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Strobel’s The Case for Christ: A Judgeless Trial in which One Side Presents

I’ve been told by a believer in the divinity of Jesus Christ that Lee Strobel’s book The Case for Christ was so compelling that it converted her to Christianity by its sheer rational force. I’ve committed to read the book cover-to-cover and evaluate it according to its rationality — that is, according to the quality of its logic and the quality of its evidence.

So far, I’ve noticed that while Strobel disdains hypothetical appeals to academic authority when they are used to bolster the case for atheism, at the same time he himself deploys an appeal to academic authority to bolster his claim that Jesus Christ is the divine son of God. This conflict plays out in the very first chapter over two adjacent pages.

Let’s look further. Also in his introduction, Lee Strobel lays out the standard by which he’d like you to evaluate his book: pretend you’re a juror and his book is a trial:

In this quest for truth, I’ve used my experience as a legal affairs journalist to look at numerous categories of proof — eyewitness evidence, documentary evidence, corroborating evidence, rebuttal evidence, scientific evidence, psychological evidence, and, yes, even fingerprint evidence (that sounds intriguing, doesn’t it?).

These are the same classifications that you’d encounter in a courtroom. And maybe taking a legal perspective is the best way to envision this process — with you in the role of a juror.

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. That doesn’t mean they have one-hundred-percent certainty, because we can’t have absolute proof about anything in life. In a trial, jurors are asked to weigh the evidence and come to the best possible conclusion. In other words, harkening back to the James Dixon case, which scenario fits the facts most snugly?

That’s your task.

Why quest for truth by trial? Why not some other way?

Strobel’s first problem in this passage is that he simply asserts, rather than demonstrating, that the “quest for truth” is best served by a trial. Why should we establish truth by jury trial?

That’s not a rhetorical question. I’d actually like you to tell me in the comments section why you think truth is best established by jury trial. I don’t believe it is the best method for establishing truth. Here’s why:

1. As Strobel notes, the only people qualified to be jurors in trials are those who swear they have no preconceptions about the case. If we really are to use the model of a trial for establishing truth in Strobel’s book, then that would make the vast majority of Americans ineligible to read it, since the vast majority of Americans will have previously encountered the story of Jesus Christ and formed some sort of judgment regarding the story’s veracity. They’d be rejected as jurors in the trial, and if we take Strobel seriously they shouldn’t be picking up his book.

2. Jury trials consider whether people should be punished for socially-defined crimes of which they’re accused. But the story of Jesus Christ is not being accused of murder or any other crime, and it is not proposed that the story of Jesus Christ be imprisoned or executed. Lee Strobel is wondering whether the story of Jesus Christ’s divinity is true or not. It’s a completely sort of question than the sort of question assessed in jury trials.

3. Trials aren’t about the “quest for truth,” because trials are not about truth. In regard to the accused, trials are about justice, a process for deciding what to do with people who may or may not have done wrong. The process of justice openly accepts that its outcome will often result in punishment of those who in truth have done no wrong, and will often result in a lack of punishment for those who in truth have done wrong. Worse, trials are competitions in which the two legal teams are ethically required to be uninterested in establishing truth. Their job is to be biased, to tell part and only part of a story, which ever part will make jurors feel that the accused is guilty (or not guilty, as the case may be). Especially when a judge fails to set high-quality ground rules, whichever side tells the better story wins. In laying out his “quest for truth” as a jury trial, Strobel fits himself into the role of a partial and biased storyteller.

The problem isn’t only that the “quest for truth” regarding the story of a divine Jesus Christ doesn’t fit the structure of a jury trial. The problem is also that Lee Strobel completely fails to consider other possible ways of “questing for truth,” which include:

Comparative analysis
Literary analysis
Philosophical examination
Scientific experimentation
Statistical analysis

Each suggests a different method of inquiry and each suggests a different criterion for accepting or rejecting a claim. Strobel doesn’t justify the use of a trial method, and he doesn’t reject the use of other methods. That’s not satisfactory to me.

