Lee Strobel, best-selling author of numerous books including The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith, was a committed atheist when his wife, Leslie, became a Christian in 1979. Rankled by this turn of events, Strobel, then legal editor at the Chicago Tribune, poured his legal training and journalistic skills into investigating the validity of Leslie’s newfound faith. He figured he could dismantle it in a weekend.
Twenty-one months later, Strobel laid down his yellow legal pad and surrendered his life to Jesus Christ. He spoke with Decision about how his Christian faith is bolstered both by the evidence and by three decades of walking with the Savior.
Q: In your latest book The Case for Grace, you detail some of your formative experiences that turned you toward atheism. Yet it was the truth of the resurrection of Jesus that turned your life upside down. Do you recall a moment in time when you knew in your gut that you had a decision to make?
A: Yes, Nov. 8, 1981. I had gone to church with Leslie that day. I can’t remember anything that was said, but I came home and I just felt like after a year and nine months of looking at the evidence from science and history, and especially the resurrection, that I needed to reach a verdict. As I wrote page after page of evidence on my yellow legal pad, I just put down my pen and said, “Wait a second, it’s going to take more faith to maintain my atheism than to become a Christian,” because the evidence, I believed, was that strong. So that’s when I concluded the resurrection was true. I read John 1:12, which says that “as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe on His name.” I didn’t just believe it, but I repented of my sin and received His free gift of forgiveness and eternal life, and became a child of God. And my life began to change.
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Q: Before your wife came to saving faith, how would you have assessed the claim that a Jewish carpenter/rabbi who was flogged and crucified by Roman soldiers rose from the dead after two nights in the grave and then appeared to His followers?
A: Well, I have skepticism woven into my DNA. My knee-jerk reaction to Christianity was that it was ridiculous and not worth checking out. The idea was absurd. As I studied more in the area of atheism, I became more cemented in that view. But when my wife became a Christian and I saw positive changes in her, I decided to use my legal and journalism background to investigate it. Like one of those clown punching bags, I felt like every time I would hit Christianity with an objection, it would bounce back up.
Q: For you, what are the most convincing proofs that point to the resurrection?
A: Well, first we have to look at the issue of whether Jesus claimed to be divine, which is clear and convincing. In Mark, the earliest Gospel, the most common way Jesus talks about Himself is as the Son of Man—a reference to Daniel 7, where you have a figure with exalted and divine characteristics, in the very presence of God. So this is, in a sense, a claim to deity.
The parable in Mark 12 of the landowner and the vineyard and the tenant farmers clearly talks about the beloved son and his special exalted status as the heir.
At the time of the crucifixion when He is asked, “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” He says, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One,” which is a reference to Psalm 110, “coming on the clouds of Heaven,” which is also Daniel 7. In John 10:30, He says that “I and the Father are one,” and the word there in Greek is not masculine, it’s neuter, which means He’s not saying “I and the Father are the same person.” He’s saying “I and the Father are the same thing.”
Q: Did His return from the dead back up His claim to deity?
A: I look at the four E’s of the resurrection: First, the execution. We have no record of anyone surviving a full Roman crucifixion. The evidence for the execution is so strong historically because not only do we have multiple sources in the New Testament, we have five ancient sources outside the New Testament that confirm and corroborate His execution.
Then, we have early accounts that He rose from the dead. Most people like me thought it was a legend that developed a long time later. And it generally took, according to A.N. Sherwin-White, the great Oxford scholar, at least two generations of time for legend to grow up in the ancient world and wipe out a solid core of historical truth.
But we have—and this was a key bit of evidence for me—1 Corinthians 15 starting in verse 3—a creed of the earliest church that says that Jesus died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, was buried and rose on the third day. Eminent scholar James D.G. Dunn says we can be entirely confident that this creed was formulated within months of Jesus’ death. So here we have something that goes right back to the beginning—too quickly to write it off merely as a legend.
Then we have the empty tomb. For me the most convincing piece is what the skeptics said. When the disciples began saying that Jesus had risen, what the skeptics never said was, “Baloney, go open the tomb and you’ll see the body.” That would have put the onus on the disciples to prove it. But they never said that. What they said was, “Oh, well, the disciples stole the body.” They’re implicitly conceding that the tomb is empty.
And then the eyewitnesses. We’re lucky in the ancient world if we have one or two sources to confirm a fact. But for the conviction of the disciples that they had encountered the resurrected Christ, we have no fewer than nine ancient sources from inside and outside the New Testament, confirming and corroborating His appearances. The resurrection really confirms His identity of being the Son of God.
