Case Closed

The DVD case.I’ve never read one of Lee Strobel’s books all the way through. I feel, though, like I’ve read the introduction to all of them, mainly because every book he writes seems to begin with the same story about how he used to be a horrible atheist who believed in science and laughed at people’s pain. Then, naturally, his wife joined a conservative church and he ended up converting and suddenly discovering morality and compassion.

And, apparently, losing any integrity or comprehension for journalistic and legal practices that he may have been taught when training to become a legal journalist.

But I’ve just started “The Case for Christ: The Movie.” And boy oh boy, is it everything that I expected. I’m more or less liveblogging the film, so excuse the disjointedness of the post.

The movie starts out with some sensible people; one acknowledges that Jesus probably lived, but doubted his divinity. One says that if Jesus came into his office and showed him the signs of the Stigmata, he’d start believing (a reasonable request, and one that Jesus has supposedly fulfilled before), and two more express doubt on the existence of an omnipotent god and the resurrection.

Then, following a title sequence that could have been taken from “The Bourne Trinity,” Strobel himself slides onto the screen. He and his wife alternate between reading the introduction to all his books (even choosing to use the same language) leading up to their trip to the Willow Creek megachurch, where Strobel got all his misconceptions cleared up, and realized how important all this stuff was if true. He decided that he was going to abuse his position as a Chicago Tribune reporter in order to interview scholars for his own personal quest. His quest, strangely enough, never led him to anyone who wasn’t already a fundamentalist Christian.

This is all done in the style of “An Inconvenient Truth.”

His first point is how he went about examining the evidence, starting with the Gospel account. In his own words: “Now obviously I didn’t accept the New Testament as being the inspired word of God. I certainly didn’t accept it as being inerrant. But what I had to accept it as being, which it undeniably is, is a set of ancient historical documents.”

He decided to go after the historians, the “expert witnesses,” who could tell him whether the New Testament was trustworthy. These historians include a Professor of Philosophy from Biola University, a Professor of New Testament from Bethel Seminary, a Professor of New Testament from Denver Seminary, a Professor of New Testament from a Divinity College, and a Bishop. Note that this list contains absolutely no historians, and absolutely no one who isn’t affiliated either directly with a church, or with a very religious college.

Strobel claims that he learned as a legal journalist the importance of eyewitness accounts. Apparently he didn’t learn the unreliability of eyewitness accounts, the problem with biased accounts, the need for corroborating forensic evidence or corroboration of eyewitness accounts, and the importance of selecting expert witnesses who aren’t clearly biased and who aren’t possibly suffering from a conflict of interest, and especially the meaning of “hearsay.” It’s a good thing he doesn’t have a Masters degree in Studies of Law.

The scholars go on to basically state that the Gospels are accurate, including their attribution. They claim that the gospels were all written “in the first century” and that eyewitnesses were still around for most of their composition. Assuming the information on Wikipedia is accurate, the life expectancy for Classical Rome was 28; according to the timeline in Strobel’s film, the Gospels were composed between 60 and 95 C.E. Assuming that Jesus’s apostles were of the same approximate age as he’s said to have been, they’d all be fairly well over the average life expectancy for the time back in 33 C.E., just how many are going to still be alive thirty years later? Sixty?

Did you know that oral tradition can be passed on without changing a thing? Someone ought to tell “The Iliad.”

Most of the apparent contradictions in the Bible are easily resolved by adding in opinions that aren’t textually or historically supported. But you already knew that.

“…the Bible of the Greeks, Homer’s ‘Iliad.'” Yeahbuhwha?

We have lots of copies of the New Testament, and far fewer copies of “The Iliad.” No mention is made of how close those copies of the NT match one another. At least, not here, but Bart Ehrman does make repeated mention of that startling fact. More differences than words in the NT? You don’t say.

Strobel then makes a startling concession: he’s going to let the opposition voice their views on the issue. Well, I take back the nasty things I said about this movie being one-sided; I imagine they’ll have Bart Ehrman and Bob Price, or at least Bruce Metzger, on to talk about the problems with Biblical transmission and the historicity of Jesus.
Wait, his “other side” is the Gnostic Gospels? Well, fuck.

No, Lee, the Gnostic Gospels don’t represent the mainstream of academic scholarship, you boob. They represent the alternate churches who lost the doctrine wars. Or maybe you’re asking if the books on the Gnostic Gospels represent mainstream academia, in which case, how? Mainstream academia certainly believes that the Gnostic Gospels exist, and that they’re interesting stories from the early churches. For someone who’s suddenly so concerned about what mainstream academics think, it’s odd that your film so far has featured only people from conservative Christian colleges and backgrounds, and not anyone involved with the Jesus Seminar or other “mainstream academic” groups.

Apparently, allowing the “other side” to speak, even when the “other side” agrees with the first side on all the broad points, means “allowing the people who represent the first side to talk about what the ‘other side’ says, and then dismiss it outright, without providing any supportive evidence for any of their claims.”

Lee sought out more scholars to tell him who Jesus really was. We’ve got a Professor of Jewish Studies from Moody Bible Institute and a Professor of New Testament Interpretation from Asbury Seminary. No historians or non-Christians in sight. I know I’m opening up myself to criticism, that I wouldn’t make the same complaints about a film with which I agreed. And to some degree, that’s right. I agree largely with “The God Who Wasn’t There,” and I’ve never written a screed about how Brian Flemming only interviewed people who agreed with his point (excepting, of course, the Rapture Letters guy and the principal of his old school). The differences, as I see them, are:

  • Flemming was a legitimate Christian, who legitimately knew the Bible and believed it before his apostasy; Strobel was, at best, a default atheist who had never considered the counter-arguments to common apologetics.
  • Flemming’s experts provide citations and specific justifications for their claims; Strobel’s experts make proclamations and broad dismissals with no apparent reason.
  • Flemming never presents himself as providing all sides of the argument, or even as providing a certain answer; Strobel repeatedly compares this to a legal proceeding, with the evidence from multiple sides being presented, the “scales tipping,” and whatnot.

