“The only way to truth is through facts.” For award-winning Chicago Tribune crime reporter, and two-fisted atheist, Lee Strobel, those were words to live by.
This movie by Jon Gunn is about how God used facts to haul Strobel out of atheism and into a committed belief in Jesus Christ our Lord. That which was, for Strobel, atheism’s sword and shield “against superstition and ignorance,” God turned to His own good purpose. Well, how many times do the Scriptures warn the sinner that he’ll fall into the pit he dug himself?
I feel a bond with Strobel, having interviewed him several years ago about his book, The Case for a Creator.1 When I finally connected with him by phone, he said he was about to go skiing, but could give me fifteen minutes. We wound up talking for an hour and a half—two guys whom God’s grace had delivered from bondage to false pride—the kind of pride that looks at itself in the mirror and coos, “Oh, you’re so smart!”
The Lee Strobel (played by Mike Vogel) whom we meet at the start of the movie—which is based on his first autobiographical book, The Case for Christ (1998)—is a self-satisfied fat-head: not really a very nice person at all. His wife, Leslie (Erika Christensen), is also an atheist and very happy with their life. They’re raising their little girl to be an atheist, too.
Cheating with Jesus
The first crack in the façade comes one evening at a restaurant, when their daughter chokes on a gumball and they can’t save her. Providentially—and that is meant literally—a nurse was on hand to save the child. She was there because, for no reason she could think of, she’d changed her plans for that evening and went to that restaurant instead of another.
The nurse, Alfie (L. Scott Caldwell), is a Christian, and she and Leslie become friends. Shaken by the experience, Leslie finds herself drawn back toward the Christian faith in which she was raised. Alfie lovingly encourages her, and Mr. Strobel doesn’t like it.
“You’re cheating on me—with Jesus!” he shouts at her. “I want my wife back!”
You’ve got to love this. As he sees it, his atheist convictions are based on “facts” and “science,” and are therefore the only conclusion available to a rational mind, whereas Leslie’s growing Christian convictions are “only feelings,” and therefore don’t count. Oh, no—he hasn’t got any emotional investment in his atheism: no “feelings” here! He’s only yelling at her because he’s so rational.
Gunn’s direction and Vogel’s acting make it real.
A Search for Facts
Without telling Leslie what he means to do, Lee embarks on a journalistic project to assemble “facts” that will “disprove” Christianity. He works very hard at this, interviewing historians and theologians all around the country. But unhappily for him, the facts seem reluctant to take his side of the argument. He also tries, unsuccessfully, to break up his wife’s friendship with Alfie. Again, no “feelings” here—just pure rationality. Uh-huh.
Among the facts collected by Strobel are these.
There were many witnesses to the risen Christ, none of whom recanted, even in the face of lethal persecution.
The manuscript evidence for the New Testament is many times more abundant, and many times stronger, than the evidence for any other event in the ancient world.
The details of the Resurrection narrative—for instance, the prominence of women among the witnesses—are of a kind highly unlikely to have been invented by any first-century fiction-monger.
According to modern medical science, it would have been impossible for Jesus to have survived the crucifixion, thus ruling out any fakery in that department.
Psychologically, it is impossible for any group of individuals to have exactly the same hallucination.
These facts, and others, rock Strobel’s atheist beliefs to the core. This is not supposed to happen. It frustrates him, and he fights it—again, no “feelings” involved. Just cold, hard facts.
When Facts and Reason Lead You Astray
Meanwhile, he still has his job as a crime reporter to do, and he tries to keep on doing it. Out of this develops a wonderful, and very instructive, irony.
Investigating the shooting of a police officer by a petty criminal who may have been a police informant, Strobel brings all his journalistic skills and ideals to bear. This is a man who has told his little girl, “We only believe in what we see.” So based on what he sees, and what he reasons from it, Strobel’s investigation sends an innocent man to prison, where he’s almost killed. Only afterward does Strobel discover that what he saw was incomplete, and thus misleading. In this case, what he could see proved to be a blind guide that led him into the ditch.
This was another opportunity for the script to lapse into heavy-handedness. Instead, it makes us think.
How far do we trust our reason, and the quality of the information upon which it’s based? “Facts” led Strobel to aiding in a miscarriage of justice; but another set of facts helped break down the wall of unbelief he’d raised around his soul.
A key factor in Strobel’s conversion, we see, is his wife’s persistent love. Once she starts moving back to Christ, her husband is really pretty mean to her. “She’s different,” he complains to an atheist friend, “and it scares the heck out of me.” He may even leave her if she keeps it up, he says. The friend comforts him, assuring him that Christianity is “a delusion” and that, if he’s patient with her, the phase will pass and she’ll “come back to the truth” of atheism.
Some viewers will be surprised by the atheists’ emotional intensity in their conviction that there is no God. I have had enough experience with atheists to confirm that this is so: most of them are quite emotional indeed, and their predominant emotion is anger. In Strobel’s case, his anger sprang from what he perceived as his father’s refusal to love him. I have personally known atheists who have carried that same burden all their lives. Strobel discovers, but only after his father’s death, that he’d profoundly misunderstood the man. But for others the paternal rejection was only too real.
Facts, we see in this film, are important to the Christian. What we believe is true. After all, if facts didn’t matter, the book and the movie wouldn’t have been called The Case for Christ.
But love matters, too; and in spite of his struggle to resist its effects, Lee is powerfully moved by Leslie’s love. He confesses this to her, eventually.
Ultimately we are saved by God’s sovereign grace. Faith is the gift of God. Facts are strong, love is strong, but grace is stronger still. When Strobel finally utters a prayer, his first words are, “All right, God—you win.”
We can see these words coming, and can rejoice in them.
Can We Love Atheists?
Lee confesses to Leslie, “The evidence for your faith is more overwhelming than I ever could have imagined.” He, and the evidence, have been led full-circle back to Strobel’s words at the beginning of the story: “The only way to truth is through facts.” But we have also seen that there is more than that to being human and made in the image of God—much more.
The viewer will find it easy to be angry with the old Lee Strobel for his conceit, his close-mindedness, and his mean spirit. Those characteristics of atheists—and there are atheists who are much more obnoxious and provoking than Strobel ever was—nor do we dare suggest that the same characteristics are not to be found in Christians, too—can make it hard for us to feel compassion for them, and to love them as God does. But the Son of God came into the world to find those sheep who are lost, not the ninety-and-nine who aren’t. He came as a physician to heal the sick souls, not the healthy. And we are all, to one extent or another, lost sheep, sick souls. Only Jesus Christ can find us. Only Christ can heal us.
It is this message, expertly delivered by the film-makers, that makes The Case for Christ a movie we can stand up and cheer.