Mike Licona has a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies and is Associate Professor in Theology at Houston Baptist University. He was interviewed by Lee Strobel in his book The Case for the Real Jesus (Zondervan, 2007) and appeared in Strobel’s The Case for Christ (DVD, 2007). He is the author of numerous books, including The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010). Mike is a member of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Institute for Biblical Research, and the Society of Biblical Literature. He has spoken on more than 50 university campuses and has appeared on dozens of radio and television programs. Mike’s website is www.risenjesus.com.
TheBestSchools: Thank you for allowing us to interview you for TheBestSchools.org. You are the author of The Resurrection of Jesus (IVP Academic, 2010). Though recently published, that book is already one of the standard works on the historicity of the Resurrection. You are also the author, co-author, or editor of several other widely read books of Christian apologetics. And you are a highly skilled public debater.
But before we get into your accomplishments, let’s start with some personal background. Could you please tell our readers about your early life? Where and when were you born? What were your most significant formative influences growing up? What religious upbringing did you have? How did you first get interested in Christian ministry, theology, New Testament studies, and apologetics?
Michael Licona: I was born in Baltimore in 1961 and raised in a Christian family. I became a Christian at age 10 and my parents have told me I was an easy kid to raise, though by no means perfect. I’ve always had an interest in religious matters and ended up going to a Christian university. The first semester of my freshman year I decided I wanted to go into Christian ministry. But I thought it would be a music ministry, since I played the saxophone. As my education progressed, so did my desire to understand the Bible. That led me to do a master’s degree in religious studies with a concentration in Koine Greek, the Greek in which the New Testament literature was written. As I neared the end of my coursework, I began to have doubts about the truth of the Christian faith. How could I know if Christianity is really true, especially since many who are a lot smarter than I believe differently? Would I be of the same opinion had my parents been Muslims, Hindus, Jews, or atheists? This led me to search for answers and that’s how I became acquainted with the field of Christian apologetics.
TBS: You did your doctoral work at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, and you recently joined the faculty at Houston Baptist University (HBU). Could you tell us why you chose the University of Pretoria and how your connection with HBU came about?
ML: I was in my early forties when I decided to pursue doctoral studies and was leading a donor-supported ministry, had a family and a home, and was far behind in my savings for retirement. I would have loved to have studied at a big-name university. But it didn’t seem to be the wise thing for me at that point in my life to uproot my family and go into debt. A professor who is twice a Fulbright Scholar told me he regarded many of the South African universities to be on par with most major state universities in the U.S. Prominent New Testament scholars Ben Witherington and Richard Burridge had both taught at the University of Pretoria in South Africa and regarded it as a fine academic institution. What attracted me to it was that they have a doctoral program that can be completed almost entirely at a distance, just as some prominent universities in the U.K. now have (e.g., Durham University and the University of Wales). The cost was very reasonable given the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and South African rand. So, it worked out very well for me in every respect.
I recently signed with Houston Baptist University for a unique faculty position. I will be teaching in Houston several weeks a year, but won’t be relocating there. The remainder of the time I will be engaged in research, writing, and speaking on university campuses all over North America, representing HBU. It’s an impressive university with great plans. The president, Dr. Robert Sloan, is an extraordinary person and a visionary who can take the school to the highest level, just as he did with Baylor. And the recent hire of John Mark Reynolds as provost will be a real game-changer. I’m very excited and proud to be a member of their faculty.
TBS: You did your undergraduate work at Liberty University. What took you to that school? Jerry Falwell, the school’s founder, was a polarizing figure in American life. Describe Falwell’s influence on you and the school at the time.
ML: My parents had watched Jerry Falwell on television in the 1970s and noticed that he had a college. They encouraged me to check out Liberty and attend their “College for a Weekend,” which I did in the spring of 1979. I wasn’t excited about going. But once I was there, I fell in love with the school. I was most impressed with the warmth and kindness I observed. It was amazing. Liberty provided a wonderful environment for me to grow spiritually and academically.
