Bob's blog – A skeptical lawyer

Simon Greenleaf – 3. Apologists don’t apologize.

Posted on January 27, 2019


Apologists often argue that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection must be true because opponents of Christianity would have exposed any falsehoods. For example, Gary Habermas argues, “enemies in Jewish leadership” could have nipped Christianity in the bud by producing the body of Jesus.[1] John Warwick Montgomery claims testimony to Christ’s resurrection was “presented contemporaneously in the synagogues – in the very teeth of opposition, among hostile cross examiners who would certainly have destroyed the case for Christianity had the facts been otherwise.”[2]

These arguments fail for several reasons, and I wish to focus on one reason in this post. Apologists falsely assume that believers will abandon their faith when presented with contrary evidence. Like many other people, some apologists don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. The Simon Greenleaf atheist professor myth is a case in point.

In a previous post, Simon Greenleaf – 1. Debunking another apologetic fable, I discussed evidence that disproves claims that Prof. Greenleaf was an atheist and that one or more students challenged him to disprove Jesus’ resurrection. In another post, Simon Greenleaf – 2. No Perry Mason moment, I discussed my unsuccessful attempt to trace the origin of the story.                                          

My pathetic attempts to kill an urban legend

I have done my best to contact every apologist spreading this atheist professor myth. I provided them with the incontrovertible evidence that Greenleaf was a lifelong Episcopalian who advocated evidence for the Resurrection before he started teaching. I challenged these apologists to go beyond merely eliminating the misinformation from their respective books and websites. I suggested that they could help stamp out the false story if they would explain the falsehood and caution Christians against being fooled by such urban legends.

Nine apologists thanked me for bringing the matter to their attention and eliminated the misinformation from their websites.

Thirteen apologists did not respond to my inquiries and continue to spread the false story.

  • Josh McDowell Larry Chapman at Y-Jesus told me that he also attempted to contact Mr. McDowell, but received no response.
  • Lee Strobel tells the story on his website. He also told a version of the story (in which Greenleaf was Jewish) on page 38 of his 1993 book, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry & Mary: How to Reach Friends and Family Who Avoid God and Church.
  • Dr. Norman Geisler Dr. Geisler also mentioned the story in his influential apologetic book, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, page 286.
  • Robert R. Edwards
  • JesusOnline
  • Rory Roybal
  • Michael J. Pierce added a cryptic comment about how he could neither prove or disprove the story, but continues to feature the false story. I will discuss Mr. Pierce’s response in a later post.
  • Lifeway Group Ministry
  • The Poached Egg   This website still cites Y-Jesus as the source of the story, but Y-Jesus has revised its discussion of Greenleaf to eliminate the misinformation.
  • Scripture Search
  • The Tea Party  Tribune.
  • Mark Mittelberg, Confident Faith: Building a Firm Foundation For Your Beliefs 214 (2013).
  • Reasons for Jesus

In sum, nine apologists deleted the story, and thirteen continue to spread the Greenleaf/atheist myth. Only Greg Holt at Inspirational Christian Blogs accepted my challenge to explain to his readers that the Greenleaf story is an urban myth and caution Christians to suspect such obvious hogwash.  

And my point is

So what lessons do I draw from this experience?

Many Christian apologists care about facts and will not knowingly spread misinformation. Based on my e-mail conversations with the people who eliminated the false Greenleaf story from their websites, these sincere and honorable people feel that they do not need to rely on falsehoods to spread the Gospel.

What about the other apologists who continue to spread the false story? Are they liars? I don’t really know.  I don’t think I can assume that anyone who fails to respond to my email inquiries must necessarily be a black-hearted liar. Remember Hanlon’s razor. Nonetheless, although I can only speculate as to their motivations, I can still draw some conclusions about their actions.

McDowell, Strobel and Geisler are three of the most popular and influential evangelical apologists alive and publishing today, but they are misrepresenting the facts. I have provided indisputable evidence disproving the atheist professor myth regarding Greenleaf, but these apologists continue to spread the tale. Whatever their motivations, they are not telling the truth.

Would Paul and other first-century Christian apologists have told inaccurate stories about Jesus and ignored contrary evidence? I don’t know, but I imagine that early Christians – being mere mortals – were no better or worse than McDowell, Strobel and Geisler. They might have told false stories and persisted in telling them in the face of contrary information.

[1] Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus 70 (Kregel Publications 2004). 

[2] John Warwick Montgomery, Law above the Law 88-89 (Bethany House Publishers 1975).