At the suggestion of a relative who is trying to enable me to see the light, I recently read a book called The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus, by Lee Strobel. All the while I was reading it, I could hear in my head echoes of Rechelle’s voice from the time she handed me the keys to this blog page, along with a list of suggestions for how it might be used: You could post a book review … You could post a book review … You could post a book review … and it just went on like that, even though she’d said it only once, many, many months before. This incessant distraction made it hard to concentrate on my reading, but I soldiered on, and when I was finished, I decided to post a review of the book.
Lee Strobel, the book’s author, is celebrated in certain circles as a former atheist whose investigation of the Bible and its background led him to become a Christian. As Strobel, an award-winning investigative journalist with a Master in Studies of Law degree from Yale Law School, tells the story in the introduction to the book, he was stunned to be informed by his wife one day in 1979 that she had become a Christian. Initially apprehensive about this news, he brightened upon finding that he approved of the attendant changes in his wife’s character, integrity, and confidence. Having been up to that point secure in atheism and the “self-serving and immoral lifestyle” it allowed him to enjoy, he now resolved to launch “an all-out investigation of the facts surrounding the case for Christianity” (he had previously taken only a “cursory glance” at the available evidence). He “plunged into the case with more vigor than with any story” he had ever pursued and in the end found that the evidence pointed to “the unthinkable.” At first glance, The Case for Christ appears to be a document of Strobel’s journey from godlessness to righteousness.
The book is divided into three sections (“Examining the Record,” “Analyzing Jesus,” and “Researching the Resurrection”), each consisting of several chapters based around interviews with the finest Christian apologists in the business. These interviews are given the feel of courtroom proceedings, with the interviewee as a witness on the stand. Strobel takes the part of the cross-examining attorney. The reader, who takes the part of the jury, is invited to “deliberate” at the end of each chapter and is provided with some questions for consideration to make that task easier. To set the tone, each chapter opens with a short crime story covered by Strobel in his days at the Chicago Tribune. Each of these crime stories is meant to tie in with the evidence the reader is about to receive from the chapter’s interviewee. For instance, the first chapter, called “The Eyewitness Evidence: Can the Biographies of Jesus Be Trusted?” begins with the story of a killer who was convicted on the testimony of one eyewitness, to illustrate how powerful eyewitness testimony can be.
And so, having been permeated with a sense of Strobel’s general dogged persistence in ensuring that all stones have been turned and that whatever was concealed under them has been examined from every angle, assured of his intention to challenge the best minds in the field of Christian apology until his ferocious thirst for the unbiased truth is quenched, informed that he pursued this project more vigorously than any before it, advised that it is supremely important for us to be just as zealous in our attempt to assimilate it all and reach the right conclusion with him, and given a taste of his deft grasp of the value and meaning of evidence, we lunge eagerly and defiantly, like a pack of hounds having just been given a whiff of a truth-stained handkerchief, with our nostrils ravenously craving total immersion in that sweet scent, into the first interview, with Craig Blomberg, Ph.D., “widely considered to be one of the country’s foremost authorities” on the four gospels. We wonder if Blomberg knows what he’s in for. We wonder what he’s in for.
We crouch expectantly without knowing exactly what we’re expecting, every fiber of our nostrils now on full alert, as Strobel, with “an edge of challenge” in his voice, asks his first question: “Tell me this: Is it really possible to be an intelligent, critically thinking person and still believe that the four gospels were written by the people whose names have been attached to them?” What kind of a cunning game is Strobel playing? In asking his question without indicating why he is asking it (i.e., without presenting any reasons it might be difficult for an intelligent, critically thinking person to believe that the names of the gospels reflect their true authorship), is he hoping that with no real evidence to rebut, Blomberg will volunteer a weak argument that can be easily demolished?
Unsurprisingly, Blomberg answers the question in the affirmative, but he then goes on to say that although the gospels are, “strictly speaking,” anonymous, there was no dispute among members of the early church that Matthew, a tax collector and one of the twelve disciples, wrote Matthew; that John Mark, a companion of the disciple Peter, wrote Mark; and that Luke, the apostle Paul’s “beloved physician,” wrote Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.
Professing a lingering skepticism that compels him to “test the issue further,” Strobel then asks if anyone would have had a reason to claim that these people wrote the gospels when they didn’t. It turns out that no one would have, according to Blomberg.
As Strobel leads Blomberg to get more specific about the uniform testimony of the early church on the authorship of the gospels, it comes out that the only reason the members of the early church weren’t absolutely positive that the book of John was written by John the apostle was that a Christian writer named Papias was not sufficiently clear on this issue when he revealed who the gospels’ authors were in a document from about 125, about 90 years after Jesus is thought to have died and about 35 years after the last of the gospels is thought to have been written. Further, it comes out that this statement by Papias is the earliest evidence that the gospels of Matthew and Mark were written by the people now associated with them; Irenaeus confirmed this authorship and identified Luke and the disciple John as the authors of the other two gospels 55 years later.
At this point, you might expect a seasoned, award-winning journalist with a law degree who had come prepared and would stop at nothing to get the truth to say something like “Isn’t it true, Dr. Blomberg, that later Christian authorities thought Papias something of a crackpot? Isn’t it true that Papias not only claimed to have gleaned his gospel authorship knowledge from personal communications with people who had known ‘elders’ who had known some of the disciples, but also claimed that these people had told him that these same ‘elders’ remembered that the disciple John had attributed to Jesus some ludicrous utterances that were regarded as offensive and/or laughable by later Christians? Isn’t it true that Papias also claimed that Judas became increasingly bloated after his betrayal of Jesus, reaching a point where he was too fat to walk down the street because even his head was too large to fit between the buildings, and that he eventually essentially exploded and died? Isn’t it true that Papias’s statement about the authorship of the gospels is just about the only thing he wrote that Christians continue to take seriously? Isn’t it true that the work Papias attributes to Matthew is a collection of sayings, not a narrative, as the gospel attributed to Matthew is? Isn’t it true that although Papias says that Matthew’s work was written in Hebrew, the gospel attributed to Matthew used the gospel attributed to Mark as one of its sources, in some passages copying Mark’s Greek verbatim, and thus must also have been written in Greek? Isn’t it true that people of the disciples’ class in Palestine in the first century almost certainly were illiterate and had no knowledge of Greek, the language in which the gospels were written? Well? Is any of this stuff true?” (According to Bart Ehrman [Jesus, Interrupted, p. 104–110, 287–288], all of this stuff is true.)
Strangely, Strobel does not present any of this evidence, possibly assuming that Blomberg already knows about it. And Blomberg almost certainly does know about it, but he doesn’t mention it. Why should he? No witness in his right mind is going to volunteer evidence that casts doubt on his case. It’s the responsibility of the cross-examining attorney to shine a light on such facts. Instead, Strobel challengingly and hard-hittingly says “Okay, let me clarify this. If we can have confidence that the gospels were written by the disciples Matthew and John, by Mark, the companion of the disciple Peter, and by Luke, the historian, companion of Paul, and a sort of first-century journalist, we can be assured that the events they record are based on either direct or indirect eyewitness testimony.” Blomberg responds with a crisp “Exactly.” At this point, it seems that witness and cross-examiner are both satisfied that they have established that the gospels are the work of eyewitnesses or companions of eyewitnesses.
But lest you get the idea that Strobel is far more credulous than the average hard-boiled skeptic, note that the gospels are not yet home free. There are still some “troubling aspects” of them that Strobel thinks require exploration. He first raises his chief concern, observing that the gospels are different from modern biographies in terms of writing style and in that they cover only certain periods of the subject’s life and asking Blomberg how he explains that. This is an issue I would never have thought to bring up, and I suppose that one reason Strobel has won awards for his journalism is that it occurs to him to ask about seemingly harmless things like this. Although it’s hard for me to imagine a reply to this question that would undermine the case for Christ, perhaps Strobel is setting a trap for Blomberg. Perhaps this is the one question that Blomberg hoped that Strobel would not ask. Perhaps the reply will be something like “I … I can’t explain it. Curses! You force me to admit that the difference between the gospels and modern biographies completely invalidates the gospels as trustworthy sources of information. I know when I’ve been bested, sir.” No, it turns out that things don’t get quite that dramatic, as Blomberg responds with a marginally interesting discussion of the reasons for the differences between the gospels and modern biographies.
Next up is a discussion of Q, a hypothesized collection of Jesus’s sayings from which both Matthew and Luke drew material, and of the use of Mark as a source also for both Matthew and Luke. Strobel asks why Matthew would use Mark as a source if Matthew was an eyewitness, and Blomberg says that since Mark was getting his material from Peter, who was “among the inner circle of Jesus and was privy to seeing and hearing things that the other disciples didn’t,” it made sense for Matthew to use Mark’s work to enhance his own account. Strobel seems to consider this a satisfying explanation, even bolstering it with an analogous situation from his days as an award-winning reporter, even though most of the material Matthew took from Mark concerns very public happenings that many outside the inner circle would have been privy to.
Having handily lain to rest his first few professed misgivings about the gospels with just a little help from Blomberg, Srobel now broaches the topic of the striking differences between the gospel of John and the synoptic gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Apparently, Strobel thinks that these differences may constitute irreconcilable contradictions between the gospels. However, as he launches the discussion of the subject, he does not give the reason for that suspicion and doesn’t give any examples of what he thinks may be contradictions. Instead, he asks Blomberg to tell him how the synoptic gospels differ from John and to explain how the differences can be accounted for. Fortuitously, this is one of Blomberg’s pet topics and he is eager to expound at length on the differences and how easily they can be accounted for. Strobel lets Blomberg sail along on his own for a bit until the discussion drifts into theological themes from John that don’t seem to be found in the other three gospels. Blomberg makes what Strobel considers the “bold assertion” that just about any of the theological themes of John can be found in the other three gospels if one looks hard enough. Strobel then notes that John explicitly claims that Jesus is God and invites Blomberg to look hard enough to find this claim in the synoptic gospels. Blomberg gamely points out a few things hiding in the crevices of the synoptic gospels that he takes to be consistent with the divinity of Jesus, and this appears to satisfy Strobel, despite the many passages in the synoptic gospels that suggest rather strongly that Jesus was not God.
Stobel then asks Blomberg if the theological motivations of the authors of the gospels might have compromised their ability to report events as they actually happened, leading to alterations, omissions, and invented episodes in their accounts in order to make the facts fit their theological agendas. It’s possible but not likely, Blomberg assures him. After all, every single word that was written in the ancient world was written for an ideological purpose, and if we can get accurate historical information from other ancient sources, surely we can from the gospels as well.
To clarify his meaning, Blomberg offers Jewish documentation of the Holocaust as a modern parallel to the gospels. He notes that although some people “deny or downplay the horrors of the Holocaust … it has been the Jewish scholars who’ve created museums, written books, preserved artifacts, and documented eyewitness testimony concerning the Holocaust.” Although the purpose of their documentation is ideological, “they have also been the most faithful and objective in their reporting of historical truth.” It appears that Blomberg means that the Jewish scholars have been more faithful to historical truth than have the Holocaust deniers, whose work has drastically twisted and distorted the truth. Blomberg does not mention that the Holocaust deniers could also serve as a modern example of a group with ideological purposes. To bring his point home, Blomberg says “Christianity was likewise based on certain historical claims that God entered into space and time in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, so the very ideology that Christians were trying to promote required as careful historical work as possible.” Hanging heavy in the air but unobserved by Blomberg is the fact that his assertion is true only if the historical truth fit the ideological purposes of the early Christians as nicely as it fits those of the Jewish Holocaust scholars; if not, the Christians would have to have twisted the facts in order to promote their ideology, like the Holocaust deniers have. This seems to have also eluded Stobel, who readily concedes the integrity of the gospel authors’ historical work on the strength of Blomberg’s analogy.
