It’s 1980, and Lee Strobel is facing a crisis. He’s the Legal Affairs Editor of the prestigious Chicago Tribune newspaper. He’s an avowed atheist. His crisis? His wife has become a Christian, in his mind, fallen victim to a cult. So, this top-flight journalist set out to gather the evidence that would free his wife and save his marriage, challenging experts in many fields with questions.
The book that outlined that investigation became a bestseller, The Case for Christ. And now the story behind this journalistic crusade has been made into a movie of the same name. Unlike the book though, the movie tells the personal story, as Lee and his wife, Leslie, face events that could easily have ended up very differently.
Just ahead of the movie’s official release, Open House presenter Stephen O’Doherty spoke with Lee Strobel via Skype, from his home in Texas.
Stephen: Lee Strobel was a 20-year-old, 20-something-year-old journalist. What sort of a guy was he?
Lee: Well, I was a narcissist, I was a hedonist, I was a heavy drinker, I was self-absorbed, self-destructive in many ways, I was an atheist. I was successful in my career; I was Legal Editor of The Chicago Tribune Newspaper, which is our biggest newspaper between the two coasts.
Stephen: So this is a very important gig you’ve got.
Lee: It was, yeah. And you know, but I was highly functional in the sense that my drinking was restricted to weekends, you know, and I would be drunk in the snow in an alley on Saturday night. But I was successful in my career; I was able to manage it in that way.
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Stephen: And were you married at that time to Leslie?
Lee: Yes, we got married young, I was 20, she was 19. We met when we were 14, and fell in love at first sight. She went home and told her mum, “I met the boy I’m gonna marry,” and true to her word, we got married young.
Stephen: So, take me through the mind of a young legal affairs journalist with all of those characteristics you’ve spoken about when it comes to matters of faith. Now, you’ve already said you were an atheist, but it’s a more aggressive, assertive form of atheism, isn’t it?
Lee: It was. You know, I was hostile toward the faith, toward Christianity especially. I thought it was based on mythology, legend, make-believe, wishful thinking, and you know, thought that you would have to be fairly weak-minded to live that kind of life. I just thought…
Stephen: Is it fair to say that that’s a sort of a trope in the journalism profession of the day?
Lee: I think so, in a lot of ways. You know, studies have shown in the United States anyway, that among the media elite, the percentage of committed Christians is quite low, much lower than the population at large. So, it tends to be a self-selecting population of people who tend to be sceptics, tend to be a little bit cynical, and people like me who are very oriented toward evidence and facts and logic and rationality and truth.
Stephen: Well, into that world and into that culture and your worldview, God broke through in a rather dramatic, upfront and personal way, but not for you, it was through things that happened to your family. First, there was an incident that involved your daughter?
Lee: You know, what happened was similar to what happened in the film, but the bottom line was we feared that we were gonna lose our daughter, and in the movie, it’s a choking incident, in real life, she was lost at an amusement park. And it was a Christian nurse, Alfie in the movie, and in real life a woman named Linda, that sort of rescued the situation. And through her, Leslie became friends, and this woman was a committed Christian, went to church with her, and learned about Jesus from her.
Stephen: And that shook you up. I wanna rip out of the preface to your book. “Leslie stunned me in the autumn of 1979 by announcing she’d become a Christian. I rolled my eyes and braced for the worst, feeling like the victim of a bait-and-switch scam. I’d married one Leslie, the fun Leslie, care-free Leslie, the risk-taking Leslie, and now I feared she was gonna turn into some sexually repressed prude who would trade our upwardly mobile lifestyle for all-night prayer vigils and volunteer working grimy soup kitchens.” Well, you’re a great writer. That’s an amazing passage. Is that how it was?
Lee: That was exactly how I felt. I mean, literally when she told me, and the scene in the movie is just like ripped out of our lives. It’s just so accurate in terms of when she told me that she had prayed and become a follower of Jesus … the first word that went through my mind was divorce. I didn’t want her to be pulled into this Christian subculture where I wasn’t welcome as an atheist. I saw conflict all the way to the horizon of our marriage regarding how we would raise our kids, and how we would spend our money, and how we would spend our weekends. And all of a sudden there’s gonna be, you know, another man in our marriage is Jesus, who she’s gonna be reaching out for emotional support. I thought that was my role. So I felt a little bit jealous of Jesus. I know that sounds odd, but it’s like I thought I was the man in her life, and all of a sudden, now there’s someone else that she not only looks up to, but she worships.
