I watched two debates recently. One was a 1995 debate between Christian apologist William Lane Craig and liberal Christian and New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan. William F. Buckley, Jr. was the moderator. The second was between Crossan and New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, on the one hand, and Christian apologist James White and James Renihan, on the other hand. The debates concerned the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Craig, White, Renihan, and Buckley (who was the moderator, yet he interjected quite a bit, and it was easy to tell where he stood) defended the idea that Jesus historically rose from the dead, that the tomb in which Jesus was buried turned up empty, and that the risen Jesus appeared to the apostles. Crossan had more of a metaphorical understanding of Jesus’ resurrection, and Borg said that the question of whether there was an empty tomb should not matter for the Christian faith.
Here are some thoughts:
1. The first debate was somewhat of a disappointment. My hope was that Craig would make his historical arguments for Jesus’ resurrection, and then Crossan would respond to them point-by-point, disputing Craig’s arguments or offering alternative ways to account for the evidence. Craig offered historical-critical arguments that Joseph of Arimathea donated a tomb for Jesus’ burial, and Craig used similar criteria to that used by the liberal Jesus Seminar in determining which parts of the Gospels are historically authentic. Crossan, as far as I could tell, did not respond to Craig’s arguments. Instead, Crossan talked about the story of Jesus’ resurrection being in some sense metaphorical, but metaphorical for what? And Buckley was needling Crossan about Crossan’s faith. There was not a whole lot of scholarly meat in this debate, and this surprised me, for Crossan’s books have impressed me as having scholarly meat. There was one point in the debate that I found interesting: William Lane Craig said that Jesus rebuked doubting Thomas because Thomas doubted the testimony of the other apostles that Jesus was risen from the dead. According to Dr. Craig, Thomas should have accepted the apostolic testimony, as should we. And this is understandable, on some level: I would tend to trust the testimony of people I knew, at least if they did not strike me as liars or as mentally-ill.
2. The debate among Crossan, Borg, White, and Renihan had more scholarly meat, in my opinion. Someone from the audience asked about the five-hundred witnesses to the risen Jesus whom the creed in I Corinthians 15 mentions, and Crossan raised a variety of considerations. He noted an ancient story about witnesses to Julius Caesar’s ascent to heaven, and he also referred to the vision that tens of thousands at Fatima see. Crossan also mentioned the view of some scholars that Jesus’ appearance to the five-hundred referred to what happened on Pentecost (Acts 2). Regarding the empty tomb, Borg noted that, within the Gospels, we see alternative explanations for Jesus’ tomb being empty (i.e., that Jesus’ body was stolen, or that it was moved). Borg made another interesting point in arguing that the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection was not important to the Christian faith: he noted that Paul believed that the dead would rise, even before he believed in Jesus’ resurrection. That may be true, but I find it hard to deny that Paul in I Corinthians 15 argues that the resurrection of believers depends on the resurrection of Christ.
3. Dr. White talked about his experiences in hospital chaplaincy. I used to think that I could do that sort of work, but now I wonder. How would I tell someone that his or her loved one has died? Such a delicate situation would require high-level social skills.
In any case, Dr. White was asking Dr. Crossan and Dr. Borg what comfort they could offer to the dying, or the loved ones of the dying. The thing is, I wonder what comfort Dr. White’s theology could offer them! The notion that people have to accept Christ before they die lest they go to hell, and that God has already decreed who would be saved, is not particularly comforting, in my opinion. What if my loved one failed to make a Christian commitment before death?
4. I think that the reason that there is usually more scholarly meat in White’s debates than in Craig’s debates is that, in White’s debates, the debaters actually get to ask each other pointed questions. White’s debates have long periods in which the debaters cross-examine each other. White can thus ask his opponent how he accounts for such-and-such a piece of evidence, and the opponent offers some explanation. In Craig’s debates, by contrast, I have not seen that as much. Rather, the debaters give speeches one after the other, then they answer questions from the audience. A debater can easily avoid interacting directly with the opponent’s arguments that way.
Then again, there was more free-flowing exchange in the Craig-Crossan debate. But the questions that I wanted addressed were not being addressed, at least not too deeply.