Material World

Mike Vogal as Lee Strobel in The Case for Christ
“Material World”
A Review of The Case for Christ by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, Four Reels            

            Christianity in America is going through a bit of an identity crisis. In the last thirty years, there has been a huge number of atheist tracts going after God generally and Christianity specifically in attempt to disprove its beliefs using supposedly scientific and historical data. “The Bible,” says writer Bill Flavell, “is riddled with the type of errors that we would expect from Iron Age men but not from the creator of the universe.” Rather than addressing such challenges, many Christian have retreated, saying religion is about faith and experience rather than empirical knowledge. “Don’t waste your energy trying to convince people to understand you,” pastor Joel Osteen said once. “Your time is too valuable to try to prove yourself to people.” The Case for Christ is a powerful antidote to this way of thinking, a man who is brought into Christianity not through any type of experience but by honestly reviewing all the historical evidence and coming to a conclusion he never thought possible.
            Lee Strobel (Mike Vogal) thought he had his life figured out. By his mid-twenties, he had already become a big-time investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune and was married with a young daughter. He had finished an important piece about a police shooting and was also starting a side career writing books. His life suddenly took a huge turn one evening when his daughter started choking at a restaurant. Fortunately, another customer was a nurse and managed to save her. Lee is grateful but interprets the event as just another professional doing he job. The nurse, however, is a strong Christian and is convinced it was meant to happen. Lee’s wife Leslie (Erika Christensen) also sees more to it and begins attending church services at the nurse’s invitation. Leslie’s new faith leads to a breakdown in their marriage and soon Lee wonders whether divorce is the only option left. His Catholic co-worker has another suggestion and encourages him to challenge Christianity. “You’re an investigative reporter,” he says. “Follow the evidence.” Lee smiles, “you’re sure you want to give me that loaded gun?” His friend smiles back. “I’m pretty sure you won’t be able to pull the trigger.”
            The investigative section follows its famous source book fairly closely. It begins with the reliability of the gospel accounts. “Just because I write something down and bury it in the ground doesn’t mean it’s true,” Lee sneers. That’s correct, yet if one applies the same historical criteria for other documents that one does for the gospels, the evidence is overwhelming. “Nobody questions the authenticity of The Illiad,” one expert explains, “We have nearly a hundred ancient copies. Do you know how many ancient copies of gospels we have? Almost four thousand.” “What about the inconsistencies between accounts?” Lee muses. “Well, we would expect that,” a detective illustrates, “if the account was true. If it was all the same, that would suggest a hoax.”
            The ultimate test is the historicity of the Resurrection. St. Paul himself famously said that if this event were false, “our faith would be vain.” Lee explores every alternative to the Christian claim. Was it metaphorical? Did the disciples make it up? The film spends a great deal of time on a recent ideological fad: the swoon theory – that Jesus never actually died but was injured or drugged. Even the Qur’an suggests this as a possibility. Yet, the scientific evidence quickly proves this ridiculous. A medical doctor takes Lee through the horrors of the crucifixion step by step from flogging to asphyxiation to pulmonary edema. “There is simply no evidence of anyone surviving a full Roman crucifixion,” he concludes.
            Eventually, Lee realizes he is running out of excuses. “If this is all true, what does it mean?” he asks a Biblical scholar who became a Catholic priest. “The answer to that is what got me out of academia and into the Church,” he replies. How much proof is enough? At every turn, Lee thought he was going to disprove Christianity, yet found he was wrong, but his heart has not moved. In the end, Lee still has to make an act of faith and say “yes,” which requires something built on reason but that extends beyond it.
            The Case for Christ has many elements in its favor: great performances, smart directing, good pacing, and enough terrible shades of brown to remind you it’s the late 70s. Yet its best quality is the firm stance that Christianity is a material religion, not in the sense of consumerism, but that God takes the matter seriously. Buddhism would have no trouble surviving if Siddhartha was ahistorical, but Christians believe in a God who entered human history in time and space. That makes Christianity quite vulnerable, but two thousand years later, no one has been able to definitely disprove its claims, and many who have tried have turned into its greatest supporters.
This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on April 7th, 2017