The extent of Strobel’s preparation with regard to digging up evidence against Blomberg’s views on the gospels seems to have been reading A History of God, by Karen Armstrong, a former nun. Strobel poses a couple of his “challenges” to Blomberg by reading passages from this book, and the quoted material seems to irritate Blomberg, who evidently considers Armstrong’s work unworthy of serious consideration. One of the Armstrong passages Srobel offers observes that the earliest of the gospels (Mark) is thought to have been written about 40 years after Jesus’s death and posits that over those 40 years several layers of legends about Jesus gradually coated the gospel authors’ eyes and ultimately made it difficult for them to see the original facts and that this, coupled with the distance between the writers and the times they were writing about, corrupted the accuracy what ended up being written.
Not at all, Blomberg assures Strobel. Consider that the two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written more than 400 years after Alexander’s death but are generally considered trustworthy by historians (no word on whether these same historians generally consider the gospels trustworthy). Any legendary material about Alexander did not start to develop until 500 years after his death. If it takes 500 years for legends to start emerging, 40 years is far too short a time for any kind of a legend to develop. One question that remains unexplored is whether there were any differences between Alexander the Great (a powerful king whose sphere of influence was vast and whose exploits were well known far and wide by all sorts of people who had had direct experience with him or heard about him from other people who had) and Jesus (a charismatic religious figure most people learned about from his followers, including a very influential follower, Paul, who never met Jesus while he was alive but claimed to have met him on the road to Damascus after having zealously persecuted his followers for a period) that would make the story of one more prone to legend development than that of the other. Instead, Strobel concedes Blomberg’s point “for the moment” and encourages Blomberg to explain a theory of his that would date the earliest gospel to a mere “thirty years or so,” maximum, from the death of Jesus. Strobel finds this theory impressive and, in combination with Blomberg’s point that legends about a person are unlikely to develop until about 500 years after that person’s life and times (which Strobel apparently decided to concede permanently while listening to Blomberg’s gospel-dating theory), compelling evidence that the gap between the writing of the gospels and the events they describe was “negligible by historical standards.”
However, while the sort of certainty with which Strobel apparently embraces this point would be enough to satisfy any person with no law degree and no gritty journalistic background, Strobel is, of course, not satisfied and still wants to “push the issue” by hounding Blomberg for even earlier information about Jesus. But, Blomberg, unfazed, reveals that there are plenty of earlier writings about Jesus in the form of the letters of Paul, whose “writing ministry” is thought to have begun only about 20 years after Jesus’s death. In the course of his comments about Paul and his writings, Blomberg cites Colossians, a letter that is thought by many scholars not to have been written by Paul, but Strobel does not point this out. Blomberg dates to only 2 years after Jesus’s death some of the traditions Paul passes along in his writings, in particular a list of eyewitnesses who saw Jesus alive after he was crucified. This list includes a group of more than 500 people who all saw Jesus at the same time, presumably in Jerusalem, where the crucifixion had taken place, and some might wonder how Paul managed to miss hearing about this event when he was in Jerusalem persecuting Christians in the time leading up to his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. However, Strobel is not among those who would wonder about a thing like this, and as the first chapter draws to a close, he seems profoundly impressed by the persuasiveness of all of Blomberg’s arguments.
The reader who decides to keep reading will be rewarded with the more or less the same scene (Strobel professing skepticism but quickly finding the arguments for Christianity unassailable because he has only the most superficial opposing arguments with which to assail them) playing out thirteen more times in thirteen further interviews about thirteen further topics. In order to avoid writing a book about The Case for Christ, I tried to speed things up a little bit from this point on by concentrating only on the highlights of the remaining chapters, but as you have probably already guessed from the length of this post, I was not completely successful in streamlining my review.
In chapter 2, “Testing the Eyewitness Evidence,” we revisit our old friend Dr. Blomberg for a discussion of whether the gospels stand up to scrutiny. Now that we’ve established to Strobel’s satisfaction that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses, we must determine whether these eyewitnesses were credible. Turns out, they were. In fact, they pass each one of Strobel’s eight credibility tests: the intention test (did they intend to be accurate?), the ability test (could they be accurate?), the character test (were they honest and moral?), the consistency test (do their accounts agree with each other?), the bias test (did they have any “vested interest in skewing the material they were reporting on?”), the cover-up test (did they leave out embarrassing or inconvenient details?), the corroboration test (do contemporary nonbiblical sources corroborate that people, places, and, events they mention actually existed and occurred?), and the adverse-witness test (are there any surviving contemporary accounts that take issue with what they reported?). Highlights include Blomberg’s description of the amazing capacity for memorization that the people of the first century had (answering an objection that since the events in the gospels were not committed to parchment until 30 years after they occurred, maybe something had been lost or changed by the time someone finally got around to writing it all down), his deft spinning of the inconsistencies in the gospel accounts as a strength to give us more confidence in the gospels’ reliability, and his observation that “later” Jewish writers call Jesus “a sorcerer who led Israel astray,” thereby admitting that Jesus actually did perform miracles, and that no surviving writings of the time (the period under consideration is not specified) say he didn’t (apparently, Blomberg is blissfully unaware that in chapter 4 we will learn that in 115 the Roman historian Tacitus called Christianity “a most mischievous superstition”); how “later” Jewish writers would be in any position to know whether or not Jesus actually performed miracles is not discussed.
Next, in “The Documentary Evidence,” it’s off to a discussion of whether the gospels, whose credibility has now been established beyond any of Strobel’s doubts, were accurately preserved for us. Indeed they were, says Dr. Bruce M. Metzger, the chapter’s interviewee. Sure, there are tens of thousands of textual differences in existing ancient manuscripts, but none of them are really that important. And the books that came to form the New Testament were so obviously inspired and authoritative that they practically chose themselves for the canon, such a “high degree of unanimity” was there “within the first two centuries” “among very diverse congregations” of “the early church” about what books were authoritative (again, no mention is made of the fact that many biblical scholars doubt that most of the books of the New Testament were written by the people they are attributed to). Presumably, by “the early church,” Metzgar means the group of Christians who were espousing the views most consistent with Christianity as we know it today; there were several other groups of Christians with widely divergent beliefs and very different lists of authoritative books at the end of the second century (my source for this information is, again, Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted [p. 191–198], which seems to address a lot of the questions raised in The Case for Christ).
With “no serious doubts [lingering] concerning whether the New Testament’s text had been reliably preserved for us through the centuries,” our work with Dr. Metzgar seems to be through, and we can now devote our full attention to Dr. Edwin M. Yamaguchi, the next occupant of Strobel’s hot (actually, barely warm) seat, where he will be probed (in the nicest possible way) in a chapter called “The Corroborating Evidence” on the question of whether there is credible evidence for Jesus outside the gospels. Perhaps not surprisingly, Yamaguchi tells us that there’s plenty of such evidence; perhaps a little surprisingly, the presentation of the material seems more balanced than we’ve come to expect from Strobel’s interviewees in the first three chapters. For example, although Yamaguchi instantly trots out the oft-cited passages from Josephus (one mentioning James, the brother of Jesus, and one, the Testimonium Flavianum, briefly relating the story of Jesus’s life and death and how his followers were still around), it is acknowledged that there is a consensus among scholars that the Testimonium Flavianum was altered by later Christian copyists and that the parts about Jesus’s possible divinity, his Christhood, and his resurrection are not authentic.
But then, after a subsequent discussion of a couple of Roman sources from the early second century that confirm the existence of Christians, this newfound balance is dashed against the rocks with a glaring omission: Yamaguchi mentions a couple of later works by historians which he thinks corroborate the synoptic gospels’ account of a darkness that blanketed the land from noon to 3:00 pm while Jesus was on the cross and ended with an earthquake when Jesus died. What he neglects to mention is that this sort of phenomenon in association with an important person’s death was not such a big deal in ancient times. Ancient literature is just brimming with reports darknesses and earthquakes and the like coinciding with important events in the lives of celebrated people. In fact, a darkness beginning at noon was reported to have preceded Julius Caesar’s death almost a century earlier, so it would have been odd indeed if it hadn’t occurred for Jesus.
Next, we’re treated to descriptions of information about Pontius Pilate, who presided over the process that led to Jesus’s crucifixion, some mentions of Jesus in Jewish literature, and writings by early Christians that confirm that they believed in the resurrection, and then it’s time to find out what archeology has to tell us about the accuracy of the gospels in a chapter called “The Scientific Evidence.”
In “The Scientific Evidence,” Strobel lobs various historically questionable facets of the gospel accounts at Dr. John McCray, who bats back explanations of varying degrees of plausibility. It’s in this chapter that it starts to seem like Strobel is not just lazily letting the witnesses for the defense get away with murder but may actually be complicit in the planning of these killings and is probably at least the driver of the getaway car. For instance, one of the things Christian apologists often have a hard time finding the words to apologize for is Luke’s claim that the reason Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem when Mary gave birth to Jesus was that a census was being conducted by Caesar Augustus at the time and that everyone was required to return to their ancestral home to register. Luke says that Joseph went to Bethlehem (reputed to be the birthplace of David) “because he was of the house and lineage of David.” This is uncomfortable territory for many defenders of the Bible’s historical reliability because (i) although there is extrabiblical documentation of several universal censuses of Roman citizens (Joseph and Mary would not have been Roman citizens) and other censuses of non-Roman citizens in individual provinces in the surrounding years, there is none for a universal census of the kind Luke describes under Caesar Augustus (my source for this is an annotation in The New American Bible), whose reign is relatively well documented (Bart Erhman’s Jesus, Interrupted again [p. 32]), and (ii) the idea of making everyone go to their ancestral home for such a census seems ridiculous, pointless, and difficult to pull off. (Lots of people have more than one ancestor, and a few have ancestors who were not all born in the same place; how is one to determine which ancestor’s birthplace to go to?)
Strobel addresses the latter point, or at least one vaguely resembling it, in his interview with McCray. He sets up the question by informing the reader that it is claimed by “the birth narratives of Jesus” (although Luke’s is the only narrative to mention a census) that a census required Mary and Joseph to return to Joseph’s “hometown,” Bethlehem. He then gets a little confrontational-seeming, warning McCray that he about to “be blunt,” then proclaiming that the idea of the type of census he’s just described “seems absurd on the face of it” (although it’s far less absurd than the one described by Luke), and then demanding to know whether there’s any archaeological evidence that any census requiring all participants to “return to their birthplace” ever happened. McCray then “calmly” pulls out a copy of a book he has written and locates in it a quote dated A.D. 104 from a prefect of Egypt, who describes an impending census for which “it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to return to their own homes [the emphasis is Strobel’s or McCray’s].” This settles the question to Strobel’s satisfaction. So, how did McCray get away with citing a census for which participants seem to have been required to return to their primary place of residence to explain away the historical implausibility of a census for which participants were required to report to a place because an ancestor had been born there a thousand years earlier? The type of census described in Luke is not the type of census Strobel asks about, and the type of census Strobel asks about is not the type of census described in McCray’s answer; Strobel’s census provides a sort of stepping stone between the censuses of Luke and the Egyptian prefect (although neither of those censuses is easily reached from Strobel’s stone), and it’s difficult to imagine that that wasn’t just a little bit calculated. A few of the other explanations offered in the “Scientific Evidence” chapter for lacks of historical corroboration of events described in the gospels are weak (although all of them pass the Strobel test), but the census explanation stands out as a first-rate showcase for weakness, as well as distortion of the facts to reach a desired conclusion.
