Many Evangelicals think of Lee Strobel as the man who can cure your doubts about their religion. His 1998 book, The Case for Christ, has sold millions of copies, was made into a 2017 movie by the same name, and was recently re-issued in a “new and updated” edition.
The story that Evangelicals find so convincing and delicious is this: Strobel, a tough-as-nails atheist journalist and his atheist family are out to dinner when his daughter is saved from choking to death by an evangelical nurse who felt called by God to go to the restaurant that night. Strobel’s wife converts, and Strobel sets out to prove her wrong, using the same strategy that made him a fearsome investigative journalist. He lines up scholars and theologians and confronts them with the hardest possible questions about their faith—and comes away convinced that the Evangelical view of the Bible and Jesus is true. He accepts Jesus as his savior and proceeds to lay out those persuasive interviews in his book, which goes on, as I said, to become a religion best-seller.
The problem, according to author and religion critic David Fitzgerald (and others), is that key parts of this story are distorted at best and fabricated at worst. Fitzgerald is the author of Nailed and Jesus: Mything in Action, part of The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion series. In this interview, he discusses how Strobel stretches the truth to the breaking point, and why.
Tarico: Several books point out flaws in the Biblical research and archeology cited by Strobel, including The Case Against the Case for Christ, by New Testament scholar Robert Price, and Challenging the Verdict by Earl Doherty. True believers may be persuaded, but few serious antiquities scholars or educated skeptics take Strobel’s work seriously. Even so, one might argue that Strobel assembled bad evidence in good conscience. You’re not so sure. Why not?
Fitzgerald: I can’t give him the benefit of that particular doubt anymore. Strobel has cultivated a thoroughly bogus image that he happily encourages readers to embrace. His fan base is led to believe he was a diehard atheist who was converted by these interviews. In reality, he was a lapsed Lutheran who became a pastor at a mega-church. It wasn’t until over a decade later—and after writing three books in defense of evangelical Christianity—he had the idea to select a line-up of Evangelical academics who support his view and lob softball questions at them, all under the guise of a “tough skeptic.”
He is careful about what he claims explicitly, but the popularity of his franchise rests on this pivot, the idea of a hard-headed skeptic who set out to prove Christianity wrong but was just blown away by the evidence and had to surrender to Christ. Strobel doesn’t set the record straight. Instead, he has milked it to the tune of millions of dollars, writing book after book with the same formula: He positions himself as the skeptic, and then lo and behold, the evidence for the resurrection or against evolution (or whatever new evangelical theme-of-the week he’s advocating) is just overwhelming.
Even today, he keeps up his “tough skeptic” schtick. This quote from a recent book is typical of Strobel’s rhetoric:
I was determined to reach whatever verdict was warranted by the hard evidence of history and the cool demands of reason.
Yes, I was looking for opinions, but they had to be backed up with convincing data and airtight logic—no rank speculation, no flights of faith. Like the investigations I undertook at the Chicago Tribune, I would have no patience for half-baked claims or unsupported assertions. There was too much hanging in the balance. As the Jonestown victims had chillingly reminded me, my faith is only as good as the one in whom it’s invested.
So why don’t you come along with me on this investigative adventure? After all, as Jesus himself cautioned, what you believe about Him has very real consequences. Let’s resolve to keep an open mind and follow the facts wherever they take us—even if it’s to a conclusion that challenges us on the very deepest levels…
Tarico: The problem with Strobel’s books is pretty easy to spot: It’s confirmatory thinking. Yes, he uses hard questions about Christianity as outlines, but then he searches for any evidence or line of reasoning that might, in any way, allow his version of Christianity to be right. It’s fascinating how he speaks the language of skepticism—and then somehow does the opposite. The skeptical stance is merely a literary device, because he fails to ask the questions or consult the experts who could show him wrong.
But, jumping back, what about this story about him setting out as an investigator to dissuade his newly religious wife?
Fitzgerald: Strobel tells a very different version of events in one of the less-known books he wrote before his blockbuster, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary: How to Reach Friends and Family Who Avoid God and the Church. It goes like this:
His parents encouraged him to believe in God, and brought the children to Lutheran church regularly. He hated it and was relieved after going through confirmation that he was done with “the religion thing.” As an adult, Strobel didn’t look into the evidence for God—he simply thought the idea of a God, angels and demons were absurd to begin with.
