An Interview With Lee Strobel

Lee Strobel, with a Master of Studies in Law degree from Yale Law School, was an award-winning journalist at the Chicago Tribune.  Today this former spiritual skeptic is a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago. He is the author of numerous books including The Case for Christ, What Jesus Would Say, and Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry & Mary.

The following comments were made by Lee Strobel in an interview by Christianbook.com on November the 22 1999.

CBD Could you tell us about your background and interests?

Lee Strobel Sure! My name is Lee Strobel. I am the author of The Case For Christ. I was an atheist for most of my life. I became a Christian in 1981 after two years of investigating the evidence. I ended up going into the ministry, where I am now a teaching pastor at Willowcreek Community Church outside Chicago.

CBD In The Case for Christ, you talk about your wife's conversion to Christ and the changes in her life. How has truth impacted your life?

Lee Strobel My wife first became a Christian. She had been agnostic and became a believer through the efforts of a friend who took her to church and answered her questions. Leslie came to me in the fall of 1979 and told me she had made the decision to follow Jesus, which I thought was probably the worst thing that could have happened to our marriage! Yet, as it turned out in the ensuing months, her character began to change along with her values, her attitudes. The way she treated me and the children was so much more loving. Based on those attractive changes in her character and values, I was encouraged to investigate whether or not Christianity could be true. Having come from a legal background and a journalism background, I tended to look at the hard evidence.  I examined the historical evidence, the empirical evidence, the proof that Christianity was more than just wishful thinking or a fairy tale or legend, but was actually based on the historical reality of Jesus Christ proving through his resurrection that he was the son of God!

CBD All this laid the foundation for change in your life…

Lee Strobel Absolutely! Once I came to the point where I was certain that the evidence pointed convincingly toward Jesus as being the one and only Son of God, and then invited Him into my life to forgive my sins and to lead my life. My life began to change as my wife's life had. Our daughter Alison who was five years old at the time, only knew a dad who had been angry or drunk.  On one occasion I came home at night so full of rage that I kicked a hole in our living room wall.  That is the kind of person I was. Yet, five months after I gave my life to Christ and she began to see the changes in my character, my demeanor, values and so forth, she came up to my wife and said: "Mommy, I want God to do for me what He has done for Daddy." 

She saw even at her young age the power of God to begin this process of transforming human life.  Of course that process continues to this day.

CBD What motivated you to investigate the claims of Christianity.

Lee Strobel It was really part of the way that I process information. Some people are more experiential—they like to experience things, which is true partially of me—but because I come from a law background, a legal background, and a journalism background, I tend to respond to facts and evidence. My way of processing my spiritual journey was to ask the question "Is there any evidence that supports Christianity being true?" It was this two-year process of coming to the conclusion that the evidence overwhelmingly supports Christianity as being true. This formed the basis for The Case for Christ.  In this book, I retrace the spiritual journey I took for two years.  Instead of me reiterating the historical evidence that I found convincing, I went out and interviewed fourteen leading scholars and experts and I posed to them the tough questions I had as a skeptic.  I forced them to give cogent and meaningful and convincing answers in terms of whether or not Christianity is indeed reliable.

CBD Did you begin your investigation with a seeker mindset, or did you have a "prove this wrong" type of attitude? Looking back, how do you now see your initial quest for the truth?

Lee Strobel I was open…I was a skeptic—certainly an atheist—I did not believe Christianity was true, but I was open to the possibility that it might be true. In other words, I didn't approach this as someone intending to "shoot down" Christianity. I approached it as a journalist would approach a news story because I was a journalist for the Chicago Tribune at the time. I proceeded to gather all the evidence pro and con and be as thorough as I can and ask all the tough questions, and then subject them to scrutiny of a skeptic. I determined to remain open and vowed that I would respond to which ever direction the evidence points.  I think that is a rational way to behave.  That is to say "If there is convincing evidence, then the most rational and logical thing I could do would be to follow that evidence regardless of which direction it took me."

