Summary of the Craig-Parsons Debate, “Why I Am/Am Not a Christian”

This is a repost of a debate summary I wrote a long time ago. (I think I wrote this in 1998.) While I tried to be accurate, I don’t claim this summary is perfect. If anyone identifies any errors, omissions, or anything else that requires editing, please feedback alerting me so I can fix the summary accordingly.

One thing you will notice is that I tried use a consistent numbering scheme throughout the different speeches, to make it easier to identify which objections are supposed to apply to which arguments.

This debate took place on June 15, 1998 at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. Organizers of the debate estimated the size of the audience at over 4,200 people. I did NOT include the Q&A; period in this summary. I don’t consider that part of the formal debate.

CRAIG’S OPENING STATEMENT

Craig noted that the debate topic was personal; therefore, Craig would be giving reasons why he is a Christian. His reasons were as follows:

A. Cosmology

– Discovery of cosmic background radiation meant the end of the steady-state cosmology.
– The big bang theory is true. Quotes Stephen Hawking: virtually everyone accepts big bang cosmology.
– Thus, the universe began to exist. By the nature of the case, the universe was caused to exist by a personal Creator.

B. Hopelessness of atheism

– Everything seemed pointless if this life is all there is.
– Prior to his conversion to Christianity: Craig was experiencing angst or existential despair.
– Jean Paul Sartre: life is absurd without immortality.
– If there is no immortality, life is without meaning, value or purpose:
— Life would be without meaning because it would not matter how you live.
— Life would be without value because right and wrong would not matter.
— Life would be without purpose because the purposes we invent for our lives are futile.

C. Resurrection of Jesus

1. Empty Tomb

2. Post-Resurrection Appearances

3. Origin of the Christian Faith

D. Presence of God

– When Craig yielded his life to God, he felt a tremendous infusion of joy into his life.
– God became a living reality to Craig.
– In the absence of overwhelming arguments for atheism, Craig is rational in believing in God on the basis of his experience.

PARSONS’ OPENING STATEMENT

Parsons began by emphasizing that he was not participating in the debate in an attempt to deconvert anyone. His goals in the debate were two-fold. His first goal, what he called his “weak aim”, was to show that skepticism about Christianity is justified. His second goal, what he called his “strong aim”, was to show that the evidence does not support the central claim of Christianity, the Resurrection. Parsons does NOT claim that it is irrational for Christians to believe in the Resurrection.

I. Reasons for Not Being a Christian

A. Christianity Is Not Good

1. Numerous atrocities in the Bible (e.g., 2 Kings 2; 1 Samuel 15)
2. Dark side of Christian history (e.g., persecutions, crusades, witch hunts, religious wars, Christian anti-Semitism, defense of slavery, hatred of homosexuality, etc.)
3. Doctrine of Hell

B. Christianity Is Not True

1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The claim that the Resurrection happened is about as extraordinary as a claim can get. But the evidence for that claim is not good.

2. This is not based upon some a priori bias against the miraculous. Rather, even theists must agree that miracles are initially implausible.

3. General problems with the evidence for the Resurrection:

3.1. The reports are anonymous; not written by eyewitnesses.

3.2. The reports were written 40 years or later after the events they describe.

3.3. The reports were based upon oral tradition. Human memory is unreliable.

3.4. The reports have a definite bias and theological purpose.

3.5. The reports contain identifiable, fictitious literary forms.

3.6. The reports are inconsistent with one another except where plagiarism is involved.

3.7. The reports are at odds with known facts.

3.8. There is no independent confirmation of the reports.

3.9. The reports are unlikely in the extreme.

II. Response to Craig’s Arguments for Christianity

C. Resurrection

1. Empty Tomb

1.1. 1 Corinthians 15 does not support the empty tomb. The fact that Paul recited an ancient formula no more supports the historicity of the empty tomb legend, than singing about John Brown’s body implies knowledge of where John Brown was buried.

1.2. The fact that women discovered the empty tomb is unsurprising and does not raise the credibility of the story.

1.3. Quotes John Shelby Spong: the discovery of an empty tomb would not have produced an Easter faith.

2. The Post-Resurrection Appearances

2.1. The early date of the formula in 1 Cor 15 is irrelevant. Legends can and do spread immediately in the presence of eyewitnesses.

