In 1981, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune converted from atheism to Christianity after exploring the evidence surrounding Jesus’s death and resurrection. That reporter’s story has sold some 14 million books and is now the subject of the newly released movie The Case for Christ.
Those familiar with Lee Strobel’s journey and subsequent work in apologetics and theology won’t be surprised by the content of the movie—which stays close to Strobel’s account—but they may be surprised by the quality of the film’s production, which leaps ahead of the recent pack of faith-based films. In addition to the stellar performances by Mike Vogel and Erika Christensen, the real-to-life set design capturing 1980s Chicago, and the well-pitched soundtrack, two themes make The Case for Christ a worthwhile movie.
More Than Experience
First, faith is more than an experience. While the movie is based on a true story, the narrative ultimately grounds itself in something larger than one man’s experience with God. The point of the film isn’t that God is “living on the inside.” The point is that Jesus is living on the outside—risen from the dead, ruling at the right hand of the Father. If God isn’t real on the outside (objectively), then Strobel doesn’t want him on the inside (subjectively). He doesn’t want “religious truth”; he wants true truth.
As he begins his investigation, a colleague at the Tribune tells him that the resurrection is the central tenet of the faith. If he can prove that this one event didn’t happen, “the whole house of cards falls.” From there, the film follows Strobel from one expert to another in his quest to “solve” the mystery of the resurrection.
Could the resurrection be a late invention? He consults an archeologist-turned-priest. Could it be a hoax? He has coffee with a biblical scholar. Could it be a mass hallucination? He visits the classroom of a famous agnostic psychologist. Could Jesus have survived the crucifixion? A world-renowned physician weighs in.
At one point, in a conversation with an atheist friend and father figure, Strobel realizes that his option isn’t between faith and no faith; it’s between well-grounded faith and foolish faith. His atheism requires more and more suspension of reason–and, to his surprise, the resurrection is more than the religious dogma he first thought; it’s a reality, a fact with which to be reckoned.
More Than Reason
But that’s not all. The film also makes clear that faith is more than reason. Strobel says early on in the movie that he only believes in what he can hear, see, smell, or touch. As a journalist, if he’s going to believe in Christ, he’ll need cold, hard evidence. I tend to wince a bit at such detective-type approaches to faith. After going down such a path, one can easily assume the role of Judge/God, as C. S. Lewis points out so well:
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.
And yet, while the nature of the narrative lends itself to being the sort of modern-apologetic Lewis decries, the writers largely avoid this pitfall. The subplot—concerning a man who may or may not have shot a police officer—reveals that Strobel sees only what he wants to see. He isn’t a neutral, unbiased actor in a cosmic play.
Likewise, I appreciated the prominent place the director gave prayer—particularly in Leslie Strobel, Lee’s wife. It’s clear in the movie that reason will only take Lee so far. He needs more than a changed perspective; he needs a renewed spirit, a new heart.
This has always been the case. If people who saw the resurrected Messiah can still doubt (Matt. 28:17), then to have faith one obviously needs more than unadorned reason.
Indeed, one needs supernatural intervention. Ezekiel 11:19 is mentioned in the movie more than once: “I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.” Strobel’s faith journey includes reason, to be sure, but it also transcends reason. He sets out to examine Christ’s resurrection with his mind; he ends up having his own heart resurrected in the process.
In this vein, I do wish the writers took the additional step to show the chief obstacle to belief: sin (Rom. 1:18–19). While the reasoning behind Strobel’s atheism is questioned in many ways (the psychiatrist posits a “father wound” theory of unbelief), the movie gives almost no attention to the necessity of repenting of sin in the conversion process. Indeed, if you’re looking for a clear gospel presentation in the film, you’ll leave disappointed.
That said, despite its scattered weaknesses, The Case for Christ does justice to the compelling story of one man’s extraordinary journey to faith. Not only does it deliver from a production standpoint, it also offers a powerful message of faith, transformation, and grace.