CBD Intellectual honesty?

Lee Strobel Yeah, exactly! To be able to say if the evidence is pointing to Jesus Christ then I would be irrational and I would be illogical if I swam up stream against the evidence. The most logical and rational thing to do if the evidence is pointing powerfully in a certain direction is to take a step of faith in the same direction that the evidence is pointing, and to put your faith in Jesus Christ.

CBD How different would the outcome of your quest have been had you asked your questions to those who would question the reliability and truthfulness of Christianity?

Lee Strobel That's a good question! In my initial investigation I read all of the stuff I could find by liberal scholars, atheists, those challenging the faith. I certainly subjected the evidence to that kind of scrutiny. I explored the opinion of liberals, and those who deny that Jesus is the Son of God who proved it by rising from the dead. What I found is that they had a lot of opinions but not a lot of evidence to back up their opinions. So, what I decided to do in The Case for Christ was to interview those who didn't just have strong opinions about Jesus, but who could back up those opinions with historical evidence. Then I asked them the questions that I had as an atheist, or I had posed as a skeptic. If you read my book you will notice that I quote Michael Martin the atheist and say, "Yeah, but what about this, this is what Michael Martin claims." I put the evidence to the test to see whether or not these scholars have answers to those challenges that are made by skeptics and by atheists. I then leave it up to the reader to conclude whether or not the scholars were able to respond adequately to those kind of challenges.

CBD Why do you think that denial of the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and the historical evidence for Christianity seems to get so much press when there is so little evidence to support these views?

Lee Strobel There are a couple of reasons that they get so much publicity. They are disseminating a message that is contrary to the message that has been believed in—because of the evidence—for two thousand years. That makes news!  If I do a book and investigate the evidence for Jesus Christ, and come away with the conclusion that he is the Son of God and he proved it by raising from the dead, that is not news!  People have believed that for two thousand years!  If they come out and say, "No, the body of Jesus was eaten by wild dogs", which one of the leaders of the Jesus Seminars has claimed, that's news because it is different and contrary to conventional wisdom. The problem is there is no historical evidence—zero historical evidence—that that is what happened to Jesus' body. It may be true that the custom was that crucifixion victims bodies were thrown away and eaten by wild dogs.  The problem with the case of Jesus is we have historical documents that tell us that did not happen in the case of Jesus. We have reliable testimony about what did indeed happen to his body after he was dead.  I think they get a lot of publicity because they are very savvy at using the media, and they are disseminating a message that is newsworthy because it is different than the message that so many people have come to believe over the centuries because of its truth.

CBD That makes good sense to me!

Lee Strobel As a former journalist that makes sense to me! [laughs]

CBD If you say something that rocks the world such as "there are people on Mars…"

Lee Strobel That is going to get more attention than someone who says "You know what, there is no solid evidence that there are people on Mars!"[laughs]

CBD It is interesting that the Jesus Seminar has often stated that aspects of Christianity lack historical evidence, and then in turn it may highlight documents or theories that have little to no historical evidence…

Lee Strobel That is exactly true. For instance, they often elevate the gospel of Thomas to a stature equal to the four gospels that we have in the New Testament.Yet, the evidence is so strong that it is a much later document that does not carry the same weight and historical reliability as the gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Still, they promote that for their own reasons, because it is a collection of Jesus' sayings that doesn't include miracles and his resurrection. They like that because they don't want to embrace his miracles and resurrection because they point convincingly toward Jesus as being God.

CBD What are some of the prime reasons that you have discovered in your investigation that people attempt to either falsify or deny the clear historical evidence?

