Strobel’s newest book was released September 10th, of 2007 and I was pleased to be offered a chance to review it prior to its release. I completely agree with Strobel on the need for such a book. It covers a lot of issues that I deal with on a daily basis in my own apologetics ministries. There is far too much information in the book to expect a comprehensive treatment, and like his other books, he doesn’t pretend to do so. Each chapter has a number of resources that readers can check into to get more information. I give the book nine stars out of ten and recommend it to skeptics and young believers alike who need a primer on the issues. I doubt the more hard core skeptics will be persuaded by anything in it. This is not likely to be Strobel’s fault, but for skeptics like that you may want to suggest some of the more sophisticated references that Strobel provides.
While personally satisfied with much of the argumentation and evidences, I had a more serious objection having to do with his elevation of scholars and his marginalization of ‘popular’ authors. This is ironic since his own book is an admitted popularization, but my concerns go far deeper. However, they are not appropriate for this review, so please go here for elaboration on that point.
Strobel aims to cover six basic challenges facing the traditional and orthodox portrayal of Jesus. These are, in order:
Scholars are Uncovering a Radically Different Jesus in Ancient Documents Just as Credible as the Four Gospels.
The Bible’s Portrait of Jesus can’t be Trusted Because the Church Tampered with the Text.
New Explanations Have Refuted Jesus’ Resurrection.
Christianity’s Beliefs about Jesus Were Copied from Pagan Religions.
Jesus Was an Imposter Who Failed to Fulfill the Messianic Prophecies.
People Should be Free to Pick and Choose What to Believe about Jesus.
Each chapter concludes with additional resources for the reader, and the book itself concludes with one appendix summarizing the Case for Christ and another offering helpful websites.
I found that each of these ‘challenges’ covers pertinent issues that relate to today’s apologetical challenges. Strobel’s approach is to take on the role of the journalist and search out credible scholars to answer his questions about those challenges. Each chapter does a good job of summarizing some of the basic objections and offering solid representations of Christian responses. In my view, this book is better then his previous books like this. It more directly confronts the objections that I actually hear (but of course, experiences may vary).
Every high school Christian religion teacher should put this book in the hands of their students, preferably as early as possible. Ninth grade would not be too early. Students need to be immunized to some of the things that they hear and this book will provide a decent basis to build on for later research. Yet, this book cannot be considered as ultimately sufficient. Strobel himself would probably agree with that. Teachers should take advantage of the sources Strobel gives and expose their students to this material. Once they get to college the students will almost certainly hear the other side- 100% undiluted.
In my view, Strobel should have started with his sixth challenge. Challenges 1-5 contain a reasonably thorough explanation for why the traditional description of Jesus is supported by solid historical methodologies. However, in my experience (more than ten years now), a historical ‘truth’ carries very little weight with people these days, anyway. In other words, skeptics and seekers alike would view a ‘scientific truth’ as made of gold, and even if they thought that something was ‘historically true’ they would never consider something established on historical methodologies to be as persuasive as what they believe is established on scientific methodologies. Issues like this pop up every now and then in Strobel’s book but it gets the fullest treatment in the sixth challenge. Even then, I don’t think this particular reality of our current situation is addressed head on, but the book certainly covers some of the issues related to the matter. Since so much of the previous portion of the book insists on the superiority of the Christian view of the historical record, dealing with objections that dismiss ‘historical facts’ as of very little weight in the first place would have been a good strategy.
Another quick look at the sixth challenge suggests to me that the Christian teacher could probably start with this part of the book and then go back to the first challenge because I think it was written in such a way that you wouldn’t need the earlier parts of the book to address the concerns in his sixth challenge.
One of the most pertinent ‘challenges’ covered was challenge #4, ‘Christianity’s Beliefs about Jesus Were Copied from Pagan Religions.’ The Internet is filled with assertions that Christianity was completely borrowed from such ‘gods’ like Mithra, Apollonius, etc. Some of the key objections to this notion are refuted. For example, in the case of Mithra, the so-called similarities are found in the historical record after the first century, AD. I.e., after the rise of the Christian religion. It would make more sense to claim that Mithra borrowed from Christianity. Or so one would think, but this is a good example of the hardened skepticism of some in regards to the historical method. The observed fact of these parallels existing after the rise of Christianity is not enough to remove the objection in many people’s minds. Where there is smoke, there is fire.
