Lee Strobel’s Fragile Argument

Lee Strobel likes to introduce himself as a former atheist—quite an unpleasant atheist, in fact.  As a tough-minded and award-winning journalist, he wanted to get to the bottom of the nonsense about Christianity when his wife became a Christian.

He was the legal editor at the Chicago Tribune where they had a sign reading, “If your mother says she loves you, get a second opinion.”  Sounds like they take their fact finding seriously!

Journalists are great; it’s hypocrisy that I don’t care for.  Strobel’s The Case for Christ starts off with this tough-minded search, and yet everyone interviewed in his book is a committed Christian.  If this is journalism, where is the other side of the story?

Looks like the conclusion was drawn before he started.

I have no problem with a Christian writing a Christian book; just don’t try to pass off this project as unbiased journalism.

Strobel recently wrote a summary of this search.  I’d like to respond to his arguments.

He first picks up elements from the gospels—that Jesus was executed, that the tomb was empty, and that the opponents had to claim that the body was stolen—and uses them to argue for the truth of the overall story.  That’s like saying that in The Godfather, the motivations of the movie studio guy made complete sense because he’d found a horse head in his bed.

The gospel story is a story.  There really wasn’t a horse head, Indiana Jones didn’t really find the lost Ark of the Covenant, and Dorothy didn’t really land in Oz.  Why imagine that there was a resurrection?  Don’t show internal consistency between elements of the gospel story without first showing that it’s history.

Strobel next says:

[The disciples] wouldn’t have been willing to die brutal martyrs’ deaths if they knew this was all a lie.

How do we know that this is accurate?  Christianity Today reports that “The tradition of apostles’ martyrdom goes back at least to the beginning of the third century.”  So we know this because it was written down 150 years after the events?  Quite flimsy evidence.

And what does he mean by “if they knew this was all a lie”?  In the first place, I don’t think that the gospel story was a deliberate invention, like a hoax, so this doesn’t attack a point I’d make.  In the second place, Strobel apparently imagines that the disciples were charged with crimes that could be dismissed simply by saying, “Just kidding!  Jesus wasn’t really raised from the dead.”

What crimes are we talking about?  Sedition?  Disturbing the peace?  General rabble rousing?  Denying Jesus doesn’t get you off from these.  This “Why would they die for a lie?” argument collapses.

He next “investigates” whether the reported post-resurrection appearances were hallucinations or visions.  This is another argument I would never make just like I would never investigate whether the Cowardly Lion was a hallucination or vision.

This reminds me of the joke about the guy looking for something at night under a street light.  Guy 2 comes over and asks what’s up.

“Lost my keys,” Guy 1 says.

So Guy 2 looks around to help.  After a few minutes, he says, “I sure don’t see them.  Where did you lose them, exactly?”

“Over there.”  Guy 1 points to a dark part of a parking lot.

“Then why are we looking here??”

“The light’s better here.”

And that’s why Strobel brings up the hallucination argument and similar straw men.  They aren’t serious arguments.  Nobody raises them.  But these he can knock over.  The light’s better here.

Was the resurrection simply the recasting of ancient mythology, akin to the fanciful tales of Osiris or Mithras? If you want to see a historian laugh out loud, bring up that kind of pop-culture nonsense.

Unfortunately, all we have of Strobel’s juggernaut of an argument is this vague reference, so we’ll just have to do our best as we risk historians’ mocking laughter.

So the dying-and-rising aspect of the Jesus story couldn’t have come from the dying-and-rising aspect of gods that preceded Jesus like Tammuz, Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis, Attis, and Baal?  These were gods from nearby cultures, which would likely have been familiar to literate first-century Greeks, and all died and rose again.  No chance of resurrection envy influencing the gospel story?

The typical response is that these other gods’ stories are different from the Jesus story.  Of course they’re different—otherwise, they’d be the same story.  But they sure sound similar.  For example, in a story originating centuries before Jesus, Dionysus was the product of one of Zeus’s many affairs.  His jealous wife Hera had the infant Dionysus eaten by Titans, but Zeus brought him back to life through the mortal woman Semele.

Dead, and then born by a mortal.  Brought back to life by the ruler of all gods.  Is something of that present—nay, central—to the gospel story?  You decide if there’s any chance of cross-pollination.

Second-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr even used the similarities to his advantage.  He said:

When we say [that Jesus] was produced without sexual union, and that He … was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter.1

Not only did damning similarities exist, Justin argued, but they were deliberately planted in Greek myths by the devil.

“For when [the Greeks] tell that [Dionysus] was begotten by [Semele], and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven … do I not perceive that [the devil] has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses?”2

Justin not only acknowledged the similarities, he embraced them!

Strobel ends his essay:

After I had thoroughly investigated the matter, I reached an unexpected conclusion: it would actually take more faith to maintain my atheism than to become a follower of Jesus.

Yeah, whatever.  Do some objective research and maybe you’ll reach a different conclusion.

I can imagine that Strobel used to be an atheist.  But not that he was an atheist just like me.

Photo credit: Illuminating Distractions

1Justin Martyr, “Analogies to the History of Christ,” chapter 21 of First Apology.

2Justin Martyr, “The Devil, since he emulates the truth, has invented fables about Bacchus, Hercules, and Sculapius,” chapter 69 of Dialogue with Trypho.

Related articles:

  • Lee Strobel, “How Easter Killed My Faith in Atheism,” Wall Street Journal, 4/16/11.
  • Steven Gertz, “How do we know 10 of the disciples were martyred?” Christianity Today, 8/8/08.
  • Jesus and Mo talk about the resurrection and the yellow brick road (rated PG-13 for language) 3/7/06.

