A Skeptic Found Jesus by Pastor Lee Stobel
All the passages below are taken from Lee Stroble’s book “Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary,” published in 1993.
For a person who considered himself an atheist, I embarked on my spiritual journey in an unusual way.
I asked God for help.
I figured, what’s the downside? If I’m right and nobody’s at home in heaven, then all I’ve lost is thirty seconds. If I’m wrong and God is listening—well, there could be a big upside. So in the privacy of my room on January 20, 1980, I prayed along these lines:
God, I don’t even believe You’re there, but if You are, I want to find You. I really do want to know the truth. So if You exist, please show Yourself to me.
What I didn’t know at the time was that this simple prayer would launch me on a nearly two-year adventure of discovery that would end up revolutionizing my life.
Using my legal training, which gave me knowledge about evidence, and my journalism background, which gave me skills in ferreting out facts, I began to read books and interview experts. I was greatly influenced by Josh McDowell, whose books More Than a Carpenter1 and Evidence That Demands a Verdict2 first opened my eyes to the possibility that a person could have an intellectually defensible faith.
Of course, I also read the Bible. However, for the moment I set aside the issue of whether it really was the inspired word of God. Instead, I took the Bible for what it undeniably is—a collection of ancient documents purporting to record historical events.
I also read other religious writings, including the Book of Mormon, because I thought it important to check out different spiritual options. Most of them were easy to dismiss. For instance, Mormonism quickly fell by the wayside after I found irreconcilable discrepancies between the claims of its founder, Joseph Smith, and the findings of modern archaeology. But with Christianity, the more I found out, the more intrigued I became.
I visualized this process as if I were putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle in my mind. Every time I confirmed another item of evidence or a question was answered, it was like a puzzle piece being put into place. I didn’t know what the final picture was going to look like—that was the mystery—but each fact I uncovered brought me one step closer to the solution.
ANSWERS FOR AN ATHEIST
Right off the bat, I figured that Christians had made a tactical error. Other religions believe in all kinds of amorphous, invisible gods, and that’s kind of hard to pin down one way or the other. But Christians were basing their religion on the alleged teachings and miracles of someone they claimed is an actual historical person—Jesus Christ—who, they said, is God.
I thought this a major mistake because if Jesus really lived, He would have left behind some historical evidence. I figured that all I needed to do was ascertain the historical truth about Jesus and I would find that He was a nice man, maybe a very moral person and excellent teacher, but certainly nothing at all like a god.
I began by asking myself the first question any good journalist asks: “How many eyeballs are there?” The term “eyeball” is slang for eyewitness.Everyone knows how convincing eyewitness testimony can be in establishing the veracity of an event. Believe me, I’ve seen plenty of defendants sent to prison by eyewitnesses.
So I wanted to know, “How many witnesses met this person named Jesus? How many heard His teachings? How many watched Him perform miracles? How many actually saw Him after he supposedly returned from the dead?”
I was surprised to discover that there wasn’t just a single eyewitness; there were many, and the New Testament contains actual writings by several of them. For instance, there are Matthew, Peter, John, and James—they were all eyewitnesses. There’s the historian Mark, who recorded Peter’s firsthand account; there’s Luke, a physician who wrote a biography of Jesus based on eyewitness testimony; and there’s Paul, whose life was turned upside down after he said he had encountered the resurrected Christ.
Peter was adamant that he was accurately recording firsthand information. “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he wrote, “but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”3
John said he was writing about things `which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched.”4
Not only were these people eyewitnesses, but, McDowell pointed out, they were preaching about Jesus to people who had lived at the same time and in the same area that Jesus did. This is important because if the disciples were exaggerating or rewriting history, their often-hostile audiences would have known it and thrown them out. But instead, they were able to talk about matters that were common knowledge to their audiences.5
For instance, shortly after Jesus was killed, Peter spoke to a crowd in the same city where the Crucifixion had taken place. Many of them probably had seen Jesus put to death. He started out by saying: “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.”6
In other words, “C’mon, everybody—you know what Jesus did. You saw these things for yourself?” Then he pointed out that although King David was dead and still in his tomb, “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.”7
The audience’s reaction was very interesting. They didn’t say, “We don’t know what you’re talking about!” Instead, they panicked and wanted to know what they should do. On that day about three thousand people sought forgiveness and many others followed—apparently because they knew that Peter was telling the truth.8
I had to ask myself, “Would Christianity have taken root as quickly as it undeniably did if these disciples were going around saying things that their audiences knew were exaggerated or false?”