The title of the next chapter, “The Rebuttal Evidence,” suggests that we may be in for something interesting. Will Strobel be examining a witness who is not among the faithful, a witness who will attempt to refute what has been claimed by the preceding witnesses? Well, no. It turns out he’ll be inviting another top-flight apologist, Dr. Gregory A. Boyd, to opine on the work of scholars who hold a different view of the gospels. One might assume that since Strobel has taken great care to line up the best, most respected Christian scholars to present the case for accuracy of the Bible, he will be presenting evidence from the best, most respected biblical scholars on the other side of the issue. Well, not exactly. Not even approximately. The evidence for the opposing view will be coming mostly from a group called “The Jesus Seminar,” which both witness and cross-examiner obviously regard as a radical fringe wacko outfit whose members represent “a miniscule percentage of New Testament scholars.”
So, why has this tiny band of laughingstocks been chosen to represent the prosecution? Apparently because they were receiving some attention from the press at the time The Case for Christ was being written. As Strobel puts it: “Now that I had heard powerfully convincing and well-reasoned evidence from the scholars I questioned for this book, I needed to turn my attention to the decidedly contrary opinions of a small group of academics who have been the subject of a whirlwind of news coverage.” The Jesus Seminar’s theories and methods, at least as presented by Strobel, do seem a little off-the-wall, so they’re pretty easy for Boyd to shoot down. And a reader whose only source of information about biblical scholarship is The Case for Christ could easily come away with the impression that apart from the Jesus Seminar and a few other crackpots, New Testament scholars agree that the Bible is accurate. “The Rebuttal Evidence” is perhaps the most worthless chapter in the book.
But maybe I’ve spoken too soon; the next chapter (“The Identity Evidence”), which kicks off the “Analyzing Jesus” part of the book, investigates whether, according to the Bible, Jesus was really convinced he was the son of God, and, after it is concluded resoundingly in that chapter that Jesus did indeed believe he was the son of God, Strobel devotes the next chapter (“The Psychological Evidence”) to interviewing a doctor of psychology (Gary R. Collins) about whether Jesus was crazy for believing that he was the son of God. “The Psychological Evidence” is also a strong contender for most worthless chapter in the book. Since this chapter is predicated on the assumption that the biblical information about Jesus is accurate, it will likely be of limited interest to a person who can still manage to harbor doubts about the Bible’s accuracy even after having been exposed to “the powerfully convincing and well-reasoned evidence” presented in the preceding chapters. Since it is established (as far as Strobel is concerned) that the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Bible were experienced by many people, Strobel channels his investigative drive into exploring questions such as whether Jesus used the power of suggestion for his healings (maybe a little; not much) or hypnotism to give the impression that he was performing miracles (a proposition that is “full of holes”), as well as seeking and receiving several assurances that Jesus was the sanest entity ever to walk the earth.
However, just when we are on the verge of letting go of the last thread of hope that anything interesting awaits us in the book’s remaining pages, it suddenly gets interesting, in a chapter called “The Profile Evidence” (subtitle: “Did Jesus Fulfill the Attributes of God?”), wherein Dr. Donald A. Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is interviewed. This chapter consists mainly of Carson’s attempts to reconcile the divinity of Jesus with Bible passages that suggest Jesus is not God, but then there is a section on a sticky issue that one wonders how Christians process: hell. This is almost exciting when one has wondered often and for a long, long time how Christians deal with this concept, and suddenly, here’s a Christian who’s about to deal with it in the next section!
Strobel kicks off the discussion of “The Disquieting Question of Hell” by quoting “agnostic” Charles Templeton (Strobel seldom seems to quote any “scholars” from the other side of the argument): “How could a loving Heavenly Father create an endless hell and, over the centuries, consign millions of people to it because they do not or cannot or will not accept certain religious beliefs?”
Carter is unfazed, as Strobel’s subjects always are in the face of seemingly difficult questions that are seemingly delivered with an edge, and proceeds to declare confidently that he’s “not sure that God simply casts people into hell because they don’t accept certain beliefs.” It seems odd to hear an evangelical telling us that it’s possible that other evangelicals may be wrong in their belief that people who die without having accepted Jesus as their savior are cast into hell. But perhaps that’s not one of the “certain beliefs” he’s referring to. Perhaps he means that God may not cast people into hell for not believing that every time a teardrop hits a tarp, an angel gets a harp, and other things of that nature. Or perhaps people who don’t accept certain beliefs are cast into hell but it’s not God who casts them there. Or perhaps Carter is one of those evangelicals whose “back-peddling” on the traditional evangelical view of hell is decried by evangelical theology professor Larry Dixon. It would be disappointing if that were the case, because I’m interested in seeing this particular traditional view of hell justified, since it is the view of the relative who recommended The Case for Christ to me and since she seems unable to justify it convincingly. However, I understand that to present and defend this view would probably be damning to the case for Christ, so my hope that it will be defended in The Case for Christ dissipates almost instantly at this point. However, let’s see what else Carter has to say.
In an apparent attempt to clarify the meaning of his mysterious pronouncement about his uncertainty, Carter offers the following historical assessment of the divine penal system. The earth’s first two human inhabitants began their existence thinking of nothing but God. They were consumed with love for God. The motivation behind their every action and inaction was to please God, for they derived immense pleasure from pleasing God. God in the morning, God in the evening, God at suppertime. Because they lived this way, the relationship between them and God was perfectly balanced, as was the relationship between the two of them, and everything was wonderful.
Although they were completely fulfilled in every way, they chose to throw it all away by bringing sin and rebellion into the world. (Why did they do that? Is complete fulfillment in every way not all it’s cracked up to be? Is it unfulfilling in some way?) After they did that, they began to think less of God and more of themselves. They started thinking of themselves, figuratively, as the center of the universe. And that’s the way we think today. And this led to a corruption of our relationship with God, which leads to “[a]ll the things we call ‘social pathologies’—war, rape, bitterness, nurtured envies, secret jealousies, pride, inferiority complexes. The consequence is that people get hurt.” According to Carter, “[f]rom God’s perspective, that’s shockingly disgusting.”
What can he mean? What, exactly, is the thing that God finds shockingly disgusting? Can God not bear the thought of people getting hurt? Since the earth God gave us to live on is prone to natural disasters and the bodies he gave us to live in will malfunction and cause us pain if given enough time, and since the Bible tells us that God once drowned the entire population of the world save eight people (Genesis 6 and 7), punished the Egyptians with a series of plagues and then killed the firstborn of each Egyptian family (Exodus 7–12), apparently condoned all manner of atrocities committed by people acting at his behest (e.g., Numbers 31:13–18), and apparently once had bears kill 42 children at the behest of a particularly thin-skinned prophet (2 Kings 2:23–24), and since the group of Christians to which Carter belongs believes that God prefers to keep those who displease him alive and in torment for eternity rather than putting them out of their misery, it’s hard to see how Carter could think God would have any problem with the idea of people suffering.
Could Carter mean that God finds it shockingly disgusting when human suffering is caused by people who have not been divinely authorized to cause such suffering, perhaps because he sees these people as encroaching on his territory? This possibility makes more sense logically, but it’s difficult to imagine that that’s what Carter means, so let’s just leave the thing that God finds shockingly disgusting shrouded in mystery as we continue to attempt to follow Carter’s line of reasoning.
For whatever reason, God has a problem with people who cause people to get hurt, and he has to show somehow that he’s upset with them, lest he be perceived as an entity that doesn’t care about evil, in which case we would be shocked to think God “didn’t have moral judgments” about matters like the Holocaust. And if he has moral judgments about things like that, then “in principle … he’s got to have moral judgments on this huge matter of all these divine image bearers shaking their puny fists at his face and singing with Frank Sinatra, ‘I did it my way.’ That is the real nature of sin.” It’s not clear to me whether by “divine image bearers” Carter means people carrying some sort of images of a religious nature or people who are imitators of God and consider themselves divine rivals of God’s in some sense. It’s odd how this connection between divinity and causing human suffering keeps coming up.
Carter continues with an unqualified declaration that “hell is not a place where people are consigned because they were pretty good blokes but just didn’t believe the right stuff. They’re consigned there, first and foremost, because they defy their Maker and want to be at the center of the universe.” According to Carter, there’s no one in hell who has repented (although he doesn’t say it’s possible to repent and get out of hell once you’re in); they’re there because, “for all eternity,” they “still want to be at the center of the universe and … persist in their God-defying rebellion.”
Carter does not see what other action God could take in the face of the attitude of these people. “If he says it doesn’t matter to him, God is no longer a God to be admired. He’s either amoral or positively creepy.” In rereading Carter’s argument so far, I can’t determine how we got from the assertion that God should have moral judgments about things like the Holocaust to the claim that God would be amoral or positively creepy if he didn’t subject self-centered people to eternal torment, so I’m still not convinced. If someone were to show me an amoral, creepy God and a just God and ask me to guess which one of them subjected people to eternal torment, I would still be more likely to guess the amoral, creepy God.
But does God actually subject people to eternal torment? Strobel attempts to coax more out of Carter on this subject by asking him if it doesn’t seem to him vicious to torment people for eternity. Carter begins his reply by noting that “the Bible says there are different degrees of punishment.” (Irritatingly, he doesn’t tell us where in the Bible it says this, but he may be referring to the parable of the wicked servant in Luke 12:42–48.) Thus, he is “not sure that it’s the same level of intensity for all people.”
Carter then goes on to add a few more brushstrokes to his picture of hell by saying that “if God took his hands off this fallen world so that there were no restraint on human wickedness, we would make hell.” This is perhaps the most surprising thing Carter has said so far. God is currently restraining human wickedness in this world? What is the biblical basis for this statement? Where is the evidence for it? If it’s true, God’s degree of success with this project on earth does not inspire confidence in his powers and/or competence to handle big jobs. Or is he selective about what wickedness he restrains? If so, what are his criteria for what to let through and what to block? Did he take a hands-off approach to the Holocaust, or was that just a little taste of what would have happened without his restraint? Should people who are enduring unimaginable cruelty at the hands of other people well past the threshold of what’s bearable be thankfully thinking “Wow, I’d hate to think what this would be like if God weren’t restraining human wickedness”?
Carter, however, does not get sidetracked with such thoughts and presses straight ahead: “Thus, if you allow a whole lot of sinners to live somewhere in a place where they’re not doing damage to anyone but themselves, what do you get but hell? There’s a sense in which they’re doing it to themselves, and it’s what they want because they still don’t repent.” Well, that certainly seems reasonable. God is simply allowing these horrible people who want to live apart from him to do so, and in the absence of God’s restraining hand, they themselves create conditions that are probably many times worse than those associated with the Holocaust. Of course, it’s strange that these people still wouldn’t repent under such conditions, and if Carter’s view of hell is accurate, it’s hard to know what to make of passages like Matthew 25:41–46 and Matthew 7:21–23, wherein Jesus casts people who seem to be hoping to join him in heaven into everlasting fire, but if Strobel doesn’t care about exploring these questions, why should the reader? After all, who’s the award-winning, law-degree-holding journalist here? The reader? Not likely!
Before moving on, Carter does offer one last tidbit to complete his vision of the situation for those who go to hell. “One of the things the Bible does insist is that in the end not only will justice be done, but justice will be seen to be done, so that every mouth will be stopped.” (Again, we are given no indication of where the Bible says this; could he be referring to Romans 3:19? If so, I can’t quite see how Carter interprets it the way he does.) Strobel asks if this means that “[e]veryone will see the fundamental justice in the way God judges them and the world,” and Carter affirms that it does and that “no one will be able to complain by saying ‘This isn’t fair.’” This final puzzle piece results in a curious picture of the hell-bound hordes, who will be shaking their puny fists in God’s face while admitting that he’s been completely fair and reasonable with them.
