It was February 2008. I had committed to a public debate with the prominent agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. He was an established scholar, an award-winning professor at a prominent university, and a New York Times best-selling author. Additionally, he already had several public debates under his belt.
In contrast, I was still a year away from completing my PhD and knew far less about the New Testament and early Christianity. And yet, there I was, committed to debating Bart Ehrman.
A few months earlier, I had been talking to Phil Roberts, then the president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Roberts knew about my apologetics work and had asked me if I might be interested in doing a public debate. I told him I’d want to debate Ehrman, and Roberts set it up.
Why did I choose to face this giant? His scholarship was leading people away from the Christian faith and sowing seeds of doubt in the minds of many others; he needed to be answered.
Preparing with ‘Pseudo-Bart’
The topic for our debate was “Can historians prove Jesus rose from the dead?” My nearly completed doctoral research focused on this very topic, so I was confident I knew more about it than Ehrman. Over the next five months, I dedicated no less than 50 hours a week to preparing.
I read everything Ehrman had written on the topic and formulated answers to his various assertions. I dissected his previous debate with the prominent Christian philosopher William Lane Craig and thought through how to respond if Ehrman were to make the same points and rebuttals. I wanted every answer to be sound, succinct, and accessible to our audience. I practiced managing the time for giving each answer so I wouldn’t have to rush.
My friend Amy Ponce became a debate “sparring partner.” In 2004, I debated the atheist historian Richard Carrier. Amy had read a lot of Carrier’s work and acted as a stand-in for practice debates, so I asked her to do the same with Ehrman.
She studied Ehrman’s work and was able to impersonate his views and delivery. By the time the debate drew near, I was convinced she knew Ehrman’s views as well as he did—maybe even better. She had him down, his attitude, the phrases he liked to use. I even called her “Bart.”
I told Amy she could call me anytime, even in the middle of the night to wake me up and try to catch me off guard with one of Ehrman’s arguments. We staged a mock debate with Amy acting as “Pseudo-Bart,” complete with the official time constraints. Craig, the philosopher who had debated Ehrman before, listened in and felt Amy’s prep was so good that she was a harder debate opponent than Ehrman would be. After months of preparation, I felt ready.
Facing the giant
The day finally arrived. I flew to Kansas City, where the debate would be held on Midwestern Baptist Seminary’s campus. I woke the morning of the debate to find, to my horror, that I’d nearly lost my voice. Fortunately, the sound engineers at the venue were very helpful and the debate went ahead.
Standing offstage waiting for the event to start, I had jitters. Ehrman was waiting next to me in the wings and I was sizing him up. I knew he was a seasoned debater and never pulled his punches, even when debating his friends, which I certainly was not. I knew he would use clever rhetoric, a charming demeanor, careful logic, and thorough research—everything—to score points. He was out to win this debate.
Finally, the moment came and we stepped on stage. Once we were seated and the debate began, my jitters disappeared. I’d been preparing for months. I knew this stuff cold. I was a bit frustrated that my voice was weakened because it prevented me from being as passionate and engaging as I wanted. Even so, I felt good during the debate. I knew Ehrman was wrong. I knew I could answer him. This was my area of expertise. He couldn’t say anything I didn’t have an answer for.
When the debate finally drew to a close, I had mixed feelings. I had just taken on one of the world’s leading skeptics and thought I had at least held my own. But I wasn’t sure what the audience felt. For me, there’s tremendous pressure in public debates because if I perform poorly, I might inadvertently contribute to a believer’s doubts. I take Matthew 18:6 very seriously; I don’t want to cause anyone to stumble.
Immediately after the debate, two students came up to me and told me the event had instilled such a new confidence in their faith that they were prepared to devote themselves to full-time Christian ministry. A few months later, I met a college freshman whose professor was using one of Ehrman’s books as required reading and it was rocking her faith. I gave her a DVD copy of my debate with Ehrman and her face lit up. I later learned that the recording of the debate with Ehrman had encouraged her tremendously. In fact, she was now flourishing as a faith-filled student leader in her campus ministry!
You’d certainly expect that after five months of preparation designed to publicly denounce his ideas and testimonies from Christians encouraged by my ability to stand up to his doubt-inducing arguments, Ehrman and I would not be on speaking terms.