I attended Liberty during the pinnacle of Jerry Falwell’s political activities. I’ve never been very interested in politics and you’re correct that he was a polarizing figure. He took bold stances publicly and did so against causes that made him unpopular with the political left. But those on the left were also polarizing. Why should they be the only ones allowed to spread and defend their ideologies? When you take a stance, people on the other side are going to throw tomatoes at you. That’s part of the ideological war, I suppose, and Jerry Falwell fought it well. He was a great man, a moral man, who deeply cared for the students and we all knew it.
TBS: Your undergraduate degree is in music performance (saxophone). What role has music played in your life? How do you see the role of music in Christian ministry, if any? You are also an accomplished martial artist. Tell us about that aspect of your life.
ML: I used to love music and playing my saxophone. I loved playing jazz and classical music. But today music has a very small role in my life. In fact, I haven’t picked up my horn in more than ten years. It’s not that I don’t desire to play. I love research and any time I take to play the saxophone is time away from research. So, I guess you could say that I loved playing the saxophone, but I’m passionate about my research.
In the martial arts, I had two amazing instructors. Mr. Robert Fujimura served as my instructor while I was at Liberty University and ended up being one of the coaches of the U.S. Taekwondo Olympic Team as well as an esteemed leader in the art. I ended up training most under the eye of Mr. Sang Ki Eun. Master Eun had learned the art personally from its founder. I went on after graduate school to earn my first- and second-degree black belts under him, and for three years ran a school for him in Alexandria, Virginia. It was a great time!
TBS: On your web site, RisenJesus.com, you say you experienced a crisis of faith in 1985, shortly after taking your BA from Liberty University. What caused the crisis? How was it finally resolved?
ML: I was actually in the final semester of classwork in graduate school when I began to question whether Christianity is true. After all, I had been raised in a Christian family and had gone to a Christian university and graduate school. It was the only worldview I knew. Would I be a Muslim if I had been raised by a Muslim family in Saudi Arabia? Or a Hindu if I had been raised by a Hindu family in India? You get the idea. I was young and had the bulk of my life ahead of me. I didn’t want to spend it being devoted to a fairy tale. That’s what caused my doubts at that time. I wanted to know and follow the truth, wherever it led.
Dr. Gary Habermas was a philosophy professor at Liberty and had a great reputation among the students. So, I went to his office, introduced myself, and asked if I could speak with him about some doubts I was experiencing. He invited me in, put me at ease, and allowed me to express my thoughts. He never condemned me or made me feel ashamed in any way. In fact, he shared that years before he had likewise experienced a period of serious doubts. He really helped me that day and would do so even more in the future. In fact, I’m still a Christian today because of Gary Habermas.
Later on in life, I would experience a few more crises of faith. The most painful one occurred during my doctoral studies. I came to realize that all of my previous bouts with doubt ended when I found the answers I was looking for. In other words, I had been looking for ways to confirm the truth of my Christian faith. This time, I wanted to engage in a most sincere quest for truth, no matter where it led. I wanted to take a thorough look at whether Jesus rose from the dead. I would not avoid any difficult question or troubling issue. And I would, in a sense, document my journey for others to view and criticize. That’s why the book that resulted ended up being so large.
TBS: During this period of your life, you investigated the arguments for atheism. What were the strongest arguments you found for atheism? What counterarguments did you discover that persuaded you atheism is false?
ML: Most would agree that the best argument atheism has to offer is the problem of evil, pain, and suffering in the world. And it’s a powerful card to hold in one’s hand. But it’s not at all conclusive. The highly esteemed Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has demonstrated the unlikelihood of a race of beings with free will who all choose to do the right things all of the time. Thus, in a world of free beings, there is going to be evil, pain, and suffering that result, and especially so if the report of the fall in Genesis is accurate.
