Wednesday, October 24, 2007

How Stories Change or Those Pesky Thirty Years

Back during my time as an evangelical Christian in the mid 1970's, the most popular writer of apologetics was Josh McDowell with "Evidence that Demands a Verdict." McDowell is still active and, like Strobel, he tells a story about being an atheist who set out to disprove the claims of Christ, but wound up being overwhelmed by the evidence for biblical Christianity. His website contains the following account:

I too was a skeptic too until I took a good hard look at the claims of
Jesus Christ. In college I met several students who challenged me to take a closer look, to study and examine the Christian faith.

I took the challenge, feeling certain I could prove Christianity to be false, a religion built on nice stories that couldn't stand up to the test of truth.

But as I dug deeper and deeper into the claims of Christianity, I was shocked. I found facts, not fiction. I found so much evidence that I could only come to one conclusion Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He was crucified, He died, and He was resurrected on the third day.

Soon after this discovery, I accepted Jesus as my Savior and Lord. That was 39 years ago. My life has been completely changed because I have a personal relationship with Christ.

Are you a skeptic? by Josh McDowell

Apparently, however, McDowell has also given accounts of his conversion that suggest that he was intially drawn to the gospel by encounters with certain Christians on his college campus who seemed to seemed to have some unique source of peace and happiness. By these accounts, when McDowell investigated Christ's claims, he did so as person with no fixed beliefs who was emotionally drawn to Christianity rather than as a confirmed atheist who was determined to refute Christianity. For discussions of these accounts, see The Uniqueness of the Christian Experience by Ed Babinski and What I Know About Josh Mcdowell by Chris Hallquist.

When an atheist picks apart a prominent Christian apologist's story, it is reasonable to question motives, but apparently Josh has admitted to other Christians the holes in his story of an atheist overwhelmed by the evidence. Commenting on the Hallquist post, self-identified Christian apologist Kevin H said that he had spoken with McDowell about the matter:

He's the kind of guy who is amused at all that is said about him. I noticed
he was quick to correct falsehoods. For example, he told me that the evidence
for Christianity was a "foot in the door" that kept him from immediately closing
it. But it was the love of God that drew him. It seems he knows, whether his
fault or the fault of the swirling influence of his books and speaking tours,
that people have the conception that he was forced into faith by irresistable

His reading made him realize he could not initially write off Christianity from an intellectual standpoint. But it was a verse in Jeremiah that got to him: "I have loved you with an everlasting love". (Jer. 31:3).

So why would McDowell post statements like he does on his website? There is a big difference between "finding so much evidence you can only come to one conclusion" and "realizing you can't initially write off Christianity from an intellectual standpoint." My answer would be that McDowell knows what sells. McDowell knows that the story of an atheist overwhelmed by the evidence sells books and books speaking engagements, and probably most importantly to McDowell, it persuades unbelievers to accept Christ. The story of an atheist who merely gets his foot in the door is not nearly as dramatic. Story tellers tell their stories in the way that produces the desired effect.

The problem with the stories of what Jesus said and did is that they were told and retold many times in the thirty years between the time Jesus died and the time they were written down. Out of three years of public ministry, only a small percentage of things that Jesus said and did made it into the gospels. I cannot help but think that the stories that made it were the ones that had been found to be most effective in converting pagans and keeping them in the faith. I also cannot help but think that the contents of the stories evolved in a (dare I say it?) Darwinian fashion. Mutations occurred as a result of faulty memories or faulty translations, and the mutations that survived were the ones that worked best in propagating the faith, i.e., the fittest.


  1. I wonder if McDowell ever WAS an atheist? Maybe that story is part of his marketing scheme, a la CS Lewis...the most famous conversion in the christian world...

  2. I can believe that he was, but there is a big difference between a college freshman who considers himself an atheist for lack of any better label for his state of confustion and a person who has reached a decision based upon study and reflection.

    On the other hand, it would not surprise me if the story grew over time. A negative attitude towards God always adds a nice touch to a conversion story. Maybe he just added a little bit to his estrangement each time he shared his testimony until he had convinced himself.

  3. You say that McDowell contradicts himself by claiming to have been an atheist, but in the excerpts you've quoted, he claims only to have been a skeptic.

    You certainly strike me as someone who knows better than rely on straw men. So I'm assuming you have clearer evidence of his claim to atheism that you haven't posted? (I confess, I didn't take the time to follow the link.)