2.2. No details in Paul’s testimony.

2.3. No mention of an empty tomb.

2.4. No place or date for the alleged Resurrection.

2.5. No independent confirmation of the alleged appearance to the 500. Surely the gospels would have reported it.

2.6. Paul did not specify whether appearances were physical or visionary. The Greek text is ambiguous on this point.

2.7. We don’t know the reliability of the witnesses.

2.8. Paul was NOT a credible witness. Paul states (2 Cor 12) he was subject to visions.

3. Origin of the Christian Faith

3.1. Jesus was heretical.

3.2. Jesus’ teachings were apocalyptic.

3.3. Paradigm shifts do not require supernatural intervention. If Craig disagrees, then what are his criteria for determining when a paradigm shift does require supernatural intervention? At what point do concepts become so alien that it would require a miracle to shift from one to the other?

CRAIG’S FIRST REBUTTAL

I. Reasons for Being a Christian

C. Resurrection

1. Empty Tomb

1.2. Women’s testimony was unreliable in New Testament times. The women didn’t wash and dispose of the body. That was done by Joseph of Arimathea.

2. Post-Resurrection Appearances

2.1. Not genre of legend. Legend concerns how a story that is transmitted by oral tradition can be completely transformed. A.N. Sherwin-White said that cannot happen in less than 40 years. Not talking about lies, fabrications, hoaxes, etc.

2.2. Multiple attestation.

2.3. Appearances were not hallucinations. The appearances were physical and numerous. The witnesses were not psychologically disposed to believe a Resurrection had occurred. Hallucinations would have led to the belief that Jesus had been assumed into heaven, not that He was Resurrected. Hallucinations cannot explain the empty tomb.
3. Origin of the Christian faith.

3.1. Skeptics deny the authenticity of Jesus’ predictions of His own Resurrection. This is inconsistent. If you accept the authenticity of the predictions, you’ve got to accept the historicity of the empty tomb and appearances because the passages which support them are better attested.

II. Parsons Reasons for Not Being a Christian

A. Christianity Is Not Good

1. God, as the author and giver of life, has the right to take life.

2.1. On balance, Christianity has done considerable good.

2.2. Jesus wouldn’t have committed atrocities. Craig is defending Jesus in the debate, not the record of the Christian church.

3. Hell is not a result of God’s will; Hell is a result of human choices. God’s desire is that everyone come to know the truth.

B. Christianity Is Not True

1. No justification for the principle that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. As Thomas Sherlock pointed out, it doesn’t take “extraordinary evidence” to prove someone is alive or to prove someone is dead. And to prove the Resurrection, one need only prove that Jesus was alive, then he was dead, and then he came back to life. The shred of truth in Parson’s principle is this: ad hoc explanations should be avoided. But the Resurrection is not an ad hoc explanation given the religio-historical context in which the event happened.

3. The gospels are historically more reliable than other books of ancient history. Skepticism towards the gospels is the result of a philosophical bias. The degree of skepticism which is applied to the New Testament is far greater than the degree of skepticism which is applied to other ancient books.

PARSONS’ FIRST REBUTTAL

I. Reasons for Not Being a Christian

A. Christianity Is Not Good

1. Does God have the right to be a homicidal maniac? Consider a thought experiment in which we create sentient robots. Does the fact that we created the sentient robots give us the right to kill them?

2.1. Christianity is not the greatest good.

2.2. Christianity is supposed to be the answer.

3.1. You would have to be a lunatic to *freely* choose Hell. Lunatics deserve treatment, not condemnation.

3.2. Why such a horrible punishment? What sort of free will is this? To say that we have free will to choose heaven or hell is like saying that someone with a gun to their head has free will whether to obey the gunmen.

B. Christianity Is Not True

1.1. The principle is common sense.

1.2. Bayesian confirmation theory proves principle.

3. More is expected of the gospels than other books. No one bases their eternal destinies on Tacitus, Suetonius, or Homer.

II. Craig’s Reasons for Being a Christian

B. Hopelessness of Atheism

1. Did Bertrand Russell, Spinoza, or Einstein live meaningless lives?

C. Resurrection

2. Post-Resurrection Appearances

2.1. Do not deny that people had experiences which they took for an appearance of the resurrected Jesus.

2.2. Experiences could have been hallucinations. 1/8 – 2/3 of human beings have waking hallucinations. Hallucinations seem very real to the people who have them. Consider Whitley Streiber, author of Communion.

