The Associated Press headline on December 9, 2004, read, “Famous Atheist Now Believes in God: One of World’s Leading Atheists Now Believes in God, More or Less, Based on Scientific Evidence.” Due to the press, this story received worldwide most now know that Dr. Antony Flew rejected atheism and came to believe God exists. However, some of the central events leading to his conversion have never been told. I was fortunate enough to have a front-row seat as these events unfolded. I have decided the time has come to tell “the rest of the story.”
The time has come to share these details for two reasons. First, to honor Dr. Flew’s intellectual integrity and hold him up as an example to all who, in Dr. Flew’s words, are committed to “following the evidence wherever it leads.” Second is to ensure the events leading to Dr. Flew’s conversion are accurately recorded, as there continues to be some debate on atheist websites about what happened to their “hero.”
In February 1998 Dr. Antony Flew debated Dr. William Lane Craig on the topic “Does God Exist” to a packed crowd at the University of Wisconsin Fieldhouse. Neither he nor anyone else knew at that time how important that evening would be in him eventually rejecting atheism and concluding God does exist. Last week I shared about the initial stage of arranging the debate. This week I will share more of what occurred as we prepared for the debate. Throughout the process, I saw God at work in many ways. His workings seemed to me very mysterious at the time, but I now see clear signs of His sovereignty.
Venue and Sponsors
Once Drs. Flew and Craig agreed to the debate, the rest of the details began falling into place. The University of Wisconsin allowed the debate to be held in the historic UW Field House (next to Camp Randall, the football stadium). The field house was the perfect venue—large, historic, and centrally located.
The debate was the type of event that deserved wide sponsorship. To my delight, many other organizations were excited to join as co-sponsors. The university’s philosophy department and religious studies program agreed to co-sponsor the debate due to the prominence of Drs. Craig and Flew as scholars. Many of the Christian ministries on campus also came together as co-sponsors. To my surprise, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national atheist organization based in Madison, also agreed to be a co-sponsor of the debate.
Once the sponsors were on board, representatives from each group formed a debate steering committee, which I chaired. Working very closely with me was John Dahl, the InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry campus minister at Wisconsin, who did an excellent job working behind the scenes to make the debate a reality.
At this early stage, we were still in the process of securing full funding to cover the costs of the debate. Many generous donors stepped up, including quite a few who were already funding my ministry and understood the importance of this debate. Combined with funds from partnering organizations, we quickly had more than enough to pay for the debate. We even had a bit more for additional publicity. I took this as another sign God was in this and clearing a path to move forward.
Determining The Final Details with Drs. Flew and Craig
At this point, I began corresponding with Drs. Craig and Flew every week or two to set the terms of the debate, the format, and other matters to which both had to agree. I found them very eager and friendly in these correspondences, making this a relatively simple process.
By 1997 email had become rather common, and this was Dr. Craig’s preferred means of communication. However, Dr. Flew had not embraced the email revolution, and therefore all my correspondence with him was by airmail letter from the US to England and back—very time-consuming and challenging for me at the time. However, the unforeseen by-product is that I now have many hand-written letters from Dr. Flew in which he shared some of his thinking during what was becoming a very pivotal time in his life. I’ll say more about this later.
As is standard protocol in arranging a debate, I bought the important books each had published on the subject of the debate and sent Drs. Flew and Craig one another’s writings. (I am sure they each already had most of these, but wanted to make sure I did everything possible to ensure they were provided everything possible to make the debate a success.)
Others Involved: A Moderator, A Publisher, and Liaisons
A surprisingly important participant in a debate is the moderator. We needed someone who could do a masterful job of introducing the topic, explaining its importance, putting it in context, outlining how the debate was to be conducted and introducing the debaters.
One person immediately came to mind to serve as the moderator. Dr. Keith Yandell was a senior professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, one of the top departments of philosophy in the nation. He was a leading scholar in the field of religious epistemology (roughly the study of knowledge concerning religious truth claims). Therefore he knew the importance of the issue to be debated and the works of Drs. Craig and Flew. Keith was also a Christian professor, and I had the deepest respect for him. I asked him to moderate the debate, and he immediately agreed to do so. I was thrilled!
By all accounts, this was going to be a historic debate, so I contacted some academic publishers to propose a book be published containing the proceedings. I received responses of interest from several publishers, and my hope was to sign a contract with one of them. This came to fruition, and I will say more about the book later as well.
I still needed to arrange one last detail— to find people to serve as assistants for Drs. Flew and Craig when they were in town. In God’s sovereignty, this turned out to be one of the most important aspects of the entire event.
I wanted to make sure that while they were in town, Drs. Flew and Craig had only to think about the debate. They needed someone else to take care of every other detail—getting from the airport to their hotel, getting from the hotel to the Fieldhouse, and having whatever would make them comfortable and prepared for the debate. I had known Dr. Craig for some time, so it made sense for me to assist him. However, who should be the aide to Dr. Flew?
I immediately thought of Dr. Mike Murray. Mike was a professor of philosophy at Franklin and Marshall University in Pennsylvania. Mike was spending the 1997-98 academic year in Madison to do research for a new book he was writing. Mike was a Christian philosopher whom I greatly respected. During that fall we met for lunch almost every week to talk about life, being husbands and fathers, what it means to love God with our minds and do philosophy to the glory of God, and whatever else came up during these rich conversations. The next time we met for lunch I asked Mike if he would be Dr. Flew’s liaison when he was in town. Mike immediately agreed. He told me he had done much work on Flew’s thought during his doctoral studies and would love the chance to interact with him in person.
With this final detail worked out, all was set for this historic event. Next week I will share about the night of the debate. We didn’t know it at the time, but the evening of the debate was to play a significant role in Dr. Flew’s eventual conversion to theism.
Until next week, grace and peace.
And the plot thickens!