What the atheist must demonstrate is that there are possible worlds of free beings in which there is on balance a greater amount of good and lesser amount of evil than we experience in this world. This burden cannot be met. The late agnostic philosopher William Rowe countered Plantinga by noting what appears to be senseless evil in the world, such as a fawn burned to death by a tree that fell on it after being struck by lightning. This argument makes the problem of evil more difficult to answer. But there are Christian philosophers such as Ed Martin, Jeremy Evans, Bruce Little, and David Wood who have presented what I regard as plausible solutions to Rowe’s challenge.
I think the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection destroys any probability atheism may have had of being true. Moreover, select, well-evidenced Near Death Experiences (NDEs), veridical apparitions, evidential miracles, and evidential cases of profoundly answered prayer strongly suggest that the world in which we live is far more compatible with theism than atheism.
TBS: In 1997, you founded TruthQuest Ministries, renamed Risen Jesus in 2001. Tell us how you first became involved in Christian ministry, and what part this ministry has played in your life over the years and continues to play today.
ML: During my freshman year of college, I developed a strong desire to be involved in Christian ministry on a full-time basis. I thought that was going to be some sort of music ministry, since I was a music major and loved musical performance. As I continued in my sophomore through senior years of college, I developed a desire to go much deeper in Bible study and began teaching the Bible. I enrolled in a graduate degree program in New Testament Studies and specialized in learning Koine Greek, the language in which the New Testament literature was originally written. During my final semester of graduate school, the fall of 1985, I began having my doubts about the truth of the Christian faith. As I wrestled through the issues in the years that followed, Christian apologetics became a passion of mine. In the early 1990s, I began to teach Christian apologetics in churches and on university campuses. I loved it and decided that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Eventually, the number of speaking opportunities increased and in 2000 I went into an apologetics ministry on a full-time basis and have been in it ever since.
TBS: You’ve been a prominent figure in Southern Baptist circles over the years, more recently working for its North American Mission Board (NAMB). Tell us about your work there, how you came to work for the NAMB, and what your aims were in taking that appointment.
ML: In the summer of 2004 I was loving life. I lived in Virginia Beach, could go to the beach any time I wished, and had great friends and the autonomy of working out of my home. But I started having a sense that God was going to move me into something else and I didn’t know what that was. I didn’t want to move. I asked God for His guidance and told Him I was willing to do whatever He desired. Unknown to me, someone had thrown my name into the hat to become the Director of Apologetics for NAMB. At the time, I went to a non-denominational church. I wasn’t a Southern Baptist and had the same negative stereotypes of them as do others. But I consulted with my board members. We all prayed about it and in the end were unanimous in our belief that this is where the Lord was leading me because of the platform of influence it would give me in the largest Protestant denomination in North America. So, I began in January 2005. I oversaw the construction of a new apologetics web site (www.4truth.net), started a program by which others could be certified in apologetics, and with my team members provided training all over North America. I never regretted the decision. My time of service with NAMB was fruitful and enjoyable. There are some great people I served with there.
TBS: With Kevin Ezell assuming leadership at the NAMB, it now appears that Christian apologetics is taking a back seat there to church planting. Can you comment on this change in direction? Why is apologetics now getting short shrift in conservative Baptist circles?
ML: Overall, I think apologetics is now getting some good attention among conservative Baptists. Apologetics is now taught at most of the Southern Baptist seminaries. A few of them even offer earned doctorates in apologetics. We live in tough economic times and charitable giving is way down. NAMB has had to implement drastic cuts to its budget in order to survive. And that has meant drastic downsizing. Many ministries and corporations have had to make similar calls.
TBS: You have also been a prominent public apologist for the veracity of the New Testament. For example, you have engaged in public debates with such well-known atheists as Dan Barker and Richard Carrier, as well as with such revisionist New Testament scholars as Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, and Stephen Patterson. Describe some of the high points in these debates. What are some key things that persons of faith should bear in mind as they face skeptics of the New Testament like this? What made you want to get involved in public controversy and debate? Looking back on your career on the debating platform, would you say, overall, it has been time well spent? If so, why?
