No matter what stream of Christianity you swim in, Lee Strobel has made a splash there. When conversations inevitably arise about whether the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a matter of fact, Strobel’s bestselling book The Case for Christ has been one of the go-to resources since it was first published in 1998.
Almost 20 years later, Strobel’s blend of investigative journalism, personal storytelling and evidence-based explanations has moved from page to screen. The Case for Christ movie is at cinemas across Australia and, just as Strobel’s written work has had an extraordinary impact upon the world, the big-screen version could be a game-changer.
Speaking to Eternity ahead of The Case for Christ’s Australian release, Lee Strobel is humble and relatable. Even though he’s the guy whose famous book has not only launched 10 million copies, it’s also generated a Christian movie that could change the way Christian movies are made. Before Strobel shares more about his steadfast passion – evangelism – he happily agrees that The Case for Christ movie is a different proposition to a lot of its peers.
“We didn’t paint all the atheists as evil, awful people. We didn’t paint all the Christians as perfect.” – Lee Strobel
“I think we’ve set a new high-watermark for Christian films,” Strobel says, modestly. And he’s not wrong. The film genre labelled “Christian” has a poor reputation among viewers, whether they profess to follow Jesus or they don’t. While every single movie created by Christians with the intention of sharing the good news of God’s Son is not a dud, too many are belligerent (God’s Not Dead), sappy (Heaven is for Real) or preach only to the choir of devoted believers (Fireproof).
“The response we’ve been getting from critics, as well as everyday moviegoers, is that so many Christian films tend to have little moments of cheesiness or that they are embarrassing or cringeworthy. But this film really doesn’t have that,” says Strobel, who is a professor of Christian Thought at Houston Baptist University in Texas. And when Strobel says “critics,” he means it: far from any Christian art ghetto, Variety, Hollywood Reporter and Forbes all praised The Case for Christ.
“We try to treat people not as cardboard characters but as multi-faceted people. We didn’t paint all the atheists as evil, awful people. We didn’t paint all the Christians as perfect. We tried to be balanced in the way we looked at things.”
One of the big things going for The Case for Christ movie is it’s not just re-enacted interviews between Strobel and the 13 scholars he consulted on various aspects of the evidence for Jesus. The reason Strobel, a leading reporter with The Chicago Tribune, conducted those interviews in 1980 was he wanted to prove his wife Leslie was wrong.
While you probably know how the story ends – during the past few decades, Strobel has written more apologetics books, and been a pastor at renowned Willow Creek Community Church – his faith journey demonstrates how compelling it can be to go beyond the facts or persuasive arguments.
The Case for Christ is an evangelism movie that’s not an evangelism movie.
“The vision for this film was to tell a fuller story, to tell the personal story,” explains Strobel about why audiences are encountering Lee and Leslie’s painful and pivotal experiences enmeshed with the evidence he assembled. “To tell about the marriage and to tell a love story. To tell a detective story … and a big city newspaper story, as well as a story of spiritual discovery.”
Written for the screen by Strobel’s friend, Brian Bird, The Case for Christ stars Mike Vogel (The Help) and Erika Christensen (Parenthood TV series) as the Strobels. Screen royalty Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown) shows up in one brief scene as an atheist academic but The Case for Christ succeeds on its commitment to quality elements across the board.
“I think the production quality of the film is high. The acting was very well done; the script was great,” Strobel gives his invested yet accurate verdict. “The most common response we have had, especially from Christian leaders, is this is a film they can be proud of and can confidently invite non-Christian friends to attend.”
To put that another way: The Case for Christ is an evangelism movie that’s not an evangelism movie. There is only one brief on-screen sermon that distils the gospel of Jesus Christ and what it means. Otherwise, unlike so many Christian movies you are thinking of right now, there is no “altar call” scene directed at audience members. There’s not even a sense of inevitability that crusading doubter Strobel will “see the light.” Yet the decision audiences see Strobel make is a potent presentation of what the case for Christ can lead to.
For decades, The Case for Christ book has been a shared gospel tool as Christians are “excited” by it and feel comfortable giving it to their friends and family. “We have had thousands come to faith through it,” Strobel says about the flow-on effect of his book reaching people who are just like he once was. And he has heard the movie adaptation is generating similar momentum.
“What we have been finding is Christians have been going to the movie, getting excited by it and thinking of three or four people they know who don’t know Jesus. People who are spiritually confused or curious. They are calling them up saying, ‘hey, I want to see this movie a second time and why don’t you come with me?’”
“I think it’s that relational pull that will help the film to reach people,” Strobel suggests.
“If you ask me today why do I believe, I don’t give you all the evidence because that’s not the basis for my belief … I believe today because I’ve met Jesus. I’ve known him for these 35 years.” – Lee Strobel
He happily shares how four young people in North Carolina “came to faith in Christ” at a special screening of the movie. He rifles through his latest emails to find another update. “This church called Urbancrest in Ohio, they had 26 salvations and 15 re-dedications,” reads Strobel. The former newsman turned Christian communicator describes himself as an “evangelist at heart,” someone given by God a “passion to see people come to faith in him.”
Little wonder he’s keen for The Case for Christ movie to help anyone develop the kind of relationship he has found life-changing. But Strobel easily tempers any fears you might have that he believes intellectual understanding about Jesus and God is the same thing as having heartfelt belief in them.
“All that apologetics does is lead people to that point of receiving Jesus as their forgiver and leader. The apologetics part becomes helpful to encouraging us in our faith and helps us to share our faith with others. But, our faith is just beginning when we walk through that door; we knock and we receive Jesus – our faith is just beginning.
“It begins an entire lifetime and eternity of experiencing God on a personal level.”
However, Strobel is not talking down the benefits of apologetics, particularly when it comes to proclaiming the significance of Jesus Christ beyond Christian circles.
“Evangelism in the 21st century is spelled ‘apologetics,’” states Strobel. “People have questions and the internet has exposed people to a lot of claims and counter-claims about Christianity; a lot of allegations and misinformation. So, apologetics is becoming ever more important for helping people to understand Christianity is true and, therefore, worth taking a step of faith in that same direction that the truth is pointing – to receive Jesus as our forgiver and leader.”
Strobel vividly remembers the exact day – November 8, 1981 – he accepted what Jesus’ resurrection meant for him. More than two decades later, having sold millions of apologetics books and sparked a high-quality Christian film, his personal belief in Jesus has changed. “If you ask me today why do I believe, I don’t give you all the evidence because that’s not the basis for my belief. It’s still valid and got me to the point of putting my trust in Christ. But, if you ask me why I believe today, I believe today because I’ve met Jesus. I’ve known him for these 35 years.
“Now, that doesn’t negate the importance of the evidence in getting me to putting my trust in Christ but, ultimately, Christianity is a relationship with God.”More