With that image lodged in our brains but mercifully retreating deeper into the folds each second, we resume our journey through the chapter. We’re not out of the woods yet; to get to the end, we must still pass through a discussion of Jesus and slavery. “To be God,” Strobel begins, “Jesus must be ethically perfect.” (The basis for this premise is unclear.) However, Jesus’s failure to advocate the abolition of slavery is seen by some as a blemish on his ethical record. What does Carter have to say about this? Well, he says the slavery of Jesus’s time wasn’t nearly as bad as the slavery of more recent times, which is our point of reference, and he says that Jesus’s mission was to free people from their sins, not from whatever bonds any earthly economic system might have put them in, but then he says that Jesus actually has overthrown slavery by transforming the hearts of people. He notes that “African-American scholar” Thomas Sowell has pointed out “that the driving impetus for the abolition of slavery was the evangelical awakening in England. Christians rammed abolition through Parliament in the beginning of the nineteenth century and then eventually used British gunboats to stop the slave trade across the Atlantic.” (Here, he is apparently referring to a group known as the Clapham Sect, who were indeed evangelical Anglicans and who did indeed work for several decades to abolish slavery and ultimately were in large measure successful.)
“Interesting,” observes Strobel. “And of what religion were the people who established the slave trade in England in the first place? Of what religion were the English citizens who resisted the efforts of the Clapham Sect to abolish slavery? Of what religion were the slave traders and slave owners in the United States? Of what religion were those who fought in the Civil War to keep slavery alive? Of what religion were those who were still fighting to keep segregation alive 100 years after slavery was abolished in the United States?” Just kidding! What he really says (to the reader) is “Carson’s response made sense not only historically but also in my own experience,” and then he goes on to relate the story of a bigot he had known who found Christ and, as a result, became “genuinely caring and accepting toward others, including those who are different from him.”
We are now at the point where all we need to do is wade through a brief summary—including actual Bible verses!—of reasons Carter and Strobel think the Bible says Jesus is God to get to the next chapter, “The Fingerprint Evidence.” In this chapter, Strobel will put Louis S. Lapides, M.Div., Th.M., on the witness stand to address the question “Did Jesus—and Jesus Alone—Match the Identity of the Messiah?”
By this point, Strobel seems to have abandoned any pretense of skepticism or impartiality in his presentation. After telling the story of the first case in which fingerprints were used to convict a person of murder in the United States, he says “OK, but what has this got to do with Jesus Christ? Simply this: There is another kind of evidence that’s analogous to fingerprints and establishes to an astounding degree of certainty that Jesus is indeed the Messiah of Israel and the world.” He says this before the interview begins. Talk about killing the suspense! After claiming that “several dozen major prophesies” pertaining to a coming messiah who would “redeem” “God’s people” “formed a figurative fingerprint that only the Anointed One [i.e., messiah] would be able to match,” he turns his attention to Lapides.
Lapides seems like a good candidate to discuss whether Jesus was the messiah whose coming was foretold in the Hebrew scriptures because he was brought up in the Jewish faith, and the first half of the chapter is devoted to the story of how Lapides spent the troubled first part of his adult life. After having decided that Judaism was unsatisfying, and trying out just about every other existing religion and finding it unsatisfying as well, one day he encountered a Christian pastor who tipped him off that Jesus was the messiah prophesied in the Hebrew scriptures.
This information intrigued and astonished Lapides, who had been unaware of any prophesies about a messiah in the Hebrew scriptures. Because of an aversion to Jesus that apparently stemmed from a lingering connection to Judaism, he refused to touch the New Testament but dove into the Old Testament, hunting for the kind of messianic prophesies the pastor had told him about. In his daily Old Testament readings, he found that he was “seeing one prophesy after another. For instance, Deuteronomy talked about a prophet greater than Moses who will come and whom we should listen to. I thought, Who can be greater than Moses? It sounded like the Messiah ….” These discoveries increased his drive to continue his quest through the pages of the Old Testament in search of this remarkable prophet who sounded like the Messiah, and soon his efforts were rewarded, when he was “stopped cold” by Isaiah 53, which paints a picture of a person who seems to suffer for the sins of others. As Strobel relates Lapides’s reaction to this chapter of Isaiah, “With clarity and specificity, in a haunting prediction wrapped in exquisite poetry, here was the picture of a Messiah who would suffer and die for the sins of Israel and the world—all written more than seven hundred years before Jesus walked the earth.” And then he quotes verses 3 to 9 and 12 of Isaiah 53 so that we, too, can experience the amazement Lapides must have felt.
Isaiah 53 is a confusing passage. The quoted verses allude to a person who was “pierced for our transgressions,” on whom “the Lord has laid … the iniquity of us all,” by whose “wounds we are healed,” who “was led like a lamb to the slaughter,” who “bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors,” ideas that can be seen as suggestive of themes associated with Jesus’s crucifixion in the gospels.
However, this person is described as “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.” The Jesus of the gospels is not depicted as sorrowful and a frequent sufferer. True, on the last day of his life he is sorrowful and suffers, but up to that point, he seems more annoyed (e.g., at people who fail to live up to his expectations and at a fig tree that turns out not to have any fruit on it) than sorrowful, and no pre-crucifixion suffering is mentioned, so it is unclear how he would have acquired a familiarity with suffering if indeed Isaiah 53 is about him.
“And who can speak of his descendants?” asks Isaiah, although the gospels don’t mention that Jesus had any descendants.
Isaiah’s sufferer was “assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death,” but the gospels say Jesus’s body was turned over to one of his followers (albeit a rich follower), who wrapped it in linen and put it in a new tomb where no one had ever been buried.
And what of the Isaiah 53 verses that weren’t quoted by Strobel? Why would he leave anything out of this amazing passage? Surely each word can only strengthen the reader’s impression that it’s Jesus who is being described? Let’s take a look at the missing verses and see if we can learn a bit more. It turns out that the description of this person begins a few verses before Isaiah 53 begins, in Isaiah 52:13–15: “See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him—his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness—so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.”
What can this mean? The part about being disfigured and marred seems like it could be describing the damage done to Jesus at the crucifixion, but it reads as if people were appalled at the servant because of his appearance, because he was grotesquely ugly.
That’s followed by Isaiah 53:1–2: “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
It’s not clear who grew up before whom like a tender shoot and like a root out of dry ground or what the nature of this growth is, but again the physical appearance of the servant is mentioned. This time, though, the writer is kinder; it sounds like the servant is merely plain, and not necessarily repulsive. However, the line “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” leads directly into the first of the verses Strobel quotes, beginning “He was despised and rejected by men,” again making it sound as if a displeasing physical appearance and lack of charisma were what made men despise him. Physical ugliness and lack of charisma are qualities not too many people associate with Jesus, as they are not mentioned anywhere in the gospels, and the Jesus of the gospels was not exactly a pariah; in town after town, he was surrounded by large crowds (often numbering in the thousands) who were interested in seeing him perform his wondrous healings, raisings from the dead, etc., and hearing what he had to say. For instance, at one point he is so popular that when he and the disciples withdraw privately to a town called Bethsaida, 5,000 people get wind of it and follow him there to hear him speak and watch him at work (Luke 9:10–14). That’s quite an achievement for a person who has no beauty or majesty to attract people to him.
Strobel quotes the next seven verses of Isaiah 53 but then omits verses 10 and 11: “Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light [of life] and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.” These verses bespeak a strange sense of justice on the part of the Lord (whose will is to crush his faithful servant and make him suffer for the acts of others), but this is not at odds with the story of Jesus in the gospels. Perhaps the part about the offspring of the servant is a little incongruous with Jesus, since, again, the gospels say nothing about any offspring of Jesus’s and most Christians don’t believe he had any.
One other thing to consider (although it is not considered by Lapides and Strobel) is that nowhere does the material about the suffering servant in Isaiah indicate that the person being described is a coming messiah.
Nevertheless, Lapides somehow got the idea that Isaiah 53 referred to a future messiah and, even though he had not yet read the New Testament, instantly recognized the suffering servant portrayed in the passage as the Jesus of the gospels.
Lapides continued to read the Old Testament and to discover prophesies about the Messiah (or perhaps passages that seemed like prophesies about a person who sounded like the Messiah; Strobel lists some of the “more than four dozen major predictions” Lapides discovered but doesn’t provide specific Bible verses, so it’s difficult to check for context) and came away with a list of characteristics the Messiah must have (born of a virgin in Bethlehem, descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, from the tribe of Judah, house of David, etc.). Each discovery “chipped away at Lapides’ skepticism until he was finally willing to take a drastic step”: reading the New Testament. He was amazed to discover in the New Testament how Jewish Jesus was and how neatly Jesus fit the description of the prophesied Messiah. He processed this information for a while and then had an epiphany in the Mohave Desert that led to his converting to Christianity and giving up drugs, and then he prayed for a wife and got one.
The rest of the chapter is mainly devoted to responding to various challenges to the idea that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah. The first challenge to be addressed is the “coincidence argument”: Could Jesus have fulfilled the prophesies by accident? “Maybe he’s just one of many throughout history who have coincidentally fit the prophetic fingerprint,” one of the many people said to have been born of a virgin to also fulfill the other prophesies. It’s hard to believe that this argument has been offered often or taken seriously when it is offered, but Lapides treats it with more seriousness than it deserves, presenting a statistical analysis to disprove it, although he probably could easily have gotten away with just dismissing it as ridiculous.
Similarly ridiculous is Lapides’s answer to the “altered gospel argument,” which posits that the gospel writers may have “fabricated details to make it appear that Jesus fulfilled the prophesies.” Strobel gives a couple of examples. First, he cites a prophesy about the Messiah’s bones remaining unbroken (it’s hard to tell what he’s talking about; there are a couple of verses about not breaking the bones of a Passover offering [Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12] and about God watching over the bones of the just so that not a one shall be broken [Psalms 34:19–20], but none of this seems to have anything to do with the Messiah) and pretends to wonder if the part in the gospel of John where the Romans break the legs of two thieves who are being crucified with Jesus but don’t break Jesus’s legs (John 19:31–37) might have been invented to fit this prophesy. Next, he claims that “the prophesies talk about betrayal for 30 pieces of silver” (it is not clear what prophesies talk about this or what they have to say about it; the only Old Testament references to 30 pieces of silver I can find are with regard to the price the prophet Zechariah was paid for what seems to have been a fairly shoddy job of shepherding [Zechariah 11:12–13] and to the price an owner of an ox that gores a slave to death must pay to the slave’s owner [Exodus 21:32]) and suggests that for this reason the author of the gospel of Matthew might have falsely said 30 pieces of silver was the price Judas got for betraying Jesus.
Not at all, Lapides assures Strobel. “In God’s wisdom, he created checks and balances both inside and outside the Christian community,” he says. “When the gospels were being circulated, there were people living who had been around when all these things happened. Someone would have said to Matthew, ‘You know it didn’t happen that way. We’re trying to communicate a life of righteousness and truth, so don’t taint it with a lie.’” Lapides does not explain the basis for his idea that the Christian community at the time the gospel of Matthew was written (40+ years after Jesus is thought to have died) were providing such feedback to the author of this gospel and concerned with ensuring that his account was as accurate as possible or that the price Judas was paid was commonly known among those who were around when these things are supposed to have happened, but let’s take a look at some other, presumably more widely known, information about Judas as presented by one of the contemporaries of Matthew’s author in the Christian community, the one who wrote the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles (which, as was determined in the first chapter, we can be assured are based on eyewitness testimony). In Acts 1:18–19, we learn that “With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.”
