A Conversation With Lee Strobel
November 1, 2007 - Athiest-turned-Christian Lee Strobel, former legal editor of the Chicago Tribune, is one of today’s best-known Christian apologists, or defenders of the faith. His own two-year investigation of the evidence for Jesus convinced him in 1981 to put his faith in Christ, and his investigative approach has helped many others to come to faith in Christ as well. Decision recently spoke with Strobel about defending the faith and about his new book, “The Case for the Real Jesus.”
Interviewed by Bob Paulson
Q: As we are speaking, the No. 5 hardcover non-fiction book on The New York Times best-seller list is “God Is Not Great” by atheist Christopher Hitchens. How compelling do you find his argument that “religion poisons everything?”
A: There is a proliferation right now of books by atheists like Hitchens, as well as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, who are attacking faith in general and Christianity in particular on the grounds that it poisons everything and it serves no good purpose. I think that’s a demonstrably false position, when you consider the positive impact that faith has had on the world and on individuals through time. I think the evidence is clear that the net effect of faith in Christ has been transformed lives. It has produced social action projects that have benefited millions and millions of people.
So I think these authors’ position just doesn’t hold water. For one thing, they lump Christianity in with other faith systems—which I think is illegitimate—rather than considering Christianity on its own merits, which they are reluctant to do.
Q: So would we say these books demonstrate a combative approach?
A: Atheists have become much more militant in recent years, much more vociferous in their attacks. I think when “The Da Vinci Code” was published several years ago and was such a huge financial success, publishers began to see a market for books that try to undermine the basic beliefs of Christianity. (For more on "The Da Vinci Code," see also, "Reasons for Our Hope" by Norman Geisler and "A
Conversation With Al Mohler.") Now we have a whole raft of atheists competing for publishing contracts, and they are getting more and more outlandish in their allegations in order to get their books published.
Q: In addition to these attacks from atheists, we also have theologians—people who presumably believe in God—who are attacking the traditional picture of Jesus. Tell us why you felt the need to address those challenges in your new book, “The Case for the Real Jesus.”
A: We see a lot of radical and liberal scholars who would profess belief in Christ and yet whose teachings are contrary to the fundamentals of the Christian faith. About a decade ago I wrote “The Case for Christ,” which described my journey from atheism into Christianity and talked about the evidence that Jesus is the unique Son of God. Since then we’ve had a growing number of attacks by militant atheists, radical scholars and others. I thought it was necessary to deal with the challenges to Christianity that are circulating in the popular culture—on the Internet, in popular books, in television documentaries and in college classrooms.
So I wrote my book to show that there are good answers to the allegations being raised by these critics and to build a fresh, new, positive case for Jesus being the unique Son of God—and to do it differently, and I hope even more persuasively, than I did in “The Case for Christ.”
Q: Among the six challenges you consider in the book, which one stands out as the most troubling or dangerous?
A: I think the attacks on the resurrection of Jesus are always troubling because they strike at the very heart of our faith. The Apostle Paul said, “If the resurrection isn’t true, then our faith is futile because we’re still in our sins” (Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:17). The resurrection is the lynchpin of our faith. One theologian said, “Christianity without the resurrection is not Christianity without its final chapter; it’s not Christianity at all.”
Everything depends on Jesus rising from the dead. Anyone can claim to be the unique Son of God, but Jesus proved it by conquering the grave. So whenever there are attacks on the physical resurrection of Jesus, we have to take them seriously and provide adequate and thoughtful responses to demonstrate once more that the historical case for Jesus returning from the dead is powerful, persuasive and cogent. As an atheist I found the evidence convincing that Jesus did indeed return from the dead, thus proving that He is the Son of God.
Q: Five of the challenges you address in the book focus on new and supposedly compelling sources that scholars are uncovering. The sixth challenge seems a bit different; the idea that we should be free to pick and choose what we believe about Jesus. What have you concluded about that particular issue?
A: Many people are picking and choosing what they want to believe about Jesus, discarding the more difficult teachings about sin, repentance or the doctrine of hell and instead merely focusing on the love of Jesus, the forgiveness of Jesus. They are coming up with their own versions of Jesus that may not bear any resemblance to the real Jesus. It’s called syncretism—the piecing together of various beliefs, many of them New Age beliefs, and creating their own “stew” of beliefs about God and Jesus Christ.
The problem with that is that it’s really irrelevant what you or I think about Jesus. I am free to believe that Jesus was a magician who used ancient incantations from Egyptian rites and was married to Mary Magdalene and had a family and never rose from the dead and who taught that we’re really gods, not sinners who need forgiveness. But that does not mean my beliefs are true. The question is, who is Jesus? Our role ought to be to discover what the evidence tells us about His identity and His teachings and His claims, not to come up with our own concoction of who we wish He were.
