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Testimony of Former Atheist Lee Strobel

The Case for Christ

I was an atheist for most of my life. I thought that the idea of an all powerful, all loving God was just silly. I learned in school that evolution was where life came from, so what do you need God for? And I had a lot of self-motivation for living an atheistic lifestyle. I was living a very immoral life and a drunken life, life that was really a hundred percent focused on journalism.

I remember I've loved newspapers since I was a little kid. My dad used to bring home the Chicago Daily News every night from work, and I would read it as a little kid and say how is there all this news every day and how does it always happen to just perfectly fit? I couldn't figure this out. I wanted to be a journalist, so I started a newspaper when I was 12 years old; and it became quite successful. We had 200 subscribers, and we charged 20 cents a month. It was five pages a week. I printed it in my basement on a little printing press. I had advertising, three dollars a page, that I would sell. I made a profit; I did it for two years, and I really enjoyed it. Then I lied about my age and got a job at a newspaper as a summer intern. And I spent five years as a summer intern, starting at age fourteen; so I had a lot of experience for a young kid.

I went to the University of Missouri because everyone told me that's the first journalism school in the country and many say the best. So I went there, and then I applied for a job at the Arizona Republic. I loved Arizona, and I went down there. I'll never forget that the editor said "We really like reporters who are really committed to the newspaper and to the profession. We want people that for them: God is number one, family number two, and then their job." I thought,  "Is he nuts?" My job is number one, my wife number two, and everything else is after that. It honestly did not compute with me because I was absolutely focused on my career as a journalist.

Right from journalism school I went to the Chicago Tribune, which was unusual; but I had so much experience for a kid...because I knew since I was a little kid what I wanted to do. So I started as a general-assignments reporter. I went to Yale to get my masters in law, came back as a legal editor, covered federal courts, covered criminal courts, covered the Illinois Supreme Court and really enjoyed it but without God, without a moral framework, my personal life was out of control, the drinking, the carousing. I had no moral framework of how to do journalism so I would do whatever it took to get the story. I would steal; I would commit a federal crime by stealing federal documents from the courthouse. I made friends with the court clerk, and he allowed me to go by myself into the court files; and so I would go in there, and I would beat the competition all the time by finding all this wonderful stuff in the court files that no one knew about. So when I would find something particularly juicy, I would slip it under my vest, and I would steal it so when the story broke, the competition couldn't find the documents. Then I gave it a day or two, then I put it back. I figured it was worth it because I never got caught.

I would lie. I remember covering stories at the police headquarters, I would call the witness to a crime and I would say, "Hello this is Lee Strobel calling from police headquarters." Well the implication was that I was with the police department. I intentionally mislead and deceived them, because I figured they would tell me more than if they knew I was a reporter. There was nothing that I wouldn't do in pursuit of a story. I would step on my colleagues, in a very Machiavellian way. I, behind the scenes, destroyed the career of one of my colleagues because he was in my way. By the time I was done with him, he was fired from the Chicago Tribune. That's a terrible thing to do, to destroy someone's career; but I did it. And I didn't care. It didn't bother me one iota, because he was in my way. Get rid of him, destroy him...and I was able to do it. He got called on his honeymoon to be informed that he had been fired from his job...a terrible thing. But, as I said, I had no moral sense of right or wrong. If something was in my way, I got rid of it.

A woman friend of mine in college came up to me one day and said, "I have bad news I'm pregnant." I said, "That's not bad news; abortion's legal in New York. Why don't you get rid of it? I'll help you; I'll arrange it for you." So I arranged for the destruction of that unborn child. It didn't bother me at all. Something was in the way...I was getting rid of it. That was my atheistic mindset: completely focused on achieving my goal of success at the Chicago Tribune.