Jigsaw pieces began fitting into place.
One bit of evidence that Christians were trying to sell me—and which I wasn’t buying—was that Jesus’ disciples must have believed what they were preaching about Him because ten of the eleven remaining disciples suffered terrible deaths rather than recant their testimony that Jesus was the Son of God who had risen from the dead. Several were tortured to death through crucifixion.
At first, I didn’t find that persuasive. I could point to all sorts of crackpots through history who were willing to die for their religious beliefs. But the disciples were different, McDowell said. People will die for their religious beliefs if they are convinced that their beliefs are true, but people won’t die for their religious beliefs if they know their beliefs are false.
In other words, the whole Christian faith hinges on whether Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead.9 No-resurrection, no Christianity. The disciples said that they saw Jesus after He rose from the dead. They knew whether or not they were lying; there was no way this could have been a hallucination or mistake. And if they were lying, would they willingly allow themselves to be killed for what they knew to be false?
As McDowell observed, Nobody knowingly and willingly dies for a lie.10
That single fact had a powerful influence on me, even more so when I looked at what happened to the disciples after the Crucifixion. History shows that they went out to boldly proclaim that Jesus overcame the tomb. Suddenly, these once-cowardly men are filled with courage, willing to preach to their death that Jesus was the Son of God.
What transformed them? I couldn’t come up with an explanation that made more sense than that they really did have a life-changing experience with the resurrected Christ.
A FIRST-CENTURY SKEPTIC
I came to especially like the disciple named Thomas because he was as skeptical as I was. I figured he would have made a great journalist. Thomas said he wasn’t going to believe that Jesus had returned to life unless he could personally examine the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet.
According to the New Testament records, Jesus did appear and invite Thomas to check out the evidence for himself, and Thomas saw that it was true. I was fascinated to find out how he spent the rest of his life. According to tradition, he ended up proclaiming—until he was stabbed to death in India—that Jesus was the Son of God who had returned from the dead. For him, the evidence had been profoundly convincing.
Also, it was significant to read what Thomas said after becoming satisfied by the evidence that Jesus had overcome death. Thomas proclaimed: “My Lord and my God!”11
Now, Jesus didn’t respond by saying, “Whoa! Wait a minute, Tom. Don’t go worshiping me. You should only worship God, and remember, I’m just a great teacher and a very moral man.” Instead, Jesus accepted Thomas’ worship.
So it didn’t take long to disprove the popular conception that Jesus never claimed He was God. For years, skeptics had been telling me that Jesus never pretended that He was anything more than a man and that He’d roll over in His grave if He knew that people were worshiping Him. But as I read the Bible, I found Jesus affirming over and over again—through word and deed—who He really was.
Christ’s oldest biography describes how He was asked point-blank by the high priest during his trial: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”12 Jesus wasn’t ambiguous. The first two words out of His mouth were: “I am.”13
The high priest knew what Jesus was saying, because He angrily declared to the court, “You have heard the blasphemy.”14 What was blasphemous? That Jesus was claiming to be God! This, I learned, is the crime for which He was put to death.
As I was becoming more confident in the New Testament’s eyewitness accounts, I kept remembering what other skeptics had told me through the years. They claimed that the New Testament couldn’t be trusted because it was written a hundred or more years after Jesus lived. They said that myths about Jesus had grown up during the interim and distorted the truth beyond recognition.
But as I assessed the facts with fairness, I found out that recent archaeological discoveries have forced scholars to give earlier and earlier estimates for when the New Testament was written.