ML: Sometime in the mid-1990s, I purchased audio-cassette tapes of William Lane Craig debating Frank Zindler and John Dominic Crossan. I was very impressed when I heard Dr. Craig pick apart their arguments in an intellectually sound manner. I have never enjoyed heated discussions. But there was something about confronting bad philosophy and arguments and being able to present a sound case for the truth of Christianity that was very appealing to me. I never imagined I would participate in a debate. At that point, Dr. Craig had two doctorates while I had not even completed my master’s thesis and had no intention of doing so. So, engaging in public debate in the type of forum he was doing was not even on my radar.
In the spring of 2003, Gary Habermas was invited to debate Dan Barker (left). He didn’t like debating and asked me if I would be interested in debating Dan. He said that if I ever wanted to get involved in debate, this would be a good first one for me, since Dan is not a scholar. So, I accepted an invitation to debate Dan and loved the experience. The next year, Gary turned down two more debates and referred them to me, which I accepted. Later Bill Craig passed along a few to me. And that’s how I got started.
Some items others should keep in mind if they decide to engage in debate or dialogue with nonbelievers is that your opponents are not your enemies. I don’t regard anyone I have debated as an enemy. In fact, I now consider some of them as friends. Hopefully, we’re all after truth. If Christianity is true, my opponents will have to answer to God some day. That’s between them and God. Since Jesus taught for us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, there is no reason for us to act in a nasty way toward those with whom we have a disagreement. I’d also suggest that if you’re going to get in the ring with some major scholars like Bart Ehrman and Stephen Patterson, you better be willing to do your homework and prepare diligently. Debate is not easy. It takes a lot of work and it can be very emotionally draining. It’s not for everyone. But if you have the personality for it and are willing to put in the effort, there will be plenty of opportunities to engage in public debate and we need more Christians who will join us. I love the challenge and doing something that I think has a lot of value.
Being engaged in public debate has been time well spent and there have been positive results. I’ve seen some who were on an authentic quest for truth become followers of Jesus after attending or viewing one of my debates, while others have returned to faith in Christ. Some have expressed that their faith was significantly strengthened after attending one of my debates, while others devoted their lives to full-time Christian ministry. Hey, I don’t give an altar call. I just present truth and answer objections as best and as honestly as I can. Students are hungry for truth. They want a foundation on which to base their lives that’s based on truth rather than wishful thinking.
TBS: In 2010, you published your doctoral dissertation as The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010). [Hereafter referred to as “Resurrection.”] It is an extremely impressive piece of work, which has now set the standard for historiographical work on the historicity of Jesus and the Resurrection. Just the list of endorsers reads like a Who’s Who of New Testament scholarship. What was the research path that led to your magnum opus?
ML: Gary Habermas and I were working on our book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Kregel Publications, 2004). I regard Habermas (right) to be the world’s leading expert on the topic. For several years he had been compiling a bibliography on academic sources written on Jesus’ resurrection and had more than 2,000 sources at that time. Today, that bibliography has expanded to around 3,400! Habermas had read the major works and catalogued where scholars stood on more than 100 topics related to Jesus’ resurrection. So, I asked him to which discipline the majority of scholars writing on the subject belong. He said the overwhelming bulk of them are biblical scholars and a small percentage are philosophers. I asked him if any professional historians outside the community of biblical scholars had published on the subject and he said he recalled seeing perhaps a handful of journal articles and one short book. At that point I decided that I wanted to conduct a thorough investigation of Jesus’ resurrection as a historian. I wanted to know how historians conduct their investigations and how those investigations differ from those conducted by biblical scholars and philosophers.
After being accepted into the doctoral program at the University of Pretoria, I immersed myself in literature written by philosophers of history and professional historians on the nature of historical knowledge and the various methods of discovering the past. It didn’t take me long to discover that I had a serious challenge before me: Historians are virtually unanimous in admitting that the completely objective historian does not exist and that we are all persons of bias. I realized that I had my own biases. After all, I wanted to show that the resurrection of Jesus was an historical event. So, I put together a list of recommended steps for managing my bias and did my best to follow them. Did I obtain complete objectivity? No one can and I wasn’t an exception. I discovered that I could get pretty close to my goal of complete objectivity if I genuinely wanted to be there and engaged in a serious effort to get there. However, I found that unless I took deliberate and sustained efforts toward remaining there, I would go back to my default position. It was a continuous struggle.
