Lee Strobel: Asking the Real Questions

Lee Strobel is one of the most notable and recognizable apologists of the past few decades. Beginning his career as a journalist at The Chicago Tribune before coming to faith, his best-known book, The Case for Christ, has the rare distinction of having sold more than 5 million copies. It has been adapted into a feature film, and continues to impact seekers around the world, along with his other popular titles including The Case for Heaven, The Case for Miracles, and his most recent book, Is God Real? (Zondervan). [Editor’s note: The interviewer is a senior acquisitions editor for Zondervan.] 

Outreach editor-at-large Paul J. Pastor caught up with Strobel to discuss the continued impact of his writing, what is changing and what remains the same as people ask hard questions of Christianity, and the importance of relationship in evangelism.

A great example of the enduring impact of your work happened earlier this year, when popular comedian Chris Distefano enthusiastically referenced The Case for Christ on Bill Maher’s Club Random podcast. That book came out in 1998. What’s it like having someone in pop culture referencing your testimony decades later?

When I hear people talk about the influence of The Case for Christ, I always feel like I’m one step back and looking in as a third party. God has done things with it that I feel like I’m not really responsible for.

I grew up a big Chicago Cubs fan. At Wrigley Field, often the batter will hit a pop-up, it will go to center field, and will be caught by the other team. But sometimes the wind of Chicago catches it and takes it out of the park. I wrote the book, but the Holy Spirit took it so far beyond what I put into it. 

I love it when somebody mentions the book on television or when I get a note from someone. The stories I’ve heard are just staggering how God has used that book around the world. But I don’t feel like I can take credit. I wrote the book in five months, working a full-time job, using vacation time, weekends and nights. I don’t know how it happened. God’s hand has been in it from the beginning, and in his sovereignty, he decided to do something with it. 

Two words come to mind when I think of your work: rational and relational. You’re removing rational barriers to someone being able to say yes to Christ, but you’re doing this through conversation and story. Is this important to the work of an apologist?

We’re living in an era when there is increased skepticism toward faith. The percentage of Americans that believe in God has dropped from 98% in 1966 to 81% today, which is a record low. Generation Z is called the first post-Christian generation in our country. Twice as many members of Gen Z call themselves atheists compared to older people. People have a lot of questions or objections holding them back in their journey toward God. They’re looking for answers, they want to discuss it. So, we do have that rational component

But relationship is vital too. I doubt that many atheists in the past 25 years have spontaneously seen the cover of The Case for Christ and randomly picked it up. It’s a relational book in the way it’s written, but also in the sense that Christians who read it find that it deepens their faith—and then they give it away to a neighbor, a friend, a colleague, a fellow student or someone else who’s spiritually curious. That relational component is very important. It can further the conversation that can then take place between those two friends.

When The Case for Christ was initially published, Zondervan did something extraordinary. In those days, a publisher would publish a book in hardcover and then a year later bring it out in a trade paperback edition. But Zondervan made the crazy move of publishing three editions at the same time: a hardcover, a less-expensive trade paperback, and six mass-market copies packaged together that people could buy just to give away to friends.

Isn’t that amazing? I had never heard of that before, and thought it was such a vote of confidence from a publisher so committed to spreading the gospel and taking a very risky step on an untested book, to publish a six pack in hopes that people would buy it and give it away. 

I hope that my work is rational and relational at the same time. I value authenticity and conversation, and asking more questions than preaching at people. 

Obviously, there is a long tradition of Christian thinkers engaging skeptics or those on the road to faith. The goal remains the same, but the specific questions change. Over the course of your career and your own time of questioning, are you seeing the questions people are asking change?

I’m seeing both consistency and variation. The No. 1 question remains, “If God is real, why is there suffering in the world?” That comes from places of personal hurt as well as intellectual curiosity. My wife has a neuromuscular condition that has had her in pain every day for the past 20 years. It’s incurable. She’ll be in pain every day for the rest of her life, unless God does a miracle, which he hasn’t chosen to do. For many people, suffering is not just an intellectual question, it’s a daily personal issue. And of course there is a personal answer through Jesus Christ himself. 

There are other questions that are becoming more prominent. One of them is “If God is real, why does he seem so hidden?” This has become a more popular objection among young people ever since Jon Steingard of the Christian rock band Hawk Nelson walked away from his faith and posted on Instagram [that] it was because God seemed hidden and he just couldn’t get past that. So that’s become increasingly voiced by young people. 

Then more of the classics: the question of God sending people to hell, the question of Jesus being the only way to God. Those are still, I think, the most pressing issues that spiritual skeptics are raising.

Let’s lean into doubt for a moment. How should we think about our own questions, or the questions of others?

The journalist in me is always asking questions and wanting to go deeper, to challenge things. I find that I have a lot of unresolved questions, theological issues and so forth, that I probably won’t get answers to in this world. So there are always going to be questions that are fascinating and important, but they’re not eating my faith. I don’t understand how some Christians are offended when people ask questions or express doubt. I think that’s very unhealthy. When a person doubts, the healthiest thing they can do is talk about it. Bring it up. Discuss it. Christians need to be open to that and to help them ask the real questions and find the real answers.