Lee Strobel I think the biggest reason that people try to attack Christianity and the historical record is the same one that I used when I was an atheist. It is based on the question of his resurrection, which is said to be a legend that developed many years after the life of Jesus. The problem with that is that we have preserved for us a creed that was recited by the earliest Christians and which is found in 1 Corinthians 15, verses 3 and following. The Apostle Paul put this creed in the New Testament. It had been given to him by the eyewitnesses Peter and James. This creed affirms the fundamental truth that Jesus Christ was crucified for our sins, that he was buried, and that he was resurrected on the third day. This creed can be dated back by scholars from a wide spectrum of theological belief to as early as 24 to 36 months after the life of Jesus Christ!  There is no way that legend could grow up that fast and distort a solid core of historical truth.  In fact, they have done studies at the rate in which legends grew up in the ancient world, and they found that two generations of time is not enough to pass to allow legend to grow up and to thoroughly distort a solid core of historical truth.

What we have here is a very early historical assertion that Jesus returned from the dead, and it mentions the actual names of the eyewitnesses that saw Him and encountered Him, including James and Saul of Tarsus. This creed is so early that there is no way that it could have been tainted by legendary development.  People may claim that the idea that Jesus was raised from the dead was a legend, but the historical evidence powerfully demonstrates that it could not have been a legend, because it was based on actual eyewitness accounts that were embodied in that very early creed.

CBD It is amazing how much work and study is involved in the process of disproving or dismissing the claims of Christianity. Does this indicate that people are on a quest for the truth?

Lee Strobel No, I think it shows that many people will go after evidence that supports what they already believe.  People who have a strong opinion try to go out and find evidence to back-up their opinions. In contrast what I did—I was an atheist at the time—I went out and said "I will go wherever the evidence points me. I am going to look for evidence for atheism, for Christianity, for other world religions, and I am going to see if there is any credible evidence that Christianity is true." I think that some people try to back up what they already believe by trying to find some facts. I would encourage people to consider the possibility that Christianity may be based upon truth.

CBD Did you have any remaining questions that you were unable or did not ask at the time of your investigation into Christianity?

Lee Strobel It is interesting, I am currently working on a sequel to The Case for Christ called The Case for Faith.  It answers some of the questions that The Case for Christ did not have time to get into. The Case for Christ is primarily the positive historical case for Christianity being true. Some people raise questions like "What about suffering in the world, how can there be a loving God if He sends people to hell, how can miracles be true, and how can we believe in those in the 21st century?" I am taking those questions and producing a new book called A Case for Faith, which will respond to some of these obstacles which are in the way of some people putting their trust in Jesus. That book will be out later in the year 2000 published by Zondervan.

CBD Every year around Easter, the major weekly magazines tend to review the same arguments against the historicity of Christianity.  What should readers keep in mind when evaluating the information that is often presented as fact.

Lee Strobel I think that people will sometimes look at the credentials of a scholar and believe that person without asking why they believe what they believe. In other words, many of the Jesus Seminar scholars have doctorates from respected institutions. Yet, unless you look at the basis on which they are making these assertions, you can be fooled into thinking that they have more substance backing up what they say than they really do. What I try to say is "Look not just at the opinions of scholars, look not at just their credentials, but look at whether or not they can support what they claim by solid historical arguments and evidence.  When you do that, I have confidence that people will walk away with the opinion and the conclusion that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the best attested event of ancient history, and that consequently we can rest on solid assurance that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead! We can believe that He is the Son of God and that His teachings are worth our following. Consequently, Jesus deserves to have our worship, our allegiance, and our lives.

CBD Could you comment on the role of bias, especially anti-supernatural bias?

Lee Strobel I think that there are some people, including some in the Jesus Seminar, who approach this whole thing with an anti-supernatural bias, which means they start out with premise that the supernatural cannot happen. They say, "I have never seen it happen, and science cannot verify it. Therefore, the supernatural has no room in science, and cannot be true. Now prove to me that Jesus is who He claimed to be."

