There Is A God: How The World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind is the title of the book Antony Flew wrote in 2007. God was at work in Dr. Flew’s life for many years leading up to the publication of this book. Some of the story has been told. Some of it has not. In this series, I’m sharing—for the first time—an essential part of this story that I had the honor of watching unfold. The time has come to share these details both to honor Dr. Flew’s intellectual integrity and to preserve accurately the account of events leading to his conversion, as some in the atheist community continue to question the nature of Dr. Flew’s change of mind.
In my first two posts in this series I shared how it happened that Dr. Antony Flew and Dr. William Lane Craig arrived in Madison, Wisconsin to debate “Does God Exist?” at the University of Wisconsin on February 18, 1998. Now we come to the events of that day.
The Morning of The Debate
Wednesday, February 18, 1998, had finally come. Drs. Craig and Flew had flown into Madison the day before. (Dr. Flew arrived in Chicago a few days earlier to adjust to the time change from England and do some sightseeing.) Upon arrival in Madison, I met Dr. Craig, and Dr. Murray met Dr. Flew at the airport. We took them to their hotels and made sure they were settled in and had everything they needed. We said goodnight, and they both got a good night’s rest.
On the morning of February 18th eight of us gathered in The Sunroom Café, a quaint coffee shop on Madison’s historic State Street, to go over the last minute details and sign legal documents. Present were Dr. Craig and Dr. Flew, the debate moderator Dr. Keith Yandell, Dr. Mike Murray, Dr. Flew’s attorney, a representative from The Freedom From Religion Foundation, John Dahl from InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministries, and myself.
We first enjoyed breakfast and conversation together. The atmosphere was cordial and even a bit light-hearted. After we ate, it was time to get down to business. We reviewed the logistics of the debate and all other details so that there were no surprises for anyone involved. In the back of my mind, I was worried that in our planning we had overlooked an important issue, in spite of our best efforts to think through every aspect of the debate.
To my great delight there no surprises. We had thought through all the details, and everyone felt prepared for the role they would play later that evening. I remember stopping to thank God for directing us through this process involving so many details, ensuring we took everything into account before this historic event. Without his guidance, it would have been very easy to miss something that might seem insignificant at the time only to become a major point of contention or to cause one of the debaters to be put at a disadvantage. Thanks be to God, the details were in order and we were all looking forward to the debate with great eagerness.
At this time Dr. Craig, Dr. Flew, and I also signed legal documents related to the publication of the debate. When Dr. Flew learned that publishers were interested in the debate, he had retained an attorney to draw up a legal agreement concerning this process. The contract specified that I, as editor, would not make even the slightest change to the transcript of the debate without Drs. Flew and Craig agreeing, in writing, to the alteration. Dr. Craig, Dr. Flew, and I all happily signed the agreement. This would later have interesting implications, and in retrospect, I again see God’s sovereignty at work. I will say more about the results of this agreement later.
Everything was now in order. We all shook hands and left to do what each of us needed to do in the next ten hours before the debate. Dr. Murray and I took Drs. Flew and Craig back to their hotels and made sure they had everything they needed for their final preparations. They spent the day reviewing their notes and getting some rest. John and I had a busy day working with the other co-sponsors to prepare the venue and take care of last-minute logistics. All went smoothly, and we were finally ready for the debate that had taken so much of our time and energy over the previous year.
The Evening of The Debate
I picked Dr. Craig up at his hotel about 90 minutes before the debate, and we arrived at the Field House shortly after that (Madison is a relatively small town), about the same time as Drs. Murray and Flew. To my surprise, many people had already arrived, and the building was filling up fast. The Field House could hold 4,000 attendees for such an event, and it was clear that every seat would be taken. I learned that people had traveled in from all around the country to see the debate in person! Radio and TV stations had reporters at the event, with their cords and equipment everywhere and staff buzzing about doing sound and equipment checks. It was a circus!
The time came to begin the debate. I welcomed the audience and made a few brief comments, thanking the cosponsors and members of the planning team who had worked so hard to make this night a reality. I then introduced the moderator, Dr. Yandell. He did a masterful job of “setting the table” and introducing Drs. Craig and Flew. (Dr. Yandell’s introduction, as well as the rest of the debate, is online here.)
Dr. Craig opened the debate, as it is standard practice for the affirmative to have the floor first. In what I believe was a masterful move, he began by arguing that both he and Dr. Flew were responsible during the debate to offer arguments in support of their positions. He was establishing that both he and Dr. Flew bore a burden of proof to show their position was the most reasonable. One of Dr. Flew’s most influential publications was “The Presumption of Atheism,” in which he argued that the burden of proof is born entirely by the one claiming God exists. Therefore, if the theist does not provide adequate evidence that God exists, the atheist position wins by default. Dr. Craig was challenging Dr. Flew’s assumption right from the beginning, arguing not only he, but also Dr. Flew, must give reasons to support their positions.
Dr. Craig went on to offer five arguments in favor of the existence of God. Dr. Flew followed, beginning, as was expected, with a restatement of his presumption of atheism—that he did not need to give reasons to believe God does not exist, but only show there are no good reasons to believe God does exist. Dr. Craig pressed him on the rationality of this presumption, provided additional support for his arguments in defense of God’s existence, and invited Dr. Flew’s response. Dr. Flew responded by arguing again that Dr. Craig’s arguments didn’t prove God exists, but resisted offering direct arguments in support of atheism.
And so it went for the next 90 minutes. Following the debate was a question and answer period, which was equally engaging. Finally, Dr. Yandell took the podium, made a few closing comments, and thanked the participants and audience. At 9:30 that night, two and a half hours after it began, the Craig-Flew Debate was over.
After The Debate
Immediately upon conclusion of the debate faculty and students swamped Drs. Flew and Craig to discuss these issues further. The discussions went on for another 90 minutes until the Field House closed. I then drove Dr. Craig back to his hotel. We had an interesting conversation about the events of the evening, but Dr. Murray had an even more interesting conversation with Dr. Flew as they drove back to his hotel.
These conversations are too important to summarize in the remaining space I have for this post. So I will wait until next week to share more, including the earth-shaking admission Dr. Flew made on his way back to the hotel.
Until next week, grace and peace!