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THE GOD DEBATE

AT MIAMI UNIVERSITY

 

by Doug Ward

A person's years at college or university are an ideal time to contemplate the purpose of human existence. However, the college years are also filled with a myriad of activities, so it can be all too easy for students to graduate without really facing the fundamental questions of life. I was therefore glad this spring when posters appeared on the Miami University campus announcing a public debate on the existence of God.

It was even more encouraging to see a packed house in a university lecture hall on the night of the much-publicized event. The God debate, which was held on April 15, 2002, was sponsored by two student organizations- a Christian service fraternity and a group of agnostics and atheists-and many of the people in the large and vocal crowd seemed to be partisans for one side or the other. While it is not clear that the debate changed anyone's mind, it did provide much to think about for all who attended.

The Main Arguments

Arguing for the existence of the Judeo-Christian God was Dr. Ben Voth, an Associate Professor of Communication and coach of Miami's award-winning speech and debate teams. Professor Voth acknowledged in his opening remarks that there is no way to mathematically prove God's existence, but he offered two main sources of evidence that gave him an assurance of the reality of God:

his own experience of an abundant life in God's presence, including the joys of parenthood;

the Bible, a time-tested historical document that contains, in particular, eyewitness accounts affirming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Voth's opponent in the debate was attorney Edwin F. Kagin, a founding member of the Free Inquiry Group of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky and a self-proclaimed agnostic and ``secular humanist.'' Mr. Kagin argued that the biblical account is far from conclusive, with a main witness of Jesus' resurrection being Mary Magdalene, whom he described as a ``deranged hooker.'' He observed that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were an example of the great harm that has been done in the world by religion and religious fanaticism, and he asked the question, ``Where was God on September 11?'' Was God powerless to stop the terrorists, or is He cruel?

In response to Kagin's remarks on the ``problem of evil,'' Voth countered that the existence of evil in the world is a consequence of our freedom of choice. For freedom to be meangingful, he asserted, human behavior must have consequences. He further observed that God is a source of great comfort in times of tragedy, and that it is especially difficult for an individual to confront the problem of evil without God.

Professor Voth also had much to say in answer to the charge that the world would be better off without religion. He argued that the record of the bloody twentieth century showed that we have much more to fear from unrestrained human nature than from true religion, pointing out that the darkest and most dangerous forces of recent times have been the neopaganism of the Nazis and the atheistic communism of evil dictators like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. He cited the historical role of Judeo-Christian culture in promoting literacy and learning and mentioned some of the prominent scientists who were motivated by a belief in God.

Both debaters offered remarks about separation of church and state in the United States, a side issue of special interest to the audience as well as the speakers. Mr. Kagin maintained that a strict ``wall of separation'' between church and state is advisable in order to protect people from the possible abuses of religion. Professor Voth, on the other hand, argued for a balance between the ``establishment clause'' of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prevents the establishment of a state religion, and the ``free exercise clause,'' which guarantees religious freedom. Voth expressed concern that recent judicial decisions have overemphasized the establishment clause at the expense of the free exercise clause, thereby eroding freedom of religion.

Personal Reflections

After the two debaters had presented their cases and counterarguments and asked questions of each other, the floor was opened for questions from the audience. I left the lecture hall some two hours after the beginning of the debate with the discussion still going strong. I am not sure when the debate finally ended.

It is inevitable, of course, that even after two hours much remained unsaid. In particular, little reference was made to the traditional philosophical arguments for God's existence or to recent controversies about ``intelligent design.''

Most of the topics discussed were ones that I had come to the debate expecting to hear-e.g., the age-old question of the problem of evil: How could an all-powerful and benevolent God allow human suffering? There are no easy answers to this question, especially when one is enduring a time of trial. Believers are left ultimately with the words of the prophet Isaiah: ```For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,' declares the Lord'' (Isa. 55:8, NIV). Atheists would do well here to keep in mind the limitations of human understanding. Events that seem unfair from our restricted vantage points could make sense in the larger frame of reference of an omniscient God.

Since I, like Professor Voth, am a Christian, I naturally identified with him during the debate and thought about what I might have added to his arguments if I had been alongside him on the stage and the debate had had no time limit. In particular, I left the debate wishing that Voth had had the opportunity and expertise to give a more vigorous defense of the Bible. Here I will mention three things that I wish had been pointed out, not to criticize Voth- who is a skilled debater and argued for God's existence more ably than I would have been able to do in his place-but for my own satisfaction and the possible benefit of our readers.

First, in response to Mr. Kagin's derogatory characterization of Mary Magdalence (who nowhere in the Bible is described as a prostitute, by the way), Voth quite rightly pointed out the fallacy in ad hominem arguments and noted that every person has value in the eyes of God. He might also have observed that if the gospel writers had invented the story of Jesus' resurrection, they probably would not have made a woman of questionable reputation one of the primary witnesses. The fact that Mary Magdalene is cited as a key witness actually is evidence in favor of the historical reliability of the gospel accounts.1

Second, Kagin alleged that the historical narratives of the Bible are not history at all, but merely the mythology of the ancient Hebrews. He stated that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures) was not compiled largely by Moses in the fifteenth century B.C., as is traditionally believed, but instead was written much later, in the seventh century B.C. Such claims about the Bible became popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Professor Voth did not have the opportunity to address these statements of Kagin's, which is unfortunate, since strong evidence in support of the authenticity of the five books of Moses has been piling up for many years now. For example, it has been known for over forty years that the book of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Pentateuch to be written, has a structure strikingly similar to that of Hittite suzerain-vassal treaties from the middle of the second millennium B.C. Treaty forms from the seventh century B.C. are different from the earlier ones, so it is very unlikely that Deuteronomy was written at such a late date. According to scholar Meredith Kline,

``Now that the form critical data compel the recognition of the antiquity not merely of this or that element within Deuteronomy but of the Deuteronomic treaty in its integrity...any persistent insistence on a final edition of the book around the seventh century B.C. can be nothing more than a vestigial hypothesis no longer performing a significant function in Old Testament criticism.'' 2

Third, one person from the audience asked Dr. Voth how a loving God could wipe out a whole people, the Amalekites, as the God of Israel pledged to do in Exodus 17:14. Voth handled this question badly, saying simply that Jesus Christ had come to end such violence. This response was not only antijudaic but also unacceptable from a Christian point of view. Instead, it should have been pointed out that the Amalekites were terrorists who attacked the weakest and most vulnerable of the Israelites as they left Egypt (Deut. 25:17-18). The Israelites were given a special role to play as the people through whom the Messiah would come and all nations would be blessed (Gen. 12:3), so the Amalekites by attacking Israel were also acting in defiance of God and His purpose. Finally, it must be remembered that according to the Bible, all who have ever died will be resurrected (John 5:28-29), including the Amalekites.

I found the God debate at Miami to be frustrating at times, but it was also stimulating and certainly worthwhile. Such events can help us Christians to ``be prepared to give an answer'' of the hope that lies within us, as I Peter 3:15 instructs.


Footnotes:

1For more on the existence of God and the historicity of Jesus' resurrection, see parts two and six of our series on the Apostles' Creed.

2Treaty of the Great King, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1963, p. 44. For further discussion on the validity of the Hebrew scriptures, see Walter C. Kaiser's recent book, The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant?, InterVarsity Press, Downer's Grove, Illinois, 2001.

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