Stephen: I don’t think it’s at all odd, I think it’s a very common experience. I’ve spoken to a lot of men who’ve been through that same sort of transaction over the years. But that didn’t mean then that you went out and did anything out of care for Leslie. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but the movie tells the story about you virtually prosecuting the case…well not virtually, prosecuting the case as to why her faith was based on a lie.
Lee: Yeah. I wanted to kind of rescue her from this cult of Christianity that she’d gotten involved in. I saw it as a cult, as something where they were obviously using some mind control, which she was certainly duped into thinking that there was some substance to these theological claims. And so, you know, my hope was that if I could disprove the resurrection, which the whole Christian faith would collapse like a house of cards. I honestly thought I could do that in a weekend.
Stephen: Well, who put in your mind that you should then do it as an investigative reporting piece?
Lee: I didn’t set out to write anything about it, it was my motive was to rescue Leslie from this cult. And so the way that I figured I could do that since I was trained in journalism and law was to investigate it. And that’s what I did as a journalist, and I thought, that will be easy. I’ll just call up experts, and I’ll study ancient history and archaeology, and check out what the museums have to say, and read books on both sides, and interview as they come along. I was hardly keeping too many notes. I was writing things down but not with the intent of ever doing a book for sure. Toward the end, I thought maybe an article would be a good idea. But that was secondary to my main goal, which was to rescue Leslie.
Stephen: What I found amazing about that is, for people who don’t have an insight into that world, being a journalist is to seek after truth, it’s to seek…you’re a truth-seeker, and also it gives you access that most people…it’s a very privileged position that we have. Most people don’t get access to that.
Lee: It is, you’re exactly right. I could pick up the phone and say, “Hi, this is Lee Strobel from The Chicago Tribune,” get virtually anybody on the phone. And I didn’t even say I was working on an article; I’d just say, “I’m Lee Strobel from The Chicago Tribune. Can I ask you a couple of questions?” And sure, of course. So, you’re right; it is a privileged position. It opens a lot of doors and makes this kind of investigation probably easier than the average person would discover.
Stephen: And being a position of privilege then is a position of obligation, and it’s not ironic, it’s a deeply godly thing, that God used your search after truth to reveal the truth to so many people and generations afterwards.
Lee: You know, it’s just like God in His love and grace to meet people where they’re at. Leslie didn’t need a lot of historical data and scientific evidence to come to faith. It’s just not in her personality and nature, and she had a personal experience with God, and that’s great. But I think God knew that you know, given my scepticism and my background in journalism and law, that it was gonna take evidence for me, and sure enough, He took me on a path to discover exactly what I needed to hear.
Stephen: Well, you spoke with archaeologists, biologists, historians, theologians, lawyers. As this story unfolded, in your mind, was it becoming a crusade? Were you getting angry or were you getting less angry? What was happening?
Lee: Well, I was taken aback. Because like I said, I thought this could be resolved very quickly. But every time I would poke at Christianity, it would poke back, you know? It would have an answer. I’d ask a tough question, I’d find an answer, and I’d say, “Huh, okay. Well, what about this? What about that?” And I’d look at various scenarios and so forth.
I was intrigued but also getting increasingly angry and frustrated because I wanted to end this. But at the same time, you know, I tried to approach it as I did articles as a journalist, with an open mind. Even though my hope was I would free Leslie from this cult, I tried to keep an open mind when I did the investigation. I tried to as we say in the States, call a ball a ball, and a strike a strike. In other words, call them as I see them.
And I think that served me well because had I gone out merely with the intention of building a case against Christianity, or for Christianity, I think I would not have come to a satisfying conclusion. But because I tried to play it down the middle, and be honest about it, and concede when an answer was given that made sense, and challenge answers that didn’t make sense, I felt more confident in the conclusions I was reaching.
Stephen: Well, you are very knowledgeable, so you engage in debate discussion with these great minds, and you bring to them other bits of evidence. For instance, you go to one theologian, you say, “Okay, Jesus calls himself the son of man. He never says he’s the son of God. He never says he is God.” And the answer that comes to that question, for instance, is quite impactive on you?
Lee: It was. Because I was told, if you look in Daniel, “the son of man” is a reference to a character that had divine characteristics. So the claim in the Gospels when Jesus is referred to as a son of man is, in effect, a divine claim. And that is counterintuitive. The intuitive response is, “Oh, son of man, he’s just claiming to be human.” But when you realise he’s applying this Old Testament passage to himself, it becomes something much more different; it becomes a more divine and supernatural claim.
