Lee Strobel, New York Times bestselling author, has written more than 40 books defending the veracity of Christianity’s claims. After his wife, Leslie, became a Christian in the early 1980s, a concerned Strobel launched a two-year personal investigation of the Bible’s claims, using his skills as a legal affairs editor at the Chicago Tribune. Toward the end of his investigation, the Holy Spirit prevailed in Strobel’s life. He abandoned his atheism and professed his faith in Christ. And it was his brush with death in 2011—when a severe drop in his blood sodium levels caused his brain to swell, nearly killing him—that compelled Strobel to interview Biblical scholars and scientists for his latest published work, “The Case for Heaven—A Journalist Investigates Evidence for Life After Death.” In an interview with Decision, Strobel discussed some of his research for the book.
Q: In Ecclesiastes 3:11, King Solomon writes that God has “set eternity in the human heart.” As an atheist-turned-Christian, describe your understanding of that verse.
A: The Hebrew is a bit obscure in that passage, but it’s generally thought to mean that God has implanted a desire in us to live forever. We see this in atheists who seek to make a name for themselves so they’ll be remembered after they die. It’s what prompts some people to construct impressive buildings, paint masterpieces or even to commit notorious crimes. When I was an atheist, I hoped I would leave a mark on the world through my achievements in journalism. Of course, that’s a rather fruitless quest, since in the end we’ll still be dead—and, frankly, pretty much forgotten.
Q: How did your near-death experience in 2011 affect your perspective on Christ’s resurrection and the Biblical teachings about the afterlife?
A: When I nearly died, it intensified my desire to know with certainty what happens when we close our eyes for the last time in this world. That makes the resurrection particularly relevant, because if Jesus died and returned from the dead, then He’s not only an eyewitness to the afterlife but He’s the Son of God who created the afterlife. So, His perspective on the life to come becomes particularly powerful. And He spoke with conviction about both Heaven and hell.
Q: In “The Case for Heaven,” you detail your interview with the late evangelist Luis Palau as he endured Stage 4 lung cancer. You write that Palau, known as “the Billy Graham of Latin America,” said that in Heaven, after seeing Jesus, he wanted to see his father who had died when Palau was 10, followed by his heroes of the faith—Augustine, Wesley, Whitefield, Moody and Billy Graham. After meeting Jesus, who would you like to meet in Heaven next and why?
A: The first person I want to encounter in Heaven after Jesus is my father, Walter. We had a very difficult relationship in this world. I was a rebellious son who deliberately disobeyed his dad, and my father told me on the eve of my high school graduation, “I don’t have enough love for you to fill my little finger.” We never fully reconciled before he died prematurely when he was 64. But in Heaven, reconciled to God and each other, we will be able to live together in eternity in the kind of warm and affirming father-son relationship that we never really enjoyed in this world.
Q: You cite in your book that 55% of Americans say they prefer cremation to burial. Based on Scripture, how should Christians weigh their options between choosing burial or cremation?
A: I think that burial is a better reflection of Christian theology. Cremation is more reflective of Eastern religions. And yet cremation simply accelerates our bodies returning to dust, so to speak. Although many Christian thinkers write negatively about cremation (while not condemning the practice as heretical), I tend to agree with theologian Scot McKnight, who focuses on the intent of the individual. If their intent is to liberate their spirit from their body, or if they want their body incinerated out of negative feelings about it, then those aren’t Christian impulses. If it’s merely out of practical concerns, such as cost, then I personally don’t see a big problem with it. If God can resurrect people who have been incinerated in a nuclear blast, then He can resurrect those who have chosen cremation.
Q: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke each record the Sadducees’ attempt to cast doubt on the Christian’s resurrected life by hypothesizing about a widow who outlived each of her seven husbands. When asked whose wife would the widow be in the resurrection, Jesus said in Luke 20:35 that those who experience “the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given to marriage.” How should Jesus’ response in defense of the resurrection be interpreted as to whether or not marriages on Earth will be recognized in Heaven?
A: Theologians debate this issue. Many believe that marriage, as we know it, won’t exist in Heaven. However, others look at the precise words of Jesus and conclude that He was saying there would be no new marriages, or weddings, in Heaven. He says we will be like angels; in fact, Luke’s account elaborates by quoting Jesus as saying that people in Heaven “can no longer die; for they are like the angels” (Luke 20:36). As one theologian explained to me: “A major reason for marriage is procreation to continue one’s lineage, but in Heaven people are eternal, so no one will need to procreate in order to continue the family line. Thus, there won’t be a need for new marriages in Heaven.”
As someone whose marriage of 50 years has been wonderful and fulfilling, I would certainly look forward to continuing in a marital relationship with Leslie forever in the world to come. But if there turns out to be no marriage in Heaven, that won’t diminish our joy. As another theologian said, “God takes nothing away from us in the eternal state except to replace it or enhance it with something better.”