It’s true, I felt a little anger toward him before the debate began because I knew the effect his scholarship was having on people, leading some of them away from Christian faith. But that anger was tempered by knowing that Jesus loves Ehrman. There is no room for hatred. By the time the debate actually started, I did not feel any animosity toward him. In fact, since then, Ehrman and I have become friends.
A table in the presence of my enemies
In the 11 years since that debate in Kansas City, Ehrman and I have engaged in two more public debates, a written debate, and two dialogues on the popular podcast Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley. We have strong disagreements on a number of matters pertaining to Jesus and the Gospels, and our debates have always been spirited.
Despite the societal norm to demonize those with whom we disagree, Ehrman and I get along really well. I have grown to like him as a person and consider him a friend. We always greet one another with a smile and a hug at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.
How is it that Ehrman and I can battle each other vigorously on matters held dearly to each of us, then part with a handshake and a hug, which emerge from a genuine warmth toward the other?
Years ago, a mentor of mine, Gary Habermas, told me that he likes to have dinner with his debate opponent before the event in order to break the ice. So before that first debate with Ehrman in 2008, I asked Midwestern to set up a dinner with him ahead of the event.
As we ate, Ehrman and I asked one another surface questions, such as what our present research concerned, what would be the topic of the next book we planned to write, and about our families. We didn’t have much time to get to know each other, but it helped to relate in a more social context, away from the debate stage. As we have come to feel more comfortable with each other over the years, our conversations have become more relaxed and personal.
At our second debate, held at Southern Evangelical Seminary a year later, we again had dinner beforehand with the president and a few faculty members. Knowing that he does a lot of public debates, one of the seminary professors at our table asked Ehrman who his favorite debate opponents were. I was a little nervous about what he would say. But while Ehrman admitted that some of his opponents could be mean, he said, “I really like Mike because he’s a nice guy.”
Getting to know each other off the debate stage was instrumental in correcting any stereotype we may have had of the other. I could see that the person with whom I was sharing a meal did not have the glowing red eyes of a demon! And Ehrman could see that his opponent was not an angry Bible thumper who was going to scold him publicly during the debate. Instead, we both met a friendly guy with whom we could have a collegial dialogue.
Whenever we debate one another, we have fun with it. We’re still serious about our topics and we still don’t agree.The debate is always lively. Ehrman doesn’t pull any punches and neither do I. But we relate in a very relaxed way; we banter back and forth and occasionally goof off. I feel there’s trust there. He knows I’m not going to talk bad about him behind his back and vice versa. I don’t agree with him, and I’m deeply concerned about the effect his work has on people. But I respect him and I like him.
Blessed are the peacemakers
There are people on both sides of any issue who are divisive and rancorous, and we cannot change that. What we can control is how we interact with others when we disagree with them. As followers of Jesus, it is our responsibility to love our neighbor, to be salt and light to our culture, and to return good for evil (Matt. 5:13–14, Rom. 12:14–21).
This is difficult when a person is screaming at us in disagreement, and it can even be a challenge in a good-natured public debate. But Jesus did not say that following him would be easy. In fact, he told us specifically that it will not be (Matt. 10:22–25, John 15:18–20).
As followers of Jesus, we are called to be his representatives in our society (John 20:21). So, we must engage in dialogues with those with whom we disgaree. We must not compromise Bible-based morals, despite the increasing hostility toward us for embracing those morals. We should not be surprised that much of our society hates us and desires to silence us. On the contrary, Jesus told us we should expect this sort of treatment.
That does not mean that everyone is out to get us or that disagreement precludes friendships. I’ve been blessed by my friendships with several of my debate opponents, despite strong disagreements on core issues. Jesus calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:43–47). Should we do any less to those with whom we have disagreements but are not our enemies?
Since Jesus’ message is offensive to many in our culture, let’s not compound that by being unnecessarily offensive in our behavior. We just may find that we can participate in brokering peace in our society (Matt. 5:9) and that more people become open to hearing Jesus’ message as a result.
After our debate at Kennesaw State University last year, Ehrman and I both stood up and hugged. I told him, “Hey Bart, I’m really glad to call you a friend. I’d really like to call you a brother. You know the story of the prodigal son. C’mon, man! God wants you back!”
He smiled at me and, with a twinkle in his eye, asked me to come over to his side. I grinned back at him and said, “I don’t think so.”
Michael R. Licona is associate professor of theology at Houston Baptist University and founder of Risen Jesus ministries. His most recent book is Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford University Press, 2017).
From Christianity Today Magazine; July 2019