The Case for Christ: The Movie: The Critique – Part 3

In part 2, Lee Strobel continued building on his house of cards and tried to argue that Jesus was actually God, and not just some guy. But the notion that we should nonchalantly accept a bunch of supernatural historical claims is a clear-cut case of special pleading, and he doesn't do as Carl Sagan would have demanded and present extraordinary evidence for such extraordinary claims. Then he goes on talking about fulfilled prophecy, which is wholly debunked with a more parsimonious explanation that doesn't require us to believe in supernatural magic.

And now, to part 3. This is the big one: The death and resurrection of Christ. As a recently de-converted friend of mine remarked recently, the resurrection is the biggest component of Christianity, and if we can't sift through and refute it, we haven't done our job. Fortunately, once you ask a few common-sense questions, the resurrection completely falls apart. Here's the final clip:

It can't be understated that, as I spent the first two parts discussing, there's absolutely no reason to believe the gospel accounts are true. Jesus, at least as he is described in the gospels, probably didn't even exist. So now we're faced with another extraordinary claim – that he rose from the dead – and again we had better see some pretty extraordinary evidence. And for the Christian, trying to use the Bible to prove the claims of the Bible is a pretty lousy place to start. If you lack the credulity to take the Biblical claims at face value, the resurrection story gets a lot less convincing.

To that end, a lot of the details combed over by the film, such as alternative theories of what might have happened, aren't even worth the bother. There's no reason to believe any of this stuff even happened, much less that we need to debate how it happened.

Strobel and company try to argue against the idea that it's fiction by suggesting that little details like Joseph of Arimathea demanding a proper burial for Jesus or the resurrection being witnessed by women is evidence that the story wasn't made up. The gospel of John claims that Joseph was a secret disciple of Jesus (19:38); at best, his involvement is an incidental detail at best. As for the women who witnessed the resurrection, the gospels don't even agree on who was involved or how the events played out. More to the point against the "nobody would listen to women" case made by my favorite apologist punching bag William Lane Craig, it's especially worth noting that the gospels go on to say that nobody actually believed the women:
Now they were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles. But these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them. [Luke 24: 10-11]
So, big whoop. The Jesus team also seems to be making the assumption that if the story were fabricated, it would be intentionally fabricated. Even if there were some reason to believe this, one would still have to assume that the authors both pondered the craftiest way to contrive the story and and that they arrived at a clever means of doing so. If it was intentionally fabricated, maybe the authors just weren't that clever. But, no skeptic I know of has claimed that the stories were intentionally fabricated; rather, that they were passed around orally, believed uncritically by credulous people in a pre-scientific age and slowly molded, as they were told and retold, into the stories we know today. (Incidentally, Part 1 of this series contains a snippet of a Stanford Law lecture that explains how retelling a story has been shown to permanently alter the teller's memory of the events.) 

So then we move on to the book of Acts, Paul, and the letters. Once again, the crew here is taking everything at face value. Paul claims in 1 Corinthians 15 that Jesus appeared before 500 people, then himself? Golly, it must be true! Strobel and friends say that these people would be alive, and around to refute the story if it weren't true. This is of course total nonsense, since it's just a random number of anonymous people, and it actually contradicts the smaller number of anonymous people (120) listed in Acts 1:15. Worse, Paul is merely quoting "the scriptures" as evidence of Jesus' prior appearances, and we're left only with his claim that Jesus appeared to him. Moreover, Paul's own claim that he had seen Jesus contradicts the fanciful story of the Road to Damascus in Acts, in which he fell to the ground after being blinded by a bright light, heard the voice of Jesus, and then was led by his companions into Damascus:

Acts 9:8
And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.
1 Corinthians 15:8
And last of all he was seen by me.
Let's once again consider the principle of parsimony. There are a number of plausible explanations for Paul's claim. He could have hallucinated, or been fooled by the sensed-presence effect, in which our brains make us think there is someone there when there is not. Since he didn't meet Jesus when Jesus was purportedly alive, he might have just met some crazy asshole who claimed to be Jesus. Or, he could be lying. All of those explanations are more plausible than the notion that the bodily form of a resurrected God appeared before this one guy in first century Syria. It reminds me of David Hume's famous quote on the "virgin" Mary being pregnant: "Which is more likely: That the whole natural order is suspended, or that a Jewish minx should tell a lie?" Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and we're certainly not seeing any of that here.

Lastly, Strobel and company insist that the disciples wouldn't have died for something that they knew not to be true. Of course, it is entirely possibly that they were sincerely mistaken. It is also possible that, since these fanciful texts are the only references we have to the lives of the apostles, most of what we know about them is mere lore. As is the case with Jesus, the historicity of their very existence is dubious at best, much less any particular details of their lives.

This film has tried to build a case of historical evidence for the reliability of the gospels and the truth of Christianity. I think those involved have done a comedically poor job. Lee Strobel asks us to keep an open mind and go where the evidence leads us. I think I've done that. I've considered what they posited as "evidence", and found it to be pathetically unconvincing.

Let's imagine, though, that I'm completely wrong about all this. Imagine all this stuff really happened, and Christianity is just as true and just as important as Strobel and friends make it out to be. Why did God do such a lousy job? This is supposed to be the one book that an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly loving God wanted his people to have. And what do we have? A book of dubious historical origins filled with unsubstantiated supernatural claims and riddled with internal contradictions. Is this really the best God could do? If God is so deeply concerned for my soul, why did Lee Strobel even have to make this movie?

Suffice to say, on a scale of 1 to 57 burritos, this film gets a 2, mainly for the fancy production values and the mildly soothing background music. As a platform of argumentation however, it's just more proof that the only way Christians are able to rationalize their faith is by thinking in circles.

And then there's the whole fact that Christian theology doesn't make any damn sense. But maybe they'll try to argue that one in the sequel.


  1. ---

    There is ABSOLUTELY no evidence that the disciples died for their faith. Bart Ehrman basicaly verbally bitch smacked William Lane Craig for using this argument. He said, and I'm paraphrasing, "I've read every piece of Christian literature from the first 500 years, and there absolutely no evidence for that; where's the evidence Dr. Craig?"

    I HATE that argument.

  2. Exploring the Unknowable, even if there was evidence it is not a valid argument. Unless you want to think that Joseph Smith, Marshall Applewhite and Jim Jones were also correct. Strobel and company should all be converting if they actually believe what they say.

  3. Harry here,

    I again just don't see how the disciples going to the lengths they did and dying for the cause gives any more credence to the entire story. There are suicide bombers all over the place today and they don't worship the Christian God. The terrorists that blew up the twin towers on 9/11 were not Christian yet look at what they were willing to do for what they believed. I'm sure there are probably even more convincing examples than the ones above that have happened a gazillion times throughout history of people sacrificing themselves or killing others for their god. Heck, there are those in the military willing to sacrifice themselves for their country, which is admirable and demanding of respect but its not some supernatural force they are giving their lives for but the concept of a free country and for protection of its citizens and perhaps those fellow soldiers that are closer than brothers.

  4. EtU,

    When I was researching this post, I did lots of searches for evidence of the disciples' deaths. I came up totally empty-handed. I found some claims on Wikipedia that a few sites are believed to be the graves of a few of them, and some lists floating around claiming to detail how each of them died. But I could never find any source material, any hard evidence.


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