is true. But under what epistemic circumstances is nonbelief rational? Nonbelief may be rational for persons who have never had a religious experience, for persons who have examined theistic arguments and found them wanting, for persons who have examined arguments against God’s existence and found them convincing, or for persons who believe there is good evidence both for and against God’s existence. There are many sane, intelligent, and honest people who wish theism were true, but who nonetheless are ignorant of God’s existence. However, if theism were true, we would expect nonbelief to be irrational for everyone, since theistic belief is a precondition for loving God. Thus, paradoxically, the reasonableness of nonbelief actually provides evidence against the existence of God! Theistic attempts to portray all nonbelievers as people who have secretly suppressed their knowledge of God’s existence for sinful reasons are as unconvincing as atheistic attempts to portray all believers as people who have secretly suppressed their knowledge of atheism out of fear or wishful thinking. But if there is good reason to believe that God does not exist, then the probability of the Resurrection is further decreased, since the Resurrection presupposes the existence of God.
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 complete inauthenticity of the Testimonium Flavianium, the failure of Jews to produce the body is inconclusive evidence for the empty tomb, 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.
 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.
 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.
 The text of Josephus’ Antiquities (18.3.3 § 63-64) might seem to contain an authentic reference to Jesus’ resurrection, but there are clear signs of Christian tampering with the text. Moreover, even the New Testament does not claim that the Jews ever bothered to check the tomb.
 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).
 Jeffery Jay Lowder, “Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story: A Reply to William Lane Craig,” Journal of Higher Criticism, forthcoming.
 For a detailed assessment of Craig’s arguments for the historicity of the empty tomb, see my “Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story: A Reply to William Lane Craig” Journal of Higher Criticism, forthcoming.
 See, for example, the explanation proposed by Robert Greg Cavin and Carlos A. Colombetti in their forthcoming book, Double Cross: A Logical Approach to the Mystery of Easter. I want to emphasize that I am not criticizing Strobel for failing to discuss a book that has not yet been published. Rather, my point is simply that there are other non-ad hoc alternative explanations besides the ones considered by Strobel. One doesn’t (or shouldn’t) need a defense of these alternatives in print in order to think of alternatives.
 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 10am.
 Paul Draper would be a prime example of the last type of nonbeliever. He believes that certain facts (the beginning of the universe, intelligent life, etc.) are strong evidence for theism, while other facts (evolution, pain and pleasure, etc.) are strong evidence for metaphysical naturalism.
“The Rest of the Story” is copyright © 1999 by the Society of Humanist Philosophers. All rights reserved.
The revised version is copyright © 2002 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Jeffery Jay Lowder. All rights reserved.