Dr. William Albright, a world-renowned professor from Johns Hopkins University and former director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, said he’s convinced that the various books of the New Testament were written within fifty years after the Crucifixion and very probably within twenty and forty-five years of Jesus’ death.15 This means that the New Testament was available during the lifetimes of eyewitnesses who would have disputed its contents if they had been fabricated.
What’s more, scholars have studied the amount of time it took for legend to develop in the ancient world. Their conclusion: There would not have been anywhere near enough time between the death of Jesus and the New Testament writings for legend to displace historical truth.16
In fact, I later learned that a creed of the early church—affirming that Jesus died for our sins, was resurrected, and appeared to many witnesses—has been traced back to within three to eight years after Jesus’ death. This statement of faith, reported by the apostle Paul in First Corinthians 15:3-7, is based on firsthand accounts and is a very early confirmation of the core of the Gospel.l7
Piece by piece, my mental jigsaw puzzle was coming together.
THE POWER OF PROPHECY
Next I turned to the Bible’s prophecies, an area I was especially cynical about. I had written a lot of articles over the years on predictions about the future—it was one of those New Year’s stories that all beginning reporters got stuck doing—and I knew how few prognostications actually came true. For instance, every year people in Chicago insist that the Cubs are going to clinch the World Series, and that certainly hasn’t come true in my lifetime!
Even so, the more I analyzed the Old Testament prophecies, the more convinced I became that they constitute amazing historical evidence to support the claims that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God.
For example, I read Isaiah 53 in the Old Testament and found it to be an absolutely uncanny description of Jesus’ being crucified—and yet it was written more than 700 years before the fact. That’s like my trying to predict how the Cubs will do in the year 2693! In all, there are about five dozen major prophecies concerning the Messiah, and the more I studied them, the more difficulty I had in trying to explain them away.
My first line of defense was that Jesus may have intentionally maneuvered His life to fulfill the prophecies so that He would be mistaken for the long-awaited Messiah. For instance, Zechariah 9:9 foretold that the Messiah would ride a donkey into Jerusalem. Maybe when Jesus was getting ready to enter the town, He told His disciples, “Go fetch Me a donkey. I want to fool these people into thinking I’m the Messiah because I’m really anxious to be tortured to death!”
But that argument fell apart when I read prophecies about events that Jesus never could have arranged, such as the place of His birth, which the prophet Micah foretold seven hundred years in advance, and His ancestry, how He was born, how He was betrayed for a specific amount of money, how He was put to death, how His bones remained unbroken (unlike the two criminals who were crucified with Him), how the soldiers cast lots for His clothing, and on and on.18
My second line of defense was that Jesus wasn’t the only person to whom these prophecies pointed. Maybe several people in history have fit these predictions, but Jesus happened to have a better public relations agent and so now He’s the one everyone remembers.
But reading a book by Peter Stoner, professor emeritus of science at Westmont College, dismantled that objection. Stoner worked with six hundred students to calculate the mathematical probability of just eight of the Old Testament prophecies being fulfilled in any one person living down to the present time.19 The probability was one chance in ten to the seventeenth power. That’s a figure with seventeen zeroes behind it!
To try to comprehend that enormous number, I did some calculations. I imagined the entire world being covered with white tile that was one-and-a-half inches square—every bit of dry land on the planet—with the bottom of just one tile painted red.
Then I pictured a person being allowed to wander for a lifetime around all seven continents. He would be permitted to bend down only one time and pick up a single piece of tile. What are the odds it would be the one tile whose reverse side was painted red? The odds would be the same as just eight of the Old Testament prophecies coming true in any one person throughout history!
That was impressive enough, but then Stoner analyzed forty-eight prophecies. His conclusion was that there would be one chance in ten to the 157th power that they would come true in any one person in history.20 That’s a number with 157 zeroes behind it!
I did some research and learned that atoms are so small that it takes a million of them lined up to equal the width of a human hair. I also interviewed scientists about their estimate of the number of atoms in the entire known universe.
