So I went and saw it. Here’s a review.
Read on, and enjoy your Easter week pondering the aesthetic merits of a film embedded with religious propaganda. I’ll remark on both, but my focus will be on the propaganda, and what this film tells us about how Christians think. And why how they think, is flawed. Indeed, flawed to the point of guaranteeing they will trap themselves in delusion.
Some of you might not know I was a guest on Lee Strobel’s national TV show Faith Under Fire quite some years ago (on the now-defunct PAX channel). We actually recorded several shows, but only one aired: my brief television debate on the resurrection with William Lane Craig. Strobel was a good and fair host; and the show that aired was edited in a balanced and admirable way (since they only used about half the footage we shot, they could have edited it unfairly, as later happened when the same footage was reused in a fundamentalist DVD home study kit). It’s fitting to remember that, because the movie is about the same thing.
Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ, is now a leading classic in Christian apologetics, almost replacing C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and more mainstream than Josh McDowell’s popular fundamentalist tome, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Those three together, are the books Christians most commonly hand their friends and relatives in the hope they’ll see the light of Jesus. They are also the books that contain most of the arguments and assertions you will commonly hear from your Christian friends and relatives in defense of their creed.
The movie is the story of how that book came to exist. The legend is, Lee Strobel was a die-hard atheist, but then his wife Leslie converted to Christianity, so he applied his journalistic skills to try and debunk Christianity (actually, only one claim in it: that Jesus was raised from the dead), and by failing despite every effort, he saw the light of Jesus, and became a Christian, and his kids went on to be theologians and evangelists, and everyone lived happily ever after. As millionaires (they skip that part). The concluding scenes show him offering an article series on his investigation of Jesus, which his newspaper rejects, so his wife suggests he publish it as a book. And voila.
Note for the rest of this review, there will be spoilers. And I’ve split it into aesthetics (what’s good and bad about the movie, as a movie) and facts (the actual propaganda in the film). So you can skip to the latter if you want. Although the former has a bearing on it. So you might want to read through.
Is It a Good Movie?
Pretty much, yeah. It’s a far better film than either of the God’s Not Deads (see my review of the “Jesus existed” propaganda in GND 2, including Lee Strobel’s), or Risen (you can read the summary and listen to my Wired Magazine podcast review of that stinker, with Dan Barker), or any other Christian propaganda film I’ve seen. It scores well on every production value (direction, editing, lighting, acting, writing, score, and beyond). The lead (Mike Vogel) even carries off a superb impression of Lee Strobel, right down to voice and cadence (they don’t look terribly alike, but that’s irrelevant to the story). I’d only ding it for the writing, not because it’s bad (it’s a decently done melodrama), but because it’s shallow. By which I mean, there is not a lot that’s deep in this movie, nothing profound, and it often lacks the kind of writing, the depth of story or character development, that you would like to call good.
It is an okay dramatization of real phenomena. Married couples, one of whom becomes Christian while the other stays an atheist, and the conflicts and tribulations that ensue. Not badly done. Just not well done (at least in the cut I saw; more on that below). Then also, someone immersing themselves in apologetics and becoming convinced Jesus is real (the only atypical feature of which is that hardly anyone actually flies around the country interviewing people—I’m slightly doubtful Strobel even did, since a telephone is so vastly cheaper). Though some of the supporting characters in that process are not played well (occasionally it felt like an after school special). And there is a neat side-story about how Strobel’s mainstream reporting got an innocent man convicted of a crime (and his proving that later helping that guy out in the end, sort of). But the core character performances, the story development, all those aspects are well done.
What’s missing are some things that a better written biopic could not have avoided exploring. Possibly this is because they cut things for time. Strobel himself has given better accounts of his story in interviews, and some pre-release discussions of the movie reference scenes that weren’t in the cut I saw (such as depictions of Lee’s alcoholism, and his falling out with his father as a teen).
For example, Strobel is shown estranged from his parents, but it’s never actually explained why. Vague mentions of his father being distant, for example, are not adequate—you don’t hate your dad as vehemently as Strobel is shown, merely because he’s distant. The tension between them is thus badly written (or badly cut). It’s wholly unexplained. The more so why his issues with his father had anything to do with tanking his relationship with his mother, to the point of literally (and I kid you not) not even telling his mom his baby was born (“let them read it in the newspaper” is more or less what he says on screen). That’s some cold shit. Why? A good movie would tell you.
Another example is that there is something hugely missing in the portrayal of the couple’s tensions over their religious differences: the whole movie makes it out as if the only thing between them was whether she felt Jesus (or supported a church), and Strobel is portrayed as seeing that as his wife completely changing into a different person. But that’s doubly unrealistic. To begin with, it’s not well written. Strobel’s wife (Leslie, well played by Erika Christensen) never acts notably differently before or after her conversion, no changes in her person are shown (nor any discussion of Lee’s fears about how she might change, which is how he tells it in interviews), so why does he “not recognize” her anymore?
Even more importantly, if a couple diverges religiously, the first thing they are going to check in on with each other is whether that affects their social, political, and moral beliefs. In other words, is it actually changing anything about them as a person. Usually, when they do, and find they still agree on those things, the tensions are largely relieved (and this is how Strobel, outside the movie, recounts what actually happened). It’s when they start diverging even on those things that they start heading for divorce. None of this aspect of what must have occurred in their relationship is portrayed in the film. And that leaves Strobel’s character far too undermotivated for the script to make sense.