I became obsessed with my research. I agonized over my biases and attempts to suspend judgment while my investigation proceeded. I was intentional in debating some of the finest and toughest minds taking a contrary view. I wanted to put my method and conclusions before them in order to see what they had to say and to learn from the process.
My completed dissertation ended up being around four times the size of the average one. It was a long and laborious process. But it yielded priceless knowledge to me. So, I was thrilled when IVP decided to publish it.
TBS: Resurrection is a 700-page work dense with scholarly annotation. Nevertheless, would you be able to summarize the main conclusions you reach in this work for our readers? What does this book add to conservative New Testament scholarship about the Resurrection? What’s new here? How does it differ from other magisterial work in this area, such as that of Gary Habermas and N.T. Wright?
ML: I think there are three major differences between my new book and where others have previously gone. First, I discuss issues pertaining to the philosophy of history and historical method with a depth that exceeds by far what other scholars have offered pertaining to the question of Jesus’ resurrection. Second, I interact with the debate over whether historians are within their professional rights to investigate miracle claims to a far greater degree than has been previously offered. Third, I subject a variety of hypotheses to strictly controlled historical method in a more comprehensive manner than has been previously offered. There are other contributions the book makes to the discussion, such as a discussion pertaining to the historicity of Jesus’ predictions pertaining to his imminent death and resurrection, as well as the meaning of two Greek terms upon which an important discussion hinges. But the above three are the major ones.
TBS: Resurrection, despite its very traditional view that the bodily resurrection of Jesus occurred in space and time, has engendered a good deal of controversy in the evangelical community. In particular, Norman Geisler accused you of denying biblical inerrancy for your interpretation of a few verses in Matthew 27. As a result, you resigned your appointment with the North American Mission Board and left Southern Evangelical Seminary. On the other hand, you have also received public support from William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, J.P. Moreland, and many others. Please give us your version of what happened.
ML: Matthew’s story of some saints raised at Jesus’ death has left people scratching their heads, from the early Church through modern scholarship. Why is Matthew the only one to report it? If these saints were raised with resurrection bodies, then Matthew contradicts Paul who wrote that Jesus was the first to have been raised with a resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:20). But if they were raised in their old bodies, like Lazarus who would die again, then what happened to them after they were raised? They were homeless, without jobs, food, and shelter. You’d think they’d have some very interesting stories to tell!
As a historian, I realize that a lack of desired data does not justify the rejection of a report. As I read through the commentaries, I discovered that many conservative scholars don’t comment much on the historicity of Matthew’s raised saints. As I had been reading through the Greco-Roman and Jewish literature of the period, I found numerous examples of similar reports of phenomena that were connected to historical events having a huge amount of significance. In one case, Virgil lists 16 phenomena related to the death of Julius Caesar in what is certainly a poetic genre. So, I posited that this may have been a poetic element of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ death—the addition of “special effects,” you might say. It’s much like we might say that the events of 9-11 were “earth shaking” or that “it rained cats and dogs.” When North Korea’s leader Kim Jung Il died in December, 2011, it was reported that a snowstorm hit as he died. Ice cracked on the volcanic Chon lake near his reported birthplace at Mount Paektu. When the snowstorm ended at dawn, a message carved in rock glowed brightly until sunset saying, “Mount Paektu, holy mountain of revolution. Kim Jong-il.” Finally, on the day after his death, a Manchurian crane also adopted a posture of grief at a statue of Kim’s father in the city of Hamhung. So, the same sort of rhetoric is occurring today.
