As Christians enter Holy Week, the seven days between Palm Sunday and Easter, a new movie about Jesus' resurrection explains the reason for the season. But unlike many other films in the much-maligned Christian genre, The Case for Christ (2017) is real, personal, and nuanced. Atheists are taken seriously, and the plot is understated for the genre.
The movie tells the true story of Lee Strobel (Mike Vogel, Cloverfield 2008), an atheist award-winning journalist who embarks on a journey of discovery about Christianity. The journey begins when his wife, Leslie (Erika Christensen, Parenthood 2010-2015), becomes interested in God, a development the proud atheist Strobel cannot accept.
"You're cheating on me with Jesus!" the husband declares in one of many marital spats. But his wife has the opposite impression, saying, "I love you more now than I ever have ... since I accepted Jesus."
This tension drives the narrative, as other events in the husband's life — along with his intense intellectual journey to prove Christianity wrong — push him closer to the truth. All the while, his long-suffering wife prays a prayer adapted from Ezekiel 36:26, "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."
As anyone aware of the book can surmise, God answers this prayer. But this nuanced miracle is not fake, forced, or driven through preachy narrative the way many expect from a Christian movie. The plot moves beat by beat, in a realistic and messy story that feels genuine. While it is occasionally on the nose, TheCase for Christ surprises through understatement.
In an interview with Religion News Service, the real Lee Strobel described it as "the story of an atheist who lives a very immoral and drunken and profane and narcissistic life, and that was uncomfortable to have that side of me portrayed on screen." While Strobel does frequent the bar at tense times in his marriage, his flaws feel very human and understandable. At no point does he come across as a villain or an unsympathetic character.
From the beginning, the atheist's skepticism is taken seriously and presented as a viable alternative to faith. The miraculous coincidence that inspires Leslie Strobel's acceptance of God can be dismissed as a lucky break, and throughout the story, no one moment feels engineered to be miraculous. The story has just enough hint of God to prompt faith, but never more than is believable.
Lee Strobel comes across as flawed, but determined. A hard-nosed rationalist, he explains that he is an atheist because he believes in what he can taste and see and touch. This skepticism meets its match as he embarks on a quest to disprove the central event in Christianity — the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As his coworker, Kenny London (Mike Pniewski, Shots Fired 2017), declares, "The entire Christian faith hinges on the resurrection of Jesus." If Strobel can disprove that, the entire faith collapses "like a house of cards." So the intrepid journalist goes in search of ways to disprove that Jesus rose again from the dead.
One of the film's best virtues is the compelling way it makes the case for the resurrection. Rather than list off the arguments for and against, the movie follows Strobel as he hunts down one expert after another, and the conclusions are astounding.
But The Case for Christ does not pretend that faith is all about reason alone. While Strobel's belief comes grudgingly, and only after his skeptical arguments are proven false, he still has to take a leap of faith.
One of the best moments in the film actually comes after Strobel goes through the arguments against the resurrection, one by one, and concludes that he cannot dismiss this pivotal miracle. London, his Christian coworker, turns to him saying, "Stop blaming me, stop blaming the church, and do your job. Stock up the evidence, add up the facts, and write the story."
His book remains essential because the resurrection of Jesus Christ is indeed the hinge of the entire faith. As 1 Corinthians 15:17 puts it, "And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins." According to Christian doctrine, Jesus died on the cross to take the penalty for the sins of the world and rose from the dead to demonstrate His divinity, and to give all Christians hope that they will rise from the dead as He did.
Jesus' resurrection, which is celebrated at Easter, is arguably the most important moment in the history of the world, and the early disciples testified to it with their gruesome deaths. As the film notes, people do not die for something they know to be a lie. The movie addresses the reliability of the gospels, the "swoon theory" that Jesus didn't die on the cross, and even the argument that the disciples had a mass hallucination.
All this history and debate does not bog down the plot with unnecessary explanations, however. The Case for Christ is not a documentary, and it never feels like one. At times, it even feels like a CSI thriller, as Strobel writes down the arguments on a whiteboard, complete with pictures, diagrams, and the haphazard organization of a criminal investigation.
But the film is clear throughout that it wasn't just Strobel's investigation of the historical resurrection of Jesus which brought him to faith. His wife played a huge role, as did a few other elements in his life, told movingly in the film.
From beginning to end, the actors and actresses play their parts well, delivering performances which tug on the audience's heartstrings. While the plot seems small-scale — a marriage is at stake, along with a journalist's integrity — the acting brought these very intimate struggles to a satisfying emotional climax.
Ultimately, The Case for Christ will not dominate the box office. It isn't a masterpiece of film, and on its own, it won't bring a nonbeliever to faith in God. But it is a well-made, moving tale with monumental implications, and it deserves high marks for telling the story with nuance, depth, and genuine emotion.
Like The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Risen (2016), this movie is a very good film to watch during Holy Week. In addition to the moving story and excellent acting, it presents the reasons for Christianity, and the historical proof for the event Christians celebrate on Easter.