Strobel is nevertheless portrayed quite uniformly as a total dick to his wife. Until he converts, of course. “Jesus will fix you” being the naive message there I guess, an old pseudoscientific trope popular in Christianity even from its very first centuries (see the example of it I quote from Lactantius in Science Education in the Early Roman Empire, pp. 161-63, which I show even then scientists knew was not how people work). Strobel is petty, rude, sexist, controlling, and irrationally jealous—literally pouting over the wedding metaphors at his wife’s baptism, he literally accuses her of cheating on him with Jesus. This jealousy theme comes up several times, and appears to be the central motivation of the character leading him to despise her religion (other than some additional pseudoscience about his relationship with his father, which I’ll get to in the propaganda section). That’s not implausible (plenty of men are like that), but it is childish, and no one ever calls him on it. And why he’s like that is never explored; nor why he would change. It is literally impossible that merely converting to Christianity would alter his fundamental personality traits. But that’s how Christians think brains work, I guess. So it’s how the script got written. That’s not good writing.
Similarly, never once do we hear an argument for why Strobel is an atheist that makes any sense. He just keeps repeating the naive trope that he only believes what he can see, but that isn’t a realistic portrayal of atheism. Most atheists are not that stupid (knowing full well we believe lots of things we don’t literally see), and have much more challenging reasons for their lack of faith than that (see my discussions in my review of Rauser and my Christmas reply to Craig; and of course the next section here). In the same vein, though in the movie ‘atheist’ Strobel complains that the Christians he keeps talking to “talk in circles,” “fill in gaps,” and “don’t offer enough evidence,” the movie never shows the audience any examples of any Christian doing any of those things. In reality, they do them all the time. The audience is never given an example.
The script does one good thing, though. It cleverly shows and even references a sign posted at his newsroom that jokingly reads, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” A great line capturing the principle of skepticism and fact-checking that is central to honest journalism. And I couldn’t tell if it was intentional or accidental, but the one deep thing in the script (as it wasn’t exposited, so you had to notice on your own) is that it ended up showing what that actually looks like in practice: how, indeed, do we verify that someone loves us (and how, as often we must, do we verify someone doesn’t, despite their claiming so). The movie centered around his apparently not believing his dad really loves him. And in the final act, after his dad dies, he actually finds empirical evidence that his dad loved him—in a scene straight out of Inception, which is ironic because in Inception the evidence proving the character’s estranged father really loved him, was a forgery!
Take note of that for later…because forged evidence is kind of a thing in Christianity.
There are other features of the script that look like attempts at poignance that end up being a little eye-rollingly trite, like the fact that he finds out his dad has died literally right after talking to a doctor about the death of Jesus. And adding to the subtle “prove your mother’s love” storyline, there is another metaphor built into the film that’s supposed to tell us something about the interplay of feelings and evidence: the role of the innocent man Strobel gets convicted with his careless reporting. But that I must discuss in connection with the propaganda in the film.
What about That Propaganda?
I won’t query the personal accuracy of anything in the film.
There have been questions raised in the past about the honesty of Strobel’s account of his atheism and how the book came about. He never published anything as an atheist (so he probably wasn’t much of an informed atheist). And claiming to have been an atheist before “seeing the light” is a common evangelical trope. Also, the book was published in 1998. His conversion was in 1981. A rather long time to be writing that book on his wife’s suggestion; by the time the book even came out he had been a pastor at her church for over a decade, and had already written three other books promoting Christianity. Moreover, Strobel himself has said in interviews that the movie is only about 80% accurate, as some characters are composites, some events that happened after 1980 are represented as happening before 1980, things like that, though that’s typical for cinema biopics. Although several key plot points in the film are false. It wasn’t the nurse who saved their daughter’s life who converted Strobel’s wife, nor even that incident that did, but a long process of evangelism by her neighbor and best friend. And Strobel did not discover the evidence that exonerated James Hicks (whose real name was James Dixon), and almost everything else the movie shows in the film about Strobel’s involvement in that case isn’t how it happened (indeed, Dixon was exonerated several years before Strobel began his Jesus investigation in 1980). So I’d take the movie more as fiction than fact.
What matters to me is that the film is representing certain things as having happened and as being a valid way to come to Christ. That would be relevant even if it were entirely fiction. As history, this is the version of events Strobel wants you to believe was effective in bringing him (or anyone, as the nonbelieving viewer is meant to see themselves in him) to Jesus. And in that respect, it’s an argument we can analyze. In fact it’s the most subtle and deeply-integrated element of propaganda in the film. More overt components of that propaganda are the “facts” he is presented as discovering, researching, and confirming in his investigation of Jesus’s resurrection. But even that is so well integrated into the movie it flows well and isn’t something alien forced into the story. It’s a fluid component of it (making this much better than most Evangelical cinema). But those “facts” are still the more obvious thing critics look at when reviewing the film. For example, there is already a good review of the way those facts are presented, by Brent Landau, who teaches Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, in an article that made the pages of Raw Story.
The one central key to unlocking every propaganda film like this, is to remember one fact: all apologetics is about hiding evidence.