A few ultraconservatives who have what I regard as an overly wooden view of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy accused me of dehistoricizing the biblical text because I didn’t believe it because of its supernatural nature. I was shocked! And did it not occur to them that my treatment of Matthew’s raised saints appeared in the context of a large book that contended for the physical resurrection of Jesus? The matter for me was whether Matthew had intended for his readers to think that some saints had actually been raised. My opinion was that he did not. And you cannot dehistoricize a text that was not intended as history. Could it be that, on the contrary, it was my detractors who were historicizing a text not intended as history? The biblical authors lived in a different culture than us. So, there are going to be times when the literal meaning of the text is not how we should interpret it. Granted, that’s not always easy for us to determine. Many early Christian males castrated themselves after misinterpreting Jesus’ teaching about some making themselves eunuchs for the sake of God’s kingdom (Matthew 19:12). Hermeneutical blunders can have unpleasant consequences! And notice they had adopted a literal interpretation of a text not intended to be understood in that manner.
I understand their concern that, taken to the extreme, one might attempt—as many already have—to make the same move with Jesus’ resurrection. But I provided reasons in my book why such a move fails.
Most of the highly respected evangelical scholars sided with me in the controversy. Many did not agree with the interpretation of Matthew’s raised saints I proposed. But they were all in agreement that this was entirely an interpretive matter and had nothing to do with whether the Bible contained any errors.
TBS: Your own Southern Baptist denomination was less than supportive once Geisler accused you of denying biblical inerrancy. For instance, Southern Seminary president Al Mohler, while praising Resurrection’s scholarship, ensured that you would never work again in Southern Baptist circles, at least the conservative ones in which he wields influence (see Mohler’s piece against Licona here). How have you handled such internecine attacks on your work? What does your treatment say about the direction in which the Southern Baptist denomination is headed? Are you optimistic about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention? Why or why not?
ML: I respect Dr. Mohler and he is highly regarded by many in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). But there is no pope of the SBC. Every state convention, every association, and every church in the SBC is autonomous. In this way, the SBC differs from most other protestant denominations. Dr. Mohler wields a lot of influence in some SBC circles and I wish the very best for him. My new ministry is flourishing and many of my post-NAMB speaking engagements are with SBC entities and churches. Before accepting their invitations to speak, I ask them if they’re aware of the controversy brought on by Drs. Geisler and Mohler. In every case they have been and they’ve been comfortable with me.
I remain persona non grata with some SBC entities and that’s unfortunate. But they have every right not to want me at their events and I’m comfortable with that. I spoke for many denominations prior to coming to NAMB, such as the PCUSA, PCA, the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, Calvary Chapel, non-denominational churches, and charismatic churches. And even after joining NAMB, I didn’t limit myself to speaking for SBC entities. Nor do I now. I’ve never regarded Southern Baptists as the only true evangelical Christians.
I’ve been very disappointed to see the ungodly behavior of a few of my detractors. The theological bullying, the termination and internal intimidation put on a few professors in SBC seminaries for having the opinion that the interpretation of Matthew’s raised saints I proposed in my book was not incompatible with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, the deliberate misrepresentation of my words and the working behind the scenes of some leaders to marginalize me—all this revealed the underbelly of fundamentalism.
I’ve handled the fighting largely by ignoring it. One prominent scholar counseled me at the beginning of the controversy that responding to the attacks would be to tangle with the tar baby. And we know how that turned out for Brer Rabbit! I also listened to the book A Tale of Three Kings (Tyndale House, 1992), by Gene Edwards, at the recommendation of a friend who once had a similar experience. That book was very encouraging and instructive. For me, most theological matters outside of the essentials of the Christian faith don’t interest me. So, I also didn’t want to spend my time splitting hairs over an interpretation that, in my opinion, doesn’t have any bearing on the essentials.
You ask for my thoughts about where I think this controversy suggests the SBC is headed and if I’m optimistic about the future of the SBC. My opinion is that this controversy suggests that within the SBC there is still an ultraconservative wing that would like to pull the denomination back into fundamentalism where people are told, “We know the answers. Don’t question me. Just get back in line and follow me. I’m protecting the Church.” However, I don’t think that’s where the majority of SBC church members or even SBC professors are.