Q: In “The Case for Heaven,” you quote the late science fiction author Isaac Asimov: “Whatever the tortures of hell, I think the boredom of Heaven would be even worse.” What has your research about Heaven led you to believe it will be like?
A: It will be anything but boring! The God who brought the vast galaxies into existence and designed the intricacies of animals and plants is creative enough to provide an eternal experience for His followers that will be supremely joyful, fulfilling, adventurous and exciting. I love 1 Corinthians 2:9, which says, “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived—the things God has prepared for those who love him.” This verse hints at the beauty and wonder of the life to come—a joyful and fulfilling experience that we have never even imagined.
Q: “The 2021 American Fear Index” ranks the fear of loved ones dying, becoming seriously ill and mass shootings as the top three fears of Americans. What does this say about the human condition?
A: Actually, this fear of death drives much of our culture. We tend to deny it, distract ourselves from it, delay it or become depressed by it, but we have trouble escaping it. The Bible, of course, provides the answer in Romans 6:23, which says that “the wages of sin is death”—in other words, what we deserve because of our immorality and spiritual rebellion is death, or separation from God forever, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That is, Jesus died as our substitute to pay for our sins, and He offers forgiveness and eternal life as a free gift of His grace to anyone who receives it in repentance and faith. That’s the good news of the Gospel—the only thing that can alleviate our fear of dying.
Q: The quest for immortality seems everywhere, from diet and fitness and plastic surgery obsessions, to artificial intelligence, virtual reality technologies, and even cryonics or deep-freezing cadavers in hopes of bringing the dead to life. In light of this, how might Christians more effectively share the Gospel with people so desperate to cling to something beyond this life?
A: When we see people desperately trying to lengthen their lives or somehow be remembered forever as a way of outliving their death, it should be a reminder to us as Christians that they desperately need to hear the Gospel. We should explain to them that they will, indeed, live somewhere for eternity—and the only good option is to be with God in Heaven forever. Through the atoning death of Jesus, the door to Heaven has already been flung open for anyone who comes to Him in repentance and faith. Jesus is the answer to the longing we have for immortality. He alone offers hope. He alone can satisfy our deepest needs. The only real answer to our fear of death and desire for immortality is Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
Q: Why do you think the resurrection of Jesus is the linchpin of Christianity?
A: Even as a skeptic, I recognized that Jesus directly and indirectly made transcendent, messianic and divine claims about Himself. In John 10:30, for instance, He claimed that He and the Father were the same in essence. His audience understood that He was claiming to be God. But, so what? Anyone could claim to be God—even me! But if Jesus claimed to be divine, and if He died and then rose from the dead on the third day, then that’s pretty good evidence He’s telling the truth. That’s why the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:17: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” In short, the resurrection of Jesus is the ballgame.
Q: According to your research cited in “The Case for Heaven,” only 58% of Americans believe that hell is a real place and only 2% believe they’ll end up there. Why do churches and pastors seem to rarely acknowledge the Biblical doctrine of hell despite Jesus’ numerous warnings and teachings about this in Scripture?
A: Hell is a disquieting doctrine, one that C.S. Lewis wished he could erase, though he knew he could not. But it needs to be acknowledged and taught because it’s reality and people need to understand why it exists and how they can avoid it. The lack of preaching on the topic has led to many misconceptions about hell, which I try to correct in my book. It may not be pleasant to talk about hell or hear about it, yet it’s part of the reality of the afterlife and consequently should be dealt with from the pulpit.
Q: Why do you think modern Western societies are increasingly enthralled with the ancient Eastern idea of reincarnation?
A: I think it’s a reflection of the work ethic of the Western world that makes people think that the only way to God is through working hard to do good deeds and pay off our bad deeds. Reincarnation feeds this by saying you can’t even work hard enough in one lifetime to earn your way to God, but you need to labor and toil over many successive lives to try to sufficiently clean up your act. Of course, Christianity says the opposite is true—you can never earn your way to salvation, you can only come to God through receiving His free gift of grace.
I include a chapter on reincarnation in my book because most Westerners aren’t really familiar with it and have a lot of misconceptions. They don’t know that the end of reincarnation isn’t Heaven, but it’s being extinguished. They don’t recognize the illogical nature of the law of karma, which says we need to work off the bad deeds we committed in previous lives through our suffering in future lives. But we don’t know what bad deeds we’re paying for—so how can we possibly improve our lives that way? Also, reincarnation discourages us from being charitable to those who are suffering because if we alleviate their suffering, we’re short-circuiting their efforts to atone for the sins of their past.
The idea of reincarnation is fraught with inconsistencies and contradictions, but most of all, it’s contradicted by the teachings of the Bible. Our future is resurrection, not reincarnation—thank God!
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version.
Interviewed by Lee Weeks, assistant editor.