My wife was agnostic. She had virtually no experience  with church growing up. She never really thought much about God. Then, one day we moved into an apartment building; and the woman downstairs was a Christian. And she built a friendship with my wife, and they became best friends. And they would talk and spend time together. It was very natural in their conversations for Linda to share her faith with my wife, Leslie; and Leslie was fascinated. No one had ever told me about Christianity before. Not really. Here we are in our late twenties at the time. She just soaked it up. So Linda said a very interesting thing to herself. She said, "Okay, I'm stuck here. I've shared my faith with Leslie who I can't get to cross the line of faith. I don't know what to do, but I know instinctually what not to do: I should not bring Leslie to church (because Linda had a very traditional church, and she knew that if she brought Leslie to her church it would be so disorienting...Leslie wouldn't know when to sit, when to stand or when to open a Bible. She wouldn't have a Bible, she wouldn't know an Ephesians from a Philippians, and she would feel like a fish out of water. The sermon would be directed at Christians (as opposed to non believers)." So Linda said,  "I can't bring her to that church, but I heard about a new church called Willow Creek. It was meeting in a movie theater right near our house. And Willow Creek had a traditional worship service on Wednesday nights; but on weekends they did service designed for Christians to bring their non-believing friends to...where things were explained in a way that non-Christians could understand it...where people weren't put on the spot and made to do things they weren't ready to...where the sermon would be very practical and application-oriented and designed in articulated language that non-believers could understand...where the music would not be from the eighteen hundreds, but music that people could really get in to." So Linda brought my wife to that church, and my wife loved it. I remember she came home that day and said, "This is a great church!" And I said, "This is an oxymoron: you can't have great and church in the same sentence. Its like military intelligence: they don't go together!" But, anyway, I said, "If you want to continue this, go ahead; but don't try to get me to go."

And so she came to me in the fall of 1973 and  said, "Lee, I've made a big decision. I've become a follower of Jesus Christ." I thought this was the worst possible thing that could happen to our marriage. I thought we were gonna get divorced. I felt like I'd married one Leslie and now she's changed into something else. I wasn't ready for that. I didn't want that. And I said, "Look, if you can't face life on your own two feet, if you have to out your faith in a book of mythology and bad history and make-believe, then you go ahead and do that. But, number one, don't give them any of our money, because that's what they're after; and, number two, don't try to get me to go because I'm too smart for that."

So I was a really nice guy, but she continued to go and to invite me from time to time; and I wouldn't go, and it was a very stressful time in our marriage. In fact, we are writing a book about it, a how-to-live-with-a-non-believer kind of book; because it was very stressful. We almost did get divorced, but there was something very attractive at the same time in her life and the changes in her, in her character, and in her values, and in the way she related to me and the children: it just intrigued me. So then finally on January 20, 1980 she said, "Why don't you come with me to church?" She said, "You don't have to stay for the whole service, just come and listen to the music...you'll like the music." I said, "Ok. I'm gonna go." So I come into this church, and the music really was in my style. I could enjoy it. I could relate to it. I learned from the lyrics. They used a drama that really captured a slice of my life, like they know what I was thinking. And then the pastor got up and did the message called "Basic Christianity" and just explained Christianity. I was twenty-eight years old. I had never heard the word grace explained before in my life. I thought grace was something Christians said before a meal. He explained it. I thought that, number one: I don't believe it, I'm still an atheist; but, number two: if this is true, this has huge implications for my life.

So I decided to take my legal training and my journalism training and investigate: is there any credibility to Christianity? I would do what I did at the Chicago Tribune. I would check out stories to see if they were true, if they could be printed in the papers. So I would investigate. I went out, and I applied those skills to the question of, " Who is Jesus Christ?" I didn't do it with an antagonist attitude; I did it with a journalist's attitude...I said, "Give me the facts. I'm going to look at both sides, I'm going to look at other world religions." And I began to do that. And it was an amazing journey: to look at other faith systems and see the eternal contradictions that, to me, disqualified them from being true. And yet to see in Christianity, as I looked into the historical evidence for Jesus, as I looked at the reliability of the New Testament, as I looked at the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies in the New Testament, as I looked at the resurrection: very powerful evidence. And I looked at some of the most brilliant legal minds of history: Simon Greenleaf of Harvard, Sir Lionel Luck, who, the Guinness Book of World Records describes as the most successful lawyer in the history of the world (had more murder trials won in a row than any other defense attorney ever). These are brilliant people who have applied the laws of evidence to the resurrection accounts and walked away convinced that they are true.

My big hang-up was that it was legend...that this was a legend that grew up a long time after Jesus...and then I found a very interesting fact that to me was one of the pivotal facts in my investigation. There is a passage in scripture, 1 Corinthians 15:3, that is a creed recited by the earliest Christians that Paul is providing there for the Corinthians; and in fact he refers to the fact that he already has provided this, "This what I received, I pass on to you." In other words he says this is tradition that I am now formally passing on to you, and it affirms the essentials of Christianity. That Jesus died for our sins. That he was buried and resurrected on the third day and he mentions the eyewitnesses to whom he appears.