Am I optimistic about the SBC? There are a lot of very good people in leadership positions there. For example, Frank Page is the most powerful person in the SBC and he’s an amazing guy for whom I have a great deal of respect. Tom Eliff, the president of the International Mission Board, is a great man by whom I have been profoundly impacted. Danny Akin and Jeff Iorg are presidents of SBC seminaries for whom I have a lot of respect. And there are a number of professors in SBC seminaries who are fine thinkers and are publishing regularly in respectable peer-reviewed journals and with reputable publishers. In spite of the good in the SBC, denominations in general are in decline in North America. Many younger evangelicals are disenchanted with denominations altogether and I think some of their concerns are legitimate. The SBC will survive. But I have no idea how it will look 20 years from now.
TBS: Why is biblical inerrancy such a hot-button issue among evangelicals? How do you personally understand biblical inerrancy? Do you still consider yourself a biblical inerrantist? Do you regard it as crucial to sound Christian theology? Please explain.
ML: My opinion is that inerrancy is a hot-button issue among many evangelicals as a result of the battle against theological liberalism that took place in the 1970s and ’80s. There are two primary ways of defining biblical inerrancy in Protestantism. The Lausanne Covenant, signed by more than 3,000 evangelicals including the late John Stott and Billy Graham, states the Bible is “without error in all that it affirms.” The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy defines it most exhaustively. But even those who helped compose it aren’t in complete agreement about its meaning. I continue to be a biblical inerrantist and subscribe to both the Lausanne Covenant and the Chicago Statement. However, I don’t think everything in the Bible should be interpreted literally. For example, I don’t think that Jesus’ teaching on lust meant that guys should actually gouge out their eyes if they struggle with it (Matthew 5:28-29). Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether a biblical text was meant to be interpreted literally.
I do not regard the doctrine of biblical inerrancy to be foundational to the Christian faith. There is so much in the Bible historians can verify, such as Jesus’ personal claims to being God’s divine Son, his performance of deeds that both he and his followers regarded as divine miracles and exorcisms, his death by crucifixion, and—I would add—his bodily resurrection shortly thereafter. Biblical inerrancy is not the foundation of the Christian faith; Jesus is. If Jesus rose, Christianity is true even if it were to turn out that every last detail reported in the Bible is not.
TBS: Was Resurrection a career-ending book for you? Was it in some ways a career-initiating book for you? In light of all the controversy, is there anything that you would now add to or subtract from Resurrection? In a nutshell, how are you wiser now than before the controversy?
ML: Academically speaking, it has been a career-initiating book. The academic reviews it has received thus far have been quite positive and the controversy has only brought attention to it in the academic community. Ministerially speaking, I initially thought it might kill my ability to minister in the same manner. It certainly put a momentary check on it within Southern Baptist circles. But my ministry appears to have rebounded and I’m as busy as ever with speaking invitations, research, and writing.
I wish that I had spent more time working through the issue of Matthew’s raised saints prior to publishing the book, since I had no idea it would cause this much of a stir among some believers. But that’s Monday morning quarterbacking. I had offered the same interpretation several times since 2006 in my debate with Muslim Ali Ataie on the University of California (Davis) campus and no one ever expressed being troubled by it. So, I had no reason to think its presence in the book would be a source of controversy. The controversy forced me to dig deeper and I have since modified my position to one of uncertainty pertaining to how Matthew intended the saints raised at Jesus’ death to be interpreted.
TBS: You have also written a book entitled Paul Meets Muhammad: A Christian-Muslim Debate on the Resurrection (Baker Books, 2006), and another one called Behold, I Stand at the Door and Knock: What to Say to Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses When They Knock on Your Door (TruthQuest Publishers, 1998). You clearly have an interest in interfaith dialogue. Could you please tell us why you think it is important, and how a Christian ought best to engage in it?
