“The Case for Christ” and a stubbornly historical religion – Catholic World Report
The case of Christ is a film adaptation of Lee Strobel’s bestseller of the same name, which caused a stir in evangelical circles and beyond. This is the story of an ambitious (and atheist) young reporter for the Chicago Grandstand, who fell into a psychological and spiritual crisis when his wife became a Christian. The scenes involving Lee and his wife, which take place over several months of their married life, struck me as poignant and believable – and I say this with some authority, having worked with a number of couples in a similar situation. In some cases, an unbelieving spouse may view their partner’s faith as a harmless diversion, much like a pastime, but in other cases, the unbelieving spouse sees the dawn of faith in their own good. -loved as something akin to betrayal. This last situation strongly obtained in the marriage of the Strobel.
In order to resolve the tension, Lee used his considerable analytical and investigative skills to demystify the faith that so appealed to his wife. The object of his investigation was, at the suggestion of a Christian colleague at the Grandstand, the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus is not resurrected, explains his friend, Christianity collapses like a house of cards. The story then unfolds, like a sort of detective novel, Strobel tracking down leads, interviewing experts, asking the tough questions.
I liked this for several reasons. First, at its best, Christianity is not fideistic, that is, it depends on a pure, uncritical act of faith by its adherents. On the contrary, he happily embraces reason and welcomes critical questions. Second, and in the same vein, Christianity is stubbornly historical religion. It is not a philosophy (though it may use philosophical language), nor a spirituality (though a spirituality may be distilled from it); rather, it is a relationship with a historical figure about whom an extraordinary historical claim has been made, namely, that he has risen bodily from the dead.
Now especially in recent years, many attempts have been made to mitigate the outrage of this claim. Jesus was a great moral role model, a powerful teacher of spiritual truth, an inspiring man of God – and it doesn’t matter that the resurrection records are factually accurate. Indeed, they are probably best read as mythical or symbolic. To all this classical Christianity says no. He agrees with Lee Strobel’s colleague: if the resurrection has not taken place, Christianity should be allowed to fall on the ash heap of history. Thus, seeing our intrepid investigator going about his business is, for a true Christian, moving, precisely because the questions are legitimate and there is indeed something at stake.
What were his demands? First, he wondered if resurrection stories were just fairy tales, pious inventions meant to rid us of our fear of death. But he learned that, in fact, many people claimed to have seen Jesus after his crucifixion, five hundred of them at once. Moreover, most early church leaders went to their deaths defending the legitimacy of what they taught. Would anyone do this for a myth or legend of their own invention?
But another question came to mind: would they all have been victims of a mass hallucination? A psychologist patiently explained that daydreams are not shared by hundreds of people at different times and places. “If hundreds of individuals had the same hallucination, it would be a greater miracle than resurrection,” she informed him with a smile.
But what about the reliability of the Christian texts themselves? Were they not written long after the events described? A Catholic priest, who is also an archaeologist and specialist in ancient manuscripts, told him that the number of ancient copies of the Christian Gospels far exceeds that of any other ancient text, including the Iliad of Homer and Dialogs of Plato.
What about the “fainting theory” that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross but only passed out, only to be resurrected some time later? A Los Angeles-based doctor detailed to him the brutal process of a Roman execution, which resulted in the victim’s slow death and asphyxiation. The fainting theory, the doctor concluded, “is rubbish.”
At every step of the process, Strobel continued to question, question, balk, and argue, while maintaining the default position that Christianity is rubbish. Nevertheless, it was becoming clear that the relentlessness of the counter-arguments and their stubborn congruence were wearing him down. It reminded me of John Henry Newman’s famous story of how we come to religious assent. It is very rarely by virtue of a decisive argument, says Newman, but rather by the slow and steady confluence of inference, intuition, intuition, experience, the testimony of others, etc. . This convergence of probabilities, under the aegis of what Newman called the “illative sense” usually leads the mind to assent.
During their conversation, Strobel’s priest-archaeologist interlocutor showed the skeptical journalist a reproduction of the Shroud of Turin, supposedly the burial linen of Jesus. Looking into the eyes of the picture, Strobel asked, “What would have put him through all this?” The priest replied, “That’s easy: love.” As the arguments raced through his head, Strobel remembered that image and that explanation – and the filmmakers insinuate that’s what ultimately led him to believe.
The case of Christ is interesting for a number of reasons, but I think it is particularly compelling for its subtle depiction of the psychological, spiritual and intellectual dynamics of evangelism.
If you enjoy the news and views provided by Catholic World Report, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers around the world for free, without subscription. Thank you for your generosity!
Click here for more information on donating to the CWR. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.