2.3. Extreme loss can cause hallucinations.

2.4. Genre of UFO stories is the same genre as the New Testament reports of the Resurrection. Cites Watch the Skies. UFO legends accumulated in the presence of eyewitnesses.

2.5. Legends CAN grow in short periods of time, despite the presence of eyewitnesses.

2.6. Memory is fallible.

3. Origin of the Christian Faith

3.1. Jesus challenged the orthodox. He was heretical. Jesus lived in a period of time that had apocalyptic expectations. No barrier to paradigm shift to here.
D. Presence of God

1. What about atheistic experiences? Many atheists have had experiences of honestly, openly, earnestly searching for God, and not finding. If Craig denies that my experience is genuine, I’ll just reassert it again. I have just as much right to appeal to experience as Craig does.

CRAIG’S SECOND REBUTTAL

I. Parsons’s Reasons for Not Being a Christian

A. Christianity Is Not Good

1. God is the Creator and has the right to take human life.

2.1. Parsons has the burden of proof.

2.2. Jesus wouldn’t have committed atrocities.

3.1. Demands of God’s justice must be met. God cannot blink at sin. Sin must be punished.

B. Christianity Is Not True

1.1. Not an argument. If Parsons has to appeal to “common sense” to support his principle, then he must not have a substantive argument for it.

1.2. There is nothing improbable about God raising Jesus from the dead.

2. Not at all. To be sure, a naturalistic resurrection is improbable. But a theistic Resurrection is probable.

3. Irrelevant. Doesn’t affect their credibility.

II. Craig’s Reasons for Being a Christian

A. Evidence for a Creator

- nothing said about this by Dr. Parsons

- personal creator is relevant to the probability of the Resurrection

B. Hopelessness of Atheism

1. Russell himself said that life is meaningless. [applause]

C. Resurrection

1. Empty Tomb

1.2. Women’s testimony was unreliable.

1.4. Found in old source.

1.5. Lacks signs of legendary development.

1.6. Earliest Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb.

2. Post-Resurrection Appearances

2.3. The appearances were not hallucinations. Hallucinations cannot explain the physicality of the appearances, the number of the appearances, or the empty tomb.

3. Origin of the Christian Faith

3.2. Jews would have expected translation, not Resurrection.

D. Presence of God.

1.1. Doesn’t invalidate Craig’s experiences.

1.2. Jesus said, “Seek and you will find.” I encourage Dr. Parsons to keep searching for God. [strong applause]

PARSONS’ SECOND REBUTTAL

I. Reasons for Not Being a Christian

A. Christianity Is Not Good

1.1. Moral intuition

1.2. Thought experiment about sentient robots.

3. Why must sin be punished? What good does it do for Hitler and Stalin to be suffering right now? Punishment is for deterrence. Purely retributive punishment is barbarous.

B. Christianity Is Not True

1. Bayesian confirmation theory. Must evaluate prior probabilities. How is the Resurrection hypothesis NOT ad hoc, but the UFO hypothesis ad hoc?

II. Craig’s Reasons for Being a Christian

A. Cosmology.

1. Irrelevant to Christianity. If Craig wants to debate me on theism vs. atheism, I would be happy to do so at a later time.

B. Hopeless of Atheism

1. Out of context quote. Bertrand Russell said that life is meaningful. Friendship makes life meaningful.

C. Resurrection

1. Empty Tomb

1.4. According to NT scholar Reginald Fuller, the oldest empty tomb tradition is the discovery by Mary Magdalene. Who was Mary Magdalene? Why should we trust her?

2. Post-Resurrection Appearances

2.2. Could have been hallucinations. Hallucinations seem very real and physical.

3. Origin of the Christian Faith

????

D. Presence of God

1.1. Craig offers his experiences as apologetic. Why should I take his experiences any more seriously than any other experience of the miraculous?

1.2. I sought and did not find. Jesus was wrong.

“CROSSFIRE” PERIOD

ANDERSON: Isn’t the empty tomb a legend?

CRAIG: Parsons grants the experiences. Legends don’t accrue that quickly.

PARSONS: Christians created and promoted legends about Darwin’s alleged deathbed conversions in the presence of hostile and vocal eyewitnesses.

CRAIG: Not genre. 2 generations is too short. Besides, this is not a central issue. Parsons admits the disciples had an experience.

PARSONS: Sure it could have been hallucinations. Hallucinations seem very real. Alienation, loss, and depression all lead to hallucinations. Risen Elvis. Must remember context. Apocalyptic expectations. Given these expectations, why are hallucinations so improbable?