Q: How does the certainty of the resurrection help buoy the believer in difficult times?
A: I think the evidence is important because it points us in the direction of Jesus being the Son of God, but if you ask me today why I believe, I don’t generally go back to the evidence, even though it’s there. It’s strong. It’s led me to that conviction. My belief today that Jesus is who He claimed to be is based on the fact that I’ve known Him now since Nov. 8, 1981. I have a personal relationship with Him. So it’s a both/and. I think the evidence is important, but our relationship with God ultimately is how we know it’s true. And the Bible says that the Holy Spirit whispers to us, confirming to us that we are a son or daughter of God.
Q: Your other books are more evidence based. Your latest one goes deeply into true stories of grace. What prompted you to go that direction?
A: Two things. I’ve written these previous books that look at the historical and scientific evidence for orthodox Christianity. They present some foundational facts. But another element is the experiential side. It’s an important part of the case because if God is real, you would expect that He would change lives. And so if that wasn’t true, we would have reason to doubt. But we see lives transformed, and I believe that is part of the case.
But by itself it’s not sufficient because if you just look at changed lives, Muslims claim changed lives and even atheists claim changed lives. Lots of different world religions claim changed lives. So it’s not enough by itself to make the case.
The other reason is it’s really my life’s message. Because God so radically transformed my values and character and morality and worldview when I came to faith in Him, and over time He has so fundamentally transformed my life, my mission in life has been to see other people change, too. I’m an evangelist, I want to see people come to faith. And I’m sort of an addict for stories of grace. My life message is that God will forgive you, He’ll adopt you and He’ll transform you. And this book is about the way in which He’ll forgive you and adopt you and transform you.
I want people to know that. That’s a message the world needs to hear. Fundamentally, grace is God’s favor toward sinners. It’s the unmerited and unearned gift of forgiveness and eternal life. That’s grace.
Q: You mention in the preface of The Case for Grace that “Christianity is unique” when compared to world religions, and “so is the grace Christ offers.” What is unique about these things?
A: That’s a good question. Christianity stands in sharp contrast because it is based on grace. Christ has paid the penalty for our sin, and He offers forgiveness and eternal life as a free gift that we can’t earn.
And what’s also different about Christianity is that it invites investigation. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:17 that, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile. You are still in your sins.” So he’s saying, “Look, if the resurrection is not an actual historical event, you should walk away from this.” That invites investigation.
That’s different. I don’t know if I want to say that’s unique about Christianity, but it’s different. Christianity is different because it invites investigation and it withstands historical and scientific scrutiny.
But certainly the grace aspect of Christianity is unique. C.S. Lewis once encountered a group of scholars having a debate in one of the rooms at Oxford, and he asked, “What are you guys talking about?” They said, “Well, we’re trying to figure out what’s unique about Christianity.” And he said, “Well, that’s easy. Grace.”
Q: To someone who would say, “I believe in rational things—science, evidence, etc. But you rely on faith,” what do you say?
A: We all have faith in one thing or the other. It’s either faith in our own intellectual capacity, faith in a person or faith in an institution or organization. I believe putting your faith in Christ is a step of faith, yes, but it’s a step in the same direction that the evidence of history and science are pointing. So if you picture a stream with a strong current, that’s the picture in my mind’s eye of how the evidence is flowing in a direction. Not everything—you have little tributaries that are hard to account for—but overwhelmingly the evidence is flowing in a direction. To maintain my atheism, I would have had to swim upstream against that evidence. That’s not the rational or logical approach. The most logical thing is to go in the direction the evidence is flowing. We do that every day. We assess evidence and we take a step in the same direction.
Right now I am drinking from a bottle of water. How do I know it isn’t poison? Well, my wife gave it to me. She has no reason to harm. I haven’t seen any news reports of anybody getting sick from drinking bottled water. The name of the company is reputable. The bottle was sealed. It doesn’t smell funny or appear discolored. It still could be poison, but based on that evidence I take a sip and I taste and see that it’s good. And the Bible says “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). We assess, either consciously or unconsciously, the evidence that points in a direction. We still have to take a step of faith, but it’s a logical step. It makes sense. It’s logical to drink of the living water that John 4 talks about. ©2015 BGEA
Scripture quotations are taken by permission from the New American Standard Bible, ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif.