Lee Strobel is one of Christianity’s best-known apologists, but he wasn’t always a believer. Once an avowed atheist, Strobel began to question his unbelief after his wife became a Christian. He channeled his background in journalism into an investigation of Christianity, which became the book The Case for Christ. Now Strobel’s bestselling work has been turned into a feature film of the same name, which is currently in theatres. Kristin Ostensen, Salvationist associate editor, spoke to Strobel about the film and why defending the faith is more important now than ever.
Before we talk about the film, I understand you have a Salvation Army connection.
Yes, The Salvation Army played a role in my coming to faith. When I was an atheist and a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, I got an assignment to do a 30-part series on the poor in Chicago. So I went up to the Salvation Army emergency shelter on the northwest side of Chicago and spent a couple of weeks there researching the story. I was impressed by the volunteers, how they were serving people that nobody cares about. When I left, the woman running the centre said, “I know you told me you are an atheist, but what do you think of Jesus?” If somebody had asked me that on the street, I would have shut him down, but because of the credibility that she and her volunteers had, I took an interest and asked her questions. We had a wonderful spiritual conversation and I consider it a link in the chain of my coming to faith. So I appreciate The Salvation Army because of that experience—I appreciate what you all do. In 1974, The Salvation Army gave me an award for the articles that I wrote. It was kind of them to think of me that way. Even though I was an atheist, they were warm.
Your journey from atheism to Christianity is chronicled in The Case for Christ, which was originally published in 1998. How did the film come about, 20 years later?
I just finished an updated and expanded version of the book. I wanted to include new archeological evidence and new manuscript evidence. And out of the blue I got two phone calls from two movie studios—one of which was Pure Flix—asking if they could make a film out of my book. I had been in a Pure Flix movie—I played myself in God’s Not Dead 2—so I knew them and trusted them. I said, “As long as Brian Bird (who is a friend of mine) writes the script, I’ll do it.”
How closely does the film follow your life and the book?
When you have to take years of someone’s life and compress them into a movie of 90 minutes, you have to compromise at some places. But I’d say it’s 80 to 85 percent accurate. Brian Bird wanted to keep the story true to what happened. Some scenes feel as though they were tape recorded from our lives, and others are based on true things but some liberty was taken.
Do you think the film will appeal to non-Christian viewers or, as an explicitly Christian film, is it more “preaching to the choir”?
I think it will appeal to non-Christians but I don’t think a lot of them are going to walk in off the street into a movie called The Case for Christ. But I think what’s going to happen is the same thing that happened with my book: Christians will watch the movie and say, “I need to invite my brother who’s a skeptic, my neighbour who’s confused spiritually, my colleagues at work, or my fellow students.” As Greg Laurie—a great evangelist and pastor in the United States—said after watching the film, there’s no cringe-factor in it. You can feel confident inviting someone who’s not a Christian. And that was our goal—to make it something that Christians could share with people who were at different places in their spiritual journey. And I think Pure Flix accomplished that.
There have been a number of great apologists in the 20th century, including C.S. Lewis and Josh McDowell. How do you see yourself as part of this tradition and, in a post-modern society, how are apologetics relevant today, whether in film or book form?
Apologetics are more relevant than ever. Evangelism in the 21st century is apologetics, because of the rise of the new atheists, who have written a lot of books, and done films and television and so forth, and have a foothold in the media. Christians are not reading these books by atheists, but their neighbours, colleagues and friends are. And then they are coming to them and saying, “What about this thing that Richard Dawkins says? What about this claim that Sam Harris makes?” And Christians don’t know how to respond because the church hasn’t trained them. So they’re going to their pastors and saying, “We need help. You need to train us on how to respond to these kinds of questions.” Interest in apologetics is bubbling up from the pew, from the average Christian, and churches are now more intentional about doing training and providing materials that help people.
There is a lot more material out there to help Christians than there was when I wrote The Case for Christ. I think we are in a golden year of Christian apologetics—the scholarship is sharper than ever and Christians are winning debates like never before. I see a proliferation of ministries, books on apologetics are flourishing—there is a lot of good stuff happening.