Updated: Jun 2, 2019
The following is an update version on an original post from 25 March 25 2012 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz, called “Closing Thoughts on the Resurrection Debate” in which I reflect on the debate entitled “Is the resurrection of Jesus fact or fiction?” between myself and Malcom Travena.
It has been seven years since I closed the debate between Malcom Travena and myself on the historicity of the resurrection. My opening statement and first/only response is reposted here in Part 1 and Part 2 and re-titled “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” It relied heavily on the scholarship of William Lane Craig, to which I am extremely grateful. I was also, and remain, grateful for the scholarship of Craig Evans and Mike Licona.
Before setting out on this exchange of ideas, Travena and I both agreed to several rules. One of these was that our replies to each other would be posted within five days of receiving the opening statement or following response. At the time, I thought this would give us both plenty of time to write an adequate response and keep the debate moving swiftly for the readership. While writing my opening statement however, I quickly came to appreciate that I would struggle to keep this self-imposed deadline. I therefore suggested to Malcolm that if he wanted to take a week or two to write a good response, then this would be fine with me and we could count that original guideline as flexible. After all, we were both led full and active lives.
After five weeks had passed without hearing anything from him, no response, no communication whatsoever, and several unanswered emails, I decided it would be best to close the debate and open it up for comments from the readers.
At the time, reflecting on our exchange, I had a number of final thoughts to express:
1. My disappointment in having to close the debate. I was hopeful that this debate would be mutually beneficial. Taking the time to write things down can clarify your thinking in ways that just thinking about the issues cannot. This is the case for me at least. I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to be pushed to further investigate the details of the case. I wanted to know if it could stand up to scrutiny. I didn’t get that opportunity.
I was also disappointed that he would deprive himself of that opportunity, though the reason for ceasing all contact since his opening statement remains to this day unknown to me.
I believed, and still do, that Malcolm’s opening statement was way off the mark in attacking biblical reliability when my case didn’t depend on the bible being reliable at all. Rather than pursuing the historical case for the resurrection I provided, he outlined some biblical difficulties and apparent contradictions that would be of interest to the defender of scripture, but not to the case I presented nor even the subject of the debate we agreed on. That was sad.
2. No case to answer. It was also sad that Travena’s opening statement was more along the lines of a first response statement. Travena did not construct a positive case for the resurrection-as-fiction view. Instead he merely argued for the the negation of my resurrection-as-fact view. This leaves us, if successful, only with the agnostic position – not knowing whether the resurrection is fact or fiction. This, as I mentioned during the debate, is compatible with the Christian account of history being true.
While we were negotiating the title of the debate, he agreed, and even clarified a second time, that he would be arguing for the resurrection being a fiction. He also stated as much in his opening statement. But it was not to be.
3. Victory by default. Sure, I won the exchange by merit of having the last word and, I dare say so myself, the better opening statement. However, does this show that God raised Jesus from the dead? It does not. It just means that, in this instance, Travena did not have a comparatively good case to offer for the resurrection being a fiction.
4. Never again. I won’t be doing this again with just anyone. If I do decide to debate again, it will be with someone who has prior knowledge of the relevant issues and material under discussion and is able to put up a good fight. Ideally, someone with a degree in theology, history or philosophy, but failing that, at least someone who has read a book or two on the subject, and has made some sort of effort to understand the subject area. As I have found typical in other interactions with New Atheists, the level of confidence does not match the level of competence.
Nevertheless, I found responding to what criticism of the bible he did offer gratifying. His remarks gave me the motivation and opportunity to research some problematic passages in Scripture, such as the differences in the two genealogies of Jesus, why the bible says hares chew the cud, the traditions regarding the witnesses to the empty tomb, the rising saints, and other difficulties. It was fun and I recommend the activity to anyone: pick a problem in the Bible and do some digging to figure out if the difficulty can be resolved, and exactly what it means if it can’t be. You might just learn something amazing!
- Travena’s opening statement