Earlier this week I had the opportunity to watch The Case for Christ at a local theater with my wife. Since the movie addresses many of the subjects that I write and speak about on a regular basis, I wanted to share some of my thoughts about it. There are a few minor spoilers here, although they aren’t spoilers if you already know the true story behind the film.
The movie tells the story of Lee Strobel and his journey from atheism to Christianity. Based on his book by the same title, the film highlights Strobel’s investigation into the central claims of Christianity—Jesus died on the Cross and was seen alive again three days later because He rose from the dead.
The movie really is well done. Christian films are often maligned for their level of quality, but I don’t think this would be a valid criticism of this film. The acting and storytelling is very good. It really feels like 1980, and viewers get a good look inside the Chicago Tribune newsroom where Strobel was an award-winning journalist.
Strobel’s testimony is well documented. After his wife Leslie converted to Christianity, he set out to prove that Christianity was false. In the film, he asks a coworker where he should start in his effort to debunk the faith. The coworker was a Christian and challenged him to go for the jugular—disprove the Resurrection and Christianity crumbles. So that’s what Strobel focused his efforts on.
The investigative reporter interviewed experts in various disciplines trying to punch holes in the Resurrection narratives. Were the manuscripts reliable? Did Jesus really die on the Cross? Were the disciples just hallucinating when they saw Jesus alive again? Is there credible evidence for Jesus outside of early Christian sources? The answers to these questions and many others shook Strobel’s atheism to its core.
In the beginning of his book, The Case for Christ, Strobel tells the story of James Dixon, a man convicted of shooting a police officer in the stomach during a scuffle. Everyone knew Dixon was guilty, all the evidence presented at the trial pointed to that fact, and Dixon even admitted that he did it. Yet, one piece of evidence was missing, and it was that one bit that changed everything and led to Dixon’s acquittal. This story is woven throughout the film and serves as an analogy for the way evidence is often viewed from a skewed perspective based on one’s starting point.
The film also shows the difficulties Lee and Leslie faced as they started growing apart. As Lee became more and more frustrated with his wife’s newfound faith, he became more determined to disprove it. Eventually, he realized that he couldn’t debunk Christianity, but he still didn’t want to convert.
His testimony highlights the fact that oftentimes the rejection of Christianity is not due to a lack of evidence. In an interview, Strobel said that there is often an emotional underpinning to one’s atheism. In his case, it stemmed from a very difficult relationship with his father, and he cited many other similar stories. He added that there are often moral issues at play. He didn’t want to change his lifestyle—he enjoyed getting drunk and didn’t want to give that up.
Eventually, Strobel gave his life to the Lord, and the film shows this in a dramatic scene with his wife. He told her that her faith was based on solid facts, and that he had come to accept that it was true. But he also told her that it wasn’t only the facts that persuaded him; his wife’s changed life played a major role in Strobel placing his faith in Jesus Christ. This scene shows how God reaches people in a variety of ways. For some, like Strobel, God uses the evidence for Christianity to bring them to the Christ.
Lee Strobel is now a very well-known Christian apologist. He is the author of numerous books dedicated to demonstrating the truth of Christianity, including The Case for Christ and The Case for the Real Jesus (both of which I highly recommend). He is an excellent writer so the books are engaging and easy to read.
I truly enjoyed the film, and it wasn’t just because he drove a Camaro (which is what I drive), although that was very cool. At times, it seemed like I was listening to my own Resurrection presentation on the big screen. It was interesting to see how one of my professors, Dr. Gary Habermas, was portrayed. That scene demonstrated the only “shortcoming” of the film I found, although I think shortcoming is too strong of a term. In Strobel’s encounter with Dr. Habermas, the professor tells him about the death of his first wife, Debbie. But Debbie died in 1995, 15 years after the scene takes place in the movie. Strobel did interview Dr. Habermas after 1995, and that interview makes up one of the chapters in his book. So the film took that particular detail and stuck it in 1980. It works well for the film, but it isn’t technically accurate. In the interview mentioned earlier, Strobel estimated that 15–20% of the movie doesn’t line up with his life in exact detail, but for the purpose of the script, certain details, like this one, were tweaked a little to make for a more compelling film.