Now, let’s see how the gospel of Matthew relates the events surrounding Judas’s demise: “When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. ‘I have sinned,’ he said, ‘for I have betrayed innocent blood.’ ‘What is that to us?’ they replied. ‘That’s your responsibility.’ So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the coins and said, ‘It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.’ So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day” (Matthew 27:3–8).
As you can see, the accounts in the gospel of Matthew and the book of Acts are in conflict with each other in many respects. At least one of them must be wrong. Perhaps it was just an innocent case of two eyewitnesses honestly remembering things differently 40 years later. Or did either of these authors have some reason to intentionally embellish his account? Let’s look a little further in the Matthew 27 account, at verses 9 and 10: “Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: ‘They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.’” Uh oh. This doesn’t look good for Matthew’s author. His account is at odds with a fellow eyewitness’s account and conveniently just happens to fulfill a prophecy to the letter. And since, if Acts is to believed, “everyone in Jerusalem heard” about Judas’s purchase of a field and subsequent messy end there, we might expect, given the God-created checks and balances in the Christian community, that someone would have called Matthew’s author out on his tampering with the story. If that happened, though, it seems to have had no effect on what was included in the final work.
While we’re in the neighborhood, let’s examine the prophesy from Jeremiah that was fulfilled in Mathew’s account. Hmmm. It looks like that’s going to be hard to do, because it turns out there is no such prophesy in Jeremiah, but there is something similar to the quote Matthew attributes to Jeremiah in Zechariah: “And the Lord said to me, ‘Throw it to the potter’—the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the Lord.” Presumably, while the gospel of Matthew was being written, there were people in the Christian community who were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. If there wasn’t even anyone in the community who would point out to Matthew’s author that his gospel contained an inaccurate quote with an erroneous attribution, it’s difficult to imagine that he got any feedback from the community at all. Hence, it appears he had not only the intent to alter the story to fit the prophesy (which he also seems to have altered), but also opportunity, as he could apparently write anything he wanted without oversight.
Since we’ve got intent and opportunity and since we’ve been swept up in the “legal” theme of the proceedings, let’s see if we can establish motive as well. What one sees in glancing through the pages of the gospel of Matthew suggests that its author had something of an obsession with demonstrating that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah. His gospel is littered with accounts of events that fulfill prophesies, and sometimes we can see him testing the limits of credulity to get a good fit to a given prophesy; for instance, he has Jesus enter Jerusalem riding two animals, an ass and a colt (Matthew 21:1–7), in order to fulfill a prophesy in Zechariah 9:9 (although Jesus rides only the colt in the other gospels), but this time he wisely refrains from attempting to provide a source for the prophesy.
Although an examination of the gospel of Matthew seems to provide ample support for the “altered gospel argument,” Lapides is not yet finished with his refutation of this contention. Next, Strobel says, Lapides wonders why Matthew would have “fabricated fulfilled prophesies and then willingly allowed himself to be put to death for following someone who he secretly knew was really not the Messiah.” He observes that that “wouldn’t make any sense,” and it does indeed seem a little odd if all Lapides’s premises are correct, but the proposition that the stories in Matthew were altered to fit the prophesies starts to look a little less ludicrous when we consider the following.
1. Matthew probably was not the author of the gospel of Matthew (see the discussion of the first chapter, above).
3. The author of Matthew may have genuinely believed that Jesus was the Messiah and embellished his story so that other people would believe it, too, even though he did not know whether Jesus fulfilled all the prophesies or knew that Jesus did not fulfill all the prophesies.
4. The prophesy-fulfilling events described in Matthew may have begun as deliberate lies, but Matthew’s author may have become so invested in these lies that he ended up believing them.
5. Even if every one of Lapides’s premises (i.e., Matthew was the author of the gospel of Matthew, died a martyr, and secretly knew that Jesus was not the Messiah) is correct, Matthew may have considered death preferable to being exposed as a liar and a charlatan.
Lapides doesn’t consider these things, of course, instead proceeding to his third and final answer to the “altered gospel argument,” a look at the part of God’s checks-and-balances system residing outside the Christian community. Lapides, Strobel says, claims that “the Jewish community would have jumped on any opportunity to discredit the gospels by pointing out falsehoods.” Lapides does not give his reasons for thinking that the Jewish community would have been keeping a close eye on what was being written in the Christian community and poised to pounce on any falsehoods in those writings while there were still eyewitnesses to Jesus’s death around, but he does give his reason for thinking that no falsehoods pertaining to fulfillment of messianic prophesies were detected by Jewish community members: “They would have said, ‘I was there, and Jesus’ bones were broken by the Romans during the Crucifixion. But even though the Jewish Talmud refers to Jesus in derogatory ways, it never once makes the claim that the fulfillment of prophesies was falsified. Not one time.”
Let’s take a look at what the Talmud has to say about Jesus. On the basis of Lapides’s assertion, we might expect it to be rife with derogatory references to Jesus and commentary on the gospels, with claims of falsification of prophesy fulfillment being conspicuous by their absence. Instead, mentions of the gospels are conspicuous by their absence, and references to Jesus are notable for their rarity. Apparently, there’s some debate about whether certain passages are about Jesus or some other individual, and it’s widely thought that if there are any Jesus-related passages in the Talmud, they are in response to Christian proselytizing and don’t have much to do with a historical Jesus. One passage describing the execution of a person some take to be Jesus on the eve of the Passover (Sanhedrin 43a:34–35) says that this person was hanged after being held for 40 days, during which a search for people with anything favorable to say about him was conducted. Since the Talmud seems to say Jesus was hanged, on the basis of Lapides’s reasoning we can conclude from this passage that the crucifixion itself is a gospel falsehood the Jewish community jumped on and that the fact that Jesus was hanged instead of crucified renders the question of whether the Romans broke his bones during the crucifixion moot.
Lapides has a much more reasonable response to the “intentional fulfillment argument” (which suggests that Jesus might have contrived to fulfill the prophesies), pointing out that some, but not all, of the prophesies could have been intentionally fulfilled by Jesus alone, but he really has no response to the “context argument” (“were the passages that Christians identify as messianic prophesies really intended to point to the coming of the Anointed One, or do Christians rip them out of context and misinterpret them?”), saying that he’s read these objections but that when he has researched each of them individually, “the prophesies have stood up and shown themselves to be true.” He then urges skeptics to research these things themselves and to “sincerely ask God to show you whether or not Jesus is the Messiah,” a strategy that has enabled him to discern that Jesus did indeed “fit the fingerprint of the Messiah.”
All that’s now keeping us from the finish line of the “Fingerprint Evidence” chapter is a few paragraphs in which Strobel tells us of other Jewish people who became Christians. After gingerly stepping over this closing matter, we find ourselves on the threshold of a new section, “Part 3: Researching the Resurrection,” which begins with a new chapter, “The Medical Evidence,” which, via an interview with Alexander Metherell, M.D., Ph.D., asks and answers the question “Was Jesus’ Death a Sham and His Resurrection a Hoax?” The path to the answer to this question (“no”) is strewn with the sort of inaccurate and misleading background information we’ve by now come to expect from Srobel, e.g., “historians are unanimous that Jesus survived the beating that day and went on to the cross” (it’s difficult to see how this could be true, since historians are not even unanimous that Jesus existed). Since the conclusions presented in the chapter are based on the assumption that Jesus was executed exactly as described in the gospels, it’s hard for a reader who suspects he might not have been to care much one way or the other. However, Metherell’s description of the physical effects of the kind of beating and crucifixion Jesus is supposed to have undergone is interesting, and one bonus interesting fact (courtesy of Metherell) with which the reader comes away from this rather pointless chapter is that the word “excruciating” means, literally, “out of the cross.”
The evidence of the missing body is examined in the next chapter, “The Evidence of the Missing Body.” The titular missing body is, of course, that of Jesus, and the issue to be resolved is whether that body was actually missing from the tomb three days after the crucifixion or whether the chapter is mistitled. Strobel’s partner in crime this time around is William Lane Craig, Ph.D., D.Th. In introducing Craig, Strobel immediately raises expectations of him sky high by recounting his performance at a debate with an atheist hand-picked by the national spokesman for American Atheists, Inc. Strobel, who was the moderator of the debate, claims that 82% of the “avowed atheists, agnostics, or skeptics” in attendance concluded that the “most compelling” evidence presented in the debate was Craig’s evidence for Christianity, that 47 people who came to see the debate as nonbelievers became Christians after hearing Craig lay out the case for Christianity, and that nobody became an atheist as a result of having seen the debate. If you would like to watch this debate, you can start here. If it changes your outlook in any way, please let me know in the comments. (Leaving a comment about the debate will make you eligible for a drawing to be held if I actually get any comments about the debate. The prize will be free Attune Probiotic Bar, which can be obtained from a grocery store with a coupon I cut out of a cereal box and will send to the winner of the drawing. To widen the range of possible participants, the comment doesn’t have to be about a change in outlook resulting from the debate; it can mention the debate in any context. Even comments about why you didn’t bother to watch the debate will be eligible. If you are of the opinion that this giveaway is not boffo, as stated in the title of the post, and if you are enraged because you had to read more than halfway though this review to find that out, you can leave a comment about that, and it will be eligible, too, as long as you mention the debate in it.)
In the meantime, let’s attend to the matters discussed in “The Evidence of the Missing Body.” Before a body can be officially considered missing from a place, it must at least be expected to be in that place, and it should really have been in that place at some point. So, was Jesus really buried in the tomb? Indeed he was, says Craig, and we know this to be so because it’s mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians. Here, we are treated to a reprise of Dr. Blomberg’s assurances of the earliness of certain sources and the consequent impossibility of their having been tarnished by legend. Although, as mentioned above, Paul is thought to have begun writing about 20 years after Jesus’s death, the creed he relates in 1 Corinthians 15:4 is thought by Craig to “go back to within a few years of Jesus’ crucifixion” and thus to be “incredibly early and therefore trustworthy material.” Craig considers the burial story in the gospel of Mark, widely thought to have been written about 40 years after Jesus was supposed to have been crucified, merely “extremely early,” but that’s good enough to ensure that “it’s simply not possible for it to have been subject to legendary corruption.”
We also learn that Joseph of Arimathea, who is identified in all four gospels as a member of the Jewish council that voted to condemn Jesus (although he didn’t participate in that vote) and who collected Jesus’s corpse and gave it a proper burial in a brand new tomb, is “undoubtedly a historical figure” because he’s not the kind of a character that Christians, who were bitter at the Jewish leaders for their part in the having Jesus crucified, would invent. And “[b]esides, they wouldn’t make up a specific member of a specific group, whom people could check out for themselves and ask about this,” although it’s kind of hard to imagine that that would be much of a concern for someone who was writing 40 years after the fact in a faraway place, especially considering that the person being written about would be extremely hard to find and ask, what with his being made up and all. Another piece of evidence for the authenticity of the Joseph of Arimathea burial story is that it’s the only one we know of today, so Craig assumes there weren’t any others.