Still, there are people with some sense of reason, and if you get this book into their hands when they are young enough, I think that the argumentation in this section will do a lot of good. It is certainly better to explore this matter before it is heard spouted from a college professor. Kids will think they’ve been lied to. For people first stretching their legs on these matters, they will be confronted with whether or not they’re going to trust the historical method or not. That is a good thing for them to think about before they have the gall to then criticize the historical evidences.
One argument that I wish I would have heard in this chapter was C.S. Lewis’s assertions that certain pagan stories do not pose a threat at all, but rather are predicted by the Christian worldview. The basic idea is that if Christianity is something completely new on the face of the planet, it would actually undermine the Christian account, which holds that all people are created in God’s image and therefore will resonate with common themes. Strobel appears prepared to accept such reasoning, as he allows Paul Copan, in challenge #6, to say, “I believe there are some truths in other religions,’[Copan] quickly replied. As Scottish writer George MacDonald said, “Truth is truth, whether from the lips of Jesus or Balaam.’ We need to affirm truth where we see it, but we need to remember there are entailments that come with certain beliefs [italics his, pg 240].”
George MacDonald was one of C.S. Lewis’s spiritual fathers, so Lewis’s thoughts on paganism would not only have been appropriate, but apparently acceptable to Strobel. Oh well, you can’t hit everything in a book like this, can you? Maybe I’ll just use this review to guide people into Lewis on this matter (Lewis’s ‘God in the Dock’ collection of essays contains a couple of essays to get you started).
One of the best aspects of the book is his treatment of Messianic prophecies. You will hear skeptics arguing that even if you granted that Jesus performed miracles this would still not be good enough evidence that Jesus was who he says he is, God. Perhaps, they might say, he’s just a very powerfully advanced alien being who is, nonetheless, a finite being. (See this thread at my forum for an example of exactly this.) What the fulfilled prophecies provide, however, is evidence of foreknowledge of future events. If it is the case that there were prophesies thousands and hundreds of years prior to Jesus’ arrival, and he fulfilled them, the plaintive hope that Jesus could ‘possibly’ have just been a finite magician begins to wane. Who left these tantalizing clues in the Jewish documents? Another finite super powerful alien? Can we expect such creatures even to know the future? At what point does our ‘super powerful alien’ match in every respect, God?
Apart from such considerations, which I personally find to be wild-eyed groping speculation, being able to trace Christ and his ministry back to the Old Testament is a significant aspect of Christianity that young Christians and old should be aware of. Many do not understand the point made by Evans in challenge #1 about just how Jewish Jesus was, nor the fact that the first Christians were Jews. Understanding this context is extremely helpful in understanding some New Testament passages which may be confusing but also has the potential to be an extremely powerful apologetic. This is illustrated by the recent conversion to Christianity by Anne Rice, who addresses this issue in her book ‘Out of Egypt.’ She goes so far as to credit this realization as helpful in bringing about her conversion (pages 310-311). So I think it was a really good idea to include this chapter and again, I hope Christian religion teachers will follow up to more firmly flesh out such issues.
In conclusion, taking into consideration the fact that such a treatment would have to be brief on many points and only a survey, I can think of no more helpful book for establishing some of the parameters of the discussion. I would encourage putting the book into students’ hands as early as possible, but please, please, please be prepared to deepen their knowledge beyond the outlines in this book. The book can only be a good start, and if it is not treated as such, might prove to re-create the depressing scenario I sometimes hear: “Yea, I read Strobel’s book as a senior in high school, so I think I know what I’m talking about. What? What’s that? No, I didn’t see the point of going deeper. My college professors easily answered those objections. I mean I also went to Sunday School and VBS, you know.”
copyright Sept. 2007, Sntjohnny