I highly recommend this movie. For Christians, The Case for Christ is a wonderful film that will encourage you and demonstrate that the foundation of our faith, the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, can withstand skeptical scrutiny and historical examination. For unbelievers, I urge you to see this film as well and undertake your own investigation of these events.
I finally got to see the movie tonight. It was a good story, but I was disappointed that the emphasis was so heavy on the resurrection of Jesus and nothing to do with why He died. There were a few mentions of “He died for love,” but no mention of the atonement or the concept of sin. The resurrection means nothing without atonement (and vice versa). A Mormon could have watched this film and agreed with everything. There was a complete absence of the concept of sin against God, but only a horizontal concept of letting down other people (regardless of what wording you want to use to discuss sin). His prayer was emotional, but it was basically, “I believe there is a God and want whatever is next.” I don’t think there is a magic formula, but it was pretty thin. Overall, it was not a case for Christ, but a case for just the resurrection and missing the heart of the good news that Jesus died as the propitiation for sinners. It presented the evidence well and in a compelling way, but only half of the story.
Did I miss something where atonement was described?
Can someone come to salvation (as was presented in the film) without understanding the atonement and his own sin against God?
Roger, I’ll have to watch it again to see if it mentions the atonement at all. It may have to wait until it’s on Blu-ray, but I’ll revisit this comment at that time.
From an apologetic perspective, it makes sense why the Resurrection is the emphasis of his investigation—you can make the case that He was crucified, buried, and then the tomb was empty and people saw Him alive again. As for the atonement, how would you set about demonstrating (again, from an apologetic standpoint) that His death on the Cross was a propitiation for our sins? You could point to Isaiah 53 and Daniel 9:26 to see that the Messiah was going to die as a sacrifice for others.
In his book, he asks Dr. Metherell, “What could possibly have motivated a person to agree to endure this sort of punishment?”
Metherell said, “…Jesus knew what was coming, and he was willing to go through it, because this was the only way he could redeem us—by serving as our substitute and paying the death penalty that we deserve because of our rebellion against God. That was his whole mission in coming to earth…So when you ask what motivated him, well…I suppose the answer can be summed up in one word—and that would be love” (p. 203).
That last part of the statement from Metherell comes through clearly in the film, but I’ll watch it again and post an update here.
I forgot to address your last question in my first response. You asked if someone could come to salvation without understanding the atonement and his own sin against God. I think there are plenty of examples in the Bible of people who were saved without an understanding of the atonement and perhaps without understanding their own sin against God. Did any of the Old Testament saints, and even New Testament believers prior to the Crucifixion and Resurrection, understand the atonement? Sure they knew about sacrifice, but did they know that Christ was going to die for their sins and rise from the dead? Jesus told His disciples this on a few occasions, but they didn’t understand it until after it happened.
Abram believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:21–22). Hebrews 11 mentions several people who were saved, but they did not understand the atonement (in the sense of knowing that the Son of God was going to die as a sacrifice for our sins) and there is no mention in many of these cases whether they understood their own sin against God (although I think they probably did). We have NT examples where it is not clearly stated that the atonement and the person’s sinfulness was fully explained (e.g. the Philippian jailor and those who believed after Paul’s message in the Aeropagus).
So yes, I think a person can be saved today without understanding these things, because I do not believe there have been two ways for people to be saved, and I know you don’t believe that either. Of course, one can only be saved because Jesus died in our place and rose from the dead, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the person understands all of that the moment they place their faith in God and call on Him for salvation.
We are called to proclaim the gospel message, and if the film neglected to explain key aspects of the atonement, then that’s disappointing because it would’ve been quite simple to include those details if they came up during Strobel’s investigation (which they apparently did, based on the quote I gave of Metherell in the previous response). I think you raise a good point about whether a Mormon could affirm the teaching of the film. As I said before, I’ll check it out when it comes out on video and update this. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts on it.