So don’t just look for what they are showing you. Look for what they are not showing you. What are they leaving out? And how does putting that back in affect their argument? (See, for example, my article on Bayesian Counter-Apologetics.) All that in mind, my analysis will treat the film as its own gospel—so even if in the real world things happened differently, I might pretend I don’t know that. And then I will focus on two things depicted in the film: claims to fact; and methods.
Oh, Is That How Journalists Do It?
Critics have long noted the Case for Christ book is sham journalism. The movie repeats the same sham. It uses movie tropes to make it seem like Strobel is doing a real journalistic investigation (like traveling to get interviews, making phonecalls, reading books, tying strings on a board linking little photographs or pieces of paper with notes on them). But actually what he does in the film would be rated so incompetent by any actual school of journalism they’d boot him from their degree program.
Strobel says in the film that he interviewed “a dozen historians, philosophers, archaeologists” in his supposedly hard-nosed and critical investigation of the resurrection of Jesus. But not a single one of the people he interviewed was actually a skeptic, or critic of any kind. They all spew fundamentalist apologetics. In fact, all but one of them is a fundamentalist apologist. And even the sole expert he interviews who is claimed to be an agnostic in the movie, just mouths fundamentalist propaganda at him.
That exception is Purdue professor of psychiatry, Roberta Waters, who is identified as an agnostic in the film, but she does not exist in his book, and I haven’t been able to identify her with any actual living person. So did they make her up for the movie? The advice she gives him is bogus, calling into question her credentials even if she was real. For example, she feeds him the pseudoscience of Catholic psychologist Paul Vitz that atheists are only atheists because they hate their fathers (derived in turn from the hack apologetics of the amateur fundamentalist John Koster). No scientific study has verified any such nonsense, nor would any actual professor of psychology say so—the existence of vast numbers of counter-examples alone disproves the thesis, and cherry-picking is a known invalidating method even in a troubled field like psychology. A real psychologist would know those things. Especially an agnostic one. Moreover, Vitz didn’t publish Faith of the Fatherless (which contains no scientific evidence of his thesis) until 1999; and Koster didn’t publish The Atheist Syndrome (likewise devoid of any science) until 1989. Their bogus theory did not even exist in 1980 for any professor to push at Strobel then. So this whole scene looks like 100% fiction, which means in this case, 100% propaganda. A real journalist would have found that out. By talking to another psychologist. Maybe one who actually existed.
Journalists are supposed to do at least two things in cases like this: tell their readers the biases of each source; and get and report a contrary expert view, if any mainstream example is available. That’s a basic part of fact-checking a source, and making sure to give a balanced report of both sides. Yet Strobel only talks to Christian apologists (and a possibly fictional agnostic who only spouts Christian apologetics). And he never fact-checks anything they ever tell him—as a real reporter would. Thus, the “reporting” that’s done in the film, as in the book, is fake. It’s sham journalism, dressed up to look like journalism, to trick you into thinking he actually did what professional journalists do. He didn’t. What he did was just cull propaganda to repeat in his book.
An infamous example of this, in the book but not the film, is Strobel’s so easily being duped by John McCray’s false claim that Jerry Vardaman archaeologically proved the Gospels didn’t contradict each other on the year of Jesus’s birth (see Hitler Homer Bible Christ, pp. 155-66). This is significant. Only someone already sold on Christianity would believe such an astonishing thing. Real journalists would check it out. And that fact-check would discover Vardaman was a nutcase, and his claims utterly bogus. Which would then reveal John McCray to be a wholly unreliable source. Because a real archaeologist would know Vardaman’s claims were bogus. See what happens when you apply a sound method to research? And what happens when, like Strobel, you don’t?
An instructive analogy exists even in the movie itself. Strobel’s journalistic incompetence is on display in the side-story, where his shoddy methods get an innocent man (Hicks, i.e. Dixon) convicted of a crime—and eventually nearly killed in prison (which I’m not sure really happened; it’s never mentioned in Strobel’s subsequent reporting on the case). When the movie-Strobel visits the movie-Hicks in the hospital, Hicks chastises him. Strobel tells him (in the hospital), “I missed the evidence,” “I didn’t see it,” and Hicks says, “You didn’t want to see it.”
Indeed. Consider what the movie depicted. Strobel gets a key piece of information from a single source (journalistic ethics usually require you to get two sources, which have to be independent of each other). That source had an obvious bias that tainted the reliability of their information, and Strobel not only knows that, his movie character is depicted manipulating that source’s bias to get him to tell Strobel what he wanted to hear! This is among the most unethical, irresponsible, and unreliable method of journalism I’ve ever seen (short of literally just making shit up). And yet, it’s exactly what he does in the entire Jesus investigation!
That’s right. Lee Strobel makes the same mistake repeatedly in his investigation of the resurrection. The writers didn’t notice this. Because it tells exactly against the point they wanted to make, which is that Strobel “didn’t want to see” the evidence of the resurrection in the same way he “didn’t want to see” the evidence of Hicks’s innocence. But though this is supposed to mean he learned his lesson in the Hicks case (do better journalism: get more than one source, and seek unbiased or critical sources), he instead unlearns it, and accepts all the bad journalism he just did on the resurrection, where he committed all the same errors as he did with Hicks: he never gets more than one source for a fact or claim, he never seeks unbiased sources, he never seeks critical comment from a disagreeing expert source, he never considers the strongest alternative theories but only the weakest, and he just believes whatever his biased sources say without questioning it or checking it against actual primary evidence. And he never looks for what they are concealing from him.