Next, Strobel asks how secure from outside influences the tomb was, and Craig tells of an entrance sealed by a stone that could have been moved away by no fewer than several men. Was the tomb guarded? Well, maybe, and maybe not. Only the gospel of Matthew says it was, and Craig tells us that Matthew’s guard story is widely “disputed by contemporary scholarship.” It’s hard to tell whether or not Craig believes the story, but whatever he thinks of it he doesn’t seem very keen to defend it, reasoning that it’s not necessary to establish the presence of guards, since the requirement for several men to move the stone at the entrance is enough of a basis to conclude that the tomb was plenty secure, and besides, “nobody” espouses the theory that the disciples stole the body anymore.
Without pausing to wonder whether we are wasting our time worrying about whether the tomb was secure if nobody thinks the disciples stole the body, Strobel decides to pursue the guard story and asks Craig if there isn’t some evidence that the story is true. “Yes, there is,” Craig says. “Think of the claims and counterclaims about the Resurrection that went back and forth between the Jews and Christians in the first century.”
Apparently unwilling to direct us to a source that documents these claims and counterclaims but realizing that they might be hard for us to think about if we don’t know what they are, Craig describes the aforementioned back-and-forth: “The initial Christian proclamation was, ‘Jesus is risen.’ The Jews responded, ‘The disciples stole his body.’ To this the Christians said, ‘Ah, but the guards at the tomb would have prevented such a theft.’ The Jews responded, ‘Oh, but the guards at the tomb fell asleep.’ To that the Christians replied, ‘No, the Jews bribed the guards to say they fell asleep.’”
Where is Craig getting this narrative? I searched in vain for an extrabiblical source for it. He appears to be extrapolating all this from Matthew 28:11–15, which goes like this: “While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.”
Craig doesn’t explain how he derived his version of the story from Matthew’s (if that actually is what he’s basing his version on), but he seems to assume that Matthew’s story was invented to account for the claims of some Jews at the time the gospel was written that the disciples stole Jesus’s body while the guards were asleep, and that’s not an unreasonable suggestion, but if it’s correct, what is his basis for assuming that the Jews who were making these claims had first-hand knowledge of guards at the tomb and were not just reacting to Christian teachings 50 years later in the community that spawned the gospel of Matthew? Or is it possible that Jews at the time were saying nothing about Jesus’s death, burial, or resurrection and that Matthew’s author, perhaps actually believing there had been guards at the tomb, threw in the “bribed guards” story in anticipation of objections or, perhaps deliberately embellishing previous accounts, to give the impression that he had encountered Jews who confirmed the presence of guards at the tomb or just to tie up a loose end of his overall story about the guards?
Nevertheless, Craig proceeds as if his speculation about an exchange between the Christians and the Jews is established fact. “Now, if there had not been any guards,” he says, “the exchange would have gone like this: In response to the claim Jesus is risen, the Jews would say, ‘No, the disciples stole his body.’ The Christians would reply, ‘But the guards would have prevented the theft.’ Then the Jewish response would have been, ‘What guards? You’re crazy! There were no guards!’ Yet history tells us that’s not what the Jews said.” The reader for who whom The Case for Christ is the only source of information about this supposed chain of events might not suspect that the “history” that tells us this is merely the gospel of Matthew’s disputed-by-contemporary-scholarship guard story. And how could the exchange in the absence of guards have gone as Craig envisions it? Why would the Christians say “But the guards would have prevented the theft” if there were no guards and if the Jews to whom the Christians were speaking knew there were no guards? And if the Christians said this at a safe enough distance from the event that the Jews they were addressing would not be in a position to know whether or not there were guards, how could the Jews respond, “You’re crazy! There were no guards!”?
Craig wraps up his argument thusly: “This suggests that the guards really were historical and that the Jews knew it, which was why they had to invent the absurd story about the guards having been asleep while the disciples took the body.” Craig is right that this story would have seemed absurd in Jerusalem just after the crucifixion if the resurrected Jesus had actually appeared to 500 people there, as Paul said he did. Only in the absence of such a multitude of witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection does it make any sense for the Jews to even have considered floating a story that the disciples stole Jesus’s body, so it appears that to defend Matthew’s account of the Jews’ attempted deception is to deny that Jesus appeared to those 500 people, although neither Strobel nor Craig seems to realize this.
Regardless, Strobel becomes convinced that guards were present at the tomb and drops the topic, being “anxious to confront Craig” with what he claims to regard as the strongest evidence against the idea that Jesus’s body went missing from the tomb: the contradictions in the empty-tomb stories in the gospels. The four gospels differ markedly in their accounts with regard to how many women discovered the empty tomb and who they were and how they reacted to the discovery, whether the stone was still in place when they first arrived at the tomb, how many angels were there and how and when they appeared and what they did, who (if anyone) met the resurrected Jesus immediately afterward and the circumstances of these encounters, and who (if anyone) the women told and how the news was received. The gospel stories are obviously contradictory in these respects. They cannot all be true; there are not even two of them that harmonize with each other.
What does Craig have to say about this? These kinds of discrepancies are nothing to be concerned about, he assures us, because they are all in the secondary details. There is one solid core story underlying the differing adornments: “Joseph of Arimathea takes the body of Jesus, puts it in a tomb, the tomb is visited by a small group of women followers of Jesus early on Sunday morning following his crucifixion, and they find that the tomb is empty. They see a vision of angels saying Jesus is risen.” These unwavering basic shared aspects of all the stories would tip off a “careful historian” that “there is a historical core to this story that is reliable and can be depended upon, however conflicting the secondary details might be.” It seems he’s right that all of these narratives sprang from a core story, but the basis for thinking that this core story is true is not quite as clear.
For a little bit, Strobel and Craig discuss how the discrepancies in the gospel accounts not only do not weaken the core story but even strengthen it in a way, and then it occurs to Strobel that the discrepancies could be easily reconciled and prompts Craig to attempt to reconcile the easiest ones, for which Craig offers explanations, some of them plausible. This flows into a discussion of whether the testimony of the women who discovered the empty tomb can be trusted (Craig thinks it can), why the women would go to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus when they knew the tomb was sealed (Craig seems to think that anyone who would second-guess these grieving women about such a thing is a heartless monster), and why early Christians didn’t cite the empty tomb in their teachings (Craig insists that the Bible tells us they did).
Strobel then figures that Craig has spent enough time answering objections and invites him to list his four or five favorite affirmative arguments for the historicity of the empty tomb. Craig lists six.
First, there’s the mention of the empty tomb in the “very old and reliable” “tradition” that Paul passes along in 1 Corinthians 15.
“Second, the site of Jesus’ tomb was known to Christian and Jew alike. So if it weren’t empty, it would be impossible for a movement founded on belief in the Resurrection to have come into existence in the same city where this man had been publicly executed and buried.” How does Craig know that the site of the tomb was so widely known? Apart from Matthew’s questionable guard story, there’s no indication in the gospels that anyone but Jesus’s followers paid any attention to what happened to the body after the crucifixion. In fact, John 19:38 says that Joseph of Arimathea, who took the body, kept it a secret that he was a follower of Jesus because he feared the Jewish leaders, and if that’s correct, one would think that steps were taken to keep nonsympathetic Jews from finding out what happened to the body.
Third, Craig thinks that the “language, grammar, and style” in Mark suggest that the empty-tomb story in that gospel was taken from an earlier source. (He apparently disagrees with Dr. Blomberg, who in the first chapter convinced Srobel that the gospels were the work of eyewitnesses.) He also says there’s evidence that it was written before 37 A.D., but he doesn’t share that evidence with us.
Fourth, the empty-tomb story in Mark is simple and doesn’t contain the sort of “flowery narratives, in which Jesus comes out of the tomb in glory and power, with everybody seeing him, including the priests, Jewish authorities, and Roman guards” that are found in “[f]ictional, apocryphal accounts from the second century.” (Craig apparently disagrees with Dr. Blomberg, who in the first chapter convinced Strobel that legend doesn’t start creeping into a story until 500 years after the event.)
Fifth, the gospel stories must be authentic because they say the empty tomb was discovered by women, and that “would have been embarrassing for the disciples to admit and most certainly would have been covered up if this were a legend.” There’s not much to go on here, because Craig does not tell us why it would embarrass the disciples if women discovered the empty tomb as described in the gospels.
“Sixth, the earliest Jewish polemic presupposes the historicity of the empty tomb. In other words, there was nobody who was claiming that the tomb still contained Jesus’ body. The question always was, ‘What happened to the body?’ The Jews proposed the ridiculous story that the guards had fallen asleep. Obviously, they were grasping at straws. But the point is this: they started with the assumption that the tomb was vacant! Why? Because they knew it was!” Again, Craig does not name his source for this information; it is all presumably extrapolated from Matthew’s scholar-disputed guard story.
To close out the chapter, Strobel offers a couple of “alternative theories” for Craig to reject. The first of these, that the women simply went to the wrong tomb and found it empty, is barely worthy of consideration, and Craig gives it a little more than it deserves. The second, “that the empty tomb was a later legend and that by the time it was developed, people were unable to disprove it, because the location of the tomb had been forgotten” (not mentioned is the possibility, suggested by the account in the gospel of John, that nobody except Jesus’s followers knew what had happened to his body after the crucifixion, which would make it difficult for any nonfollowers to disprove the empty-tomb story even within a month of his death), is similarly dismissed by Craig, who once again claims that the empty-tomb story “goes back to within a few years of the events themselves” and therefore can’t be legendary.
After Strobel takes a moment to admire Criag’s ability to “devastate the best Resurrection critics in the world” in debates and to marvel at the overwhelmingness and airtightness of the evidence for the authenticity of the empty-tomb story, it’s time to consider accounts of sightings of Jesus after his death in chapter 13, “The Evidence of Appearances.” The interviewee for this topic is Gary Habermas, Ph.D., D.D., who was credited with producing the “most sophisticated defense of the resurrection to date” by Michael Martin, “the Boston University professor who has sought to discredit Christianity.”
The first account of postmortem appearances by Jesus discussed is the one thought to be the earliest, the passage in 1 Corinthians (15:3–8) where Paul claims that he was told of the events surrounding the resurrection. This passage was cited in the last chapter by Dr. Craig to bolster his contention that the empty-tomb story was accurate, and it goes on to list Jesus’s appearances after his body was found to be missing. The complete passage goes like this: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
This is believed to have been a creed of the early church by everyone who has mentioned it in The Case for Christ, and Strobel seems to be beginning to wonder why. He asks Habermas to “convince me it’s a creed,” and Habermas rattles off five reasons that the style and language of the passage indicate it’s a creed and then asks, “Should I go on?” “Should I go on?” is something people often say when they’ve gone as far as they can go but want to give the impression that they can go farther but that it’s obvious that what they’ve already said is enough to satisfy any reasonable person. So, can Habermas go on? We’ll never know, because instead of inviting him to go on, Strobel appears to goad him into a short, indignant lecture about how scholars of all theological stripes share his view that the 1 Corinthians passage is a creed.
Next, we are regaled with the usual exclamations about how “incredibly early” this material is. Paul is thought to have written 1 Corinthians between A.D. 55 and 57, more than 20 years after Jesus is thought to have died, but Habermas dates the creed to definitely before A.D. 51, possibly as early as A.D. 32 or 38, and probably 3 years after Paul’s conversion (A.D. 35?).
As part of his response to a question about why Jesus’s appearance to 500 people is not mentioned in the gospels or in any other contemporary source, Habermas says that Paul “apparently had some proximity” to people who saw this appearance; “He says ‘most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.’ Paul either knew some of these people or was told by someone who knew them that they were still walking around and willing to be interviewed.” How does Habermas know about their willingness to be interviewed? Well, “stop and think about it: you would never include this phrase unless you were absolutely confident that these folks would confirm that they really did see Jesus alive. I mean, Paul was virtually inviting people to check it out for themselves! He wouldn’t have said this if he didn’t know they’d back him up.”
