My bride and I went to see The Case for Christ last Saturday. I must admit to some trepidation on my part. I have seen quite a few “Christian” films that had their hearts in the right place but were also simply bad, even laughably bad, films. I was fearful this film would be more of the same. I am pleased to report that The Case for Christ is a very good film, and a profound one. I heartily endorse it for anyone who wishes to see a well-acted and well-made film that asks profound questions about the human condition. My review is below the fold and the usual caveat about spoilers is in full force:
The film is based on Lee Strobel’s book The Case for Christ which details how he, an atheist, set out to disprove the Resurrection and ended up being converted to Christ. The movie opens in 1980. Life is going good for Lee Strobel. A graduate of Yale Law School, Strobel is a legal affairs reporter on the Chicago Tribune. He has won awards for his reporting and has just had a book published: Reckless Homicide? Ford’s Pinto Trial. He has a lovely wife, Leslie, and they have a little girl, Alison. Professional success and marital bliss, what more could a man ask for? Then the divine enters into the picture.
Strobel is portrayed by Mike Vogel, who makes Strobel a fully developed character, warts and all, as does Erika Jane Christensen as Leslie Strobel. Their dialogues as man and wife seem completely authentic and never stagey or stilted.
The film does a great job of recreating the period, one my bride and I lived through as young adults. We see the reporters banging away at their electric typewriters in those pre-word processor, at least in common use, days. Strobel’s editor has a word processor, but quickly banishes it to a corner of his office out of frustration with how slow it is. In one hilarious sequence, which will seem bizarre to anyone much under 40, we see a line of people waiting to use a pay phone. (An adjacent payphone has an out of order sign on it which Strobel casually removes as he uses the supposedly out of order phone to the chagrin of the waiting people, one of many humorous scenes in the film.) Tacky dark wood paneling abounds. Strobel’s father appears wearing a light blue leisure suit, that fashion atrocity of the period, which reminded me of a dark blue suit that my father wore at the time. This will be a trip down memory lane for people, geezers, of my vintage.
The divine enters the film when Strobel and his wife and daughter go out to dine in a restaurant. The little girl begins to choke on some food and stops breathing. Frantic, Strobel and his wife, attempt to aid their daughter but without success. A black nurse, Alfie Davis portrayed by L. Scott Caldwell, who is out with her husband runs up and dislodges the fragment of food from the child’s throat, saving her life. To the fervent thanks of the parents she says that she and her husband had been intending to go to another restaurant but that Jesus Christ had told her that she needed to be at this restaurant. After the Strobels arrive back home we learn that they are atheists. Strobel doesn’t think much of the incident other than he is relieved that his daughter got through it unharmed. However, his wife can’t stop thinking about it and what the nurse had said about Christ.
Leslie Strobel visits the nurse at the hospital where she works to bring her muffins she has baked as a thank you present. She confides in the nurse that she cannot stop thinking about what had happened and the nurse invites her to attend her church, Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago suburb of South Barrington.
Leslie Strobel begins to attend the church and becomes a Christian, much to the dismay of her husband. He views Christianity as a false cult and is appalled that his wife is now part of it. He argues with her frequently about it and tells her that if she persists as a Christian their marriage will be at an end. He decides that the best avenue to rescue his wife from Christ is by attacking what he perceives to be the central event of Christianity: the Resurrection of Christ. He will use his journalistic skills to disprove the Resurrection.
Contacting experts around the globe he begins to learn disheartening facts: the New Testament has more surviving manuscripts than any other document from antiquity; the fact that women discover that Christ’s tomb is empty is an argument for the truth of the account since any first century Jewish male making up such a tale would not have women in a central role as the testimony of women was considered inherently unreliable in the Jewish legal system and excluded in Jewish trials. Consulting a world-famous psychologist, Doctor Roberta Waters (portrayed by Faye Dunaway), he is crushed when she, an agnostic, punctures his theory that the hundreds of witnesses to the Resurrected Christ could have been suffering from “mass hysteria”. She says that such an occurrence would have been a greater miracle than the Resurrection. She also reminds him that many of the notable atheists in history had “Daddy issues” as a result of dead, absent or cold and indifferent fathers. This strikes home with Strobel who has a bad relationship with his own father. Only after his father’s death does he learn that his father took great pride in him and kept a scrapbook of the newspaper articles Strobel wrote.
Seeing that he cannot get around the testimonies of those who saw Christ alive after the Resurrection, Strobel embraces the old “swoon theory” that Christ did not actually die on the Cross. Traveling to California, he consults with Doctor Alexander Metherell (Tom Nowicki) who tells him that in his medical opinion Christ died on the Cross. To the observation by Strobel that the Roman soldiers were not trained medical men and could have been mistaken about Christ being dead, Metherell responds that they were trained killers and quite good at it since if a prisoner escaped their clutches they would face execution. Metherell mentions that Christ, even before the Crucifixion, was likely in critical condition due to blood loss from his brutal scourging, which led to his three fallings on the Via Dolorosa. He describes the death by asphyxiation of the crucified, where they constantly try to raise themselves up on their crosses in order to exhale, eventually losing the energy to do so and dying as a result, and that the blood and water emanating from Christ’s side from the spear thrust of Longinus was conclusive evidence of this asphyxiation in the case of Christ.
Reluctantly, oh so reluctantly, Stobel accepts the evidence that the Resurrection happened, and tells his wife, to her joy, that he is also embracing Christ.
The film gives us something rarely depicted on film: two realistic conversion stories. Of the two, although the focus of the film is on that of Lee Strobel, the conversion of his wife is perhaps more meaningful. Something dramatic happens in a person’s life and they suddenly confront some of the big questions we all face in life, although many of us try to hide from them: Why am I here? Is there a meaning to life? How should I live? What will happen to me after I die? The current fad of atheism gives no answer to these questions other than that life is meaningless and that we are but brief candles in the gale. The essential strength and power of Christianity is that Christ gives us answers to these questions and fills each of our lives with eternal significance.
A great movie on a subject that confronts us all with the question that Christ posed to Peter so long ago: “Who do you say that I am”?