So his methods don’t work. He found Jesus, using the exact same doomed method that got him wrong on Hicks.
No One Dies for a Lie? Wait, Who Died for a Lie?
Of course Strobel is persuaded it’s all about the resurrection (it’s not, but whatever). He is told to start with Gary Habermas, who is (ahistorically) portrayed as saying he came to Christianity after his wife died, because it comforted him to know he’d be reunited with her. Which is a curious fiction. As it establishes a motive to maintain a false belief. Which is never explored in the film. The real Habermas is of course a notorious liar. His methods are a con game. He’s the kind of source real journalistic standards were invented to defend us against.
Of course Habermas tries to sell Strobel on the tired apologetic line that “no one dies for a lie.” Surely not, “if they knew it was a hoax,” we hear said. This is a classic straw man. And as such, another lie. It’s one thing to ask how likely it is the resurrection appearance claims were a hoax. It’s altogether another to ask how likely it is they were like every other divine appearance experience in the whole history of all religions since the dawn of time: a mystical inner vision. Just as Paul tells us. Our only eyewitness source. Of course, a case can be made for the apostles dying even for a hoax: all they needed was to believe that the teachings attached to their fabricated claim would make the world a better place, and that making the world a better place was worth dying for. Even godless Marxists voluntarily died by the millions for such a motive. So the notion that no one would, is simply false.
Which gets us to the lying by omission that defines all Christian apologetics. Here is what you aren’t told in the movie:
First, we have hardly any evidence any witness ever died for their belief, and no evidence at all regarding what belief they died for. No accounts come down to us, no records, from anyone who was there or knew anyone who was. 1 Clement is the only contemporary source we have for any such deaths (and that only of Peter and Paul), and he says nothing as to what exactly they were killed for. Second, Paul is the only eyewitness we have accounts from. And he attests to no empty tomb. He never mentions there ever being one, or anyone ever having found one. And he attests no earthly resurrection experience. Paul says apostles saw Jesus “inside” themselves (Gal. 1:16), in “revelations,” visions, not, he specifically says, “with flesh and blood” as depicted in the Gospels (Gal. 1:11-12). And his experience was the same as everyone else’s, excepting only in being last in order (1 Cor. 15:3-8; 1 Cor. 9:1; see OHJ, Ch. 11.4).
Insofar as any witnesses died for anything at all, this is what they died for: claiming to have had an inner spiritual experience of Jesus; not anything depicted in the Gospels. Which requires no miracle. Nor any hoax.
The 500 Witnesses
Habermas also feeds Strobel the “500 eyewitnesses” line. This is from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which he says (according to our surviving manuscripts), that after his death Jesus “appeared to more than five hundred brethren at the same time” (1 Cor. 15:6). This becomes the most repeated fact in the film, complete with a note on his research board near the end that reads, “mass hallucination a bigger miracle than resurrection.” But concealed from the audience is the fact that we don’t have an account from any of them as to what they saw or even claimed to have seen. The audience is duped into thinking they saw what the Gospels say, but the Gospels don’t even know about any appearance to “500 brethren” (the author of Acts 1:15-16 says there were only 120 brethren altogether, and that’s already certain to be a legendary exaggeration); and Paul doesn’t know anything about the absurd accounts in the Gospels.
So the audience is lied to, right out of the gate, with the very first and most central “fact” in the film.
Notably, Paul’s text is probably corrupt (I’ll say more later on why we know there are hundreds of such corruptions in the manuscripts; the film lies to the audience about that, too). More likely Paul originally said “all the brethren at Pentecost” and not “above five hundred brethren.” The words for “five hundred” and “Pentecost” are nearly identical, as are the words for “all” and “above.” And Paul alludes to the resurrection of Jesus in terms that reference the Pentecost later in the same chapter. Moreover, Luke used Paul’s letters as a source, yet never shows any knowledge of such a mass appearance…except the very Pentecost event in Acts 2:1-4, there described as an amorphous vision of seeing auras and interpreting that as the visiting spirit of Jesus (see The Empty Tomb, p. 192). Which agrees with Acts’ portrayal of Jesus’s appearance to Paul as, again, an amorphous light (Acts 9). Not what’s portrayed in the Gospels.
Either way, these “500” witnesses are not said by anyone (not Paul, not even the Gospels) to have seen (much less touched or dined with) a flesh-and-blood Jesus. And this is a crucial fact the audience (and the movie-Strobel) is never told. Nor are they told that this is the only appearance Paul says occurred to more than one person simultaneously (he uses the word for that only here), and that his description means a singular, brief experience—not Jesus hanging around and dining with them for days (as the author we call Luke implausibly describes in Acts 1, in contradiction to every other Gospel—including, ironically, his own). So when we peel back the layers of myth and legend, and get back to our earliest sources, what we see is an amorphous visionary experience.
This is where the (fictional?) psychiatrist Roberta Waters comes in, to give Strobel both the “you can’t mass hallucinate” and the “you are an atheist because you hate your father” pseudoscience. Actual scientists who actually study hallucination would not say what she does in the film. They would tell Strobel all about mass hallucination events and what they are like and the science of them (see On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 124-37). And indeed they are often exactly like we just found: an interpretation of hallucinated light phenomena. Mass hallucination, often studied as mass ecstasy, can also take other forms (Phillip Wiebe in Visions of Jesus, pp. 77-82).