A few years after high school, he married Leslie, his childhood sweetheart. As a child, she and her family attended a Methodist church and later a Presbyterian church with her mother, who would sing hymns to her as a bedtime lullaby. But religion was largely a curiosity for her.
After college, he landed a reporter job at the Chicago Tribune, where he tells us: “I thrived in the cutthroat environment, the adrenaline rush of deadlines, and the get-the-story-at-any-cost mentality. I was known as an aggressive and accurate reporter. There were times, however, when I went over the ethical edge. …like using ploys to mislead crime victims and witnesses . . . “My attitude was ethics were fine to discuss in journalism school, but they shouldn’t get in the way of getting a good story.”
Meanwhile, while Strobel was being a huge a-hole, his wife Leslie became close friends with a neighbor, who one day invited her to come to a new kind of church meeting in a movie theater. She soon rededicated her life to Jesus, and months later, in January 1980, Lee joined her.
Incidentally, the preacher at that church? Mega-church superstar, Bill Hybels of Willow Creek. In 2018, his assistant accused him of sexually harassing her during this same period, and he quickly retired, which prompted ten additional women to come forward and accuse him of sexual harassment. Then, both the pastor who succeeded him and the church board also resigned, admitting they mishandled the sexual misconduct allegations.
Tarico: Gross. Wasn’t Strobel working as a pastor under Hybels when he wrote The Case for Christ? Not that he was necessarily privy to Hybels’ bad behavior. But there is a broad, ugly pattern of Christian leaders with thinly veiled secrets and people looking the other way because they don’t want to interfere with God’s work. There’s also a broad, ugly pattern of stretching the truth—or breaking with truth—to advance the cause of Christ.
When people frame things in terms of eternity, heaven and hell, then all manner of bad behaviors can be construed as a lesser evil in the service of a greater good. Chris Rodda wrote a book called Liars for Jesus in which she takes down David Barton, an Evangelical who has literally rewritten American history to suit the Religious Right. Recently, you have been on the speaking circuit talking about Strobel, and you mention another infamous case, Antony Flew.
Fitzgerald: Oh, don’t get me started on David Barton—his book was so rife with false statements, his own publisher pulled his book off the shelves! As for Antony Flew, he was a respected British philosopher and atheist who ostensibly flipped in his later years—at least according to a book published in his name in 2007: There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. It’s this same beloved Evangelical trope: the “hard-core atheist” who succumbs to the evidence. But the book was almost immediately exposed as a hoax.
The book’s actual author(s) turned out to be its “co-author,” evangelical promoter and businessman Roy Abraham Varghese, and evangelical preacher Bob Hostetler (who has also written several books with another popular evangelical apologist, Josh McDowell). The pair had taken advantage of Flew, who didn’t write a word of it and was by then suffering from progressive dementia. (At the end of his life, as it advanced, he did begin espouse a rather incoherent Deism, so it’s easy to see what made him an attractive target. But even in his dementia, Flew rejected any belief in a personal god, let alone Christianity.)
Other “tells” were that the book was full of Americanisms; and that the confused Flew himself later couldn’t recognize the arguments attributed to him. Yet despite the hoax being exposed in 2007, almost upon arrival, the film version of Case for Christ goes out of its way to name-drop Flew, and Christians are still repeating the bogus story. In fact, more Christians seem to know “the world’s most notorious atheist” than atheists ever did.
Tarico: You call these easily-debunked defenses of Evangelicalism “comfort food for a desperately grateful Christian readership.” Do you think that’s the whole point? I’ve written about why good Christians do bad things to win converts—things like preying on grade school children (a la Child Evangelism Fellowship) or preying on foreign students via “friendship missions.” I say preying, because the students are lonely, far from parents and far from home, and don’t know American culture well enough to realize they are marks. Is the Strobel/Flew thing the same?
Fitzgerald: It certainly shows the same kind of dubious ethics (if not outright predatory behavior) that we’ve seen in plenty of other religious cases.
Tarico: I guess Strobel’s dubious story wouldn’t matter so much, but you say that he took the same liberties with his defense of Christianity as with his personal narrative.
Fitzgerald: Absolutely. What Christians need to realize is that regardless of whether Christianity is true or not, what Strobel and his team of “experts” are peddling to them so successfully is not. It’s a constant stream of distortions and misinformation.