It’s like when you’re a little kid, and you have a nightmare. You wake up sweating. Your heart is pounding, and you’re scared to death. What do you do? You jump out of bed, run into your parent(s)’ bedroom, and jump into their bed. They say, “What’s wrong?” and you say, “I had this horrible nightmare!” And then they say, “What was it?” And you say, “Well, I had this monster living under my bed and he had six eyes and five arms!” and then … you start to laugh because it sounds so stupid when you say it. This is how doubts work—not that they’re stupid, of course. But they’re most powerful when you keep them inside. If you keep them in and you don’t talk about them, they erode your soul. But when you talk about them, they lose their grip over you.

The healthiest thing that Christians and churches can do is encourage people to talk about those spiritual sticking points that are holding them up in their journey to God. What are the questions? What are the doubts? If you look at the statistics of why young people are leaving the church, so many of them are because of unresolved doubts they have. 

This is a beautiful, personal vision that you’re sharing. You exemplify it in the spirit in which you enter into these conversations—with peace and even joy in the conversation rather than insecurity or anxiety. Sometimes evangelism can have a joyless urgency or anxiety. How do we cultivate strength and a winsome, secure way of relating to those still on the journey toward faith?

Well, you used a good word: winsome. I think that’s a key word. I think what often happens is apologists will quote 1 Peter 3:15, to talk about the importance of giving answers, but then they don’t quote what follows right there, which is do it with gentleness and respect. I think that is, these days, so important that we approach it with humility and with honesty and with integrity and with authenticity, and with empathy. God is not shocked that people have questions, and we shouldn’t be shocked that they have questions either.

A faith that is attractive is like salt. It causes people to thirst for God. It’s like light that shines his message of grace and hope into people’s hearts. In a way that’s urgent, because every soul matters, every person matters to God, and eternity is quite literally hanging in the balance. But there’s a balance here. Sometimes when we push too hard, or urge them to “sign on the dotted line” before they’re ready, it’s self-defeating in the end.

I find when I have a relationship with someone and get to know them well and they feel safe enough with me to ask questions and have candid conversations about their doubts and objections, that over time they really can get answers that satisfy their heart and soul. But it doesn’t often happen overnight. Sometimes it does and that’s wonderful, but more often in my experience, it’s a process and a process is OK. It’s OK if it leads to an authentic, heartfelt step of repentance and faith.

Some things cannot be rushed. And while we can decide to share our faith, we can’t control the outcome. 

There’s obviously a question at the heart of your new book, Is God Real? Give us a little insight about where the book came from.

My publisher had been doing some research into trends, and had discovered that about 200 times per second, around the clock, someone is asking a search engine some version of this question: “Is God real?” I thought that if there’s that much curiosity, why don’t we try to make the answer really easy for them. I decided to put in one volume the essential evidence that points toward God being real. In other books I’ve written, I’ve dealt with science and faith, with philosophical issues, with historical issues, but I decided to pick some of the best interviews I’ve done from a couple of my previous books, combine that with new interviews, and put it all in one place. I wanted a book where people can access the evidence from science for God—cosmology, physics and biochemistry, alongside the arguments of philosophy and history that relate more to Christianity specifically. Did Jesus exist? Did he die? Was he resurrected?

It’s a book that really does deepen the faith of Christians and gives them the confidence to engage with others. The reason many Christians don’t have a spiritual conversation with someone who doesn’t believe like they do is often because they are afraid of being asked a question they have no idea how to answer. They don’t want to look stupid. This is a book they can read with a nonbelieving friend and discuss it. Or they can read the book and feel more confident in sharing their faith, and then give the book away. (Back to the Christian “pass-along” market.) This is a book that you can give to someone who is spiritually curious and see if God uses it in their life or sparks further conversations with you about why you believe in God.

Given the increase in skepticism in our culture, we’ve got to understand not just what we believe, but why we believe it. Our children and our grandchildren are going to be challenged in their faith in a way that older generations were not. There’s a guy I interacted with recently whose six-year-old granddaughter was being taunted because she believes in God. “Oh, you believe in fairy tales. You still believe in make-believe.” 

We have to be prepared, and we have to prepare them to understand why we believe what we believe so we can have a strong and confident faith and feel confident in sharing it with others. 

What are the opportunities that pastors or churches miss in regard to apologetics? What assumptions do they have that may be false?

I was really troubled a while back when I heard a statistic that in the United States today it takes 86 church members working for one year to reach one person for Christ. At that rate, we’re not going to change the world. At that rate, the church is going to collapse.

I was recently with a good friend, and we were talking to a guy we know who’s a very successful businessperson. He said, “You know, to be successful in business you only have to do two things right: First, you have to keep your present customers happy, and second, you have to reach new customers.” And then he looked at us and said, “In a typical church, who’s in charge of new business?”

