Award winning investigative journalist Lee Strobel set out to reveal the claims of Christianity as false, asked scholars and historians such questions as:
Can the biographies of Jesus be trusted?
Does archeology confirm or contradict
Was Jesus crazy when He claimed
to be the Son of God?
The answers Strobel uncovered through exhaustive research to these and other questions are detailed in his book (and recently released movie) The Case for Christ. In this conversation with Lt. Colonel Allen Satterlee, Strobel and his wife Leslie consider the profound implications of his research.
War Cry: Why were you an atheist?
Lee Strobel: Well, on the one hand, I had a lot of intellectual objections to Christianity. I thought that an almighty, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator of the universe was absurd. I was reinforced by the books of Bertrand Russell and Anthony Flew and other famous atheists. But, there were also underlying emotional and psychological reasons as well as moral reasons. Rarely is it purely intellectual that a person becomes an atheist.
Famous atheists throughout history—Camus, Sartre, Nicci, Freud, Voltaire, Welch, Feuerbach, O’Hair—all had a father who died when they were young or had a terrible relationship or were abandoned by their family when they were young. The implication is, “Why would you want to know a Heavenly Father, if your earthy father has disappointed or hurt you?” I had a very difficult relationship with my father. The Case for Christ movie portrays that. That may have been something that nudged me towards atheism.
There’s usually a moral issue involved. Frankly, I was happy in my sin. I was a happy drunk. I was the most gregarious guy in the bar who bought pitchers of beer for everyone. It cost me a fortune. I got drunk and enjoyed it. I reveled in my sin and didn’t want to come out of it.
War Cry: There’s a character in the movie that is shown reaching out to you.
Leslie Strobel: One of the first people that reached out to me was an African-American woman that I worked with at a bank, who was my boss. She was a strong Christian who witnessed to me. But I was not interested in hearing. Later in life, Lee and I were married, and we had Allison. Downstairs in our apartment building were Linda and Alfie and Ruby. They came up with some cookies and started witnessing and becoming friends with me. She’s the one that eventually led me to the Lord. But for the movie’s sake, they combined the characters.
WC: What bothered you about Leslie’s conversion?
Lee: I felt that she was cheating on me. There was another Man in her life who was giving her emotional support, and I thought that’s what I was supposed to be doing. I felt jealous of Jesus. I felt she was going to be pulled into some part where I wasn’t welcome. I didn’t know what she was turned into, something that I didn’t sign up for. I felt like it was blatant switch. I married the one Leslie, now she’s turned into a different Leslie. She tried to reach out to me awkwardly in those early years. That just made me more angry. I saw that our two different worldviews paving the way to the horizon with conflict. Different ways of raising the kids, spending money, spending our weekends, values and morality.
WC: Leslie, what was it like for you to disclose to Lee?
Leslie: I was afraid to even mention it but I just felt—I felt compelled to tell him. I didn’t feel like I should just keep it quiet. He was really angry, upset and confused. He wanted to know how this all happened. It put him a little bit off on my friendship with Linda and he let it be known that he wasn’t interested in it, that I shouldn’t be bothering him. He didn’t want to go to church with me, give any of our money. He was pretty adamant.
WC: Lee, What was your first surprise?
Lee: When I was a little kid I had an inflatable clown punching bag weighted on the bottom. You would hit it and it would fall backwards then it would spring back up. I thought Christianity would be one punch, one weekend, and I could falsify it. But it was like hitting that punching bag that you’d hit it and it would fall back, then it would pop up. Hit it again and it popped back up. I was shocked that I couldn’t disprove Christianity in a weekend. I was stunned every time I attacked that Christianity came up with a new fact or new evidence. I thought the idea of evidence in faith were totally contrary, that faith was believing in something even though you know in your heart it can’t be true. I didn’t realize that true Biblical faith is a step we take in the same direction the evidence is pointing, which is logical and rational.
WC: When did you perceive your first crack in the atheism?
Lee: I don’t know if I can pinpoint the exact moment of the first crack but it got to the point where on November 8, 1981 I assessed all the evidence that I studied for a year and nine months. Trying to reach verdict like a good jury reaches a verdict. In light of the avalanche of evidence I had seen that points so convincingly toward Christianity being true, it would have taken more faith to maintain my atheism than to become a Christian. Now, the arrows of the evidence were pointing toward Christianity. I couldn’t maintain my atheism.
WC: Was there anything that kept playing over in your mind?
Lee: One of the most dramatic bits of evidence in which He authenticated the claim to being divine—the Resurrection. In the life of Alexander the Great, it was 400 years after his life that Arian and Plutarch wrote their first biography of Alexander the Great and yet they’re considered reliable. There’s a record of the Resurrection of Jesus that the apostle Paul preserves for us in I Corinthians 15:3 that talks about Jesus dying for our sins, He was buried, on third day He rose from the dead. Then, Paul mentioned specific witnesses and groups to whom He appeared. That is an ancient creed of the church that has been pegged by scholars within months of His death. Here you have a news flash from ancient history and a piece of evidence that goes right back to the beginning—that is historical gold. This continues to convince many people that the resurrection actually happened. It’s too quick to write it off as merely being legend.