I must insist that apologetics goes far beyond treating the events of the Bible as mere historical facts that can be examined under a man-made system of journalistic interrogation. The atonement is as much a point of the hope that I have in Christ as the historicity of the resurrection. Without either I have no hope of eternal life to provide a reason for. I am not hesitant to use the Bible in my apologetics and tell people what it says is true, whether they will believe me or not. Yo demonstrate the atonement “from an apologetics standpoint,” I would open the Bible and proclaim what it teaches, reasoning from the Scriptures that Jesus was God in the flesh, the Messiah who came to take away the sins of the world. I guess you could call that expository apologetics.
Of course a book affords more opportunity for detail, so I am commenting on the movies’s treatment.
I think your phrase “call on Him for salvation” is the very key point I am making: Call on Him to be saved from what? The movie is silent on this point (as far as I can recall).
Salvation requires belief in the atonement. In the two biblical cases you cite, “they spoke the word of the Lord to them” and had further discourse after the jailer asked how to be saved (he must have had some notion of his need for salvation to even ask the question). I presume Paul explained to the jailer the reason Jesus died and rose again, though this specific text is silent on the details of that matter. Maybe Paul just told him to believe that God existed and that Jesus died for love even if he didn’t “know what all of this means”…but that would be novel for Paul (1 Cor. 15).
Roger, thanks for the response and for the iron sharpening iron discussion.
I agree that apologetics goes far beyond treating the events of the Bible as mere historical facts. Although I wouldn’t classify all historical investigation as a man-made system of journalistic interrogation since it is primarily based on the concept of finding corroborating evidence/testimony of certain events, which is what was frequently called for in the OT law regarding trials (i.e. “two or three witnesses”). With Scripture, we already have the ultimate witness because it is God’s Word, and I am not hesitant at all to use it in apologetic discussions. But I am also not hesitant to use historical and scientific evidence in those discussions, because I don’t believe apologetics needs to be an either/or endeavor but a both/and or an all of the above endeavor regarding methodology (presuppositionalism, evidentialism, classical, etc.). I know that many presuppositionalists believe their approach is the only biblical one, claiming that anyone who uses evidence with an unbeliever is sinning, but that is because the theological system undergirding their methodology demands it. If one does not share the Reformed view of man, then one does not need to adopt such an approach. There are plenty of examples in the New Testament where one is directed to look at the physical evidence, so I don’t have a problem with that approach, as long as it is guided by the truth of Scripture.
I gave far more than two examples of people who were saved without understanding the atonement. I cited Abraham, the rest of the Old Testament saints and New Testament believers prior to the Crucifixion and Resurrection. But regarding the two you mentioned, I have no doubts that Paul explained the atonement to them later on, but his initial response to the Philippian jailer was to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved. This seems like the immediate response given while they were still in the prison. Then when the jailer took them to his house, Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.” It looks like the jailer believed, took them home, and then learned more about the word of the Lord. In Athens, it does not tell us that Paul explained the atonement to those who believed after hearing his message. I think he probably did, but this was after they already believed (if we are going to limit ourselves to what is specifically in the text). However, I don’t doubt that Paul had more to say in his speech in the Aeropagus than what Luke records, and I would not be surprised at all if he discussed Christ’s sacrificial death with them, but it goes beyond the text to insist that he did.
Throughout the Gospel of John we read statements like, “whosoever believes in Him” (John 3:16), “he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life…” (John 5:24), “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3), “…but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). There are many other examples where salvation is contingent upon faith in God, not faith in God and understanding the atonement. It is only because of the atonement that one can be saved by faith alone in Christ alone, but I think it would be accurate to say that it is the object of our faith that saves, not the content of our faith. That does not diminish our duty to proclaim that gospel of Christ’s sacrificial death, burial, and Resurrection.
Finally, it is accurate to say that Jesus died for love. “For God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten Son…” (John 3:16, see also Romans 5:7–8, Ephesians 2:4, 1 John 4:9, and more). It’s also true that He died for our sins so that we can be forgiven and dwell with Him eternally—for Christ to be the propitiation for our sins and satisfy God’s wrath against sin. Why? Because of His love.