That line of thinking does not make sense to me!  I want to say "Let's be a little bit more humble and say we don't understand all of the workings of the world. Let's be a little bit humble and say we don't have perfect understanding of what happened in ancient history. Let's open ourselves to the possibility that God may have entered history through Jesus Christ; that the supernatural may be possible, and its worth looking at the evidence and then determining whether or not there is strong evidence that the supernatural could have occurred.  I don't think we should look for the supernatural behind every bush, but where there is strong evidence that points powerfully toward a miracle having occurred—especially the resurrection of Jesus Christ—then I think it's being intellectually dishonest to dismiss that just by saying "I've never seen somebody come back from the dead therefore it's impossible."  I think we need to look at the evidence and I think that if we do, with an open heart and an open mind, I think the evidence is there to show that the resurrection actually occurred.

CBD Who would you give or recommend The Case For Christ to?

Lee Strobel I think that this book is the perfect book to give to a skeptic, to an agnostic, to someone who is a seeker investigating Christianity, to someone wondering if there is any substance to the Christian faith, to someone who is open to investigating the evidence for themselves. I have got letters and personal accounts from dozens of dozens of people who say that reading this book was what God used to bring them into faith in Jesus Christ. One guy said "Five days ago I was an atheist. I read this book and now I am a follower of Jesus."  I spoke at a church recently and afterwards seven people came down independently to tell me that they had come to faith in Jesus Christ after reading this book.  It is a book for spiritual seekers to help them in their spiritual journey.

At the same time it is a book for Christians to solidify and undergird their faith because a lot of Christians don't know why they believe what they believe. Therefore, they are reluctant to get into conversations with seekers or skeptics because they are not quite sure why it is that they believe what they claim is true. For them, this could be a book to deepen their faith and to give them a solid factual foundation for what they believe. What I find a lot of people do is to get two copies. They get one copy for themselves to strengthen their own faith, but then they get one to give to a friend who may be investigating Christianity or may not be a Christian but is open to the faith.  This gives them a basis to discuss things and enter into a dialogue about it.

CBD It's More Than A Carpenter for the Nineties…

Lee Strobel Yeah! More Than A Carpenter is a wonderful book.  Josh McDowell wrote it and is a friend of mine. He said "Lee, the funny thing is you read More Than a Carpenter when you were an atheist, and it was one of the many books you read in your spiritual journey." He said, "My son has taken your book to witness to a friend's father who is an atheist." Here we have Josh McDowell's son using my book to reach out to someone, just as Josh McDowell's writing helped me when I was a skeptic. It is interesting how God sort of uses different people in different ways to bring the same message and the same evidence about the veracity of Christianity.

CBD Could it be that your open minded approach and the way you document your spiritual journey appeals to people today?

Lee Strobel I think people can relate to that because it is sort of asking some of the questions along the way that they had. They can relate to me as someone who was a skeptic and yet open minded in terms of my own investigation.

CBD With a skeptic, or seeker in mind, what would you share about Christianity if you had a few minutes with them—would you have one thing to get across?

Lee Strobel I would tell them that both the Old Testament and the New Testament make it clear that if you seek God with an open heart and an open mind, you are going to find Him. I would encourage them to do that—to investigate the facts for themselves, to read this book The Case for Christ, and let it help them in their spiritual journey. At some point it is going to be a question of the step of the will. You are going to come to the conclusion that there is solid evidence for Jesus Christ being the unique Son of God. Then the question is going to be, "Are you going to be willing to take a step of faith in the same direction that the evidence is pointing towards, and give your life to Jesus?"  I would say that is the most rational and logical thing that a person could do.  It will be a step that will change everything for them for the good.  God can change your values, your character, your philosophy, your worldview, your marriage, your relationships, and your eternity all for the good.  I would say you have nothing to lose, and eternity to gain if you open your heart and open your mind, and check it out yourself. Begin with my book, but maybe that's not enough.  Maybe you will need to read other books, and that is fine, but if you seek you will find!

CBD Amen!

Lee Strobel [Laughs]

CBDThanks for your time and sharing with us!

Lee Strobel I appreciate you asking me. God bless you man!

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