Q: In your interviews with the experts for this new book, was there something that surprised you about the evidence for the real Jesus?
A: Several things surprised me. One was my interview with Dr. Michael L. Brown, who’s a Jewish believer in Jesus. He wove together the Messianic prophecies in such a powerful way that it represents a very strong case for Jesus having fulfilled these ancient predictions and thus establishes that He is the Messiah that the Jewish people have been waiting for.
I was also pleased with the way Michael Licona, a young scholar and expert on the resurrection, was able to deal with the current objections to Jesus rising from the dead. He demonstrates that the evidence does point convincingly toward the actual physical resurrection of Jesus. I was impressed by so many of the scholars; Craig Evans as he critiqued the alternative gospels like the gospel of Thomas, the gospel of Mary and others that some people claim are as valid as the Gospels of the New Testament. Evans’ reservoir of scholarly wisdom was incredible in establishing that only Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have the earmarks of accuracy and can be trusted historically to report on the real Jesus.
These scholars are brilliant and highly respected by both conservatives and liberals; they have been published widely in academic journals and are recognized as being authorities in these particular areas. But I’m especially heartened by their personal faith. Their great scholarship has not diluted their faith in Christ but has strengthened it. That’s inspiring to me.
Q: Unlike these scholars, most Christians probably aren’t going to master all the nuances of these arguments. But what should we be able to do?
A: I think 1 Peter 3:15 was intended for all Christians. It says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (NIV). That’s for every Christian. That doesn’t mean we all are going to become world-class scholars who are going to master the minutiae of the evidence, but we can learn enough to give a basic defense of why we believe what we believe.
The other thing is that we can put resources into people’s hands. When we don’t have all the answers, we can still say, “Here’s a book,” or “Here’s a Web site,” or “Here’s a documentary” that might help them. We can all do that.
Q: How are Christian apologists faring today in answering the challenges of skeptics?
A: I’m excited about the landscape of Christian apologetics right now. We’ve got some terrific young scholars and experts who are rising to the surface. People like Sean McDowell, Chad Meister, Mike Licona, Alex McFarland, Greg Koukl, Mark Mittelberg. There are a lot of really sharp individuals whom God is using to provide Christians with strong reasons for their faith. And I think we’re going to continue to see young apologists who are well-trained, godly individuals. I’m seeing more seminaries and more Christian colleges taking apologetics seriously.
I think we’re seeing a new dawn for Christian apologetics. The time is right for Christians to stand up in a humble but persuasive way to tell the world that our beliefs in Jesus Christ are rooted in a strong bedrock of historical reality.
Q: What are some approaches that are effective in helping people to consider Jesus?
A: One of the most exciting developments has been “seeker small groups.” These groups are led by Christians but attended largely by non-Christians. Through the years we’ve found that about 80 percent of non-Christians who join these groups and stay with them come out on the other side as believers in Jesus Christ. So these are incredibly effective ways of creating an environment where people feel safe to ask difficult questions, to express doubts, to express different opinions, and where the group leaders help them over time, in a relational way and through Scripture, to come to an understanding of who the real Jesus is.
I think we’re going to see in the next 20 years that these groups are going to become popular in churches all over the country. All churches can train people to lead these groups and unleash them in our neighborhoods, workplaces and communities to reach out in a loving, caring way to people who are confused about God and help them come to faith in Jesus.
Often, groups will go through a curriculum that’s derived from a book. Other groups create their own curriculum. The leader says, “If you could ask God any one question, and you knew He would give you an answer, what would you ask?” People express their strongest doubts and the areas where they’re most confused spiritually. The leader writes down what they say, and that becomes the curriculum. I’ve seen the most hardened atheists emerge from these groups as followers of Jesus Christ, not just because they heard great answers from Christians but because of the love that they’ve experienced in the group. I think it is important because it speaks to both head and heart.
Q: That brings us to the balance of faith and reason. I love how you describe it in “The Case for Christ” documentary—you took “a step of faith in the direction that the evidence was pointing.”
A: People often misunderstand what faith is. They say it’s like the little boy who said to his Sunday school teacher, “Faith is believing something even though you know in your heart it can’t be true.”
That’s not faith. Faith is taking a step in the same direction that the evidence points. We do that every day of our lives in little things and in big things. For instance, I have a bottle of water that I’ve been sipping during this interview. It could have been poisoned. But I did an informal assessment of the evidence: The bottle was sealed when I got it. The water looked clean. It’s labeled with the name of a respected water production company. It was given to me by my wife, who loves me and has given no sign that she wants to harm me. When I opened it, the water smelled right. And so based on the evidence, I took a step of faith and took a sip of the water.
In the same way, the Bible says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Follow the evidence and then take a step in the same direction the evidence is pointing—by receiving Jesus Christ.