It mentions skeptics like James and Paul. This Creed can be dated back by scholars from a wide range of theological belief to within 2 years to sixty months after the resurrection itself. This is an extremely early account that Paul is preserving for us. Its not his words...he's passing this along. And when you look at Sherwin White, the great classical historian from Oxford- Cambridge (he did studies about the rate at which legends grew up in the ancient world, and he found that two generations of time was not enough for legend to grow up and thoroughly destroy a solid core of historical truth). And yet here you have something not two generations of time...but that goes back to within two to five years of the events themselves. And the statements in that creed (which were affirmed that it was given by Paul by the witnesses themselves, Peter and James), goes back to the cross itself, to the eyewitness accounts. So there has never been a legend in so short time. In 1844 a historian said, "I challenge anyone anywhere to come up with any example in history where legend grew up that fast and thoroughly destroyed or distorted solid, historical belief...it has never happened that anyone has been able to find." That was very powerful to me. It told me that this wasn't wishful thinking, it wasn't legendary development. This was something that we had a creed of the early church that goes right back to the events themselves, virtually; and, therefore, was very fresh and trustworthy in terms of what it conveys...and when you look at the other aspects of the empty tomb, the eyewitness accounts, the early nature, the extra-biblical evidence, the emergence of the early church...I call them the five Es...you look at all that together; and that's a very powerful case for the resurrection.

So I did this investigation for almost 2 years of my life: looking at evidence inside the Bible, outside the Bible. One of my favorite things: I found 110 facts outside the Bible recorded in ancient history that confirmed (and again these are many things some are higher quality than others, most are somewhat questionable) that form together a very powerful corroborative aspect. One of them, my favorite, is a guy named Thalus, who was a Greek historian in the first century, who wrote a history of the Eastern Mediterranean world in 52AD. So this is right after Jesus' life. Thalus was not a believer and Thalus' works have actually been lost; but in the year 221, a guy named Julius Africanus quotes Thalus, and Thalus had written about the darkness that fell over the Earth during the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Now when I had seen that Bible verse, I remember thinking, "Don't you think someone other than Mathew, Mark, Luke or John would have noticed this." And Thalus not only recorded it, but he tried to explain it away as being an eclipse of the sun. Which, given the timing of the Crucifixion, it could not have been. And I thought Thalus' was a weak historical claim; but the more you investigate Thalus you find that's a very powerful bit of corroborative evidence and it's not the only bit. There's other references to the darkness outside the Bible. I just had a great time as a journalist investigating all this stuff. On the plus side, journalists respond to evidence; the negative side is I tended to be an observer, I was never a participant, I was the critical observer. I didn't join anything; I kept things at arms length. So the idea of making a commitment to God was alien to me; and yet the evidence was so powerful that on November 8, 1981 (after spending two years of checking this out) I just realized that in light of this torrent of evidence that points so powerfully towards Christianity, it would have required more faith to retain my atheism than to become a Christian. Because to maintain my atheism I would have had to defy the evidence. To become a Christian, I just had to make a step of faith in the same direction that the evidence was pointing. That's logical, that's rational, and that's what I did.

On that day I repented of my sin, which took quite a while, and gave my life to Christ. I thought maybe my wife would be interested in the fact that I just did this; so I thought I'd tell her. So I came out and was walking down the hallway and turned into our kitchen, and my wife was standing there with our daughter who was almost five; and our daughter was standing in front of her reaching up and touching the faucet, for the first time...that's how tall she was. And she said, "Daddy, look I can touch it. I can reach it." And I said, "Oh wow you're getting so big." And I gave her a hug, and she ran off; and I said to my wife, "That's how I feel! I feel for a year and nine months I've been reaching out and reaching out, and I just touched Jesus Christ. It's real and it's true, and I just gave my life to him." She started crying and said, "You hardhearted son-of-a-*&#, I've been telling you this for two years." And it had turned out that she had met some women in her church, and she told them about her husband who is a hard-hearted, hard-headed journalist that she didn't have much hope for, and they said we'll pray this verse Ezekiel 33:23 [the correct citation is 36:26]. It says more over, "I will give you a new heart and I will put a new spirit within you. I'll remove your heart of stone, and I will give you a heart of flesh." And she said, "I've been praying that every day for two years." And God began to answer that prayer as I opened my life to him and yielded myself to him, began to seek to follow his ways; and, now, empowered by the Holy Spirit, my attitudes, my philosophy, my worldview, my professional standards, my marriage, my job...everything began to change so much so that my little daughter Alison had only known in her first five years a dad that was angry. I remember...so frustrated from work one day and I kicked the wall and I put my foot right through the wall, anger over life and frustration...that's all she knew of her dad. I'd come home drunk or I would come home angry and that's all she had known. And then five or six months after I became a Christian, having seen how God changed my attitudes and my life, she came up to my wife and said, "Mommy, I want God to do for me what he did for daddy." She gave her life to Christ at age five and now has graduated from college and is now in the ministry, trying to reach this next generation; and my son is now going to seminary, he graduated from bible college this year and is going to seminary here in California in the fall to study philosophy and religion.

