Saturday, September 29, 2007

Lee Strobel Comes To Columbia

Lee Strobel returned to his Alma Mater this week for a visit and a couple lectures. Wednesday he spoke at one of the local churches in what was billed a "public" talk, but I had choir practice that evening. Thursday's engagement was in the Hearnes Center (the erstwhile basketball arena) and was billed as a "student event". I look a little old to pass for a student, but I decided to go anyway.

I'm glad I did. The crowd was quite large -- well in excess of 1000, I'd say -- and consisted of about half students and half community. Strobel's latest book, The Case for the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ, was available for $15, so I bought a copy and leafed through it while waiting for the talk to begin.

The lecture was less of a book promotion than a personal reflection on Lee Strobel's journey to faith. This journey passed through atheism, anger, and drunkenness, but he did not dwell overly long on this, nor did he provide us with "too much information". In addition to his degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, he earned a degree from Yale Law School -- a combination that provided impeccable credentials as a skeptic. It also provided him with a penchant for getting to the facts, which served him well as he was challenged by his wife's conversion to Christianity. The changes he saw in her prompted him to begin a search for the truth about Jesus.

In his search, he found that it all boiled down to two questions:
  1. Did Jesus claim to be the Son of God?
  2. Did Jesus rise from the dead?
The first question is dealt with by reading and understanding the plain sense of Scripture. When Jesus said "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30) he used a word that means "of the same nature" or "equal". If that is not enough, this elicited a rapid and violent reaction from the crowd, who picked up stones in order to carry out the prescribed penalty for blasphemy. There are a number of other Biblical references to Jesus claiming to be God's son..

The second question took a little longer to resolve. Strobel used five lines of evidence (the five "E's":
  • The Execution -- The medical accounts of crucifixion reveal that the cause of death is suffocation due the way the victim hung mainly by his or her outstretched arms. The only relief was to push oneself up with the feet -- which were nailed to the upright beam. The Roman soldiers, who were very good at their job, would eventually break the legs of those who were still alive. Since they thought Jesus to be already dead, a spear was thrust between his ribs. The executioners were satisfied. Secular sources, including Josephus, support this account. The Talmud mentions the crucifixion.
  • The Early Accounts -- The Gospels' descriptions of the event along with the post-resurrection appearances suggest that people accepted the events as described. Were they a local legend that took on a life of its own? Not likely. According to those who study the development of legends, such phenomena do not arise as quickly as the Gospel accounts demonstrate. Where was the body? All the authorities had to do was produce the body, yet they failed to do so, even though a cover story was concocted.
  • The Empty Tomb -- The tomb was sealed and guarded, yet the tomb was empty two mornings later. Here Strobel invokes the "criterion of embarrassment" -- The Gospel accounts do not portray any of the disciples in a particularly good light. While they were in hiding, the women went to the tomb following the end of the sabbath and found it empty. When they told the disciples, they were unwilling at first to believe them. The Gospel writers told the story as they saw and believed it, even if the menfolk were embarrassed by their timidity.
  • The Eyewitnesses -- Paul describes over 500 people who saw the risen Lord, including many who were still alive (20+ years following the resurrection?). Strobel holds that the scholarly consensus is that the disciples and others understood that Jesus rose from the dead, and the contemporary accounts support that. Mass hallucination? Mental health professionals point out that hallucination is an individual thing, not a shared experience. What about wishful thinking leading to self-delusion? Did Paul, who was traveling around organizing persecutions, desire to see a risen Jesus? Yet he had an extraordinary encounter on the road to Damascus.
  • The Emergence of the Church -- How and why did the Church "explode" into existence in an atmosphere of repression. It is even more astounding that this rapid growth was led by people who had cowered in fear until after the resurrection, including one who lied three times about his relationship with Jesus. The eleven remaining disciples KNEW the truth and most of them died violently for their faith.
At some point in this journey, Strobel found that it took more faith to remain an atheist than to accept that Jesus was who he said he was. He zeroed in on what Paul saw as the logical key to his faith:
1Co 15:12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
Another way to put this is that theology matters. The Resurrection is an essential of our faith, and cannot be explained or negotiated away.

Toward the end of his talk, he told a moving story about his daughter, then 5, who had known only the old Lee Strobel. It was not long before she wanted whatever her daddy had gotten that made such a change in him.

Strobel said little that was totally unfamiliar to me, but his synthesis of many lines of evidence taken together provides a powerful testimony and one that has broadened my knowledge of apologetics. In this age when there is a proliferation of books written by atheists who preach their faith* with evangelistic fervor, it is refreshing to see Lee Strobel's intellectually honesty and willingness to let his assumptions be challenged.

*I'm not trying to be cute here. It takes a great deal of faith to be an atheist for the simple reason that it is logically impossible to prove a negative. The non-existence of God is a step of faith, wrong though it may be. Perhaps this why such former atheists as C.S. Lewis, Francis Collins, and Lee Strobel make such strong Christians -- they already know what faith is.


Vinny said...

There are no contemporaneous accounts. Paul wrote twenty years later. The Gospel of Mark was written thirty (or more) years later. The Gospel of John was written sixty (or more) years later. Strobel's description of "early accounts" is wishful thinking.

Denis Hancock said...

I grant you, it might have been more accurate to say that they were accounts written by people who had experienced the events in question (or in the case of Mark and Luke, who knew someone who did).

Still, if it were all a lie, Peter and the remaining disciples should have slunk out of town and resumed their ordinary occupations. The Church would have been stillborn.

Yet that is not what happened. The ones who knew the truth chose a far different path -- one that eventually led to death or exile. For a lie? Even before I heard Strobel I thought that was a pretty powerful argument for the resurrection.