The Case for Christ: The Movie: The Critique – Part 1

Lee Strobel is an ex-atheist. Now, far be it from me to pull out the no true Scotsman fallacy and suggest that he wasn't a "real" atheist. Being an atheist means you don't believe in God. It doesn't mean you're well-versed in science, theology, or philosophy. Yet, I get the sense that Lee Strobel was a discontent and naive atheist. In his aptly titled book The End of Reason, Ravi Zacharias goes on about how atheism led him to attempt suicide. Strobel never mentions anything so grim, or really (at least in this movie) goes into any detail about why he was an atheist, but I get the feeling that he was deeply troubled by his non-belief, just because he seemed so hellbent on disproving Christianity to himself. Perhaps it was an honest search for knowledge; perhaps he yearned for the comfort of religious belief. Who knows.

But I digress. Today I'm just going to talk about the first part of the movie, where they're talking about the reliability of the New Testament as historical documents. Here's the trimmed section I'll be discussing:

There are a number of fairly significant problems here.

The assertion that the gospel authors were disciples of Jesus who witnessed these events first-hand is a dubious one, and the movie does not attempt to explain how New Testament scholars arrived at this conclusion. There are some very key passages in the gospels that suggest that these are not eye-witness accounts at all. For example, in Matthew 26:36-45, Jesus wanders off alone and prays while his disciples are asleep; yet, the Bible tells us exactly what he said when he prayed. The entire temptation in the desert supposedly took place when Jesus was alone (that was the whole point), and yet we're privy to the entire conversation between Jesus and Satan. Either there was a very crafty eavesdropper following Jesus around, or, more plausibly, these stories are not historical accounts at all but rather fables passed down by oral tradition and eventually committed to text.

The contradiction of events between gospels is also problematic. Eyewitnesses should corroborate a story, not contradict it. Now, some Christians argue that a certain amount of disagreement among eyewitnesses is to be expected, and that is true (more on that momentarily). However, this speaks poorly for reliability of eye witnesses. While Strobel, as a former journalist, seems very convinced of the importance and reliability of eyewitness accounts, modern research has found that eyewitness accounts are actually notoriously unreliable, to the point that it is becoming more and more difficult to use them in criminal law. Consider these excerpts from a talk at Stanford Law:
  • The process of interpretation occurs at the very formation of memory—thus introducing distortion from the beginning. Furthermore, witnesses can distort their own memories without the help of examiners, police officers or lawyers. Rarely do we tell a story or recount events without a purpose. Every act of telling and retelling is tailored to a particular listener; we would not expect someone to listen to every detail of our morning commute, so we edit out extraneous material. The act of telling a story adds another layer of distortion, which in turn affects the underlying memory of the event. This is why a fish story, which grows with each retelling, can eventually lead the teller to believe it.
  • Once witnesses state facts in a particular way or identify a particular person as the perpetrator, they are unwilling or even unable—due to the reconstruction of their memory—to reconsider their initial understanding.
  • Bias creeps into memory without our knowledge, without our awareness. While confidence and accuracy are generally correlated, when misleading information is given, witness confidence is often higher for the incorrect information than for the correct information.

In the absence of other corroborating evidence, eyewitness accounts alone are virtually worthless. Now, it may be argued that a great many historical events are known only through eyewitness accounts, which may be true. However, keep in mind that when we are discussing secular historical events, no one will insist that our historical records are infallible, or that your eternal soul depends on you believing it to be true.

This really speaks to the heart of the problem: the Bible is not making banal historical claims. It is making supernatural claims. If we are going to nonchalantly accept these supernatural claims as true without accepting any non-Christian supernatural claims with equal credulity, we are guilty of special pleading: why should we accept these particular accounts of supernatural events as true, when millions of people throughout history, across all cultures, have claimed to witness and experience all manner of supernatural events that we merely dismiss as myth, lore, or hallucinations?

The rest of the clip goes on about how the information in the gospels was passed down orally and eventually through written copies. Supposedly, those who passed it down orally did so meticulously, through a "community of disciples" out of a reverence for "sacred tradition". But the movie doesn't establish the basis for any of these claims – they're simply asserted without establishing how these scholars arrived at these conclusions. This is made more problematic, again, by the fact that the gospels contradict each other in countless places, and omit information altogether in others. These are often not trivial factual contradictions either. If eyewitness accounts and oral tradition are as reliable as Strobel and company claim, why do the contradictions exist at all, much less in such abundance?

Strobel and company attempt to quell the issue not by denying the presence of these errors (no intellectually honesty critique of the Bible can do so), but by suggesting that a certain amount of disagreement is not only to be expected, but even desirable (Strobel's words: "That's okay, you want that."). If the stories disagree too much, we would dismiss them; Strobel suggests that if they agreed too much, we might also dismiss them out of suspicion that the authors colluded. What is the right amount of disagreement? Their reasoning is circular: Why, the amount in the gospels, of course! But what is the criteria for determining an acceptable amount of disagreement? Of course, none exists. This is a clear-cut case of begging the question.

This video does hit on something that is close to home for me, because it played an important role in my rejection of Christianity: It matters whether or not this stuff actually happened. If there's no particular reason to believe it's all true, then it's irrelevant. Some more liberal theologians have taken to assert that since no particular religious event can be disproved, we don't need to worry too much about whether they were literal fact (see Rabbi Harold Kushner's Who Needs God?). I never bought that. If the events in the gospel didn't happen, if Jesus wasn't everything the gospels say he is, then Christianity is false, plain and simple.

Coming up in part 2: Who was Jesus?


  1. ---

    "However, keep in mind that when we are discussing secular historical events, no one will insist that our historical records are infallible, or that your eternal soul depends on you believing it to be true."

    Thank you for making this point!

    And, I don't even dispute that Jesus existed. Heck, I'm not even sure that I'd dispute that he was killed for what he preached, though I certainly don't believe it happened in the manner of which is told in the Gospels. The thing that Christianity needs to prove is that JC rose from the dead, and since this claim is nigh impossible to prove, it's almost a lost cause.

    The most compelling evidence fot the verity of the Christian claim is what God would be doing if he truly died for us all and loved us as much as John's Gospel claims; he would make his existence and the facts of our condition entirely self-evidently true to all people from the time of Christ until JC's return. People would still have the ability to reject him, but there would be NO QUESTION as to what the situation is. Everyone would know the following:

    1. Yahweh exists.
    2. Jesus Christ died for our sins and the acceptance of this sacrifice is sufficient to grant you entrace into God's presence for all eternity.
    3. If we don't accept his son's sacrifice on the cross, we spend eternity in Hell.

    Faith would be our responding to such information, choosing to follow Yahweh and be his disciple. God isn't doing this, even though it would not subvert free will, nor would it be coercive (Satan and the demons have no problem rejecting Yahweh). Why not?

    Most likely, because he doesn't exist.

  2. The supernatural nature of the claims is something that is so casually and uncritically taken as fact by Christians, and I aim to tear it a new one in part 2.


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