Why wouldn’t he? He was writing a letter to a Christian community 800 miles from Jerusalem more than 20 years after Jesus is supposed to have died. What were the chances that someone from the church at Corinth was going to put him on the spot by asking for an interview with one of the 500 witnesses to Jesus’s postresurrection appearance in Jerusalem 20 years before? In order for people to check it out for themselves, they would have to travel to Jerusalem (which is about the same distance from Corinth as Kansas City, Missouri, is from Albuquerque, New Mexico, or Atlanta, Georgia), and how exactly would they go about searching for one of the 500 when they arrived there? If they went to Jerusalem and found no witnesses at all, that still wouldn’t prove that there were none.
If The Case for Christ is anything to go by, one of the most popular arguments for the veracity of early (i.e., usually 20 to 60 years from the time Jesus is thought to have died) Christian writings is that there were still eyewitnesses to the events described in those writings when they were produced and therefore that if there were anything untruthful in them, the eyewitnesses would have said so. Well, we’ve seen an example of an untruthful thing in them (i.e., at least one of the accounts of what ultimately happened to Judas in Matthew and Acts has to be false); did any eyewitnesses come forward to expose the falsehood(s)? If so, it doesn’t seem to have motivated the offending author(s) to eliminate the inaccuracies then, just as it often doesn’t in today’s world. Let’s look again at the “Holocaust deniers” example we co-opted from Dr. Blomberg for our own purposes back in chapter 1. There is ample eyewitness testimony and documentation that directly contradicts the Holocaust deniers’ assertions; how has that affected what they are saying?
And why do Strobel’s interviewees always seem to think that the writings of those in early Christian communities were subject to intense scrutiny by those who would want to prove them false? Were they widely available to Christians and non-Christians alike, or were they circulated only within Christian communities and hard for enemies to obtain? Would literate enemies who could obtain such writings even have bothered to read them or paid much attention to what they said? How many of the people who have decried Mormonism as a cult since its inception have had more than a glancing knowledge of what’s in the Book of Mormon or have known what other Mormon writings exist?
Anyway, after advancing the source-too-early-for-legendary-corruption and impossible-to-write-falsehoods-when-eyewitnesses-exist arguments, Habermas offers some explanations for the absence of accounts of Jesus’s appearance to the 500 people in other sources and for some apparent discrepancies between Paul’s “creed” and stories of postressurection activity in the gospels, and then Strobel and Habermas set to examining what the gospels have to say about sightings of the risen Jesus.
The gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John and the book of Acts contain several descriptions of Jesus’s postmortem encounters with the living, and some of these accounts don’t quite mesh with each other. For example, in Matthew, after Mary Magdalene and another Mary have just discovered the tomb empty and have been instructed by two angels to go tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee, Jesus appears to the two women and tells them to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee. In Luke, the women don’t see Jesus, and no one is given instructions to go to Galilee; the disciples stay in Jerusalem. In John, Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb and makes it back to the disciples without having seen either angels or Jesus; her report prompts two of the disciples to investigate the empty tomb for themselves and then they go home; after the two disciples have left the tomb, Mary sees the angels and Jesus in quick succession, and again no instructions to go to Galilee are given.
Such discrepancies are not covered in Strobel and Habermas’s discussion. (In fact, in the list of Jesus’s appearances Haberman provides, the first two are “to Mary Magdalene, in John 20:10–18” and “to the other women, in Matthew 28:8–10,” even though the women to whom Jesus appears in Matthew 28:8–10 are identified as Mary Magdalene and another Mary.) Instead, Haberman enthuses about how some of the source material about the appearances is thought to be “particularly early” by one Cambridge University scholar (Habermas, like Dr. Craig in the preceding chapter, does not seem to share Dr. Blomberg’s opinion that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses and companions of eyewitnesses), how lacking in “typical mythical tendencies” the accounts are, and how Acts contains many descriptions of apostles’ confirmatory affirmations of the appearances.
After Strobel and Habermas then shrug off the absence of any accounts of Jesus’s appearances in Mark (Mark 16:9–20, which does contain such accounts, is not in the earliest manuscripts and is thought to have been added later), Strobel asks Habermas to evaluate a couple of “alternatives that could explain away these encounters with the risen Jesus.”
First up is the possibility that Jesus’s postresurrection appearances are legendary. Strobel observes that there are no appearances in Mark, widely thought to be the earliest gospel. The other three gospels do contain stories of appearances, and each of them contains more of these stories than its predecessor. Doesn’t that suggest that the appearances were a legend that grew over time? Not at all, says Habermas. For one thing, there are a few scholars who don’t think Mark was written first. For another, if the legends did grow over time, they had to have a foundation to grow on, so there must have been some basis for a belief in the resurrection originally.
No mention is made of the fact that Jesus is not initially recognized by the people he appeared to in three of the gospel stories of appearances (Luke 24:13–32, John 20:11–17, and John 21:1–12) and that some the disciples were for some reason dubious about an appearance he made to them in another account (Matthew 28:16–17). If we’re looking for a foundation for a belief in the resurrection, this might be a good place to start. Is it possible that after Jesus died, one or more of his followers encountered a stranger who was later “realized” to have been Jesus and that stories of such an encounter(s) took on new, more-solid details as they were told and retold, or that a stranger passed himself off as Jesus and that some people believed he was Jesus or came to believe it after some initial doubts? People have a talent for convincing themselves of things they want to believe, especially with cooperation and encouragement from their colleagues.
Also, if the gospels paint an accurate picture of Jesus’s time and place, his contemporaries were far more ready to believe that a person had risen from the dead than people are these days. In Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Jesus asks the disciples what people are saying about him and is told that the crowds think he is John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets come back to life. In fact, King Herod, who had had John the Baptist beheaded, was said to have become alarmed because of all the talk that Jesus was the resurrection of John the Baptist, becoming convinced himself that John had risen. A legend about the resurrection of John the Baptist could have arisen right then and there, without the customary 500-year gestation period, if Jesus had played along with what the crowds were saying.
But Habermas is not finished arguing against the development of a legendary resurrection. What about the empty tomb? And then there’s that early “creed” of Paul’s, in 1 Corinthians, which has played such a stellar role in Habermas’s arguments for the idea that the resurrection really occurred. Given the importance ascribed to this passage, it’s curious that Habermas doesn’t make a big deal of the last part of it, where Paul says that Jesus appeared to him. One of the first things we learned in The Case for Christ was the importance of eyewitness testimony, and Habermas does not seem to think that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses. However, here we have a writer claiming to be an eyewitness to a postresurrection appearance by Jesus, and Habermas barely mentions this, concentrating instead on the parts of the passage about things that Paul says other people have told him. What could be the reason for this seeming omission? Is Paul’s Jesus sighting somehow less important than those of other people? Is there something about it that would not make it useful in advancing the case for Christ? Is the sighting Paul is referring to the incident described in three incompatible accounts in Acts where he sees a light and hears a voice but his companions didn’t experience things the way he did? Is it possible that Habermas realizes that that incident makes it look like Paul could be delusional and thinks it might cast doubt on Paul’s writings? Who knows? The issue isn’t explored.
The second alternative mentioned by Strobel is that the appearances by Jesus after he died were hallucinations. Habermas practically laughs this one off (and rightly so), Strobel sums up the resurrection evidence in this and the two preceding chapters and remarks on how convincing it is, and then we’re free to proceed to the final chapter, titled “The Circumstantial Evidence,” wherein we will consider five pieces of indirect evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. The presenter of these pieces of evidence is J. P. Moreland, Ph.D., “a well-known philosopher.”
As exhibit 1, Moreland offers the claim that the disciples died for their beliefs. He begins his discussion of this point by declaring that Jesus’s followers were “discouraged and depressed” and “no longer had confidence that Jesus had been sent by God, because they believed anyone crucified was accursed by God. They had also been taught that God would not let his Messiah suffer death.” What’s this? Weren’t Strobel and Dr. Lapides claiming just a few chapters ago that Psalms foretold the Messiah’s manner of death and resurrection? Were Jesus’s followers unfamiliar with the book of Psalms?
In their dejection, according to Moreland, Jesus’s followers “dispersed. The Jesus movement was all but stopped in its tracks.” Where did this come from? In the gospel accounts, the disciples are still together when the empty tomb is discovered and Jesus starts appearing. There is no talk of any dispersal or stoppage of the Jesus movement. And there’s a paucity of extrabiblical material about the aftermath of Jesus’s death. So what is Moreland’s source for this assertion? One of the most vexing things about The Case for Christ is the frequent presentation of things with no apparent historical support and little or no biblical support as established fact.
Remaining tightlipped about his sources, Moreland then claims that “after a short period of time, we see them abandoning their occupations” (which, according to the Bible, had consisted of following Jesus around and serving him), “regathering, and committing themselves to spreading a very specific message—that Jesus was the Messiah of God who died on a cross, returned to life, and was seen alive by them.”
After Jesus’s followers made the difficult transition from a Jesus-centered life when Jesus was alive to a Jesus-centered life after Jesus had died, says Moreland, they willingly spent the rest of their lives proclaiming the messiahship of Jesus, “without any payoff from a human point of view.” Although the book of Acts depicts the apostles as being looked up to as leaders in a community that they played a large part in creating and to which all new members were expected to donate all their worldly goods by placing said goods at the feet of the apostles, who distributed them as they saw fit, and although there are many people who would enjoy being in that sort of a position quite a bit, Moreland apparently has evidence he’s not sharing that the disciples were not among such people.
To be sure, life for early Christians as described in Acts was not without its drawbacks, with occasional harassment and persecution from various quarters, but Jesus’s followers are usually shown coming and going and living as they please. However, Moreland claims, “most of them were executed in tortuous ways.” Most of the information about the deaths of the apostles comes from “tradition,” much of which is highly questionable. As noted above, Matthew probably died of natural causes. John is believed to have died of old age. Tradition has Peter being one of the Christians blamed for the destruction of Rome and executed by Nero, but story appears to be based on a flimsy foundation. Acts 12:1–2 says that King Herod had James the son of Zebedee put to death by sword. There’s a tradition that the other James (the son of Alphaeus) was stoned and then clubbed to death. Andrew is said to have been crucified. Philip is thought to have been crucified or beheaded or to have died a natural death. Tradition has it that Bartholomew (a.k.a. Nathanael) was flayed alive and crucified, beheaded, or placed in a sack and cast into the sea. Thomas was killed by a spear in Madras, India, or maybe he wasn’t. According to the Golden Legend, Jude and Simon the Zealot were martyred together in Beirut, Lebanon; or was Simon crucified in Samaria or sawed in half in Suanir or did he die peacefully in Edessa?
If Moreland is correct that most of the apostles were executed, where does that premise lead us? Well, he says, that proves that they actually experienced the resurrected Jesus, because they wouldn’t have been willing to die for a belief in the resurrection if they hadn’t. It’s not clear even from tradition that any of the disciples were put to death specifically for a belief in the resurrection, but Strobel presents a different objection to Moreland’s argument, noting that although the disciples were willing to die for their beliefs, “so have Muslims and Mormons and followers of Jim Jones and David Koresh. This may show that they were fanatical, but let’s face it: it doesn’t prove that what they believed is true.”
At this, Moreland swivels to face Strobel head-on, “planting both of his feet firmly on the floor,” and informs Strobel that his objection overlooks a crucial difference between the situation for the disciples and that for the misguided followers of the named false religions: the disciples were in a position to know for sure whether Jesus had actually appeared to them, but, for example, “Muslims might be willing to die for their belief that Allah revealed himself to Muhammad, but this revelation was not done in a publicly observable way. So they could be wrong about it. They may sincerely think it’s true, but they can’t know for a fact, because they didn’t witness it themselves.”