CRAIG: The disciples had Jewish expectations. Hallucinations can’t project what is not in the mind. They would have hallucinated translation.

PARSONS: Quoted John Shelby Spong. Couldn’t there have been an initial experience of a hallucination, then they reflected on this experience, and eventually the best sense he could make of it was that Jesus rose from the dead? Paradigm shift.

CRAIG: I offered a cumulative case. Concerning the possibility of a paradigm shift, the Resurrection is an un-Jewish way of thinking. Also, can’t find any hallucination that fits the Resurrection model in all aspects. Finally, I’m not prepared to grant the experiences were hallucinations.

ANDERSON: What would constitute extraordinary evidence in the first century?

PARSONS: Difficult to achieve in ancient times. That’s not a problem for me; that’s a problem for those who promote the miraculous. Quotes T.H. Huxley’s essay on the miraculous.

CRAIG: Must take miracles on a case-by-case basis. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is an a priori bias against the supernatural. There isn’t any evidence that would convince you of the Resurrection. You said that you would event reject videotapes of the stone rolling away.

PARSONS: In court cases, we make decisions about the probability of the testimony of witnesses. There is no appeal to the supernatural in court cases. This is not a bias against the supernatural. This is how we live our daily lives.

CRAIG: No amount of evidence would convince you.

PARSONS: [paraphrasing N.R. Hanson] A Spielbergian display would convince me.

CRAIG: You wouldn’t have assumed you had a hallucination? [extremely strong laughter and applause]

PARSONS: Everyone would have had the experience. It wouldn’t be just me claiming to have the experience.

CRAIG: Why believe, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?” I can’t think of any argument for that principle. I agree that we should be skeptical of ad hoc explanations. But the Resurrection is NOT an ad hoc explanation.

PARSONS: If the Resurrection is NOT an ad hoc explanation, then you have just contradicted your claim that the Resurrection was an un-Jewish way of thinking. If there Resurrection is NOT an ad hoc explanation, then there should have been an expectation of Jesus’ Resurrection in the minds of the disciples.

CRAIG’S THIRD REBUTTAL

I. Parsons’ Reasons for Not Being a Christian

B. Christianity Is Not True

1. Significant religio-historical context makes supernatural explanation of the Resurrection not ad hoc.

II. Craig’s Reasons for Being a Christian

A. Cosmology

1. Parsons never disputed the evidence.

2. Relevant to the evidence for the Resurrection.

C. Resurrection

1. Empty Tomb

1.4. Others could check out what Mary Magdalene said. Early Christianity originated in the city in which Jesus was buried.

2. Post-Resurrection Appearances

2.3. Appearances were not hallucinations. Hallucinations is not a complete hypothesis. Cannot explain the empty tomb.

3. Origin of the Christian Faith

3.1. Skeptics denied Jesus’ predictions.

3.2. Jews would have expected translation.

D. Presence of God

1. Read the New Testament and check it out for yourself.

PARSONS’ THIRD REBUTTAL

I. Reasons for Not Being a Christian

B. Christianity Is Not True

1. Quoted Sherlock Holmes: eliminate the impossible and whatever is left is the answer. Must evaluate prior probabilities.

II. Craig’s Reasons for Being a Christian

A. Cosmology.

1. Irrelevant. Many people, including Jews and Muslims, believe in a personal Creator but are not Christians. Parsons would

be happy to debate Craig on the existence of God some other time.

C. Resurrection

1.2. Why wouldn’t the discovery of the empty tomb be the final insult? Acts 13 says Jesus was buried by those who crucified him. How do we know she went to the right tomb? Sherlock Holmes said, “eliminate the impossible.”

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12171593545895078337 Bret L

    This is the worst defeat Craig has ever taken.(of all the commonsenseatheism.com debates of Craig I've listened to).

    Comparisons to UFO stories and emphasizing that Craig define his Criteria highlighted Craig's weakest points.

    I also loved the points:

    Christianity is supposed to be THE answer.

    You would have to be a lunatic to *freely* choose Hell. Lunatics deserve treatment, not condemnation. The only way around this I've ever heard is special pleading.

    And the part where Parsons says "Well I sought and I didn't find so Jesus was wrong". (Gasps in the audience.)

    IT wasn't just the logic that made it such a powerful debate for the atheism side. It was the enthusiasm and passion.


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