ML: Jesus commanded His followers to share His message with others and make disciples of all peoples. That means those of other worldviews. So, Christians should be engaged in dialogue with others on these matters in obedience to our Lord and because we love others. If Jesus was being truthful that He is the only way, it’s in everyone’s best interest to follow Him. That’s why we should share Jesus’ message with others.
This can be accomplished in a number of forums. But Christians should always remember that the Bible instructs us to share Christ with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15) and that our speech should always be gracious (Colossians 4:6).
TBS: One of our special concerns here at TBS is the connection between higher education and what one might call the science-philosophy-religion nexus, especially as it gets refracted through the media. What is your take on the state of higher education in America today, from this point of view?
ML: In 2007, two Jewish researchers published the results of a massive study in which they polled nearly 1,300 faculty members in nearly 700 academic institutions in the U.S. They discovered that 53 percent of those faculty members acknowledged having unfavorable feelings toward evangelical Christians, far more than for any other group. The feelings were so unfavorable, that the researchers concluded that the common belief of Christian parents that their children may be discriminated against while attending a secular university were well founded.
I’ve spoken on more than 50 university campuses in the U.S. and have heard stories from many students who have told me about professors who have on the first day of class informed their Christian students that s/he has the objective of ridding them of their Christian faith by the end of the semester. If that professor had said that about Muslims or Hindus or Jews or if a Christian professor had stated their overt objective to convert their students to Christianity by the semester’s end, there would be a huge outcry against them. But there is seldom a problem with the attack on Christian students.
I have also heard from many students that their professors are teaching there is no truth and that we all choose our own truth. Of course, this only applies to worldviews, since one’s math professor is not going to settle for any other solution to an equation than the correct one. Political liberals have very strong convictions that political conservatives have got it wrong and vice versa. Our politically correct academic culture demands absolute tolerance when we speak of different views. But they are militantly intolerant of the views of evangelical Christians. Moreover, most secular universities only teach according to a secular worldview: naturalism. And naturalism requires just as much faith as religious belief.
My point is that there is a growing hostility toward evangelical Christians on many campuses. I’m not suggesting that Christian students avoid attending a secular university. I’m merely stating that this is the state of our system of higher education in the U.S. today.
TBS: What advice do you have for parents concerned about the anti-Christian propaganda their sons and daughters are likely to receive in America’s secular universities today? Which Christian colleges would you recommend for undergraduate work—what is your top-ten list? What about graduate work?
ML: Parents have options. And what is best for some may not be so for others. First and foremost, they should make some effort to see that their children develop critical thinking skills. This will allow them to assess arguments logically. An introduction to logic book or even Gregory Koukl’s book Tactics (Zondervan, 2009) can be very helpful. I’d also strongly encourage them to have their children read some good introductory books on apologetics, such as the series by Lee Strobel—The Case for Christ (1998), The Case for Faith (2000), The Case for a Creator (2004), The Case for the Real Jesus (2007) (all published by Zondervan)—and On Guard (David C. Cook, 2010) by William Lane Craig. These books will provide great information, some of which their children will remember. They will also serve as references their children can return to when their faith is challenged.
Another option is for their children to attend a Christian university. In terms of my top-ten list for undergraduate work at Christian colleges, that’s not easy, since there are many good ones. My list would certainly include (in alphabetical order) Biola University, Houston Baptist University, Liberty University, Palm Beach Atlantic University, Trinity International University, and Wheaton College. For graduate work in New Testament studies, philosophy, and apologetics, there are also many good schools. Here, my top-ten list would have to include Asbury University, Baylor University, Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology, Denver Seminary, Duke Divinity School, Houston Baptist University, Liberty University, and Wheaton College.
TBS: Any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers? What are your personal plans for the future? Where do you see New Testament studies headed? Christian ministry? Christian culture, generally?
ML: Since my new ministry is a startup, I anticipate it will evolve over time. Five years from now, I’d like to be spending nearly all of my time researching, writing, speaking on university campuses (lecturing and debating), and teaching a few courses a year.