Stephen: Well, then it comes to the central claims of the gospel, the death and resurrection, and the eyewitness accounts. Talk to me about the process by which you came to gather evidence about whether Jesus did die, and whether he rose again, and whether the accounts of that are true.
Lee: I was surprised that there is virtual unanimity among scholars in the field of Jesus’s death. That he was killed, that he was dead when he was crucified. Because much of what we know from ancient history comes from one or two sources. But for the death of Jesus on the cross, we not only have multiple early first-century accounts in the documents that make up the New Testament, but we’ve also got five ancient sources outside the Bible, confirming and corroborating his death.
And then you can go to an atheist New Testament scholar like Gerd Lüdemann, and he’ll tell you that Jesus’s death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable. And then you go to a scientific journal, like The Journal of the American Medical Association, a highly regarded, peer-reviewed, scientific publication, that analysed the historical and medical evidence for the death of Jesus, and concluded that he was dead even before the wound to his side was inflicted. So, regarding him having died, which is contrary to what the Quran claims. The Quran says that Jesus didn’t die on the cross. Well, you know, that’s a totally contrary claim.
Stephen: And you got that from the analysis of modern-day medical people and of the eyewitness accounts, for instance, the piercing of the side with the sword and the fact that fluid came out of the lung cavity, they took as conclusive evidence.
Lee: Yes, exactly, that this would have been exactly what would have happened. If you had a pericardial effusion, basically the collection of fluid around the heart and the lung that would have happened during a crucifixion, which is a slow and agonising death by suffocation.
Stephen: So, if Jesus did die, and as you say, contrary to the claims of many through history, and you’ve now been convinced of that, you then had to prosecute the case for the resurrection. That’s the biggest claim of all.
Lee: Right. Yes.
Stephen: How did you go about that?
Lee: I assumed that the resurrection was a legend, and I knew it took some time for a legend to develop in the ancient world. In fact, Adrian Nicholas Sherwin-White of the University of Oxford said that, in the ancient world, the passage of two generations of time was not even enough for a legend to grow up and wipe out a solid core of historical truth. So, it was important for me to establish when these reports of the resurrection originated, how quickly after the event itself could it have been a legend.
We have preserved for us a creed, a statement of conviction of the earliest Christians. This creed says that Jesus died for our sins, he was buried, and the third day he rose from the dead, and then it mentions some specific names of eyewitnesses and groups of eyewitnesses to whom he appeared. Now, what’s important about this creed, which is essentially a report of the resurrection, is how immediately it developed after the death of Jesus. Indeed, this creed has been dated back by scholars to within months of the death of Jesus.
The great scholar James D.G. Dunn said we can be entirely confident that this creed was formulated as a creed within months of the death of Jesus. So, that’s to me way too early to write it off as merely being a legend. And that’s not the only early report we’ve got, we’ve got others in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the Book of Acts, all of which date back so early, they were circulating during the lifetimes of Jesus’s contemporaries, who would have been all too happy to, you know, point out the errors if they were making this stuff up.
Stephen: As a legal affairs journalist, you’re dealing, hearing about, writing about evidence all the time. As this built up, as you hear this material building up and you realise that these eyewitness accounts are verifiable, that they’re close to the event, that they’re from some different sources, now what’s going on inside your mind?
Lee: What shocked me was the creed is only one of nine ancient sources that we have inside and outside the New Testament that confirm and corroborate the conviction of the disciples that they encountered the resurrected Jesus. So, I mean, that’s an avalanche, historically speaking, of historical data. So, I’m stunned by this. I mean…you know, I’m looking at for instance the earliest biography of Alexander the Great by Arrian and Plutarch. That was written 400 years after his life, and it’s considered reliable. But here we’ve got fresh, close-to-the-scene reports of the resurrection that are rooted in eyewitness testimony and accounts. I mean, this is an extraordinary amount of historical information.
And when you add it to the fact that even the opponents of Jesus implicitly admitted that the tomb of Jesus was empty, Plus a lot of other secondary facts, you’ve got a really good case that Jesus not only claimed to be the son of God, but he backed up that claim by returning from the dead.
Stephen: So then Lee the journalist, with Leslie the wife you’re trying to rescue from a cult, is confronted with evidence that’s compelling. Was there a moment when you realised that this was a truth that had to be taken seriously?