For example, Strobel’s very first interview is with Dr. Craig Blomberg, a Baptist seminary professor (not a historian).* Dr. Craig Blomberg has since said that Strobel’s write-up of the interview was not verbatim but rather heavily paraphrased and full of what were, in Blomberg’s view, “oversimplifications.” He said his initial impulse when he saw Strobel’s draft was to edit for accuracy, but in the end decided to correct only the worst problems(!). So right out of the gate, we have some serious credibility problems. And the rest of the book is just as full of inaccuracies.
*[Note: Only two out of the 13 experts clearly have history degrees. Dr. Blomberg has published on the historicity of the New Testament, but through his career has held an a priori theological commitment to the idea that the gospels are history. Denver Seminary, where he teaches, requires alignment with this statement of faith: “We believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the inspired Word of God, inerrant in the original writings, complete as the revelation of God’s will for salvation, and the supreme and final authority in all matters to which they speak.”]
Tarico: How does the film version of Case for Christ compare with the book?
Fitzgerald: Strobel has claimed that the film is about “80% accurate,” which is completely ludicrous. And I’m not talking about it getting the movie treatment. Of course, like all biopics, they change things around, simplify storylines, blend characters, I get that. That’s not special. But there’s Hollywood bullshit, and then there is a deeper, more insidious kind of bullshit. The film version of Lee Strobel’s spiritual journey bears almost zero relationship to his real life story, but it presents the Lee Strobel Myth™ in every loving detail. It’s the imaginary life he desperately wishes had been the case.
For example, two of the “experts” he “interviewed” and purported to be so impressed with, don’t even exist. “Father Jose Maria Marquez” and agnostic “Purdue professor Roberta Waters” are completely fictitious characters. In reality, all of Strobel’s hand-chosen stable of house experts are evangelical protestant apologists, and only 2 (possibly 3) out of 13 of them even have historical credentials to begin with.
Tarico: What about the points raised by these experts?
Fitzgerald: Strobel doesn’t act like a reporter, and his “historians” don’t act like historians—because he isn’t, and they aren’t. Either they are misquoted by Strobel, as one of them has admitted—or they are acting as flat-out propagandists. Because it’s not just that they are misrepresenting the evidence. It’s the way they do so—deliberate, calculated and shameless. Here’s a prime example:
One of the craziest parts of Case for Christ was Strobel’s citation of “micrographic letters”—handwritten inscriptions on ancient coins too small to be seen by the naked eye—proclaiming Rex Jesus and Messiah and King of the Jews. This idea comes to Strobel second-hand from Baptist preacher and disgraced Mississippi State University archeologist, E. Jerry Vardaman, who claimed to have uncovered a secret history of the ancient world, completely unknown to mainstream academia, in these tiny inscriptions.
Needless to say, this bizarre theory didn’t pan out, and Vardaman was removed from his academic position. Real historians were never fooled—just folks like Strobel and his expert Dr. John McRay, who cites Vardaman’s nonsense with a straight face. What’s more, in Strobel’s “new and updated” edition of Case for Christ, its clear that Strobel has since gotten the memo, since he oh-so-carefully rewrites this section to retroactively distance himself from the ridiculous claim—as if he was skeptical about it all along—but without removing it, or admitting that he knows it has since been completely debunked.
Tarico: You’ve taken some heat for your writings too—especially your argument that the New Testament stories about Jesus are historicized mythology instead of mythologized history.
Fitzgerald: Absolutely, Jesus mythicism is a minority position, and I suspect it always will be. For many reasons, I don’t think there ever was a “Real Jesus”—but whether there was a genuine historical figure or not, our evidence for him is not great, and none of it appears connected to anyone who ever actually existed in the first century. And in any case, the “Jesus of Faith” is a product of theological wishful thinking, every bit as fabricated as Strobel’s Hollywood conversion story—and for the same reason.
Tarico: It makes me think of fan fic.
Fitzgerald: (laughs) Yes! All scripture is fanfic!
Tarico: What do you most wish that Strobel’s readers knew about him or about his books?
Fitzgerald: That he is selling them spiritual junk food, just as hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny. And maybe they should be the ones calling out the David Bartons, the William Lane Craigs and the Lee Strobels, and not leave it to the atheists to do their fact-checking for them. Because if there is a god that’s anything like what Christians preach, he doesn’t need their sleight of hand to prop him up—does he?
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.