Reviewing The Case for Christ (Introduction: pages 9-16)
Opening the book, Strobel begins by recounting the case of James Dixon; what seemed to be a routine open-and-shut case, whereby all the evidence of the case would seem to point to the conclusion that Dixon shot police sergeant Richard Scanlon in the abdomen during a scuffle in Chicago. However, Strobel recounts that, although a cursory look at the evidence surrounding the case would point to Dixon’s guilt, Strobel recalls that an informant told Strobel to check out the evidence for himself and see what the evidence really pointed to. This would reveal that, after a careful investigation of the evidence, it turned out that what actually happened was nothing like what the initial assessment of the evidence would have us believe!
While it is certainly an interesting story, I do have a huge issue with the conclusion Strobel reaches. He claims that:
“One of the most obvious lessons was that evidence can be aligned to point in more than one direction.” (p. 12)
While I do agree with this in principle, the trouble is that is not what happened in this case. Strobel recounts that originally, the evidence in favour of Dixon’s guilt were:
- A .22-caliber gun belonging to Dixon-covered with his fingerprints and with one bullet having been fired-was found nearby
- Powder burns on Scanlon’s skin showed that he had been shot at extremely close range
- When the police ran Dixon’s ran his rap sheet, they found he had previously been convicted of shooting someone else
- And that Dixon confessed to the crime
However, he then goes on to point out that:
- Before Scanlon had arrived, Dixon was hitting his gun on the door which caused the bullet to be discharged towards the front porch, accounting for the missing bullet
- A witness testified that Dixon threw the gun away, so he would not be found with it
- The powder burns were inside Scanlon’s shirt and the bullet hole was at the bottom of the pocket and the trajectory had been at a downward angle
- Dixon has been wrongfully convicted of the crime he had been convicted of
- And finally, Dixon pleaded guilty because if he admitted to the crime, he would have been released in less time than if it had gone to trial
The conclusion I take from this, is not necessarily these pieces of evidence can be interpreted in more than one way, as Strobel suggests. Instead, the take-home message for me would be, that the most obvious answer is not always true. Or even that if one takes the accepted wisdom without carefully examining the evidence, then it is very easy to come to the wrong conclusion. This for me, perfectly epitomises my own journey when it comes to coming to my own conclusions about Christian theology, in particular the resurrection of Jesus.
When reading anything on the emergence of Christianity, or the historicity of the existence of Jesus or perhaps most significantly, the resurrection, Christian apologists often insist upon an incredibly simplistic account. They maintain that the Gospels and New Testament writings were written by the named authors, recorded everything (or at least, a lot) very accurately and died for what they believe in (each of these will be critically analysed in the next few chapters and elsewhere). For me, this is what we might consider to the initial assessment of the Dixon.
The reason I say this, is because this would be the accepted wisdom which apologists often attempt to convey based on a superficial analysis of evidence. However, just as in the case of Dixon above, when we probe a little deeper and critically examine the all the evidence, it soon becomes clear that the oversimplified account is not merely more complicated than the apologist claims, but in fact are is not even likely true. Thus, while I can certainly understand why Strobel included this in his book; to show that he can change his mind about an issue based on carefully examining the evidence, I don’t believe that the issue is that the evidence can point in more than one way. Instead, the issue is, when we probe into these issues with a careful analysis of the evidence, we end up coming up with a picture which is radically different to the case which the apologist wishes to argue for.
To give credit where it is due, Strobel does highlight some of the issues which I am touching upon here. He notes:
“the key questions were these: Had the collection of evidence really been thorough? And which explanation best fit the totality of the facts?” (p. 12)
The trouble is, this is precisely the opposite of how apologists operate. To begin with the first issue, do in particular Christian scholars collect, synthesise and analyse the evidence in a thorough and rigorous way? Well the resounding answer is no! I can think of at least a dozen Christian apologists who have made an entire career of simply regurgitating the same tired arguments and refuted pieces of evidence off the top of my head. But this is not just something coming from me. Christian apologist Gary Habermas has gone on record saying:
“To date, too many evangelicals have been complacent, largely attempting to write to each other, repeating old presentations of evidence for Jesus’ resurrection without really grappling with contemporary concerns. For this we deserve criticism.”