Lee: Oh, I remember clearly. It was two o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday, November the 8th of 1981. And I sat down with all the evidence I’d collected over this almost two-year investigation, and I reviewed it all and wrote down notes to summarize it and get my arms around it. Because, you know, a good jury reaches a verdict, and the evidence was in. I had plenty of evidence; I needed to reach a verdict. And so I analysed it all anew, and then I sat back, and I said, well wait a second. In light of the avalanche of evidence that points so powerfully toward the truth of Christianity, I realised it would take more faith to maintain my atheism than to become a Christian. In other words, the scales just tipped decisively in the direction of Christianity being true.
Stephen: That’s an intellectual moment. Was there a spiritual moment?
Lee: There was, yes, it came after that. In fact…you know, it’s funny because after almost two years of investigating this, once I came to that intellectual conclusion that it was true, I felt very let down.
Lee: It was very anti-climactic. It’s like, okay, I invested two years of my life in this and now I’ve got a conclusion? So what? Well, then I read John 1:12, that says,
“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.”
And I realised that verse forms an equation of what it means to become a child of God. Believe plus receive equals become. And so I realised that just being in intellectual agreement with the evidence and the facts of history is not sufficient. I had to receive this free gift of forgiveness and eternal life that Jesus had purchased for me on the cross when he died as my substitute to pay for all of my sins. And when I would receive this free gift of his grace, then I would become a child of God.
So, that’s when I got on my knees and poured out a confession of a lifetime of immorality that would curl your hair. And that’s when I reached out in repentance and faith, received this free gift of eternal life and forgiveness through Christ, and became a child of God.
Stephen: When you get up from a prayer like that, so much has changed, and yet in some respects so little has changed. Your room is still around you, the evidence of your life which you’ve now admitted is broken, is still around you, and you’ve got to go and confront Leslie. Well, not confront, you’ve got to go and confess to Leslie. What was that like?
Lee: That was the first thought that went through my head, “I’ve got to tell Leslie about this.” I figured she’d wanna know. And you know, I told her, and she burst into tears and threw her arms around my neck and said, “I almost gave up on you a thousand times.” And she said, you know, when I was a new Christian, I met some women at a church, and I told them about you, and I said, ‘I don’t have any hope for my husband. He’s the hard-headed, hard-hearted, legal editor of The Chicago Tribune. He will never bend his knee to Jesus.'”
But then this woman named Sylvia put her arm around Leslie and pulled her to the side and said, “Leslie, no one is beyond hope.” And she gave her a verse from the Old Testament, Ezekiel 36:26, that says, “Moreover, I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
And so that whole two years that I’m on this investigative journey, what I never knew at the time was that Leslie, behind the scenes, every day was praying that verse for me. And starting on that Sunday afternoon, now that I’d been adopted as a child of God, God began to answer that prayer. Because over time, as I was baptized and as I became part of a vibrant church, as I learned to read the Bible with fresh eyes, I learned to worship, as I learned to pray, my values began to change, and my character, and my morality, and my attitudes, and my philosophy, and my priorities, and my relationships, and my marriage. I mean, all these things over time began to change for the good as God answered that prayer that Leslie had prayed so faithfully.
Stephen: And other relationships in your family were restored?
Lee: They were. I wish that my relationship with my father had been restored before he died, but this happened after he died, and we never really reconciled fully our rift in our relationship. But you know, my family, which had suffered as a result of my hedonistic and narcissistic and drunken lifestyle, began to be impacted. My daughter was five years old then, and she’d only known a dad who was absent and angry and kicking holes in the wall out of anger and frustration and coming home drunk. She watched as God changed her dad in front of her eyes, and she watched and listened for about four or five months, and then she came up to Leslie one day and said, “I want God to do for me what he’s done for daddy.” And at age five, she came to faith, and today is married to a seminary graduate, and she writes children’s books about God with him, and she’s a novelist. She has half a dozen novels that have been published that all have the gospel in them.
Stephen: That’s beautiful.
Lee: And the same thing with my son. He saw the difference God was making in his mum, in his dad, in his sister. He came to faith at a young age too, but he took an academic route, ultimately getting a PhD in theology from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and is now a seminary professor. And two years ago his wife gave birth to our first grandson, and he named him after his dad. So, God healed our family and changed my son and my daughter and my wife and me and their children and so forth. It’s just a remarkable cascade of faith that I see unfolding into the future.
