The Geisler-Till Debate
Farrell Till

On March 29th, I "debated" Dr. Norman Geisler at Columbus College Columbus, Georgia. The issue was the resurrection of Jesus. Most readers will recognize that Norman Geisler is one of the premier spokesmen for the Bible inerrancy doctrine. In fundamentalist circles, his book, "When Skeptics Ask," has joined the ranks of Gleason Archer's Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties and John Haley's "Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible" as a handy reference volume for Christians who wish to have a ready-made, how-it-could-have-been explanations of Bible difficulties to use in their discussions with skeptics.

Because of his reputation, I was expecting Dr. Geisler to be a formidable opponent who would probably confront me with challenging arguments, but instead I found him to be incredibly shallow. For one thing, he did nothing but read manuscripts of speeches he had written prior to the debate. This was true even after my rebuttal of his opening speech. He simply returned to the lectern and read another previously prepared speech in which, believe it or not, he referred to my failures to respond to certain points which he had made in his opening speech (which I had in fact addressed), as if he could have known prior to the debate what I would and would not respond to in my rebuttal. Even his final two-minute, wrap-up speech was read from a previously written manuscript.

At the beginning of my second speech I said to the audience that I had several debates but that this one was the strangest I had ever participated in, because my opponent had responded to my rebuttal speech by reading a manuscript that he had written prior to the debate. "How could he know before the debate what I would say and not say?" I asked. At this point, in a rare moment of spontaneity, Geisler spoke up from his seat and said, "I read your book." To which I said, "That's strange, because I haven't written a book." He said nothing in response to this.

Geisler's opening speech consisted of an effort to establish the "reliability" of the New Testament manuscripts. He referred to over 5,366 copies of "existing" New Testament manuscripts, which scholars have studied and compared and found to be "ninety-nine percent free of significant variances." From this, Geisler somehow reached the conclusion of the "reliability" with which the manuscripts had been copied by ancient scribes proved that everything the manuscripts said had happened exactly as recorded. In my first rebuttal, I asked the audience to assume that those 5,000 manuscripts were 100% free of variation. Even if that were true, that would in no way prove that the events recorded in the manuscripts had actually happened; it would only prove that the manuscripts agreed in what they said.

I presented three reasons why rational people cannot believe the New Testament resurrection accounts: (1) resurrected savior-gods were common-place in the pagan religions that flourished before, during, and after the time Jesus of Nazareth allegedly lived, (2) the claim that a dead man was restored to life is an extraordinary claim that required extraordinary proof, and (3) the only proof that Geisler can offer in support of his resurrection claim is hearsay in nature. Since Geisler spoke entirely from previously prepared manuscripts, he made no attempts to respond to these points, except when they came up during the 30-minute period of responses to questions from the audience.

In developing point one, I referred to the widespread pagan belief in resurrected savior-gods like Osiris, Dionysus, Tammuz, and Krishna, all of whom had had thousands of religious adherents long before the time of Jesus. The only attempt that Geisler made to rebut this argument was made during the question-answer session when he incorrectly said that bodily resurrections had not been claimed for any of the pagan saviors, so they were not "parallel" to the resurrection of Jesus.

In his first speech, Geisler had referred to the apostle Paul's claim that Jesus had appeared to "500 brethren at once" after his resurrection (1 Cor. 15:6) so in making my second point, I asked Geisler what was extraordinary about someone saying, particularly at that time when belief in resurrections was commonplace, that others (even 500 others) had seen a resurrected man. I asked him if he would believe a modern-day resurrection claim even if 500 people should say that they had witnessed it. He ignored the question.

In making my third point, I emphasized that the weakness of the testimonial evidence for the resurrection lies in the fact that all of the testimony was either hearsay in nature or, as in the case of the apostle Paul, visionary. We pay no serious attention to people today who claim to have visions, so why should we believe someone who allegedly had a vision 2,000 years ago? As for the testimony of the other "reliable" witnesses, it was all hearsay. Scholars know that the apostle didn't write the Gospel of Matthew and that the apostle John didn't write the Gospel of John, so these writers were not the "eyewitnesses" that Christian apologists claim that they were.

So all that we have is a case of unknown writers saying that certain women said that they had found an empty tomb and had then seen the resurrected Jesus. "But what did Mary Magdalene ever write herself?" I asked Geisler. "What did Salome ever write?" "Who was she anyway?" "What did Joanna write?" "And who was she?" These were questions that Geisler ignored as well as my demand that he tell us just who those "five hundred brethren" were that the apostle Paul cited as witnesses of the resurrection. Where did they live? When did they see Jesus? I challenged Geisler to tell us the name of just one of those five hundred. He didn't do it, of course.

I usually leave a debate thinking, "This was the weakest opponent I have had yet," but given Geisler's background and reputation, I have decided that the weakness is not in my opponents. It just had to be that there is no credible evidence at all to support the views of those whom I debate. If there were, then surely one of them would have cited some convincing reason to believe in biblical inerrancy, the resurrection of Jesus, the credibility of prophecy fulfillment, etc. The evidence just isn't there to support any of those claims, and that is why the opposition appears so weak.

For $1, a written transcript of the debate can be obtained from Apologetics Press, 230 Landmark Drive, Montgomery, AL 36117. Video tapes are available on two-week rentals from The Skeptical Review for $1 to cover the cost of mailing.


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