But this is more of the “hiding evidence from the audience” shell game. Because what’s implied is that Strobel is asking about the Gospel narratives, in which there is never any appearance to “five hundred witnesses” at all; and the appearance stories in the Gospels contradict what Paul implies the witnesses most likely “saw,” which was an inner vision they took to be Jesus communicating with them from heaven (as I just showed), not a guy walking up to them in a body they got to touch. If you ask the right question (can what Paul says be experienced in a mass religious ecstasy?), any honest psychologist will tell you yes. Thus, the audience is shown the weak argument debunked, and are kept from ever hearing the strong argument. Apologetics, once again, is the art of lying by concealing.
Even a mass hallucination of a walking-touching Jesus is possible, once you allow the Gospels are embellishing what even they admit was often an experience of meeting some other person who didn’t look like Jesus but whom the believers took to be Jesus (see Luke 24:15-16; John 20:14 and John 21:4-7; and Matthew 28:17). The psychology of a mass of fanatics convincing each other that something like that just happened is well understood. Notably, apart from hallucination (and only the most implausible version), Strobel only considers in the film the “swoon” theory, that the disciples saw an actual Jesus who didn’t really die. Strobel never considers or even mentions the theory actually presented in the Gospels themselves: that the man they saw and assumed was Jesus, was never even Jesus. Thus, the audience is shown the weak argument debunked, and are kept from ever hearing the strong argument. Once again, the art of lying.
If Strobel had researched this claim like a real journalist, he would have found several expert historians and psychologists telling him that in fact a mass hallucination of an ambiguous or amorphous kind is not only totally plausible, it actually better fits and better explains the evidence we have. As long as you don’t treat that evidence like a gullible fool and believe every single word in a holy text is literally true, as if lies and legends and mythologizing never occur.
I’ll just add before moving on, that in the film, Strobel also flies across the country to consult a medical doctor on the improbability of Jesus surviving a crucifixion (so as to rule out his appearing to hundreds of witnesses that way). We know that doctor from the book: yet another Christian fundamentalist, Alexander Metherell. And in a more direct “apologetics is all about lying” fashion, nearly everything Metherell says to Strobel in the film is not true. Nevertheless, I think the survival hypothesis, though still far more likely than sky-ghost magic, is among the least likely of every naturalist hypothesis there is, and wholly unnecessary. It’s just a straw man. The favorite kind of man in Christian apologetics.
The Nine Ancient Sources
Habermas also tells Strobel there are “nine ancient sources” confirming encounters with Jesus after his death. That’s pretty much a lie. Because Habermas is a liar. And it’s like most other lies in slick apologetics: it’s only true, if interpreted in such a way as to be evidentially meaningless. Habermas lists what he means in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (pp. 51-55), and he includes among those “nine” the “four” Gospels, which are not independent sources, are written a lifetime later, and at best contain legends recorded by unknown authors using unknown sources, telling wild tales that contradict information in our only eyewitness source, Paul. Habermas also includes among those “nine” sources some hearsay reported by Irenaeus about Polycarp, a bishop he met over a hundred years later. That Irenaeus gullibly believed some wild tales Polycarp told him, which are wholly uncorroborated and not very plausible, about things that occurred several lifetimes earlier, is not exactly what anyone would call a usable source. No journalist would ever trust a source like that.
But this is moot, since these nine sources all contradict each other regarding what exactly the first apostles saw. And that should be the focus of Strobel’s investigation. But he avoids the subject entirely. As we just noted, Paul seems to have no knowledge of anything but inner, felt experiences of seeing Jesus, mere revelations, not the absurdities told in the later Gospels. And I do mean later Gospels. Mark never describes any resurrection appearance; we only get those urban legends fifty to a hundred years after the fact. Compare this with other urban legends, from Roswell’s flying saucer, or John Frum or Ned Ludd, to Joseph Smith’s conversations with angels and digging up of ancient golden tablets (see index of On the Historicity of Jesus for most of those). The later Gospels are actually decades later than when those myths appeared: Frum and Ludd and the Roswell “intact spaceship” legend, less than 40 years after the fact; and Smith’s tall tales were fabricated and “corroborated” by multiple eyewitnesses in a matter of mere years. Matthew was written at least 50 years after the fact; Luke at least 60; John at least 70.
When we look at our only eyewitness source (Paul), we get amorphous inner visions. Not what is claimed in the later Gospels. Or anywhere after that. Those wild tales appear only lifetimes later. In unsourced, anonymous religious tracts.
Those Ever So Reliable Manuscripts
Part of Strobel’s investigation is to make sure that we have reliable documentation. “Are the manuscripts reliable” is written on his research board. In the film he speaks to an ex-archaeologist, now priest, Father Jose Maria Marquez. I don’t know why. No such person is interviewed in the book, on this subject or any other. I’m not even sure he’s a real person. But regardless, he is introduced to gawk at the Shroud of Turn (a bogus hoax) and push the “reliability of the manuscripts” argument. And immediately he scams Strobel and the audience by claiming the number of manuscripts is so large, and some are so close to the originals, that we can conclude they are totally reliable. This is a massively dishonest argument (see Three Things to Know about New Testament Manuscripts).
