Arif Ahmed and Andrew Copson at the Cambridge Union. Debating at Cambridge University in the world’s oldest debating society was just magic. The tradition, the galleries filled with students, the chamber well in which I and my colleague Peter Williams spoke made for the experience of a lifetime.
2. Shabir Ally numerous times in Canada. These debates gave me the chance to speak to heavily Muslim audiences, who wouldn’t have come to a Christian event. Perhaps my favorite was our debate at York University, as I remember, on the topic “What Must I Do to Be Saved?” because it allowed the Gospel to be so clearly stated and defended. Shabir is one of the toughest, cagiest opponents I’ve ever been dealt. He’ll twist you in knots if you’re not careful. I even started writing some lyrics after one of our debates about him (to be sung to the tune of Disney’s “Prince Ali”):
Shabir Ally, wily is he!
Crafty and cagey!
Turns things around,
Quotes Raymond Brown
In support of Islam!
Alas, that’s as far as I got!
3. Peter Atkins at the Carter Center in Atlanta. This amazing event came together through the efforts of Dr. Jim Tumlin, a kidney doctor at Emory University and a man with a vision. Not only was he able to get the Carter Center as the venue, but he got Atkins to come over from Oxford and William F. Buckley to moderate the debate. If you look at the video, you’ll see in the audience people like Fritz Schaeffer, Michael Behe, Ravi Zacharias, and Eddie Tabash. In fact, when they cut off the audience Q&A, you’ll see Ravi is left standing at the microphone—what a squandered opportunity!
4. Hector Avalos at Iowa State. A seven inch snowfall didn’t keep the 3,000 students away from this debate! This debate required me to launch an unusual and risky pre-emptive attack in my opening speech on Avalos’ methods. The debate was memorable because of the big softball Avalos served up by demanding that I quote the Aramaic behind a certain phrase in the Gospel of Mark, hoping to embarrass me. He didn’t realize that I was ready to quote, not only the Aramaic, but the Hebrew and Greek as well.
5. Francisco Ayala at University of Indiana on the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. I had heard Ayala lecture some months earlier when we were both at Beijing University, and it troubled me deeply the way he misled the Chinese students by attacking straw man arguments for Intelligent Design. I thought, I’d like to debate him someday on the viability of Intelligent Design. Soon thereafter, I got the chance. My goal in this debate was, not to argue for Intelligent Design in biology, but merely to defend its viability against Ayala’s caricatures of it. I especially enjoyed reading to the audience from Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box that the human eye is NOT an example of irreducible complexity, contrary to Ayala’s mischaracterization of Behe’s work.
6. Richard Carrier at Northern Missouri State. With a degree in ancient history, Carrier had become the “great white hope” for many in the infidel subculture. So there was a lot riding on this debate. Carrier wanted to debate the general reliability of the Gospels, but I was interested in defending the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, which is quite independent of general reliability claims. He agreed to the topic of the resurrection but to my amazement tried to turn the debate to the topic of general reliability, with the result that we largely failed to engage. My goal in this debate was not only to defend the historicity of Jesus’ empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and the origin of his disciples’ belief in his resurrection, but to expose the flawed Pauline exegesis at the root of Carrier’s scepticism. I should also say that on the long drive to airport the next day I found Richard to be a very congenial fellow, and I especially admired his service to our country aboard a naval nuclear submarine!
7. John Dominic Crossan at historic Moody Church in Chicago. Crossan was at that time a big cheese in the Jesus Seminar as well as a prominent historical Jesus scholar. It was one of my first debates with a professional New Testament historian, and I wondered how my arguments would hold up. As the debate unfolded, I was stunned that Crossan thought that explaining Markan priority and the two-source hypothesis sufficed to undo evangelical biblical scholarship. I think the key moment in the debate, which was moderated by the inimitable William F. Buckley, came when Crossan admitted that on his view during the Jurassic age, when no human beings existed, God did not exist—no wonder he denies the reality of miracles like the resurrection!
8. Bart Ehrman at Holy Cross. I was intrigued that Ehrman’s early life story so paralleled my own until we hit doctoral studies. In reading his work, I was shocked to find that his scepticism about Jesus’ resurrection was not historically based—he admitted all the facts I defend in my work—, but was rooted in a warmed-over version of Hume’s objection to miracles. So in the debate I explained why Hume’s argument is demonstrably fallacious, patiently explaining the probability calculus, to which Ehrman responded by saying that you can’t use mathematics to prove the existence of God!