Is Strobel the judge, the prosecution or the defense?

In a jury trial, there are two sides: the prosecution and the defense. Then there’s the judge, who presides over the courtroom, and the jury, who collectively issue a verdict.

If Lee Strobel is presenting The Case for Christ, we know he isn’t the jury: he’s told us that we, the readers, are the jury. Well, then, is Strobel adopting the role of a judge, the prosecution or the defense?

Strobel can’t be a judge, at least not a good judge. In jury trials, a judge who has an interest in the outcome of the case must recuse himself or herself. Lee Strobel has an interest in the outcome of the case. He’s a pastor, preacher and Christian apologetic author. Strobel’s on Team Divine Jesus. Strobel must recuse himself. Strobel cannot be the judge.

Strobel must be playing the role of the prosecution or the defense, but which one? The job of the prosecution is to tell a story of guilt; the job of the prosecution is to tell a not guilty story. Again we encounter the problem that the jury trial template doesn’t fit: you can’t say that the story of a divine Jesus is either guilty or not guilty, because a story isn’t a possibly criminal or even loosely offending entity. Strobel’s self-appointed task doesn’t match the task of either side of a jury trial in this regard.

We could consider another difference between the prosecution and the defense: standard for victory. The prosecution must demonstrate its case beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense, on the other hand, doesn’t have to demonstrate any case at all. To be victorious, the defense must only demonstrate that there is considerable doubt in the prosecution’s case. Strobel’s trying to prove something, not to make us doubt something. In this regard, Strobel is acting the part of the prosecutor.

If Strobel’s a prosecutor, he’s a slick and somewhat shady one judging by his in-trial conduct. Before he calls any witnesses, Strobel’s trying to change the standard of a jury trial to his side’s benefit. Let’s revisit his introduction:

Ultimately it’s the responsibility of jurors to reach a verdict. That doesn’t mean they have one-hundred-percent certainty, because we can’t have absolute proof about anything in life. In a trial, jurors are asked to weigh the evidence and come to the best possible conclusion. In other words, harkening back to the James Dixon case, which scenario fits the facts most snugly?

That’s your task.

But it’s not a jury’s task to “come to the best possible conclusion” or to judge “which scenario fits the facts most snugly.” It’s a jury’s task to determine whether the prosecution’s case has been established beyond a reasonable doubt. If any reasonable doubt in the prosecution’s case has been established, then the decision must go to the defense.

If this is a trial, declare a mistrial: the judge is asleep and the defense rests offstage

The way that slick and shady prosecutors are countered in court is by the objection and countervailing argument of the defense team and the presiding presence of a judge. Where’s the judge? Hypothetically, this role could be carried out by an editor or publisher, but the editor and publisher of The Case for Christ is Zondervan books, a company that declares its mission “To be the leader in Christian communications meeting the needs of people with resources that glorify Jesus Christ and promote biblical principles.” Zondervan will not be a fair judge. There is no person acting as judge in the “jury trial” of The Case for Christ.

There is also no defense team. Throughout his book, as we will see, he makes multiple references to skeptics and doubters in the divinity of Jesus, but he never lets them fully speak for or justify themselves. Instead, he only brings them up to dismiss them for his own reasons, without rebuttal. This is the job of a prosecutor in cross-examination. The job of a defense team is to act independently of the prosecution, to call its own witnesses, to ask its own questions and in so doing to argue its own case (that for reasonable doubt). Where is the exercise of a full-throated defense in this book? Nowhere.

Without a judge and without a defense, you have nothing but a kangaroo court.

Author Lee Strobel wants us to read The Case for Christ as a jury trial and either accept or reject the divinity of Jesus Christ as a result of his jury trial, but he provides no reason for us to accept that a jury trial is the best method to pursue a “quest for truth.” Besides, if Lee Strobel really wants us to think of his book as a jury trial, then there are a number of counts on which he fails to follow a jury trial’s process. If we really want to take Lee Strobel at his word when he sets the standard for The Case for Christ, we ought to declare the book a mistrial.

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