Had Strobel gone to an unbiased source who was actually an expert in ancient manuscripts, they would have told him about all the evidence Marquez hid from him. And how bringing that evidence back in, reverses the conclusion. Remember when I said all Christian apologetics is about hiding evidence? Here’s a perfect example.
Marquez tricks Strobel and the audience into thinking the “5,843” manuscripts he says there are, are early. In fact, almost all of them date over a thousand years late. Very few of them date within 250 years of the originals (and that’s already longer than the entire history of the United States). And almost all of those are mere tiny fragments, of just a few words or sentences. He also tricks the audience by showing such a scrap from John that dates, he says, within decades of the original—not mentioning that “decades” might mean as much as a hundred years, or that “John” was already written seventy to a hundred years after the fact, and just rewrites earlier Gospels, contradicts them shamelessly, and fabricates a source for the changes. In other words, this is unreliable.
Worse, Marquez conceals from Strobel and the audience the hundreds of demonstrated interpolations and errors across the manuscripts he mentions. And he doesn’t mention that all our manuscripts, even the earliest ones, come so late that there must be dozens more interpolations and errors that we will have no evidence of (because that evidence died out in the first hundred years of transmission). In other words, when asked about the reliability of the manuscripts, Marquez conceals from Strobel all the evidence of the unreliability of those manuscripts, and instead dazzles him with some irrelevantly large numbers. But unreliable manuscripts awash with errors and interpolations don’t suddenly become reliable when you have five thousand of them. Or even five million.
Even worse, Marquez conceals from Strobel and the audience the fact that most of the New Testament consists of forgeries. The Gospels themselves contain forged material (such as the second ending of John, and the long ending of Mark, on which see Chapter 16 in Hitler Homer Bible Christ). Even the “authentic” Epistles have been doctored and edited (see OHJ, pp. 510, 566-69, 580, 582-83; and HHBC, Chapter 14). And the remaining Epistles are wholesale fabrications.
Having five thousand copies of a forgery, five thousand copies of a doctored text, five thousand copies containing interpolations and errors introduced before the earliest surviving copy was made, is useless. It does absolutely nothing to restore the reliability of the manuscripts. And not telling the audience that, is telling a lie.
The Empty Tomb
At one point William Lane Craig phones Strobel from Jerusalem (nice touch!) and tries to sell him on the empty tomb. This is prompted by Strobel asking how do we know Jesus was really buried—repeating J.D. Crossan’s argument that Jesus must actually have been left to rot on the cross and thrown into a mass pit as a grubby gross corpse, because that was so commonly done everywhere else. This question is already a straw man, because J.D. Crossan’s argument is among the stupidest in counter-apologetics, completely ignorant of the political and legal situation in Judea at the time, which made it specifically unlike everywhere else in exactly this one detail. (See my chapter on the burial in The Empty Tomb.)
So Craig gets to bat that down easily. For some reason Strobel never asks what a real journalist would ask: which is why Paul shows no knowledge of anyone ever finding a tomb empty, why Mark says the only people who ever saw one never told anyone, and none of the authorities in the entire history of the church in Acts ever notices one (see “The Legend of the Empty Tomb” in TET, pp. 155-97; and OHJ, Chapter 9.2). It sure looks like a later invented legend: the first source to ever mention it, says no one knew of it; and every source after that, just copies that source, and adds ridiculous things to it (like rock-shattering earthquakes and flying death monsters from outer space). Once again, we are kept from knowing all the facts, facts that call the very thing into question.
Women as Witnesses
It’s here that we get William Lane Craig lying to Strobel that “according to Jewish custom” women were “unreliable witnesses” and therefore no one would invent women discovering the empty tomb. In fact there was no such Jewish custom. That’s a lie. Women witnesses were widely regarded as equally reliable as men, even in courts of law, and especially outside court. Josephus, the famed Jewish historian himself, cites women as his only sources for what happened at Gamala and Masada, without embarrassment—and many modern historians strongly suspect he made those witnesses up, and those stories. So Jews were not averse to inventing female witnesses. Nor would Christians have been, since the gospel taught them that the least shall be first, the very reason to invent a tale of women being the first to learn Jesus was risen.
I discuss all the evidence regarding women witnesses and the entirely plausible reasons to invent them in Chapter 11 of Not the Impossible Faith. But what this movie doesn’t tell you is that all the Gospels borrowed the idea of women finding the tomb from Mark. And Mark did not invent those women as witnesses to the empty tomb; he specifically says the women never told anyone about it, the exact opposite of citing them as his source. He instead invents them to make a point about the gospel. And even insofar as it offended anyone that the men don’t find the tomb empty, Luke fixes this by completely contradicting Mark: Luke has the women report it (directly contradicting Mark), and then invents men visiting the tomb and reporting it, so as to remove all doubt. John then borrows the same idea from Luke, and fabricates an even more fantastical account of it. Embellishing a story to make it sound more believable or desirable is a typical sign of fiction and legendary development, common to many urban legends.
The movie-Strobel only brings up the problem of contradictions in the context of the empty tomb accounts. He says “I’d be out of a job,” if his stories were so contradictory. William Lane Craig (still on the phone) answers that they only contradict each other in secondary details, which is common in multiple eyewitness testimony. This is another example of lying with the truth. It’s true secondary details will vary in multiple eyewitness testimony. But the Gospels are not written by eyewitnesses, and name no eyewitness sources. Moreover, they do not contradict each other merely in “secondary” details. So again, by leaving evidence out, Strobel and the audience are conned into thinking his concern has been addressed.