9. Antony Flew at the University of Wisconsin. Flew was perhaps the 20th century’s most influential philosopher for atheism. It was a privilege to debate him. Some 4,000 students came to the fieldhouse that night (the night of a basketball game, to boot!). They just disappeared up into the lights. Flew was nervous (“My wife told me I should never have gotten involved in this,” he told me over dinner prior to our debate). What folks who see the tape don’t realize, though, is that as he began to speak his microphone failed. Students in the audience began to shout, “Can’t hear you!” “Speak up!” Flew became rattled and began to stomp around the stage, saying angrily, “If this isn’t going to work, we may as well call the whole thing off!” I was afraid he was going to storm off the stage! They quickly gave him the microphone from my podium. He continued but never really recovered.
10. A.C. Grayling at the Oxford Union. What a thrill to debate before a packed house in the same place where Churchill and other great parliamentarians had debated! When Grayling, who has flowing long hair, came into the chamber, he looked at me and said, “You win for the better necktie.” I responded, “You win for the better hair!” He said, “Then we’re even!” The topic that night was a tough one emotionally: “Is it rational to believe in God in light of tsunamis?” But I felt the debate went very well.
11. Sam Harris at the University of Notre Dame. It was such a privilege to be invited by the Center for Philosophy of Religion at UND to engage in this debate! I was keenly aware that in this debate I was holding forth before my own philosophical colleagues in the department at Notre Dame, and so I was anxious to acquit myself well. I developed some really powerful arguments against Harris’ naturalistic moral theory, and to my astonishment he didn’t even try to respond to my objections during the debate but just tried to get me to chase red herrings.
12. Christopher Hitchens at Biola University. I declined more than once Dr. Craig Hazen’s invitation to participate in this debate, knowing that Hitchens had little understanding of the arguments but was a golden-tongued rhetorician. I figured it would be a waste of time. But Dr. Hazen explained that the student association was already on the hook for Hitchens’ honorarium whether anyone showed up to debate him or not. So I relented, and am I glad I did! Over 800,000 people have watched this debate on YouTube, making it by far the most viewed debate I’ve ever been in. BTW, everybody I know really liked Hitchens, and many were praying for him as he faced his final days with esophageal cancer.
13. Doug Jesseph at North Carolina State. Prior to this debate, I had been feeling rather disgruntled with the many poor debates I had participated in up to that point and was wondering, what would happen if I had a really good opponent? I was soon to find out. I knew something was afoot when Jesseph insisted on going first in the debate, even though the affirmative always goes first. Why did he want to break protocol and go first? I asked myself. I bet he’s going to launch a pre-emptive attack on my arguments before I even give them! Sure enough, that’s exactly what he did! He went through my arguments in order and presented two or three objections to each one. Boy, I’m really in for it now! I thought. But, of course, I was expecting him to do this, so I had prepared a short speech which gave me time to respond extemporaneously to his objections and at least bring me back to even ground. As the debate progressed, the momentum seemed to swing after each successive speech, and it wasn’t until the final rebuttal that I felt I pulled ahead. Afterward, I shook his hand and said, “You’re a very good debater!” “Thanks,” he said, “I was on my university debate team.” Ha! So he combined philosophical depth with debate training, making him a great opponent.
14. H. Hoerster at the Technische Universität München. For this debate I was back in Munich, where I had done my doctorate at the University of Munich. Hoerster was a typical free-thought rabble-rouser with just enough philosophical depth to be dangerous. I felt that trying to debate in German would give too great an advantage to him, so we agreed that I’d give my opening speech in German and my rebuttals in English with spontaneous translation. Hoerster, of course, did the whole thing in German. During prayer with Christian faculty before the debate, one of the professors prayed, “Lord, make it so that the hall is not almost empty.” Oh, ye of little faith! The large hall soon filled to the gills, and Hoerster and I had a great debate. One interesting factoid: between Hoerster, me, and the moderator Daniel von Wachter were represented six earned doctoral degrees! Only in Germany!
15. Lawrence Krauss at North Carolina State. It was a daunting experience to be debating an eminent physicist on “Is there scientific evidence for God?” I prepared hard for the debate and so was surprised that Krauss’ objections never really got beyond level one, so to speak. What was particularly bizarre was when he began to strip off his shirt, revealing a T-shirt with the words “2+2=5, for very large values of 2.” Wha--?
