The Case For Christ
I've had a Christian writing to me recently, convinced that he can make a Christian out of me. His latest trump card was to urge me to read the recent book by Lee Strobel, a journalist, called The Case For Christ, published in 1998 by Zondervan. I refused to spend money to buy it, so he mailed me his copy, on loan. About half way through, I gave up, and mailed it back to him. I'll share my comments to him:
Thanks again very much for giving me the chance to read Strobel's book. I apologize for taking so long to get it back to you, and also for being so slow in giving you a response.
I'm afraid that I have to say that I was not only not convinced, I was not impressed. Even discounting the fact that he is writing in a journalistic style and for a popular, lay audience, I didn't think he came near to proving what he set out to prove. His book is meant for the already converted, or the gullible.
I read the first half very carefully, and took detailed notes, and as I looked them over, I realized that all this ground had been covered in Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands A Verdict, which I read several years ago. McDowell's book got a book-length critique at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/jury/, and the objections to McDowell's Evidence are equally applicable to Strobel's Case. I therefore only skimmed the rest of the book.
Strobel's technique of interviewing experts is all right, but he only reports his interviews with the experts on one side. He says that he "challenged" them, of course, with "tough questions," but again and again lets them off the hook, content with their assurance that they have adequately answered the "tough question." This is suspicious. Why didn't he present interviews with some of the experts who find fundamental flaws in the Christian evidence?
I originally thought that I would write a detailed review of the book. But since it is really pretty much a rehash of McDowell, I will make only a few general comments here.
The fundamental problems with the Christian evidence, as I have felt for a long time, and which Strobel does nothing to rebut, in my opinion, are:
- We are asked to accept legend, hearsay, tradition as reliable proof of miracles; (e.g., as evidence that the apostle John wrote the fourth gospel, we are asked to accept Papias' assertion, even though we have no idea how Papias knew this fact, and we do not have Papias' own statement, but only Papias as cited by Eusebius, several centuries later, who himself is of questionable reliability, and who himself felt that Papias was not reliable! - none of which was mentioned by Strobel or Blomberg!);
- We are asked to "give the benefit of the doubt" (e.g. at page 61) to otherwise dubious assertions - why should we?;
- The fact that a witness or a document gets some things right does NOT obligate us (or even entitle us) to assume that everything the witness says - especially on the very issue in question - is reliable: just because the gospels are correct about verifiable facts (Pilate was the Roman official in Jerusalem; Herod reigned in Judah; etc.), that does not warrant our acceptance of that witness' unverifiable (and miraculous) assertions - this is a fundamentally fallacious error ("Since the Gospels are correct on so many points, we can assume that they are 100% reliable") - this is begging the question, and you would get an F in any Logic 101 course for doing this;
- And yet, in asking us to relax the strict rules of evidence in the case of Christianity, the apologists would be unwilling, I am sure, to make the same relaxation in the case of the claims of other religions, such as Mormonism, or Islam, or Baha'i; (In the case of Mormonism, for example, with which I am very familiar, I think the Mormons have better evidence for the appearance of the angel Moroni to Joseph Smith than the Christians have for the resurrection);
- Comparisons with how much later and scarcer other ancient records are (e.g. life of Alexander, Homer) cannot be evidence for the validity of earlier and more voluminous ancient accounts of miraculous events; that is, you prove nothing by saying "my evidence may be poor, but your evidence is worse!", especially in attempting to prove a miraculous event;
- Comparisons with the lack of archaeological evidence with other obviously false religions (e.g. Mormonism's Book of Mormon) overlook the complete lack of archaeological evidence for the tomb, the manger, the upper room (do you really believe that Constantine's mother found the real Holy Sepulcher?);
- Apologists rely so heavily on the unlikelihood of rapid development of the resurrection (and other miraculous) legends, in apparent complete disregard about what folklorists have learned recently about how quickly urban legends can and do spread, even in our modern, enlightened times;
- If the Christian Gospel were really God's message to mankind, and if God really wanted us to accept it and believe it, then one must ask why God is not doing a better job of making it believable? If God is making it so difficult in order to test our faith - our willingness to believe it without evidence (cf. John 20:29) - then why give us any evidence at all? Why is Strobel trying to prove something which God apparently does not want proven?
Ultimately, the Christian evidence is only circumstantial and hearsay. Such evidence can be disregarded in a court if there is any other natural, reasonable, possible explanation than the one which the party offering the circumstantial evidence proposes. And there is. With our knowledge of how religious movements begin and develop, how the human mind works (how hallucinations, self-hypnosis, brainwashing work), how urban legends begin and spread, how circumstances were in Jesus' time and place, one has no real difficulty in understanding how this Jewish teacher's life and death became the basis for a mystery religion quite unlike anything he foresaw, and how it "grew like Topsy." [see my article on Jesus for a discussion of this]
Since writing the above, I have found a much more thorough and scholarly critique of Strobel's book, by Jeff Lowder, here. He has many of the same criticisms as I, but goes into much more detail. I recommend his critique highly.
Since writing the above, I have been notified of still another excellent and even more thorough (book-length) review, by Earl Doherty, here.