And while that’s an incredibly large number, I concluded that the odds of forty-eight Old Testament prophecies’ coming true in any one individual are the same as a person randomly finding a single predetermined atom among all the atoms in a trillion trillion trillion trillion billion universes the size of our universe!
Jesus said He came to fulfill the prophecies. He said, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”21 I was beginning to believe that they were fuilfilled—only in Jesus Christ.
I asked myself if someone offered me a business deal with just one chance in ten to the 157th power that I’d lose, how much would I invest? I’d put everything I owned into a sure-fire winner like that! And I was starting to think, “With those kind of odds, maybe I should think about investing my life in Christ.”
THE REALITY OF THE RESURRECTION
Since it’s central to Christianity, I also spent quite a bit of time analyzing the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. I certainly wasn’t the first skeptic to do that. Many have gone through the same exercise and emerged as Christians.
For instance, a British journalist and lawyer named Frank Morison set out to write the authoritative book exposing the resurrection as a myth. However, after painstakingly studying the evidence, he became a Christian, saying there was no question that the resurrection has “a deep and profoundly historical basis.”22 The book he eventually wrote about his spiritual investigation gave me an attorney’s incisive analysis of the resurrection accounts.
Another legal perspective came from Simon Greenleaf, the brilliant professor of evidence who is credited with helping Harvard Law School first achieve its reputation for excellence. Greenleaf authored one of the finest American treatises ever written on the topic of what constitutes legal evidence.
In fact, even the U.S. Supreme Court quoted it. The London Law journal once said that Greenleaf knew more about the laws of evidence than “all the lawyers who adorn the courts of Europe.”23
Greenleaf scoffed at the resurrection until a student challenged him to check it out for himself. He methodically applied the legal tests of evidence and became convinced that the resurrection was an actual historical event. The Jewish professor then committed his life to Christ.24
In summary, the evidence for the resurrection is that Jesus was killed by crucifixion and was stabbed by a spear; He was pronounced dead by experts; He was wrapped in bandages containing seventy-five pounds of spices; He was placed in a tomb; a huge rock was rolled in front of the entrance (according to one ancient account, so big that twenty men couldn’t move it); and the tomb was guarded by highly disciplined soldiers.
Yet, three days later the tomb was discovered empty, and eyewitnesses proclaimed to their death that Jesus had appeared to them.
Who had a motive to steal the body? The disciples weren’t about to conceal it so they could be tortured to death for lying about it. The Jewish and Roman leaders would have loved to have paraded the body up and down Main Street in Jerusalem; certainly that would have instantly killed this budding religion that they had spent so much time trying to squelch.
But what happened is that over a period of forty days, Jesus appeared alive twelve different times to more than 515 people—to skeptics like Thomas and James, and sometimes to groups, sometimes to individuals, sometimes indoors, sometimes outdoors in broad daylight. He talked with people and even ate with them.
Several years later, when the apostle Paul mentioned that there had been eyewitnesses to the resurrection, he noted that many of them were still alive, as if to say to first-century doubters, “Go confirm it with them if you don’t believe me.”25
In fact, if you were to call to the witness stand every person who actually saw the resurrected Jesus, and if you were to cross-examine each one of them for only fifteen minutes, and if you did this around the clock without any breaks, you would be listening to firsthand testimony for more than five solid days.
Compared to the trials I had covered, this was an avalanche of evidence. More puzzle pieces locked into place.
DIGGING FOR THE TRUTH
I looked at archaeology and discovered that it has confirmed the biblical record time after time. Admittedly, there are some issues still to be resolved. However, one eminent archaeologist, Dr. Nelson Gleuck, said: “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made that confirm in clear outline or in exact detail historical statements in the Bible.”26
I was especially fascinated by the story of Sir William Ramsay of Oxford University in England, one of history’s greatest archaeologists. He was an atheist; in fact, he was the son of atheists. He spent twenty-five years doing archaeological digs to try to disprove the book of Acts, which was written by the historian Luke who also penned the Gospel bearing his name.