16. Paul Kurtz at Franklin and Marshall College. A year previously Alan Dershowitz had met Alan Keyes for a rowdy debate as part of this funded series. I felt honored when Prof. Michael Murray invited me to debate the famous humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz on “Can we be good without God?” I was determined that our debate would be considerably more substantive than the previous year’s debate. Kurtz didn’t seem to understand my moral argument for God but took me to be saying that atheists can’t be good people.
17. Gert Lüdemann at Boston College. Lüdemann is the principal German critic of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, and so, having written my doctoral thesis in Germany on the credibility of Jesus’ resurrection, I was eager to cross swords with him on this issue. Lüdemann defends a psychoanalytic theory of the origin on the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection on the basis of guilt-induced visions of Jesus after his death. I prepared a lengthy critique of what I called the Hallucination Hypothesis, which I thought went over well. The morning after the debate, Jan and I were having breakfast with Lüdemann in the priests’ refectory. Jan asked him pointedly, “What do you do about sin in your life?” He replied, “I go to therapy.” We were taken aback. “Well, what does the therapist do for you?” we asked. Lüdemann replied, “He induces visions in me.” I was stunned. It seemed one more example of what had been said of the line of nineteenth century Life of Jesus researchers: “Each one looked down the long well of history and saw his own face reflected at the bottom.”
18. Peter Millican at the University of Birmingham. What made this debate against a fine Hume scholar so memorable for me is that it took place in the Great Hall of the University of Birmingham, where I had done my doctorate in philosophy with John Hick. In fact, the afternoon of the debate, Jan and I visited John in his home. He passed away just a few months later. The beautiful Great hall was packed out that night for the event, and many have since told me that the exchange with Millican is the most substantive debates I’ve been in, a truly good debate.
19. Henry Morgenthaler several times across Canada. Morgenthaler was an infamous Canadian abortionist and president of the Canadian Humanist Association. He agreed to a series of debates on “Humanism vs. Christianity,” on the condition that we would not discuss abortion (a topic he was tired of). That was great by me, so several debates were scheduled. Prior to flying to Canada I was in Thousand Oaks, California, speaking at a church. After the service a man approached me and introduced himself as someone who works with people in Hollywood. He said, “I’m not saying that you’re poorly dressed, but clothes make a statement about yourself, and if you’re going to be debating this prominent Canadian personality, you need be sure you’re making the right statement. I’d like to help you if you’re willing.” I replied, “Look, I don’t want to come across like some well-heeled televangelist. I’d rather look a little tatty.” He said, “I understand. But we can make the correct statement without being extreme.” So he took me that afternoon to see his tailor at Nordstroms. He bought me a beautiful charcoal gray suit with a cranberry pink stripe, a pair of oxblood wingtips, a couple of white dress shirts, and two silk ties. I was just overwhelmed. I felt like Elisa Doolittle in “My Fair Lady“! Sure enough, after the first debate the story in the newspaper the next day described Morgenthaler and me as “a study in contrasts” and remarked in particular on his rumpled suit in contrast to my suit. Ha! Morgenthaler, by the way, had very little to say in response to my arguments for Christian theism and so reverted to talking about abortion in all of our remaining debates.
20. Alex Rosenberg at Purdue University. I really enjoyed this debate, perhaps because I had prepared so hard for it. Rosenberg had obviously been coached to say in his opening speech that I was using the same, old arguments, oblivious to the fact that two of them were brand-new and had never been used by me before. I especially enjoyed offering a critique of his metaphysical naturalism, since in every case he himself furnishes the key premiss that reduces his view to absurdity.
21. Peter Slezak in the Town Hall, Sydney, Australia. What made this debate so memorable was the extraordinary Sydney Town Hall. The front of the auditorium is draped with brilliant crimson curtains flanking the most enormous pipe organ I’d ever seen. The padded seats match the color of the curtain. The technician who ran the lights told me he had worked there ten years and had never had to turn on all the lights because the hall had never been full before, as it was that night. It was a beautiful venue for a very good exchange.
22. Spangenberg-Wolmarans in Pretoria, South Arica. It was the African setting that made this debate special. I teamed up with Mike Licona to take on these two radical, South African theologians of the so-called “New Reformation” movement on the subject of Jesus’ historical resurrection. The South African Christians impressed upon us time and again how crucial this debate was to the church in South Africa. As happens all too often, these two theologians were just incapable of responding to criticisms of their view or undermining a historical case for Jesus’ resurrection. Again and again they resorted to red herrings to try to get us off-topic, but Mike stoutly resisted the temptation and kept the debate on track. Mike is a great tag-team partner, and we really clicked together in this debate. Afterwards, an obviously angry Spangenberg said to us, “You may have won the battle, but not the war!”