Stephen: I mustn’t leave this conversation without asking you. The movie is very real. It’s an extraordinary depiction, and I was at a screening where both you and Leslie were there. How does it feel to see your life laid out like that, all of the warts?
Lee: It’s difficult because it shows the bad side and the good side, and it’s honest, and we said that’s the only way we wanna make the film. If it’s gonna help people, we’re willing to put ourselves out there that way. But you know, it’s embarrassing to see the behaviour that I had before I was a Christian. Leslie has watched the movie now ten times, and when I asked her why do you keep watching it, she said, “I wanna get cried out so that when I see it in public, I’m not gonna cry and embarrass myself.”
Stephen: Well, that didn’t work?
Lee: It didn’t work. She saw it in public, and she cried. And she probably will every time we see it. I probably will too because it’s emotional for us. You know this is looking back on things that have changed, thank God, but you know, a behaviour that we’re certainly not proud of in many cases.
Stephen: Thinking back to your time as a journalist, a very senior reporter in your city, well known, lots of power, access to people, this hedonistic lifestyle, you in some respects are on top of your game and on top of the world, and accepting the truth of Christ essentially means giving up on all of those things that have made you-you, would you ever exchange again?
Lee: No, never. I can’t imagine my life, the path that we were on, where it would have ended up would have been something I wouldn’t even wanna consider. You know, I had hoped that God would have kept me in journalism because I think it’s important to have Christian voices in newsrooms. But He called me out of that, and you know, I took a 60% pay cut, and went to work at a church, and lived in a tiny little house for 20 years, raised my kids and didn’t have much. But we had God, we had faith, and we wouldn’t trade that for anything. It’s been the greatest adventure of our lives, to be able to tell people about Jesus, to see other lives changed, to write books and articles about faith and see how God ignites faith in people’s lives, and what happens as a result. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
Stephen: And Lee Strobel, what makes you hopeful?
Lee: It’s funny. In the Bible, hope is specifically anchored to the resurrection. I think that’s important in a couple of ways. First of all, we can have hope because we know from the evidence that the resurrection occurred, and that gives us confidence that we will someday spend eternity with God as well. That God has opened up heaven to all those, who follow him in repentance and faith. And so that gives me hope.
I almost died five years ago, I was on my deathbed, and there was quite a lot of uncertainty whether I would live and if I survived, whether I would have been mentally disabled as a result. God rescued me from that, thankfully, but it gave me a renewed perspective of what’s important and what’s not important. It helped me realise that the only hope in moments like that is the truth of the gospel and the truth of the resurrection. In those moments, when everything else becomes irrelevant, when the doctor looked at me and said, “You’re one step away from a coma, two steps away from dying,”. My success as an author or as a journalist was totally irrelevant. All that was relevant is that Jesus is real, that I’m his adopted son, and that if I close my eyes in this world for the last time, I’m gonna open them in eternity with him. That’s all that mattered, and it’s all the hope I needed, and you know, that’s all the hope any of us ultimately need.
Stephen: Lee, it’s no small thing to lay your life out like that, and God has gifted and equipped you for that task, but you’ve still got to step in and do that. So, on behalf of a generation that’s been affected by…in a great way by what you’ve done, can I say thank you to you and Leslie?
Lee: Oh, that’s very kind.
Stephen: People must get the book if they haven’t yet read it. It is one of the classics; it’s so important. And the movie, I think, is an important event, which we hope, I certainly hope people will invite their non-Christian friends to see. This a real movie. This is a love story. That’s the first thing that occurred to me after I saw it, it’s a love story. And from that point of view, it’ll touch everybody.
Lee: You’re right, it’s about love, it’s about fathers and sons, it’s about big city journalism, it’s about a spiritual investigation, it’s about faith, it’s about perseverance. I think you’re right; I think everybody will find something to relate to. And interestingly, we’ve shown it to test audiences of non-Christians, and they’ve loved it. So, we’ve been thrilled with that kind of response, and hopeful that, as you say, God’s gonna use it.
In fact, we just this week did a test showing in the States here in North Carolina, and a youth pastor was invited to see it, and he brought along some kids from his youth ministry to watch it. They watched it, and four of them, in the movie, gave their lives to Jesus Christ. So, we believe this is the first four of many who are gonna find faith through this film.
Stephen: And so do I. Lee Strobel, thank you so much.
Lee: My pleasure. God bless.