Blatantly evangelistic movies aren’t really my cup of tea. As much as I appreciate the effort to share the good news at the movies, I find that films designed to argue viewers into belief come off as pushy and strident. I’m on their side when it comes to loving Christ, but their style often falls short of the substance they hope to convey.
I wanted to like God’s Not Dead, for example, but as the film unfolded I felt I was being played. Viewers were set up to despise the atheist professor, a foil for the lead Christian character. Many Christians were encouraged by the presentation of evidence for God’s existence the Christian student made in the movie, and I’m all for encouragement. But if I were an atheist watching God’s Not Dead, I don’t think I’d believe Christians loved me the way their Savior said they should, and that would prevent me from hearing anything else that was said in the film.
The film version of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (produced by the same company as God’s Not Dead) is a definite improvement, though still a bit contrived. I read Strobel’s book with interest when it was first released. For readers looking for something more current and thorough along those lines, I recommend Dr. Brant Pitre‘s The Case for Jesus: the Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ.
These books are an important balance to scholarly opposition and cultural denigration of the Christian message. Outside intentionally Christian circles, you’re not likely to hear the rational, evidence-based case for Christ unless you seek it. Strobel (an atheistic investigative reporter for The Chicago Tribune) did just that…with the intent of dismantling his wife’s unexpected conversion to Christianity.
The Case for Christ film does better than others of its type partly because it’s a true story. There’s no fake strawman attacking the faith; the opponent was Strobel himself. Some conversations in the film are awkwardly scripted, but they did happen and the evidence they bring forth remains valid. Grappling with their implications was Strobel’s very real struggle.
How is it that the New Testament’s internal and external evidence is so strong, for instance, often more so than other ancient documents with universal scholarly acceptance? What explains the apostles’ behavior better than accepting that they’d really had seen the risen Christ? Mass hallucination? A bigger miracle than the resurrection, posits a psychologist Strobel interviews. A bloody rabbi with a near-death experience convinced them to die for him after he came to? An expert physician emphatically refutes the suggestion. The film delivers evidence scene by scene as Strobel seeks validation for his opposition to Christianity and winds up concluding that the resurrection is indeed the most reasonable explanation of the historical facts.
But of course, the case is never exactly closed. There’s still that window of wiggle-room allowing each heart to make its own response. “God is emphatically not a God of coercion,” writes acclaimed poet Sally Read in Night’s Bright Darkness, the memoir about her own conversion from atheism.
Christianity is far more than a line of reasoning that, like a mathematical equation, creates universal acceptance among all who follow it point by point. A film can reconstruct one-man’s conversion; it can collate his reasons and back them up with historical, psychological and medical evidence. But it’s up to each person who listens to welcome the Christ behind the argument, to remain open for more, or to simply walk away.
The case for Christ can be made in a zillion ways, but it’s still the call of Christ that must be answered. Christianity isn’t a political party with a platform you either agree with or you don’t, although we make it look that way at times. It’s a response to an invitation. After grappling with the evidence, Strobel opened his heart to the Christ behind the evidence. Viewers are left to consider how Christ might be calling them through these truths, and that’s far more inviting than the scripted slam-dunk of other, similar films.
My favorite part of The Case for Christ was the opportunity to view the fascinating face on the Shroud of Turin on the big screen. Like the case for Christ, the case for the Shroud as actual burial cloth of the resurrected Christ is strong but not iron-clad. Christianity will endure whether scientists ever figure out how the ancient linen cloth bearing a photographic negative of a brutally crucified man was produced. We do know it was made long before the scientific method, long before photographic principles or radiation were discovered. The evidence placing that cloth in springtime Palestine in the era in which Jesus died and his followers testified to his resurrection is also compelling. The face on the Shroud beckons to our skeptical, scientifically-minded generation, asking it questions it still can’t answer.
That face enflamed the love of St. Francis de Sales four centuries ago. C.S. Lewis owned a reproduction of that face. It’s a face that calls from the strength of its sorrow. It calls through the pain the man behind it endured for love. It helped Strobel break through his resistance as facts continually wore his atheism down. Christ’s love slipped through those facts, enabling him to make the ever-risky choice to open his heart and take a step of trust.
That’s how love works.
And why The Case for Christ is an impressive improvement over God’s Not Dead.