23. John Shelby Spong at Bethel College in Indiana. Spong is a radical Episcopalian bishop who denies Jesus’ historical resurrection, along with most other Christian doctrines. He thinks that belief in Jesus’ resurrection originated when Simon Peter had a mystical experience of Jesus after his crucifixion which he was unable to articulate, and so he adopted the Jewish apocalyptic language of resurrection from the dead to express what he had experienced. Moreover, all the other disciples went along with using this misleading terminology. I called this theory the “Simple Simon Theory,” since it makes Peter such a simpleton. Judaism had language for expressing mystical experiences, and resurrection language utterly misrepresented what had happened. The day of the debate I was terribly ill with the flu, but Jan nursed me right up until the moment we went on, and then adrenalin took over. After the debate, Spong confided to us, “Really, I’m just a mystic!” Gee, just like Simon Peter!
24. Tjörbörn Tannsjö in Gothenberg, Sweden. I was in Sweden for a university speaking tour arranged by Credo Academy of Stockholm. I was told by a prominent Swedish philosopher during the tour that there are literally no Christian philosophers in Sweden. The climax of the speaking tour was a conference which featured a debate with Sweden’s leading ethicist, a philosopher who enjoys great exposure in the Swedish media. So our debate on the foundations of morality was an important event. It went very well, and in the end Tannsjö admitted that if God does not exist, then “all things are permitted.”
25. Lewis Wolpert in Central Hall, Westminster. Since the organizers of my 2011 British speaking tour couldn’t get Richard Dawkins, they got the next in line, who was the biologist Lewis Wolpert. I have never debated in more august a venue than Central Hall. Right across the street from Westminster Abbey, it is a vast and ornate meeting hall. The organizers weren’t sure whether 200 or 2,000 people would show up for this debate. As it turned out, 2,200 filled the hall. The debate was moderated by BBC personality John Humphries, who is a sort of Mike Wallace of British television. He did a great job, and the dialogue portion of the evening was especially entertaining. It was a great kick-off to what turned out to be an extraordinary tour.
26. Frank Zindler at Willow Creek Community Church. This debate was organized by two Willow Creek pastors Lee Strobel and Mark Mittelberg. They flew us in from Belgium to debate the chosen representative of American Atheists, Frank Zindler. Bill Hybels told Mark and Lee they’d be lucky if 300 people showed up for this debate. Well, people started arriving early in the afternoon. The Willow Creek traffic wardens heroically crammed hundreds of more cars into the lots than their normal capacity. When they finally opened the doors, people ran down the aisles to find seats. The entire 5,000 seat auditorium filled in 30 seconds. One woman later exclaimed, “When was the last time you saw people runninginto church?” All in all, nearly 8,000 people filled the various venues, making it the largest indoor event Willow Creek had ever hosted. Moreover, the afternoon before the debate WMBI in Chicago came out to the church and hand carried equipment up to the roof to erect a radio transmitter to broadcast the debate live around the Chicagoland area, complete with color commentary. We later heard of one family in southern Wisconsin who was listening to the debate until the signal began to fade. They then moved out to the family car in the driveway, where they could get clear reception. They said the neighbors must have thought they were crazy, all of them sitting in the car in the driveway cheering and applauding! There are a hundred backstories about this amazing debate. Here’s one of them: Zindler had published voluminously in obscure atheist magazines. Chad Meister had a group of volunteers at Willow in his Defenders class who were tracking down these various sources for me. But no one could locate one particular atheist magazine in which Zindler had several articles. Even the massive Chicago Public Library had no subscription to it. One day Chad or one of his volunteers was in the Rolfing Library at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, my alma mater. He remarked to one of the student librarians about his frustration in locating this magazine. “Come with me,“ the student said, and he took him downstairs to the library archives in the basement. “For years someone has been donating to Trinity a subscription to that magazine, but we don’t put it out.” And there were the complete holdings of that atheist magazine! At Trinity, of all places! Can you imagine? The debate that night was so exciting, and of the three Christians involved in it, Lee, Mark, and I, each has gone on to have a significant apologetics ministry.
What a life!
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