My whole life has changed: my attitude, my family, all of our eternities, part of it is because of a church that took some risks to communicate the gospel in a simple way, in a way that didn't inadvertently chase away the very people that God was calling them to reach. And then, within thirty days of becoming a Christian, Leslie came to me one day and said, "Man I found this verse It says pray for your heart's desire." I said, "Oh man I know what my heart's desire is. Its not to be legal editor of the Chicago Tribune. I want to run my own paper; I want to be managing editor. I want to run a newspaper, because I want to make a bigger contribution than just being one cog in a big newspaper." She said, "You think that we ought to pray about this?" And I said, "Why not." So, we began to pray about this. Boom! Within thirty days God opened an opportunity for me to become editor of a newspaper that the Washington Post actually said is one of the finest small papers in America: the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri...which is where the university of Missouri Journalism School is. And I came down and became editor. It was a real test! at that point I am a brand new Christian and didn't know virtually anything about the Christian life. I knew a lot about the history of Jesus. So I said to my self that, if I want to run this newspaper, I want to be like Jesus. I want to do it the way Jesus would do it. Now what would that look like? So we went down there. It was a little experiment for a new Christian. I had 44 people in my newsroom; and I came in. Everyone thought, because I came form the Chicago Tribune, I would be a big shot and throw my weight around. They were taken aback because I came in with a servant's attitude. That was one of the things Leslie and I had stressed together: let's be servants, let's do what Jesus would do, let's serve these people, try to maximize their gifts, try to respect them as people. We will not even get near any moral ambiguity in terms of the way that we do Journalism; we will identify ourselves as reporters; we will always stay on the ethical line of everything.

I remember the big question in my mind - I had won some big awards in Chicago for investigative reporting and for community service journalism. I wondered, "Could I be successful as a journalist and be strictly adhering to ethical standards?"  We said, "We are gonna find out." And I stressed to everybody- we had many times when we could have skated over the line and really scored on something and said, "No, we are not gonna do it...there is another way...there's got to be a better way...there's got to be an honest way." And, two years later the paper was named by the Missouri press association as the best paper in the state of Missouri, beating St. Lois and Kansas City papers. It can be done...we did it...we stayed on the right side and did the right thing. God blessed it, and I think we had a terrific newspaper.

Although I missed Chicago...not for the Chicago tribune but for Willow Creek church...I thought all churches were like that. I thought that it was a typical church. We want to Missouri, and it wasn't quite like that. We moved back to Chicago mainly to attend Willow Creek church, and I became assistant managing editor of the Daily Herald which is the third biggest paper in Illinois; and God began to call me into ministry.

That was a big struggle for me, because I believed very strongly in secular journalism. Christian journalists in secular journalism: I wanted to stay that way, and I wanted to be a voice &  I wanted to be salt and light in that environment. But it was unmistakable; it took two years of God tugging and making it clear. But, in the end, I knew it was either obedience or not. I knew that, for me, what God wanted me to do would be for me to go into full-time Christian work especially in the area of evangelism. I remember that, at the time, I had never shared my faith before. I wasn't an evangelist; I was just a new Christian. I was scared to share my faith; I didn't know what to say or what to do.

I remember one day at the Daily Herald...it was one of those days when everything goes wrong...all the deadlines are blown, and I prayed in the morning, and I said, " God, I need your help on this, because I'm going to go ballistic on this. I really need your help!" And God really came through, and I really got through the day.

When I was a supervisor, I didn't want my reporters to think,  "Well, for me to get ahead, I'd better say that I'm a Christian otherwise Lee's not going to promote me." They'd think I played favorites or something, so there are just a couple of things that I found personally helpful. The first thing is to be myself...not to say I'm going to share my faith the way that somebody else might. I'm going to be myself.