– Jesus Resurrection and Contemporary Criticism: an Apologetic (p.171)
And speaking of Habermas, do Christians concern themselves with trying to develop an explanation which best fit the totality of the facts? Again, the answer has to be no, given that most Christians writing about the resurrection rely upon Habermas’ Minimal Fact Approach. While I will explain this in more detail later on, all that needs to be said for now, is this approach commits the fallacy known as the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy, given that it attempts to merely rely upon a small collection of facts, rather than the critically analysing as much of the historical, socio-political and theological context as possible.
Perhaps the most blatant admission of this, comes from fellow Christian apologist, Mike Licona who notes:
“[t]he second concern [of the minimal fact approach] relates to our collection of facts that make up the historical bedrock… we must be careful to remember that it is possible that some “facts” for which we may not give much attention may be used effectively in competing hypotheses. Stated differently, since we are narrowing our focus on the fate of Jesus, I may subconsciously fail to consider certain facts about Jesus because I do not see how they would fit into any of the hypotheses we will be considering. If I were more skeptical toward the idea that Jesus rose from the dead, I would be more motivated to form additional hypotheses that may include other facts that meet our criteria but which are not included in what will be our collection.”
– Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (p. 197)
While Licona is by no means alone in doing this, virtually every Christian scholar is guilty of this. But point here should be clear. Strobel correctly warns us about the real danger of collecting facts and coming up with the best explanation. However, fellow Christian scholars and apologists do not seem to practice what Strobel is preaching. And this is before we even consider the issue of the fact many Christian authors writing maintain their academic posts and specifically write their work after signing statements of faith.
Given Licona’s admission here, this puts into clear focus the issue with only focussing on a smaller collection of facts. So often, Christians do not consider any facts which support alternative hypotheses about the emergence of Christianity. Therefore, unfortunately so often Christians do not follow the example Strobel highlights as best practice in coming to the most reasonable conclusion. Thus, while Strobel claims:
“Looking through those lenses, all the original evidence seemed to fall neatly into place. Where there had been inconsistencies or gaps, I naively glossed them over. When police told me the case was airtight, I took them at their word and didn’t delve much further. But when I changed those lenses-trading my biases for an attempt at objectivity – I saw the case in a whole new light. Finally I allowed the evidence to lead me to the truth, regardless of whether it fit my original presuppositions.” (p. 13)
This again sounds good in principle, but the issue in practice this is not what Christian apologists do. While this accusation could easily be applied to any number of Christian authors, if we go back to Mike Licona again, he admits:
“[m]y desire is for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus to be confirmed, since it would provide further confirmation of my Christian beliefs… I confess that my previous research was conducted more in the interest of confirming my faith and for use in apologetic presentations than being an open investigation where I would follow the evidence.”
– Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (p. 90)
The purpose of these quotes is not to poison the well, or as an ad hominem against Christian apologists. The point I’m making, is that when you encounter any Christian scholar’s writing, you must always read them with the caveat that they may well be bound by a doctrinal statement or merely wishful thinking regarding the fate of Jesus after his death, and so it may be difficult to know whether it is based on a careful investigation of the evidence, or on the basis of a predetermined conclusion.
With all this being said, I can’t disagree with Strobel when he claims that:
“If you were selected for a jury in a real trial, you would be asked to affirm up front that you haven’t formed any preconceptions about the case. You would be required to vow that you would be open-minded and fair, drawing your conclusions based on the weight of the facts and not on your whims or prejudices. You would be urged to thoughtfully consider the credibility of the witnesses, carefully sift the testimony, and rigorously subject the evidence to your common sense and logic. I’m asking you to do the same thing while reading this book. Ultimately it’s the responsibility of jurors to reach a verdict.” (p. 15-16)
So in the same manner, I’d encourage you to read Strobel’s book while reading this critique. That way, you can come to the conclusion that makes most sense to you. So hopefully you’ll join me in the rest on this journey to see whether he can in fact make a case for Christ.