But instead of discrediting Luke’s account, Ramsay’s discoveries kept supporting it. Finally, he concluded that Luke was one of the most accurate historians who ever lived. Bolstered by the archaeological evidence, Ramsay became a Christian.27
Then I said, “Okay, so there’s evidence that the New Testament is historically reliable. But what evidence is there for Jesus outside the Bible?”
I was amazed to find out that there are about a dozen non-Christian writers from ancient history who cite historic details about the life of Jesus, including the fact that He did amazing things, that He was known as a virtuous person, that He was called the Messiah, that He was crucified, that the sky went dark while He hung on the cross, that His disciples said He had returned from the dead, and that they worshiped Him as God.28
Actually, this is just a brief overview of my spiritual investigation, since I delved into a lot more details than can be described here. And I don’t want to suggest this was merely an antiseptic, academic exercise. There was plenty of emotion involved, as Chapter 9 will describe. But it seemed as if everywhere I turned was more confirmation of the reliability of the biblical account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
SOLVING THE PUZZLE
I sorted through the evidence for a year and nine months, until Sunday, November 8, 1981, after I had returned home from church. I was alone in my bedroom, and I concluded that the time had arrived to reach a verdict.
Christianity had not been absolutely proven. If it had, there would be no room for faith. But when I weighed the facts, I concluded that the historical evidence clearly supports the claims of Christ beyond any reasonable doubt. In fact, based on what I had learned, it would have taken more faith to remain an atheist than to become a Christian!
So, after I had put the last piece of my mental jigsaw puzzle into place, I figuratively stepped back to see the picture I had been systematically piecing together in my mind for almost two years.
It was a portrait of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Like the former skeptic Thomas, I responded by declaring: “My Lord and my God!”
Afterward, I walked into the kitchen, where Leslie was standing next to Alison in front of the sink. Our daughter was five years old at the time, and by standing on her toes and stretching, she was barely able to reach the kitchen faucet for the first time.
“Look, Daddy, look!” she exclaimed. “I can touch it! I can touch it!”
“Honey, that’s great,” I told her as I gave her a hug. Then I said to Leslie, “You know, that’s exactly how I feel. I’ve been reaching for someone for a long time, and today I was finally able to touch Him.”
She knew what I was saying. With tears in our eyes, we embraced.
As it turned out, Leslie and her friends had been praying for me almost daily throughout my spiritual journey. Often, Leslie’s prayers had focused on this verse from the Old Testament:
I will give you a new heart and put a new, spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.29
Thank God, He has been faithful to that promise. [29-42]
1. Josh McDowell, More Than a Carpenter (Wheaton, Ill.: Living Books, 1977).
2. Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino: Here’s Life, 1979).
3. 2 Peter 1:16
4. 1 John 1:1
5. See Josh McDowell, More Than a Carpenter, 51-53, for a discussion of this topic.
6. Acts 2:22 (emphasis added)
7. Acts 2:32
8. Acts 2:41
9. 1 Corinthians 15:14
10. This point is discussed by Josh McDowell in More Than a Carpenter, 70-71.
11. John 20:28
12. Mark 14:61
13. See Mark 14:62
14. Mark 14:64
15. Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 62-63.
16. A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1978), 186-93.
17. See J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1987), 150-51.
18. Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 166.
19. Peter W. Stoner, Science Speaks (Chicago: Moody Press, 1969), 107.
20. Ibid., 109.
21. Luke 24:44
22. Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Lamplighter, 1958. Reprint of 1938 edition. London: Faber & Faber, Ltd.), 193.
23. Irwin H. Linton, A Lawyer Examines the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1943), 36.
24. Simon Greenleaf, An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice (Jersey City, N.J.: Frederick D. Linn & Co., 1881).
25. See 1 Corinthians 15:6
26. Henry M. Morris, The Bible and Modem Science (Chicago: Moody, 1968), 95.
27. D. James Kennedy, Why I Believe (Dallas: Word, 1980), 33.
28. For a summary of evidence for Jesus outside the Bible, see Gary R. Habermas, The Verdict of History: Conclusive Evidence for the Life of Jesus (Nashville: Nelson, 1988).
29. Ezekiel 36:26