If you look in the Bible there are about six different examples of different styles in which people shared their faith. You have Peter who gets up at Pentecost and talks to the crowd and, BOOM, hits them between the eyes and says, "You just killed the Messiah!"  God used it, and three thousand people repented, and the church was born. Peter's was a very confrontational thing, and I used to think, "If I'm going to be an evangelist, doggon it, I'd better be that kind: in your face." But no, there are other styles.

Paul, in Acts 17, talking to philosophers: he didn't hit them between the eyes. Instead, he reasoned with them. He answered their questions and presented the evidence. He had a dialogue with them...a different kind of a style, more of an intellectual style. If you look at the blind man in John 9: Jesus heals a blind man. The blind man doesn't confront the religious leaders. He doesn't reason with the religious leaders. He just says, "I was blind and now I see." Deal with it. You figure it out.

So there is another style of evangelizing...the testimonial style: this is my story. It's the style I usually use .Others, like Matthew: after Matthew became a disciple, there is a fascinating mention. He threw a party for his tax-collecting friends and invited Jesus and the other disciples so they could rub shoulders and spiritual sparks would happen...so its more of an interpersonal style more of a relational style of evangelism.

There is the story of the woman who was making clothes for the poor people of her town. She was serving people in need, and then she dies and of course she is raised from the dead. So there is an advantage to having that particular style. Hers was a serving style. She would serve people and thought that she would communicate her faith that way. So there is about a half of a dozen different types of styles that you can see in the New Testament. We don't have to do it in the same way. You can be "you" and be effective in sharing your faith. I don't have to stand up on my chair in a newsroom and shout the gospel, but I have a testimonial style; and there are opportunities that I've had with journalists to be able to tell my story and answer their questions.

I think the first thing is to be yourself, and the second thing is to drop hints early that you are a Christian. Just let it be known in a subtle way. For instance, you ask somebody, "What did you do this weekend?" And they said, "Well, I washed the car; I went out to dinner with my wife; and I went to a movie. What did you do, Lee?" "Oh well, I washed my car too; and I watched that game on TV. Wasn't that a great game? And I went to church, and I did such and such." All I have to do is just drop the hint...just let him know...that's initially all I've got to do. So be yourself. Drop hints early. Then, third, hangout...spend time with the non-believers.

It's uncomfortable; I got real uncomfortable hanging out in bars after I stopped drinking. Right after I became a Christian, I stopped drinking; and, so, I didn't like to go back into bars. It was a bad place for me, but God protected me. I've never fallen back. I've gone in places where I've been uncomfortable...to hang out...to spend time with my friends in journalism who are non-believers. And what I find is they know that I'm a Christian, and I just spend time with them and love them and care for them. At some point, a spiritual conversation is going to come up. You can almost guarantee that.

The fourth thing to do is to pray. Chances are a spiritual conversation is going to take place after work, down the block, or over lunch. I continue to reach out to a lot of journalists who I know at the Tribune and elsewhere who are not believers. They know I'm a Christian, and you know what they are looking for: someone to talk to a lot. They have questions about faith. If something comes up in their life, who are they going to go to? Who is the person in the newsroom who doesn't know any Christians when catastrophe strikes in their life and their wife gets cancer or their kid gets hit by a car? Who are they going to go to? They are going to go to you, because they know that Strobel goes to church. "I'm going to go to him and ask him for help...or something." Personally, I find that's been helpful. I was in downtown Chicago, and I ran into a guy who was a competitor of mine when I was at the Tribune; and I hadn't seen him in twenty years. He's one of these really tough Chicago reporters with the cigar and pork pie hat. He's the archetype Chicago reporter. He said, "Strobel, how the #*#@ are you, you son-of-a #*#@?" I said, "I'm doing good, John." He said, "Are you still writing for that #*#@ Tribune?." I said, "No, John. Actually, I've become a Christian; and I'm a minister now." His cigar almost fell out of his mouth. He looks at me and says, "Well, I'll be damned!"

I shared my faith with him, and it was really great. He was really interested. I call it "the unexpected adventure". If you are yourself, and if you drop hints, and if you are praying for people, and if you're hanging out with them, then something's going to happen. You never know when or where, and I think that's the great unexpected adventure of Christianity!


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