I worry about the evangelistic effectiveness of local churches. The pastor can’t do it all. The pastor has a variety of values he has to uphold: worship, discipleship, giving, all these values he has to continue to lift up—one of which is evangelism—but he can’t do that full-time. I think every church, regardless of its size, needs to have one person, under the direction of the senior pastor, who is the leader for evangelism, the point person for reaching that community for Christ. 

In a small church, it will be a volunteer, in a medium-size church it will be a part-time person, in a big church it will be a full-time person. But every church needs someone who can lead the evangelistic initiatives of that church, which includes apologetics and what can we do to help our community understand the truth of Christianity. What I’ve found is that when you have a person like that, and they are praying and they are strategizing, and they are working for reaching their community for Christ, then natural opportunities arise for that person to harness the local church to reach that community with the gospel.

I’ll give you an example: We talk about how the local church can use apologetics to reach the current culture. One innovation in recent years that has gone gangbusters is small groups for nonbelievers. We call them spiritual discovery groups. Gary Poole pioneered these many years ago [calling them seeker small groups]. Mark Mittelberg and I were in Chicago, we brought in Gary and launched these groups, and pretty soon we had 1,100 nonbelievers in groups like these. We tracked them over a period of time and found that 80% came to faith. Where else do you get an 80% conversion rate? This is apologetics for current times. 

These groups are normally two Christians and a half dozen nonbelievers. You’re not the Bible “answer man” if you’re leading this group. You’re not supposed to sit in the hot seat and answer tough questions. In fact, we teach people how not to answer questions. We teach people how to ask more questions. So that if a person asks, “Why does God allow suffering?” instead of a leader replying with a five-point sermon, we train them to say, “Out of all the questions in the universe, why did you ask that question?” And that gets personal. “Because we lost a child in childbirth five years ago, and where was God when that happened?” or “My wife has breast cancer, and where is God in the middle of that?”

Now we’re getting to the real issue. Instead of giving an apologetic, sterile argument for why God allows suffering, what that person needs is someone to put their arm around his shoulder and draw him close and pray and empathize and be their friend. Relationship is what leads a person to Christ. The apologetics is a tool. It’s just knocking down some of the barriers. It’s the relationship that God uses to bring people to faith. So I think that’s a good example of how churches can pursue apologetics in an unusual way in the current culture in which we’re in.

That brings us back to the rational and relational, right? A question looks like a rational barrier, but it’s something that goes deeper than an intellectual objection.

Exactly. A lot of people think of me as an apologist. I don’t think of myself that way. I think of myself as an evangelist. My life’s goal is to drag as many people with me to heaven as I can. I just use apologetics because it is a tool that we increasingly need in our culture.

I think if you get too hung up on apologetics, or if it becomes an ivory-tower intellectual exercise, you lose sight of the fact that you’re dealing with real people whose eternities are in the balance. The goal is not to convince them of anything, not really. The goal is to lead them to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I don’t want to major on apologetics—I want to major on loving people. If I can use apologetics along the way to help them get answers to satisfy their heart and soul, then great. But it’s about relationship. If you make yourself available and let people know that you are open to questions, who knows what’s going to happen.

We live in a time that is seeing a significant decline of trust in authority and institutions. Where do you think we’re going, and how can we be prepared to meet that future with this peaceable, available, relational spirit you’re encouraging us to adopt?

Let me tell you a little story. Years ago, I was preaching at a church where I was a teaching pastor, talking about the resurrection. Afterward, a guy said, “Hey, I’m an atheist. I came here today because a friend invited me, and what you said was really interesting. Would you be available to sit down this coming week and have a conversation?”

I said, “I wish I could, but I’m leaving for Europe this afternoon, and I’m going to be gone for quite a while. But my friend Chad would be glad to meet with you.” 

Chad was a student at the time. Today he’s a Ph.D. in philosophy, an author of numerous books on faith, and just a terrific Christian intellectual and scholar. But back then he was a seminary student. 

I asked Chad if he could meet with this guy. He said, “Sure,” and invited him over. 

Chad’s thinking what you’re thinking—we live in a culture where people aren’t sure about anything. They’re not even sure if truth exists. How can they know anything with confidence? He came up with an innovative approach that I’ve included in Is God Real? called the “apologetics pyramid.” 

So, this guy comes over to Chad’s house for dinner, and Chad draws a pyramid and says, “Let’s talk about the broadest level, the base of the pyramid, which is the question, ‘What is truth?’” This is where their conversation started. 

What is truth? Can we know truth? Is there truth? Is there an absolute truth? This is where we have to start with a lot of people in today’s culture—that truth is that which corresponds to reality.

They had a wonderful discussion, and the man came to agree that truth is that which corresponds to reality. Then they moved up the pyramid to different worldviews, then to theism, then to revelation, then to