This response makes Strobel smile, because he knew all along that it was the right one. He had confronted the question before on his spiritual journey and had learned that “[p]eople will die for their religious beliefs if they sincerely believe they’re true, but they won’t die for their religious beliefs if they know their beliefs are false.” The basis for this statement is not given, but it seems to belie what happened with Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism), Jim Jones, and David Koresh, who were all in a position to know for sure whether or not what they were telling their followers was true. They all died as a result of their professed beliefs. Although Smith and Koresh died with their guns blazing (while the disciples are never depicted as having put up any resistance to their executioners), Jones seems to have willingly died for something that was based on teachings he must have known to be false.
Moreland’s exhibit 2 is the conversion of “hardened” skeptics who had been less than impressed with Jesus before the crucifixion and were “to some degree dead-set against Christianity” but became Christians after Jesus died. He seems to be talking about the apostle Paul and Jesus’s brother James. Strobel asks for “credible evidence that James had been a skeptic of Jesus,” and Moreland says that “the gospels” indicate that “Jesus’ family, including James, were embarrassed by what he was claiming to be.” How is this possible? According to “the gospels,” no one was in a better position than Jesus’s family to know that his claims were valid. Hadn’t his mother, Mary, been a virgin when he was born? Hadn’t a heavenly messenger(s) visited not only Joseph and Mary but also John the Baptist’s father prior to Jesus’s birth to tell them of the important role Jesus was to play? Hadn’t John the Baptist’s mother (a relative of Mary’s), under the influence of the Holy Spirit, greeted Mary as “the mother of my Lord” when Jesus (in human form) was just a gleam in God’s eye? Hadn’t shepherds near Jesus’s birthplace told Mary and Joseph of their encounter with angels, who told the shepherds that Jesus was Christ the Lord? Hadn’t that message been reinforced a few days later by a man and a prophetess who were filled with the Holy Spirit? And not only did Mary not bother to inform her other offspring of all this, she also seemingly missed it herself? (Was being impregnated by God a forgettable experience, or perhaps so traumatic that it had to be buried deep in the Mary’s subconscious?) Well, apparently so. Moreland doesn’t provide any specific references, of course, but apparently he’s referring to the story in Mark 3:20–35, where Jesus is teaching in his home town and it appears that his mother and brothers come to get him because they think he’s out of his mind.
Moreland then tells Strobel that “Later the historian Josephus tells us that James, the brother of Jesus, who was the leader of the Jerusalem church, was stoned to death because of his belief in his brother.” Actually, Josephus doesn’t say that the reason for the stoning of James (if the person who is referred to in the passage actually is the brother of Jesus; he is identified as “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James,” and some think that “who was called Christ” was not in the original passage) was his belief in his brother but rather that he had been found guilty of breaking of an unspecified law. Regardless, Moreland asserts that the only possible explanation for James’s change of heart is that he saw the resurrected Jesus. He makes a similar argument about Paul, who actually does seem to have been convinced that what he saw and heard on the road to Damascus was Jesus. Like Habermas before him, Moreland doesn’t seem too eager to get into specifics about Paul’s resurrected-Jesus experience.
Exhibit 3 is “changes to key social structures,” wherein Moreland informs us that the Jews were extremely attached to the “treasured beliefs” that compelled them to offer animal sacrifices, obey Moses’s laws, and refrain from doing anything except religious devotion on the Sabbath. In addition, they treasured a belief in monotheism and a belief that the Messiah would be “a political leader who would destroy the Roman armies,” not “someone who suffered and died for the sins of the world” (apparently, the Jews of the time were unfamiliar with the Hebrew Scriptures, which in chapter 10 Strobel and Dr. Lapides found to be crawling with references to a Messiah who would suffer and die for the sins of the world). Yet, says Moreland, “five weeks” after Jesus was crucified, “over ten thousand Jews are following him and claiming that he is the initiator of a new religion.” (This is a baffling statement. Moreland doesn’t give his source for this information, of course, and these numbers don’t seem to agree with what’s in Acts.) “And get this: they’re willing to give up or alter all five of the social institutions that they have been taught since childhood have such importance both sociologically and theologically.” And to make these drastic steps even more remarkable, the Jews “believed that to abandon these institutions would be to risk their souls being damned to hell after death.” (Is this really true? It’s hard to tell.) Why did these “at least ten thousand Jews” take such a seemingly foolhardy course of action? “My explanation is simple: they had seen Jesus risen from the dead.” Somehow, Paul’s claim that he had been told that the risen Jesus appeared to 500 people suddenly seems paltry and insignificant.
Exhibit 4 is the Christian rituals of communion and baptism, both of which seem to Moreland to be celebrations of Jesus’s death. Moreland thinks it would be mighty odd for people to be celebrating the death of a person they worship … unless that person had risen from the dead.
Exhibit 5 is the emergence and rapid spread of the Christian church, which had reached Rome within 20 years of Jesus’s death. Moreland finds it improbable that such a thing would have happened had Jesus not risen from the dead. Strobel suggests (to the reader) that this “wasn’t Mooreland’s strongest point,” as other religions have emerged and spread, too, but thinks it works fine as a capper to the long parade of convincing evidence Mooreland has already offered. Strobel is right that it’s not a strong point, but it may well be Mooreland’s strongest; at least it’s based on premises that have some historical support outside Mooreland’s own mind.
Strong or not, though, it’s the last piece of evidence presented in the book, if we don’t count Mooreland’s postinterview testimony about how encounters with the resurrected Christ continue to change people from all walks of life for the better, including him (and we probably shouldn’t, as it’s not uncommon to hear of such transformations in connection with other religions and influences). Now it’s time for Strobel to pull everything together for us in a chapter called “Conclusion: the Verdict of History.” He begins by telling us about the afternoon of Sunday, November 8, 1981, which he devoted to sequestering himself in his home office and “replaying the spiritual journey” he had been “traveling for twenty-one months.”
At this point, the reader might be forgiven for thinking that the interviews Strobel presents in the book are the main part of the journey he’s referring to. However, in the second paragraph of the chapter, we are told, “My investigation into Jesus was similar to what you’ve just read, except that I primarily studied books and other historical research instead of personally interacting with scholars.” Strobel did divulge in the introduction to the book that the interviews in the book postdate the conclusion of his spiritual journey, but this disclosure was worded ambiguously enough that a reader with the right preconceptions (which can easily be obtained from the subtitle of the book, “A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus”) or not paying extremely close attention might have missed it. The interviews themselves are peppered with clues that they are of a more recent vintage (e.g., some of the materials cited to represent the atheist point of view were published after 1981), but in terms of how they’re presented, there’s not much to suggest that Strobel is not approaching them as a genuine (albeit inept) skeptic, so this sentence in the second paragraph of the last chapter is our first somewhat clear indication that he was actually approaching them as a resolute Christian with a strong interest in having his interviewees emerge victorious.
This information goes some way toward clearing up the mystery of how an award-winning, law-degree-holding journalist in a prosecutor’s role could so unquestioningly embrace such weak testimony, but it doesn’t explain why Strobel kept professing skepticism and saying things like “I wasn’t going to let Boyd’s debating skills intimidate me,” “Unwittingly I had played right into Craig’s hand,” and “I didn’t want Habermas’s confident assertions to deter me from probing further.”
Back in the closing chapter, Strobel goes on to list the questions covered in the book and the “key facts” that were “uncovered” pertaining to each one, an approach similar to the one he took to assimilating the fruits of his original spiritual journey on that fateful Sunday afternoon in 1981. Unsurprisingly, the uncovered “facts” pertaining to each question strongly support the case for Christianity, and Strobel goes on to explain how he put them all together to make it impossible for him to escape the conclusion that Jesus was the one and only Son of God, exactly as he had claimed to be. Of course, Strobel’s newfound knowledge necessitated certain changes in his lifestyle, and he describes the steps he took to become “a child of God, forever adopted into his family by the historical, risen Jesus” and then invites us to do the same if our reasoning has been as astute as his and has thus led us to the same conclusion he reached.
In the unlikely event that the evidence presented in The Case for Christ was not sufficient to enable us to reach a verdict, Strobel urges us to seek out answers to any remaining questions we may have and recommends that we seek out these answers from “well-respected experts” and study The Journey, “a special edition of the Bible that’s designed for people who don’t yet believe it’s the word of God.” He implores us to reach our verdict as soon as possible because, as Jesus declared, “If you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:24), and this fate may befall us if we tarry.
But what about the possibility of dying in our sins would give us a sense of urgency about pursuing the evidence further? We aren’t even told what “dying in our sins” means. What are the consequences of dying in our sins? Would it land us in hell? No; as we learned from Dr. Carson in chapter 9, “hell is not a place where people are consigned because they were pretty good blokes but just didn’t believe the right stuff,” and according to Jesus, it’s not believing the right stuff that will cause us to die in our sins. So if we’re pretty good blokes who don’t happen to believe that Jesus was the one he claimed to be and if we die in our sins simply as a result of that lack of belief, we don’t really have much to worry about as far as hell is concerned, do we? And if Jesus actually is the one he claimed to be, that should be quite apparent to us after we die, so at that point we’ll be pretty good blokes and believe the right stuff, regardless of what we believed while we were alive, so we’ll be a shoo-in for entry into heaven, won’t we? Yet Strobel tells us that there’s “a lot riding on [our] conclusion,” then he quotes Michael Murphy, who “aptly put it, ‘We ourselves—and not merely the truth claims—are at stake in the investigation,’” and then he tells us that our “future and eternity” are on the line, but he doesn’t explain why.
This kind of absence of supporting information for so much of what is said in the book is one of the things that undermine the case presented. The frequent failure of interviewees to explain or give specific references for their assertions makes it appear that they fear that their sources wouldn’t bear scrutiny. It doesn’t look much better when the person on the witness stand gives a broad reference (e.g., “the Bible says there are different degrees of punishment”) and leaves it to the reader to figure out how the idea in question was derived from the cited source.
Of course, it looks even worse (although it’s less irritating) when they do cite their sources and then one takes a look at the cited source and finds that the interviewee took extreme liberties with his interpretation of it, as Dr. Blomberg did in the first chapter when he cites Papias to help establish the disciple Matthew’s authorship of the gospel of Matthew, when the work Papias attributes to Matthew is a collection of sayings, not a narrative, as the gospel of Matthew is. (Blomberg avoids disclosing this inconvenient detail by saying that “Papias said Matthew had preserved the teachings of Jesus as well.”) What does it say about the strength of a claim when “leading scholars and authorities who have impeccable academic credentials” have to resort to obfuscation, distortion, and omission of key details in order to pave the way to their desired conclusion?
And then there are those times when sources are cited and quoted but the quotation does not support the interviewee’s contention, as in chapter 5, when Dr. McRay used the Egyptian census decree to demonstrate that the census described in Luke wasn’t really all that ridiculous. And those times when interviewees’ ideas, independent of any external source of information, just don’t seem to make any sense, like Dr. Carson’s vision of hell in chapter 9.
One would think that a juror might find it hard to ignore such weaknesses in reasoning, especially when they often appear to be not-so-subtle attempts at deception. Far from offering proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the witnesses for the defense have introduced grounds for reasonable doubt with astonishing regularity. As one of Strobel’s more than 2 million jurors (the cover of the book says that over 2 million copies were sold), I find that The Case for Christ does more harm than good to the case for Christ.