13 thoughts on “Lee Strobel’s Fragile Argument

  1. Typical old argument that the resurection was copied by Geek Mythology.. As usual Bob just apes answers from his Atheistic brothers
    Listen to Dr.James White last debate with Athesit Dan Barker on this very subject..The Debate is called “Jesus Myth or Messiah” James refutes each of the alleged claims that Bob lists in this article..
    So as usuall Bob has come up with nothing new..Same old copied remarks from his atheistic brothers.
    And here is a side note for Bob. True born again Christians are not regenerated by evidence of the death ans reserection of Jesus. Evidence that the Bible is reliable saves no one!

    • Tell us yourself. A vague “Oh yeah, that was refuted by somebody-or-other long ago” doesn’t help. Specifically, what evidence refutes the arguments that I made? Don’t let someone else make your argument; make it yourself.

  2. Hello?????????????????////

    How hypocritical of you , do what you accuse me of? You ask me …”Don’t let someone make your argument make it yourself” So what do you do you give me Dan Barker’s argument??? That is not your argument.. What a hypocrite, shame on you.

    • ?

      I didn’t copy Dan Barker’s argument. There could easily be similarities with other atheists’ arguments. If you have a link where Barker used these arguments before me, show me.

      And let’s return to the point: if you have refutations of these arguments, let me hear them. Do it quickly so that I stop using foolish arguments!

  3. yuo are making the calim the Christianity was copied from mythical religions. So being you are claiming an affirmitive , I ask you to give of evidence and PROVE this is true. Not similarities but Prove it!
    By the way your Justin Martyr clams are out of context..And have been refuted when show the true context of what he really said and meant. In YOU ARE NOT KEEPING UP WITH YOUR ATHESIT APPOLOGIST AS THEY DO NOT USE THAT ARGUMENT ANY LONGER..

    Again listen to the Latest debade with White and Barker ( was Jesus myth oe messiah)
    , Where Barker tried that quote taken out of context. Barker was quite humiliated after White cross examined him on that qote..Not pleasant for your side.
    By the way do you think Jesus existed as an historical fiqure? Do you think there was a Jesus Christ? I never asked you that?

    • Nope; I can’t prove it.

      What do we make of it? That there must then be no chance that the Jesus story could have copied elements from other, older stories that were floating around in that environment? Hardly.

      Did I misunderstand Justin Martyr’s point? If so, I’ll stop using that in my argument. But it doesn’t help me to simply say that I made a mistake, you must show me!

      I have no strong opinion about whether Jesus existed as a historical figure. Doesn’t make much difference in my evaluation of the gospel stories as legend.

  4. Pingback: Jesus: Just One More Dying and Rising Savior | Cross Examined

  5. Hello Bob,

    Let me get my bias out of the way. I am newly agnostic from Christianity searching for answers. I studied theology for many years so I understand the Christian perspective quite well, though disagree with many of the answers they come to.

    With that said, I find your arguments against Lee Strobel’s claims wanting. The main problem I see is this (along with many other arguments against Jesus’ resurrection/life): You state that because the NT story is similar to other culture stories, then it must only be a culture story. The problem here is that you are going into this research biasedly, knowing you don’t believe in the resurrection. Secondly, saying that there are similarities doesn’t really address the resurrection story of Jesus on its own terms. Two stories can be similar, and one be right while one is wrong. Look at the evolution misunderstandings (we come from monkeys) compared to its actual truth (we come from common ancestors). Very similar, but one is right and one is wrong. So we have to evaluate each claim on its own, and not simply dismiss it because it’s similar to other stories.

    Second point is this. You state that Jesus’ resurrection was not real in the same way Oz and the horse head is not real. Obviously this was exaggerated for argument’s sake (typically nothing wrong with hyperbole), but you are crossing genres here. Nobody believes it was a horse head, nobody believes in Oz. These are fantasy. Whether you are a Christian or not, Jesus did live and was real, and the disciples really did believe he was their Savior, even Ehrman argues this. You’re comparing fiction to historical records. You can’t cross genres like that in an argument, especially one like this.

    With that said, I appreciate your intellectual honesty and look forward to your reply. As I stated, I’m not commenting on this post as a Christian but as Agnostic. If you aren’t going to believe something, then don’t believe for the right reasons. Your arguments are similar to saying “I don’t believe in the Bible because it’s been manipulated by man”. It’s an argument that has been debunked by even non-believers. Such is saying “Jesus resurrection story is not true because it’s similar to other myth stories”.

    • You state that because the NT story is similar to other culture stories, then it must only be a culture story.

      No, not that it must be identical in form to other stories, but that that’s where the evidence points. The person making the (remarkable!) supernatural claim has an enormous burden of proof.

      You state that Jesus’ resurrection was not real in the same way Oz and the horse head is not real.

      The horse head wasn’t real. Why imagine that the empty tomb was any more real? They were both stories. (Specifically, one was fiction and the other a legend, but neither was real.)

  6. Oh, one last point. You stated that the earliest manuscripts from the New Testament were written down 150 years after Jesus’ death. This is simply untrue. I’ve taken many Biblical classes, and history classes that all agree that the earliest manuscript actually goes back to only 30 years after Jesus’ death, and then at least 2 more manuscripts from the year 70 AD and 90 AD, and then again around 150 AD. This is all before the “manipulation” by the Council of Nycene, who did not manipulate any of the scriptures themselves, but simply did not put all the “books” in when they unified them into one book.

    • You stated that the earliest manuscripts from the New Testament were written down 150 years after Jesus’ death.

      Yes, it is untrue. I never said that.

      • “So we know this because it was written down 150 years after the events?”

        That is what I was referring to, but please correct me if I misunderstood what you were saying.

        • The earliest NT manuscripts and the writing down of story of the apostles’ martyrdom are two very different things, hence the two dates.

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