And, ultimately, I disagree with Flemming’s conclusion that Jesus probably didn’t exist. To that end, I’ve further explored the evidence, and I’ve expanded my knowledge based on what was claimed in the film. The scholars in Strobel’s film are basically saying that the Bible is completely trustworthy, and that we should believe any agreeing source on its face.

“‘Cause no human being can rule forever, unless he’s a forever person in some kind of way.”

Strobel presents the perfect example of a bad question. The Gospels say that Jesus performed miracles, so Lee “had to know, is there evidence that these miracles are a result of his divine nature?” Um, I would think a better question to start with would be “do we have good reason to believe he performed these miracles?” You may have established to your satisfaction that the Biblical account of Jesus is largely accurate, but there’s a step from “can we believe that these things were written according to eyewitness accounts” and “can we believe every claim and story made within the texts.”

The Talmud sometimes describes Jesus as a magician, which demonstrates that there’s a historical acknowledgement of his abilities. This doesn’t address the earlier (apt) point that Jesus’s opponents would claim that his abilities aren’t derived from God. The Pharaoh’s men could turn staves into snakes just as well as Aaron could. The scholars claim that Jesus doesn’t need to use incantations and potions like other magicians of the day. I don’t see any mention of potions or incantations in Exodus 7.

Isn’t it amazing that Jesus is said to have fulfilled the messianic prophecies earlier in the Bible? Only slightly more amazing than Harry Potter fulfilling prophecies from The Sorcerer’s Stone in The Deathly Hallows.

‘Fulfilling prophecies is like fingerprint evidence in a court of law. (paraphrased)’ Um…no. No it isn’t. Especially not when the people writing about the fulfillment were aware of the original prophecies, especially not when there’s no contemporary corroboration of those prophecies being fulfilled.

“Anyone who enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey, in obvious fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, is saying ‘yes, I am the Messiah.'” Awesome; someone get me some airplane fare and donkey rental funds, I’m going to go prove that I’m the King of Kings.

The chances of one person fulfilling 48 messianic prophecies is mathematically almost impossible. Now, how much more likely is it that someone will fulfill 48 prophecies if he’s read and memorized them? How much more likely is it if we only have hearsay claiming that he fulfilled said prophecies? Naturally, no mention is made of the prophecies he failed to fulfill, like reigning from sea to sea and leading an army of Judah against the people of Greece, from Zechariah 9:10-13. What a difference a verse makes.

“Jesus is the climax of that movement. He is the climax of salvation history, the one who brings it off to fulfillment. You’re reading Old Testament, it’s building, building, building. Jesus arrives on the scene and he is the fulfillment.” Do I need to pull out the “coming quickly” bits again? Why do I get the feeling that some of these scholars’ Bibles have pages that stick together?

Lee didn’t want there to be a God, because he didn’t want to be held accountable for his life. Why is it that the only “atheists” I ever see saying that their lack of belief was due to a desire to live however they want, are the ones who have since converted to Christianity and are trying to convince you to do the same? Why don’t I see actual current nonbelievers running around saying “isn’t it great that we can do whatever we want and suffer no consequences?” Is it because current atheists recognize that society will hold us accountable for our lives, even though God won’t?

No, Lee, you weren’t a skeptic. Maybe I’m risking a “no true Scotsman” fallacy here, but your methodology is not a skeptical one. Skeptics examine all the evidence, not just the statements of biased experts.

We then move on to arguments for the Resurrection, including experts like William Lane Craig (wondered when he’d show up), someone from Liberty University, and the Director of Apologetics of the Southern Baptist Convention. At this point, I don’t care that there aren’t any historians or anything, because what proof are you going to look at for the Resurrection? Certainly not forensic evidence.

Um…if you, as a Roman law enforcer, are facing fatal punishment if you let a prisoner of war or rebel leader go, then why did Pilate repeatedly offer to let Jesus go? Why was he so hesitant to kill Jesus if he was facing greater punishment for doing so?

Apparently if a story uses real people and real places, then it can’t be made up. Did you know that Abraham Lincoln fought two-headed robot tigers on the moon? It’s true.

Is it true that hundreds of people really saw him alive after the Resurrection? I guess, if we believe Paul. Of course, Paul’s not entirely clear on whether or not he was blind when he met Jesus, and whether or not Jesus was a vision or a voice. He’s also not too clear on the people who saw the risen Jesus, since he says he appeared to the Twelve, even though Judas was dead by that time.

The fact that people died for their beliefs, and believe things fervently, is not evidence that those beliefs are true.

So, in a little over an hour, we’ve had no extra-Biblical contemporary evidence for the existence of Jesus, a few contested mentions from Josephus and Tacitus, and a bunch of hearsay that we’re just told, without justification, must be true. We learn that a person who has no strong convictions about religion and who has never really explored the question of God’s existence, who spends almost two years with a wife who is actively working to convert him while he consults exclusively conservative Christian sources for the evidence of Christ’s existence and claims to divinity, may in fact undergo a conversion to Christianity. Surprising, no?

I have to say, I’m a little disappointed in this film. I didn’t by any stretch of the imagination, expect it to be fair or balanced; I didn’t honestly expect it to examine all the evidence and include sources from multiple sides, but I was really hoping he’d bring in the psychologist he consulted in his book, who analyzed the Gospel accounts to come to the conclusion that Jesus wasn’t crazy. That was hilarious when I read it, and I really wanted to see it on the small screen. I guess they’re saving that for the sequel.

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