Lee Strobel is one of the country’s best-known Christian apologists. His books, including “The Case for Christ,” have sold more than 10 million copies, and now that book and the lives of Lee and Leslie Strobel are the subject of a new movie also called “The Case for Christ,” which hit theaters nationally April 7.
Lee began his career as a journalist and worked for the Chicago Tribune and other papers for 14 years. Lee’s wife, Leslie, became a Christian, which sent Lee on a journey to use his journalistic skills to expose Christianity as a fraud. But his investigation convinced him that Christianity is in fact true, and he too became a believer.
Colson Center Vice President Warren Cole Smith interviewed Lee and Leslie Strobel at the annual meeting of National Religious Broadcasters, where the movie was pre-screened for industry professionals.
Warren: Lee and Leslie Strobel, thank you so much for talking with me. Lee, first of all, congratulations on the movie “The Case for Christ.” Did you ever think that that day would come?
Lee: No. Never. I never thought I’d be a Christian. So this is far beyond what I ever envisioned. It’s just been one great adventure that God’s has taken us on ever since Leslie and I came to faith. Our lives changed and our families were rescued and God kind of gave us some assignments that we’d never anticipated. So no, never. And it’s a little uncomfortable, to be honest, because it’s an honest film, and so the good, the bad, and the ugly are up there on the screen. I was not the most pleasant character around when I was a narcissistic, heavy-drinking, self-destructive, self-absorbed atheist, but that’s in the film, and that’s okay if it helps people. I hope that there’d be some skeptics out there who maybe start their own spiritual journey after seeing the movie.
Warren: I’ve read your book, but I’ve heard you say that this is really the first time that the entire Lee Strobel conversion story is being told.
Lee: Yes. You know, in “The Case for Christ” book, I focused mostly on the 13 scholars who I interviewed about the historical evidence for Jesus and His resurrection. We’ve written other books. Leslie and I wrote a book called “Spiritual Mismatch,” about what it’s like to be married to a nonbeliever, and then I wrote a book called “The Case for Grace.” So my story’s been split among several books. This is the first time you see the whole story on the screen and in one cohesive piece. And it’s funny, because there were parts of the story that Leslie had never really seen before. In other words, I’ve told her about certain things, but now to see it on the screen is a whole new experience.
Warren: Well, Leslie, I want to pivot to you, if I could, to ask you what it is like to see yourself, what, 25 or 30 years ago on the screen? Did you have these fantasies about wanting Elizabeth Taylor to play you, or anything like that?
Leslie: The last thing I ever thought was that my life would be on a big screen, so no. It has been an amazing experience, a little disconcerting, a little hard. You’re not proud of what you were like before you were a Christian, and this movie depicts that. But like Lee said, if God wants to use it, that’s great. Our life is so different now than it was back in 1980, but it’s brought us back to those emotions and those feelings. So it’s been therapeutic in a way, but also just something to get used to.
Warren: Well, you mentioned that it took you back to those days. I’m wondering whether there was a moment in the movie where memories came flooding back that you thought you didn’t remember?
Leslie: Yes. One in particular is when we were in a car after having been out for the evening, and Lee is telling me that when he looks three or four years down the road at his life, if our relationship is still going the way it is with me still believing in God, he just doesn’t want to be there for that. We had that conversation, and I don’t care to remember it, but I’m watching it and reliving it—and yet God has made our life so wonderful. He has more than made up for those negative, difficult years.
Warren: Lee, back to you. When you hear those words coming out of the young Lee Strobel’s mouth, do you have enough distance where you’re able to say, “Thank God that God has done such a work in my life”? Or does this still cause you pain?
Lee: It hurts me to watch it. In that scene where Leslie is reaching out to me and saying, “You know, I love you even more now that I’m a Christian,” and I, instead of responding tenderly, responded very selfishly and negatively. “What do you mean? You can’t see and touch God, but I’m here. At least I’m real.” So I shoved it back in her face. So yeah, it hurts.
One of the moments in the film that really touched me was something that happened off-camera and actually didn’t end up in the movie. It’s the true story of how I went behind my dad’s back when I was a teenager and bought a motorcycle that he forbade me to have. He caught me on the eve of my high school graduation and [we] had a big argument. He looked at me and said, “I don’t have enough love for you to fill my little finger.”