  4. I liked your overall concept of evolving stories. Literary mutations that help our causes. There is a lot of evidence out there that the early church debated and fought over which way to tell the stories- those struggles caused certain stories to survive and others to be cast off into the land of the apocryphal.

  5. You raise an interesting point Brad. I have found both Christian and non-Christian sources that refer to Josh's claim that he was once an athiest, but I was unable to trace the claim to him. I do find him referring to himself as a "skeptic," an "unbeliever," and an "obnoxious agnostic." I admit that I took those other sources for granted.

    However, my quibble is not with whether Josh identified himself as an atheist. I think you could substitute "agnostic" throughout my post without effecting the thesis.

    My quibble is with the claim that he set out to prove Christianity false, but found himself overwhelmed by the evidence that Christianity was true. If in fact he began his investigation because he was emotionally drawn to the Christianity and wanted to determine whether it was were intellectually defensible, that is a much different claim.


    Dear Sharon, Josh says in his tract, "Skeptic's Quest," that he was looking for meaning and purpose in life. He had tried religion when he was young but could not find the answers he was searching for. What he did not know until he was in college was that it is a relationship with Jesus Christ, rather than religion, which gives meaning and purpose to life.

    He does not use the word atheist in the tract, but set out to prove Christianity false. Instead of being able to do that, he came to the following three conclusions: Jesus Christ was who He said He was, there is historic evidence for the reliability of Scripture, and the Resurrection of Christ took place.

    In His service,
    Penny Woods
    Josh McDowell Ministry


    Sharon, as believers, we need to be wise to the work of the enemy (1 Peter 5:8) but we do not need to fear him, because if we resist him he flees (James 4:7). The Lord has given us authority over Satan. Jesus was present when Satan was thrown out of heaven because of his rebellion against God. That is what Jesus is referring to in Luke 10:18, 19 when he says, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you." The Bible assures us that He who is in us is greater than the enemy (1 John 4:4).

    You mentioned that the early books of the Bible do not mention Satan. Actually, he makes his appearance early on, as the crafty serpent in Genesis 3:1.

    It is unfortunate that some people are taught an unhealthy fear about the enemy in church, because correct biblical teaching will teach that though Satan is present and active in today's world, believers, through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, need not fear what Satan can do. He was defeated at the cross. A good way to present Satan's position today is to say that he is condemned but not yet totally destroyed, almost like a person sitting on death row who is alive and can cause problems but is facing certain execution. Satan was condemned at the cross and one day he will be totally destroyed when he is thrown in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10).

    We know that Satan was condemned at the cross because Paul is referring to what Jesus did to Satan and his demons in Colossians 2:15 when he says, "And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross."

    1 John 3:8--"The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work."

    Hebrews 2:14--"Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death--that is, the devil. . ."

    Jesus told us in John 10:10 that Satan came to steal, kill, and destroy, but He came to give us an abundant life. For those who do not give their lives to Jesus or do not properly understand their power and authority over Satan, he will do all he can to destroy lives, but believers who stand on the Word, are obedient to the Lord's teachings, and practice spiritual warfare according to Ephesians 6:10-18, have nothing to fear. If the enemy should attack, it will only be because the Lord allowed it, as He did in the case of righteous Job (see Job 1 and 2). For a person who is living in God's will, nothing comes into his life without first passing through the hands of God.

    I encourage you to take these verses before the Lord, Sharon, and ask Him to give you His wisdom, insight, discernment and understanding. He never wants any of us to miss any point of truth He wants to show us because Jesus came to set us free from bondage, and any time we aren't walking in truth we are, to some degree, in bondage.

    In His service,
    Penny Woods
    Josh McDowell Ministry

  7. One may note from the above two responses from Josh McDowell Ministries that the people who work there have been totally taken in by Josh's claim to have "investigated" Christianity, and converted due to its the preponderance of reasonable and historical truth, when in fact Josh himself admits in his earliest testimonies that he was confused at the time and he couldn't focus but had to keep running here and there, and that he was drawn the so-called peace and calm of Christian students, notably a female student who spoke with him about Christianity.

    See my discussion of Josh's early testimonies in my online paper, "The Uniqueness of the Christian Experience." Hallquist discusses the way the McDowell legend has even grown in later versions of his testimony to include a bit about having travelled throughout the U.S. and to Europe [sic] to various libraries to try and debunk Christianity prior to converting to Christianity. As Hallquist demonstrates, such an addition to the Josh legend appeared late.