Strobel is complicit in the con. Because, unlike almost any real atheist imaginable, the only example of contradictions he mentions are the number and names of the women who visited the tomb, the least significant contradiction to point to. This is how apologists lie to you: they ignore all the real, serious arguments (the much larger contradictions) and only pick the weakest one, debunk it, and claim they’ve won. This just hides the truth from you. Just another way of lying.
In actual fact, the empty tomb stories contradict each other in primary details, and indeed so egregiously as to render Craig’s response ridiculous. As I’ve done before, I’ll quote just what I’ve said on this point in The Christian Delusion (p. 295, in my most concisely thorough debunking of resurrection belief in print):
[In Mark and Matthew, discovering the empty tomb is] basically the same story. Except in Matthew the young man sitting inside the tomb has become an angel descending from heaven, causing an earthquake and paralyzing some guards that Mark has no idea were ever there. Now imagine you’re a police officer who arrives at the scene of a bank robbery and finds an empty vault and two tellers. One says they went to get some money and found the vault empty and no one was there except a young man inside in a white suit—who has since mysteriously vanished, but at the time said “Don’t worry! We took it for a good cause!” Already a suspicious story. But then the other employee says when they went to the vault, a robot with a jet-pack descended from the sky, paralyzed two United States marines who were guarding that vault for some reason, then singlehandedly tore it open, revealing that somehow (as if by magic) it was already empty, and then this flying robot sat on top of the vault door and said “Don’t worry! We took it for a good cause!” Now be honest. Would you ever believe the second witness? I doubt you’d have much confidence even in the first one’s already very odd story, much less the second’s wild tale. And yet when it comes to Jesus, we don’t get to interview any witnesses like this. We just get to hear what some unknown guy decades later said someone else saw, with no idea how he even knows that, or who told him (or why we should believe them).
That scene with Craig also tricks the audience into thinking the Gospels are four independent eyewitness testimonies.
Several other scenes reinforce that, such as when Strobel says we have “accounts of actual eyewitnesses,” “some of whom” even ended up “dying for their beliefs.” In fact none of the Gospels are written by eyewitnesses. We have no eyewitness narratives of the empty tomb or appearances of Jesus. We also have no evidence any author of any Gospel died for their belief. And none of the Gospels are independent of each other: Matthew copies Mark verbatim, and embellishes with things Mark never heard of and that are often ridiculous or even contradict Mark’s account in fundamental ways; Luke copies Mark and Matthew verbatim, and embellishes with things neither of them ever heard of and that are often also ridiculous or contradict their accounts in fundamental ways (e.g. the Nativity Accounts between Matthew and Luke contradict each other on nearly every primary detail, and even put the birth date of Jesus ten years apart); and John rewrites Mark and Luke in his own words and embellishes yet again with yet more implausibilities and deliberately contradicts them in several primary details (see On the Historicity of Jesus, Chapter 10.7).
And as I’ve said, none of the Gospels ever name any eyewitness as a source, either. Apologists will lie to you and claim Luke said he did, but he didn’t. Luke said he used as sources prior written Gospels—but does not name or identify them. We know he meant Mark and Matthew, or another written source used by Matthew (see Not the Impossible Faith, Chapter 7), only because he copies from them verbatim. And John outright fabricates a witness, but in our current text never names them, and we can be certain they never existed (On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 500-05).
So the movie lies to you yet again, by keeping from you important facts, such as that the Gospels literally copied each other (not what an eyewitness does…at least not an honest one: verbatim copying of one witness’s account by another is universally regarded as evidence of lying), and that none of them were written by an eyewitness, or indeed any known person, or anywhere near to the time of the events they allege to report (all of them date a lifetime later than those events), or even in the language any of the eyewitnesses would have spoken, had there even been any. They also don’t name any sources (eyewitness or otherwise), and they don’t discuss or apply any critical method in using those sources. They also contain those fundamental contradictions on primary details, and are filled with ridiculous and improbable tales.
This is literally the worst evidence you can ever have for a thing.
Once again, put the evidence back in, and what the apologist is telling you, reverses into exactly the opposite conclusion. This is how we can tell Strobel was not applying any actual journalistic standard to his investigation. What he was doing was 100% apologetics. Which means, 100% lying.
The Logic of Blood Magic?
Finally Strobel asks “why” Jesus would submit to death, and the answer he gets is, “love.” But the movie never explains how that makes sense. The atonement magic of Christianity is illogical (see Chapter 7 of The End of Christianity). Human sacrifice has no logical connection with fixing criminal pathology. And substitutionary sacrifice cannot be justified by any sound principle of justice, even for us mortals, much less omnipotent gods, who, by virtue of being able to do anything, don’t ever have to do that. No form of justice, even retributive, can operate by substitution. If it could, we’d allow volunteers to do the prison time of actual offenders. But in fact the very logic of atonement magic is prehistorically naive. We have long since matured into realizing justice is about restitution to victims, prevention of harms, and rehabilitation of the harmer. Retributive justice is morally unjustifiable, even barbaric. Indeed, it’s immature and childish. And that means, so is Christianity.