In the ancient world it took at least two generations for legends to develop and wipe out a solid core of historical truth. We don’t have two generations time here. We have a news flash that goes right back to the beginning—that’s a powerful bit of evidence. There have been scholars who’ve come to faith in Jesus because of that report that is so fresh, hard to dispute and so historically reliable.
WC: When you accepted Christ what was the reaction to those around you?
Lee: They pretended like everything was okay. But then I heard later in the elevator, some guy had said, “Hey, I heard Strobel got God. He got religion. What the heck was Strobel doing?” I think they were puffing on their cigars, drinking their whiskey and thinking, “Something weird going on with Lee.” I had a conversation with a guy who was a colleague of mine back then. He said, “Yeah, Lee, we all thought you were going to be the Editor of the Chicago Tribune. We all thought you we’re going to work for you someday. Then this comes up.” I said, “Yeah, God had other plans.”
WC: How do you handle doubt now?
Lee: I distill it down, “What is the problem? What is the question?” A lot of people have this vague cloud of doubt and they’re not sure what is it exactly. I get it down on paper. “What is the doubt? What is the fact or something I’ve encountered that has me questioning?” That makes it easier to research. There are many good resources to resolve these issues. I wrote a book called The Case for Faith in which I dealt with the top eight objections to Christianity. Nothing comes up anymore that makes me seriously doubt my faith. It may raise a question and out of curiosity, I’ll try to find an answer because I know somebody else is going to ask me about it. Knowing Jesus personally for all these years now it would be hard to convince me He doesn’t exist.
WC: Leslie, what was this was like for you?
Leslie: I almost didn’t believe it (Lee’s conversion) because it came out of the blue. It was always two steps forward, three steps back. There’s this one time he disappeared for a while and said he had to be alone. He came back and said, “I just accepted Christ. I just met Jesus. I felt like I’ve been reaching out for Him and I just met Him. He’s alive.” I’m thinking, “Am I hearing this right” The whole time, I was excited. We hugged and I cried and he cried. It was really precious.
WC: What was the proof to you?
Leslie: When he wanted to pray. He said, “I got to pray about this, I just need time to pray and I’m so excited and grateful.” You could tell that there’s something. It was on his face that something has changed.
WC: Lee, what gives you a sense of wonder?
Lee: I’m still in wonder of the grace of God. I wrote a book about it called The Case for Grace and how God changes lives dramatically, powerfully, 180 degrees. I’ve seen so many people whose stories knock me over and made me in awe of the grace of God—that He loves us, that He offers forgiveness and eternal life as a free gift. That just blows my mind.
WC: If facts don’t support atheism, why do atheists persistent?
Lee: Some of them have authentic, legitimate questions that really hang them up. They don’t feel they’ve yet gotten the sufficient answer. I understand that. There are some tough questions. A philosopher friend, said, “Skeptics have some legitimate questions like ‘Why does a loving God let pain and suffering in the world?’” That’s probably one of their best objections. But we’ve got at least 20 categories of evidence that point powerfully and persuasively toward the truth of the faith. You put them on a scale and weigh them out and say, “Yes, there are some legitimate questions that atheists have and maybe they just haven’t yet found the right answer.” As with me, there are emotional undercurrents to the reason they’re an atheist. There are often moral issues involved. Perhaps, their refusal to open their eyes to the evidence is a reflection of not wanting to give up the life that they’re living and/or the wounds of a past, the father that disappointed them and they’re reluctant to know a Heavenly Father might hurt them more. I think, there are more issues than just the intellectual going on.
WC: You have a Salvation Army story?
Lee: When I was an atheist at the Chicago Tribune, I was assigned a story to do a thirty-part series on the poor of Chicago. So I thought, “Great. I have to find a bunch of poor people and I don’t like to do that. Oh, I know Salvation Army, they will help me.” I went to the Salvation Army homeless shelter on the northwest side of Chicago. And the woman who was the captain who was running that facility, welcomed me in and said I could do research there. I almost lived there for a couple of weeks. I watched as The Salvation Army provided shelter to people that nobody cared about, helped them find work, help them financially, help them get off of drugs and alcohol. They loved their children. They even had a golden retriever that was kind of an unofficial Salvation Army officer who would sit and let the children pet her. They would talk to her and they would tell the dog things that they wouldn’t tell another person. At the end, I laughed and I said to the captain, “I got to go now and write my stories.” And she said, “Before you go, you said you were an atheist, when you first came. Do you ever think about Jesus?” Now, if somebody on the street had asked me about Jesus, I would have shut them down. But because I had seen the love of God expressed through volunteers in that facility and watched them care for people that nobody else cared for, they had a special credibility with me. We had a very profound spiritual conversation. I consider her to be one of the links in the chain that led me to faith.