We were filming that scene, and Robert Forster, who’s an Academy Award-nominated actor playing my dad, walked off the set during a break. He stayed in the character of my father, and he came up to me as my dad and put his hand on my shoulder. He said, “Lee, I’m sorry.” What a tender thing for this renowned actor to express the sorrow that he’s sure my dad would’ve felt had my dad lived long enough for us to be reconciled. It brought me to tears.
Warren: Wow, what a powerful moment! It’s almost bringing me to tears here to hear you describe that. Now, Lee, you’re a real writer. You understand the process and what’s required as a craftsman to get good at it. But you’re not a moviemaker. How was it to let go of your baby and turn it over to people who understood that craft better than you?
Lee: We had to trust PureFlix. You don’t get veto power when you do a movie like this. It’s not like at the end you can say, “Hey, I don’t like it. Pull it.”That doesn’t happen. So we required in our contract that the movie must be written by Brian Bird. Brian’s a great screenwriter. We knew Brian would treat our story with authenticity and with care. We sat down with Brian in his basement office and we spent about four or five days together and just did a mind dump, told our stories, all the nuances, all the little things.
He’s a former journalist, so he interrogated us about our lives. To put it into a three-act movie is a whole different experience. I learned so much. I’ve never thought about taking a two-year spiritual investigation and shrinking it down to 90 minutes. It is a real challenge. You have to do time shifting. You have to create some composite characters. But he was a genius at doing it—produced the best script that PureFlix said they’d ever seen.
Warren: Lee, back again to the book: There’s a picture that went viral of Matthew McConaughey on, I believe, an elliptical machine, reading “The Case for Christ.” Do you know any back story there to that photo?
Lee: That’s so funny you brought that up. I tweeted to Matthew McConaughey trying to engage with him, but I never heard anything. I’m sure he has a million followers. There was another famous picture, believe it or not, of the Kardashians walking out of Easter services at their church holding a copy of my book “The Case for Easter.”
There’s also a great story about Evel Knievel. He had lived a very drunken life. He was a gambler and a womanizer. But his daughter, who was a Christian, and her church prayed for him for decades. So one day Evel Knievel’s on the beach in Florida, and God spoke to him on the inside and said to him, “Robert, I’ve saved you more times than you’ll ever know. Now I need you to come to Me through my Son Jesus.”
Now he’s shocked to hear this in his innards, and he didn’t know what to do, because he didn’t know who Jesus was. So he said, there’s only one Christian I know, and that’s Frank Gifford the sportscaster. So he calls Frank Gifford, who told him to read “The Case for Christ.” So Evel’s wife got him a copy. He read it, and to make a long story short, Evel Knievel had one of the most dramatic conversions of any human being I’ve ever encountered. He reached out to me and thanked me for writing the book. We became phone friends later in his life.
He changed so radically that when he was baptized at a church that didn’t do altar calls, he got up and told his story and asked the people, “Do you know Jesus? Have you met Jesus?” The pastor was so impressed that he threw out his sermon and said if anybody wants to come and receive Jesus Christ right now and be baptized like Evel Knievel did, come up right now. Seven hundred people in two services came up. They were running out of water to baptize them with!
There’s one other quick story about an amateur astronomer and an atheist. He was on a beach and sat down on something in the sand. He picked it up, and it was “The Case for Christ.” He flipped through it and said, “Well, I don’t believe this,” and threw it away. But he said he heard something like a voice on the inside telling him to buy that book and read it. So he did, came to faith in Christ, and wrote me this wonderful letter. I actually invited him to come speak to the staff at the publishers, Zondervan, to encourage them, and he did. That was 1998. He’s still following Christ.
Warren: Those are amazing stories. I hope the movie version of “The Case for Christ” does really well.
Lee: I’ve got to tell you a quick story that happened last night in Denver, where my friend Mark Mittelberg was showing an advance copy of the movie to 80 pastors. While they were watching it in this darkened theater, a woman security guard sat in the back and watched the movie. At the end of the movie the lights come up, and here this young woman is just a pile of tears, and Mark was able to go up to her, minister to her, share the Gospel with her, and give her a copy of the book. I think she’s going to be the first of many people who are going to come to faith in Jesus because of the “Case for Christ” film.
Warren: May it be so.
Lee: Yes. May it be so.
Image copyright PureFlix.
This is an excerpt of a longer interview conducted by Warren Cole Smith for WORLD News Group. Used with permission.
Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice president for mission advancement.