The Logic of Conversion
The last thing I’ll discuss is how the movie portrays conversion, being itself an argument for converting—both explicitly (it’s what eventually persuades the main character to convert) and implicitly (it’s the process the audience is supposed to identify with and be moved by, whether believer or not).
As portrayed in the film, Strobel’s wife Leslie’s conversion is entirely irrational. It’s based on literally just two things:
- an ordinary coincidence that saves her daughter’s life
- and how she feels in church
The coincidence of a nurse deciding to change restaurants for a meal, and thus being there to save their daughter from choking to death, is such an appallingly bad reason to convert to any religion, that I just have to ask you to listen to Tim Michin’s brutally honest song on the point.
The atheist movie-Strobel uses the “just a coincidence” argument against it, but that’s a hypothesis, not an argument for the hypothesis. The argument any actual atheist would use is that as that nurse was saving their kid from choking to death, um, dude…someone else’s kid choked to death. Three a week, in fact. Every year. That’s thousands of dead kids each and every decade. For decades and decades and decades. Where are their magic nurses? It cannot be claimed God sends nurses to save children from choking, when in fact he almost never does that. When you see almost all kids dying, not getting any lucky mind-changing nurse to save them, then you know: this one nurse changing her mind about where to go that night was in fact a coincidence. (See my article Everything You need to Know about Coincidences.)
This is the evidence they concealed from you in the movie: how rarely kids choking to death get saved by magic nurses.
Thus, they try to fool you into thinking it’s actually logical to conclude God sent that nurse to save their kid. Because, apparently, no one ever just happens to be in the right place at the right time. Oh no. That can only be caused by sky spirits. Except, we know for a fact, that it is statistically inevitable that people will randomly be in the right places at the right time. Just by random chance alone. Just as many are also inevitably, randomly, in the wrong places at the wrong time. So how do you know the incident you are looking at, is anything other than one of those inevitably hundreds of chance accidents? Well, you’d check, and see how many times those lucky coincidences fail to save choking children. A God who was marshaling nurses to save kids, would perform vastly better than random chance. But, alas, that’s not what you see in the data. There is a reason studies keep proving prayer doesn’t actually cure heart disease; some people just recover by chance accident. And most don’t. While some just spontaneously drop dead from a heart attack at 22. That’s exactly what we’d expect to see in a godless world. It’s not what we’d expect to see in Leslie’s world.
This is the fundamental difference between Christian delusion, and rational belief.
Likewise the “feelings” argument. Christians usually rant and rage against the liberal, pinko, postmodern idea that what you feel is true is the truth. But not when what you feel is true is Jesus. Then it’s a valid argument all of a sudden. The irrationality of this—knowing full well we can be mistaken in what we feel about the supernatural, and that in fact almost everyone is—is well explored by John Loftus in his highly-recommended book, The Outsider Test for Faith.
Again, when you put back in all the evidence these propagandists are leaving out—such as a Muslim “feeling” Allah’s commanding them to the hajj, a Buddhist “feeling” the oneness of existence, a Taoist “feeling” the mindlessness of the Creator, a pagan “feeling” the presence of Hermes, a Mormon “feeling” the Holy Spirit confirming their faith (among a great deal else), and on and on, varying across thousands of years and hundreds of variant religious cultures—the argument “I feel it, therefore it must be true” is proved false. Not the other way around.
We are inherently prone to convince ourselves to feel anything is true. Indeed, I used to talk to trees when I was a kid, and experienced an imaginary friend who was a humanoid cat from Saturn. Had my culture or best (actual) friends told me those were real, and I liked the church they took me to, I’d just as likely be a tree-talking alien-cat believer. And my feelings in the matter would be the most real feelings I’d ever had! Yet 100% irrelevant to the truth of any of it.
So giving Leslie the line, “My feelings are a valid experience; they’re real to me,” is certainly honest. It’s the folly that makes most Christians believers. And most Muslims believers. And most Buddhists believers. And most Mormons believers. And every other false god, spirit, and religion. Hence folly it is.
The Case for Christ the movie is quality propaganda. But still propaganda. It is one long well-filmed lie. Not a bad movie, if you excuse the so-so script, and don’t believe anything it tells you. Because when it comes to facts, it is pretty much a panoply of deceptions. Strobel’s journalistic methods in the film are so incompetent they are practically designed to trap him in a delusional false belief—or con the audience into one. Because while he is portrayed as questioning facts and claims throughout the film, he never once actually does that. He only talks to fanatics, apologists, the most biased and unreliable sources one can trust in the matter (just like his misplaced trust in police informants in the case of James Dixon), and he just instantly believes them. He never gets a second opinion—he never consults experts critical of the claims made by the fanatics he talks to—and he never fact-checks anything he is told. He just believes what they say—hook, line, and sinker.
And since apologetics is all about concealing evidence, Strobel’s character’s biggest mistake in the film is thinking that only what he is told is all there is to be told. Consequently, in the film, what we actually see is probably not what the writers intended. Lee Strobel is shown being conned into belief by a series of liars, because he never looks for, and thus never discovers, all the evidence his manipulators were concealing from him. Exactly like the dirty cops he trusted when he falsely reported the guilt of James Dixon. Yet neither Strobel, nor the screenwriters, nor his duped audience will ever notice they just made a mockery of themselves with their own story. Which is both sad and disturbing.